Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Skin of the Sleek written by Marc Platt and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: On the planet Funderell you can walk on the ocean. The surface holds you when you move, but if you stand still, you sink. Lights shift in the fathoms and great shapes move beneath your feet - schools of giant electric eels known as Sleeks. There is no solid land and the only locals are the Wavewalkers, hunters who live in floating villages. But recently some strangers have arrived, pursuing their own distinct agenda. When the Doctor and Romana lose the TARDIS to the deep, they need help. Which makes finding a fellow Time Lord on the planet very useful. The fact that Time Lord is Sartia, an old friend of Romana's, is even better! But this is a planet of secrets. Be careful when you explore its depths. You may just drown.

Teeth and Curls: A much more sombre turn from Tom Baker and I have to be honest he does tend to give his best performances when his Doctor is in the shit. When Romana and the Doctor are reunited in episode two you get a palpable sense of relief from both of them, which is more of a connection than I have felt from them in the rest of the stories of this season put together. With the cameras buzzing around their heads, the Doctor is suddenly aware that he cannot be as flippant as usual and curses himself after being caught on film accusing Romana of murdering a deity. As the story progresses, Tom’s performance becomes darker and more gripping. I would love to see more stories with him pitched at this level of panic and anxiety because I was very impressed at how committed to the role he seemed. I am a huge fan of the flippant fourth Doctor of the Williams era but after so many season of that level of facetiousness, it’s nice to finally get some meat.

Aristocratic Adventurer: It is mentioned that K.9 hasn’t recovered from Brighton beach yet, which seems to suggest that most of this entire season has taken place before The Leisure Hive. That would make sense of why so much of this season is season seventeen in tone but not why Lalla Ward has been in such a spectacular mood for the entirety of the year. It’s extremely refreshing then that Marc Platt remembers that she is supposed to be a character in her own right rather than a grumpy cipher that follows the Doctor around like a black cloud. Lalla Ward seems so much more relaxed in this, a tale that delivers an old school friend for Romana to interact with. Sartia calls her ‘Mana’ and has a natural chemistry with Romana, you can feel the history between them immediately. Romana mentions a ‘grade nine sociological enclave’ which places this squarely in the Christopher H Bidmead universe of science fiction. This is Romana’s Aliens of London, where she’s asked to account for leaving the Academy in such a hurry by a loved one back home. Sartia is very quick to pull out a staser which should be all you need to know about her character. She’s a rotten one. Romana would always try and think her way out of a dangerous situation, instead of murdering. Romana is furious when she discovers that the Doctor has taken her punishment instead of him, but in a way that suggests that she is genuinely concerned for him and is touched by his gesture. Apparently, Romana was the tutors favourite at Prydon, a sickening, prize winning perfect girl who had it all. To be fair that does marry up with the snooty Romana we met in The Ribos Operation. Had Mary Tamm still been alive perhaps this story would have been given to her to showcase how much the character has changed since meeting the Doctor. With Lalla Ward in the role, it makes even more of an impact. Spoilt, sophisticated and everything landing in her lap, she was quite the school swot by all accounts. Or at least from the point of view of her competitors.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You are keeping our heads above water…’

Great Ideas: It’s very novel to have a story that starts in a society so different to one that we recognise, with its own customs and unique form of dialogue, and we are forced to catch up before the Doctor and Romana arrive explain to put us in the loop (or to have this world explained to them). We are literally thrown in at the deep end. Because this is a two-part Tom Baker story we can afford to let the story breathe before the regulars arrive and it is almost a full ten minutes before they turn up, there is no great hurry to propel them into the story unlike when there is only fifty minutes to tell the entire tale. Using Eamon as a newsreader means we have an outsiders perspective that isn’t the Doctor’s to explain the nature of Funderell and there’s a seer on the planet that gives us little titbits of what is about to occur in the story. Platt is finding unusual ways to approach his story. Even the surface of the planet is different to anything we have ever experienced before – a planet where you can walk on the surface of the ocean but if you’re stationary the water will drag you underneath. There’s a terrific visual of the TARDIS being pulled down under the depth, giving added depth as the Doctor and Romana attempt to reach the safety of the ship. Funderell feels like an exotic and dangerous place to visit. All records of the planet Funderell are closed, which leaves a whacking great mystery at the heart of the planet. An apocalyptic superweapon? A missing piece to a star chart that will reveal the mysteries of the entire universe? All will be revealed, I’m sure. On the entire surface of Funderell there is only one village, which could in no way evolve on its own. It was put there as a defence by the Time Lords, with transduction barriers placed to protect them that have decayed. They have been forgotten for centuries.

Isn’t It Odd: What is the deal with giving yokels on an alien world West Country accents? It worked somewhere like Metebelies Three because the people there were supposed to be from Earth (although why they should ship the entire population of Cornwall off to another planet I have no idea). I suppose there is no reason why the people of Funderell shouldn’t have West Country accents…but it is such a tired old cliché that you would have thought the director might have avoided it. It’s another story where the cliff-hanger really has no place in the story and the monster feels thrown in to give a moment of peril for the companion to scream at and the story a chance to pause to adhere to the format. It’s the most throwaway of moments that is literally throw away second into the second episode.

Result: ‘Romana, you killed their God?’ How can you fail to enjoy a story where that line features? There’s a drive and ambition to The Skin of the Sleek that really impressed me. Marc Platt isn’t interested in telling a 90-minute nostalgia fest with dreary returning monsters for no reason other than ‘we haven’t featured them in Big Finish yet’ (seriously check out all the other finales of this range). Instead he wants to create a fascinating new environment for the Doctor and Romana to have an adventure in, a truly alien world packed with detail and danger. The structure of the story is intriguing too, allow the tale to set up a handful of characters and situation before the regulars arrive, eschewing the usual buffoonery around the Doctor and Romana joining the story and throwing them straight into hazard and giving Lalla Ward something to do other than bark at the Doctor by reuniting Romana with an old school friend who, perhaps inevitably, knows far more about what is going on here than she is letting on. Tom Baker is extremely good here, giving the sort of intense performance we rarely get in this range and I would definitely welcome more of this kind of panicked characterisation for his Doctor. When he growls, you really pay attention. The story leads to a predictable cliff-hanger but the moment is still satisfying when it comes because it reveals much about how Romana was perceived when she was at the Academy. Actual character development for the regulars! I’m not complaining! Ken Bentley’s direction is a cut above anything else he has done in ages in this range, but then he has a great location to bring alive in The Skin of the Sleek. A story of riches, pleasingly innovative for a range that uses considers that a dirty word: 8/10


david kelly said...

I do love this story because it gives Romana some development. I hate it when she's underused. For me, Romana II is one of the great things about Baker's era

dark said...

Really enjoyed this one for the weird world if nothing else, I'm always a sucker for truly alien aliens.

I admit I've not been a huge fan of Romana, but I did enjoy how she was used here, indeed I sort of felt some of the complaints about her were a little justified, since she is always rather cool and quite smug.
This i think is why the fourth doctor and Romana were never a favourite for me (ducks huge deluge of flying rotten fruit), everything with them just feels too safe since they're both rather unflappable a lot of the time, its nice to see Romana haave something real to react to.

I'll be interested to see what you make of how this two parter resolves.