Sunday, October 21, 2012

Classic Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories

‘No,’ said the elderly man with the stained moustache sitting opposite me in the train, ‘I don’t believe in ghosts, lot of nonsense.’  Having said that he vanished.  

I have no idea who Rex Collings is, but he has assembled a very entertaining collection of ghost stories, with a spine-chill factor of between 2 and 7, which is exactly what is desirable in such a collection, the intent of which is to give a frisson of terror but to ultimately allow for closure and peace of mind.  These are not horror stories and are not necessarily Gothic tales, either.  Some are humorous and make the “ghost” a joke; some treat the matter seriously and should not be read alone in the dark.  I quite like reading short stories during Tube journeys because they do not require the focus of mind that novels do. 

The epithet of Victorian is sometimes questionable, as in the case of Sir Walter Scott.  His is the most “Gothic” of the tales and reads like a somewhat toned-down Walpole or Radcliffe.  “The Tapestried Chamber” is a straightforward yarn and is little embroidered upon in that respect; it has two of the elements that are really essential for this collection, that being setting (an ancient castle in a woodland, an ancestral home) and a skeptical, manly protagonist who is insistent on never having believed in ghosts before (General Browne, lately from the American Revolution).  In fact, even when the authors are women, the narrators are almost always men.  I wonder if this is a particularly Victorian reaction against the female Gothic; in this “age of scientific reason,” sentiment is the domain of women and therefore can be explained away as “the vapours.”  

The next story, “The Spectre of Tappington,” by Richard Harris Barham, takes things a little less seriously, though it shares the setting of the former story, being an ancestral home.  However, given that it concerns an Elizabethan ghost who steals breeches, it seems hardly surprising that it should end with a wedding.  It is a very entertainingly written story, almost of a Regency bent, as if written by a male (and lesser) Jane Austen (even if during the action of it a pug gets scalded with tea!!). Things grow a bit more serious, though less sinister than religious, with R.S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost,” the story of a 17th century clergyman who exorcises the ghost of a prophetic young women.  It reminded me in its rural setting of The Anatomy of Ghosts. 

There are a number of stories that can’t, strictly speaking, be called ghost stories at all.   I had a feeling I had heard Mrs Gaskell’s “Squire’s Story” as a radio drama some time ago, and by the end of the story that feeling was confirmed.  It has the feeling of Washington Irving in its 18th century rural setting, though the whitewashed country house is a bit of a double-bluff.  In the radio version, it was framed by the perpetually popular Cranford characters, but that version at least had a discernible climax, which I’m sorry to say the original lacks entirely. Thackeray’s story of Revolutionary France, “The Story of Mary Ancel,” is very well-written and quite a good thriller, but really has nothing to do with ghosts.  

Dickens’ “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt,” is, all things considered, not strictly a ghost story, it has to do with the telling of the truth by a jury at a murder trial.  However, it is very haunting and creepy nonetheless.  “Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand” by J.S. LeFanu is rather creepy but ultimately mundane and a bit irritatingly melodramatic.  “The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed” is one of Wilkie Collins’ best-known tales and again, not really a ghost story but quite fun and atmospheric.  “In the Cliff Land of the Dane” by Robert Pease reminded me—in some weird way—of the radio adaptation of Ellis Peters’ Flight of a Witch on Radio 4extra a few years ago; overall it rather goes into the description of “unexplained.”  Saki’s wicked wit is evident in a similar tale called “Laura.”  I won’t spoil that one for you.  

Dickens’ “The Story of Bagman’s Uncle” and “The Phantom Coach” by Amelia B. Edwards come at a similar story from a completely different angle.  The former is a delightfully whimsical story of a Scottish drinker of repute who appears to get whisked into a past of nostalgic mail coaches and deeds of derring-do (or else has a very colorful hallucination).  Being Dickens, it’s wonderfully told.  Edwards’ story, however, was one of the more unusual and thought-provoking of the collection.  Who is the old man with a house full of scientific paraphernalia isolated on the moors?  Why does he let the narrator go?  And how unusual it is for a living person (at least in stories of this type) to nearly be killed by the re-enactment of a tragedy on its anniversary? 

“Fisher’s Ghost” by John Lang is an Australian ghost story, rather simple but effective.  “Eveline’s Visitant” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon anticipates Twilight territory with its twist. I am so happy to have finally read “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde.  This was a wonderfully-written story, funny, beautifully descriptive, and while not scary, quite atmospheric and with superb detail.     

As for the really scary sh*t, there is some of that.  Having only ever read J.S. LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” which is a brilliant and beautiful tale yet nonetheless not very scary as such, I was unprepared for the chilling “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.” For some reason, I found this story infiltrating my daydreams, perhaps because it is so sound-specific, and yet the sight of the ghost/manifestations are fleeting.  Sounds—such as bare feet descending stairs and coming to rest on the landing—are almost universal and in a creaky house such as the one I live in, it is far too easy for my overactive imagination to fear the worst.  

Damn him or it, curse the portrait and its original! I felt in my soul that the rat—yes, the RAT I had just seen, was that evil being in masquerade and rambling through the house upon some infernal night lark.  

I’ve often heard it claimed that M.R. James’ short stories are among the scariest of all time, though my experiences with his writing as adapted for radio have been underwhelming.  However, both his stories in this collection live up to his reputation.  “The Haunted Doll’s House” is terrifying and unusual; I won’t say much about it so it’s not spoiled for you.  “A School Story” is the collection’s pièce de résistance; I’ve never encountered such an unusual and creative ghost story that still sends a shiver down the spine. His work is like a puzzle and though things are never “explained,” there is a sense of closure when all the pieces are put together. 

Though strictly not a ghost story, “Markheim” by Robert Louis Stevenson is the best-written story in the collection; in fact, it’s rather a masterpiece and I’m surprised I’d never heard of it before.  Its depiction of the Devil is one of the scariest I can imagine.  “Man-Sized in Marble” by Edith Nesbit was also adapted for radio, and though I very much enjoyed the bittersweet simplicity of the original story, I think the adaptation was actually richer and more suspenseful.   “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon proves that even electric light cannot banish all ghostly activity. 

There is an appendix of “true” ghost stories from the Victorian period, including something from James Hogg, a clergyman’s story from India, and a rather strange yet anticlimactic avowal of weirdness from 1860 in the Tower of London (which I’ve just learned could be considered the world’s most haunted building).   

Friday, October 19, 2012

Batman: The Animated Series (1)

Batman:  The Animated Series (season 1)

I rewarded myself, after having expended a lot of time and energy writing and researching a book chapter about Batman, by buying what really started it in the first place for me, Batman:  The Animated series, which, along with Animaniacs and Power Rangers, is one of my principal memories of after-school during fifth grade.  While many people I’ve spoken to have memories of Batman as camp because of the Adam West series (which, as I understand it, was heavily syndicated in the UK), I always knew that Batman was dark, angsty, and to be taken seriously as a hero (to this day I still haven’t seen the Tim Burton film, so all my knowledge pre-2005 and pre-my TDK comics binge is really from B:tAS).  Unsurprisingly, B:tAS is so good, re-watching it as an adult has only made me desperate to acquire the whole run of the series. 
However, I think I came into the series after this initial run of 28 episodes, because none of them were really ringing any bells (though I was familiar with four or five because I watched them on YouTube post-TDK).  So it was quite exciting to see episodes that were almost completely new to me.  Mostly this meant good surprises, but it also occasionally revealed some duds.  

What makes B:tAS work so well is that aesthetically it is some of the best animation you will see anywhere, much less on network cartoons; the talent behind the scenes, including the voice actors, writers, and producers is second-to-none.  Not only are these people fans of Batman, but they are also committed to a good story and are willing to take risks and reinvent things.  Certainly there is not the same amount of reinvention seen in the Nolan!verse, but that really is like comparing apples and oranges.  B:tAS is the epitome of one version of Batman.  The visuals want to be taken seriously, and so do the stories.  Mostly they succeed.  

I grew up wanting to be an animator.  To this day, I hate drawing backgrounds and would have loved to have gone into character animation.  So while I can’t pretend to be really qualified to discuss the art of B:tAS, I think anyone who looks at it has to be knocked out.  I found out that the backgrounds were painted on black paper; this is “Dark Deco.”   The mood and the tone are really established before anyone says a word.  I had a conversation with my dad not too long ago about Batman on the radio when he was a kid.  I really had to ask myself how Batman can work on radio, considering it came from comics and has flourished in visual media.  Radio can paint visual pictures of menace, darkness, and atmosphere (“Who knows what evil lurks in men’s hearts?  The Shadow knows . . .”), and although I have heard one episode of The Green Hornet, I still have difficulty imagining how a serious Batman story could succeed on radio[1] (I suppose it would have to have a lot of dialogue between Batman and Robin, perhaps even a narrator).  All this is to say that B:tAS creates a Gotham that is beautiful even when it’s being terrible.  It really is the kind of sublime that Friederich painted in the 19th century.  

B:tAS is also written in an alternative universe where cars have retained their sleek 1930s shapes, buildings are still built in Deco styles, Bruce Wayne can wear a double-breasted suit, and reporter Summer Gleason wears a shirtwaist-style dress (contrast her with Ginger Coffee in Darwyn Cooke’s rejigged The Spirit).  TV exists but only in black-and-white, and people still listen to the radio.  The police of Gotham have blimps (!) and the Batmobile has features Nolan!verse Tumbler could only dream about.  

I’ve said before that Batman is a hyperdiegentic universe (give that one to Matt Hills, of course), and B:tAS really demonstrates that by its first episode dropping us into Gotham.  There’s no Batman Begins/Year One-style introduction.  We can assume it’s relatively early in Batman’s experiences, but he is by no means a rookie in “On Leather Wings.”  All the visual (and narrative) shorthand you need is in the opening titles, surely some of the best titles ever made.  As was pointed out to me, no one says anything and nowhere does it ever say “Batman.”  The Warner Brothers logo dissolves into the (faintly scary to me, when I was 11!) police blimps.  Like the Doctor, Batman has had a troubled relationship with authority throughout his 70-odd year existence, but B:tAS is there to set a moral example to kids, so we immediately understand from the titles that when the police can’t catch the criminals, Batman steps in.  And with such style.  Batman’s glare at those two criminals could freeze your heart (and it’s done so simply, just shifting the white shapes that stand for Batman’s eyes).  The stylized hand-to-hand combat establishes something we’ll see over and over in the stories:  Batman knocks the guns out of the criminals’ hands before he knocks the criminals out, and he is always using his martial arts in a clever (and visually arresting) way.  And the backdrop of the moon shows both the series’ Romantic side and its love, again, of the visually interesting.  

And who could forget Shirley Walker’s music?!  It’s as much a character in the titles, and in the series, as Gotham itself.  Quite frankly, the title sequence is so good that my boyfriend and I still sat and watched it, not looking down at our plates while eating dinner, the subsequent times we watched the 28 episodes.  He had never seen B:tAS before.  

And finally, those “title card”-type introductions to the names of episodes are another stunner.  They remind me of silent film titles with their artistry and attention to detail, and clearly each episode is important if they are introduced in such a way.

“On Leather Wings” has garnered a reputation as one of the best stories in B:tAS, and while I didn’t think I would like it much given that Man-Bat is a rather one-note villain, I was surprised to find it still holds up as a truly great episode.  Visually it still pushes the envelope, and I can imagine how wowed people would have been in 1992.  The director and animators have treated it like a mini-feature film, and the “camera” soars and swoops with Batman and Man-Bat through the skies of Gotham.  Also within it is the trademark gentle humor that cracked more than a few smiles during the course of the episode—the security guard who wants to be a radio presenter is just one example.  You get the sense in B:tAS that even the minor characters have a story to tell.  For example, the two scientists going out on the fire escape to neck have more depth in 15 seconds than Petra and Sutton in all 7 parts of “Inferno.”

The Bat Cave is a lot more dark and fantastical (and uncomfortable-looking!) than Christian Bale’s, and the Bat Computer, though it hasn’t aged all that well, still keeps the story going.  Alfred is the gentleman’s gentleman and though possessed of a dry humor that never fails to get a chuckle, is still the restrained character from the comics.  Kevin Conroy, of course, is the ultimate Batman and Bruce Wayne; what a voice.  He is absolutely believable throughout the series, even though Batman has to shout epithets like “scum!” at criminals (in lieu of bad language inadmissible in a cartoon; do you think, like the Lone Ranger, Batman is not allowed to swear?).  

The simple story actually works well and provides the anchor for the visual flights of fancy.  There are also the first of the voice cameos from the likes of René Auberjonois, and it became a game for my boyfriend and I to try to figure out who was this week’s guest star.  B:tAS understood, like good audio understands, that casting the right voices is half the director’s job done.  

One of my favorite pieces of my own fan fic is “Christmas with the Joker,” which is vastly different from the one presented in B:tAS and obviously inferior.  Anyway, this is another very enjoyable if extremely screwy story and a rare outing for Robin.  I’m rather on the fence about Robin; it’s so easy to make him camp, lightweight, and inessential to the story, so I often prefer just ignoring his existence altogether.  However, at his best, he can be a great foil for Batman/Bruce’s monotone wit, and this proves to be one of the best examples.  The ending, which shows Bruce and Dick watching the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, is utterly surreal.  

“Christmas with the Joker” also gives us the Mark Hamill Joker who is really great and memorable, and is in fact everything the Heath Ledger Joker is not.  I appreciate them both.  I think the B:tAS Joker is absolutely mad.  Even if he appears to be planning his madness, I don’t think it’s something he can really help.  I don’t remember enough of B:tAS to confirm whether this Joker was a fairly inoffensive Red Hood before falling into the chemical vat (though the fact that he gets called Jack Napier in “Dreams of Darkness” suggests this is so), but I think it’s just possible this Joker might have been driven physically insane by the chemicals.  Whereas I think the Nolan!verse Joker is mad north by northwest. (Oh dear, first Milton’s Satan, now Hamlet . . .)

The Joker is used a lot in the first few episodes of B:tAS, so the producers and writers clearly have a fondness for him.  Shirley Walker’s bravura music reaches a new level in the jaunty yet bizarre “The Last Laugh.”  There’s also something innately funny about Batman battling the Joker’s robotic admiral clown!  Paul Dini, however, proves to be (in my opinion) the most consistently good writer that Batman ever had.  “Joker’s Favor” is, on one level, a silly outing and an excuse to bring in Harley Quinn.  On the other, it’s a diabolical story.  In B:tAS, with so many villains-of-the-week and crime bosses, the stories that revolve around actual citizens make a real impact, and everyman Charlie Collins is a lovely creation. As in many of these stories, the Joker’s motives seem shrouded in mystery, and when at the end, Charlie threatens him and causes him to cowardly seek Batman’s help, he makes a character more pathetic than archetypal.

The Scarecrow also seems to be a real favorite with the B:tAS folks as he clocks in at least as many stories as the Joker and is introduced immediately after him; perhaps his methods give the most possibilities for stories, or perhaps the fact that he uses non-lethal gas makes him easier to adapt for kids’ TV.  I have to confess I never really cared one way or the other for the Scarecrow until Cillian Murphy came along.  In the twisted way that fan canon works, I forget that the back story I gave to my Jonathan Crane is not the one that chimes with the one that introduced him in the 1940s.  Nevertheless, there is enough murkiness to the character here, played by Henry Polic II, to be able to sustain a richer back story (she says, hopefully . . .). 
The Scarecrow must have struck the Nolans as being particularly suitable for their Batman, as he was a crucial part of Batman Begins and his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises was perfect.  This is because, I guess, his weapon is fear itself, which is both potent and multifarious.  Fear can attack Batman like almost no other adversary.  Scarecrow’s introduction in “Nothing to Fear” does not differ visibly from the expected DC one, but Bruce/Batman’s visions about a father who is disappointed in him are notably poignant.  He appears again in “Fear of Victory,” which somehow seems so contemporaneous it could have appeared in the Nolan!verse—or in the current run of comics.  Robin makes one of his few appearances here, paralyzed with fear when he accidentally exposes himself to fear toxin meant for his college roommate and football star (visions of “The Pajama Game” . . . ).  He appears again in “Dreams in Darkness,” a wonderfully crafted episode with some of the most visually inventive artwork of the series so far.  His scheme in this story is so remarkably similar to the one employed in Batman Begins, you do begin to wonder if the right people are given their dues.  

The next villain to be introduced is Poison Ivy in the superb “Pretty Poison,” which intertwines her story with that of Harvey Dent, underlining the friendship between Harvey and Bruce and putting their relationship on the slow boil for the eventual culmination.  I fear Ivy is one of the most one-dimensional villains, benefiting the most when combined with Harley so the pair can compare and contrast their personalities and methods.  Ivy is a bit one-note, and I can only imagine that her perennial popularity is due solely to the fact that she can be drawn voluptuously, even practically naked, to become the kind of sex object she herself would decry.  Like environmental extremists in a Barry Letts Doctor Who story, Ivy is doing bad things for good reasons.  But why should that make her a man-hater and/or a lesbian?  Shouldn’t her animosity extend to all humans and not just men?  I don’t see all the dots connecting; she is written like the way Sarah Jane Smith was written, by men imagining how feminist women would act and talk.  Nevertheless, I don’t in the least condemn this episode, as Ivy’s attempted seduction of Harvey only proves that she is self-interested and obsessed with plants above people.  

I do believe that B:tAS is at its weakest focusing on stories about children.  Sometimes children-centric stories can work on kids’ TV, but generally I adhere to what the creators of Doctor Who thought:  children prefer stories about people slightly older than themselves.  And as for adults watching?  I found I was least enthralled by stories that had children at their focus.  It’s most difficult (and most ludicrous) in “The Underdwellers,” which builds on the urban legends of the Mole People and crocodiles in the sewers of New York.  Not only are there crocodiles in Gotham’s sewers, there’s an insane Fagin-esque character who dresses in the manner of Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker.  His pre-pubescent slaves get sent up into the world at night to pick pockets, but all are stunted and apparently speechless.  It’s difficult enough doing a cartoon about kids, much less making them voiceless kids!  Although Batman gets to display the right kind of righteous indignation, this is all a bit too weird for me.

A similar feeling of unease pervades “Be a Clown,” which involves Mayor Hill’s young son Jordan, who gets lured away from home by the Joker masquerading as a clown in a foiled attempt to blow up Mayor Hill and his guests.  The unease arises, I think, from wondering whether the Joker will hurt Jordan or take him on as an accomplice.  Worse than killing him, though (not that he would; this is still kids’ viewing), you do have to wonder if child abuse is on the cards.  Again, of course, no hint of this is given by the episode.  The Joker’s hideout (a ha-hacienda in training?) is a broken-down amusement park which gives the artists something to enjoy.  

The possible exception to this is “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” which follows the fortunes of kid detective Sherman and his friend Roberta (whose good advice he often ignores, to his peril).  This is the only appearance of the Penguin in the first DVD, which is rather surprising.  As far as cartoons go, Sherman, Roberta, and their friends make convincing foils to the Penguin, though Batman’s help comes just in time.
Much of the series is taken up in introducing the supervillains of all stripes who love to play in Gotham.  The two-part transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face is quite moving and well-written, never talking down to kids but showing how a monster can be made from a good person.  Although, as in The Dark Knight, the physical rupture (in TDK the fire and gasoline, in B:tAS the chemical explosion) is only the catalyst to an existing problem.  In both tales, Harvey’s frustration with a justice system that doesn’t seem to do enough brings about mental stress that threatens him and his loved ones.  In B:tAS, his anger management issues have already brought about a split personality, “Big Bad Harve.”  As in The Dark Knight, there is a woman involved:  in this case, it’s Harvey’s fiancée, Grace.  

Harvey has a wonderful character design, relying on curves and ovals where his friend Bruce is all hard rectangles; yet he has the makings of a good-looking hero (as did Aaron Eckhart, undeniably).  In The Dark Knight, Harvey is one of the Joker’s pet projects; like in The Killing Joke, he is determined to drive someone insane through grief.  In B:tAS, Two-Face is the unexpected result of the machinations of evil mob boss, Rupert Thorne (played with an absolutely amazing basso profundo by John Vernon).  Richard Moll does a good job conveying Harvey’s angst and Two-Face’s gravelly disregard (I think he is also the voice of the Batcomputer).  

“Heart of Ice” is by Paul Dini and won an Emmy in 1993, yet I’ve never been able to get into it.  It’s a nice self-contained story, but I just don’t see it as anything special.  Certainly Batman sympathizes to an extent with Mr Freeze and saves some damning commentary for Mr Freeze’s attempted murder victim, Ferris Boyle (voiced very well by Mark Hamill).  There are some visually creative moments, such as the one where Freeze breaks open a fire hydrant and shoots his ice gun into the water, allowing himself to be carried to the top floor of a building (Jamie actually exclaimed “cool!” when this happened).  

On the other hand, I didn’t at all expect to like “Mad as a Hatter,” featuring, of course, the moments that make Jervis Tetch into the Mad Hatter.  I have often wondered what a villain based on a Lewis Carroll character can actually bring to the table but actually, this script—written, unsurprisingly, by Paul Dini—has given me a whole new insight on the Mad Hatter—and the very fine line between someone creepy and yet sympathetic like him, and someone soulful yet scary like the Phantom of the Opera.  Why does obsession by one for an impossible love for a much younger girl feel less offensive in the character of the Phantom when they are, rather essentially, similar characters?  Visually, too, “Mad as a Hatter” is quite a treat, though it’s rather impressive and dubious that Gotham has an Alice in Wonderland-themed park!  

The B:tAS Catwoman is one of my favorite versions of Catwoman, though the costume seems to be drawn more for animator’s ease than sexiness or style.  Her introduction in “The Cat and the Claw” feels a bit old-fashioned—surely Bruce Wayne/Batman knew not to underestimate women, either for evil or good—but Kate Mulgrew makes a surprising cameo as evil Slavic terrorist Red Claw (at first I thought she was Talia).  

Clayface has a very interesting and sympathetic though not one-dimensional introduction in “Feat of Clay.”  A cosmetics industry implicated in causing an actor’s dependence on its drug-enhanced facial reconstruction?  It’s rather heavy stuff and one feels almost as much sympathy for Matt Hagen’s best friend—it seems a stormy relationship at the best of times.  The story also gives the animators a chance to show off their skills as Clayface continues transforming.  He is one Batman villain to genuinely fear as he doesn’t seem to be able to be destroyed.  

“Vendetta” is as much about Harvey Bullock and his possible shady past dealings as it is about Killer Croc, an unlikely villain whose sideshow origins are crying out for an episode of their own (surely there is one?).  Yet with the previous trip to the sewers of Gotham, it feels slightly like a runaround.

One of my favorite stories is “P.O.V,” which introduces Detective Montoya (woo!) and is about the closest thing you’ll ever get to a Bill / Rashomon / Batman hybrid.  It’s intriguing and very well-done.  I don’t know if, as a child, I would have been bored by Batman’s rather minimal role in it, but as an adult, I think it’s great.  Similarly, the set up for “The Forgotten” is quite impossible—Batman, while undercover investigating disappearances from homeless shelters is kidnapped and loses his memory.  It’s rather a good story with an interesting, non-Gotham setting, courageous, everyday characters, and some very funny moments (as well as a superb score by Shirley Walker).  I found I was quite touched by “It’s Never Too Late,” a very unusual Batman story, taking elements from Two-Face’s previous story arc and a haunting backstory of gangsters and priests.

“See No Evil” was both very creepy and heartbreaking.  In this story, the mother is quite right to keep her daughter away from the father, but personal circumstances made me feel quite sorry for the father even so.  You could accuse “Beware the Gray Ghost” of fanwank, but in that respect it was no worse than the New Adventures novel Legacy; in fact, their villains proved to be rather similar!  (How often do you get to animate yourself as the villain?!)  It probably wouldn’t have worked as well without Adam West as the voice of the Gray Ghost, but it was a wonderful story and tugged at the heartstrings.  It also looked very retro and cool.  

“Prophecy of Doom” came out of left field slightly, though it was quite funny and featured an exciting visual sequence in a planetarium!  “The Clock King” seemed to pre-empt the introduction of the Riddler.  Last but not least, “Appointment in Crime Alley” again tugged at the heartstrings and seemed made from the mould that would have decently fitted in the Nolan!verse.

I can’t wait to continue watching Batman:  The Animated Series.     

[1] I know that Batman worked on audio because Pendant Audio did a fine series called The Ace of Detectives before it was shut down.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Sensorites

10/10/12 “The Sensorites”
It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it's turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”–The Doctor

“The Sensorites,” in received fan wisdom, is one of the Hartnell clunkers, boring and far longer than it merits being.  They say it hasn’t dated well and perhaps wasn’t even good on original broadcast.  I beg to differ.  Despite, or because of, all these perceived attitudes, I quite enjoyed “The Sensorites.”  It does lag a bit in the middle, but I infinitely prefer it to a Pertwee six-parter.  Interestingly, what dates this story more are its depictions of the humans and the TARDIS crew; the aliens, the Sensorites, are rather more interesting and timeless.  It is quite suspenseful in places and suggests an alien culture that is worth getting to know in detail, in contrast to the drivel I experienced earlier in “Death to the Daleks.” 

Although you can feel the budget stretching in every scene during this story, nevertheless it opens in quite a strange and shocking manner.  The TARDIS crew—the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara—arrive in a spaceship and appear to see two dead bodies at the control.  This appears too serious a way to begin an episode of 1960s Doctor Who, but the Doctor is insistent:  their watches appear to suggest they have been dead for more than 24 hours.  However, just as they begin to head back to the TARDIS, the humans at the controls revive.  After being introduced as Captain Maitland and Carol Richmond, from the 28th century and orbiting the Sense-Sphere (which, despite its poetic, rather Miltonic name, is just a planet), they tell our travelers a very strange story of the inhabitants of that planet, the Sensorites.  Not only are they kept imprisoned in this way, unable to leave and unable to get any closer to the planet, they are often knocked out in this way, while the Sensorites still maintain them.  Throughout this story, you notice people going to extremes, being put in situations that nothing on Earth could have prepared them for.  How do they cope?  It’s one thing to be in combat situations, but the situation of the astronauts, as well as other characters we will encounter, is a very strange one.  I have always maintained that Steven Taylor’s isolation on Mechanus, as well as Vicki’s bizarre imprisonment on Dido, should have produced characters with emotional scarring from their unusual conditions.  We don’t really ever see that on screen, but I keep it in the back of my mind when I think about them. 

Maitland and Carol certainly act a little strangely, but the amount of stress they’ve been under evokes the claustrophobia and second-guessing of “The Edge of Destruction.”  It is fairly impressive that Carol is even allowed to exist in this script; the Sensorites, as we will see, echo most other Doctor Who stories in being a race comprised completely of males!  (As far as we can tell and as far as we are shown.  We don’t find out how Sensorites procreate, whether they have sexes as we understand them, and so on, but the fact they are all played by male actors suggests this.)  Nevertheless, with Barbara and Susan connected to the action and shown to act bravely even when relegated to domestic tasks, we at least get more of a female presence than in “Death to the Daleks.” 

I do believe a certain amount of brilliance must be awarded for the fact the Sensorites sneak onto the spaceship and remove the TARDIS lock.  How is that for an excuse to keep the TARDIS crew on board and in this story for the next six episodes?  Sometimes I do think the Doctor arrives and makes things worse, but in definable ways he makes a difference for good here.  The Sensorites take control of the minds of Maitland and Carol (apparently their fear has made them susceptible to mind control) and try to cause the spaceship to crash into the Sense Sphere.  The Doctor’s level-headedness helps prevent the crash.  There is something very filmic about this story, as we get quite a few long close ups of people like Ian and Barbara.  Perhaps there was no alternative, given to the general shabbiness of the set.  Nevertheless, it somewhat increases the sense of unease which culminates with Susan and Barbara being trapped in the crew quarters with John, a crewmember who has been so deranged by the Sensorites that the others haven’t seen him in weeks.  There’s no telling what he’ll do to Susan and Barbara!  (Hints of rape more subtle than in “The Time Meddler”?)

John looks a bit like David Tennant during one of his more manic moments and sometimes even his acting style is reminiscent of Tennant’s.  He eventually collapses practically into Barbara’s bosom as she soothes him.  He isn’t a villain, he seems like a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Ian, the Doctor, Carol, and Maitland don’t know this, though, because as they try to cut through the door, a Sensorite appears.  It is interesting that John is allowed to be the male hysteric in “The Sensorites,” while Susan and Barbara quite capably confer on Susan’s previous telepathic experiences and drive the Sensorites away by thinking “We defy you,” and that Maitland is as affected by the mind control as is Carol—and as helpless as she is.  Released by Ian, Maitland, and the Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and John escape from the Sensorites.  Ian spearheads an effort to understand that the spaceship crew are being trapped because John found out the Sense Sphere was rich in a mineral.  As this is ascertained, the Sensorites advance.

There are some quite powerful images of latent violence.  The Sensorites wordlessly move forward, as Ian threatens them with a hammer.  We don’t know whether to side with Ian or the Sensorites.  They are not quite Sydney Newman’s little green men, but they are certainly little, have impressive whiskers, and are wearing sort of “White Heat” type overalls.  If Doctor Who had been broadcast in color, perhaps they would have resembled the aliens that later appeared on Star Trek.  Susan’s latent telepathy, developed a little bit in “The Daleks,” comes to the fore here when the Sensorites contact her.  The image of her walking off with them to the Sense Sphere as everyone tries to come to a nonviolent solution is rather a haunting one.  Susan has a lot of power here, and perhaps her burgeoning independence, explored more in episode 3, is what causes the Doctor to have such an aggressive response to the Sensorites, which he continues to have as the story progresses. 

The Doctor theorizes that the Sensorites might be rendered helpless in the dark, and this theory is put to the test when they refuse to return Susan.  The Doctor and Susan argue about her apparent defiance.  The Doctor takes a long time in this story to understand and come to grips with the Sensorite point of view, which highlights in  a way, his youth and inexperience (in the long term; at the time it was made it probably just proved he was old and crotchety!).  Nevertheless, the Sensorites agree that Barbara and Maitland will stay on the ship while the others go to the Sense Sphere to talk to a Sensorite Elder.  Carol, it has been revealed by now, wants to marry John and is eager for him to be cured, as the Sensorites suggest they can do.  (All the stuff that’s shoved under the rug is fascinating to me.  Surely, under the duress and worrying about their lives and not having seen John for so long, might Maitland and Carol have succumbed to a one-night stand?  And what will Barbara and Maitland be doing for the several days the rest of them are on the Sense Sphere?  I know it’s all for practical real world reasons, but I like to try to make it make sense in story terms.)

Naturally, the Sensorites do not agree what should be done.  The First Elder believes in trust and wants to give the humans a chance.  The Second Elder is not quite as optimistic, and the City Administrator is positively xenophobic about loud, ugly humans.  He wants to disintegrate them as soon as they arrive.  The suggestion that the Sensorites might have met the humans in the mountains might have looked amazing if it could have been afforded; instead, we have fairly stock sets of a clean, white utilitarian city.  Susan is at the side of the Doctor and Ian as they go into negotiations with the First Elder; the City Administrator is thwarted in his attempt to disintegrate the humans, but his (very good?) friend and co-conspirator joins him in his campaign to get rid of the humans, no matter what the cost. 

In the next scene, a cliffhanger is introduced (Ian has a seemingly incurable disease) and the central conflict for the next three episodes comes to the fore.  They don’t know it yet, but the Sensorites’ drinking water has been contaminated. (There are some very strange scenes between Ian and Susan here.) The Doctor, obviously, wants to try to cure Ian, but is not allowed to go back into the TARDIS—he is provided with laboratory equipment on the Sense Sphere.  Fair enough, though the Doctor acts very childishly.  He rants and raves even though it’s obvious the Sensorites can’t stand raised voices; Susan constantly has to remind him how to be diplomatic.  Yet the Doctor works swiftly with the Sensorite scientists to test water from around the city and to create an antidote to cure Ian—and perhaps all the afflicted Sensorites, too.  This is where the Doctor’s interference was demonstrably for good, as the byproduct of his trying to save Ian caused him to help save the Sensorites (one hopes they would have eventually figured it out, but who knows).  The City Administrator is still doing all he can to thwart them, to the point of eventually impersonating other Elders, imprisoning the Second Elder and, if his threats are to be believed, his Family Group, bullying the Second Elder and eventually causing his death.  This is pretty serious and shows just how far some people will go in their mania, all the while believing they are doing the right thing.(Of course, there are great leaps in logic here, given that the Sensorites don’t seem to be able to tell each other visually apart other than by their sashes of office.) 

The Doctor next goes to the city aqueduct, the source of most Sensorites’ water, but has to go on his own due to his guide’s extreme fear of the dark, noise, and rumors of monsters.  This in fact the best cliffhanger, as the Doctor does seem to be menaced by a beast as his light goes out, and is only recovered in the next episode by a still-shaky Ian and a brave Susan.  The Doctor’s frock coat has been torn to pieces (this doesn’t all totally make sense according to what we learn later) and bewildered, he is allowed to be led out of the aqueduct, though he did learn that deadly nightshade grows within.  I find myself quite curious about the aqueduct; such an important part of the city’s infrastructure, yet how is it maintained if all the Sensorites are too scared to go and examine it?  How did they build it in the first place? 

The First Elder thoughtfully gives the Doctor a replacement for his coat, though I fear it is more of an Important Plot Point rather than a character-building moment.  This helps expose the City Administrator’s best friend, whose slander against the Doctor eventually gets him caught to be “interrogated” by the City Administrator.  The First Elder is slowly coming around to the idea that he cannot trust all of his people and that vice cannot be eradicated.  The Doctor and Ian want to go back to the aqueduct to continue investigations into the poisonings, but rather stupidly they want Susan to stay behind and be looked after by Barbara (who will have just returned from vacation—the actress, I mean).  Carol and the cured John have been reunited—like the Prince who was the Beast, John is much less interesting when he is whole and hale—and at last the humans have figured out that the City Administrator is their Sensorite enemy.  Ian and the Doctor have already gone on their merry way, and when Carol went to find them and her mouth was covered by a hand, I actually gasped. 

Things are a bit unnecessarily complicated during the first half of the final episode, as Carol is held hostage but only threatened with death.  Meanwhile, Ian and the Doctor are tricked by the City Administrator into getting totally lost in the tunnels, and the most interesting thing yet happens.  They find more humans in the tunnels:  the men from the previous mission who have been living there in isolation for years.  Raggedy and obviously deranged, they have got it into their heads that there is a war between humans and Sensorites and for this reason, they have been poisoning the Sensorites.  It’s chilling, and the Doctor and Ian can’t help but agree.  They have to maintain their cool, however, and are eventually aided by the arrival of Barbara and John.  The Commander is, like Sanders in “Kinda,” is obsessively and madly sticking to his duty, to the point that he is utterly insane.  I feel a great deal of pity for these men but they are also quite horrifying.

Nevertheless, it more or less seems to be a story where almost no one dies. The Administrator, at last caught, is locked away for punishment; the disturbed humans are being taken back to Earth for help.  Carol and John, we assume, will get married.  We don’t know what happened to Maitland as he has disappeared off our screens.  The Sensorites give the TARDIS lock back to the Doctor, and after a very long ordeal, the travelers are on their way again. 

My favorite part of the story is when Susan talks about her own planet, with its burnt orange skies and blades of silver grass; I was totally unprepared for this and did not realize the lines from “Gridlock” were taken almost verbatim from this speech.  It gave me the same frisson as when the Second Doctor talks to Victoria about those who sleep in our minds, or when Lady Peinforte says, “Have you never wondered, who he is?”  To think, it was Peter R. Newman who gave us that lovely line of poetry.