Saturday, 26 September 2009


Doctor Who came back after seven years and it would take another nine years for it to return again. That leaves 15 years of no new televised Doctor Who on the BBC. None? There was, of course Dimensions in Time, which was made for the 30th anniversary and broadcast in aid of Children in Need. This was an attempt to shoehorn as many Doctors and Doctor Who monsters that weren’t created by Terry Nation into 13 minutes of television. It has a semblance of a plot, but that is not the point of the ‘story’. It is a nicotine patch for those who had been missing the programme and fulfils that purpose. Yes, it is dramatically worthless, but it clearly isn’t a Doctor Who story, whatever JNT thought- how can it be, when it crosses over with EastEnders? It is, incidentally, the first story that was written by the Turner and it is obvious that his talents lay elsewhere. JNT is still vilified by a certain section of fandom, but I must say at this point that his tenure started with a much-needed revitalisation of the programme and ended with two excellent seasons. True, he made some bad decisions which probably were a result of his lack of creative experience, but it is a shame that he is still hated by some fans.

Then there was the 1999 Comic Relief skit The Curse of Fatal Death. Again, this is blatantly not a proper Doctor Who story, but, unlike its Children in Need predecessor, this is a wonderful celebration of the programme that has ten times more understanding of the programme (and, indeed, good television) in its 25 minutes than the Paul McGann movie did in 85. Here, the Doctor is a hero, an adventurer and a scientist, a man of wit and compassion. Rowan Atkinson’s performance is different, yet instantly recognisable. We are then treated to excellent portrayals by Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. Jonathan Pryce (one of the most gifted actors in the world) is wonderful as the Master and Julia Sawalha plays a role that she blatantly would have played anyway, had the programme continued. The script by Steven Moffat is hilarious, but full of hope: ‘Perhaps even the Universe can’t bear to be without the Doctor’.

There were a few revivals on radio, the only one of which I have heard is the epic and highly recommended Death Comes to Time. Then, there were the comic strips (which I never read) and books. I read a few New Adventures, Missing Adventures, Eighth Doctor Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures, but it wasn’t the same- the only ones I ever re-read were Lungbarrow and Human Nature (for obvious reasons). There were also some semi-professional video releases, which ranged from being amateur but entertaining, to being genuinely horrible. Later came the Big Finish audios, which I’ve listened to a few of, which always feel professional and sometimes have genuinely great stories. As far as I was concerned, however, these new efforts, excellent though some of them were, were not something I would show any real loyalty to.

Then came Scream of the Shalka. It seemed that, if we were ever to see any more proper Doctor Who, this was the closest we’d get. Paul Cornell’s story was simply, yet very effectively written with great performances from a fantastic cast. Richard E Grant made a fine Doctor and was ably supported by the legendary Sir Derek Jacobi and the wonderful Sophie Okonedo. The animation by Cosgrove Hall was very good and I could have been converted to being a regular viewer, had these animated adventures continued. However, it was not to be- and for the most wonderful reason possible…

NEXT: "Rose"

"Doctor Who"

Doctor Who had been apparently dead for seven years when, unexpectedly, it returned for one night only. This was Doctor Who as we had never seen before- shot on 35mm film, boasting state-of-the-art CG effects and, most crucially, very American. These days, it seems that every new season in the US broadcast calendar produces a programme worth watching- some of the best TV dramas of all time have emerged from the USA in the last 15 years. However, I believe that, from the advent of colour television all the way to the early 1990s, American TV drama was nothing like as good as British TV drama. The writing was hampered by unadventurous house styles; the production was unimaginative, with shows being made on 35mm film that were so shoddily shot and lit that they might as well have been made on videotape. These factors, combined with (to us) puritanical broadcast restrictions severely inhibited real quality. There were a handful of notable exceptions, of course, but the considerable talent that has always existed in the US TV system meant that something good had to pop up from time to time. This had started to change in the early 1990s (if I was to credit any programme, it would probably be The Simpsons, strangely enough) and American TV drama was certainly improving by the time this story was broadcast. It was a huge success in the UK (much less so in the USA) and it is easy to see why. There was a generation of teenagers and children who had watched the show who had entered into young adulthood and they were presented with Doctor Who with the budget the programme had always deserved but never got. There were the not-so-young hardcore fans whose prayers had finally been answered- this was an event which needed to succeed, to prove that Doctor Who could live again. I remember loving this when it was broadcast, but when I inserted the DVD to watch it for this marathon something hit me- although I had seen various highlights of the story since, I had never watched the whole thing again. It is now time to look at it more objectively.

I tend to avoid excessive hyperbole, but I have to say that the script by Matthew Jacobs is one of the worst ever produced under the name Doctor Who. This may seem excessive, but let me take you through it. The basic premise is based on The Deadly Assassin (the Master seeks to be reborn by opening the Eye of Harmony) with a sprinkling of Spearhead from Space (the hospitalised Doctor). This leaves the wholly original parts- the Doctor regenerates and has to stop the Master by stealing a piece of an atomic clock. He is too late and has to go back to 'before he arrives'. The Master, however, has taken control of Grace, the Doctor's companion, but the Master eventually kills her and Chang Lee, his own companion. However, the Master is stopped and the Doctor brings Grace and Lee back to life. This is a lazily conceived and frankly dull plotline, made worse by the wholly predictable and clichéd situations the script creates, where too many things happen for no reason. Then there's the appalling structure- however nice it was to see Sylvester McCoy again, having him turn up simply to regenerate is terrible, in story terms, especially considering the utterly idiotic way he meets his end. Worse still is the dialogue- not so much the words said, but their placement. The Doctor randomly info-dumps for no reason and Grace spouts lines that seem to have been dropped into the script at random- her saying 'I finally meet the right guy and he's from another planet' apropos of nothing makes no sense in the context of the scene. An incredibly basic rule of writing is ‘things happen- people react to them’- and there are times when this is not followed. It is not surprising that characterisation goes out of the window- only the Master actually seems like a proper character at all. The fact that the Master is more memorable than the Doctor shows another of the many faults of the script- it is the Master who is treated as the main character. The Doctor is not a hero, a man who inspires others to be better- he's a wandering weirdo who is, let's not forget 'Briddish'.

The production values are very impressive- the set for the interior of the TARDIS is the only unqualified triumph of the whole story. However, the story manages to accomplish the feat of being well-shot, without being well directed. Apart from the wonderful montage that forms the prologue, memorable scenes are few and far between- there are lots of interesting shots, but they seem to only be there to look cool, not to serve the story. Some scenes are botched completely- look at the terribly rendered scene of the regenerated Doctor causing the orderly to faint. Beyond this, we have a car chase that completely fails to make an impression and scenes from the climax which only register because of the genuine wonder of the fantastic TARDIS set. Having praised the set, however, I must say that the revelation of the TARDIS’s dimensionally transcendental nature is totally botched by director Geoffrey Sax. When Barbara barged into the TARDIS in "An Unearthly Child", it was a jolt to both viewer and character. However, we are immediately shown the Doctor inside the ship (which must have confused the casual American viewer no end- there is no indication given that this is the interior of that odd blue box they have just seen). The moment where Chang Lee steps into the TARDIS should have been our first revelation about the ship, a real moment of wonder- yet, as the nature of the ship has already been artlessly revealed, it comes off as being merely a feeble comic double-take. In the end, the ultimate failure of Sax's direction can be seen by the fact that here are only a couple of scenes that would even qualify for what I would consider to be ‘Doctor Who moments’- the only one I can think of offhand is the discovery of the security guards that the Master has paralysed. Sax has proved a good enough director before and since, so I can forgive his mistakes and blame them on the travesty of a script and interference from The Man.

The minor cast consists of typically competent, if unspectacular American TV performers, a description that stretches to Yee Jee Tso's Chang Lee. Daphne Ashbrook is engaging enough, but is not helped by a script and a director that has no idea of who the character is. This leaves us with the Time Lords. Sylvester McCoy puts in a very good performance, but is wasted- his shooting by the gang members is stupidly directed as well as stupidly written. Paul McGann totally convinces as the Doctor- for a handful of scenes. Most of the time, he spouts what, to the average American viewer, must have seemed like absolute gibberish, conforming at all times to the average American TV Executive’s idea of what we crazy tea-drinking, left-hand drive, ‘Briddish’ are like. McGann has given some fine performances, but if he had it in him to play the Doctor, he doesn't show it here. Eric Roberts, on the other hand, relishes playing the Master and his flamboyant performance mixes urbane villainy with real bestial fury as effectively as Ainley at his best, but with a very different performance.

There are those who hate this story because of the kiss and/ or the revelation that the Doctor is half-human. The first doesn’t bother me in the slightest, the second is a little annoying, but really not too important. It is for far more fundamental reasons that this film fails both as Doctor Who and decent drama. It fails both as a continuation of the BBC series and as a good American version of a BBC original. It would really have been best if it had been ignored and then forgotten after broadcast. Unfortunately, McCoy's presence means that this uninspired 85 minutes has a guaranteed place in Doctor Who history that it does not, in any way, deserve.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Survival is a story of home- how our behaviour shapes it when we are there, how we cope when we leave it and what our leaving does to those we leave behind. It is also a story about how self-interest must be tempered by empathy for a society, indeed a world to survive. It does this, as only Doctor Who can, by having a race of humanoid cheetahs menace people in suburbia, transporting them back to a hostile alien planet to hunt them for sport. Rona Munro's script is short on explanations for the weird goings on. But that does not matter in the slightest- it is more about theme than plot and the story is full of them, some, more obvious than others- the meaning of the Cheetah planet breaking apart because the Cheetah People fight is blatant, yet it does not seem like it is being rubbed in our faces. Munro uses very ordinary people- Perivale teenagers, shopkeepers, housewives and a Territorial Army sergeant as characters, who have lives beyond the otherworldly chaos they are thrown into- yet this is also a Master story and the character is used well- a Time Lord who is a heartless killer makes perfect sense in the story.

Munro's script is very good, despite showing slight signs of padding (a bit too much running around in part 2). However, it is the Direction of Alan Wareing that really brings the story to life. Having given us the very stylised Greatest Show in the Galaxy and Ghost Light, he shows that he can work his magic in the more mundane setting of Perivale in 1989. Again, his eye for a memorable image is excellent- the POV shots for the unseen appearance of the Cheetah People; the image of one revealed in slow motion and the epic moment when, in mortal combat with the Master as the Cheetah Planet disintegrates around them, the Doctor bellows: 'If we fight like animals, we'll die like animals!'. The production is largely excellent, with the Cheetah Planet being excellently rendered. True, the Kitlings aren't that great, but neither are they awful, and the verve of the production easily compensates for their technical shortcomings.

The guest cast is competent at worst and outstanding at best. Julian Holloway makes Sgt Paterson a very memorable character with a very intelligent performance. Lisa Bowerman is fantastically feral as Karra. Hale and Pace work very well as the shopkeepers even though, one expects, they were included purely as an allusion to their most notorious sketch. However, the standout is Anthony Ainley's last performance as the Master. He is more subdued, yet far more menacing than he has ever been before and it is great that his last performance of a part he genuinely loved was his best. The regulars are on fine form- the relationship between Doctor and companion is more archetypal than in the rest of the season- we feel that this is a friendship that will continue.

Only, of course, it didn't. Although it was not meant to be at the time of shooting, this was the last Doctor Who story produced by the BBC in the 20th Century. The programme ended with one of the best seasons it had ever had, with a thrilling and memorable ride that proves that Doctor Who certainly did not go out with a whimper.

NEXT: "Doctor Who"

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Curse of Fenric

In many ways, the penultimate story of Doctor Who's original run combines the preoccupations of the McCoy era with the themes of the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes era. It explores themes such as the Doctor's manipulative nature and Ace's coming to terms with her own personality and combines them with the 'horror' stylings of the early Tom Baker era. Steeped in Norse mythology, the plot is also influenced by horror films (John Carpenter's The Fog being an obvious example) but takes familiar ingredients and cooks up something new with them. The plot is easy enough to follow. Russian soldiers covertly arrive in the Northumbria to steal the ULTIMA machine, the most advanced code-breaking computer in the world. However, Commander Millington, the base commander, is only too willing to let them have it- an ancient evil, entombed in the nearby church for centuries, is about to awake and the Doctor must stop it. This description does not hint at the nuances of the superlative script. The ancient evil under the church is not merely the primordial entity that is called Fenric by some, but the natural poisons that seep from its foundations. Ace's stake in the story is not just her own development, but the entire direction her life has taken. The situation between the Russians and the British deflates the cosy belief that the USSR only became our enemies after the war. Ian Briggs's script is replete with great dialogue- the use of 'love' as the codeword to detonate the booby trap in the ULTIMA machine, Ace's thoughtlessness when it comes to 1940's mores. Briggs's writing is so skilful that we never notice the pains taken to avoid the use of the word 'Ragnarok'.

Beyond the script, the excellence of the story is confirmed in its realisation. Nicholas Mallett doesn't put a foot wrong in his direction of the story, making great use of well-chosen location with superb lighting and camerawork. The production design is fantastic, combining the BBC's usual aptitude for costume drama with the increasing sophistication of the special effects department. The Haemovores are instantly memorable, with their hideous appearance evoking rotting cadavers and leeches. Mark Ayres's music is again wonderful- it is a real pity that he came to Doctor Who so late. Mallett also commands a brilliant guest cast. As has been said by many, Nicholas Parsons's portrayal of Rev. Wainright is a revelation, his face speaking volumes on the conflicts in the man. Dinsdale Landen and Alfred Lynch bring Judson and Millington to life with style. Tomek Bork is very charismatic as Sorin and Cory Pulman is very sympathetic as Kathleen. Both Bork and Landen do excellent jobs in portraying both their characters and Fenric possessing their characters. It says a lot that the worst performers Joann(e)s Kenny and Bell as Jean and Phyllis would not have stood out as such three years earlier.

There is very strong material for the regulars and both rise excellently to the challenge. The Doctor is more manipulative than ever, but this is in the face of a truly awesome foe. The moment that he has to break Ace's faith in him is brilliantly written and performed- the Doctor's subsequent 'I'd have done anything not to hurt you' shows what a powerful actor McCoy can be. Ace grows up in many ways in this story and Sophie Aldred provides a very effective performance.

This is another story where two versions exist. The original version has a wonderfully frenetic pace, but the special edition lets the story breathe and provides depth to the characters. The two editions are quite different in content and, although I would state that the special edition is better, this is not to say the original is worthless- both are recommended.

In all great Doctor Who stories, there are moments that stand out and this one is no exception- the runes appearing on the wall, Sorin warding off the Haemovores with his faith in the Revolution while Wainright loses his faith in the Bible, the runes turning out to be a logic diagram and, of course: 'We play the contest again- Time Lord'. This is one of the truly definitive Doctor Who stories.

NEXT: Survival

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ghost Light

In less than 75 minutes, Ghost Light reminded us all how powerful Doctor Who could be. The story is fresh and original, yet actually easy to follow- my sister, who was 7 at the time, had no problem figuring out what was going on. However, the script by Marc Platt deals effectively with the controversy that Darwin caused with his theories of evolution, with a script that brings up allusions and references with, seemingly, every line- we have Douglas Adams, Shaw’s Pygmalion and The Lost World (to name but three) in a script that makes the viewer want to watch the story again and look up every reference- even Queen Victoria is called the ‘crowned Saxe-Coburg’ more often than her regnal name. Platt does this in a way that does not seem self-consciously clever, but instead enriches the story as a whole, combined with clever and witty dialogue (‘He’s gone to see a man about a god’). The story’s preoccupation with adapting to the environment means that Platt creates some odd, but very memorable characters. Lady Pritchard and her daughter Gwendoline are traumatised by the powers in the house, but the personae they have as a result are the results of their own character- as the Doctor says, Gwendoline enjoys sending people ‘to Java’ too much for her to deny responsibility for her actions. Josiah Samuel Smith has adapted so well (as was the purpose of the experiment) that he is indistinguishable from a Victorian Gentleman. and there is Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler. Which is really cool. There are some things that don’t quite work in plot terms (the light in Redvers’s cigarette case, the nature of the maidservants, for example) but they are so well done, they come off as interesting diversions, rather than plot problems. There are also some flaws in the science- a common mistake that people make is to equate being more ‘evolved’ (or ‘derived’, to be more accurate) with being superior. For example, despite being more ‘primitive’ than bony fish, sharks are actually far more intelligent. However, these do not detract from one’s enjoyment of the story.

Alan Wareing directs a practically flawless production. Wareing creates scenes of great energy with his effective, yet unshowy camera work. The story has scenes of humour contrasted with some real scares, such as the death of Inspector Mackenzie and the gradual emergence of Control. However Wareing manages to make these scenes effective without being gratuitous, which is why he gets away with the most explicitly horrific image in the history of the programme- Light holding the severed arm of a young woman. The production design is fantastic, with Gabriel Chase being utterly convincing. Even light, when he manifests himself, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite angel, an image which invokes feelings of awe and of rejection of modernity.

The cast is superb, and is marshalled expertly by Wareing. Katharine Schlesinger is gleefully sadistic as Gwendoline and contrasts well with Sylvia Syms icy Lady Pritchard. Ian Hogg is masterful as Josiah, contrasted in every way with Sharon Duce’s marvellously feral Control. John Hallam, despite lightening his very gravelly voice, exudes both awe and horror as Light and Frank Windsor is great fun as ‘the cream of Scotland Yard’. The regulars have exceptional material to work with. Ace is confronted with a fear from her childhood and Sophie Aldred puts in one of her best performances. The Doctor hasn’t been this devious and mysterious for years and, apart from the bizarre gurn-fest in episode 3, Sylvester McCoy puts in a fine performance.

Ghost Light is a phenomenal story, a clear indication that the highs of the previous season were no fluke.

NEXT: The Curse of Fenric

Monday, 14 September 2009


Battlefield sees Doctor Who tackling Arthurian legend for the first time, which is surprising if you see Doctor Who as being a British mythos in its own right, but perhaps less surprising when you consider that Arthurian legend a) mainly French and (b) is basically the story of a king conceived in rape who, despite the help of a half-demon wizard, loses everything due to the fact that he conceives a child with his own sister. However, Ben Aaronovitch creates a very convincing tale where the legend of Arthur is based on the exploits of a warrior king from another dimension, where knights carry a sword on one side and an energy weapon on the other, where ornithopters and organic spacecraft rule the skies and where the line between science and magic is blurred. Into this, we have the Doctor who, to his own surprise, is hailed as Merlin by these people and has to improvise his way through situations that his future self has set up for him. Despite containing some undercooked plotting, a few lines of really dreadful dialogue, Aaronovitch tells a very enjoyable and evocative yarn. Despite a few bad lines, there are far more memorable ones and Aaronovitch's script is clearly the work of someone who deeply cared for what he was writing. Although the effectiveness of some characters is based on the actors, Morgaine is very well written for and the others work very well in the story. Aaronovitch is also concerned with the changing nature of war- Ancelyn and Morgaine represent the chivalric model of battle, overturned forever by World War One. We have the hydrogen bomb and Morgaine has the Destroyer- an obvious allusion to Alan Oppenheimer's paraphrasing from the Bhagavad-Gita (or 'the Hindu Bible' as Indiana Jones artlessly put it).

The realisation of the story is, however, very variable. Michael Kerrigan directs well, but not well enough. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that most of the problems are with the first episode, which is easily the weakest, with silly flying knights, the terrible 'Waiting for me!' bit and the horribly written and directed 'boom!' conversation between Ace and Shou Yuing. Most of the action scenes are poorly choreographed and the stock armour is less than successful. The final scene is a mixture of the sublime and the cringeworthy. However, UNIT looks like an international force for the first time and the actual design is very good. The absolute production highlight is the Destroyer, as good as anything from a big-budget movie. We also have the dreaded return of Keff McCulloch as composer but, although he sometimes indulges his predilection to signpost every movement with a chord, he does some very good work, most notably the already powerful scene where Morgaine kills Lavel and then heals Elizabeth Rawlinson.

There are some good performances, the best of which has to be Jean Marsh as Morgaine, a ruthless witch-queen who, nevertheless, has her own strict code of morality. Marsh is utterly fantastic in this role (the 80s saw her play witch-queens in several movies, so she had practice). Nicholas Courtney returns as the Brigadier giving a wonderful performance, helped by some great lines. The brilliant James Ellis gives a great performance as Warmsly and Ling Tai is very good as Shou Yuing. Christopher Bowen as Mordred is also good, although what possessed Michael Kerrigan to make him laugh like an idiot is beyond me. Brigadier Bambera is not the best written character, but Angela Bruce's natural charisma manages to save the character. Marcus Gilbert is his usual dashing self as Ancelyn, although the romance between him and Bambera seems tacked on. I must mention Sylvester McCoy's performance here. In this story he is both utterly convincing and utterly awful, in places giving the worst ever performance in the title role. Sophie Aldred is generally good, a special highlight being the scene where she is goaded into almost racially insulting Shou Yuing- a very brave move by Aaronavitch which could easily have misfired.

Battlefield manages to combine some excellent moments with some awful ones but it does work. I would recommend watching the 'movie' version if you only have time for one, as it fleshes out the back-story to good effect. It's hardly the highlight of the McCoy era, but is worth watching- and things only get better from here on.

NEXT: Ghost Light

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Calling a tale The Greatest Show in the Galaxy holds it open to all sorts of ribbing unless it is a very special adventure- fortunately, if there was any doubt that Doctor Who was back in black, it was totally blown out of the water by this story. On one level, this is a story about a sinister, once legendary, circus that has a habit of killing its audience. It is, of course, based on coulrophobia- the fear of clowns- but, like the scary clowns in The Celestial Toymaker, this is just one weapon in the story’s arsenal. We have a werewolf, a killer robot bus conductor, reanimated corpses, gaily painted kites that seek out fugitives and a seemingly average 1950s family who have the power of life and death over anyone in the circus. However, it can also be seen as a meditation on the rampant materialism of the 80s destroying the naïve idealism of the 60s, whilst acknowledging that the hippies begat the yuppies. It can be seen as looking at the way we compromise ourselves to ensure our own self-interest. It can be seen as a take on late 80s Doctor Who, with a show that was past its prime battling for its continued existence on a secluded location. The uber-villains in the story (The Gods of Ragnarok) are not just the Doctor’s enemies for the story, but are suggested as being against Doctor Who itself and everything it stands for. However, it is, above all else, a thumpingly good yarn, which Stephen Wyatt populates with well-drawn characters who are given some truly fantastic dialogue. Wyatt shows how words are the backbone of any story- look at the scene where the Doctor creates a sword from a piece of metal by telling a story about it. If I have any criticism, it is that the defeat of the Gods of Ragnarok is, on the surface, accomplished using a McGuffin. However, this is more than compensated for in other areas of the story’s realisation.

One thing that is immediately obvious is the fact that there are no production failings at all. By this time the Doctor Who production team were confident in what it could achieve on its budget and avoided the things it couldn’t. Sets and locations are all perfectly dressed and lit. The key factor is the fantastic direction of Alan Wareing. Wareing makes sure every actor is performing at their best and knows precisely how to move the camera and set up shots to maximum effect. This results in an embarrassment of memorable scenes- the cliffhanger to the first episode, the pursuit of Bellboy and Flowerchild, the first appearance of the Chief Clown, the death of Bellboy… The transformation of Mags into a werewolf takes a very basic make-up job and turns it into a genuinely scary scene, thanks to Wareing’s skills. Most wonderful of all is the Doctor walking calmly away while the Circus explodes behind him. A special mention must be made of Mark Ayres’s wonderful score, one of the best Doctor Who soundtracks ever.

As said, the performances are excellent across the board. The circus folk are memorably portrayed with Deborah Manship as Morgana and Ricco Ross as the Ringmaster (it seems at first that this portrayal borders on the non-PC, but everyone, even Bruce Forsyth, was rapping in 1988!) Doctor Who finally employs the right Guard brother, with Christopher Guard’s performance as Bellboy being very skilful and nuanced. The sinister Chief Clown is fantastically brought to life by Ian Reddington and we have the wonderful T P McKenna as Captain Cook and a great performance by Jessica Martin as Mags. Sylvester McCoy gives one of his best ever performances and Sophie Aldred supports brilliantly.

This is a genuinely wonderful story, which you should have no hesitation in seeking out and watching!

NEXT: Battlefield

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Silver Nemesis

It is obvious to anyone how similar Silver Nemesis is to Remembrance of the Daleks. Both involve the Doctor using an ancient Gallifreyan device to destroy an army of aliens. Both were broadcast in the 25th season. However, this story is the ‘official’ anniversary story and the Cybermen are used instead of the Daleks- and it fails where the other succeeded and the fact that they are so similar is one of the less serious problems with the story. The main problem is the very poor script. Remembrance of the Daleks was, in part a celebration of the past 25 years of Doctor Who. Silver Nemesis seems to focus merely on the period of 25 years. Adversaries and events are inserted into the story with no thought as to how they will work individually, let alone together. The Nazis are entirely superfluous and are given virtually nothing to do, the main villainous parts being taken by the Cybermen and Lady Peinforte. There are some truly awful scenes- the nonsense with the Queen and Windsor Castle is bearable, but the (very RADA) skinheads and the American tourist are utterly cringeworthy. The characterisation is virtually non-existent, with only Lady Peinforte and Richard showing any signs of life- the rest are merely one-line descriptions- in fact, for DeFlores and his gang of Arisch cavemen, I suspect that it was less, even, than that.

This is a shame, as some of the story looks quite impressive. The Cybermen look fantastic- for the first time their costumes look like actual designs rather than bits and pieces sprayed silver. We even have the return of the visible lower jaw from Earthshock. The special effects for their ship are also quite impressive. Unfortunately, the script has to have them be worse shots than Helen Keller and take part in ludicrous scenes such as that ridiculous sleight of hand involving the bow of the Nemesis. It is difficult to truly judge the effectiveness of Chris Clough’s direction, considering how hamstrung he was with the script. It must be said that all the major characters are well acted, especially Fiona Walker as Lady Peinforte and Gerard Murphy as Richard. Anton Diffring could play a character like DeFlores in his sleep and, although he is blatantly thinking more about Boris Becker than Doctor Who, he is always watchable in a very poorly written part. Keff McCulloch again seems to think that the more notes you cram in, the better the result would be. Someone should have realised that you do not have a guest performance from Britain’s foremost jazz musician and have McCulloch doing the rest of the music. Sophie Aldred is great in this, but Sylvester McCoy ranges from inspired to silly.

I must admit that, at the time, I enjoyed the story almost as much as Remembrance of the Daleks. It has exciting fight scenes and other things that can divert a 12-year old. However, Remembrance of the Daleks is a story that I still enjoy today- this story is just embarrassing.

NEXT: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Happiness Patrol

The Happiness Patrol continues the move into uncharted territory that the Sylvester McCoy era had shown signs of taking. If you can accept the premise- a society that has made sadness illegal- there is much to enjoy in Graeme Curry's scripts. Curry creates a gynocratic society of forced smiles, muzak and gaudy décor, where bad jokes are broadcast on the airwaves, while the titular secret police make undesirables disappear. Some aspects of the story do not quite gel- the Kandyman seems to have been included purely to give the story a monster and sometimes sits uneasily with the rest of the story. This is more than made up for by the fact that the Kandyman is absolutely brilliant! The 'planet of women' idea is one which has formed the basis for many bad works of sci-fi. However, this aspect is not the driving force of the society and, indeed, while men are less prominent than women, they are by no means oppressed. There are some unmistakeable gay undercurrents to the story which work well with it.

The look of the story is very distinctive. It has been said that the intention is to evoke German Expressionism as expressed in films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem: How He Came Into the World. The Kandyman's Kitchen feels like a cross between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and a George Méliès film and the make-up for the Terra Alphans is reminiscent of the stark make-up used to enhance the eyes and mouth in early cinematography. These references to silent films are not as esoteric as it seems- up until the early 90s Channel 4 would show silent film classics on weekend afternoons- but, although the lighting is very evocative, the experiment does not quite work. Chris Clough seems to be far less successful in the studio than he is on location- for example, the Kandyman's revelation is very undramatic, which is a pity, as he looks brilliant. The look is by no means bad, however and does not interfere too much with the story.

There are some excellent performances, most notably Sheila Hancock as Helen A, who manages to invoke Thatcher without making it a lazy impersonation. David John Pope brings the wonderful Kandyman to life and his scenes with his creator Gilbert M are worth the price of admission alone. McCoy is presented with a version of the Doctor who is fun-loving, yet manipulative- note his words to Ace: 'You're no use to me like this!'. Unfortunately, the story brings to the fore the fact that he is unable to shout convincingly- his hijacking of the protest is close to being embarrassing- however, he succeeds admirably elsewhere. Sophie Aldred is also very good here, making Ace very memorable as a borderline delinquent with a strong sense of morality.

Despite its flaws, this story has a lot going for it- things are certainly looking up!

NEXT: Silver Nemesis

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Remembrance of the Daleks

For the first time in what seemed like ages, everyone was talking about last night’s Doctor Who in school, not just the few of us who still watched religiously (although this was, sadly, not reflected by the viewing habits of the British public in general). By the time the story had finished broadcasting, one thing was certain: Doctor Who had suddenly and miraculously got its act back together. On the face of it, the story was similar to some of the worst of mid-80s Doctor Who in that it had many fan-pleasing references to the series’ past, but the first thing that one notices about Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent script is that, despite references to Omega, Rassilon, Spiridon and the like, the story is not dependent on references to the past- it stands up on its own and can be enjoyed by a complete newcomer and the fact that a previous history is referred to actually adds verisimilitude and texture, rather than alienating the casual viewer- they’re there if you want to look, but are not essential to the story. Previous attempts at referring to the series’ past continuity tended to needlessly complicated the plots, but the plot here is easy to follow- two rival Dalek factions have arrived on Earth to gain control of a powerful Time Lord device left behind by the Doctor. Beyond this storyline, however, there is a good deal more to enjoy in the script. The characterisation is excellent- Group Captain Gilmore comes off as being far more than the flat authority figures that the Doctor usually deals with. Professor Rachel Jensen and her assistant Allison work together wonderfully and even Ratcliffe and his Association work well, even though it seems at times that the parallels between the Daleks and neo-fascists can come across as heavy handed.

The realisation of the story is equally expert, from the great pre-titles sequence to the excellent location filming and the almost flawless production design. Andrew Morgan doesn’t put a foot wrong and it is not surprising that there are many images that lodge in the mind, such as the Predator style heads up display, the new Dalek guns, the Special Weapons Dalek, the eerie child etc. Morgan knows how to manage moods from frenetic action scenes and moments of introspection, making the story flow very well. The Daleks themselves look better than they have ever done and the special effects are very good. It is pleasantly surprising how few allowances the present day viewer has to make for the story.

The story is also blessed with an outstanding supporting cast, with Simon Williams’s outstanding Gilmore, Pamela Salem’s Rachel and Dursley McLinden’s Mike Smith. George Sewell deserves special praise for managing to convey the wretchedly pathetic nature of people like Ratcliffe, while still making him despicable. It is clear that in Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy, we have a new, instantly brilliant set of leads. Ace is unlike any other companion, beating up Daleks with a molecularly charged baseball bat, jumping through windows, yet feeling genuinely hurt and betrayed by Mike’s actions. This is the start of the Doctor as manipulator and him using that part of his nature in, basically, clearing up after himself. However, McCoy still has that wonderful scene with Joseph Marcell in the café, where he almost acts like someone who has genuinely come home after a long trip –‘It’ll be twins!’

Remembrance of the Daleks was the first story in the 25th Anniversary season and, from the start, it plays with the memories of generations of viewers- there is a shot of Coal Hill School at the beginning and we see Rachel walking past- I’m sure many older viewers instantly thought it was Barbara. The Daleks are portrayed as genuinely terrifying machines of menace, just as older viewers remembered them and they dominate the story in a way they hadn’t really done since The Evil of the Daleks. Davros appears, but only in the last episode and what we think was Davros is something else. And there is the moment that everyone was talking about- the Dalek following the Doctor up the stairs.

Remembrance of the Daleks is the best Dalek story since the Troughton Era and there is a strong case for it being the best Dalek story of the 20th Century. It is a wonderful story that can be appreciated by casual viewer and hardcore fan alike.

NEXT: The Happiness Patrol

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Dragonfire concludes Sylvester McCoy’s first season in style. Again, the basic premise displays a degree of vagueness- Kane is imprisoned with the key to his salvation in (what looks like) easy reach and takes 3000 years to find it, never knowing that his planet has been destroyed in a supernova- despite the fact that he has constructed the interstellar version of an airport terminal on his planet of imprisonment. However, the script contains some wonderful dialogue and some good characters. The actual plot is the hunt for a semi-mythical dragon, which is simple enough for any child to enjoy, but contains such great scenes as the Doctor finding a surprisingly erudite guard (the philosophical conversation that follows, despite some slightly misunderstood terminology, actually makes sense). The names of the characters are taken from figures in film theory (ones who knew what they were talking about) directors (Pudovkin, named after the director of the hugely influential Mother) and films (Kane, named after a character in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Haha). In addition, Briggs creates a dragon quest with ‘singing trees’ and ‘ice gardens’. In many ways, this is a throwback to the Doctor journeying into the unknown that we had in the Hartnell era, which is very welcome.

Chris Clough directs well, but the all-studio realisation of the story does make the settings look a bit too artificial, but there is some clever design work here, such as the realisation of the ‘singing trees’. The scenes in the milk bar actually come off rather well, despite being a low-rent version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. The costumes work very well, with the white Pickelhauben worn by Kane’s officers being a nice touch. The special effects are quite good, from the well-realised dragon to the outstanding shot of Kane melting, influenced by and nearly as good as the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (incidentally, the only scene in anything that has genuinely given me nightmares). The actual failures of the visualisation are very few- the ‘literal’ cliffhanger to part one can be seen as postmodern (as there are perfectly good cliffhanger moments preceding it) but just comes off as silly. The model for the planet Svartos is nicely designed and filmed, but if Svartos is an Earth-sized planet, the Iceworld complex looks the size of Africa. Surely, a continent-sized craft taking off from a planet would destroy it? However, the production works well, although the fact that Dominic Glynn is doing the music no doubt contributes to this.

The performances are never less than good. Tony Selby makes a very welcome return as Glitz and Patricia Quinn is excellent as Belazs. However, Edward Peel’s Kane is outstanding, making the character very memorable (in a completely different way to Don Henderson’s equally impressive Gavrok in the previous story). This is also the story where we say goodbye to Mel. When she first appeared, I had never seen a companion so annoying. It has to be said, however, that she improved dramatically in her last two stories and she is given a cracking leaving scene. We also say hello to Sophie Aldred as Ace. Aldred is not the best actress in the world, but she truly inhabits the character making Ace instantly memorable- although the attempts to colloquialise her dialogue have mixed results, sometimes creative and amusing, sometimes embarrassing. Sylvester McCoy is in complete command of his character, even making his comic sliding (which no-one else does!) work.

Dragonfire is flawed, but contains much that is great, ending a very interesting season that promises much for the future.

NEXT: Remembrance of the Daleks