Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Father's Day"

And now for something completely different.... We're spinning into 2005 for the "new" series for this one folks!

In many ways it all began at the end... In 1989 Doctor Who was cancelled just short of 30 years on the air. The show had been floundering for quite some time -- bleeding viewers and being perceived as increasingly insular -- a show that was done by fans for fans... only. In the last season things had begun to make a turn around but it was too little, too late.

Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner had remained in the role from 1980 until right to the end although he was beginning to tire of things. What kept him around was the knowledge that no one else wanted the position and if he left the BBC would take the opportunity to cancel the show. As it turned out his fears were realized anyway. There were those at the BBC who hated the show and were looking for ways to get rid of it and when the viewing numbers finally dipped too low the axe came down.

Considering how long the series had ingrained itself in the public consciousness, though, the franchise refused to die completely. All of the surviving Doctors and most of the surviving companions were rounded up for a charity special in 1993 called "Dimensions in Time" and there was a joint United States/British TV movie production in 1996 which it had been hoped would revitalize the franchise and bring in American money but it failed. In 2003, for the 40th anniversary of the show, the BBC created a special 'webisode' -- a flash-animated, nearly full-length story with a stellar voice cast which included Derek Jacobi as the Master and Richard E. Grant as the Doctor. It had been hoped that the story, "Scream of the Shalka", might revive interest in a live-action revamp of the series but it, too failed. There was, however, hope on the horizon.

Russell T. Davies was coming off some critically acclaimed successes for the BBC and had garnered enough clout to pitch his next desired project... he wanted to revive Doctor Who. Davies had grown up on the show and missed it's presence and he had an idea for shaking things up and re-introducing the series without completely throwing away everything that had gone before.

One of the biggest changes was to get rid of the serial format. No longer would the show be four half-hour episodes or two 45 minute episodes. Now it would be a standard 45 minute, single story per episodes (except in cases of the occasional two-parter). This change would help to sell the episodes to overseas markets -- particularly America where this was the standard format for sci-fi, action-adventure, and drama series'. Davies also gave the Doctor a new, tragic backstory. No more gabble about the Time Lords on Gallifrey because there had been a war and the Time Lords were all destroyed along with the planet. This now drove a new characterization of the Doctor. Additionally, Davies drove old fans a bit crazy by routinely refusing to tell exactly what had happened during this "Time War". It was mentioned but very little was, and still is, known about it. Davies also made the decision to break with the past and rather than calling this Season Twenty-Seven as if it were picking up where the show left off he instead decided to start over and 2005 became "season 1" of the "new series".

Davies also snagged some well-known faces for the main parts -- Christopher Eccleston was known for dramatic turns in movies like Trainspotting and Billie Piper was a pop star and growing actress. The result was a new smash hit.

And now... "Father's Day"

The Plot: Companion Rose Tyler's father died when she was still a baby -- killed by a hit and run driver, dying alone in the street. Now Rose asks the Doctor for a favor -- to take her back in time and allow her to see her father, to be there when he died and keep him from dying alone.

Hoping to allow Rose to have a little closure, the Doctor agrees but things go wrong when Rose impulsively decides to save her father instead! Now time has been ripped and changed, the Doctor finds that the TARDIS is gone and the mysterious Reapers have appeared -- monstrous creatures who are the universe's clean-up squad. They will destroy whoever and whatever gets in their path until the rip in the universe is sealed. But the rip cannot be sealed except with the life of Rose's father. Can the Doctor find a way of saving reality or will Rose have to face heartbreak again?

My Take: Okay, let's get this out of the way first... For the cult who believes that Rose Tyler was the be-all, end-all of Doctor Who companions; who think that she was the best thing ever... I hate Rose. I really didn't start out that way (unlike some) but as I watched the episodes I found her character thoughtless, lacking empathy, and too big for her own britches. There.

Russell T. Davies' era on the show had a theme of "ordinary people being extraordinary" and that is fully on display here in Paul Cornell's script. When Peter Tyler lives Rose defends her actions by saying her father is an ordinary guy it's not like he's going to be responsible for World War III but the Doctor counters that one ordinary person is living who should not be and that is the most important thing in the world. Later on, huddled in a church with a soon-to-be-wedded couple the Doctor asks them how they met. Upon hearing a rather everyday story of catching a cab after leaving a nightclub at 2:00 AM he enthuses that with all the things he's seen and done he's never had a story like theirs and their relationship is an extraordinary thing. In truth, it would be easy for these "ordinary-extraordinary" moments to overwhelm the story and come off as eye-rollingly cheesy but all of the actors involved here -- particularly Eccleston -- turn in nicely balanced performances.

Cornell's script also beings in a nice theme of "The stories we tell ourselves" as Rose confronts the truth behind the picture she has in her imagination of her father. That Rose's image of her father and mother's relationship has been shaped by the stories her mother told and it never occurred to her that her mother may have idealized that life to comfort herself after the loss. Rose even turns around later and spins her father yet another idealized version of his life to keep him from learning that he should have died. It is the life, the father she dreamed of having but Pete Tyler is a pragmatist who knows what Rose is struggling to learn... that parents are human too.

The story does fall down a bit, though, in that in order to move things alone to the finale it calls for Rose to do something monumentally stupid -- something that she was warned very seriously NOT to do by the Doctor. Also, despite the fact that the CGI monsters in the new series are an improvement over the rubber masks and hand puppets of the old days, the Reapers here have not necessarily aged well even with the passage of only five years.

The story is also a bit of a departure in being one of the few (if any) scripts I can think of where the Doctor not only doesn't save the day, he's not even really remotely involved in saving the day. This episode is a showcase for the character of Rose Tyler. Despite that, I think this is probably one of the best stories for Rose in the first season of the new series. She displays quite a bit more empathy and understanding and she learns some powerful lessons here and Billie Piper does a very nice job at conveying that to the audience.

Overall, "Father's Day" is one of the best stories of the new Season 1 and well worth looking into... even if you hate Rose Tyler.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "State Of Decay"

What do you get when you mix Bram Stoker with Doctor Who?

"State of Decay"

As per usual, a little background to this story before we delve into the more review-like aspect of these posts...

Back in 1974 with new Doctor Tom Baker came a new script editor in Robert Holmes and a new producer in Philip Hinchcliffe. Holmes and Hinchcliffe shared a vision of proving just how far the format of Doctor Who could be stretched and so they began mixing the stories with elements of Gothic horror and mystery. In the process they pulled from some of the great stories of Victorian fiction... Mary Shelly's Frankenstein became "The Brain of Morbius", Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde became "Planet of Evil", and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were given tribute with "The Talons of Weng Chiang". Yet throughout all the stories one of the iconic monsters Hinchcliffe and Holmes never got to was Count Dracula. There had actually been a vampire story planned, written by veteran Doctor Who writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks but the script was quashed when the BBC planned an expensive adaptation of Bram Stoker's original novel and feared Doctor Who doing a vampire story would lower the perception of the other production.

Fast forward to 1979. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (hereafter J N-T because I'm not typing all that out over and over again) found himself in a not-at-all-unusual place for a Doctor Who producer -- short on scripts and short on time. Feeling pressure, J N-T delved into the unproduced script files for the show and found himself reasonably attracted to Dicks' vampire story. Because of the passage of time, Dicks was asked to re-write the script to suit a different set of companions. There was also a clash as script editor Christopher Bidmead had wanted the show to move out of the realm of science-fantasy and back into more traditional science-fiction and asked that Dicks include more science and pseudo-science in the story -- something that irritated Dicks. Eventually, however, differences were ironed out.

Besides the script problems there was trouble on the set. Baker and co-star Lalla Ward (Romana) had been in an often-turbulent relationship. Part of the filming for this episode coincided with a period in which the two had broken up. Baker had also been ill for quite some time unable to get the rest he needed to get better. On top of all of this new cast member Matthew Waterhouse was not working out well. He was an extremely novice actor and some on the set felt he was disrespectful of cast and crew.

"State of Decay" would be part of a three-serial story arc which became known as "The E-Space Trilogy". Bidmead and J N-T had envisioned these stories as setting the stage for Tom Baker leaving the show. The trilogy featured the Doctor and Romana being trapped in a kind of alternate universe known as "E-Space". Over the course of the series long-time companions Romana and K-9 would depart, a new character, Adric, would be introduced and the whole would emphasize a theme of entropy, decay, and death as the Fourth Doctor's own "death" approached.

And now... on with the show!

The Plot: The Doctor and Romana continue to search for a way out of E-Space and back to their own universe of N-Space. Finding signs of technology on a nearby planet they land only to discover the population is at a medieval level, gathered around a castle and reliant on the "Lords" for protection. These Lords, however, exact a heavy price -- they keep the populace ignorant, have forbidden the use of technology, and regularly send guards into the village to take away the youngest and strongest of them... people who are rarely seen again.

The Doctor and Romana investigate and soon discover that the people on the planet came from an Earth exploration ship which also ended up in E-Space. Disturbingly, the Doctor and Romana learn that all is not what it might be with the Lords. The Doctor is reminded of an old Time Lord legend... that once there was a race of Great Vampires which threatened all the universe and the Time Lords went to war to stop them...

When stowaway Adric goes looking for the Doctor and Romana he soon falls into the hands of the Lords and Romana ends up in their clutches while trying to rescue him. Now it's up to the Doctor to finish a war that was started milennia ago and he has to finish it before his friends and traveling companions suffer a fate worse than death!

My Take: Despite all of the tensions on-set, off-set, on-screen and behind the scenes this story stands tall. It is rather obviously a throwback to the Gothic horror themed stories of Hinchcliffe's era and, as such, it does sit uneasily amongst not only the rest of the E-Space Trilogy but among the rest of the season as a whole as well. Still, there is no denying the powerful horror imagery and the tips of the hat to the Hammer Horror tradition. Of course, the show took some lumps from critics for the amount of blood and the bloody overtones.

The backstage tensions aside, most of the actors turn in excellent performances. After years in the role, the Doctor comes to Tom Baker as naturally as breathing. Much of his trademark madcap humor is toned down this episode, though, which helps to bring home the horror. A particular short-cut trick the writers sometimes relied upon is employed -- making the audience fear the bad guy because the Doctor is afraid of them. In this case it comes in rather handy since the primary villains the audience sees are the Lords and the Great Vampire himself does not appear until near the end. Having the Doctor seem intimidated and at a loss on how to stop the Great Vampire increases the threat level without needing to see the villain.

Lalla Ward's Romana is a bit weaker here than she has been in previous stories. She is less snarky with the Doctor, less witty, and takes the lead less often as well. While this is a bit disappointing for fans of the character it can be chalked up to Terrance Dicks having to write for a character he was not very familiar with. Of course, in those scenes where Romana is given a chance to shine Ward gives it her all.

Matthew Waterhouse though... Adric. Bane of most Doctor Who fans' existence. He rather quickly became and remains the character most fans love to hate. It's sadly easy to see why. Adric is smug, naive to the point of stupidity at times, and annoying and Waterhouse's lack of experience as an actor did not help him make anything more of the role or endear him to the audience.

The special effects have, sadly, not all held up well. Scenes of outer space have a distinctly greenish hue and in at least one scene of the TARDIS flying the "stars" are overlayed on top of the TARDIS. Likewise, the first images of the Great Vampire are not so great -- looking like a rubber hand puppet... which, eventually becomes a rubber hand itself. On the flip side, the costuming here is gorgeous, the face-paint used for the Lords conjure up the idea of abstract "wings" but lend an air of 'alienness' to the proceedings, the interior of the "castle" is well-done and the sequence where the Lords age to death actually still looks pretty darn freaky even today.

Overall, a nice, creepy story that pays tribute to the vampire horror stories of the past and yet gives everything a fun sci-fi twist. If you're looking for something different to watch at Halloween grab "State of Decay" and turn out the lights... if you dare.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Doctor Who Series 31 is Now Over....

And I've got to say.....


In his first season as show runner, Steven Moffat has managed to craft a true story arc. All thirteen episodes manage to both stand on their own as individual stories and at the same time loop around to create a coherent whole... and make sense.

He also finally took real advantage of having a main character who was a time traveler and actually played with time -- stretching things, bending things, making your brain hurt... it was all good.

All of the characters end up in a different place than where they started. All grow and change -- even the Doctor himself... in a way. The whole thing tugs hard on the heartstrings throughout and it's lovely.

Also, I have to say it. David Tennant is a fine actor, really he is, but Matt Smith just pwned him. Seriously. Tennant's dramatic regeneration scene doesn't hold a candle to Smith's final scene with little Amelia Pond... and it's not even a regeneration scene! Smith is, and has been, brilliant throughout the series. His style tending toward more subdued as he allows his expressive face and his eyes to tell most of the story. And for all that I hated the catch phrase "Geronimo" and was glad when it was seemingly dropped it actually nearly brings a tear to the eye when it reappears here.

I could say more but then that would be spoiling it.

Onward and upward from here!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

And For the Record...

My personal favorite variation on "Flight of the Bumblebee" has always been Freddy Martin's "Bumble Boogie"

Music That Always Gets Associated With Something Else

So, the recent trailer for the upcoming Green Hornet movie (see earlier post) made me notice that, whether rightly or wrongly, the film executives chose not to use Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" anywhere in the trailer. I was actually torn on this. On the one hand, I felt it was a move to show that, while this movie was going to be inspired by the past it wasn't going to be chained to it. On the other hand, the music is ingrained in the public consciousness that whenever it is played it automatically conjures up the character's name at the very least.

The song has been used as the Green Hornet theme ever since the character debuted on the radio in the 1930's. So it seemed a shame not to pay tribute to that -- perhaps with a modern rendition.

But "Flight of the Bumblebee" is not alone among the 'songs that have forever become associated with something else'...

There is Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" which many will forever associate with the Phantom of the Opera

Poor Rossini's "William Tell Overture" will probably forever be thought of as "The Lone Ranger Theme"...

And, while not in quite the same company, James Q. Rich and saxaphonist Boots Randolph's seminal "Yakety Sax" is almost never recognized under it's true name but rather referred to as "The Benny Hill Theme".

So, here's a slaute to all those great composers who'se music lives on, even if most people don't remember who wrote the originals....

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Vengeance on Varos"

You know, this one's a bit misnamed since it really doesn't end up involving much "vengeance" but... hey, yay for alliteration!

It should also be noted that when the twenty-first season started the decision was made to move away from the traditional serial format of four half-hour episodes and instead to go to two forty-five minute episodes. This story was only the second in the new format and it met quite a bit of resistance from viewers.

The Plot: The TARDIS gets stranded in space and the Sixth Doctor discovers the only way to fix the problem is to acquire a rare mineral called Zeiton 7. And Zeiton 7 is primarily found on a planet called Varos so, using the last of the TARDIS's power, the Doctor and his companion Peri arrive on Varos.

Unfortunately for them they arrive early in Varos's development and they find a brutal planet where there are only the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. Corruption is rampant, the planet is under the economic thumb of an alien mining company, the lower classes are slowly starving and Governor must ask the people for a vote on all of his decisions and if the people do not approve he is exposed to a beam which painfully damages his cellular structure. Too many times under the beam will prove fatal and the current Governor is nearing the end of his strength.

In order to keep the people in line and pacified the government has turned brutality into entertainment. Criminals and dissidents are executed or tortured on camera and the images transmitted into every home. There is even a game where those who speak out against the government are placed in a labyrinth of deadly traps and forced to run the gauntlet in hopes of reaching freedom on the other side. None make it and the people of Varos are encouraged to eagerly watch every step of the way.

When the Doctor and Peri interrupt the execution of one of the rebels -- Jondar -- they soon find themselves embroiled in Varos's problems... and running the maze of death for their own survival. The Doctor must change Varos itself against high stakes for if he fails his companion's life is forfeit as well as the lives of his new found rebel friends and an entire planet will continue on crushed under a corporate heel and living in darkness.

My Take: While the writer's original concern with this episode had been the phenomenon of "snuff films" (something that actually still crops up in mentions today) and it has quite a bit in common with the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man the story resonates even more powerfully today with the continuing concept of the "reality TV show". Sure, modern reality TV doesn't kill people but shows like American Idol deliberately show people trying out for the competition who cannot sing a lick just so that they can be ridiculed when you get right down to it. And there have been those who watched the show primarily for judge Simon Cowell and took great delight when he would critically rip a singer apart. So there is still that undercurrent of delighting in the tearing down of others.

The episode also touches on the old, Roman idea of "bread and circuses" -- politicians would give away cheap bread and provide low class amusements to the populace in an attempt to both pacify them and win votes. Those circuses often consisted of things like chariot races, which in ancient times were without rules or pity -- fast races in which there were often crashes and bloody, fatal crashes at that. Here the idea of the "circuses" has been transformed into television programs in which people die violently for entertainment.

The episode was not without it's controversy. Even though the purpose was to show the terribleness of violence and the harm of desensitizing people to violence the story was criticized for the amount of violence it had. There were accusations that, in a certain scene, the Doctor pushed a guard into an acid bath. It is clear, upon viewing, however, that this is not the case and the guard is actually pulled in by a compatriot who fell in previously but the Doctor's rather callous and cold reaction to the carnage (topped off with a bon mot no less) is somewhat in bad taste for the character.

The script for this one is also stronger in that it keeps the usual bickering between the Doctor and his companion Peri to a minimum. In point of fact, this is probably the most caring and concerned we've seen the Doctor toward Peri since Baker's tenure began.

Baker's performance is solid but one can see that Bryant is still learning and isn't quite as strong in the role. Also, as an American, I can safely attest that Bryant's so-called American accent is really quite wobbly -- which isn't fun to listen to. Trivia buffs will also be pleased to note that Jason Connery -- son of Sean Connery -- is here in one of his first TV roles as Jondar. Like Baker he's solid but he is hampered by not being given much to do in the second installment. Still, he's easy on the eyes and spends a chunk of the first episode shirtless so I'm not going to complain (hey, I'm a chick, I'm entitled to occasionally objectify men).

On the villain side, Martin Jarvis as the Governor turns in a lovely performance. Even when he begins as the seeming villain he infuses the part with an underlying nobility and as the story progresses more and more of that nobility comes shining through. It is strange and a bit of a shame that his character is never given a name, merely credited as "the Governor".

Also on the brilliant villain side is Nabil Shaban who plays the alien, corporate mining representative, Sil. Shaban suffers from a condition which left his legs underdeveloped but this has not stopped him from making a career as an actor and writer. Here he crafts a character that is so larger-than-life, slimy-evil he fairly walks away with the whole story. He does a great job at taking the idea of the callous, corporate raider type prevalent in the 1980's and transferring it into an alien form.

The bad thing is that there are even MORE villains in this story! There is the Chief Officer (yet another character never given a proper name, only a title) who schemes with Sil to see the Governor fall with plans to take his place, and the mad scientist Quillam who delights in suffering. In point of fact, Quillam seems the most like a traditional Doctor Who villain but he only comes into all his villainous glory towards the end -- too late to really do anything with him. The actor playing the Chief Officer turns in a steady but unremarkable performance but the actor playing Quillam really sinks his teeth into the part when he is actually given something to do. Which makes it sad that he was not given more to do.

The villains are one area where the story falls down -- so many of them make things a bit unfocused -- we're never sure exactly who we're supposed to be boo-ing for, when and why. It also means that we never get a really strong, central figure to hate or fear. Sil, while entertaining, is never really threatening and his evil is the kind of evil of white collar criminals -- the evil of Bernie Madoff, the evil of the corporate raider who is only interested in how much he can get out of something, how far down he can drive the price for HIS company and damn the consequences for everyone else just so long as HE makes the biggest profit he can. Summed up, I guess it's the "Evil of Selfishness". And that kind of evil... well, it makes you angry but it doesn't make you SCARED. The best candidate for the 'scary villain' role was Quillam but, as I mentioned before, his character is largely wasted.

The story also falls down on special effects. This entire episode was filmed in the studio and as such there is a lot of corridor running (something that is often a sign of poor budget or padding out a short episode) and it gets a bit boring. Peri gets captured... a couple of times. Yawn. There is a little electric go-cart thing the guards ride around in that is laughable -- mostly because a snail could beat it in a race, and there is an overabundance of what I call "stupid guard syndrome". You know, guards who walk right past the people they are chasing and yet never seem to see them, the inability to hit a target that is five feet in front of them, etc.

Despite the faults and flaws, "Vengeance on Varos" is actually extremely watchable. There are some really good performances turned in, there are some great lines of dialog and the story itself holds up well to the passage of some 25 years. In many ways it has found a new way to resonate with the modern idea of reality TV.

Also, I don't always mention the DVD extras but here they are MORE than worth the listen. Baker and Bryant banter well together and are very comfortable with one another after the passage of years. It offers a little glimpse into how good these two could have been on-screen together if the scripts had been less focused on argumentativeness and Baker and Bryant had been allowed more control over shaping their characters. Both actors also dish some dirt about what was going on behind the cameras at the time which give some new insight into their time on the series.

If you watch no other Sixth Doctor story then at least watch this one, it's worth the time spent.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Coming from something of a Green Hornet fangirl....

I actually like the look of this:

I've listened and owned several of the original Green Hornet radio shows, I own the old serial on VHS (which reminds me, I really need to get a DVD copy of that thing. I haven't been able to watch it since my VCR died) and I've read some of the comics when I could get my hands on them.

Despite the changes to the original which appear here... I'm actually intrigued by this. Believe me, this is a major thing because I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movie trailers I've seen recently which actually make me want to shell out the money to see the movie in the theatres.

Good job movie trailer -- you have accomplished your mission.

Grab Bag Review: Preview

So when I dove into the Doctor Who grab bag for my next review what should show up but "Vengeance on Varos" -- a Sixth Doctor story.


The Sixth Doctor is quite possibly the most often disliked to outright hated of all the Doctors... and considering there has been eleven of them that's saying something. Here's the thing, though. Over the years things have come about about Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor which sheds a lot of light on the situation and somewhat mitigates things. So before going into "Vengeance on Varos" I felt it was important that the background was fully explored.

Peter Davison, as the Fifth Doctor had followed the immensely popular Tom Baker. Unlike Tom Baker, who had been a relative unknown, Davison had already had quite a popular career in television despite his young age at taking the reigns as the Doctor. In point of fact, up until the casting of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor Davison had been the youngest Doctor ever.

Davison, however, had been somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of many of the scripts during his tenure and he also feared being typecast in the role so he decided to limit his time on the show to three seasons. Looking around for a replacement, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (J N-T hereafter because it takes too long to type the full name) latched onto actor Colin Baker.

Like Davison, Colin Baker already had a career in TV, and in point of fact he had appeared in Doctor Who rather recently as a rather nasty Gallifreian Commander named Maxil. In point of fact, Baker had rather a history of playing nasty and/or creepy and/or craven characters. The thing about Baker was that he was and remains to this day a fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific. J N-T felt that Baker would be a perfect fit since he had in mind that the show needed a little bit of a shake-up.

J N-T worried that, after Davison's rather soulful portrayal of the Doctor and Tom Baker's rather madcap one, viewers had gotten too comfortable with the Doctor. The producer wanted to make the Doctor seem dangerous, unbalanced, and much more alien in thinking. The idea was to introduce the Doctor as an unstable, unlikable personality and then have him gradually warm up. Colin Baker indeed liked this idea and added that he thought his Doctor should wear an all black suit to start with and then slowly add more elements of color to the wardrobe as the character lightened up. J N-T, however, shot this idea down claiming it might confuse viewers with the villainous character of the Master who was known for dressing all in black. Instead, J N-T ordered the costume department to design the most hideously, clashing outfit they possibly could in order to emphasize the Doctor's loud and brash personality. Baker hated the outfit but felt compelled to not air his opinions.

On the companion side -- actress Nicola Bryant was hired to help transition between Davison's Doctor and Baker's. Doctor Who had been slowly bleeding viewers and bleeding support at the BBC head office as well. J N-T had long been hoped to entice foreign investors in the show. He came up with the idea of making the new companion American in hopes that this might entice an American production company to partner with the show. Unfortunately, Nicola Bryant was British and a relatively new actress and these facts added up to her struggling with an American accent which was foisted upon her.

Additionally, J N-T had an idea of increasing the sex appeal of the series. Bryant thought, logically, since her character was supposed to be an American college student she should dress like an American college student -- sweatshirt or t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. J N-T's chase after more "sex appeal" instead left Bryant wearing tight-fitting leotards or half-shirts, shorts, and dress shoes most of the time.

On top of all of this, the script writers decided that the Doctor's new unstable personality should be displayed in the form of nearly constant bickering between himself and his companion, Perpurgillium "Peri" Brown. Neither Baker nor Bryant were extremely pleased with the scripts and when Baker wanted to move faster on warming up the Doctor's personality he was overruled and, as such, the nasty Doctor continued on far too long.

As a result of all of this the show went from bleeding viewers to hemorrhaging them. The show was put on hiatus with three stories left in the season and it was questionable on whether or not it would return. Despite his issues with the direction, Baker did not want to see the show cancelled outright and so he joined in the campaign to have it restored. It did, indeed, return and some things were certainly better. The Doctor's personality was softened a bit and his relationship with Peri was warmed up considerably. It was all still a bit too little too late, however, and Colin Baker was, sadly, made the scapegoat for the whole debacle and was released from the role of the Doctor to make way for the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. Understandably upset over his treatment, Baker refused to return to film a regeneration scene to hand the baton over to McCoy.

To be fair, some blame does have to be laid at the feet of the actors. Colin Baker played the role of arrogant entirely too well and he was already known for having a tendency to go over the top and an inability to tone down his performances. These things combines to make his Doctor more of a parody than anything else. Bryant, in her youth an inexperience, often came off as interesting as Elmer's glue.

In more recent years an audio company in Great Britain, Big Finish, has been producing audio dramas featuring several of the surviving Doctors. Baker and Bryant have been paired in stories repeatedly and have shown that their Doctor-Companion combo would have been quite good with some scripts that didn't rely so much on bickering and some seasoning on their performances.

Also, as more of the details of what went on behind the scenes during that era have come out Baker has been exonerated by fans. It doesn't hurt that he is, by all accounts, quite a funny, warm, personable man in person and one who delights in meeting fans.

So that's what was behind the scenes. Next up, "Vengeance on Varos"!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Mind Robber"

Okay, a couple of things right out of the gate.
First, yes, there was a time when Doctor Who was rather unabashedly geared towards kids. Over time this changed and the show became much more 'family viewing' but there was a time when it was very obviously playing towards kids. This doesn't mean that the stories were not good, just that they were a bit different than the fare viewers get today... or in the 1970's and later as well.
Second, I love Patrick Troughton, the 2nd Doctor. Even the stories he did that were crap were great simply because he was playing the Doctor. Troughton. Is. Awesome. That is all that needs to be said. So there's my bias on the table.
Now for one of my FAVORITE Doctor Who stories.... "The Mind Robber".
The Plot: While trying to escape the lava flow from an erupting volcano (picking up from the previous story, "The Dominators") the TARDIS malfunctions and the Doctor is forced to take drastic measures -- moving the TARDIS out of space and time entirely! While trying to make repairs the entire crew comes under the influence of a powerful mind. Companions Jamie and Zoe are lured out of the TARDIS and the Doctor comes under psychic attack. The Doctor manages to get his companions back but when he tries to return the TARDIS to normal space-time mysterious forces pull it apart!
The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe awaken separated in a strange wood. Jamie and Zoe fall into traps and the Doctor soon begins meeting with some of the strange denizens of this world. Wherever they are the usual laws of physics seems not to apply and the Doctor soon discovers that imagination and words seem to hold all the power here.
After rescuing his companions, the little group sets out and begins encountering strange, wind-up, toy soldier robots and characters from myth and story come to life. The Doctor soon realizes that they are trapped in a land of fiction and their only sure defense to to keep telling themselves that the things they encounter are not real.
The TARDIS team eventually makes their way to the "master" of this land and discover the sinister plot behind it all -- a computer brain creates the world but it needs imagination to give it the shapes of things to create! Having taken a writer from Earth decades ago the man is growing tired and now wants the Doctor to take his place since the Doctor is much longer lived. The Doctor refuses to become a slave to the machine but there are consequences as Jamie and Zoe are absorbed and become nothing more than fictional characters! Can the Doctor find a way out of this and save his companions or are they all destined to become a writer's toys?
My Take: It has long been argued among fans that Doctor Who is more Science-Fantasy than Science Fiction and this is pretty true -- certainly some eras more so than others -- but "The Mind Robber" is very, VERY firmly in the Sci-Fa rather than Sci-Fi camp. Despite this (or maybe because of it) what viewers get is a delightful, creative, imaginative and unique adventure story. It also created a story that was able to be delightfully stretched when the production ran into trouble.
You see, quite a bit of Patrick Troughton's era was rife with problems. Scripts were continually late and this, in turn, caused rushed productions and sudden shifting of story order. As a result, "The Mind Robber" had very little wiggle room -- it had to be filmed quickly and there were no other scripts ready which could be put in it's place if something went wrong. And something went wrong.... 23 year old Fraser Hines, who played Jamie, and one of his brothers, were renting a house together in London and decided to play host to their nephews over a weekend. What no one knew was that the nephews were contagious with Chicken Pox. Hines showed up on Monday for filming and soon broke out and was ordered home to quarantine. Since Jamie was in too many scenes to film around Hines's absence the only solution was to temporarily recast Jamie. A young, Scottish actor was found for the part and a clever bit of writing created a scene in the script in which the Doctor has to reconstruct Jamie's face and gets it wrong and then later has to reconstruct it again and gets it right as Hines was well enough to rejoin the production.
While all of this was a 'work around' for an ill cast member it ends up adding a delightful bit of fun to the overall story. It highlights and brings home the idea that this is a world where anything can and will possibly happen.
The cleverness of the script is also shown in much of the imaginativeness of the writing. For example, the character of Gulliver from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels speaks only lines from that story. Rapunzel turns out to be quite used to people using her hair as a rope all the time and we are even introduced to a comic strip superhero from the future. A 'forest' turns out to be made of giant letters instead of trees and the letters all spell out common sayings, wind-up toy soldiers chase our heroes throughout the story, and Jamie and Zoe are pressed inside a giant book like flowers and become "fictional" characters. This is another part of the charm of the story; watching as an adult you become aware of the irony of the fact that the Doctor and his companions are already fictional characters.
For the most part all the performances are also just delightful. Of the supporting cast the "Master" writer is a bit too plummy at at times and his attempts to use a different voice when speaking as the computer brain don't always come off well but the script does a good job at keeping his true nature hidden until the very end. Also, throughout the story the viewer is led to think of him as the villain of the piece only for it to be revealed that he is not the bad guy we have thought him.
Bernard Horsefall would go on to guest star several times in Doctor Who but he makes a lovely Gulliver here. His voice and delivery of the lines made me wish there was an audio book of him reading Gulliver's Travels. He delivers the old-fashioned language without flourish or embellishment -- making it seem downright conversational.
Of the main cast, there are a few moments where Fraser Hines overacts a bit and Wendy Padbury's screams are sometimes over the top and are also done for no good reason at times. Aside from that, though, Hines makes Jamie charming, brave, and exasperated by turns and Padbury's Zoe presents viewers with the prototype of the modern, female companion -- intelligent, quick-witted and actually a bit tough. It must be said, though, that Zoe's fight with the superhero Karkus looks a bit bad on-screen. In the cast commentary Padbury explains that there was very little time to rehearse the fight, she had never done a fight scene before and there was no time to re-shoot the scene to cover some of the worse gaffes.
Troughton is also his usual, solid self here. His Doctor is a mercurial sort -- going from defiant to befuddled, to fearful in split seconds. There is also a slightly chilling moment as the Doctor refuses to take the writer's place -- not even to save his companions. We see, in a later scene, that the knowledge that his companions are lost to him pains him deeply but he refuses to give in even for them. The battle of imagination between the Doctor and the writer is also fun as famous characters from myth and legend appear and disappear to battle at the very thoughts of these two determined people. There are also some great lines of dialog as the Doctor baits and insults his opponent.
With an extremely inventive script, witty dialogue, nice acting performances all around, "The Mind Robber" is Doctor Who at it's best. The story shows just how malleable the format could be -- stretching the bounds of the series to date. Sure, some of the story seems a bit simplified and appealing to kids and some of the special effects don't hold up as well but the sequence of the TARDIS breaking up is still shocking today and provides one hell of a cliffhanger for the first episode and there are moments taken very seriously -- like where we see the Doctor seemingly defeated and out of options. Overall, while I wouldn't necessarily want a steady diet of stories like "The Mind Robber" as it stands it is a breath of fresh air, a view askew of the Doctor's world, and a look at what the show could potentially pull off.
Fans of Steven Moffat's current run on the show should definitely check this one out -- I think they'll find a lot in common.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Going a Bit Personal... "Why History?"

So I've got this class for my (second) master's degree (yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment. TWO master's degrees). For this class we are touring various types of libraries. One library we recently toured was a medical library. The other was a medical HISTORY library. And the difference was VAST.

For the record, I'm an archivist (no, not an archaeologist nor an anarchist). I virtually eat, sleep and breathe history. It's part of who and what I am. When I develop a new hobby I often find myself wanting to learn about the history of it. For example, when I started getting into comic books I didn't just read the comic books -- i read books about the history of comic books. I read stories about how and why comic books became what we know today. I've even read and collected hard cover and trade paperback reprints of older comics because all of it is interesting and fascinating.

So, yeah, I love history. But the fact of the matter is that, as I go through the world I meet so many people who DON'T. And, well, that's okay if it isn't your cup of tea. Diversity is what makes the world go 'round. What boils MY cup of tea, however, are the people who are not content to merely say they don't like history but the people who actually see history as a BURDEN. The people who actively state that they don't see what GOOD history is, they don't see the USE of it and anything old should simply be gotten rid of in order to make way for everything new.

One library talked about getting "stuck" with the archival material and seemed to begrudge it space in their facility and that they didn't know what to do with it. They were proud of the fact that they didn't keep anything "old" -- they were all "new" and "up to date" and there was even some bewilderment expressed when they did get requests for books or journal articles which were ten years old or more... as if they could not understand why anyone would want anything that old. In contrast, the other library reveled in it's old stuff. It joyed in showing people how far we've come and even teaching that sometimes we can underestimate what they knew and what they could do in the past. That sometimes we think we're so clever at inventing stuff when, in point of fact, all we're doing is updating an idea that is actually hundreds of years old.

The past is NOT something to be tossed aside for the "latest model". Nor paved over to make way for something that is more "up to date". To me, as the saying goes: "How do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?" What USE is history? Well, let me count some of the ways:

  • History gives you a sense of roots. You can understand and see the longevity of a place or a family and it reassures you that those things will continue to be there for it.
  • It can stop you from making a mistake. You can see what was done in the past and how it worked or did not work and therefore you can change your plans accordingly. Why recreate someone else's mistake?
  • It can help you understand situations. Knowing what a country, or a city, or a person went through in the past can help you understand how they got to where they are today. Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sprung into being in the last 20 years? If you don't understand the background to the conflict you're not going to fully understand what's going on today. Houses are built from the ground up not the top down.
  • It can give you hope for the future. In any struggle there has been a past. Looking back, you can see how far you've come. No matter how much further you have to go you can ALWAYS look back and see the changes and gain heart for the continuing fight because you DO have proof that things have changed.
  • It can humble you. You might think you're hot stuff, coming up with a new idea but you might be surprised just what people in the past knew and could do. More and more people are learning and relearning knowledge of the past was not necessarily as "primitive" and they might think and the people of today may not be as clever as we think we are.
So history. Whether or not it is something that you enjoy it IS something to be respected. Our personal pasts make us who we are and we learn from them so how much more do the histories of our cities, states, country, continent, and world also shape who we are, what we do, and how we live?

Today and everyday I challenge you to go forth and SEE history all around you!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Five Doctors"

The thing about the "grab bag" review format is that it does produce some weird results. I've reviewed one First Doctor story and one Fourth Doctor story and suddenly I've got to review a special, anniversary episode from 1983!

Oh well, I obey the rules of the "bag" and so.....


I have to say that this story had such a long, involved incubation that I could actually write a Master's Thesis length document just on what went wrong (and right) about the genesis of the episode. I will, however, spare whoever is reading this that and try to keep things simple while still giving some idea of the scope involved.

A little background: 1973 marked the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who and the event was commemorated then by gathering the (then) three actors who had played the Doctor into an adventure called "The Three Doctors". The story seemed to "have it all" -- Time Lords, three incarnations of the Doctor, and even a Time Lord villain.... who was NOT the Master.

Even before 1983 rolled around, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner was planning for the show's 20th anniversary and he wanted it to be bigger and better than the previous one. To that end he set about securing a script writer and lining up casts. He wanted to get every single surviving actor who had played the Doctor (William Hartnell, the First Doctor, having passed away in 1975) and several of the more popular companions who had been associated with the various Doctors.

Almost immediately there were problems. The original writer was having trouble with the story and eventually bowed out. He was replaced by show staple writer Terrance Dicks. Also, a great many of the original proposed cast members ended up either being unable to participate or else were forced to bow out before filming. Almost fatally, there was, apparently, a miscommunication between Nathan-Turner and actor Tom Baker in which Nathan-Turner believed that Baker was a lock for reprising his role as the Fourth Doctor while Baker has claimed that he had initially responded that he wanted time to think it over and eventually decided to opt out. Baker had, after all, only left the role about three years earlier and in those intervening years had found himself typecast.

With the Fourth Doctor out this put a strain on the script. One of the original ideas for the script was that the main villains would be the Cybermen and that they would create an android duplicate of the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan and this would explain away the changed appearance as they hired a different actor to play Hartnell's role. They also felt that since this First Doctor would, in essence, be an impostor, it would still honor the memory of Hartnell by NOT actually recasting the role. With the Fourth Doctor out, however, the story was now shaping up to be more like "The Three Doctors and the Android Impostor Doctor". Nathan-Turner had discussed matters with Hartnell's widow and, to his surprise and delight, she actually gave permission for him to go ahead and recast the role. As such actor Richard Hurnall was approached to play the First Doctor. As for Tom Baker's part Nathan-Turner was still set on having all five Doctors appear in the story and as such he used a few clips from the unfinished and unaired Fourth Doctor story "Shada" to represent the Fourth Doctor in the story.

Finally, there was the matter of scheduling. With the way Doctor Who seasons were running at that time the previous series ended in March of 1983 with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison filming a sitcom during the off season before coming back to Doctor Who. In order to fit everything in Nathan-Turner received permission to film "The Five Doctors" as a movie-length episode and push back the start of the next season to fit it in. As a final flourish, he decided to have the movie debut during the BBC's annual telethon "Children in Need" -- a telethon to raise money for various children's services and charities.

As time approached for the story to air the episode was heavily advertised. Nathan-Turner planned a series of publicity photographs for the story and wanted all of the Doctors to appear in them. Tom Baker's refusal to participate left something of a noticeable gap so, rather infamously, Nathan-Turner arranged to borrow Baker's wax figure from Madame Tussuad's wax museum in London and the rest of the cast members posed with this.

Five years after the story originally aired the decision was made to "remaster" the story, adding some cut scenes and "improving" some of the special effects. Some fans, however, were not pleased with the "improvements" and as a result a special edition of the DVD was eventually produced which contained BOTH the original 1983 transmission as well as the longer, and improved later version. This review will actually consider both versions.


Well. There is something to be said for the fact that, until the abysmal "Dimensions in Time" special in the 1990's (I'll get to that one later) this was the last multi-Doctor story featuring as many of the Doctors as possible. With the passage of time Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee have joined William Hartnell in the Great Beyond and Tom Baker, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy no longer look so well, nor is their health always so great. I'm NOT saying they're going to pop off the mortal coil anytime soon, I'm just saying they aren't the Doctors they were. There was "Time Crash" but that's another thing I'll get around to later. Let's just leave it at "The Five Doctors" was pretty much the Last Great Multi-Doctor Story.
It does indeed seem to have everything fans could want -- iconic companions like Susan, Sarah Jane, Jamie, Zoe, K-9 and the Brigadier, iconic enemies like the Master, Daleks, Cybermen, and Yeti, and iconic places like Gallifrey and it's culture and history. The story is drenched in nostalgia both old and new -- everything from the Second Doctor's fur coat to the Third Doctor's yellow roadster Bessie, to the Doctor's friend and mentor Borusa -- not seen too long before. Upon the first airing in November 1983 it must have been like a fans' early Christmas and even for subsequent generations there is a magic in the first viewing -- it feels like everything fans love about Doctor Who.
Unfortunately, subsequent viewings over time seem to rub the shine off. Once one gets past all the bright, shiny, fan-y stuff it is too easy to start seeing all the plot holes left in a script that was sadly written and re-written. Things such as the First Doctor referring to his age and implying he is old when he is, in fact, the youngest of them and the Fifth Doctor being called a "young man" by his other selves when they know good and well that he's older than each of them. There is also the fact that we know the Doctors are being taken out of their relative places in the timeline yet the Third Doctor greets the Brigadier as if he hadn't seen him in a long time. This makes no sense since, by the Third Doctor's timeline he had probably seen the Brig not that long ago. And I could go on... but that would get nitpicky. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that don't add up. And then the [fill in the blank] of Rassilon gets a little laughable after a while... Black Scrolls of Rassilon, Coronet of Rassilon, Harp of Rassilon for goodness sake! It's all a bit too much.
Also, after "The Deadly Assassin" the show increasingly went to Gallifrey so what was once a mysterious and seemingly cold, hidebound society became something more familiar... and govenmentally bureaucratic. With "The Five Doctors" it feels almost as if all the alienness has been worn off of Time Lord society and the whole thing bears the stamp of modern, human politics.
As for the rest of the story -- most of the performances are delightful. Carol Ann Ford (Susan) is not given very much to do, really, but in her cries of "Grandfather!" viewers can hear the young Time Lady she once was. Although throwing in her twisting her ankle JUST to have her do a ankle twisting scene as a tribute to the past is eye-rollingly bad. Likewise, Mark Strickson, who played the Fifth Doctor's companion Vislor Turlough, gets sidelined throughout most of the story and given some of the most inane and pointless lines of dialog. This is doubly sad since his character had only recently polished off a big character arc. Janet Fielding as Tegan manages to hold her own, Elizabeth Sladen recaptures the different relationship she had with Jon Pertwee's Doctor and it works well and warmly, and Nicholas Courtney is a Brigadier-y as he ever was.
In regards to the Doctors... Richard Hurndall turns in a decent performance but he is simply not William Hartnell and seeing him just seems like a poor copy of the original... something that is a disservice to both Hurndall AND Hartnell. Peter Davison holds his own amongst such a famous and talented bunch of actors and really projects a sense of his version of the Doctor as the 'peacemaker', trying to keep the more fractious among his past selves from starting fires. Too bad he never gets to interact that much with the other Doctors -- it would have been delightful to see him get to do whole scenes with Pertwee and Troughton as he does with Hurndall. Troughton... Troughton just slips back into being the Doctor with the same ease as he slips into the fur coat. He bickers humorously with the Brigadier and with a genuine warmth and ease and yet there is also the dark side to him. It is Troughton's Doctor who admits that Rassilon may not have been the lauded hero Time Lord history has made him out to be... and he implies that he seems inclined to believe these darker tales. Jon Pertwee is ever the man of action and it is fun seeing him face off against the Master... even is it isn't the version of the Master he once knew.
The story also falls down a bit on the villain. It is supposed to be a shocking twist to fans but really it feels more like a sudden and inexplicable heel turn for the character. There is also the fact that viewers are being so obviously led to think this might be the Master that it does the opposite... viewers know it CAN'T be the Master because it's so obvious.
There is also the sequence where the Cybermen are decimated by the Raston Warrior Robot. Okay, so the robot costume hasn't aged well -- it looks like what it is -- a dancer in a silver bodysuit with a zipper up the back. But the robot itself is still a really good idea and the scenes of it slicing through the Cybermen like a hot knife through butter are chilling. It's made even more chilling by the rather graphic violence of it. Cybermen get arms snapped off, heads lopped off, chests blown open... one even actually looks like he vomits before expiring... it's all a bit terribly disturbing even today.
For the story itself, it must really be viewed on two levels. One level, as a fan in which critical thinking flies out the window. The performances are spot-on and it is a delight to see the past Doctors having a romp again. It also puts a smile on your face to see and hear some old familiar favorites such as Bessie and "You've redecorated.... I don't like it." The other level, as a logical, more critical viewer in which it must be admitted that the story is thin and filled with more plot holes than a piece of swiss cheese and in which several characters which deserve to be treated better basically get benched.
I did say as well that I was going to look at BOTH versions... Well, all things considered, the later version doesn't differ all that much from the original transmission. The extended scenes really don't add all that much to the story and, in most cases, the improved special effects are not so great. In the 1983 version each Doctor and companion are pursued by a black, trapezoidal shape and, when captured, their faces appear inside the trapezoid, frozen in expressions of fear and/or panic. It is actually a scary moment because, not only do we not know what is going on, it looks as though the act of taking the Doctors and their friends might actually be painful to them... this is hurting them. The later version replaced these black trapezoids with swirling, spiral cone shapes in which the images can vaguely be seen inside but not with any degree of clarity. On the one hand, they look better but on the other hand they do not convey the menace of the original.
Likewise, the original ending in which all the Doctors and their respective companions seem to enter the same TARDIS to go home only to see TARDISes split off and fly away was sweet even if the special effects for it look a little clunky today. Having the spiral cones take them all back home in the remastered edition does not seem to have the same charm.
The DVD is also absolutely packed with extras. The also interestingly split up the commentary tracks with the actors who played the companions providing an often irreverent commentary on the 1983 edition while Peter Davison and script writer Terrance Dicks provide a more technical commentary on the remastered version. There is also a lovely, lovely Easter Egg (and no, I can't tell you how to find it) of Tenth Doctor David Tennant, new series producer Phil Collinson and
new series script writer Helen Raynor providing commentary on the episode from the viewpoint of having been fans and actually watched the story when it first aired. There are also the other goody bag extras like outtakes, bloopers, a documentary on how the story came about (really interesting stuff there), publicity interviews and much more.
Overall, if you're a real fan then the 25th Anniversary Edition of "The Five Doctors" is a must have. Just make sure you turn off the critical and logical portions of your brain before you sit down to watch it. Put yourself in fan mode and enjoy the ride as this would be the last time we would see some of these actors working together as their wise, weird, and wonderful versions of the Doctor.