Saturday, 30 May 2009

Nightmare of Eden

Bob Baker’s name looks very lonely in the credit sequence without the ‘and Dave Martin’ but his first solo script is probably the best he has been involved with for the programme. There are very imaginative ideas- conservation involving storing whole ecosystems on a ‘Continual Event Transmuter’, narcotics that are formed from the decay of an alien’s body and ‘warp’ flight causing two ships to become embedded in each other. The characters are believable and act in interesting ways, even if some are not that well drawn. The villains are not truly evil- Tryst has turned to drug-running to finance his conservation efforts and Dymond is more worthy of contempt than hatred. There is some excellent dialogue and the fact that the plot revolves around an ongoing crisis gives it a sense of urgency. The narcotics plotline is dealt with in a genuinely adult way- although it’s hardly Traffik or The Wire, the plot doesn’t merely broadcast the message that ‘drugs are bad’; instead it shows what motivates people to deal in them and how willing they are to deny their responsibility for the destruction of lives the that drug trade brings.

As many have said before me, BakerMartin scripts wildly overestimated what was possible on Doctor Who’s budget. This is not the case with this script, where the script demands nothing unrealistic from the budget. However, tragically, this story was evidently allocated a far smaller budget than was usual. The sets are hardly the best the programme have had- a special dishonourable mention must be given to the ‘economy class’ section of the ship, which is just a room with chairs in it. The other sets are more convincing, but it is very obvious that there aren’t many of them. The only reasonably good set is the one for the Eden environment in the CET. Then there are the monsters. The Mandrels look pretty ridiculous even before you see that they have flared legs (1979 is a bit late for flares, surely?)

The main problem with the story is the direction and, it should be said at the start, this is not director Alan Bromly’s fault. He clearly knows what to do with the camera and has an idea who the characters are and how they should interact. However, the very tight budget obviously meant the actors were under-rehearsed and there were clearly few, if any, retakes- something that is obvious in the number of fluffs and the set wobbles (nothing like as common an occurrence in the programme as a whole as lazy commentators would have you think) and monster costumes not zipping up at the back etc. The story was, in fact, produced in a similar way to the Hartnell episodes without the production team having the experience and skill of working within those restraints. Had the story been given the same level of attention as, say, Planet of Evil, this story would have been seen as a classic.

The cast is rather good, in spite of the rushed execution of the story. David Daker does good work as Captain Rigg and conveys as effectively as a family programme can a man going through a high, a comedown and withdrawal. Geoffrey Hinsliff is wonderfully officious as Fisk. Lewis Fiander’s performance as Tryst is watchable, but his attempt to do a futuristic ‘Creole European’ accent unfortunately reminds me of Stephen Fry’s Eastern European characters in A Bit of Fry and Laurie- I was half expecting Tryst to exclaim ‘You are shatting right that is what I am going to do!’ The regulars are excellent, with Tom Baker being clearly invigorated by the script and Lalla Ward ably assisting.

It’s cheap and shabby but if you forgive the many production disasters, there is an excellent story to be found here.

NEXT: The Horns of Nimon

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Creature from the Pit

Season 17 moves from art to arse in with the dread coming of The Creature from the Pit. The production is not a resounding success by any standard, but it is the script which is the real reason why this story is so awful. The premise is not a bad one- the planet Chloris is rich in vegetation (David Fisher obviously following the Terry Nation school of planetary nomenclature) but lacking in metallic ores. The only mine on the planet is owned by the Lady Adrasta and Chloris is kept at a mediƦval level of development and bandits roam the land scavenging and killing for metal. Adrasta protects her monopoly ruthlessly and condemns dissenters by throwing them into the Pit to the dreaded Creature. However, the creature is not a monster, but Erato, ambassador from the planet Typhonus, which has little vegetation but has a great deal of metallic ore.

There are some nice concepts, like the egg-like Tythonian ship and Erato's method of communication. However, this is one of the very rare stories where a simple plot has been padded to bursting point and still fails to make it to four episodes, meaning that a second ending has to be clumsily grafted on. The second ending consists entirely of technobabble and mediocre special effects, which is about the worst thing it could have done dramatically- it is comprehensible, but is disconnected with most of the story preceding it, making it very unsatisfying. This is not helped by the fact that the preceding storyline is full of wandering around caves, McGuffins being lost or stolen and very basic characterisation.

Christopher Barry fights valiantly to make the story at least watchable, but he fights a losing battle. There are some nice sets, but the costumes are mainly leftovers from other BBC productions and Adrasta looks like a character from a children's version of Derek Jarman's Jubilee. Worst of all is the realisation of Erato, a giant green bin-liner with some very dodgy looking appendages in various states of tumescence. The nadir of the story (and possibly the entire programme since The Time Monster) has Tom Baker actually blowing into one of these protuberances. There is a time and a place for such visual images and, however open one's mind is, this isn't it.

The cast is either bland or overwrought, with Myra Frances strangely wavering between totally convincing as a ruthless grandee and a woman pretending to be a pantomime dame. The bandits are inexplicably attired as cavemen, but talk like low-rent Fagins, which borderlines on the offensive. The only decent performances are the, always watchable, Eileen Way and Geoffrey Bayldon's entertaining Organon. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are clearly as unimpressed as the viewer and seem only to be interested in mollifying their own irritation.

This is road accident Doctor Who- if you do watch it, it's hard to take your eyes off it, but you still want to avoid it at all costs.

NEXT: Nightmare of Eden

Monday, 25 May 2009

City of Death

If there is one story that justifies the appointment of Douglas Adams as script editor, it is this one. It is one of those stories which I have lost count of the number of times I have seen, and it is a pleasure to revisit it. The plot itself is rather good (in fact, Adams would shamelessly reuse it in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency!) but it is only the skeleton on which a truly wonderful script has been built. The dialogue is as sharp as a sushi knife, with quotable lines being spouted at every turn. The characters are well drawn and believable. Best of all, the humour is actually funny, rather than the clumsy attempts at hilarity in Destiny of the Daleks. As I have said before, Adams does get his science wrong sometimes, but not in a really egregious way.

However, great scripts have been let down before by inadequate realisation, so it was thankful that this story benefited from Doctor Who’s first ever foreign location shoot. The Parisian locations are beautifully shot and add an ambience that permeates the other scenes (helped by the fantastic set designs). Michael Hayes again worked with film cameraman John Walker, who has a great talent for getting very beautiful shots on 16mm film (as previously seen in The Androids of Tara) and his talent behind the camera is very much in evidence throughout. Hayes makes this story one of the most gorgeous ever made. The production is excellent throughout with some very imaginative sets and model work. Even Dudley Simpson is drawn out of the rut of woodwind flatulence he has been caught in and contributes a beautiful score- I always felt Simpson was happier with a keyboard than an orchestra.

He is helped, of course, by a superlative guest cast. The team of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward really come into their own here and their performances are truly joyous, getting everything possible out of the wonderful script and clearly having the time of their lives. Julian Glover returns to Doctor Who in the role of Scaroth the Jagaroth in all his human guises. Glover makes Scaroth a chilling alien monster, urbane gentleman thief, aristocrat and desperate survivor and makes them all believable as being part of the same character. He is ably supported by Catherine Schell as his wife, willingly taking on the role as consort to a thief and murderer (incidentally, to address all you wags out there, if Scaroth can make a human mask with blinking eyes, facial expression and believable hair, a convincing willy would not have been beyond him!) Tom Chadbon is great as the clueless, violent, but otherwise good-egg, Duggan and, indeed, every role is brilliantly played, even a great little performance from Peter Halliday as the guard in Leonardo's study. Then there are the two art critics…

This is truly unmissable Doctor Who- but then, you probably guessed that already!

NEXT: The Creature from the Pit

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Destiny of the Daleks

Terry Nation’s final contribution to Doctor Who has a very simple premise. The Daleks are locked in a stalemate with another race, the Movellans and are looking for a way to break it- as are their enemies. To do this, they are looking for Davros, who has been in suspended animation since the events of Genesis of the Daleks. This is a good enough premise, which alone makes it more worthwhile than Planet of the Daleks. However, the problem is there is very little more to the script than its ‘high concept’ summary and it is mercilessly padded with repetition, captures and repetition. The only line of dialogue I can remember is ‘Oh look! Rocks!’ and the characterisation is practically non-existent. Douglas Adams puts in some jokes to liven the script, but they hardly raise a chuckle and sometimes work against the story- it is unwise to mock the apparent limitations of the Daleks in the script, for example. The guest performances are adequate, with the most memorable roles being the Movellans. Although they are a poorly thought out arch enemy for the Daleks (all one needs to do to immobilise one is to remove its power pack) the performers are striking to look at. Peter Straker as the Movellan commander might not be the most gifted actor, but he has incredible screen presence. It is odd that Tony Osoba is given such a minor role, however, and Suzanne Danielle has little to do except look nice (which she does extremely well, admittedly).

To compensate for this, Ken Grieve’s direction is very stylish, with Steadicam shots, long takes and interesting angles. The sets are atmospherically lit and the locations used are very evocative. The cliffhanger with Romana in a chamber with the nova device is made far better thanks to the expert camera work. The Movellens do look a bit ‘disco’, but the look is certainly memorable. In fact the only let down on the production side are the Daleks themselves, who look very shabby.

Then, of course there is Davros. David Gooderson is not exactly bad as Davros, but his performance is nothing like as good as Michael Wisher’s (as has been said by practically everyone reviewing this story). However, the fault is not entirely Gooderson’s- his voice has barely been treated with a ring modulator and he obviously has not been instructed in how to move a Dalek body- his trundling is very obvious and is quite distracting. Tom Baker is pretty much on autopilot throughout, but Lalla Ward does good work in her debut as Romana, despite the terrible regeneration scene at the beginning.

Is it worth watching? Not really, but it’s not a complete waste of time.

NEXT: City of Death

Saturday, 9 May 2009

I'm Going on Holiday... not a missing story. However, that's the reason I won't be blogging for a couple of weeks. See you later!

The Armageddon Factor

The Key to Time arc comes to the end with this story. The quest for the sixth segment is intertwined with a total war that has been taking place between the twin planets of Atrios and Zeos. While the obsessively bellicose Atrion Marshal is bent on eradicating the enemy at all costs, he is being controlled by the shadowy figure of the, er, Shadow, who knows of the Doctor and is keen to get hold of the final segment. Usually, the phrase 'Baker and Martin six-parter' doesn't exactly fill me with anticipation. One expects very imaginative/barmy ideas that make unrealistic demands on the budget, a complete lack of any scientific understanding and plot-holes the size of planets. Happily, the wacky ideas in this story are ones which can easily be realised (such as placing the Atrion attack in a time loop) and there is little real science for Baker and Martin to violate. For the most part, the plot is reasonably well executed (although this could be due to script-editor Anthony Read- he came up with the idea that Zeos had become uninhabited and their entire campaign was being orchestrated by a battle computer called Mentalis- Baker and Martin wanted to have Zeos as a planet exactly the same as Atrios) this makes for an enjoyable first 100 minutes. Unfortunately, the final two parts have a good deal of padding with too much running around and the Doctor being shrunk for no good reason.

The characterisation is variable. Princess Astra and Merak are standard types, but the Shadow is a very good portrayal of an evil 'lieutenant' to a greater evil. The great William Squire plays the Shadow to perfection, his eerie whispering voice working wonders. For his master, the Black Guardian, the production team managed to get an even more evil sounding voice, that of Valentine Dyall. John Woodvine works wonders with the rather basically written Marshal, but Davyd Harries seems unsure what to do with the character of Shapp- early on he is a stoic second in command, but he turns into a Carry On character later. Then there is Barry Jackson as Drax. There is no reason why a Time Lord should not have a Cockney accent, but Jackson's performance at no point makes us feel that he is a Time Lord and he is written as some kind of proto-Del Boy, which doesn't help.

The production is of a high standard throughout, with Michael Hayes directing well visually, although he is not altogether as successful with the actors. Lighting is used effectively, with the strong lighting for Zeos (consisting of soft yellows and pinks) contrasting effectively with the dank locales of Atrios (with its stark reds and greens) and the sepulchral tones of the Shadow's domain.

Tom Baker is good, except when he has to feign being power mad when the Key is whole. Unwisely, he plays it 'comedically' which just comes off as horrific overacting. Mary Tamm is great in her final portrayal of Romana, and I am sorry to see her go.

So, the Key to Time is dispersed again, making one feel slightly cheated. However, this is still an enjoyable, though by no means great, story.

NEXT: Destiny of the Daleks

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Power of Kroll

…Or the one with the giant squid-thing. Apparently, one of the objectives of The Power of Kroll was to have the biggest monster in Doctor Who history, but Robert Holmes has again taken a very simple premise and built a convincing world for the story to take place in. Earth is clearly very aggressively colonial at this stage, with native populations of conquered planets relocated en masse to less valuable moons and planets. Such is the fate of the green-skinned natives of Delta Magna, called ‘Swampies’ by humans. They are a hunter and gatherer society who worship the cephalopod god Kroll and the humans was to indulge the Swampies by importing some giant squid and it is clear that something greater lurks beneath the surface of the swamps of Delta Three. Holmes’s script shows his usual sophistication, but also contains a great deal of padding. Most noticeable is the sacrifice plotline, where the Doctor, Romana and the gun-runner Rohm-Dutt are stretched by drying vines- it is never a good idea to immobilise the heroes for any period of time. However, the characterisation is intriguing- The humans on the refinery have no love for the Swampies, but some have stronger feelings than others- Thawn, the leader dispassionately wishes for the genocide of the Swampies and employs Rohm-Dutt to arm them so that he can have an excuse to wipe them out. The Swampies worship of Kroll brings up questions about religion, particularly the line between propitiation and worship.

However, the performances fall short of the characterisation. Neil McCarthy was a talented enough actor, but his portrayal of Thawn is all wrong. Physically, he looks the part but his soft voice and mannerisms let the side down. I cannot describe the effect better than certain other commentators have- he acts like a Peter Cook character! Glyn Owen seems half asleep as Rohm-Dutt and most of the rest of the cast are merely adequate. Only Philip Madoc and John Abineri put in praiseworthy performances (Abineri seems to be doing a dry run for his performance as Herne the Hunter in Robin of Sherwood).

There is some very atmospheric filming on the Iken Marshes and the use of hovercraft gives these scenes a very glossy look. However, the studio scenes are less effective, with the refinery scenes being overlit and the sacrifice scenes totally lacking in atmosphere. The model for the refinery looks like a chair in a paddling pool with no effort made to give a sense of scale. Kroll himself is variable. The model itself is very well designed and looks great with its quivering palps. Its first appearance looks great, with its awesome size brought over excellently. However, its subsequent appearances show very ragged matte lines and the full-size mock ups of its tentacles are desperately unconvincing.

The regulars are not at their best. Tom Baker effectively portrays his outrage at the treatment of the Swampies, but he seems uninterested, presumably because standing for hours in a swamp does that to an actor. Mary Tamm is fine, but Romana is very much the standard ‘damsel in distress’ in this story.

This is by no means the disaster others have claimed it was and it is watchable, but its many flaws will become very evident on watching.

NEXT: The Armageddon Factor

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Androids of Tara

Doctor Who has always ‘borrowed’ from other sources, but this is the most blatant ‘homage’ that the programme has ever done. This is The Prisoner of Zenda rewritten as a Doctor Who story, with the human lookalikes changed into android duplicates and electric swords and crossbows, but it is still high adventure crammed with Ruritanian intrigue. There are a couple of things that raise it above mere pastiche. I like the way that the society of Tara is depicted- technologically advanced, but so steeped in the class system that anything that requires intelligence and inventiveness is deemed a ‘peasant skill’. This is not only interesting world-building in its own right, but a wry commentary about how useless the nobility ultimately are. Indeed, in the not-so-distant past, no ‘gentleman’ could style himself so if he ever lowered himself to actually working for his money! Beyond this, David Fisher writes some very witty dialogue and good characterisation, such as the relationship between Count Grendel and his servant Madame Lamia.

The production is exquisite, with great sets, costumes and locations (the matte work to augment Leeds Castle is almost flawless) some gorgeous film sequences and atmospheric lighting. Michael Hayes puts in some stellar work behind the camera with good use of high and low shots. True, the monster is rubbish, but it’s of no real importance to the story. Then there are the performances. Neville Jason is great as Prince Reynart and his android duplicate and actually manages to convey the difference between the real man, the android and the android playing the real man. There is good support from Simon Lack and Paul Lavers as the Prince’s aides. However, the show is very nearly stolen by the wonderful Peter Jeffrey as Count Grendel, villainous, deceitful but incorrigibly likeable throughout. Lois Baxter puts in a very nice performance as Lamia and there’s a good little role for Jabba the Hutt himself, Declan Mulholland. Once Tom Baker tries to stop upstaging everyone around him, he puts in a very good performance and Mary Tamm is just as good as Neville Jason in playing herself, her android duplicate and the very different character of Princess Strella.

The Androids of Tara may not be the most necessary Doctor Who story, but it is highly enjoyable.

NEXT: The Power of Kroll

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Stones of Blood

Doctor Who is very used to demystifying myths and legends- a god, fabulous beast or superstition turns out to be an alien or a computer. This is the basis behind The Stones of Blood; the ancient Celtic goddess Cailleach turns out to be the alien criminal Cessair of Diplos. However, unlike other stories which have kept the Hammeresque atmosphere throughout, the revelation of Cessair of Diplos is accompanied by a wholesale change in the mood of the story. The ‘horror’ aspect of the story is well done, with a mix of latter-day Druidic revivalists, standing stones that come to life and drink blood, ravens acting as spies and a friendly archaeologist. David Fisher has clearly put some thought into the script, such as the Doctor pointing out to De Vries that understanding of ancient Druidic behaviour is mainly based on supposition. There are a few problems with this half of the story. Most obvious is the godawful literal cliff-hanger to part one and De Vries is killed off too early. However the real problems start once the action shifts to the space-craft lurking in hyperspace above the stone circle. There is nothing inherently wrong with the change in mood that this development brings with it- in fact it could have benefitted the story greatly. Unfortunately, the opportunity is wasted. The Doctor is put on trial for a petty crime by the Megara justice machines, while he has to prove that Vivien Fay is really Cessair of Diplos. This leads to a tedious trial sequence that takes up fat too much time. Fisher clearly lost inspiration for this section, which is desperately uninteresting.

The production matches the script a little too well. The scenes set on Earth are very atmospheric, with great sets and locations that are atmospherically lit (although the unwise decision is made to shoot day-for-night and genuine night). The Ogri, the titular monsters, are quite effective most of the time- the deafening heart-beat sound they make is terrifying and there is a scene where De Vries and an acolyte have their skulls crushed by the Ogri that is very close to the mark. However, they lose a bit of their menace when they start moving quickly- at one point, when one bursts through the door, we not only see the trolley it’s on, but a man pushing it and a further man standing behind him! However, the hyperspace scenes are overlit and seem to have been shot in a rush. The Megara come across like two officious fairies, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds. Darrol Blake’s stint in the director chair is mixed, though not uninteresting.

This is a real pity, as there are some great performances to be found, most notable of which is Beatrix Lehmann as Professor Rumford, a wonderfully dotty character played to perfection. Susan Engel puts in a nicely restrained performance as Vivien/ Cessair and, as said, Nicholas McArdle makes De Vries very memorable. The regulars perform well throughout with Tom Baker working very well with Beatrix Lehmann. It is genuinely bizarre seeing Mary Tamm wearing a Burberry cap, considering the current image of that article.

The Stones of Blood is a real mixed bag. It’s certainly entertaining, but if you never see it, you won’t have exactly wasted your life.

NEXT: The Androids of Tara