Sunday, November 20, 2011

The New Eighth Doctor Adventures 1 & 2

The New Eighth Doctor Adventures – series 1 & 2

For some of you, this will make you completely glaze over. Some of you will be wondering what the heck took me so long. For another paper I’m working on (as well as for my own enjoyment) I’ve been listening to the Eighth Doctor plays which Big Finish produced starting in 2007, which shortened the format, updated it a bit to the style of the new TV series, and teamed up the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) with a new companion, Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith), influenced both by the style of the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler (with some important parallels with her direct contemporary Donna Noble, but we’ll get to that). I had caught the first series on BBC Radio 7 (as it then was) as well as parts of series 3 but missed crucial pieces in between. Series 1 and 2 I can definitely say are some of the best Doctor Who on audio I’ve heard.

I like Lucie Miller, which is kind of strange considering that though I appreciate Donna, she’s not one of my favorite companions. They are similar in many ways, though Lucie is younger and instead of being annoying-London, she’s annoying-Blackpool. She’s very “girl-next-door” in the sense that fashion, pop culture, TV soaps, and the like interest her; she has a gritty youth that is in part influenced by Ace, in part by Rose. She isn’t quite a chav, but she’s teetering on the edge. This makes quite an interesting contrast to the Eighth Doctor. I don’t pick favorites but if I did, the Eighth Doctor would be high on my list; Lucie is his complete opposite in many ways. Donna and Ten were like a screwball comedy duo, but in many ways they had the same kind of superficial energy. Eight and Charley were much more of a pair of soothing jewel-tones; Lucie is bubblegum pink to the Doctor’s royal purple. It’s a relationship that defies categorization more than most; they’re “mates” to the best definition of that word, but occasionally, and surprisingly, there is flirtation. I still think I like Charley better, but Lucie could be considered the direct inheritor of Ace’s role: her youth and capacity for growth both helped and exploited by the Doctor, her worldview expanded by him (though that’s noticeably true for Ace, Rose, and Donna).

Series 1 benefits from some cracking scripts. Though Lucie was being developed concurrently to Donna, her appearance in the TARDIS is eerily reminiscent of Donna’s, and Lucie reacts in a similar fashion. The vagueness of this entrance, in which Lucie seems very blithe about being put there by the Time Lords for a “witness protection program,” slightly dogs the credibility of the first story, but not for long (and besides, it’s wonderfully revisted in the final story). As can be imagined, she and the Doctor do not react well to each other, which is mostly the Doctor’s fault. He’s extremely grumpy (think of Four reacting to Romana being forced upon him as an assistant) and looks down upon her snidely and snobbishly. Unfortunately, Lucie has joined the TARDIS crew in Blood of the Daleks (absurd title, though I see the significance) in a harrowing moment as they have landed on a barren wasteland of a planet. Humanity has mostly failed in this environment, and some very interesting characters are unearthed among the wreckage. Kenneth Cranham, who was Spirodonov in Life and Fate, memorably plays Tom, who wears tin foil on his head. It takes Lucie awhile to both trust the Doctor and adjust to his compassionate and unrelenting modus operandi. But at heart, as every good companion is, she is empathetic, quick-thinking, and she doesn’t just lie down and die. Like Donna, she’s a bit of a Super-Temp as well. By the end of Blood of the Daleks, Lucie and the Doctor have grudgingly admitted they like each other’s company.

Horror of Glam Rock was, to my surprise, the weakest point of series 1. I generally highly regard Paul Magrs’ entries in Doctor Who audio, but this just seemed light on story. Once again, Lucie’s attitudes toward time travel basics are a bit flippant—she isn’t in the least weirded out by seeing her Auntie Pat in the 1970s, long before Lucie was ever born—the timeline (or potential damage) never seems to enter her mind. Despite the great title, there is very little “glam” about this story, and while it does have atmosphere (a motorway diner in a blizzard in the north), the musicality wasn’t really there. The monsters are difficult to visualize, the Tomorrow Twins are difficult to take seriously, and though Bernard Cribbins makes a U turn playing greedy and self-centered producer Arnold Korns, there isn’t much meat to that role either. Much was made of getting the late Stephen Gately to play Tommy Tomorrow, but the single isn’t great nor, it must be said, was his acting.

I wondered if Immortal Beloved would suffer from a second hearing, but I think I can still appreciate its clever manipulation of the audio soundscape. There are some good guest actors in this, and in tone it is somewhat similar to The Holy Terror, though not quite as cynically dark as that. I don’t want to spoil the crux, but Jonathan Clements always offers a script quite different in flavor to all those around him. Lucie’s behavior in some ways mirrors that of Donna in “Fires of Pompeii.”

Phobos, too, I was worried would grow stale upon a second listen, but to be quite honest I couldn’t remember the final twist so it was almost as good upon the second hearing. The setting is not one I would have expected to like—a deserted snow and ice planet where adrenaline junkies go to get their kicks—but Eddie Robson ended up being the surprise hero of series 1, both of his scripts I thought were great in unexpected ways. As the title suggests, the climax has to do with fighting fear, and it’s perhaps a path that has been retreated too many times in Doctor Who. Nevertheless, the take is fresh and inspires some soul-searching in both the Doctor and Lucie (à la the Time Lord Victorious). This is part of their maturing relationship which is handled very well and on a much more consistent basis than was EVER done on TV. And to all you naysayers who might think a planet like this would suffer on radio, it does exactly the opposite. Some good performances from Nerys Hughes and Timothy West, as well.

No More Lies does a complete 180-degree turn in tone and setting, taking the unusual tack of beginning toward the end of what we assume has been an exciting adventure for Lucie and the Doctor. While I think the story could do with some judicious cutting, on the whole, it was quite as intriguing the second time, despite what would seem a very simple plot (which I won’t spoil you with). Suffice it to say, the atmosphere—like a BBC costume drama done on radio, quite a feat!—and the dialogue with the garden party characters and the mad scientist holds interest.

Human Resources part 1 would definitely qualify as the best story of the series; I’m not so sure if I like how part 2 is wrapped up. Nevertheless, this is such an incredible idea (and so satirical in the current working, 9-5 world) that I will encourage you to listen to it, rather than me blathering on about it. Donna wondering why she was special, the Eleventh Doctor wondering why Amy Pond kept cropping up—it’s all peanuts compared to the way Lucie has been wrapped up in the conflict from the beginning of Blood of the Daleks. Yes, the role of the pesky Headhunter is finally revealed; there are some great comedy moments in this serial, and in some ways the social commentary reminds me of “The Beast Below.” The Doctor and Lucie both get to shine, with Lucie seeming to take the most risks. And things are set up for a second series, in a non-obnoxious way.

Series 2 is, if possible, even stronger than series 1. Dead London by Pat Mills was a stunning debut. Not only was it a historical piece, it was a multiple historical piece. Again, I can’t give too much away, but it works wonderfully and knowingly with the audio medium. I always reserve the highest praise for writers who use this medium creatively, and Mills has done it. A wonderfully atmospheric and genuinely creepy story with hints of “The Celestial Toymaker,” and a quasi-companion in the person of a tightrope walker (no, really). Once again, some superb guest actors and great sound effects. Good slice of London history, as well!

Max Warp is another story I did not expect to like. Jonathan Morris does some of his best work to date with a surprisingly simple, yet effective, murder mystery set at a Top Gear-esque rally, only with spaceships. The Doctor indulges in surprising spaceship lust (“Boys and their toys,” grumbles Lucie), and there are wonderful stabs at just about every relevant pop culture reference you can imagine. James Fleet turns in a great performance, and once again the sound effects help tell the story. I enjoyed the detective work more than I did in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and Lucie has a go at being the token female Max Warp host. And, not to spoil it too much, but there’s a Ninth-Doctor-punching-fist-in-the-air moment at the end.

Brave New Town feels quite traditionally Doctor Who, though told in a strange and creepy way. Grand Theft Cosmos is a delightful ride, incorporating Sweden (where we’ve never been to in Doctor Who, as far as I’m aware), steam trains, art collectors, aliens in the fourth dimension, and the return of a character from the first series. There are also some hilarious moments as Lucie helps stage a heist, using her best “posh” voice “for an hour!” In fact, in this story, Lucie really comes into her own and can’t really be called “companion”—she is the Doctor’s equal in almost every matter. It’s refreshing and seems to bring out the best in her. A jolly good show.

The Zygon Who Fell to Earth makes up for the lackluster Horror of Glam Rock, which follows the story of Auntie Pat into the 1980s. As Zygons are in the title, it won’t do much damage for you to know that they are involved, and the Doctor gets a surprising lesson in tolerance. The story has some very funny moments, some wonderfully atmospheric moments which Zygon fans will delight in as they imagine the Skaresen and the Zygon underground lairs (as some of my favorite monsters, I certainly took delight in it!). There are also some extremely poignant moments, with a surprising conclusion.

Sisters of the Flame sees the return of the Sisterhood of the Flame, a somewhat wishy-washy cult from the planet of Morbius, with the obvious caveat that Morbius will appear too (see the next story). This story benefits from the introduction of a great character, Rosto the centipede-like alien who is also a dedicated law enforcement officer, who is played with considerable flair by Alexander Siddig, he of Deep Space 9 fame (and also the Daroga in the Big Finish Phantom of the Opera). Lucie, separated from the Doctor, imprisoned, and worried that she will never see him again, reacts with xenophobia to Rosto at first, but eventually they make up a great team.

I personally think Morbius (and “Morbius”) is overrated, so although the two stories inspired the right degree of terror in me, as the story and actors worked their darndest to make Morbius’ resurrection about the worst possible event, looking back on it, I’m not sure how well it would bear repeated scrutiny. Nevertheless, Lucie meets her old friend the Time Lord Straxus once again, although in what could be described as trying circumstances. Pictures are beautifully if abstractly painted, and what’s really impressive is Lucie’s reaction at the climax to this serial which is a literal cliffhanger. Lucie’s loss can really be felt and understood, and understanding her journey from her first moments in the TARDIS in Blood of the Daleks makes that all the more satisfying.

I seem to recall that series 3 fared rather less consistently, but I hope to soon give you a full review.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Bolter

I remember when The Bolter came out, and just from the cover alone I thought that I must read the book. Years later I’ve come back to it for research, but overall I found myself totally sucked in.

Reading all the background information, statistics, and oral history of the 1940s-1960s in Britain, I became keenly aware of how the (near?)equality I take for granted as a woman in the 21st century was not so easily come by—most histories of this era pinpoint the availability of the Pill (in 1961 in the UK) as when real emancipation began for the modern woman. Recording oral histories from working-class people in UK towns like Preston and Barrow, one of the women was still so ashamed of having had an abortion, she made the interviewer turn off the tape and continue anonymously. Whose is the sexual prerogative? Who has to deal with the consequences? What happens if they don’t deal with them at all?

In this frame of mind, I was amazed—in some ways heartened, in some ways disgusted—with the 360-degree turn from Edwardian morals to the racy, fast ways of the 1920s as described in The Bolter. They’re not called the Roaring Twenties for nothing, and while the story of Idina Sackville and her five husbands, five divorces, innumerable lovers, and three children represents a small minority, these people were at least as carefree and sexually liberated as anyone the 1960s produced (I was going to say minus the drugs, but they were all in fairly advanced states of alcoholism and some were cocaine addicts). The author, Frances Osborne, has a personal stake in the story as Sackville was her great-grandmother, the infamous woman of scandal who was never spoken of in the family because the devastation she (inadvertently) wreaked on the following generations was so great. Ergo, Osborne succeeds extremely well in providing the background for Sackville’s life, rooted deeply in the Edwardian era, as well as the most juicy and gossipy events of Sackville’s life in and out of Africa (she of the so-called Happy Valley fame). But she doesn’t neglect the stories of Idina’s children. Halfway through the book, I read on the back cover that it was a “tragic” story and I thought, “well, not really,” but by the end, I certainly would agree with that.

Idina Sackville was born into a moneyed, high-class set which quickly took a turn for the more unorthodox facets of late 19th century life. First of all, the morals of the day were set by King Edward VII and those who spent the hours between cinq à sept having affairs with their friends’ wives. These hours were chosen very deliberately because it was the time when a society woman was changing from her afternoon gown into her tea gown. Easy adultery to slot in to one’s schedule. And it was usually married women as if they became pregnant there wouldn’t be the scandal that there would with a single woman. In any case, it was accepted and even expected. When Idina was four, her father left her mother and ran away with a cancan dancer. Her mother cited adultery and abandonment and won her hard-fought divorce. The unconventional Muriel then turned to politics as a strikers’ friend and a suffragette, pumping her family fortune into these (worthy) causes, and surrounding the household (Idina’s older brother Buck and younger sister Avie) with Theosophist friends such as Annie Besant who advocated “abundant recreational sex within marriage as being healthy.”

Idina Sackville grew up striking if not beautiful, charming, forthright, and eventually claimed the hand of David Euan Wallace, a good match in many ways but neither of them was built for monogamy. His diary is an eerie picture of wartime Paris, where fine goods shops were left bereft and people were drinking alcohol out of tea pots. He was serially unfaithful to his Cocotte and eventually met Barbie Luytens through Idina’s younger sister, Avie, who would break up the marriage and become Euan’s second wife. During the war, the idea was to give servicemen on leave the best possible time they could have as uncertainty loomed, and Idina did as much bed-hopping as her husband. Then, after the war, not wishing to be left like her mother, she asked Euan for a quiet-ish divorce in 1919, despite the fact she would have to leave his life, and her two sons’ (David and “Gee”) forever.

The next chapter of her life then began, in Kenya where she wanted a farming life with husband number two, Charles Gordon; the marriage didn’t last, the scandal did, as did her connection to Kenya. Euan married Barbie in 1920; Idina was on safari. After her second divorce, she briefly returned to London, where the Twenties had begun; “having lived independently as soldiers, nurses, and land girls during the war, the surviving young were moving out of their parents’ home into flats as soon as they could afford to. These became places for smaller impromptu gatherings where friends drank vast amounts of alcohol and experimented with morphine and cocaine and played the gramophone to learn the latest dance steps before hitting the floor at Ciro’s, the Café de Paris, the Savoy, and the archetype of them all, the Embassy. There was a vogue for appearing naked as the hostess of your own gathering (and you thought it was just combined to Josephine Baker!). By the time she returned to Kenya in 1923 with a third husband, Josslyn Hay.

Idina and Joss seem to have been the original swinging couple. From the beginning Idina, apparently amicably, shared him with the married Alice de Janzé, though she was not the woman who would eventually lead to the disintegration of their marriage. Joss seems to be at least as oversexed as Idina, having been expelled at fifteen from Eton for sex with a housemaid. Nevertheless, their farming life at Slains was something of a success. Idina ran around the farm barefoot and photographs show her in a sleeveless, wraparound dress. They had a mirror on the ceiling of the bedroom so they could see the different positions. “All had been brought up to regard . . . extramarital sex a normal course of behaviour. The key criterion between good and bad behaviour was distraction and remaining tight-lipped about others.” Nevertheless, this monied set’s ways irritated the rest of Kenya’s white farming population, who used Idina as a scapegoat and a trendsetter. Idina and Joss had a baby, Dinan, who Idina continued to bring up even when the marriage ended in divorce in 1929. (A disgruntled husband’s very public horsewhipping of Joss “was a far greater scandal for the Kenyan administration than just another irritating story of adultery and elopement.”)

Marriage number four in 1930 was to Donald Haldeman; they lived in a new farm in Kenya called Clouds. Meanwhile, things were not going so well for Idina’s estranged son David; an educated, very bright young man, he felt distanced from his father and stepmother. He was definitely leftist politically and deeply religious. Yet he agreed to meet his mother for the first time since he had been four years old in 1934. The two did not agree on much but seemed to love each other’s company. David’s desire to become a religious hermit was redirected toward a fascination with ancient Greece. The marriage to Donald had dissolved, Dinan was living with Idina’s brother’s family. In 1938, David was engaged to another unconventional woman, Pru Magor. Just before the war broke out, Idina married her fifth husband, “Lynx,” an RAF pilot.
The next few years were bleakly full of death, not just worldwide but for Idina’s personal circle. Joss was murdered in 1939, a mystery never solved. In 1940, Idina’s first husband Euan died of stomach cancer. Alice de Janzé had attempted a murder-suicide and had to stand trial when it failed; eventually she did succeed in killing herself. David was enjoying a distinguished and brave career in Athens with the Foreign Office. Then he grew disillusioned at having a desk job and wanted something more front-line heroic. In 1943 he died, fighting with his Greek friends and freedom-fighters. Idina had met her son Gee for the first time in thirty years in Mombasa where he was stationed, but he preceded David in death. At this time, Idina was already suffering from ovarian cancer, and she died, having become estranged from her remaining child Dinan, in 1955. Dinan became the Countess of Errol, inheriting Joss’ title, and had several children of her own.

So, yes; it all ended quite tragically. But then, as Idina herself said, the one thing she feared most was growing old. The book is as rip-roaringly populated with drama and scandal as Idina Sackville’s life was. David Wallace’s life was surely almost as interesting as his mother’s, and his part of the story buoys up a rather lackluster section of the book. Unfortunately, if you’re reading the book to get any idea of life in Kenya except for the privileged few of “Happy Valley,” you will find it completely lacking in that area. But it’s an excellent book.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let's Kill Hitler

27/08/11 “Let’s Kill Hitler”
Melody Pond/River Song: Are you serious?
The Doctor: Never knowingly.

If you subscribe to the idea that successful drama confirms and subverts expectations, as I do, then your opinion of “Let’s Kill Hitler” might have been as mixed as mine. Very few of my expectations were confirmed and instead most were wildly subverted—sometimes in a way that dazzled me with the audacity of it, but mostly in a way that left me shaking my head with the thought of lost opportunities. Let’s look at the most obvious element: the title. Plenty of Doctor Who has dealt even superficially with this theme, and in a less obvious but quite thematically-linked way, so has the short story “Categorical Imperative,” in which successive versions of the Doctor kept coming to a coronation to kill a child he knew would grow up to be a monster, but each time he couldn’t do it. So if you were expecting some kind of moral dilemma for the Doctor along the lines of “Genesis of the Daleks,” you were proved wrong. Or if you were expecting some kind of 1930s caper of supernatural dimensions, à la The Scarifyers, you were proved wrong, too. The setting was more or less incidental; there was one scene of terrified Berliners fleeing in their underwear from a café (which for some reason was playing Pachebel?!) which very much reminded me of The Master and Margarita. If you like that kind of history-lite, then you’ll have been satisfied. Certainly “The Girl in the Fireplace” was rather of that genre, and while I thought it held together much better than this did, it introduced a historical setting without making that setting the be-all and end-all in the way many Doctor Who pseudo-historicals do. (“The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” I would certainly argue was much more connected to its setting.) I have mixed feelings about “The Girl in the Fireplace,” as you won’t be surprised to learn. But you certainly have to admire Moffatt circumventing the constraints of the genre (ie budget). (I have to confess to being quite distracted by the use of the Brangwyn Hall and Temple of Peace as filming locations again.)

On to the futuristic tessellating doppelgangers, the Justice Department vehicles. As I said to Jamie, the Master must be really pissed off that someone has stolen his tissue compression gun; equally, the idea owes much to the comic strip “The Deep Hereafter,” and “The Invisible Enemy” (again, I’m sorry to say, not one of my favorite Doctor Who stories). But, let’s be fair: it’s another one of Moffatt’s solid ideas, because it takes something that fascinates kids. At first, I was quite excited: I thought these might be Time Agents. When it was revealed they were in fact searching out war criminals throughout time and space I quite liked the idea of the Doctor being equated with Hitler, just as Davros brought to light the Doctor’s less savory achievements. I may not have liked “Waters of Mars” very much, but it did take that comparison one step further, which is significant. I liked the idea that the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and “Mels” saved Hitler’s life by accident, and you have to admire a show that locks Hitler away in a cupboard to transact its business, rather than physically or even verbally assaulting him: triumph but taking away his arena and literally sidelining him. Jamie made the interesting suggestion that since I had written a fan fic about Donna in the toilets for nine hours during “Partners in Crime,” I could do the same for this situation. I honestly thought it was going to become a plot point: Hitler was going to overhear something crucial and upon his escape, alter the course of history (though perhaps he did, if you look at the concurrent plot lines in Torchwood though that was set in 1928 (1) ). This may yet be another trick up the Vast Toffee’s sleeve; I hope it is, otherwise it does make rather an anti-climax.

You know, I was honestly thinking that Mels was another Captain Jack character resurrected out of the ether to fulfill the gun-wielding purpose, and how lazy, but I really should have realized what was going on. Let’s just say that River Song is irritating in any incarnation (except perhaps as Jefferson Adams Hamilton little girl)—I have moments when I like her, but my first assessment still perhaps accurately registers my mood. Okay, perhaps her excuse is, as she herself says, “I’m a psychopath, I’m not rude.” I was enraged when suddenly this Mels character was introduced into the narrative, stitched in like some convenient revision who was supposed to be Amy and Rory’s “best mate,” and I’m still not happy with its introduction, unless she has only existed in the rewritten post-Crack timeline. Ouch, my head hurts already. The only enjoyment derived out of those flashbacks was Rory’s insistence that he wasn’t gay. I loved the precedent Mels/Melody/River’s regeneration set; perhaps Paterson Joseph will be the next Doctor.

I guess River/Melody’s behavior upon regeneration wasn’t that dissimilar from Romana II’s, who wanted to try on not only outfit in the house, but try out every species and body type. Nevertheless, when River was enjoying being more “mature” in her body, I was thinking she was becoming completely the opposite. Quite frankly, with her poisonous lipstick (Judas tree? Is that related to Janus thorn?) she felt like a larger-than-life comics villain, Poison Ivy for example, which is fine if you’re in the mood for that. I couldn’t get behind it 100%, I’m afraid. I’m guessing post-Time War regeneration has given Time Lords (well, just the Doctor and the Master) interesting new powers during their “regenerational cycle,” which used to be characterized by stress and mood swings, now full of hand-growing and vortex energy.

The Doctor, who for some unexplained reason was not wearing his normal tweed but a slightly more 1930s-type frock coat of brown leather, crawled into the TARDIS, dying, and proceeded to have a rather repetitive argument with the TARDIS-generated ghost of Young Amelia (a voice interface). The Doctor had to get guilt piled upon him with the successive images of Rose, Martha, and Donna (“there must be someone in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet”). (It would have been interesting if the TARDIS—ie Idris from before—had appeared!) I can’t keep buying this “regeneration disabled” bit. For me personally, this just have the Doctor the excuse to appear in his snazzy ‘20s tails, tie, and top hat. We at last get some insight into what River Song might have whispered to the Doctor in “Silence in the Library,” things get a bit “Parting of the Ways,” and River/Melody imparts her remaining regenerations to the Doctor to save him (though strictly speaking shouldn’t he regenerate?). In 5123 we get some insight into why River took up archaeology, the Doctor leaves her a present in the form of a TARDIS diary, and I’d like to think (and am fairly sure) that Moffatt has this all worked out in a timeline meticulously. But . . . eh.

The revelation of the Silence as a religious cult rather than a species reminded me more than ever of the language used thus far into Torchwood regarding who “they” are who knew enough to pre-empt PhiCorp, “they” who persuaded world governments to build ovens, etc. It would be interesting if they all knitted together, but frankly I can’t see how they could do so without some overlap which might confuse and/or alienate viewers of one show or the other.

The Power of Kroll

21/08/11 “The Power of Kroll”
The weight of history is against you.
--The Doctor

Power of Kroll” starts off promisingly; all of the location filming contributes to atmosphere and setting to a degree that almost makes the execrable appearance of Kroll believable. However, when you get down to thinking about it, there just isn’t much of substance to this story. It’s a pleasant enough run around, but in comparison with the more enjoyable romps that preceded it, it’s a bit forgettable.

For one thing, “Kroll” makes a striking contrast with its male-dominated cast (Romana is the only female) and the more female-balanced “Stones of Blood.” Certainly this is symptomatic of the refinery base being male (which is plausible), but I was shocked and rather dismayed to see no female “Swampies” in the settlement. I just don’t understand the reason for this rather egregious neglect. The whole depiction of the Swampies is muddled, and in the end I feel like the viewer can only few sympathy for them as victims; as characters, especially as represented by Ranquin, they are superstitious fools who sacrifice “Dryfoots” for no logical reason. Their motivations to take over the refinery are understandable up to a point, but they seem more like vehicles for the plot rather than actual characters.

I can’t think of a huge number of Doctor Who stories that tackle the idea of imperialism (“Kinda” being the notable exception that proves the rule), but having been recently reading a great deal about the Western motifs, I couldn’t help viewing this story through that lens. The Swampies look like Edward Lear’s Jumblies to me; they’re green, male, and nearly nude. (Though I do wonder why the verdigris; if they were “rehoused” from Delta Magna, does that mean Delta Magna is covered in swamps? Or have they been on the moon long enough to acclimatize so well to the swamp environment that they have turned green?) Some of the design work in their settlement during the “Kroll!” dance looks vaguely tribal African, but in general I think that if one wants to draw the parallel, the Swampies are Robert Holmes’ version of Native Americans. I draw this parallel especially because the word that’s used is “reservation.” The Swampies get moved to the moon to get them out of the way on Delta Magna, because the dominant regime of humans can, and as soon as something valuable is discovered on the moon, they are to be shoved out of the way again (like Oklahoma Territory being the ultimate reservation in the nineteenth century American West). Also, the costuming reminded me of the breech-cloth controversy during the filming of Last of the Mohicans, in which activist Russell Means was playing Chingachgook and told the costume department that the Eastern tribes would never have worn breech-cloths that small.

However, Holmes must then have been channeling “The Aztecs,” for the Swampies seem to really have an ingrained desire for blood sacrifice. Even so, at least in “The Aztecs” it made a bit of sense; what was the point of Romana getting menaced by a faux Kroll-monster (other than the clever fake-out—“he probably looked more convincing from the front”)? If she was supposedly going to die anyway, why go to all the trouble of dressing up? Theirs is also not an oral history society (apparently), as in a sewer somewhere the Doctor and Romana stumble upon a sacred book (in actual book format!) that describes the mysterious comings and goings of Kroll, the giant squid. I couldn’t believe that the Doctor would just dump the book back down the chute, as well—where’s all the reverence for the written word that I talked about in my Unsilent Library essay?

As I said, Ranquin is the biggest problem, for his pigheaded stubbornness. Certainly the chip on his shoulder against the betrayal of the Dryfoots (and later, Rohm-Dutt) is understandable, but a Cochise or Geronimo he is not. The Swampie cause, supported as it is by the Sons of Earth, seems to get sidelined midway through by a criticism of religion that so often shows up in Doctor Who. In what must have seemed to Holmes a fitting bit of dramatic irony, in part four Ranquin gets murdered by his own god, which is actually a sentient beast, neither good nor evil. (Slightly less pointed than the vicar getting murdered by the Haemovores in “The Curse of Fenric,” but not by much.) Even as Ranquin’s own followers protest in Kroll’s complete absence of morality, instead recognizing that he (it?) strikes at random because he is an animal, the Swampie leader can’t be persuaded to see the truth—much like Reverend Matthews in “Ghost Light.” Two cases of panning Christianity in the 1980s; one case of panning a sort of pagan monotheism in the 1970s. Science, science must always be seen to come out on top in Doctor Who; in “The Aztecs,” while Barbara despaired of the Aztec blood sacrifice, she had nothing but approbation for the rest of their culture. The Swampies seem to have some very complicated rituals for killing people (including vines that stretch people out, which sounds more like the Spanish Inquisition)—one wonders how they find the time to dream all this up, especially when their sacred Kroll dance has such monotonous lyrics.

Thawn is the other side of Ranquin’s coin. He represents everything wrong with the British imperialist/Anglo-centric Roosevelt-Custer view of progress and native civilization. He is a caricature, one more outrageous in its single-mindedness than Todd from “Kinda.” The point is made with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but perhaps in the 1970s it needed to draw attention to itself. Nevertheless, there are more shades in the characters of the other refinery crewmembers, less black-and-white than those at the outpost on “Kinda”—Fenner and Harg basically share the same view point as Thawn, but less fanatical. We never find out how far Harg woud have gone to follow Thawn’s leadership, as he gets pulled down the pipes by Kroll as Fenner and Dugeen watch in rather impotent shock. Fenner ultimately redeems himself with a more than one-dimensional character, and while it is traditional to lament that Philip Madoc should have rounded out his Doctor Who career in this secondary villain role, he actually is the most interesting thing to watch on screen while the camera settles on the bleak and bleary set of the refinery. Dugeen is a sympathetic, rational character with perhaps hidden depths (if he wasn’t sleeping during his rest period, what was he doing?) who gets killed for his trouble and called a “plant for the Sons of Earth” and a “Swampie-lover.” Despite the range of character among these four, I find the scenes in the refinery quite tedious to watch, and it’s not helped by the Blake’s 7-esque lighting. Gun runner (a specialty of Holmes’!) Rohm-Dutt is similarly disappointing, a rather boring recycling of the Garron character from “Ribos Operation” and ultimately expendable.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like in the story. As I said, the location work is truly formidable. It makes the interior of the refinery look like “cardboard,” but it’s still wonderfully atmospheric and makes such a welcome change to the endless quarries and leafy forests. Attempts are made to get Kroll himself up to snuff, and they are about as successful as those in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” The idea of a refinery producing protein which it shoots into the atmosphere is great, and the Doctor twigging that the methane projections do not compute with the lake of that size is similarly solid. In fact, all the “hard” science seems to work quite well. It’s an environment that reminds me of the refinery in “Terror of the Zygons” as well as “Robots of Death.” The ending climax with depth charges doesn’t make as much sense, but the final resolution is an interesting one, forcing the imperialists to go home without causing major bloodshed. (Fenner is the last one left, at loose ends, though the Doctor’s suggestion to stay and “go native” seems a bit half-hearted.) The humans’ costumes are dull (were they made out of bathmats?).

Romana’s costume, on the other hand, is inspired—and has inspired, one would think, as it looks rather similar to the one Emma wears in “Curse of the Fatal Death.” In any case, she and the Doctor are eminently practical this time in their Wellies. Romana has less to do in this story than in some of the others. She gets captured a lot, and being tied up in the power of Rohm-Dutt seemed a lot scarier to me than anything Kroll could have done to her. She gets to make lots of witty retorts, showing even more how her character has progressed into breezy blasé having spent so much time with the Doctor. But that’s more or less it. Even the Doctor, though he makes daring canoe trips across the waters and achieves the final acquisition of the Key to Time (once again, a great flourish just bordering on deus ex machina), seems to be trying to keep the two factions from killing each other long enough to get Kroll to settle back down.

Nevertheless, one wonders what would have happened if the Doctor had never come to this moon and never retrieved the segment. Would the Swampies have been wiped out? Would they have risen against the humans and drove them out? Would Kroll have gotten too large and exploded, meaning there was an end to methane?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

White Guard

I’ll be honest—I had never heard of Bulgakov until a friend/former teacher gave me The Master and Margarita as a gift. What a wonderful introduction to what has become one of my favorite books of all time. However, I didn’t get to his first novel, White Guard, until just now . . . for no particular reason. Part of Bulgakov’s appeal, I feel, is his juxtaposition of deep, personally-held spirituality with the absurd (represented in The Master and Margarita by the earnest account by the Master of the historical Christ’s last days in AD 43 versus the satire of the Devil and his black cat in Moscow of the 1920s); and his beautiful, distinctive language, which is at times as close to poetry as prose can get, at other times, surprisingly cinematic. I don’t know if Bulgakov was a fan of cinema, but White Guard features cuts, splices, and dramatically visual flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem extremely ahead of his time.

The history of the novel is a bit strange. Begun as a novel, then adapted by the censors as a play which in its final cut became extremely popular (it was a marked favorite of Stalin’s), the original novel was ignored when finished and then hidden away for its political content until it was released in the Kruschev era, reinterpreted to suit the communist politics. White Guard tells the events of a few months in Kiev (always called The City) between 1918 and 1919 when the Germans, who had held the City during the War, flee along with their puppet Ukrainian governor the Hetman, in the wake of Ukrainian nationalist/socialist Petylura, whose reign lasts a few months, and is eventually to be pushed out by the feared Bolsheviks. Bulgakov’s political and ideological leanings are never entirely clear in this mystifying and atmospheric work; yet he tells the story of ordinary people, most of them part of this doomed traditionalist/czarist “White Guard” who would eventually disappear under the heel of Bolshevism(1).

The samovar is actually rather an important feature in the domestic interiors of the book, which take a place of precedence in part of the depiction of the doomed way of life of the White Russians. As all Russians novels seem to share this convention, there is a family at the heart of this story. It’s the Turbins, Dr. Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka. Elena’s husband Talberg is, as the introduction says, probably the least sympathetic character, and abandons his wife and her family to flee before Petylura arrives. Alexei and Nikolka are military men in the White Guard, joined by Myshlaevsky, Carp, and Shervinsky. In fact, most of the important characters in White Guard are, understandably, officers—Colonel Nai-Turs is another. Women in Bulgakov I have found somewhat problematic; they seem to be there to suffer stoically and support their men, and Elena is no exception.

As ever in Bulgakov, events don’t go in pure chronological order—there’s a wonderful dream sequence of Alexei’s with Sergeant-Major Zhilin in heaven. Sections are terrifically exciting, even if I’m not sure I understand all the political manoeuvring and chronology. Much is said about honor, and while some of the characters act in ways that are cowardly and sub-human, many of the characters act selflessly to save their colleagues and innocent people. The aftermath, where Nikolka goes to seek a body in a makeshift mortuary, is eerie and a terrible prologue to what’s to come.

(1) When I was researching my long poem about tea, I read an anecdote about how the White Russians drank vodka and lost; the communists drank tea and “won.” At the time I thought that showed how tea is a much better drink, but now I’m not so sure.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Company of the Courtesan

I’d been meaning to read something by Sarah Dunant for a long time. “Italy” (it wasn’t organized as that until the 19th century) in the 16th century isn’t a period of history I know very well, and since the book was a gift, I thought, why not? I have seldom read a book of historical fiction that is terrible; as a genre they tend to be a cut above other novels (at least to someone like me who has a predisposition for them in the first place). Likewise, it is untrue to say I have read many novels of historical fiction that were flawless (but Patrick O’Brian is a safe best). All of this is to say: I enjoyed this novel, and while the characters and the setting were engaging, the plot itself was a bit . . . let’s say, meandering, and like so many novels, it quite fell down on the ending.

The characters include the historically verifiable (poet and pornographer Pietro Aretino, the painter called Titian) and the obscure, the fictional—the heroine, Fiammetta Bianchini, and the narrator, Bucino Teoboldi. These two are selected from the ranks of the sordid and often ignored: Fiammetta is a courtesan (a Cardinal’s courtesan when the book begins in Rome) and Bucino is her business-partner dwarf. Both are appealing, interesting, and empathetic; their struggles are down-to-earth, and Bucino finds much about the otherwise otherworldly beauty of Venice to gripe about. There are wonderful period details about the codes of courtesans in Venice, and it is strictly of its time: Bucino befriends both Jews and Muslims but thinks, with regret, that they are going to Hell. He is not sure about himself, either, as being a deformed dwarf most people think he is a demon—or at least morally reprehensible—anyway.

Though the 18th century Venice of Scherzo could not be called prudish or refined, by comparison with In the Company of the Courtesan, it seems quite vanilla. The language here maintains, to quote a review on the back of the book, “gusty vulgarity.” There’s plenty of graphic slang and swear words and much remarking on bodily functions and conjunctions (that is, after all, Fiammetta’s trade). If you revel in that kind of thing, you won’t be taken aback, but to be honest it was a bit jarring at first. Bucino and Fiammetta’s road is likewise tough, barely escaping with their lives when they flee the sack of Rome (having swallowed jewels, and Fiammetta having had her hair hacked off by fanatical Protestants); they get conned and hoodwinked in Venice and find it challenging to practice their dishonourable but lucrative trade.

The secondary characters are less successful than the leads, and the plotting is not among its strengths, but for a solid and historical character study, you could do much worse.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Plot

You would be forgiven for thinking, like I did, upon first glancing at The Plot that this had something to do with the Tudors or Guy Fawkes. However, the subtitle quickly puts those notions to rest: A Biography of an English Acre. As someone who loves nonfiction that crosses categorizations (memoir/history/science survey) it turned out to be quite an interesting book, though in general it was a bit too compartmentalized to be my cup of tea.

The Plot itself is a small area in North Yorkshire that the author’s extraordinary father bought in the 1950s. A sculptor and a devout Catholic, he built a chapel there and was fiercely linked to the plot all his life. Unfortunately, Madeleine Bunting’s relationship with her father was adversely affected by this obsession. She takes the whole book long to come to grips with her father and to understand him, but for me, that never interfered with the rest of the book’s content. It could have been purely a book about Bunting’s attempts to know her father, but impressively it also brings in all the history related to the Plot. However, she can’t conceal her bitterness over the way the Plot worked its way into her life and broke up her parents’ marriage.

There are wonderful glimpses into the past of this area of England about which I knew almost nothing; the Scottish drovers around Scotch Corner in the 16th century had interesting lives which sometimes included them knitting as they walked along minding sheep who they drove down to London or up to Edinburgh to sell. There are moth experts in this book and shepherds who keep their dying way of life vibrant but unsentimental. William the Conqueror ravaged the area to the point that what natives were left turned to cannibalism, and the memory is still strong enough to be passed down in local lore. There are unknown tales of sikta pines and forestry panics of the 1920s and 1950s. Edwardian hunters slaughter thousands of pheasants. Cistercians died at the age of 28 because of their self-imposed harsh conditions.

But the heart of the matter is still Bunting’s father; his obsession with Catholic heroes and monks, with the cult of bravery that boys growing up, groomed for war, had in the 1940s; his lament for mechanization and the loss of the simple way of life long before vacationing in North Yorkshire became fashionable. Some of his qualities invite derision, but Bunting tries really hard to show all the factors that would have caused him to be the man he was. The Plot remains for Bunting a place she feels uncomfortable in and yet strangely drawn to.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stir Crazy

I am a big fan of different types of tea. I am a connoisseur rather than a snob, however, as I have gotten very used to the British cuppa of black bagged tea with lots of milk. But when I'm feeling in a fancier mood it's nice to have something more refined for the palette, and as we know, loose tea is by far the best-tasting type. At the moment, the collection runs as follows:

From the New Mexico Tea Rooms
Rainbow roibos Possibly the nicest non-black tea in the world, this is beautiful to look at, wonderful to smell, and heavenly to taste. Roibos of course is the tea made from the redbush of southern Africa and therefore is not tea in the sense of being camellia--but that also means it has no caffeine. This blend smells like a cake baking, and the amaretto flavoring makes it a wonderful dessert tea--equally good as an afternoon tea on its own.
Black Jasmine Cream This is a blend of jasmine (green) tea and black tea, which is unusual, with vanilla flavoring as well. I have to confess, I am not a big fan of plain green tea though of course I respect its role in Japanese and Chinese tea culture. I like scented green teas and a strong oolong occasionally. This is good with a touch of milk or brewed quite weak on its own.

From the St James Tea Rooms
Lemon souffle This is a recent discovery, and in smell and look this resembles the rainbow roibos above quite strongly. However, the difference is the addition of lemon rather than amaretto, which is a nice variation on the theme and is really nice for spring/summer. It is a great dessert tea and is a startling amber/red in the cup.
Blueberry This was a gift and I am less keen on black teas scented with fruits than with other flavors. Nevertheless, it smells strongly of blueberry and is nice as a weak brew without milk.
Sparkling sugar plum fairy is a gorgeous winter tea which actually shimmers! It is a strong black tea with seasonal notes of cinnamon and clove and benefits from some milk.
Hearthside toddy resembles the above tea with much the same taste although it is rather like a chai (without the latte of course).
Lady Londonderry is an exception to the black tea/fruit rule as it is quite a nice refined traditional black tea that is good with milk and not so heavily satured in flavor/scent as to not serve with scones or tea sandwiches. Along with Buckingham Palace Garden Party and Atlantic City Jubilee 1921 it is among my favorite scented black teas.
Pumpkin Pie is another autumnal scented black tea which is just wonderfully redolent of Thanksgiving because it is like drinking a pumpkin pie. It may sound bizarre but it's quite a comforting and hearty tea.

From Whittard of Chelsea
Christmas Leaf Tea I had a cull of all my old teas recently as they were not being drunk and had to get rid of my old Whittard of Chelsea stock. I couldn't bear to get rid of this one, though, as its scents are so rich and so associated with Christmas. It is similar to the Hearthside Toddy tea above.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone

I just picked this up randomly and while I think the intent was to elucidate and inspire thought, mostly it profoundly depressed me and made me think that not only is the end nigh, we deserve it. It inspires firstly white guilt to a very strong degree, and finally guilt for just being a human being. But, as I say, I don’t think that was the book’s intent, and occasionally there are glimpses of “those who have been overlooked by traditional histories.”

One thing the book purports to do, and does well, is link the very ancient with the modern; instead of “patterns that aren’t there” that so amused the Eighth Doctor, instead Mirrors helps to show the links between prehistoric and twenty-first century in surprising ways.

. . . The Yellow River has been called as such for about two thousand years, since the forests on its banks were felled and could no longer afford protection from avalanches of snow, mud, and garbage. Then the river, formerly jade green, lost its color and gained its name. With the passing of time, things got worse until the river became one huge sewer. In 1980, four hundred river dolphins lived there. In 2004, only one was left. It didn’t last long.

Sometimes, the controversial becomes so clear when Eduardo Galeano describes it. Regarding female circumcision: “To justify mutilation, they cite the Prophet Mohammed, who never spoke of this matter, and the Koran, which does not mention it either.” Galeano is extremely critical of religion in general, and Catholicism in searing particular. (He suggests that the reason Europeans distrusted water, and therefore declined to bathe, was because “it felt good and invited sin.”)

A group particularly well-served by Galeano is women, whose traditional silence during much of history has been lifted to let the singular voices (which must represent many who were never recorded) speak. From Dominica López of Chiapas, Mexico, to Hypatia of Alexandria 1, from Empress Theodora of Constantinople to Mohammed’s youngest wife Ayesha, from Trotula di Ruggiero of Salerno to Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, from Rosa Maria of Ouro Preto to Sophie Germain of Paris, from Ada Lovelace of London to Concepción Arenal of Madrid—

But most remarkable was the place women held among men [in Ancient Egypt]. Whether nobles or plebeians, they married freely without surrendering their names or their possessions. Education, property, work, and inheritance were theirs by right, not only for men, and women were the ones who shopped in the market while men stayed home weaving. According to Herodotus, who was not entirely trustworthy, women peed standing up and men on their knees.
. . .
A century before Hildegard, the celebrated Persian physician Avicenna included in his Canon of Medicine a more detailed description of the female orgasm . . . Since pleasure was man’s business, European translations of Avicenna’s works omitted that page.

Like Walt Whitman’s exhortation about contradictions, since Mirrors contains multitudes, it often contradicts itself. While it lauds Joan of Arc, it detests the company she kept: “Gilles de Retz . . . was accused of torturing, raping, and killing wayward children.” His indictment of Thanksgiving is surprisingly tame, given his previous criticism: “The saved then offered their saviours a Thanksgiving feast. . . . That was the first and last Thanksgiving in colonial times.” Of course, as a Uruguayan by birth, Galeano is fairly interested in the atrocities committed against native Americans, which are thoroughly detailed. However, “Without capital from the slave trade, who would have financed James Watt’s steam engine? What furnaces would have forged George Washington’s cannons?”

This, I suppose, is a central question in this book: do the ends justify the means? The founding fathers are all exposed as flawed sexists and racists 2 and possibly hypocrites, since he quotes Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in agnostic or atheist moments 3. There are some celebrations of the deeds of white men: the writers of the French Encyclopédie, for one; Mark Twain protesting the Spanish-American war, for another. Some things are just impossible to understand—for example, why Alan Turing, a brilliant man who shortened the Second World War and saved countless lives by his code-breaking, had to commit suicide after being convinced by Manchester police for being homosexual. And it all reminds me of why I can’t read Sherman Alexie without crying; it reminds me of the passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which the protagonist is making a speech at a college campus and is approached afterwards by a white girl in tears. “What can I do?” she asks. He is honest with her: “Nothing.”

1 Who, clearly, the Doctor needs to meet (if he hasn’t already)—though he would be distressed not to be able to prevent her stabbing and mutilation.
2 Except for Gouverneur Morris.
3 Though I’m being a bit facetious as I know for a fact that Jefferson believed in a clockwork God who set the world in motion and then sort of sat back and watched it go.

The Androids of Tara

13/07/11 “The Androids of Tara”
[to K9 as he cuts through a wall] Come on, a hamster with a penknife could do it faster!
--The Doctor

It’s hard not to like “The Androids of Tara” (unless, I guess, you want very Saward-esque Doctor Who with lots of grunge, death, and darkness). I have never read nor seen nor did I know anything about The Prisoner of Zenda, so I really had no idea what to expect. I have decided that I am a fan of David Fisher, though, if he can produce two such good scripts in conjunction to each other that stylistically don’t feel slavishly copied from one another. The Doctor seems to ride on the coattails of the action here, which is refreshing and amusing, whereas Romana—though she does a lot of escaping and being recaptured—seems to have much more to do. The whole planet of Tara has the feel of fairy tales where something is slightly wrong—I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the 10 Kingdoms in The 10th Kingdom.

However, I doubt anything I will have to say on it will be new. To fit with his rather lackadaisical attitude throughout the story, the Doctor spends the first episode in leisurely pursuits. First, he plays chess on the floor of the console room with K9. The Doctor seems to forget that K9 has been “programmed with all the championship games since 1861.” Romana is much more interested than the Doctor in recovering the fourth segment of the Key to Time (the Doctor seems to have gotten bored of the quest at this point). She even makes a point of landing the TARDIS—“was that smooth enough for you?”—but he doesn’t seem to care. When they do exit the TARDIS (K9 stays behind for some reason), the planet is described as “Earth type” and the Doctor doesn’t think it should give Romana “any trouble.” “Me?” The Doctor seems a bit more obsessed than normal with clothes, and by this I don’t mean his own—he’s been surprisingly pragmatic about Romana’s clothes in the last two stories. In any case, he tells her she should go get dressed. There’s a cute his-and-hers wardrobe scene where Romana bypasses “Tahiti” and goes for “Tara” and even the Doctor tries to select the appropriate attire.

Romana is startled by the fishing rod the Doctor retrieves, and all reference to Izaak Walton (author of the great treatise on angling) is lost on her. She has, meanwhile, changed into “it’s what everyone on Tara is wearing this year, right, K9?” I don’t care if it is, we’ve gone from great costumes in the last story to this cross between an Oompa Loompa and Sergeant Pepper. The only thing of which I can approve is the hat. Nevertheless, out into the forest they go, the Doctor with his fishing rod (“it’s an art”) which eventually he will discard after deciding to let the gumblejacks go. “I’m taking a day off,” he announces to a bewildered Romana. Romana is nonetheless confident in her own abilities to find the fourth segment—“I’ll be back here in under an hour”—and leaves the Doctor to his fishing. At first all things seem hunky dory as she manages to pick up the segment in a few minutes, wandering around the woods to the sound of dour and somewhat mysterious cellos and violins. She transforms the segment from part of a statue and is just about to pocket it, when she starts hearing weird noises in the bushes. I admire the audacity to make the story about something other than finding the Key to Time and rather about getting it back once taken!

Romana is then “attacked” by the Taran wood beast, which kind of looks like a nicer version of the trolls in Willow. The knight errant who comes to her rescue is not who he appears to be and despite Romana’s protests (after all, she’s only got a twisted ankle) carries her and then has her riddling side-saddle across the horse’s pommel. It’s all very dashing and romantic, and the costume is wonderful—it’s rather Don Quixote, in that as I said before, it looks the part and yet something isn’t quite right. The knight convinces her that as a stranger she doesn’t know the rules about registering a stone now that she’s in the kingdom (which is complete poppycock of course), and rule-abiding Romana just can’t say no. He introduces himself to Count Grendel, which should have alarmed her from get-go as the monster of Beowulf cannot be expected, in such a romanza, to be trusted. Grendel is a bit distressed that part of the his family statue has disappeared (Romana doesn’t volunteer what has happened to it). There’s a wonderful conversation about the horse, which apparently Romana has never seen before. “What makes it work?” “Good heavens, I don’t know.” While they’re riding, we get an extended harpsichord solo from Dudley Simpson.

Meanwhile, the Doctor utters the immortal line about not stepping on his chest when his hat’s on fire, though that has no effect on stern warrior Farrah, whose electric rapier seems to take delight in burning up the Doctor’s accessories. Farrah and his master Zadek warn the Doctor he has stumbled onto Prince Reynart’s lands. I don’t quite know what era they’re trying to reproduce, if any, but Farrah and Zadek’s costumes are wonderful (even if the actors weren’t keen on them). The semi-Lawrence of Arabia feel produced by the head gear is at wonderful odds with the gold lamé boots and the Hessian-type medals at the collar. It all looks wildly incongruous with the setting, which is a lot of fun. The Doctor is spared when he is asked, “Can you mend an android?”

Back at Count Grendel’s castle of Grock, which is the splendid Leeds Castle in Kent, Pigbin Tarquin comes limping up to meet his master. Grendel introduces Romana to his “doctor,” Madame Lamia. Again, of course, Romana should have twigged with the names—Lamia was a Greek monster with serpentine attributes (perhaps that explains Madame Lamia’s interesting hairstyle?), and for Gothic horror buffs will be remembered more as a type of succubus/vampire-like creature, to be linked with the demon Lilith. However evil Madame Lamia may be, she isn’t a monster in the sense vampiric, only driven to foul deeds by a misguided affection for her master, Grendel. Her laboratory with data banks is something between a torture chamber and a Gothic hideout. However, despite all this, Lamia is the most interesting character in the story and reminds me of Tazambeker and her twisted obsession with Mr Jobel in “Revelation of the Daleks.” She obeys Grendel despite seeing through all this plans, “I’m a peasant, I leave politics to my betters.” The fact that peasants on Tara are the only ones who can repair androids makes me think this society is on the verge of a revolution—surely if the peasants are skilled enough to do that kind of work, they’re not going to stay subjugated for much longer? Unless they benefit in unseen ways from this society’s hierarchy? Grendel, for reasons that will become clear later, thinks Romana is an android and though impressed by the skill of constructing her, wants Lamia to “disassemble her.” Lamia is cleverer than Grendel, though, and notices that Romana’s ankle is swollen, proving she’s human.

At Reynhart’s hunting lodge (I guess?), Reynart, a Beau Geste-type hero, thinks the Doctor clearly must be a gentleman, yet may still be able to help them with their android problem. Indeed, the Doctor is able to, and he repairs the Reynhart lookalike android (George). There’s some surprisingly good split screen work as the two Reynharts are in the scene together. “It’s quite eerie, seeing one’s self.” The thing is, Reynhart fears assassination as he goes to claim the throne, but if he doesn’t show up then the throne gets forfeited. So he has gone one better than a human double—all of this interesting in light of “gangers” in series 6, but we’ll get to that. However, Grendel who of course wants the throne himself (why he is power-obsessed is not clear) beats him to the chase, causing a cliffhanger.

This must have been taken from a Victorian story as Grendel doesn’t kill all his helpless prisoners, he just kidnaps the Prince, leaving the Doctor, Zadek and Farrah to figure out how to proceed. The Doctor can just about make the android, which was not kidnapped, capable to getting to the coronation and acting appropriately. The Doctor’s attitude in this is odd; he is amused by the whole thing but rather subdued in action if not in his playful performance. Zadek and Farrah decide to follow the Doctor’s plan to establish the android on the throne until they can rescue Reynart.

In Grendel’s castle, Romana sees the Princess Strella, weaving in captivity like a good medieval woman should, who of course is Romana’s double (which is never explained). However, this gives wonderful clarity as to why she should want to regenerate in “Destiny of the Daleks” into Princess Astra—both names refer to stars, and of course having seen her own in double in this story, it seems her vanity was piqued. At least I’d like to believe that as otherwise it makes no sense. In any case, Strella, who isn’t given much of a personality until later, is oblivious to all the plotting and only refuses to be married off. We find out that Grendel “once showed [Lamia] a certain courtesy,” which suggests sexual favors, and sadly Lamia’s regard is quite one-sided.

Meanwhile the Doctor et al are proceeding through the “plague tunnels” (touch of Boccaccio and/or “Masque of the Red Death”) under the court so as to get there in time for the coronation. The interiors in the coronation scenes are absolutely stunning. The costumes are a great hodge-podge and are none the worse for their charivari quality. The Archimandrite, who eventually will pass his dress sense on to the Portreeve of Castrovalva (while, I think, imitating the Venetian doges), is a rather Gormenghast-ian character who apparently doesn’t see or doesn’t care about Grendel’s treachery. With the help of the Doctor and friends, the android is crowned though not without arousing suspicion. The episode ends as the Doctor beats the crap out of Princess Strella (though we know it can’t be her).

Strella’s head then falls off as she is obviously revealed to be an android. The Doctor apparently “heard it spark.” All the pomp and circumstance is postpone for the next day; Lamia is intrigued by the Key to Time which she eventually asks Romana about. “I’ve blunted two diamond drills on it.” Poor Romana can’t tell a lie and is not allowed to have her stone back. Lamia has somehow managed to construct a Romana android that is very accurate, if a bit lifeless—“the Doctor will spot it immediately.” The original FemmBot, it conceals a not-very-subtle assassination device. One wonders what exactly they mean by, “The android is programmed to kill in other ways.” However, Romana takes advantage of a moment’s distraction to take what I assumed was a syringe to stab Lamia with, but is actually a lock-pick which she conveniently uses to set herself free from the dungeon. She wants to help Reynart escape as well, but he is too weak to try. She bolts off to escape and can’t get the horse started. :-D “Go, charger, start!”

The Doctor has taken the opportunity to repair back to the hunting lodge to improve the android’s circuitry—“a trifle more intelligent than the real one.” Pigbin Tarquin comes with a message for the Doctor to meet Lamia so they can make an exchange—Romana for safe passage for Grendel (or something like that; it’s so obviously a trap it makes no difference). They meet in a wonderful pavilion building, 12 hours early as it happens, and then Grendel surrounds the place, bombards it (why it doesn’t ignite when it’s apparently wood I don’t know), accidentally kills Lamia (for which he feels a sliver of remorse), and eventually the Doctor and K9 get away.

Grendel brings the white flag of truce to the hunting lodge and honorable Zardek agrees to let him in. He discusses “kingmaking” with the Doctor—“you would make an excellent king,” though that’s interesting in comparison to what the Ninth Doctor says later, “I make a very bad god.” Foiled, Grendel runs off, somehow having grabbed Romana (WTF?) and having thrown a spear into the android, effectively harpooning it. I’m not the only one to think of Grendel’s ambition like that of Richard III, and frankly I would have enjoyed if his character was more Richard III-like. With the fake Reynard destroyed and Princess Strella refusing to take any part in Grendel’s plans, he blackmails Reynard and Romana into doing what he wants so that Strella’s life is saved. Romana, not knowing Strella, could have called Grendel’s bluff, I think, but Reynart of course knows her personally. So they consent to dress up and have a fake marriage (much like Richard III talked Anne into marrying him, and Grendel’s plan is to discard Romana as soon as he gotten to the throne, as Richard let Anne waste away). Strella’s costume appears to have been recycled from “Monster of Peladon.”

The Doctor and K9 are doing the rescuing, enjoying a fun boat ride across the Grock castle moat in the darkness to later unlock the front door. The Doctor relishes breaking up the wedding and even more so, in a boldly and hilariously Pertwee-like move, the duel between himself and Grendel. This is highly unusual in Doctor Who, brings to mind both Hamlet and the later duel between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya. In the meantime, Romana follows Grendel’s majordomo and prevents him from killing the unsuspecting Strella; they have an amusing and cute conversation between the two of them. Grendel leaves to fight another day, the Doctor has to rescue K9 from the boat, and no one dies except poor unhappy Lamia. The Doctor cruelly teases Romana about the whereabouts of the Key to Time, which he has thoughtfully saved from Lamia’s workshop.

Like the sunny but uncomplicated “Black Orchid,” it’s difficult to bear a grudge against “Androids of Tara.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Stones of Blood

24/06/11 “The Stones of Blood”
Romana: Is Earth always like that?
The Doctor: Yes, sometimes it’s even exciting.

I love “Stones of Blood,” and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Certainly it’s a good example of Gothic horror (despite the largely female cast, you cannot call it a female Gothic because the threats are real and do kill people, they do not just exist in the mind)—I am not really familiar with Hammer Horror so I can’t comment on that. It also has a surprisingly small principal cast and the last episode would arguably work better on radio than on TV—so it must appeal to that part of my brain that likes radio plays so much. While I do not deny that at least twenty minutes could have been shaved off to combine episodes three and four into one, episode one is practically flawless. I stand by that opinion.

At the beginning, the Doctor and Romana are tracking down the third segment of the Key to Time. The Doctor starts out being quite patronizing, but much of that melts away throughout the story. He is genuinely excited when they find out the segment is on Earth. “Have I got a treat in store for you!” Romana says it’s his favorite planet. “How do you know that?” “Everyone knows that.” Meanwhile, on Earth, in England, the 1970s obsession with black magic and rites continues on apace; yawn. Yet, I would say that this and “The Daemons” are the best examples of this and the rest rather hide in their shadows (aside from Spectre of Lanyon Moor which borrows liberally and effectively from both). The rite, I should say, involves neo-Druids of some sort making a blood sacrifice to a Celtic goddess named the Cailleach (though it does sound like the chanters are chanting, “Carry on!”). The blood is slaked on some rather freaky standing stones. Plus some wonderfully moody cello music from Dudley Simpson; this and “Ribos Operation” are his best work so far, in my opinion.

Romana is quite hopelessly naïve, but at least her dress sense has recovered from that detour it took in “Pirate Planet”: she’s got a flashy but bold orange ensemble with a plaid hat and “those shoes”—1970s high heels that even the Doctor disapproves of. “I’m not a fashion expert . . .” “No.” (Companions tend to have similar quips throughout his life. It’s amusing.) There’s quite a strange scene (inserted, it is true, because the first episode under-ran) where the Doctor explains to Romana quite what is going on. “What would I do if something happened to you?” The Doctor quite sensibly takes an umbrella out onto the moor, which in fact he doesn’t need. Romana attempts to decipher his remark about tennis, but K9’s response is too literal, and when she tells him to forget it, he “erases memory banks concerning tennis.”

They have landed in what looks like Avebury (stone circle). It’s a wonderful setting, and despite the inability to coordinate studio lighting for the night scenes with the outdoor (video!) recording, it’s still rather impressive. It was perhaps wise that “The Pandorica Opens” dispensed with what ground was covered here. Romana looks like a freak holding out the tracer like a divining rod as she searches for the segment. They are interrupted in their search by Professor Amelia Rumford, an absolutely fabulous character who should have been a companion (and in a way was, for Dr Evelyn Smythe is at least partially inspired by her; surely the bit about the foogoos is a giveaway?). Amelia mistakes the Doctor for an expert in the field. “You read that paper on them [the foogoos].” The Doctor plays along and recognizes her as eminent in stone circle archaeology—“you’re too kind,” she says, “but perfectly right.” The Doctor recognizes blood on the stones just as Amelia’s assistant Miss Vivian Fay arrives, looking dashingly late ‘70s in her pink pant suit. “Just another sacrifice.” “I think you dismiss them too easily,” says Amelia. They refer to Mr De Vries’ cult. “He doesn’t like scientists.”

The Doctor wants to go talk to De Vries who lives in a nearby mansion, but Romana can’t keep up because of her shoes. David Fisher’s handling of Amelia’s feminism is a bit heavy-handed—“typical male”—but her actions speak louder than her words. Romana, meanwhile, stays behind with the women at the circle and ruminates on the “evil-looking” crows/ravens (an odd thing for Romana to say, but she is quite inexperienced—strange she didn’t think the Schrivenzale looked evil when she first saw it!). Romana is offered a “mug of tea.” A wonderful location is De Vries’ house; what a fantastic (and convincing) Tudor mansion. De Vries himself looks like a bank teller; I really want to know why he’s been drawn into this Druidic fascination. Since the cult of the Cailleach is so overwhelmingly female, what’s his interest? What does he do? How can he afford the upkeep of such a house? He tells the Doctor that the last visiting archaeologist died when a stone fell on him. The Doctor notices the missing paintings on the walls (very Gothic) and De Vries says it was the previous owners of the estate, Lady Morgana Montcalm, Mrs Trefussis, Señora Camara (very Gothic and Arthurian names). The Doctor has a wonderful monologue about Druids, which is quite erudite and yet moves at a breathtaking pace: “there’s so little of it that’s historically accurate.” He says John Aubrey the antiquarian made it up as a joke. De Vries is not in a joking mood. “The stones are sacred.” “To whom?” The Doctor is startled by the “appearance” of the Cailleach, and De Vries knocks him out. Romana’s been lured away in the dark toward the cliff edge; it’s almost as if it’s that moment in Jane Eyre when Rochester and Jane can hear each other even though physically they’re apart. Anyway, although it is very much a literal cliffhanger, with Romana falling down the side of the mountain, it’s not that satisfying.

Romana has to hang there for quite a long time as De Vries and his wife?/lover? Martha is trying to persuade him not to kill the Doctor for a blood sacrifice at the stones. They are interrupted by the return of Amelia who unties the Doctor. Amelia wishes they had a dog so they could find where Romana has disappeared to. That’s when the Doctor summons K9; “I am not programmed to bark.” They do find Romana on the cliff edge and eventually help her back up; however, she believes the Doctor is evil and they determine that someone has been using transformative powers to trick Romana. The Doctor goes back to confront De Vries in a further attempt to figure out what’s going on; Romana goes to Vivien Fay’s cottage to look over Amelia’s notes. The Doctor finds the corpses of De Vries and Martha buried under rubble, which we saw was caused by moving, animate stones. Now, the moving stones are a wonderful idea and a great Gothic Horror device; I had to think of the story “Man-Sized Marble” where two stone villains come out of their tombs to kill people. When the stones return, K9 is able to fend them off but is ripped to shreds in the process. Romana and the Doctor have to take five to repair him and for Romana to get some decent shoes (she’s been climbing up the cliff face barefoot!).

She in fact changes her entire outfit, into a nice red broom skirt in the second wardrobe triumph of the story. When Amelia meets K9 for the first time, the Doctor says, “He’s mechanical. They’re all the rage in Trenton, NJ.” WTF? Much has been made of Professor Rumford and Vivien sharing the cottage, and fans for some reason have worked themselves into a lather on whether they’re a lesbian couple. If so, it’s not exactly liberating, when you consider the fate of Vivien and the (unseen) emotional impact it must have on Amelia! The feminine/feminist angle continues when Romana notices that all the landholders of the moor and the stones have been women for 4,000 years. Vivien oh-so-charmingly tries to put her off the scent. With Evelyn Smythe’s determination, Amelia decides to go after the Doctor as he has not returned from De Vries’. She is quite proudly carrying a truncheon with her, which Vivien wittily notes got Amelia arrested in New York. When there, the Doctor notes that there must be a hidden passage and correctly links the raven symbol of the Cailleach. “A priest hole!” “Well, it is old enough.”

Thus follows a wonderfully Gothic scene (Dorian Gray but doubles are a hugely Gothic theme) where the Doctor and Amelia find all the missing paintings of the previous owners, who of course are all Vivien Fay. The Doctor puts it all together, and it’s wonderfully dripping with atmosphere. However, here and many other times down the line, I think about Amelia’s position and how strange and hurtful the story must be from this point on. Her friend (and probably lover) is older than 4,000 years? She’s impersonating a Celtic goddess? She presumably has a hidden agenda and bad intentions? What did Amelia and Vivien discuss if they were lovers? How strong was the bond between them? I doubt they considered themselves soulmates—maybe it was just a fling?

In any case, Romana takes it upon herself to go visit the stone circle. She doesn’t twig that Vivien is dressed rather strangely and allows herself to be thrown into the circle and spirited away to unknown climes. I should mention at this point that the Cailleach costume is amazing. It’s so eerie and weird but also wonderfully simple.

In the next episode, the Doctor and Amelia are interrupted by the arrival of the traveling stone. The Doctor tells her to “Run!” Amelia tries to get her head around this situation. “I think it our duty to capture that creature!” she says fearlessly. They are able to get rid of one of the stones by making it fall off the cliff (how stupid is a stone?). They then reach the stone circle where Vivien tells them that Romana will be safe (and far away) as long as the Doctor desists in his meddling. The Doctor can’t, however, for the obvious reasons, and also because “You’ve got something I need.” She, however, disappears. The Doctor realizes the stones are Ogri from the planet Ogros. He also says that as silicon-based lifeforms that survive on amino acids, they have to get them from blood. An understandably distraught Amelia cries, “What about Vivien? What about Romana?” As ever, I am interested in the particularly psychologically damaging situations that Who glosses over. Steven Taylor being on Mechanus all by himself (with just the panda)? Vicki under the control of Bennett? And Amelia—she can’t really process during the story what this betrayal from Vivien means, but think of after the Doctor and Romana leave.

The Doctor, perhaps mercifully, directs Amelia’s mind toward hyperspace, a theoretical impossibility but one where he expects Romana and Vivien are hidden. There’s a wonderfully erudite and fast-moving scene between the Doctor and Amelia in the cottage with K9 being smug; some of my favorite lines from Doctor Who come from this scene. The Doctor, rather Pertwee-esque, constructs a machine that he hopes will beam him onto the hyperspace ship. However, it has a very small range. He and Amelia set it up in the stone circle but at first it doesn’t seem to work. Amelia is again overworked and apologizes. “There is an error in the circuitry—you are not to blame.” “We’re not all programmed for perfection, you know!” says the Doctor. However, he fixes the machine, and Amelia and K9 beam him up. They have decided to keep operating the machine at regular intervals so the Doctor can return. However, they are hampered in their attempts by attacking Ogri, who K9 manages to fend off. Next follows an infamous, rather “Image of Fendahl” scene where two campers are killed by one of the Ogri (how efficient at feeding can they possibly be if they have to cause their prey to touch them?). It’s a vivid, suspenseful scene. Rather new Who-esque. There is some great music.

Aboard the hyperspace ship, the Doctor finds a chained up Romana without much difficulty, sets her free, and they discuss the implications. Interesting model design of the ship, though the actual set is a bit duller. “How do you decelerate infinite mass?” It’s the Bidmead era that wanted to be so hard science-driven, but I’m finding a lot more (purported/theoretical) science in this season. The Doctor and Romana go around opening vaults, finding skeletons, and the Doctor speculates they’re on a convict ship. When they open an apparently empty room, releasing the “invisible” occupants, it makes me think of the nanogenes in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.” With the Megara , the justice machines, I think visual and vocal performance match up really well, and the actors do pretty well acting to thin air. This whole bit is interesting but quite a radical shift from the rest of the action and could be, as I said before, twenty minutes shorter. But, as I said, this is the part that could have worked really well on radio. As you can probably guess, they defend “the letter but not the spirit” of the law and want to execute the Doctor for having broken the seals on their container.

Vivien has found the opportunity to change into a stunning, silvery, scanty, somewhat Boudiccca-esque dress and is a bit Eldrad-glam with silvery skin. She beams down to Earth to destroy the machine; Amelia can neither stop her nor does Vivien take the opportunity to kill Amelia. However, the episode ends as the Doctor and Romana are apparently trapped in hyperspace forever, with the Doctor’s execution imminent.

The Doctor’s trial takes place on the hyperspace ship, and he is allowed to defend himself (randomly he seems to carry a judge’s wig in his pocket). He does a masterful job, as you can expect, calling Romana to be a witness as well as trying to involve “Vivien” in an attempt to discover her true identity. A drained K9 awakens Amelia’s sympathies—“are you better, dear?” K9 is determined to build a new machine. “You will work under my direction,” he tells Amelia. And in fact Amelia rises to the challenge. I have always liked K9 in the abstract but found his contribution to stories to be mixed at best, annoying at worst. However, in the past two stories at least he has proven himself to be quite useful, amusing, and vital.

With the machine now working, Romana is able to beam back where she and Amelia try hard to discover Vivien’s identity. An interesting thread that doesn’t go far is that she has an allergy to citric acid. Independently the Doctor is discovering aboard the ship that she is Cessair of Diplos, a wanted criminal who, among other crimes, took the Seal of Diplos which has many snazzy powers. His attempts to get her to confess this are foiled, but (in a somewhat weak plot point after his rather dashing defense) he grabs Vivien and drags her into the beam that was supposed to kill him. The Megara are forced to read her mind to see if she is injured, and thus realize that she is actually the criminal. She is sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. The Doctor grabs the necklace off her neck before she is changed into a stone (Paul Cornell surely took inspiration here!) in the circle and left there. The Doctor has also cleverly gotten away from the insatiable Megara (ungrateful swine). As he, Romana, and K9 go on their way with the third segment to the Key to Time in their possession, Amelia says, “Poor Vivien—I can’t help feeling sorry for her.”

This was great fun.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pirate Planet

19/06/11 “The Pirate Planet”
“People often overlook the obvious.” --The Doctor

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this story, and the impression overall is of writing that is literally taking an air car over the rest of the production. This means, in real terms, that the first two episodes were quite dull and that the final revelations in the second half made the action pick up quite a lot. The story is one that works wonderfully in a format like Doctor Who and is something the latter-day two-parters are built on: a story arc that rewards you for continuing to watch and see how deep the corruption and plotting goes. However, I just wonder how it will fare in repeated viewings, given there was so much else in the production that I didn’t like at all.

I shouldn’t be so unfair as to allow the story to be dragged down by peripherals like the limitations of special effects, costumes, sets, and supporting actors (this is Doctor Who, after all!) but it’s so painful in comparison to “The Ribos Operation” that came just before it. The idea of a pirate planet hopping around the universe and pillaging the mineral wealth of planets while crushing the life out of them is inventive and works well in the Doctor Who universe, and ingeniously helps out the special effects team by making the population of Zanak unaware of its fate other than “the lights changing.” However, that unfortunately reduces Zanac visually to an extremely dull and bland cityscape populated with terribly irritating costumes, the mountain/bridge to an unconvincing organic-looking model, and the location shots don’t integrate well at all. And I haven’t even gotten to the acting. Or the heavy-handed music.

Hmm, I’m not even sure where to start. The outfits on the bridge are studded with metal and immediately make me think of Blake’s 7, as do the hairstyles. Mr Fibuli, on the other hand, seems to be wearing something straight out of Star Wars. The Captain is a blustering bully with overblown phrases (“I’ll have your bones bleached!”, etc), and despite the nuancing we learn of him later, I still lose patience with him and his acting. Something flies off his shoulder and for a long time I try to figure out what it is. Turns out it’s a cybernetic parrot with only one function: to kill. Now, I am rather amused by the idea of our idea of the Golden Age of piracy being transferred to the future in far outer space, but the Captain’s costume and his pathetic bird really make the imagination droop rather than cause it to soar. Once again the idea is great but the execution less so.

The Mentiads, besides being dressed in God-knows-what, are quite an unmotivated bunch of extras (even for zombies/a gestalt of telepaths) which demonstrate their proclivity for this over and over. Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, the Doctor, Romana and K9 are homing in on the second segment of the Key to Time, and I have to wonder if some time (and other adventures) have passed between this and “Ribos Operation,” simply because the relationship between the Doctor and Romana has really improved. They seem to have won each other over. Romana has definitely gotten over acting childish, though the same cannot entirely be said of the Doctor. I like the heroic role K9 takes in this story, but his facetious sides are a bit trying. The Doctor declares that finding the next segment will be a “piece of cake.” Romana is unable to operate the TARDIS because she didn’t take the module on “veteran and vintage vehicles.” “Now you’re being frivolous.” They’re looking for a planet called Calufrax and Romana wants to try to land. “By the book?” And like Martha later, she is all about going by the book (of course—it is Romana after all!). Unfortunately, even Romana can’t get out of this story unscathed as her costume is absolutely terrible. The only thing I can say in its defense is at least it’s practical. Unfortunately, and not due to any fault of her own, Romana doesn’t manage to land the TARDIS on Calufrax correctly, which causes K9 to start tripping the light fantastic.

On the bridge, as well, the Captain wonders whether Mr Fibuli is trying to “scuttle this planet?!” Some poor guy named Pralix is having a nervous fit while his father, sister Mula, and brother (or brother-in-law? I was never clear on this) Kemis look on. His father just wrings his hands and hopes the Mentiads won’t come. “It is a mistake to ask any questions.” They all have absolutely revolting costumes, though the wall murals inside their dwellings are the one redeeming feature. When the Doctor, Romana, and K9 venture outside the TARDIS, they find “this planet wasn’t there when I tried to land.” What has become of Calufrax? Romana is achieving more success talking to the locals than the Doctor. “What would SHE know about it?” the Doctor pettishly asks K9. “She is prettier than you are, Master,” replies K9. Which may be true, and is quite an amusing and quotable line, but really defeats the point—Romana’s physical attractiveness may have something to do with it, but surely it’s her charming manner that is really making the difference? She even offers jelly babies. They make the acquaintance of Kemis, a rebel-in-the-making, who gives her some jewels as if they were baubles—a nice nod to Candide. Kemis and Mula explain that the Captain announces a new age of prosperity and life is good. The Doctor follows them home, but Romana is separated and picked up by some guards.
Guard : [Taking a telescope from Romana] “This is a forbidden object.”
Romana : “Why?”
Guard : “That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?”
Romana : “Well, yes.”
Guard : “Strangers are forbidden.”
Romana : “I did come with the Doctor.”
Guard : “Who is the . . .?”
Romana : “Ah, now don't tell me. Doctors are forbidden as well.”
All of this isn’t actually so hard to believe (which I suppose is the point, and the point of the satire). If people are kept in a reasonable state of comfortable living, they tend not to ask many questions and when forbidden from doing so, don’t make too much of a fuss. At least, Pralix’s father’s generation is this way.

The episode ending comes when the Mentiads burst in on Pralix, apparently intent on kidnapping him for climes unknown, and when the Doctor tries to intervene (in a friendly enough manner) they pin him to the wall with their psychic powers. The Mentiads leave with Pralix, and the Doctor and Kemis are determined to find out more. Mula prefers to go search out the Mentiads herself, with K9 in tow. Romana is breezy and blasé about air car travel, partially because she received one for her 70th birthday (presumably a trendy teenage gift idea on Gallifrey?). Kemis and the Doctor lure a guard away from his air car, this time by using liquorice all sorts to jelly babies (which personally I prefer anyway). Next is a wishy washy special effect, but the idea of the Doctor flying around in such a vehicle is as lovely and carefree as he and Romana II later careening through the streets of 1979 Paris. “It’s an economic miracle, of course it’s wrong,” says the doubting Doctor of Zanac’s prosperity.

Meanwhile, Romana remains calm under the questioning of the Captain, who calls her a “common space urchin.” However, the Captain’s “nurse” is more shrewd and thinks Romana’s claims about space and time travel are “interesting.” She makes a curious example of the only female role besides Romana and Mula—Mula is meant to be heroic but just spends the story tramping around in her weird outfit. Once we find out the nurse’s true identity her powerful asides in this scene become much less noteworthy (and again her costume is terrible) but they are all ideas worth considering. When the Doctor and Kemis reach the entrance to the bridge, the Doctor gives the disappointed Kemis the job of standing on guard, while the Doctor takes the short cut (“I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again”). This is one of the coolest parts in the story and lo and behold, an effect that actually works!

Because the bridge is having trouble with some of the components in their big space-hopping venture, they allow Romana to live in order to examine the faulty pieces. She says that the Doctor will know more than her; a disingenuous, “I’m only his assistant.” The Doctor then obligingly shows up. The Captain allows them to take a look at the engine, only the Doctor knows that he suspects them. The Doctor lies and says that the TARDIS needs both Romana and him to open it. They manage to escape into the mine, which makes the Captain none too happy. This is the only filming that is at all interesting; it’s the showcaves in southeast Wales and look quite good, better than your average quarry. It’s here that the Doctor, Romana, and Kemis make the fatal discovery, that Zanac is hollow (though how exactly they realize that from it being “cold” I can’t recall). “Whole other worlds have died to make us rich!” However, they are then intercepted by the Mentiads in something of a recycling of the last episode’s cliffhanger. (Don’t you hate when they do that?)

Episode three is where things at last start to pick up. The definitely Federation-looking guard says, “Kill them all” as he comes upon the Doctor, Kemis, Romana, and the Mentiads, but the guards are repulsed by the Mentiads’ mental strength. Among them is the zombified Pralix; all of them escape to where K9 and Mula are waiting. (A strange Mentiad dance mix plays.) The Doctor talks to the enlightened Mentiads. “Why haven’t you kicked him [the Captain] out?” It transpires that the power-mad Queen Xanxia who apparently lived for hundreds of years (“Come on, I’ve known hundreds of people who lived for hundreds of years,” the Doctor mutters) ravaged and exploited the planet and then after her disappearance not much but roving bands of tribesmen were left. Then the Captain crashlanded and was rebuilt from scratch by someone with worryingly specialist skills.

On the bridge, the Captain and Mr Fibuli confer regarding when they will be able to achieve their next planet jump and whether or not they can find the minerals they need. They are able to find them, on Terra in the system of Sol, “a pretty planet,” whose population does not concern the Captain. However, he is abruptly starting to show some shading, especially regarding his own engineering skills. “It is not scale that counts but skill.” He is also annoyed to be “bound to this rock” and wants freedom. The Doctor and Kemis have meanwhile split up with Romana, Mula, and the Mentiads. The Doctor and Kemis are captured and bound to a pillar. In his delirium the Doctor talks about Janus thorns, which is quite sweet actually. He mocks and goads the Captain’s selfish, cruel actions—“where’s the derring do in that?”

The Captain takes the Doctor to look at his “trophy room” which shows the compressed remains of the taken planets. “Pointless but staggering,” announces the Doctor. It also shows “exquisite gravitational geometry” which prevents Zanac from becoming a big black hole. Tom Baker turns in an unexpected and quite stunning performance here: “Appreciate it . . . appreciate it! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it! Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly-conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets.” Captain: “Devilstorms, Doctor . . . It is not a toy!” The Doctor: “Then what's it FOR?! What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?”

K9 brilliantly comes to the rescue, flying his own air car, to the astonishment of the native Zanacs. The Doctor and Kemis are able to escape, finding themselves face-to-face with the preserved death-in-life corpse of Queen Xanxia, kept alive in the last few moments before her body ceases to exist. The time dams, that which have been crushing the planets, are what’s keeping her alive. The parrot then attacks, but wonderfully K9 shoots the bugger and brings it back to the Doctor who returns it to a crushed and angry Captain. “It was becoming a great nuisance.” He then makes the Doctor walk the plank.

This, by contrast, is a very good cliffhanger, one that gets recycled in such far-flung sources as Legacy. For the Doctor has not only figured out that someone’s using a projection rather than a physical form, but he’s been able to duplicate the effect himself to a very successful degree! This is a wonderful coup for the Doctor. Romana, too, gains the upper hand when she picks up a blaster Mula has been rather inefficiently carrying around and shoots a guard with superb aim (rather like Sarah Jane in “Pyramids of Mars”), seeing as how the Mentiads’ powers have conveniently been jammed by a mechanism built for that express purpose by the Captain/the nurse. For the nurse, as the Doctor rightly deduced and I rather suspected, is actually the almost-fully-formed projection of Queen Xanxia (who has a lot of problems, let’s not mince words—and a rather surprising number of villains in Key to Time turn out to be women). The Doctor carries on goading her as he did the Captain, enraging her with his superior knowledge of why her plan won’t work, carried out as it is under a false premise. She has of course been controlling the Captain, who is unable to intervene. However, a blaster shot at the right moment disintegrates her image.

The Doctor explains to Romana that he helped Isaac Newton discover gravity and also comes up with his plan to stop the destruction of Earth by materializing the TARDIS at the same time and special coordinates as Zanac. This is done in the moving corridor, and there’s a wonderfully funny gag as the pursuing guards get slammed against the wall because they haven’t stopped in time. Romana is skeptical that this can be achieved without exploding the TARDIS. “It’s been nice knowing you,” she says to the Doctor.” “You, too.” The bridge explodes, killing most of the guards and Mr Fibuli, which saddens the Captain. The Mentiads and native Zanacs remain outside the bridge in order to do some more exploding, while the Doctor further extemporizes on his brilliant plan, which Romana agrees, “all right, it’s fantastic.” I personally don’t really understand it, though the Doctor has by then decided that Calufrax, the planet itself, is the segment of the Key to Time. “It’s not a normal planet.” There are further explosions, the Doctor is happy because he feels “very satisfied” having blown Xanxia up, and that’s the end. While I feel a bit satisfied he blew her up as well, I don’t think it’s a very good sentiment for the Doctor to espouse!

With some reservations I did end up enjoying this, but it hadn’t quite lived up to expectations considering what Douglas Adams was later able to achieve.