Friday, 24 January 2014

Survival written by Rona Munro and directed by Alan Wareing

This story in a nutshell: Ace almost succumbs to her wilder instincts as the Doctor battles with the Master…

The Real McCoy: I’m unconvinced that this Doctor works within the domestic setting especially when he is off buying cat food and trying tempt evil felines by hiding in old women’s gardens and being chased around the streets. McCoy is pretty average in this story - I never lose the impression that I am watching an entertainer rather than an actor and later scenes on the planet bomb thanks to his hideous overacting. To prove my point the Doctor looks far more convincing juggling silver balls to try and distract the Cheetah People than he does screaming at Ace. Watching McCoy crawling around some old dustbins is as cringeworthy as it sounds. The ‘one finger can be a deadly weapon’ trick is forgiveable as a comedy set piece but I can just about think of a million other times when that might have come in handy. His ‘Don’t run! Stay still!’ scene is dreadfully embarrassing. There is one moment in this story that really surprised me and that was the look on the Doctor’s face when Ace falls back into his arms after running off with Karra – if looks could kill she would be another corpse for the Cheetah’s to feed on. I very much enjoyed his exchange with Ace about making the choice to send them home and I wish there could have been more of that sort of subtlety for the Doctor in the story. The less said about his enthusiastic yelling at Ace whilst jumping on a motorbike as an action hero the better. His bottom sticking in the air and his face smothered in a dirty old couch pretty much sums up his contribution to this story because he is much more convincing at that than the acting bits. If the Lost Stories over at Big Finish are anything to go by it is a good thing that the series was put to pasture at this point. Cartmel, Aaronovitch and Platt worked together on the audio series and it really didn't offer the character or the actor many challenging or exciting opportunities. Given McCoy's uneven turn in the role, perhaps it was for the best that it came to an end here. Certainly there hasn't been a weaker performer in the role, before or since.

Oh Wicked: Survival is the last of three adventures to centre around Ace and her turbulent childhood and after experiencing her fears in Ghost Light and dealing with her domestic problems in Curse of Fenric now we get to visit the home town she was so eager to escape from. Before the new series no other companion was treated to development and exploration like this and it makes a very refreshing change to see a female companion giving the series such a boost. When Ace talks about kids hanging around on fields on a Sunday I can completely sympathise – I used to do the very same thing when I was a teenager and we seemed to spend a whole lot of time not achieving anything at all. Teaming up with old friends Midge and Shreela fleshes Ace out even more and I like how she takes control of a bad situation and tries to pull them into some kind of fighting force. The quiet scenes of Ace succumbing to the attraction of the planet are the shows best – you don’t need any dialogue to make these work and Sophie Aldred works wonders with her face. The planet makes her feel unafraid and exciting…and really hungry. It's Ace’s sorrow over Karra’s death that gives the finale its potency. Aldred has been the real revelation of the seventh Doctor stories, only failing when the material lets her down and outclassing McCoy at pretty much ever stage of the game. A shame that her performances in the Big Finish audios have proven to be far more inconsistent, but that comes from trying to convince to be eighteen when are turning fifty...that would be a challenge to any actor.

Feral Villain: Anthony Ainley tosses away all his old tricks and gives a concentrated and intense turn as the Master and it is by far this incarnations most effective turn in the series. Alan Wareing is determined to make the Master as scary as possible and I really like the feral eyes glowing out of the darkness. For once it is not a ridiculous disguise or hideous plot convenience that reveals the Master but an expert building up of suspense. I love the impotency of the character when he screams at the Doctor that he controls the Cheetah People and then ducks scared into his tent as they advance hungrily on him. Trapped, infected and unable to escape the planet, the Master suddenly has a fantastic hook to make him really creepy. His speech about the planet bewitching him sends a shiver down the spine. If he is to become an animal then he wants to succumb completely and hunt and kill the Doctor. I love the vicious way the Master stabs Karra to death, it’s the sort of thing you expect to see somebody as evil (or as we are told he is) the Master to do but rarely does. Interestingly this story and the next one both feature the Master, like the transition between Baker into Davison the character is used to remind the viewer that they are still watching Doctor Who and the latest incarnation still has a nemesis to fight. Ainley has been a fun experiment but if anything Survival proves that he has been wasted throughout his tenure, forced into a ridiculous costume and made to strut his stuff like a panto villain when he was capable of intense menace all along. Whilst his insane performances in The Five Doctors, The Mark of the Rani and The Ultimate Foe are all fun, you also have to put up with his obscene scenery chewing in Time-Flight ('Shazam! Shazoo!'), The King's Demons and Planet of Fire.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the seas asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do.’

The Good Stuff: This might not make me very popular but I think the McCoy theme tune might be my favourite because it is the one that I grew up with. I still get that tingle of excitement when I hear it and it is the version that makes sing allowed whenever it comes on. Shoot me now. It's lovely to see the series straying into suburbia, it is long past time the Earthbound adventures had a more personal touch. The Hale and Pace scenes are amusing but I’m not sure this is a serial that needed a comic touch when the rest of it is so deadly earnest. Alan Wareing’s direction is often stylish and apparent – I love the camera sliding around the shop corner when Ace meets up with Ange. A huge round of applause for Dominic Glynn’s exotic score which is one of the best the classic series ever presented. His use of electric guitar and piano are both sublime and I love the screeching, scratchy theme for the abductions. Low budget as it is I love the scenes of Ace being savaged in the play park because it feels rather dangerously like a place where anybody could visit and be threatened. The close ups on the horse and Ace’s legs as one pursues the other and the sudden cut to the Cheetah Planet are very dynamically realised. Rona Munro might not have been happy but I find the Cheetah Planet a truly volcanic location and the use of electronic effects and props (skulls and bones) suggest a savage and harsh wilderness (the music again really helps to sell the atmosphere). As the story progresses the skyline effects get better and better, suggesting the anger of the planet building. From Midge turning feral before them right up until Ace’s reveal, the lead up to episode twos cliffhanger is superbly handled by all concerned. It's nice to know that it is one of my heroes, Lisa Bowerman, bring Karra to life so expertly even when the costume lets her down. There’s a particularly grisly looking animal corpse that I am very glad we didn’t get to see Ace feasting on. The final confrontation between the Doctor and Master is really well done and I like how their rivalry is personified on the raging planet.

The Bad Stuff: Dear dear...those animatronic cats are terribly unconvincing. I’ve heard all the excuse before…time, money, etc but that doesn’t alter the fact that the potentially gripping opening scene of Survival is hampered by an effect that takes you out of the drama straight away. Nice to see even at the climax of the classic series the show could still cough up an effects disaster like this. As presented Perivale really does feel like borderm capital of the universe. The Cheetah People look mighty on their horses but the costumes are far too cuddly to be effective and a more subtle makeup job would probably have driven the point home more directly. Oh bless, the little Kitling is supposed to look as though it is eating the car cleaner but it's clearly just licking his face. I'm not sure what David John has to contribute to this adventure given that he barely contributes a single line of dialogue. Apparently on this near-mute performance he convinced several people that he would be the perfect person to play Ace's brother in the Big Finish audio, The Rapture. Just when the atmosphere on the planet is really hotting up the milkman appears and starts screaming which sets Sylvester McCoy off (‘DON’T MOOOOVE!’) and there is much tossing of polystyrene rocks. Much like Howard Cooke in Paradise Towers I think Will Barton is miscast as Midge when the role demanded somebody of a much beefier figure to pull of the terrifying transformation. I’m not sure how convinced I am about this weedy bloke and his sabre tooth knife. His meowing on the sofa is bloody funny. That is one unconvincing dead cat in episode three…and the little girl isn’t much cop either. Midge pushing his way into the circle of guys with his macho posturing doesn’t work at all again thanks to Barton’s slim physique – these blokes could eat him up for breakfast. Patterson was a useful tool for showing how bravado can be a big front but it is disappointing that his character doesn’t really go anywhere and he gets an off screen death. Whose idea was the colliding bikes? It’s so ridiculously camp and unrealistic it destroys any credibility the finale might have had.

The Shallow Bit: A couple of the lads in vests perked my attention up in the last episode.

Result: At this stage of the McCoy era Ace was a far more interesting character than the Doctor and Survival scores big time by pushing him to the sidelines and exploring her sexuality and bestiality. Alan Wareing proves once again why he was responsible for a minor renaissance for the show before its demise and his atmospheric and emotive direction is aided by Dominic Glynn’s terrific score to make this a much more affecting experience than it would have been in lesser hands. To this day this still feel like a contemporary piece given that the new series apes the domestic approach Survival took. The two major faults with this show are the physical effects (the electronic ones are pretty impressive but the Cheetah People and the Kitlings are both really cute and unrealistic) and Sylvester McCoy who is trying his hardest but spends the first half of the story acting like a comic buffoon and the second half shouting his head off unconvincingly. Thank God Sophie Aldred and Anthony Ainley are there to take your mind off him and the latter in particular gives his strongest performance as a more feral, less pantomime Master. There are loads of great moments scattered about and the pacing is excellent but it shamefully devolves into a bit of a farce in the last episode with some ridiculous stunts. I want to be kinder to a story that takes these sorts of risks and pulls off some real sensuality but the end result lacks some finesse: 7/10


Anonymous said...

are 'u going to review the TVM after this?

Andy said...

I keep wanting to defend McCoy against your suggestions of performer not actor, but unfortunately the evidence is on screen for everyone to see! I do wonder if part of the problem is the nature of how Dr Who was filmed in those days. No retakes unless there was a complete balls up, so nobody could suggest that he try a different reading if a line. But again, the repeated bits of shoutiness suggest that this is how he works. But he keeps getting work as an actor! I saw him as the fool in King Lear, and he did a good job (playing to his strengths). I think he's quite weak as Radagast in the Hobbit, but he's probably perfect for what Peter Jackson wanted. Maybe McCoy just gives amazing auditions? Still, it has to be said that McCoy's performance is what drew me back to Dr Who after having lost interest during Colin Baker's time.

Daniel Leonard said...

Disagree about the Cheetah People make-up; I thought it was extremely convincing, at least in close shots. It's unusual to see a costume that looks worse from further away, but the facial make-up looks, in my opinion, magnificently feral and feline, but as soon as they cut to long shots it becomes visible that they still move like humans.

David Pirtle said...

I think McCoy is quite engaging to watch for the first half of this. Once he starts shouting in the middle it does go a bit sideways for him. It isn't the best performance for him to go out on, but it could have been worse.