Monday, March 23, 2009

more of the same

I’m afraid that I must have finished off all the good Batman comics last year. Other than Hush Part II I don’t know that I’ve come across any really good ones in 2009 so far. Andy Diggle and Whilce’s Portacio’s Batman: Rules of Engagement brings us back some time early in Batman’s career. Gordon is still a Captain, and for some reason they want to bring Lex Luthor into the mix. I couldn’t care less, frankly. Whilce’s style is distinctive and suited to computer-generated coloring (though his black-and-white drawings are powerful, muscly, full of shadows) yet his Bruce Wayne seems as far from dishy as you can get. Yes, it’s just a bit ho-hum, in my opinion.

Again, kudos to Matt Wagner for drawing and writing Batman and the Monster Men, set in the same time frame (roughly) as the above story, and what Batman and the Mad Monk was preceded by. Unfortunately, Wagner can’t seem to draw beautiful women, which is a shame since Julie Madison is such an important part of Monster Men. From the point of view I knew nothing about Dr. Hugo Strange the comic was useful in solidifying my education on that character. The carnage is reminiscent of Beowulf & Grendel, appropriate since Wagner is responsible for a comic called Grendel. In the world of this comic, the Red Hood has just vanished into the vat of chemicals, allowing Gordon to comment, “Is this a joke?” “I’m no joker,” Batman deadpans.

Is it time to seek out comics other than Batman?

the green death

“The Green Death”
The Doctor: You wrote a very good paper for your age.
Professor Clifford Jones: A promising youngster, eh?
The Doctor: No, I mean for the age you live in.

It might be precipitous of me to say this, but “The Green Death” may be my favorite Pertwee story (at least of those I’ve seen). As usual, it was a bit on the long side, but not the point where I was bored with it. The last few episodes could have gone through a rewrite to make them as brisk and interesting as the first few, but the other elements of the story far outweigh that. It’s Jo’s best story by far (that I’ve seen); she actually has a character, an element of humanity, instead of being a caricature in a mini-skirt. Unlike Leela’s swanning off with Andred, the way she falls in love with Dr. Clifford Jones is believable and even sweet. The Brigadier has some good lines and though he has his UNIT moments of shooting at things, he seems more vital than in many of these stories from the Pertwee era. Unlike the tacked-on feeling of the monsters in “Inferno”—which share some elements with this story—the general gist of this is well-crafted and plotted. The ecological message is distinct, vivid, and treated with respect and humanity. It’s a real shame we didn’t have more stories like this one; even the mad computer was entertaining. And I have to admit I found the Doctor’s farewell to Jo at least or more affecting than when he says goodbye to Sarah Jane a few years later.

We start off well with an aerial view that’s not stock footage; what a concept. It’s Llanfairfach Colliery, which is closed. I know it’s a little early in the decade to start thinking about mining closures, but it’s still a sign of the times. It’s always amusing when the setting of the story is actually a quarry or similar. We switch from studio to location, but like many of the more effective Pertwee stories, a lot of location filming is used. What I really like about this story is that it starts out in such a way that—aside from a few scenes of miners struck down by the plague of green phosphorescence—you wouldn’t know it was Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn’t even show up for quite awhile. It begins at the closed down mine, where Stevens emerges from behind the barrier. “They want to know what’s going to happen. We all do.” Stevens gives the out-of-work Welsh miners promises of “wealth in our time” while a hapless miner going down the shaft tries to compete with the best efforts of the special effects. They tried. Quick to challenge Stevens’ assertions is a group of intellectuals standing off to the side. “Coal is a dying industry—petrol is the future.” “More muck, more devastation!” The leader is identified as “Professor Jones, he’s a troublemaker.” Jones is worried about progress “at the expense of your land.” “You can afford to live the way you want to,” reply the angry miners. I do love the fact that Robert Sloman is giving both sides of the argument. I can’t remember hearing such worldly-wise, intelligent conversation on relevant issues in a Pertwee story.

I keep waiting for the TARDIS to materialize, but when we switch back to UNIT HQ, I remember that it’s Pertwee and we’re stuck on Earth (though not for much longer). We switch to Jo, in unusually modest clothes, eating an apple. (Great fodder for my “Food in Doctor Who” article idea, as is most of the serial.) The Doctor is tinkering as he can now use the TARDIS, “now that the Time Lords have forgiven you.” What I thought was a wonderfully offhand comment turns out to be of importance later, but I didn’t feel like it was forced into the dialogue: “There’s precious little protein in an apple, Jo.” While the Doctor is absorbed (no doubt) in thoughts of getting hither and thither in the TARDIS, Jo is incensed about the Global Chemicals take over—“don’t they realize the devastation this will cause?” I don’t know if Jo has been established in earlier episodes as an environmental activist, but I totally believe it—Katy Manning gets a chance to act and goes with it! Besides, she has heard of Dr. Jones before—possibly there’s an element of hero worship in it, though by events later in the story it’s clear she’s not seen his picture before. :-)

The Doctor wants Jo to go with him to Metebelis III. “I’m not going to Metebelis III.” Jo’s passion is admirable, but my heart just sinks at the sad way Pertwee says, “Why?” The Brigadier then has an assignment for Jo and the Doctor. “This is your cup of tea, Doctor: this fellow’s bright green and dead.” The Brig expects both Jo and the Doctor to “do your duty.” Not realizing that the assignment and her passionate wish coincide, Jo pleads the cause of helping Dr. Jones in Llanfairfach (of all the English characters, she’s the only one who pronounces it right). The Brig is more old-fashioned: “sounds like cheap petrol and lots of it—what the world needs.” Jo pleads—the Brig calls it “a very pretty metaphor.”

The Doctor doesn’t want to go on assignment either—there’s a surprising element of this Pertwee in Nine later on, the petulance and selfishness. “I’m going to Metebelis III.” “I could order you to go.” “I wouldn’t advise you to try.” “ . . . Yes.” I love the next exchange. It’s up there with the one from “Ghost Light” between Ace and Seven, and so exciting because it’s so unexpected (for me): “Metebelis III, Jo? Or where else would you like to go? You choose for yourself.” “But I've only got ten minutes.” “Jo, you've got all the time in the world... and all the space. I'm offering them to you.” “But Doctor, don't you understand? I've got to go. This Professor Jones, he's fighting for everything that’s important. Well, everything that you've fought for. In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of... younger you.” “I don’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted. It’s all right, Jo. I understand.” I love that Jo is given the chance to shine, both as an equal to the Doctor and given a genuine interest in bettering her world, also that the Doctor feels affection and respect for her. But it’s also quite sad. The way the Doctor makes seductive his offer is copied, to an extent, at the end of “World War III.” This is fabulous stuff. It’s ruined by the patronizing, “The fledgling flies the coop,” but oh well.

There’s green, green everywhere in Barbara Kidd’s costume palette (fortunately the Doctor exchanges his ‘70s nightmare green frilly suit for a slightly more subdued (?) one with red trim). To my untrained ear, most of the Welsh characters in the story speak like Welsh people. Aside from the constant (and unrealistic) insertion of “boyo” all the time. No one has ever said that the entire time I’ve been in Wales. It could be an old-fashioned thing, but still . . . A Welsh milkman is happy to provide the Brig and Jo with directions to “the nut-hutch,” while the Doctor is jaunting off on his grouchy onesies to Metebelis III. The Brig drops Jo off at this hippie commune (funnily enough, at the hotel this week I had to give directions to guests on how to find the eco-village Lammas outside of Swansea) with the dubious, “Not sure about this, Miss Grant” (and Sarah said he was an old swinger!).

The interior of the nut-hutch reminds me of a youth hostel in Santa Fe, but that’s neither here nor there. Jo is suitably impressed by the “Room for Living” (we always called it a living room in my house, but here they seem to call it the lounge?). Without realizing it, Jo meets Professor Jones, played with hippie charm by Stewart Bevan. She’s clumsy around the scientist—“of all the silly young goats!”—which is believable. “You’ll contaminate my spores!” he says in all earnestness (double entendre?). “Stand still, my lover,” he advises her (very Welsh, that). He patronizes her further by saying, “You’re only a kid. Do you know anything about entomology?” Jones not only scares her but then admits, “I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.” Hang on, WHAT show are we watching? A genuine romance blooming without forced writing or bad acting? The kids may be bored but I’m seriously pleased. Jones announces to Jo his project of cultivating mushrooms (something returned to in The Art of Destruction): “the world’s gonna need something to eat instead of meat.”

The Brig and Stevens at Global aren’t getting on nearly as well. The Brig is convinced that the strange death of the miner “an event like that is the very reason UNIT was created.” Nicholas Courtney indulges in some eyebrow acting as Stevens explains that the better method of petrol use is almost clean, “if that isn’t conservation I don’t know what is.” Other than some unwieldy zooms the direction by Michael E Briant hasn’t distinguished itself til now, with some brilliant cuts between Jo and Jones’ conversation and the Brig and Stevens. “Tides, wind, rivers—alternative technology,” Jones tells Jo (funny how these are still things we struggle to implement into our lives more than 30 years later). “The Stevens process is clean,” Stevens insists. “Thousands of gallons of waste,” Jones insists. “Let’s go and have a look,” is Jo’s response, which is so companion. When Jones dismisses her, she huffs, “you’re being patronizing.” The Brig argues his way into interception, though no one can seem to get a hold of the Doctor (a mysterious voice reminds Stevens that “I think it imperative nobody goes into this mine”).

The Doctor has been running around on Metebelis III in the requisite ‘70s psychedelic sequence. I don’t know exactly what the purpose of him being attacked by all kinds of menaces is—I thought Metebelis III was supposed to be peaceful; I thought in “Planet of the Spiders” it was, other than the spiders of course. He escapes and gets to Llanfairfach as soon as possible, in Bessie of course. Jo goes on her own to the mine to investigate; the miners there tell her she can’t go in, “not without authority you can’t.” Dai Evans has gone down and is missing; Jo points out she’s trained in First Aid. A miner named Bert agrees to accompany her. The first cliffhanger is a bit of a bizarre one: Bert and Jo stuck in the cage lift as “the brake won’t work!” Bert takes opportunity of the situation to grope Jo; I mean, who wouldn’t? Trapped down in the mine shaft while the Brig and the Doctor race to get them out safely, Jo begins to show bravery not consistent with the screaming companion shown in earlier stories. Still, she’s only human: “Bert, do you mind going down first?” “All right, love.” The Doctor and the Brig rush off to find equipment for cutting the cable so they can get down to help. The Brig finds it very hard to believe that Global has none of the equipment; he’s right to be suspicious as Stevens, through the Boss, has been told to lie and frustrate the attempts to “investigate the mine.” Elgin, a Global employee, finds this duplicity a bit concerning: “hang about, old man.” “Disloyalty cannot be tolerated.”

The Doctor has figured out that this “was deliberate sabotage” when he gets to meet Professor Jones. They take to each other. The Brig goes to find some cutting equipment in Newport. The Doctor trespasses at Global and kicks butt with Venusian aikido. “I’m quite spry for my age.” The Doctor suits up to go down and help Jo and Bert (presaging Ten getting into spacesuits in “The Impossible Planet” and “42”). “They need my help now!”, but Dave the miner wants to help—“it’s my responsibility, isn’t it?” Jo is doing admirably, by the way. “Bert, how can light get down here?” While they conclude it can’t and connect the eerie green light with the smell of putrefaction, I’m reminded of a sage question Elijah Wood asked the lighting director in Lord of the Rings. He, too, wanted to know how light could get into a tower in Mordor and was told it was coming from the same place the music was coming from. Stupidly Bert touches some green slime. The Doctor and Dave get down the shaft and find Jo’s note. “The idiots—why wouldn’t they wait?” (Human nature.) Jo is the one to lead as Bert leans on her for support. Certain he is done for, he convinces Jo to go on alone for help. “But I can’t!” She discovers some giant maggots and goes ewww.

The Doctor finds her, and they get trapped with the maggots. Jo goes ewww some more. The signs at this point aren’t bilingual, as we find out when an ambulance takes Bert away. “It’s obvious who’s responsible,” says Professor Jones. “Global Chemicals.” He is concerned about Jo being trapped in the mine shaft, but the Brig assures him, “She and the Doctor are able to take care of themselves. My concern is as deep as yours, probably more.” The Doctor and Jo escape through the oil pipeline without getting attacked by the somewhat sluggish maggots, picking up what they think are maggot eggs on the way (ewww). They smell “crude oil waste” and are nearly sent to their deaths by the brainwashed Stevens stooge James. Elgin again voices concern: “you’ll kill them!” For not killing them, James is set to “self-destruction” by Stevens and the mysterious voice.

Sadly the Doctor, Jo, and the Brig’s party with Jones and co at the nut-hutch is a bit dated, really embodying hippies in a way I would have said was exaggerated had the story not actually been filmed in 1972. The Brig is rather ridiculously appareled in a tux, Jo looks grown-up in a blue empire-waisted gown, and the Doctor wants “a bottle to take home” of elderflower wine. All the commune people are multi-talented and brilliant and want to change the world. Jones shares his passion for black pudding (not really, for visiting the Amazon to revolutionize world food stores). I’m shocked to see the Brig smoking, as Stevens is a little later! The mood is dampened when the news comes that Bert has died. Jones comforts Jo, quite physically as it happens (with a cuddle). “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your grief. There’s never been anyone just like Bert.” “Thanks,” a sniffing Jo says. They are just about to kiss when they’re interrupted by the Brig and the Doctor. It’s so sweet! I’m sorry, maybe it’s cheesy, but it’s certainly a step up from the “romance” in “Inferno.” I really like Jo and Jones together! “I shouldn’t be too late if I were you,” the Doctor says, with a hint of caution (don’t know if he really thinks Jo should sleep with Jones having just met him!). “I got to Metebelis III,” the Doctor says proudly, displaying the sapphire crystal. “Great,” says Jo, clearly infatuated. “Good night, Jo, sleep well,” says Jones, heading off to bed himself. Damn, thinks Jo.

She then gets attacked by a jumping giant maggot—or nearly so, before an interfering crony from Global gets attacked in her stead. “At least we can analyze this slime,” says the Doctor, after the offending maggot gets away. The Brig has orders to blow up access to the mine; the Doctor wants to try a different approach. He can’t argue his way into Stevens seeing eye-to-eye. “Do you realize what my process can do for the economy of this company?” Mike Yates, undercover, arrives. The Doctor is infuriated that everyone is “under orders”—“is nobody capable of acting on their own?” Apparently not, as the mine access goes BOOM. “The point has become academic,” Steven snidely comments. “This is the worst day’s work the world has seen for many years,” the Doctor gravely, and angrily, notes. The voice interacting with Stevens has a sense of humor: “Don’t apologize, my little Superman.”

The Doctor huffs off; the cleaning lady sees something “horrible, it is!” “That is just shoving the problem underground,” the Doctor complains to the Brig. “The mine has been sealed,” therefore everyone should feel safe, thinks the Brig. As the maggots come to the surface, the Brig does what he does best. “I never thought I’d fire in anger at a dratted caterpillar . . .” Obviously weapons are useless; these ugly buggers are “armor plated.” It’s a “biological counterstrike.” Sadly, the maggots are obviously being pulled around on strings and though made to look a bit more terrifying by the addition of drashig-like fangs, are not the scariest monsters Doctor Who has ever come up with.

Warned out of Global, the Doctor infiltrates by disguising himself as a Milkman, and, oh, what a performance. “I’m his Da, I’ve been doing this milk round 53 years . . .” As Jones plays with his microscopes and test tubes, Jo is relegated to the role she’s so often filled—“keep me company . . . make some coffee.” In a move more outrageous than Patrick Troughton disguised as a gypsy in “The Underwater Menace,” Pertwee disguises himself as the cleaning lady. “I like your handbag,” comments Mike Yates. Oh dear. As in Satellite 5/The Gamestation, the Doctor seeks “whatever lives on the top floor.” Jo, eager to please, has gone off in search of a maggot sample for Jones; unfortunately for her, the RAF are about to strike the area. On the top floor of the Global building, the Doctor finally meets the BOSS: “I should have thought you would have guessed . . . I am the computer.”

We’re a few years away yet from Xoannon and even “Robot,” but the computer is certainly nuts. “Why should I want to talk to a machine?”—The Doctor, scornful. “The difficult thing is to stop you talking,” ripostes BOSS. He finds his designation “suitable.” Unlike just any other computer, he has been working with Stevens to program an “illogical” computer. The human “makes illogical guesses that turn out to be more logical than logic itself.” I really like all the aspects of this script coming together; I didn’t really see this computer thing coming. The Brig and the RAF blow up the maggots, or try to; Jo and Jones, who’s gone after her, barely escape with their lives, though Jones is struck down and phosphorescent-green-isized. As in “Remembrance of the Daleks” several years later, the Doctor confuses the machine: “I SHALL answer it!” BOSS screams of the riddle the Doctor has presented it with.

Stevens and BOSS attempt to condition the Doctor the way they’ve conditioned other Global employees. “I’m doing sums to keep from getting bored,” says the Doctor cheerfully. “I will not be angered!” snaps BOSS, quite irrationally. “I’m having a whale of a time,” replies the Doctor. Steven tries to sell the Doctor on the ideal rationale for BOSS; “freedom from freedom!” the Doctor derides. He’s thrown into a room with chains (how S&M, especially later when Mike Yates is chained up there). Jo next fixes a walkie-talkie (!) and tells the Brig, “I’m up on the slag heap with the Professor.” “Cliff, please wake up,” she pleads (somewhat irrationally, but hey, she’s had a tough day). The Doctor tries his own persuasion: “Imagine thousands of giant insects spreading their infection throughout the world.” The Brig is succinct: “I’d rather not.” The Doctor uses his blue Metebelis crystal to hypnotize and escape from a possessed Mike Yates, though in the process he hypnotizes the Brigadier. “Oh, good grief!”

Mike Yates goes back to Global pretending to still be possessed. “The Doctor . . . is dead.” Stevens has his suspicions; Jo is worried about Jones (naturally). “He means a lot to you? Then trust me, Jo.” The Doctor is working on a cure, and the Brigadier is hungry. “It seems a long time since breakfast.” He wants beef, dammit, but when kooky Nancy offers him (as Evan said) a precursor to Quorn, he can’t tell the difference. Sergeant Benton has found an opened chrysalis, confirming the Doctor’s worst fears: “it’s horribly possible.” Jones, before falling into a coma (and making odd, rather orgasmic-like heavy breathing noises), made the conclusion that serendipitously, the fungus on which he was experimenting kills the maggots (at least I think that was the explanation for serendipity). The Doctor and Benton race out in Bessie to kill the maggots off, which seems to work except a giant fly makes rather ineffectual attacks on them.

Nancy, assuring the Doctor she’s got a brain on her shoulders, finishes synthesizing the cure for Jones as the Doctor rushes off to prevent world take over by BOSS at, of all times, four o’clock. BOSS has gone delightfully insane. “Not even a little fanfare? You’re unkind, Stevens.” Jones responds to treatment and enjoys the sight of Jo at his bedside: “oh Jo . . . oh Jo.” The Doctor is able to wrest away BOSS’ control of Stevens. He has just enough time to evacuate the building (somehow) before Stevens, in one last act of heroism, causes BOSS to cross-circuit and explode.

To celebrate the eradication of the maggots, the destruction of Global Chemicals, and Jones’ recovery, there’s a little party. Jo is wearing something really strange, as is her wont. Jones announces his intention to marry the girl. “You will [say yes], of course?” That’s just on the edge of a rather unfair marriage proposal, but Jo seems so genuinely in love, it’s hard to begrudge this couple. (I’m sure someone must have written something about them further down the line. Did they stay married? More to the point, did they ever get married in the first place? Did they make it Cardiff, much less South America?) The Doctor rather embarrassedly gets out of the way. “Well, that’s marvelous,” says Mike Yates, with a mechanicalness that I suppose refers to the fact many people thought Jo and Yates were going to get together? To crown the achievement (not exactly a day of everybody lives, but still), the UN is giving the nut-hutch “unlimited financial help.” With something approaching world-weariness, the Brig takes Yates aside, “C’mon, Mike, let’s have a drink.”

In a quiet moment, the Doctor asks Jo if she asked her uncle in Geneva for a special favor. “It’s only the second time I’ve ever asked him for anything.” “Look where the first time got you,” says the Doctor, referring to her assignment with him in “Terror of the Autons.” This scene is so sweet, and yet rather full of amertume. “You don’t mind, do you?” “Save me a piece of wedding cake,” the Doctor says. In a moment much more affecting than the Tenth Doctor slipping off in the various adventures where he leaves his companions behind, the Doctor climbs into Bessie and rides off into the sunset. It’s sooooo sad.

I realize this review was in some places more a plot summary, but historically if that’s the case it means it’s a tightly crafted story and I was so invested in the action I found little to comment on, little to take me out of the constructed world. There were many elements of this I really liked, and few that I didn’t. Bravo.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

beautiful chaos

I’m not ashamed to admit that Beautiful Chaos almost made me cry, several times. It isn’t the plot--which is engaging and brings back a past enemy with the surprise factor of the Macra in “Gridlock”--but rather the human interaction, the “domestics” that the Doctor dislikes so much. Gary Russell, like Lance Parkin, is a writer from the era of the “classic” series, though I can’t recall ever reading a novel by him before (prose, certainly). Did he put together the proposal to write Beautiful Chaos? Or did the Powers That Be specifically seek him out? I don’t know, but I really enjoyed this book.

We’ve all (well, most of us) had our savage moments toward Donna and again, most of us have recanted. I have, in part. Some of her more grating jokes never fail to get on my nerves. But episodes like “Turn Left” and “Forest of the Dead” really showed the woman behind the brassy façade, and she’s someone I can identify with, almost as much as I could with Martha. Of all the retribution ever wreaked upon a companion (I said this before, in my “Journey’s End” review), I think what was done to Donna was the cruellest and most poignant thing done to a companion. In part it elevates her to the point that Lori is putting her up there with Sarah Jane and Ace with her companions. I wouldn’t go that far, but if I didn’t already have some connection to the loss suffered by Donna, I wouldn’t have enjoyed Beautiful Chaos so much. Or perhaps not at all.

Beautiful Chaos doesn’t have traditional chapters. It starts off in the aftermath of Wilf and Donna’s mother Sylvia and the “old” Donna, the thoughtless, selfish, self-absorbed bobble-brain. Whatever it was the Doctor had done to her memories made her brain accept the story and find away to fit it together so she was convinced that was indeed what had happened. The mention of Hetty, Wilf’s lady friend, pushes both Sylvia and Wilf into gloom and anxiety. The reason why will take us to the end of the book. The real story, then, begins on a Friday, somewhere during Donna and the Doctor’s TARDIS adventures together. Page 23 summarizes their relationship as familiarity, friendship, and fun, while Donna doles out her caustic wit that could be funny, could just be galling. You decide. (Though she does have a tour-de-force on page 196 reminiscent of her showdown with Davros.) What I did decide is, strangely, even though Donna’s a bit older than I am, we actually, maybe, have a few things in common. Because she can change--which “Runaway Bride” Donna never seemed capable of--and can self-evaluate, you know that Donna’s become a proper character. God. How shallow was Donna Noble before she met the Doctor again? . . . Had she been useless at home because her parents had always let her be, or did her mum think she was useless because she was?

I don’t know if discussing it will jinx it, but one of the essay proposals I wrote for a Doctor Who nonfiction book had to do with RTD’s creation of horrendous mothers for his female companions, and for me, Sylvia Noble really took the biscuit. However, reading this book, I’m beginning to reevaluate this judgement. Wilf, though he repeatedly tells the Doctor no one messes with Donna, idolizes the Doctor and keeps saying how the Earth needs him to keep it safe. It was a nice ending to “Journey’s End,” but to have him constantly spitting it out gets tiresome. On the other hand, Sylvia hits the nail on the head: ‘That’s a lot of faith to put in one man, Dad. And a lot of responsibility.’ Russell (and Donna, and the Doctor, in parts) try to rationalize Sylvia because a) she’s lonely; b) someone Donna has never met her expectations; c) she’s a widow; d) she has to take care of her slowing-down parent; e) she has to deal with Wilf’s forgetful friend Netty; f) Donna gives few explanations for the Doctor; g) Donna, even “new” Donna, exacerbates the situation simply because she’s her mother’s daughter. Fair enough, those seem to be quite a few reasons. I’m not wholly convinced, but Russell’s definitely taking stabs at further characterizing what we saw on screen (that’s what novels are for!).

Ever since “Aliens of London” and Jackie Tyler demanding of the Doctor that he guarantee Rose’s safety, Who companion mothers have been on the warpath against the Doctor putting their daughters at risk. Sylvia slaps the Doctor, becoming the third mother to do that (that we know of)--overall, the Doctor is jumpy, uncomfortable, grandiose, a bit angsty, and clever, in Russell’s depiction. He connects with the two Carnes brothers--frankly, other than to enact a few happy coincidences, I don’t know what the point of them is--and dresses up to go with Wilf to his star-naming ceremony. All the good Who settings are here--an astronomic observatory, connected to the Tycho Project of SJA; the Astronomical Society dinner; a hotel complex with lots of computers--as well as the default characters: Dara Morgan (I pictured him as Ed Byrne), Caitlin his PA (Diana Goddard from "Dalek"), Miss Oladini (DeeDee from “Midnight”), etc. (To be fair, Dara and Caitlin’s relationship is about the ultimate kind of revenge, which is a good twist on the whole enslaved-by-aliens thing. But when you’re in love, you grasp at anything, you believe that one day you’ll wake up and they’ll say, ‘You know what, I’m wrong, you’re right, you are the person for me.‘) There are epic enforced walks across London (made me think of “Dalek Invasion of Earth”).

But there’s also Alzheimer’s. I remember how stunned and impressed I was at how Sarah Jane Adventures tackled this issue in its first season, and a similar amount of thought has been put into it here (though it’s never saccharine). The way Russell portrays the “love” between Donna and the Doctor puts me in mind of Seven and the mature Ace, though put through a Katherine Hepburn blender: The Doctor was serious. He took her hands in his. ‘[You] made me a better person.’ Donna pulled her hands away, resorting, as always, to her standard jokes. ‘Now then, don’t touch what you can’t afford, spaceman.’ There is a certain poignancy in the notion that the Doctor and Donna can never be serious with each other because that would make them both vulnerable (I suppose you could say it was a bit the same with Rose in the second series. Support for this comparison comes on page 232, where Donna says, You asked how long I plan on staying with him. For ever.) Again I’m going to make the leap and say why I feel an eensy kinship with Donna. She loves her family, even if they make her crazy. If she were truly altruistic, she’d be taking care of them. But she wants to do what makes her happy, even if it’s short-lived, and that’s travelling with the Doctor. Wilf says, ’I won’t let our sadness at you not being around stop you living the life you’ve chosen.’ To carry the comparison, I’m over here, living for myself, not taking care of my family like I probably should, even though I love them deeply (and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say they make me crazy, they have their moments). Clearly this means I’m going to get amnesia!

But maybe that’s what made me almost cry, several times. Travelling with the Doctor is, after all, beautiful chaos.

the art of destruction

For some reason the title of this makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” but that really has nothing to do with anything.

And with this, I complete my readings of the entire series of the Ten/Rose books. Amazing! It’s another book from Stephen Cole, but most unusual in setting (though the later Snowglobe 7 resembles it in some ways). It’s the 22nd century in Africa, and you have to wonder if Cole himself had the axe to grind or was given a brief. Either way, it’s good that Doctor Who BBC book writers are being conscious about mass extinction (The Last Dodo), global warming/melting of the polar ice caps (Snowglobe 7), and other contemporary environmental concerns, explored in ways that nonetheless give some hope for the human race (Evan, you might enjoy reading any of these books for those reasons alone). The Art of Destruction also falls into that category, as it tackles (and quite intelligently, in my opinion) darkest Africa’s genocide/tribal warfare as well as global food shortages. Of the three “environmental” books (there may be more that I haven’t read yet), this one seems the most realistic and is therefore sobering and, with a little tip in one direction, could be bleak, bleaker even than The Eyeless. However, I see Cole actually offering solutions, though without giving away the end of the book, we may have to be reliant on un-earthly assistance should we actually try to bioengineer mushrooms to grow in the hearts of inactive volcanoes, fertilized by guano.

On TV, it’s not difficult to imagine the Doctor being cheerful in the fact of guns, or at least brushing them off. Somehow, in a novel, when the Doctor is at gun-point by African child soldiers, I wonder why they hesitate to blow his head off. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, I have difficulty believing in even the Doctor’s powers of persuasion. To be fair, Cole does have the volcano and the warring aliens intervene before the Doctor’s natural charm fades to his certain doom. It’s frightening, in some ways, to have the Doctor so close to actual danger. I know this is kind of what Pertwee meant about his Yeti-in-the-loo comment, but, then again, it’s a bit different. It isn’t the alien menace coming to Earth, it’s the human menace coming to the alien.
Cole’s finest hour was, in my opinion, Sting of the Zygons. He’d solidified Ten and Martha’s relationship. I liked The Monsters Inside and The Feast of the Drowned, though the former’s conclusion was a bit diffuse. The Art of Destruction falls somewhere between all these, for though I like the plot generally and find Rose well-written, his Tenth Doctor doesn’t quite convince at the level he does in Sting of the Zygons (he’s referred to as a gangly gazelle!). A minor quibble, I’m sure. For some reason I was thinking “Robots of Death” when considering the supporting characters here, though I will say, of all the fake-out opening scenes in Doctor Who books where you know someone is going to die, Cole had actually made me care about the relatively interesting agri-workers Kanjuchi and Adiel.

Cole is equal opportunity, allowing Rose to run around Mount Tarsus in a t-shirt and a short denim skirt, but the Doctor gets to open his shirt a number of times. The opening scene with the two tries a bit too hard for slapstick, though this did amuse me: ‘Allo, allo! Or rather, aloe barbadensis. Aloe vera!’ ‘Don’t call me Vera.’ The setting in some ways will be done again in “Fires of Pompeii”: heat, tunnels underground, magma monsters, etc. It must not be the first (or last) time a post-1989 companion has fallen and twisted his or her ankle (in fact I’m sure it happened in either Only Human or Wetworld), but at least it not only makes sense, but Rose also bravely soldiers through it (I hope she sought medical attention afterward). Like The Many Hands and The Nightmare of Black Island, this is full of molto creepy. A dead-seeming, gold-encased vulture comes back to life and attacks Rose; dead bats crunched underfoot on a cave floor in the same situation fly into her hair. It’s a bit like the ratcatcher scene from Phantom of the Opera: There were bats everywhere, burning with a fiery light. Something had sent them into a frenzy. The Doctor christens these characters golems, as in the Lovecraft version (not Gollum from Lord of the Rings, as Rose first thinks). Does anyone remember the flesh-eating ant scene from the newest Indiana Jones movie? I think Cole presaged that a bit when driver ants attack Fynn and Adiel in a jeep as they try to escape from Golems and warring alien factions. Cole also references a weapon similar to one that will be used later in The Eyeless.

Cole has created a similar character to the mad scientist in Nightmare of Black Island—Dr Fynn, who we’ll get to—but an even better alien, a bit of a Sil for the 21st century. I’ll let Cole do the talking here: The creature’s head was thin and spiked like a cactus. Its neck was fat like a giant toad’s, billowing out and then sucking back in. Two spindly arms stuck out on either side of the blobby body, each ending in a heavy-duty pincer like a crab’s. Its many legs were thin and clacked together like a bundle of dry sticks. This is Faltato, fussy, cowardly, and though he doesn’t eat Rose and her friend Basel like they expect, he does seek to cause their deaths—though only as an afterthought. Faltato is just an agent, though, for a truly disgusting race of war-making giant earthworms that shoot cannons of flesh-devouring filth—congrats on the gross-out factor, Cole.
If this wasn’t enough for you, Dr. Fynn, as I hinted, is involved in the trading of dead bodies that so enraged Rose about the Gelth. The Doctor, of course, shocked everyone in his alien attitude toward it. He thought it was okay—or if not okay, at least understandable—for the Gelth to use dead human bodies, ‘cause, who was going to need them? Rose was horrified, and the Doctor was in fact proved wrong. Fynn is condemned by Rose, Adiel, and probably the reader in this way. We don’t actually get to find out what the Doctor thinks. I personally feel a bit of sympathy for his position. ‘How many people have died in this conflict? Centuries of ethnic violence, of factions set on wiping each other out, on gaining power for themselves. The bloodshed goes on, how can it ever be resolved? And with the death and disruption comes disease, comes poverty, comes famine. More death. Death with no meaning on such a scale. But if the deaths must go on, I can give them meaning. No one should die in vain.’ (And it’s a bit classier than what happened in “Revelation of the Daleks”). Fynn’s dubious status is rendered okay by his sacrifice for the greater good. ‘Start a stopwatch and we can do a little experiment,’ the Doctor suggested. ‘Maybe they’ll publish our findings.’ Fynn activated the syringe. ‘Posthumously,’ he murmured.

In the end, the Doctor confronts two beings rather like the Axons, all gold, glittery, perfection and coldness (one is formed to look like Rose, as was the statue in The Stone Rose; I wonder if there’s a theme going on, or just a tribute to Billie Piper’s looks?). There’s more than a hint of Milton as they go off to populate, “Through Eden took their solitary way.” The theme of art theft, caching, and curation will amuse fans of “City of Death,” and there’s a great exchange to round us out: ‘I think they’ll be OK.’ ‘You hope,’ said Rose. ‘What’s wrong with traveling hopefully?’ He gave her a beguiling grin. ‘I’ve turned it into an art form .

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

real swansea

Some time between my departure in July 2007 and my return in July 2008, my former poetry tutor Nigel Jenkins wrote Real Swansea, one of a series edited by Peter Finch (which includes Real Cardiff, Real Aberystwyth, and Real Liverpool). It’s taken me ages to catch up and read the book, but it’s another one I’m going to have to put in my pile of “to own.” I’d read Nigel’s prose before—he gave me a copy of Gwalia in Khasia, about Welsh Presbyterians bringing Christianity and Welsh culture to this area in northern India, for my 23rd birthday—but if anything, Real Swansea is an improvement. It’s readable, comprehensive, clearly backed by research performed both first-hand (the section of Swansea’s prison includes Nigel’s being incarcerated there for 4 days because he had participated in a protest) and in the more secondary sense. Nigel’s character of course runs through it all, with special emphasis being placed on favorite pubs (including a walk down Wind Street guided by his daughter Branwen, since he’s too “old” too appreciate it), but with a special love reserved for Mumbles (his residence of 20 years). The writing is vital, whimsical, and broken up here and there by snatches of poetry, mostly his own (haiku and haibun) but other poets ranging from David Hughes to Vernon Watkins. The book is interesting in its own right, but since I now have intimate knowledge of many of the locales—including three of my places of work being mentioned in fairly good detail!—it’s a fascinating, heartwarming look at the “ugly, lovely town” or as it’s more recently been called, the “pretty, sh*tty city.”

If you enter Swansea from the train station in the High Street, you will no doubt see the enigmatic words: “Ambition is critical.” This is the work of poet David Hughes, as a response to what Dylan Thomas is supposed to have called Swansea (he didn’t), “the graveyard of ambition.” It’s as good a place to start as any, so Nigel starts there, and I’ll just point out that it’s a good example of the identity crisis Swansea has, a sort of uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot and then recover.
“Britain’s wettest town, the city of broken umbrellas, may not know exactly where it’s going . . . but it’s going there anyway.”
Swansea’s Roman origins are mostly conjecture (other than a tesserae of pavement discovered in Oystermouth); the story I’ve been telling people when they ask, that the name of the place comes from a Viking named Sveinn, is not altogether accurate I find out, though the area has been referred to since at least 1140 as “Swensi.” (The Welsh name is much less complicated. Abertawe, meaning estuary (aber) on the Tawe (the name of the river).)

Despite the fact there are swans in Swansea (though they have nothing to do with the name), it’s an osprey that’s the city’s emblem (I always thought the city and council logo depicted a phoenix!), which is a comment on the vital importance of the river Tawe to Swansea’ coal-faring past. A bit of a frisson always gets me when I see photos in the book of things I see on a regular basis, including
“on walls and garage doors all over Swansea in 2006 there appeared a chalk line with the caption ‘sea level in 2059.’”
I knew nothing about the “great flood of 1607,” which killed 2,000 people and could have been a tsunami (story idea there, if someone else hasn’t yet grabbed it). Another story idea that occurred to me concerns Swansea’s first airport, from the early decades of the 20th century. There’s something boisterously visual (and very Nigel) about the image of “working girls” at the old pub Cuba (closed in the ‘60s), which catered to sailors; the girls would sit around the bar with the prices for their services—£3, £5—written in chalk on the bottom of their shoes. Girls from the Queen’s nearby would occasionally come over, and fights would break out. There’s also an amusing anecdote related to the old pot-bellied fire in the middle of the room.

Nigel describing his complimentary stay at Morgan’s Hotel (Swansea’s only 5-star hotel, and where “Voyage of the Damned” was filmed; indeed, Nigel even mentions that!) is some of his best writing, hilarious, satirical, honest, and spoken true (though he calls Margot his “compañera,” which is a bit . . . well, if you knew Margot you’d know what I was talking about). The “Lehjer,” Swansea’s Leisure Centre, was apparently one of Wales’ top-ranking tourist facilities, though last year it was revamped (which is when and where several of my friends met the Queen). It’s on Oystermouth Road, which has what I like to call “steps to nowhere” (Nigel calls them “two ghosts of bridges”), “the railway bridge that used to cross the road just west of the Museum.” I like to imagine Swansea’s past in the late 18th century as a second Brighton, thinking of stories of bathing machines (many bathed or swam naked, so men and women were segregated and a policeman patrolled so no one got into the wrong area!). This ties into the story of Gabriel Powell, the Duke of Beaufort’s steward who until his death in 1788 prevented harbor improvements and therefore retarded Swansea’s industrial growth. Nigel speculates briefly on if Swansea had taken that other road, ie, styling itself as the Brighton of Wales. Again, a good idea for fiction.

Nigel revisits one of the most poignant sections of Gwalia in Khasia when he talks about Walter Savage Landor and his trysts with young Rose Aylmer before she was whisked off to Calcutta where she died in 1800 at the age of 20. (Landor’s famous ode to her was composed, apparently, while he was cleaning his teeth.) There’s a wonderfully detailed look at the genesis of the Dylan Thomas Centre. Housed in the old Guildhall Building, which dates from the 1840s (built at the same time as Swansea Museum), the Dylan Thomas Centre started as the Ty Llen (“house of literature,” which it still is; our paystubs have that written on them) in 1995 during UK Year of Literature and Writing. Control for the building piddled back and forth between artists and writers, the council, and various factions. When it was finally launched, it saw luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Denise Levertov, Rita Dove, Michael Ondaatje, John Berger, Van Morrison, R. S. Thomas, and Jimmy Carter (though I think local attitude is still fairly well summed up as Lloyd Rees did, “Ty Llen was far too Welsh for visitors to enter / so now they call it the Dylan Thomas Centre”).

The second time I ever met Nigel, he was taking those of us starting up the new course on a walking tour of Swansea. We went up to Cwmdonkin Park (with its Dylan Thomas associations) and ended, I think, at the pub (I didn’t go to the pub, whichever one it may have been—possibly No Sign Bar, possibly the Queen’s). What I’ve never forgotten was the Palace Theatre, empty and long boarded-up, in 1888 a musical hall but quickly converted to a cinema in 1908, and now rotting away, an architectural treasure and one of only two purpose-built music halls left in Britain. I learned on this tour from Nigel that Swansea has a reputation of not taking care of its past. Another Grade II listed historical building, with which I have intimate acquaintance, is the Windsor Lodge Hotel. Not long ago I was working and was asked by some tourists about Allen Ginsberg. I had had no idea he’d stayed at the hotel; they’d found it out in Real Swansea. The hotel’s history is unfortunately very obscure at the moment, but we hope that will change. (Also in this section is a great illustration of Dylan Thomas’ daughter Aeronwy Thomas.)

There’s a tribute to the Uplands Tavern (“the Tav”) which has hosted the likes of Kingsley Amis and Dylan Thomas (there’s now a Dylan Thomas snug there that’s on this side of kitsch, but we love it). King Edward Road gets its own section as representative of Brynmill (called Brynnemiskil in the 14th century)—Nigel calls it the architectural equivalent of a shrug. It was a beautiful Edwardian block that’s now host to some of the ugliest houses in Swansea due to HMOs (Houses with Multiple Occupancy, ie, student residences such as the one in which I live) and absentee landlords. I’d love to know more about this house and to have it restored. Unlikely to happen.

Besides being an entertaining read, Real Swansea proved to me to be a validating one. Tons of people have asked me “why Swansea?” and sometimes I just have to shamefacedly mumble something about it being a fluke, or it’s where my friends are, Cardiff and London being too big for me to come to on my own. But this book proves that the history, the quirkiness, the art, the ghosts, are in the city, making it unique in ways good and bad.

robots of death

01-03-09 “Robots of Death”

“You look ridiculous in that outfit.” --The Doctor

Like with “Claws of Axos,” I somehow feel I’ve missed the boat on this one. In the middle of a very strong season, “Robots of Death” is supposed to be a huge classic, this colossus among the star-studded repertoire of the Fourth Doctor. I’m certainly not denying it’s good—after all, it’s got Leela in it, though my praise for her takes an entirely different form from Jamie’s—the design elements, while inherently Glam Rock, are memorable; the acting is credible, the script fairly good, enough to be imitated in later stories like “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit,” “42,” and “Voyage of the Damned”—but I guess it just comes down to the fact I found it a little boring. I’m not a huge fan of robots and most of the sources that writer Chris Boucher could claim to be influenced by, I’ve never read and probably don’t want to. Besides, in comparison to the story after this one, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “Robots” doesn’t stand a chance.

The first parallel with “Impossible Planet” is the setting. The story takes place just about entirely inside a sandminer vehicle (which must have endeared it to the show runners as it made constructing sets cheaper), which is crewed by a small collection of Earthling miners who are going a bit stir-crazy after having been cooped up together for so long (I wonder if the novelization would have the guts to suppose some of the crew had been sleeping with each other). It’s also got a large complement of robots (as opposed to the Ood in “Impossible Planet,” but treated with the same level of disdain). The early ‘70s seems to have been the era for wearing quilted things, as Sarah Jane was wearing one such outfit earlier and now the robots are all decked out in black quilted ensembles that go nicely with their tin-foil shoes. I do like the masks that complete the robots’ faces—the same look of blank, beautiful malevolence of the Host in “Voyage of the Damned.” When we first meet the crew, they are relaxing in some kind of lowered recreational area, somewhere between a dojo and the Roman-esque sets of Morphoton in “Keys of Marinus”—stylish. With the robots attending to the needs of the humans, it feels like a vague stab at satire on colonialism—I’m thinking of the British Raj principally. The acting and design is equally “Curse of Peladon”-like—everyone’s wearing eyeliner and sparkly things—but the décor in certain areas reminds me of the abstraction of “Invasion of Time.” Despite the fact they seem to be relaxing, they also wear their magnificent headgear. You’d think, like their 18th century brethren who removed wigs at home and wore comfy caps instead, they’d abandon the giant hats indoors. Not Zilda, who fish-like hat belongs in “Underwater Menace.”

Before the Doctor and Leela can even get on board, the first casualty of the robots is perpetrated. Of course, no one is quite certain he has been killed by robots, though they are fairly sure that it’s murder—“people don’t strangle themselves.” The accusations start, and because the mining culture, with its emphasis on profit, getting ahead, at the cost of all other interactions, has fostered deep distrust between the miners, everyone is playing the game carefully. I have to admit, in retrospect, the interactions between the crew is written more skillfully than I originally gave it credit for. It’s difficult to write scenes with many characters speaking; easier to write, as RTD calls them, “two-handers.” Boucher is able to keep up the suspense while establishing the characters of the miners. Chub, for example, is a bit of a waster with a casual distrust of the robots; Cass and Borg are uncomplicated, fearing for their own lives but quick to spread the blame to the others; Toos is nominally the most rational and level-headed of the miners, with a certain nobility that is doubtless conveyed by Pamela Salem’s classical acting; but I much prefer her counterpart, the unfortunate Zilda, who is catty, self-concerned, and has a personal vendetta against the leader, Uvanov. Uvanov is nicely complex, and blaming him for the killings has been suggested throughout by some clever writing, even though he is proven to be innocent of this particular crime (though Zilda does discover some underhanded in his past).

Leela and the Doctor are persuaded into the sandminer because “the sand will cut us to pieces!” However, showing a bit of the First Doctor, the Doctor adds, “First we find the TARDIS, then we have a little scout around.” He’s then nearly buried in Cocopops. Leela kicks butt, as usual, as the Doctor tries to persuade the tense miners that he and his companion are not responsible for the murders. How true is it to real life that every time the Doctor and companion land somewhere there’s been a sudden murder, they are blamed, or at least considered as suspects? Is it just because it’s human nature to be suspicious of strangers? Or is just convenient to the writers to do this time and again? The Brigadier would just once to see an alien menace not immune to bullets; I would like to see a community that doesn’t immediately suspect the Doctor just because he has arrived from nowhere. Maybe that’s an unreasonable request! “D is for Dum!” Uvanov as he explains the hierarchy of the service robots; the Dums are the mindless workers, the Vocs the slightly more intelligent, nuanced robots, and there is one controlling SuperVoc.

I did have to express my frustration aloud that the Fourth Doctor is so often a jerk to Leela. She’s so capable most of the time, and her instincts are almost always right. If he listened to her more often he would get into far less trouble. Plus he just enjoys toying with her and making her an object of audience mockery. Now, it’s true I just got through saying that I found it dramatically fascinating to see the Seventh Doctor manipulating Ace and her fighting back, so how is that different? Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Ace is fully clothed. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot to be milked from Leela and the Fourth Doctor’s relationship. There is ever little question of companions being the Doctor’s equal in anything—except possibly Romana II, and that made for some dull goings-on occasionally—but I think the writers get it just right in the next serial, because Leela is able to be Eliza Doolittle and be heroic. I mention all this because it’s Leela who opines, “Are you a hunter, Poul?” She has deduced this from body language, which is actually a very important component of the story, and she is in point of fact, right. Poul and his colleague the SuperVoc D84 (who is masquerading as a Dum) are undercover government agents.

While we get mentions of Grimwade Syndrome aka Robophobia (I laughed when they said this because I was thinking of Peter Grimwade, and it turns out I was right) and various reasons why people who reprogram the robots to start this massacre, I knew from the first mention of Taren Capel that he was our culprit. To be fair, I am terrible at guessing whodunits, and for quite awhile I thought Uvanov was the responsible party. But when you introduce a character who has been brought up by robots and finds them the superior beings, you know one of the crew is going to turn out to be the man. Cometh the robot, cometh the man. Anyway, he turns out to be Dask, whose cleft chin should have given him away, muhahaha! When he comes in dressed like a robot in full Ziggy Stardust glory, the Doctor utters the above quote, which is quite apt.

Toos has been lounging about in the harem, but when she actually listens to the Doctor, she saves her life and Uvanov’s. Those two, and Poul, are the only ones left, by the way, besides the Doctor and Leela (“What do you want?” Toos screamed as a robot invaded her harem. “To kill you,” the robot deadpanned). By locking themselves inside a chamber, Toos and Uvanov are told not to let anyone back in. Uvanov, whose previous crime included letting a colleague die, is tempted to disobey the Doctor when he hears Dask outside pleading for help. Fortunately, as I said, they don’t let the Big Bad Wolf blow down their pig-built brick cottage. The Doctor comes up with a clever scheme to defeat Dask/Capel, however: because robots respond to voices rather than having good eyesight (and again, recognizing body language as Leela found out—“the First Principle of Robotics is that robots cannot harm humans!” “The Second Principle is that humans cannot harm robots. I know, I’ve tried!”) he contrives to have Leela release helium to change Dask/Capel’s voice. The robots fail to respond to his commands and he diiiies. It’s the second time in the past five stories that someone has said, “All good things come to an end,” or something like that.

Indeed, “Robots of Death” comes to an abrupt end. As soon as the helium has been released and poor Leela gets mocked as her voice changes but the Doctor remains unaffected, they disappear into the TARDIS and go! Indeed, there isn’t much reason for lingering goodbyes, but still.

the leisure hive

01-03-09 “The Leisure Hive”

“You don’t cross your bridges before they’re hatched.” --The Doctor

“The Leisure Hive” by David Fisher has a reputation as being one of the duller Doctor Whos and even though I had hoped to debunk this seeing as how I liked David Fisher’s other work, I can’t say that “Leisure Hive” was particularly exciting. It had some interesting ideas and clearly some boundaries were trying to be pushed in terms of design and direction by the likes of Lovett Beckford, but it didn’t quite gel.

Jamie had warned me that it began with the “long-ass panning scene” set on Brighton Beach in off season, which is true. I rather liked it. Was Fisher or Beckford or both commenting on a Sartre-esque look on the Existentialism of contemporary (ie 1980) life? Or is the Existentialism of the Doctor and Romana’s existence, or a comment on the fact their relationship, and indeed the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, is coming to an end? Am I reading too much into it? Is just a comment on how boring the Doctor can be if he takes Marry-the-Girl to the beach in the wrong season? I would tend to think it does actually have some kind of meaning—one forgets when one doesn’t watch these bits in sequence that this is the first story to feature the new Peter Howell theme tune, the new starfield title sequence (I can deal with that with Davison, I much prefer the time tunnel one for Baker though), and a new costume for the Doctor. (I really rather like the burgundy scarf. So sue me.) Considering “Horns of Nimon” was also the story that preceded this one, the Doctor definitely seems to feel “Logopolis”’ approach (or at least the writers do!).

Bringing all that thought and gravitas . . . you’d think they wouldn’t include something as silly as K9 being pulled on strings across the beach and then jumping into the ocean and short circuiting! Really, Romana, that was STUPID! I guess if I was a writer I would try to find ways to write around K9, but really. Romana is, naturally enough, dressed in a seaside outfit, but when you consider Lalla Ward’s costumes were in general really cute, this one’s a bit dull. For some reason, one that must be deeply rooted in my childhood, when I hear the words “leisure hive,” I think of the pool on Lakertya in “Time and the Rani” where the bees get released when the Rani wants to kill them all (that story’s been seared onto my brain, whether I wanted it to be or not). In point of fact, the Leisure Hive on Argolis is something different.

The Argolins, fancifully costumed with large wig-like structures to which small ball-bearings are attached (and when they fall off, heralding their deaths), inhabit a world of board meetings and “escalating negative cash flow.” Their Tachyonic Recreation Generator produces games for tourists to play in order to keep Argolis lucrative (reminds me of Snowglobe 7, slightly). After a twenty-minute war with the reptilian race the Foamasi, the surface of Argolis became uninhabitable and the Argolins sterile. (All of this a sobering thought. It isn’t dwelt upon, but a twenty-minute war that has nearly killed off an entire race? A scary thought.) “There will be no future generation.” At the moment the Doctor and Romana arrive, an Earth buyer named Brock is putting pressure on the aging Argolins to sell their world out to the Foamasi. Mena, the Argolin leader, puts up a brave front: “My termination is proceeding normally.” I really rather liked the fact that the Earth scientist, Hardin, who had communicated with Mena but never met her in person, seemed to have a slight crush on her when they actually met. Hardin has been brought in to modify the Generator but is terrified he will be found out as, not exactly a fraud, but having not yet actually produced the results he claimed he was capable of.

As usual, the Doctor and Romana’s presence is questioned—“His scarf killed Stimson!” “Arrest the scarf, then.” Romana is useful because her grasp of all the technobabble endears her to Hardin and together they seem to modify the Generator to be able to help Mena before she shoves off the mortal coil. The Doctor goes into the Generator to test it and comes out looking like . . . Christopher Eccleston! No, really! (Er, that is, if Christopher Eccleston had a long white beard!) I must say, though the quips aren’t coming fast and furious like in, perhaps, “Morbius,” the Baker does a good attempt at acting 500 years older (much better than Dobby-Doctor). He also produces an Argolin faint, as Jamie put it, by scrawling graffiti on the TARDIS for no discernable reason.

Pangol, Mena’s supposed son and the youngest of the Argolins, has been going through the entire story smirking and generally giving off the vibe he knows more than he’s saying (still—I am a bit curious as to what the actor looked like without all the make up). He reveals that he is “the child of the Generator” and in the midst of his eccentric plans to recreate an entire race of clones of himself in order to repopulate Argolis and go to war against the Foamasi, the Foamasi, er, show up. They look like low-budget parrots, by the way. Actually, Brock and his assistant are actually Foamasi, but a rival faction. The reveal was not one I was expecting, but in retrospect, I’m not really sure what that whole thing accomplished.

In order to kill two birds with one stone, the Doctor removes the randomizer from the TARDIS and reconfigures it in the Generator. What we get is baby Pangol—“This time I might try to bring him up properly” says Mena—and a strange early echo of the TARDIS deus ex machina from “Boom Town.” Strange how that works!

I wonder if “Leisure Hive” was one of those episodes that looked good on paper—visually, with all the direction, costuming, etc, it doesn’t look bad. It just causes you to look at your watch and go on to the next thing.

claws of axos

01-03-09 “Claws of Axos”

“All set to destroy, Brigadier?” --The Doctor

Going into this I had two conflicting sets of values. In general, though I do enjoy Pertwee stories, I do have rather a short attention span for Earth-based UNIT stories of the 1970s. On the other hand, Jamie had spent quite a lot of time explaining to me why he had high praise for the story, though he didn’t leave out its faults either, and found it basically encapsulated the best of its genre in many ways. That said, I didn’t have as high a regard for the story as he did. I found it entertaining, but was rather taken aback at how little the Doctor actually had to do. Then again, I was very tired while watching it.

The serial begins with a Coke bottle in space. It is not really a Coke bottle, it seems to have gills, it is the Axos organic spaceship. Nothing so interesting is happening with UNIT; a bureaucrat named Chinn (presumably because he has two of them) is asserting his right to have “all personnel screened” including the Doctor or, as he expresses it, “Doctor what’s-his-name.” The Third Doctor is very frustrated throughout this story. I had to ask where in the chronology of Pertwee’s tenure this story took place, because it seemed as if he had just had his identity changed, the wounds of being trapped on Earth were so raw. I guess, in a way, despite the monotony and James Bond-ish quality of the Doctor being Earth-bound, it does give you an interesting window into a sort or raw streak of the Doctor’s personality. It’s interesting to consider in light of Nine and Ten being so alone, species-wise. It makes Pertwee, in this story at least, constantly acerbic and short-tempered: “England for the English? What rubbish.”

Meanwhile, having stolen a bicycle and a beard from BBC Rent-a-Beard, Pigbin Josh makes everyone cringe as he is first to fall victim to the Axons. (Bob Baker and Dave Martin seem to use recurring characters like this in a couple of their stories—I’m thinking of “The Three Doctors” and the gamekeeper dancing around Omega’s anti-matter land—but this character, as Jamie rightly warned me, is the opposite of PC. Take a look at this classic quote from the character, as provided by the BBC’s episode guide: “Furge thangering muck witchellers rock throbblin’ this time o’ day Ur bin oughta gone put thickery blarmdasted zones about, gordangun, diddenum? Havver froggin’ law onnum, shouldnum? Eh? Eh? Arn I?”) In the end, his intelligence is deemed “atypical” (humorous shades of “Daleks of Manhattan”).

This story has a large ensemble cast which, on the plus side, means we get to see a lot of the Brigadier. On the negative side, in my opinion, we have to deal with people like Chinn, Bill Filer with an appalling American accent (and who just seems shady; what is Jo thinking?!), and Jo being a shamefully anemic companion in comparison to the two I’ve just watched, Sarah and Ace. I’m sorry, but her outfit is ridiculous. I know Jo has had some stinkers in the past, but she’s got to be frozen to death in that mini-skirt, to say nothing of modesty. I can’t see her contributing much that’s useful to this serial either. Chinn expects the approaching spaceship to be hostile, and the Brig is being cautious, prompting the Doctor’s caustic comment from above. “More of a cry for help than out to destroy us,” though it’s this attitude that made the Doctor wrong-footed in “The Unquiet Dead” (though of course that’s in his future).

I commented while watching that the effects in this story, like the turgid chords of Dudley Simpson’s music, are in danger of being overpowering to the viewer. It’s like they decided to throw everything in their arsenal at us. In a way, it’s kind of endearing. I wonder what was in the minds of the designers re: the Axons—Greek gods or Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun? Perhaps a little of both. I have noticed that Bob Baker and Dave Martin like to include an element of these organic sets that the principals have to climb through (I’m thinking of “Invisible Enemy” now) which gives the production team a heck of a lot to work with. We rue and snicker at the effects but overall it’s a noble effort at creativity. The Axon design did set me to thinking about another element of the Gothic, that is, appearance versus nature. It’s not very often in Doctor Who that the outwardly monstrous is revealed to be inwardly beautiful and vice versa. This makes sense at a very basic level because it would be confusing to our basic registers of fear for a monster—like a half dozen of the Pertwee and Baker monsters, from Krynoids to Giant Spiders to Primords—to look anything other than hideous. New Who has been a bit less simplistic about this, but I found it really interesting that the Axons seemed at least initially trustworthy in their Greek god form rather than their blankety-bubbly form (“shapeless and horrible” Jo describes them).

It’s only when the Axons offer a gift in exchange for time on Earth to recuperate that the Doctor becomes suspicious. “Why should they foist this gift on us?” The Axons demonstrate the efficacy of their gift of axonite on a frog (which they, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, think is a food source on Earth). Chinn’s greed—or perhaps a genuine desire to alleviate global hunger?—is captivated and he thinks no more about the Axons’ intentions. “No one is irreplaceable.” A really annoying scientist named Winser is disgusted at the Doctor’s presumption to appear more learned than he. Why has he published “nothing” if he’s a scientist? “Not in Britain,” says the Doctor evasively. “TARDIS? Are you serious?” Before accepting the gifts, the Doctor wants to analyze the axonite. “If it is a thinking molecule it should analyze itself.”

Meanwhile in the “ship,” Bill Filer gets kidnapped along with the Master, who’s been randomly dropped in this episode as he is in a lot of stories from this era. As the Master escapes and tries to gain access to the Doctor’s TARDIS, the Doctor begins to realize that “axonite was just the inactive state”—the Axons, Axos, axionite, is all part of one whole. As the Doctor confronts the Axons about their real plans—to suck the energy of Earth dry, which is why the Master has led them to Earth—the Axons are unconcerned: “all things must die, Doctor.” They have done their part offering “bait for human greed” in order to get from the Doctor what they want: “we must have time travel.” Now, everyone wants time travel. The Daleks do. The Cybermen do. I can’t remember what the Axons want with it other than the obvious—to go everywhere and drain the energy from everything.

I realize that many people do see the story as imaginative and clever, presumably because “nothing is as it seems.” I guess that is one reason such an emphasis is placed on the Doctor’s frustration being Earth-bound—so the viewer can try to believe that he would actually betray his friends to get away and take his revenge on the Time Lords. I, for one, never bought it, much as I never bought that the Axons were anything but sinister. But I have the benefit of hindsight or spoilers. The fact that the Master ends up helping the Doctor and UNIT is a better example of pulling the wool over our eyes—“Are you crazy, Brigadier?” the Doctor asks; “Probably, but we need his help.” There’s quite a bit of action, escapes and recaptures in this story, and a rather amusing section where Sergeant Benton runs over some Axons with a jeep!

Axons stuck in a time loop, the Master possibly having escaped (well, duh), but Chinn having ironically done the right thing and having done his part to help save the world, and the Doctor still stuck on Earth—and he gets probably the most ludicrous ending line of any Doctor Who ever: “It seems that I'm some kind of galactic yo yo.” I can only conclude what is becoming obvious: Jamie is a bigger fan of Bob Baker and Dave Martin than I am!

curse of fenric

28-02-09 “Curse of Fenric”
“If you want a job done right, let a girl do it.” --Ace

I watched a lot of Doctor Who this weekend, courtesy of Jamie’s collection of DVDs. There was the good, the bland, and the really good, but the clear stand-out for me was “Curse of Fenric,” making “Dragonfire” and “Happiness Patrol” the only McCoy adventures I haven’t seen (which is sad in a way since the element of novelty and adventure will be gone . . . though I guess I still haven’t seen the end of “Ghost Light”). My thoughts upon finishing “Curse of Fenric” were dismay that the series had been cancelled in 1989 because this serial was so damn good, how could anyone not want to the series to go in in this vein?! Season 26 was where they’d really hit their stride, but I guess in most people’s minds it was too late, the McCoy era had started out uneven so no one was going to bother with it. A shame.

Like the comic adventure “The Futurists” that I reviewed in Betrothal of Sontar, one aspect of “Fenric” that works so well is that it combines two historical periods, in this case 1943 and when the Vikings visited Northumbria (which of course the Doctor experienced firsthand in “The Time Meddler”). Other aspects are strong and interesting characters, excellent production values, a real sense of the Doctor as a conflicted, alien being, Ace and a side of her we hadn’t really seen before, and some elements of real horror. Can I find anything really wrong with the story? Well, we’ll see, but overall my impression is very favorable. We ended up watching the film version with the episode endings taken out. I’ve watched long serials like that before just because that’s how they were broadcast on American TV, and it doesn’t always work especially well, but it seemed quite good here.

Having “just” been dressed up in her pseudo-Victorian clothes, Ace seems somewhat annoyed to again be donning a skirt, stockings, and a hairnet to fit in with the local crowd, though the Doctor finds delight in teasing her about it—“no need to worry about the outfit” and “not in those clothes.” Landing at a secret naval base (which clearly the Doctor expected to find; this is the height of dark manipulative McCoy after all) Ace and the Doctor are rather amused to be confronted with guns. “How do you know we’re not Germans?” “You don’t look like Germans, ma’am.” They are taken to the base to see Dr. Judson, and the Seventh Doctor anticipates psychic paper by having Ace distract Judson long enough so that the Doctor can type up an official-looking letter. It’s most amusing and has shades of “The Doctor Dances” in it. Judson is delighted that Ace was taught logic in school and introduces a Major Plot Point. It goes over my head because logic was never my strong point. Judson, who seems to have a smidgen of Dortmun in him as he’s a genius in a wheelchair, has a dull nurse named Crane. As she’s played by Ann Reid I wonder if RTD had this in mind when he cast her as a Plasmavore?

Out on the spooky, foggy coast, a Viking ship underwater seems to suggest doom as a squadron of Russian soldiers (I’m stupid, okay, I didn’t realize they were Russian for a long time) decides to practice their English-speaking skills. With the benefit of a lot of moody location work, a lot of credibility is lent to the story. Captain Sorin berates one of his men “stupid Armenian superstitions” as there seems to be the work of vampires or worse out on the rocks. Ace thinks it’s “ace” that she and the Doctor get bunk beds (well, thank goodness they didn’t have to share the same bed—I don’t think I’m ready for that one). Ace goes to bed with her hairnet and clothes on, for some reason.

Commander Millington, who is trying to think like the enemy in order to break the codes, which is what Judson is doing by the way with an early version of the computer, is first shown in his office which is made to look like the exact replica of the code breakers’ room in Berlin. I’m learning tons about WWII already. “Of course we’ll win the War . . .” In the village, the Doctor and Ace pay a visit to the church, where the vicar Wainwright has just finished a service that is not adequate to the standards of the thoroughly irritating and sanctimonious Miss Hardaker. Ace falls in with her nieces (?) Phyllis and Jean, though, right away (which is a cute aspect of Ace’s character; I remember it from “Battlefield”) and they go off, even though the aunt has warned them against the “eeeeeeevil of Maiden’s Point.” At Maidens Point, Phyllis and Jean call Ace a “baby doll” for not going in the water with them (in their fabulous ‘40s bathing suits, yes?). Too bad, they were getting on so well. There’s an underwater shot where you’re convinced something awful will come out of the water and attack—but it doesn’t!

The Doctor talks to Wainwright about the church and the Viking inscriptions in the basement. “Asking questions is never a waste of time.” Back at the base, Judson gives a philosophical statement about the de-coding machine—“thinking machines . . . whose thoughts will they think?” Ace, in a rather hilarious presentiment of Rose, says disingenuously, “I didn’t know they had personal stereos in 1943!” She means, of course, the room full of women working for the war effort intercepting communications (at least I think that’s what they’re doing) including Kathleen Dudman who introduces Ace to her young baby. I wondered why the heck Ace would be interested in babies suddenly, but then I remembered the twist at the end of the story (it’s something you can’t have not come across even if tried not to spoil yourself on the story before you watched it). The baby’s name is Audrey, which Ace hates because it’s her mother’s name (they don’t get on, apparently). Judson thinks Ace is “a mathematical specialist.”

There’s quite a cool effect as more Norse inscriptions are burned into the church wall, much better than I would have expected for the year! (Though I did wonder why Ace couldn’t read it if she’s been in the TARDIS and its translating abilities.) Milllington reveals his plans for booby-trapping the computer so that when Captain Sorin and the Russians come to collect the codes, they will be exposed to the toxin. This is Millington’s version of patriotic duty; like the atom bomb, “it’ll mean the end of the War. . . .You and I, we have seen hell.” Like Rose talking to Nancy in “The Doctor Dances,” Ace tells Kathleen, “The future’s not so bad.” Chess sets start burning, Miss Hardaker tells Phyllis and Jean that there will be “pitiless damnation for the rest of your lives” if they go back to Maidens Point, and the Doctor is asked if he has any family himself. “I don’t know,” he says ruefully. Kathleen accepts this because it’s the War—“it’s horrible not knowing, isn’t it?”

Just as I’m beginning to wonder if Phyllis and Jean have lost their marbles and want to be constantly swimming, I realize that they’re getting possessed by the vampire creatures in the water because they’ve been in contact with it. Aaaagh! “Vampires are just superstition.” Poor Reverend Wainwright is having a crisis of faith just as the ‘80s-Goth-possessed Phyllis and Jean arrive at his doorstep with their creepy long fingernails. “No one is lost,” Wainwright insists. “Everyone is lost,” say the possessed girls. Fortunately the Doctor comes to his rescue by showing that human belief, rather than religious faith per se, is enough to drive these evil creatures. This is rather a heartening section and makes a lot of sense if you’re going to try to justify supernatural forces like vampires in the cultural/historical index. Out of the sea also come the Haemovores, who look quite horrible and yet cool ‘cause they’re all dressed in their historical outfits—an Elizabethan in a ruff, a Regency Haemovore in a frilly cap and a high-waisted gown, etc. I can see it’s the same costume and design team that gave us the Destroyer in "Battlefield," which dates it a bit, but not to the point that I’m not just a little weirded out. I really don’t know how to react to Phyllis and Jean destroying Miss Hardaker—is it justified revenge for an overly strict lady or stomach-turning murder?

It’s plain old Doctor Who monster fighting as the Haemovores descend on the church. “Today’s events haven’t been written down yet . . .” The Doctor exudes power by showing his belief in his companions and Ace in him, while Wainwright struggles with his Christian faith. I think it’s wonderful that Sorin’s faith in “the Revolution” is more than enough to drive off the monsters. Ace gets to use her signature explosives when an attack on the roof as she mounts a daring escape goes awry. I love her interaction with Sorin when he offers her his star and his scarf. (Ace does a lot of maturing in this episode. “I used to think I’d never get married but now I’m not so sure.”) Ace and the Doctor have just had their conflagrant confrontation about the Doctor manipulating her into the Perivale house she burned down as a teenager in “Ghost Light,” and she accuses him again of pulling the marionette strings: “You always know!” She wants to know what’s going on this time, and fair enough—“am I so stupid? Tell me!!”

I just read a review that accused this story of being poorly plotted and the ending being clumsily soldered on, but I completely disagree. I like how the story and its disparate elements have been teased out bit by bit, almost as if Ace were the narrator, even though the Doctor knows everything (or nearly everything) from the beginning. There is the inscription in the church about Fenric and his wolves (all from Norse mythology with which I am woefully unacquainted); the mystery of the grave and the daughters of the line who married from the shipwrecked Norsemen; the strange-looking artifact Ace picks up nonchalantly and wants to use to scrape off nitrate in order to create an explosion; the Russians and Millington’s scheme to end the War early, with his prescience of the Cold War and his bizarre insistence on burning the chessboards, as if he were in Sleeping Beauty and trying to burn the spindles in the kingdom; the horror of the Haemovores; and how Ace and the baby fit into all this. “Evil has no name,” says the Doctor.

The Doctor needs to buy time and distract the guard in order to rescue Sorin who Millington has captured, and this is possibly one of the strangest sequences in the entire story. Ace distracts the squaddie with something clearly akin to flirtation, but it’s done deadpan and she says such things as “There’s a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my clothes... Have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light.” “Faster than a second hand on a watch?” “We're hardly moving yet... Sometimes I travel so fast I don't exist.” It’s strangely transfixing, and the squaddie apparently agrees. Yet this is still kids’ Doctor Who so these bizarre and enigmatic comments will have to do—“I’m not a little girl anymore.” Indeed.

I complain occasionally about Doctor Who books where the narrative really never kicks into a higher gear, but “Fenric” has just gone into its higher gear when the spirit of Fenric himself jumps into Judson’s body and announces to a perturbed Doctor, “We play the game again, Time Lord.” Millington is off to have the Doctor, Ace, and Sorin shot against the wall, execution-style (heavy stuff for a kids’ show!). Before she’s about to die, Ace shouts, “Mum, I’m sorry!” They don’t get shot, however, and instead have to leap away from the building as it explodes. There’s a rather adorable scene of the Doctor and Ace wiping each other’s blackened faces. “We’re all playing games . . .” Fenric, it seems, was challenged to a chess game by the Doctor which he lost, so the Doctor imprisoned him in a flask (shades of a Bernard Capes story) which was brought by the Vikings from the East and left in the church. Fenric picked up the Ancient One and brought him back in time so he was linked to the flask. (The Ancient One is the original Haemovore from the far distant future when humanity has turned into a rotted soup. The costume and prosthetics rather scream Destroyer, again, from “Battlefield,” so it’s hard for me to take this character seriously.) This was all part of Fenric’s plan to lure the Doctor there with his wolves, in order to get revenge and make the Doctor pay. For a being from the dawn of time, this isn’t such a stretch, I suppose . . .

Mary Whitehouse would probably have disapproved of Wainwright being killed by Haemovores as his faith disintegrates. Ace, on the other hand, believes that “the Doctor never fails.” Ace helps Kathleen and baby Audrey escape to her nan’s house in Streatham (by now you, too, will have figured out the baby’s identity) as the Doctor tries to reason with the Ancient One not to poison the seas, as Fenric wishes. “You’ve just created your own future.” Tricked, Ace unwittingly helps Fenric win the chess game once he’s jumped into Sorin’s body (too bad, I kind of wished those two had gotten together—poor Ace, she also liked Billy in “Remembrance of the Daleks” but what a racist bastard he turned out to be). I really loved this. If the Doctor turns his friends and companions into his silent killers, as Davros alleges in “Journey’s End,” then surely the reverse is true, that others turn the Doctor’s friends into unwitting elements of his own destruction? Despite everything else in this story, I think the core of it may well be when the Doctor has to hurt Ace, make her lose her belief in him, in order to save her from Fenric. Fenric has revealed that she is one of his wolves, manipulated since “Dragonfire” and that the Doctor has known this since “Silver Nemesis.” This is pretty mind-blowing stuff; think of poor Ace. While she’s going through that, she seems to hear the Doctor betray her and call her “an emotional cripple.” Remember that Morgaine in “Battlefield” tried to make her lose her faith in herself and the Doctor so she would step out of the protective circle. Ace is much more vulnerable than she appears even though she is maturing as a character. I like that Big Finish presents us in the audios with an older, more mature Ace in contrast to the young Hex (who nevertheless has a crush on her) but I think I would miss the young Ace.

I found this great music video on the internet a long time ago which is “Run with Us” from The Raccoons set to scenes of the Doctor and Ace. It exemplifies their relationship and the level of understanding and trust between them. A lot of the scenes come from “Fenric” which threw me for a long time since I didn’t understand what was going on. The video ends with the scene that finishes “Fenric,” wherein Ace jumps into the sea as a demonstration of her renewal of faith in herself and the Doctor. As she and the Doctor walk away along the beach, they note the sign that advises “dangerous undercurrents,” and the Doctor says that they are no more. It’s a great ending to a very good story that I’ve no doubt not done justice to. I feel like watching season 26 chronologically now because it’s really quite strong.

brain of morbius

28-02-09 “Brain of Morbius”

“We often go on a mystery tour, don’t we, Doctor?” --Sarah Jane

I say this every time, but stories like this—that happen to be in the thirteenth season—really plundered the Matthew Lewis treasure trove of Gothic imagery and motifs. Which, in my humble opinion, isn’t really a bad thing. Philip Hinchcliffe believes Bob Holmes maybe oversaturated this one with the Frankenstein vibe, and Terrance Dicks is quick to distance himself from the eventual story. And yet the fans love this story. Is its status justified? I found it quite enjoyable but quite camp! Perhaps the best facet was Sarah’s heroism, followed by the superb design sense.

The first thing I wrote in my notes was “someone really needs a Fanta.” I was puzzling over this, wondering if I meant myself, before I remembered the story opened with a rather horrid-looking insectoid-reptile thing falling down a cliff trying to hold onto an orange-colored bottle. Then a pirate—with a hook for a hand—dressed out of some idealized version of the 15th century came after it and killed the insectoid-reptile, which gave a dying squeak. Only in Doctor Who. The pirate isn’t a pirate, by the way, he’s an Igor-like figure named Condo for the scientist Solon—our first clue to the Frankenstein heritage. Solon, we find out, has forced Condo to work for him by removing Condo’s hand and replacing it with the hook, only to restore it when his work is finished. That’s one way of imprisoning someone.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Sarah have been forced to land on the planet Karn by the Time Lords—“interfering idiots!” The Doctor is showing his petulant, childish side—“Robot” as much as hints of the Ninth Doctor to come—while Sarah is the one who is proactive and curious, despite the fact the planet appears to her “a Sargasso Sea.” The Doctor sulks and perfects his yo-yo. Sarah is wearing some odd outfit that would be vaguely practical except she has some fantastically absurd red high-heeled shoes on. The rest of the ensemble is quilted and goes to show how amazingly tiny the beautiful Elisabeth Sladen was (well, still is, and looking better than ever in my opinion). The ships’ graveyard is full of mutts—mutant insect species that crash landed. The pair next experience weather west of the Bristol Channel for which the Doctor’s solution is a wonky umbrella. They seek shelter in Solon’s parlor. Doh.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Karn is the temple of the Sisterhood of the Sacred Flame. These are obviously the forerunners of the priestesses in “Fires of Pompeii,” from their uber-eccentric makeup to the red costuming. Nevertheless, whether it’s down to the larger-than-life acting of Cynthia Grenville (Maren) and Gilly Brown (Ohica), the beautiful design work of Barry Newbery, or the fabulous choreography of Geraldine Stephenson, the Sisterhood just succeeds. They make an interesting, if no less hyper-serious, counterpoint to Solon and Condo. Desperate for the Elixir produced by the flame they guard, the Sisterhood believe the Doctor, as a Time Lord, has come to rob them of it and are, of course, ill-disposed against him from the start. Maren spends her time texting from the center of Newbery’s dais in the temple and looking like William Hartnell (according to Jamie, anyway).

Solon, of course, just wants his head. The Doctor is justly proud of his cranium, though he refers to the grey model he had when he was the First Doctor. Philip Madoc, who shares the same booming yet lyrical Welsh accent as my poetry tutor Nigel Jenkins, manages to keep Solon just on the knife’s edge of complete histrionics. The character is an ego-maniac with amazingly little compassion toward the dull-witted yet kind-hearted Condo, serving an even greater ego-maniac, literally a brain in jar. Solon is, I think, supposed to be this big villain in Who mythology; he seems to have the literally extreme, expressive quality of Zaroff combined with this casual cruelty. I guess that’s what makes him memorable—or at least bearable through the course of the story! It does seem that Hinchcliffe’s allegation that stories of this era liked to have a good grounding in familiar literary conventions—this idea of grave-robbing, sewing monstrous bits of flesh to reanimate—rings true.

While the Doctor’s being flattered by Solon’s glib interest in the Doctor—cranial or otherwise—Sarah shows herself to be one smart cookie, by not drinking Solon’s proffered wine, pretending that she’s fallen victim to it, and then sneaking away. Solon doesn’t think much of Sarah’s face or brains and instructs Condo to “Kill her.” As Sarah wanders around and somehow mistakes a rather gruesome headless specimen reclining in a four-poster bed for the Doctor (!), Solon describes Time Lords as “spineless parasites.” Kidnapped by telekinesis to the temple so the Sisterhood can dispose of him, the Doctor makes light of the situation—“if you got yourself a decent forklift . . .” He reveals himself to be 749 and makes an interesting comment about Pompeii. The Sisterhood are about to burn him as he can’t seem to talk his way out of it, and he can still say, “That music was terrible!” (It was, actually. It’s Dick Mills to blame, not Malcolm Clarke.) Solon comes in to plead his case, though in the end he reveals his true colors when he just asks for the Sisterhood to preserve the Doctor’s head. He is unsuccessful as well, leaving the Doctor to be burnt alive. The heroic Sarah has not only escaped and made her way to the temple, with a slight of hand (and the convenient fact that Maren closes her eyes) she manages to rescue the Doctor—and they escape. Unfortunately, a flash of light in the temple has not changed the color of Sarah’s eyes, it’s blinded her. Interesting.

The Doctor and Sarah bicker, and throughout this story he’s been petulant and not very grateful for her efforts. However, he doesn’t have to say in words that she’s important to him—he goes to Solon for a medical opinion on Sarah’s blindness. While the blindness is temporary, Solon leads the Doctor to believe it’s incurable and that he must go to the Sisterhood to get hold of the Elixir as a last resort, which the Doctor is happy to do, even though they will most likely try to kill him again! Solon wants to head the Doctor off and sends Condo with a letter to the temple first. Sarah stays put, increasingly helpless without her sight—Condo, like the huntsman in Snow White, is told to take her out to the wilderness and kill her, but he is stopped by her purity of heart—or the fact that she is both pretty and good (according to the Discontinuity Guide that’s supposed to make us think rather more of Hunchback of Notre Dame, but whatever).

In the temple, “nothing ever changes,” whereas back at home, on Morbius’ insistence, Solon is preparing to operate and transfer the brain to a plastic casing rather than a head. Morbius is moaning about being a vegetable—actually ranting is a better term!—though Solon suggests, “imagine how you’ll see yourself.” This is (one of the parts) where Mary Whitehouse has a cow, and even I do, sort of. For refusing to kill Sarah, Solon shoots Condo in pretty graphic detail, then Morbius’ huge gelatinous brain gets dumped on the floor. (This reminds me of two things. First off, the eyestalk brains in “Keys of Marinus” that Barbara deflates, and Young Frankenstein.) Sarah is forced to serve as Solon’s assistant in the super Gothic scene of reanimation. Something goes wrong, however, and the beast-bodied Morbius gets set on fire, then, in a Phantom-esque scene, destroys a mirror after seeing its reflection.

The Doctor is not dead, Maren having seen sense after he revived the Sacred Flame with a small firecracker, and Morbius, full of “simple animal instinct,” is rampaging the countryside in purely Frankenstein fashion. He quickly sees sense, but not before Tom Baker gropes a dead priestess. Oy. The Doctor and Sarah are locked up in a dungeon, unfortunately the dungeon is full of laboratory equipment so even though they don’t have the sonic screwdriver (ha!) the Doctor decides to pump cyanide into the ventiliation system (!). This kills Solon (a rather ignoble death for the crazed scientist) but Morbius has “the lungs of a Ballastrop” so it hardly effects him. He and the Doctor undergo a “mind-bending contest” (as opposed to a spoon-bending contest). This is the part of the episode that has caused so much controversy. I think it was a bit dumb of the show runners to include those photos of themselves, though clearly they couldn’t foresee how serious generations of Whovians were going to take their interference (and the addition of all those beards!). It seems perfectly reasonable to me that they’re either fake images the Doctor is feeding Morbius to confuse him, or I even thought it was plausible that they were images from Morbius’ past. Why not? Anyway, it’s no reason for anoraks to get their panties in a twist, especially since the contest really serves no purpose (other than to get Morbius outside and in the hands of the Sisterhood). The Sisterhood, again in true Frankenstein style, throw him over the cliff. Clearly, women + fire + cliff = destruction of monster.

Like I said, this was enjoyable because of Sarah Jane, parts of it were quite funny, and the visual element was rather remarkable. Whether it really deserves its mythic status or not I don’t know.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

on the tube march 2009

What the Victorians Did For Us continued to be very enjoyable, describing telegraphy, hydraulics, the first elevator displayed in the 1853 New York Exhibition (invented by Otis, no less), the invention of steel nibs (before that nibs were too expensive for the common person), and the sad story of Charles Babbage (immortalized in the only American radio play I’ve ever heard, A Difference Engine, produced in the KUNM studios).

Much of what Adam Hart-Davis described in 2001 in the above series has been recycled in Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians: Their Story in Pictures. Still, Paxman’s angle is from the art of the period, which gives us a glimpse of some absolutely gorgeous canvases, and he gets in some zingers from the get-go. The first episode of the series piles on the sweeping melodrama of “the City!!” as well as the degradation and misery of the poor (fair enough, with a visit to the Work House—“they wanted to scare people out of poverty”). We visit Manchester and London, bringing the social conscience of North and South to mind (as well as the same working looms, I believe, that were seen in What the Victorians Did For Us and North and South). Paxman showed one of my favorite paintings of all time, Ford Madox Brown’s Work, as well as some other stunning crowd-work by the likes of William Frith, and a blacksmith/painter named Scalper (brings to mind the Ashingdon Pit Miners). The second episode concerned maybe the first Victorian cliché I ever learned, the Angel in the Home. Many of the paintings I learned about when studying the pre-Pre-Raphaelites were included in this episode. I did have to say I loved the example of the Sandbournes—what a wicked house!—Paxman lacing a middle-aged lady into a corset, and the visit to Victoria’s bedroom (though I’d seen that before in Queen Victoria’s Men).

The third episode was the best yet, perhaps because it focused on things that I’ve researched (the Crystal Palace, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny). It did a masterful job showing the ignominy of the Crimean War in canvases by the likes of Lady Elizabeth Butler, and describing the atrocities on both sides in the case of the Indian Mutiny. It also was most eloquent on the nature of imperialism through art like the Albert Memorial and even a visit to the Foreign Office, accompanied by David Miliband (described by Paxman as “a man who goes here a lot”). There was an absolutely stunning CGI Crystal Palace flawlessly inserted behind Paxman. There was also a visit to the Museum of Brands which emphasized Matthew Sweet’s assertion that the Victorians were assaulted with perhaps more print advertising than we are today. It finished with a bittersweet look at the huge wave of emigration of Britons in the second half of the 19th century. I guess as an American I always thought immigration was a “good thing.” Aside from over-dramatic music, The Victorians is a hugely entertaining series, though I doubt it’s gaining viewers from different facets of the public—preaching to the choir, I feel certain.

I did catch the very first episode of Vicar of Dibley which I had never seen before. Good stuff.
** SPOILERS **I watched most of Being Human on iPlayer but I did watch the finale on TV with Jamie. The show had been built up so high, I wondered if it was really going to live up to the hype for me. Possibly because I was distracted when I watched the first episode (not the pilot, which I never managed to get a hold of) I didn’t think much of it. It was never explained, to my knowledge, why the Being Human vampires seemed to have none of the limitations “traditional” vampires seemed to, like not being able to go out in daylight (though I suppose it would have severely curtailed the creative imaginations of the writers but at least throw me an explanation). Originally I really wondered what the point of a werewolf, a ghost, and a vampire sharing a house (in Bristol no less) would be, especially considering the ghost—not until I learned that she was only visible to other abnormal people. But the irony is, of course, in highlighting their Otherness, the supernatural beings highlight their humanness, or at least present us with stories that speak to the human condition. That Toby Whithouse, is he a genius or what?

To be honest, the show has quite a Doctor Who pedigree, with Russell Tovey as the (Jewish!) werewolf George, Leonora Critchlow as Annie the ghost, and Dean Lennox Kelly guest starring in episode 2 as another werewolf. I fell in love with poor George. I know some reviewers found his love interest, a prickly, quirky nurse named Nina, to be annoying, but they were sweet, funny, and very real together. (Now that the show is going to have a further eight episodes we’ll see where their relationship goes!) Mitchell, the vampire, is a mess. His attempts to go cold turkey and not attack people for blood seem permanently fubared in my opinion by the fact he continually goes around turning people into vampires when they’re on the brink of death, as if under the illusion that they would necessarily want to live on that way. His coup de grace is being responsible for turning a girl into a vampire and her being emotionally and physically dependent on him. I did really like the episode where Mitchell was shown in his historical outfits from WWI to the present, showing the nature of his immortality. Interestingly, this was also the episode that had a neighbor misidentifying Mitchell as a pedophile.

Annie the ghost didn’t really come into her own, in my opinion, until the episode in which she learned that her fiancé Owen had killed her. The finale was, surprisingly, fairly affecting as I could see no way for Mitchell, George, and Annie to get out of the war being brought upon them (mentioned in the first episode) from Herrick the vampire and his motley crew. (I was really amused that Herrick quoted “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.) One thing I have a difficult time with are voice overs, I couldn’t stand the one in Desperate Housewives and I found the ones in Being Human unbearable as well. The show makes an interesting contrast to a radio adaptation of Dracula I was listening to, which paints vampires as bestial, monstrous, dirty, disgusting anti-Christs who subvert sexuality in women and men, dragging it to the level of necrophilia. Dracula himself was played by Frederick Jaeger (memorable, of course, from “Planet of Evil”) and remained Stoker’s disturbing vision of a force of evil. Mitchell is quite a different character; vampirism is seen in the series as alternately sexy and something we should sympathize with in a character as “moral” as Mitchell, almost to be treated like a disorder.

Whitechapel I found quite entertaining though it was gory. I know most of the critics found it second in quality to Moses Jones, with which it was competing, but I found it perfectly decent entertainment. I am biased, of course. Critics claimed that it completely unravelled in the third part, which is how I personally felt about Moses Jones, (see below), though I can see how some of their criticism is valid. I have to be honest, the first thing I ever saw Phil Davis in was “Fires of Pompeii”; the first thing I ever saw Steve Pemberton in was “Silence in the Library.” The first time I ever saw Rupert Penry-Jones was as the nasty Grimaldi opposite David Tennant’s Casanova. It’s therefore difficult for me to ever take Penry-Jones as anything but a villain (despite heroic turns in Persuasion and Spooks). I was a bit disturbed he spent all of Whitechapel wearing an ‘80s suit, though. Anyway, Phil Davis I liked quite a bit as the rough DI, skeptical of anything Ripper-related (though the Penry-Jones character was able to change his mind, of course). I liked Pemberton even more as a guy who leads people on Ripper tours around Whitechapel for a living, seeing as how I’ve experienced one of these characters. I liked the duality of the audience approach to him, as he seemed both innocent, naïve, abnormally fixated, and a little pathetic. He was even a murder suspect. In terms of suspects, I had my suspicions, which are always wrong. I loved how the show ended, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Would it have resonated as much with me if I didn’t already have a fairly good grasp of things like the Double Event, Martha Tabram as the first victim, and Inspector Abberline’s theory first? I don’t know.

Jamie’s done a very fine review of Moses Jones, but since it does star so many Doctor Who actors, I may as well add my two cents (or pence?). I watched this on iPlayer, too, though in between watching Whitechapel the first night in the Ludlow guest house, I did catch snatches of it (which turned out to be a really weird experience when I went back and watched those scenes in context). In terms of characters, it is stronger than Whitechapel. As Jamie pointed out, it had terrific lighting and editing, as well as a distinctive soundtrack. Shaun Parkes (whom I first saw in “The Impossible Planet” and who has the distinction now of starring with Doctors Ten and Eleven before they were the Doctor, in Casanova and Moses Jones) was quite good as the titular copper, though as many rightly complained, the character could have used more screentime in the first and second episodes. The other Doctor Who Shaun, Dingwall, had a small role in this, as did Indira Varma (who I first saw in Rome but is memorable as Suzy in Torchwood).

Moses Jones was, not surprisingly, very dark and realistic, much more so than Whitechapel (though the latter claimed to be). It concerned the murder and mutilation of an old African vagrant which connects to figures as diverse as a boxing star-turned-media-darling, a sadistic transplant from a Ugandan dictatorship (Jude Akuwidike), a single mother working as a prostitute (Wunmi Mosaku), and a principled and passionate musician (Eamonn Walker). Moses Jones is put on the case even though he’s lived in Shepherd’s Bush all his life (rather than Uganda). Enough time is spent on Moses, Joy (Mosaku), and Solomon (Walker) to characterize them, but though I did find Matt Smith able to hold his own, his character, Dan Twentyman, didn’t seem fully fleshed out. The mystery and tight storytelling, highlighted with violence, began to slacken its meticulous grip at the end of the second episode, when **SPOILERS** Dolly (Varma) was attacked in her own restaurant. If Solomon could take a baseball bat to Peter and Paul’s car the next episode, what prevented people in Dolly’s restaurant from helping her? The third episode upped the nerve-wracking quality but the revelations were a disappointment, to me anyway. Still, a very thought-provoking series, not for the faint of heart.

I tried to watch The Photographer, His Wife, and Her Lover, a documentary on steam train photographer O. Winston Link, but found the documentary style so disjointed and boring, I watched Red Dwarf instead.

Red Dwarf is one of those shows of which I had heard much but had never seen. I handicapped myself slightly by watching it in bits and pieces and then in reverse order (as that’s how the channel Dave has been showing it in omnibus editions) but I suppose that proves that is was so vastly entertaining that it overcame those problems so that I watched four episodes in one sitting one night, followed by three the next time it was on. In case you don’t know, this series (which ran to nine seasons and will be debuting another on Dave in April) focuses on Dave Lister, an entertaining slob and the last human alive (a healthy dose of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, therefore) on the Red Dwarf mining ship, accompanied by the holographic projection of his dead bunkmate, the irritating Rimmer, a humanoid cat-thing called Cat evolved from Lister’s pet cat, Kryten the robot, and Holly the ship’s computer. Lost deep in space 3 million years after setting out, this group travels the universe, not really doing much but talking a lot, and making me laugh a lot. Though the set design is stuck somewhere in the early ‘90s, it makes little difference for a hilarious script by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. I happened to see the end of series 5, beginning with the entertaining “Quarantine,” the wonderfully mind-bending “Demons and Angels,” and the metafictionally staggering “Back to Reality,” as well as “Psirens” from the beginning of the sixth season. Then later I went back in time and watched “Kryten,” “Better Than Life,” and “Parallel Universe” from season 2. The only criticism I have of the series is its lack of genuine, meaty roles for women (as a consequence of the nature of the humor, the crew seems to regard all women as sex objects, though this attitude is cleverly satirized in “Parallel Universe”).

I watched part of the BAFTAs as well as the US Presidential Inauguration (which strangely had commentary through the whole thing!).

Never Mind the Buzzcocks I mention briefly because I’d never seen it before and happened to turn it on idly when John Barrowman was on it (though since the shy, retiring Glaswegian never turns down an offer of work he could be on every episode for all I know).

How Reading Made Us Modern kicked off Why Reading Matters week (in mid-February). I studied the development of the French novel during my undergrad degree in a course called French Chic, but I knew comparatively little about the story in English. One thing you come away with from this documentary is (for me) a sense of utter gratitude about being able to read at all. The documentary began in 16th century, when few people could read and if they could, they read the Bible. The end. By the 17th century, when my dear Milton was writing, books like Pilgrim’s Progress were about the only other thing most people would read and indeed one of the few books people owned (though I do think they forgot about things like broadsheets and ballads that were sold on the street). The 18th century, the documentarian John Mullan argued, was the rise of the age of literature due to the Enlightenment. Religious texts were still at the fore, but the invention of the novel came during this period, as well as newspapers (read in coffee houses by MEN, a practice still kept in control through the 19th century). Education was influenced, and though the novel at first came under heavy fire for being morally depraved, literacy improved. Again I am glad that as a woman in the 21st century, there’s no question about my being taught to read. In another time, I might have led a very different life.

Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press followed directly, and though I don’t have too great an interest in Gutenberg (though I guess I should!) I was interested in anything with which Stephen Fry was involved. I hadn’t realized what a difficult time Gutenberg had had in putting together the capital for his first press. I also hadn’t realized so little was actually known about the man himself (Fry visited a portrait gallery that couldn’t agree on whether Gutenberg looked like “Doctor Who as played by David Tennant” and “a man with a beard shaped like a fish”).

Samuel Johnson: the Dictionary Man followed on after that, which was a very well-made documentary about Johnson. I knew a bit about Johnson beforehand, though this story convinced me the latter years of his work on the dictionary would make an exciting radio play! I did pose with his cat Hodge (well, a statue of it of course) in Gough Square which is one of the residences of this heartily London-based writer (whose relationship with Milton was somewhat uneasy, and who Liza Picard disliked despite reserving all her affection for the Pepyses). I hadn’t realized Johnson decided to be a writer, coming from a position as the son of a layman, and tried his best at University but did not gain his degree. He married a much older woman and walked miles and miles to London because that was the only way he could afford to get there. The amount of work he was able to do on the dictionary is really astounding when you think about it.

The Old Guys stars, again, two dudes who’ve worked in Doctor Who, Clive Swift and Roger Lloyd-Pack. I had read about this series in Radio Times but I wasn’t 100% on the premise. Basically, there are two old geezers (well, they’re not that old, definitely on the upper end of middle age) who share a house and have a crush on their neighbor. That is the premise, and while it inspired some gentle chuckles, it wasn’t raucously funny. That said, the two actors bounce quips off each other well.

Red Riding was yet another gritty crime drama, based on the novels by David Peace about the West Yorkshire police department, 1974-83. You might think it would duplicate the feel of Life on Mars, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the first episode, which tracked a young journalist’s look into the world of police corruption in the mid-‘70s. It was full of unnecessary sex, and though I understand Peace writes violence in order to make you so sick at the idea of crime—to un-sensationalize it, which means he would have hated Whitechapel—that you’re deterred, it was brutally difficult to watch. The acting was all top-notch—Sean Bean as a vile real estate mogul, Eddie Marsan as yet another corrupt cop—and Radio Times assures me next week’s offering is the best of the three, but I have to say I don’t think it’s my cup of tea. It comes too close to Frank Miller’s Sin City, which I watched on TV in January in deference to this supposed master of comic book writing (despite the problems I had with his work before, like 300 and The Dark Knight Strikes Again.) Sin City literally turned my stomach, and I can’t say Miller’s motives are the same as Peace’s—I think they’re the opposite (though he is writing comics not dramas set out to expose police corruption).

Phew! There may not be as much next time as I may not be able to pay for my TV licence for much longer.