Thursday, May 22, 2008

view from the panopticon- survival

9-8-06 "Survival"

Ace: "People don’t just vanish."
The Doctor: "You did."

I probably should have saved this for the end, since, in a way, it is the end—or was, for a long time. It’s the last TV serial of Doctor Who broadcast before an absence of sixteen years (and let’s all have a big laugh about the ironic title). I’d forgotten how much I liked this. It’s really quite a good story, for the first two episodes . . . the third one is something of an anti-climax and leaves us with a lot of loose ends, even if the series was to go on from this point.

The way this story opens reminds me so much of "Father’s Day," down to the Reaper-vision (in this case, Kitling-vision) that I’d be really surprised if Paul Cornell wasn’t influenced by it. One very nice thing about this story is that it takes place almost entirely outside, and seeing the streets of Perivale (which, I understand, is in West London) is almost as refreshing as the brutal landscape of the Cheetah People planet. I think by this time the show had gone to video-tape, and it shows in the clearer, less stilted picture as well as the ability to film more places. Humans getting hunted by aliens is not a new concept, but when combined with the cat angle, the Master, and the ‘sploding planet, I think it’s quite cool.

Though the first episode is rather heavy on Sergeant Patterson, there are some nice touches that say to me that Rona Munro is a clever writer. The tone of it is both eerie and light-hearted, bouncing between the people of the town getting kidnapped and the Doctor rather ridiculously sitting around trying to lure cats with canned food. Speaking of which, the entire scene with the store employees is quite good. It’s written to sound casual while relaying a lot of information about the tone, and filmically it’s quite good, too. I think it’s great that the two store keepers argue about cat food brands and then "an aftershave ad," leaving the Doctor to exclaim, "cheese, ah yes." Finally, the story the one store keeper tells the other about lions and running shoes works quite well. Was it intentional to get the "keep the rubbish off the streets" in one of shots? If so, it was clever. There’s even a poster for CATS. After Ace’s friend said, "He’s dead or gone to Birmingham," I thought for sure they were going to do the "aren’t they the same thing?" pot shot. Alas. (Not that I have anything against Birmingham!)

Speaking of Sergeant Patterson, he belongs to the brand of tiresome characters who are very macho and by-the-book and tend to get in the Doctor’s way (which he does, a lot!). Julian Holloway doesn’t really bring anything special to the part, and he’s even ungrateful when the Doctor and Ace bring him safely back to Perivale ("I had a blackout"). But I don’t think he’s malicious, and I don’t think he should have gotten killed by Midge. He even gets a nice pot shot off at the Doctor, "You’re not in the best of shape yourself" (au contraire. The Doctor gets to juggle, ride a horse, climb on narrow things, etc.). As for the other supporting characters . . . well, really, do any of them bear mentioning? They fulfill their roles of running around and being killed or riding around in hot, heavy Cheetah costumes quite adequately.

The main thing that lessens the strength of the third episode is its reliance on Midge. Will Barton is just not up to the task of making such a role believable. Part of the problem is the absurdness of the already testosterone-soaked gym rats following him around on a motorcycle (I thought we’d had done with the motorcycle in "Delta and the Bannermen") while he dresses like someone who should have been at the Tylers’ wedding. That the Master relies upon him to get off the planet is understandable; why he continues to use him back on Earth doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The entire confrontation on Horseden Hill is kind of rubbishy, though it gives Sophie Aldred a chance to cry and does create a nice scene with her and Karra (so the Cheetah People were once humanoid?).

The Doctor has changed a lot since "Time and the Rani" (as he should!). I love that he tells Patterson, "oh, do shut up." It’s also somewhat his fault that Ace gets captured in the first place because she tries to talk to him, and he’d rather obsess over cat food: "Quiet, Ace, I’m concentrating." His attempts to keep everyone calm (last seen by me in "Frontios") are thwarted again as everyone goes running around the Cheetah People planet despite his exhortations to the contrary. I love that when Ace asks, "How long have I been away?" he says, "You’ve been away as long as you think you have." That’s a very Seventh Doctor answer. There are some nice moments with Ace, when he pulls her away from the primitive pull of the planet, and the disgust on Sylvester McCoy’s face when the Master is communing with his more animalistic side speaks volumes. I also like when Patterson says, "I wouldn’t want to be that [meaning Ace’s] age again, would you?" the Doctor replies, darkly, "I can’t remember—it was too long ago." There’s only a little of the shouting-overacting going on, when he blusters after Ace, "I’ll find you!" and the "if we fight like animals, we die like animals!!" speech at the end. Though the sentiment is admirable, and I like to see the Doctor being almost pushed over the edge of animalism. Oh, and his last speech—‘Somewhere out there . . ."—is one of my absolute favorites from the program, and a more than adequate way to say goodbye to Doctor Who as we knew it.

I don’t know that much about Ace, because I’ve never seen "Dragonfire" and only saw "Ghost Light" partway through (I hated it at the time, but I’m almost convinced to buy the DVD and try again). But what I do know has made me respect and like her, though I wish we could have seen her character arc continue after this. I might even venture to say she’s one of my favorite companions. I don’t like the fact that she’s obsessed with explosives, but I like that she can take care of herself, and her relationship with the Doctor is one of those deep friendships that I like to see on the show. Still, like Rose, she’s a typical teenager in a lot of ways. When Patterson recognizes her, she feigns ignorance—"The police let you off with a warning." This story shows off her determination and physical toughness (she convinces the otherwise terrified Perivalians on the planet to try to fight back against the Cheetahs), while showing something in her I’m not sure we’ve seen before—compassion. The connection to Karra is a strange one, but I think even before the planet begins to pull on her, Ace pulls the injured creature of out of the water where it could drown. Unfortunately, like most companions, she has to fall down while running. Ah well. Ace can also be quite funny. "Do you know any nice people?" she asks the Doctor, after he describes the Master. She also says that in open combat, "you’d [the Doctor] wipe the floor with him [the Master]." Oh! I never talk about Ace’s outfits, do I? Well, at least she’s not wearing high heels. When Sophie Aldred’s wearing her bulky coat, you don’t really get the notion that she’s particularly good-looking; however, without it, I understand what John Sessions was getting at when he prank-called Sylvester McCoy and called Ace "dishy."

To tell you the truth, the reason I decided to watch this instead of "Arc of Infinity" (which I wanted to watch because a) it has Colin Baker in The Maxil Show, b) it’s in Amsterdam) or another Tom Baker, was because last night I had a dream about Anthony Ainley! Which was very odd. In any case, I’ve only seen one Delgado story so Ainley is the Master I’m most familiar with, and while I think he tends to get a little ridiculous in "Planet of Fire" and "Mark of the Rani" (which I don’t think was his fault per se), I think the Master is well-used here. First of all, he’s ditched the black velvet outfit for something a little more in line with the suit he was seen in during "Planet of Fire," and it’s quite good, almost African big-game hunter-like, no doubt intentionally so. (Kudos to Ken Trew, costume designer.) I also think it isn’t terribly obvious that it’s the Master controlling the Kitlings, by clever use of shadow, until the end of the first episode. What’s really scary about the Master this time around is that if he, a twisted Time Lord but a Time Lord nonetheless, can succumb to the planet, where’s the hope for the Doctor, for Ace, for the rest of us? Will we all be vulnerable to our grosser animal instincts or will we, like the Doctor, be able to control them? Previously the Master’s seemed a little pathetic; when he insists, "I control them [the Cheetah People]," I don’t know that he believes that any more than we do. Ainley convinces in this respect by going all out in the service of appearing insane: "This place bewitches you." And for once, his obsessive revenge on the Doctor makes sense: if he’s deteriorating mentally, his baser instincts are bound to come out. So, will the Master be back in the new series? I sincerely hope so. Terrance Dicks in The Eight Doctors explained how the Master eased the effects of the planet while at the same time becoming the snake-thing we see in the telemovie. I think most people underrate the Eric Roberts Master; I find him quite hilarious. But what kind of new Master would we see? I have no idea.

From the first serial, "Unearthly Child," a lot has been made about coming home or finding home in Doctor Who. When Ace comes home to the "boredom capital of the world," it’s an interesting observation that most of her friends have disappeared. It’s funny, to me, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The great companion experiment of the early 1980s, three companions and the Doctor, worked for awhile and then fizzled out, leaving us with the Peri/Sixth Doctor partnership and the Ace/Seventh Doctor partnership. The one-companion formula seems to be the prevailing one now and for the foreseeable future (watch me eat my words later). The reason I mention it is because Ace in some ways resembles Rose (or the other way around). When Sergeant Patterson tells Ace, "Your mum had you listed as a missing person . . . it would have only taken ten pence to make a call," it’s easy to see the connection. In 1989, Doctor Who was prepared to explore the real-world consequences of companions—though Ace is quite a bit less attached to her family than Rose is.

I can see that the program had at least some money while filming this. First of all, the horses must have cost, and they’ve got trained riders. Filming and props for the Cheetah People planet weren’t run of the mill, either. I guess if Sabrina the Teenage Witch can get away with fake-looking black cats, I won’t be too hard on the puppet or animatronic close-ups for the black cats (not to mention the cat "carcasses" killed by the Kitlings). I’m surprised at how much I like the music, provided by Dominic Glynn. There’s a guitar riff that sounds suspiciously like it belongs in Jesus Christ Superstar, but since I am too fond of ALW anyway, it works for me. There are also some cues that sound like Japanese flutes, and some acoustic guitar that belongs in Seville in "The Two Doctors." Unusual, and quite a bit different from the synthesizer madness of "Time and the Rani."

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