Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The Mutants, Robots of Death and State of Decay were my yuletide extravaganzas. Each holds fond memories closely associated with the season. The Mutants even has a kind of quasi-religious subtext with the Doctor as a kind of Gabriel delivering a message of good news from the "gods", the evil Marshal (Herod) out to exterminate the Solonians, and Ky as another sort of angel-like figure proclaiming the good news (okay I'll stop now before my analogy snaps). The point remains, that any Doctor Who story can be a fun addition to Christmas!
This year I scheduled my re-watch of The Face of Evil on Christmas morning. It wasn't going to be possible to, er...download this year's special A Christmas Carol later on the day, so this seemed a perfect alternative. Boy was it fun! Yay, Leela. Omigod, it's the Doctor's face carved in a mountain. Yummy, it's Tomas wearing very little!
Sometimes Doctor Who is just plain fun. The story is an old sci-fi trope: backwards society descended from spaceship crash worships God that turns out to be computer, yadda yadda. But we get the added twist that the Doctor is responsible or the whole mess and the computer is MPD (with the Doctor being one of the personalities).
By comparison I was a little disappointed by A Christmas Carol when I finally got to see it. It was a bit more sombre than usual. Don't get me wrong, Steven Moffat's script was an extremely clever and inventive riff on the traditional tale. The dialogue sparkled, the imagery was interesting and there were lots of fun moments. It just wasn't the thrill ride I'm used to getting from a Russell T Davies script. As usual I watched most of the past specials over the season, and without any of the heightened expectation of watching for the first time, I enjoyed them all. The TARDIS car chase in The Runaway Bride is still on-the-edge-of-your-seat viewing and Voyage of the Damned never slows down! I'm not sure Moffat's take on the season will stand up to repeated viewings (I won't even get into the central controversy of the Doctor being able to manipulate the past within the narrative of the story--that begs some serious consideration). Time will tell.
But think about it, Christmas is about recognizable traditions. It's a ritual that re-stages the same story over and over again each year. In the cold, dark of the winter it's reassuring to have a narrative we know well that carries us through to the light. Conversely, each time we watch a new Doctor Who Christmas special we enter into the unknown. We judge it on all the strengths and merits of a regular Doctor Who story. We're too close to it and our judgment is often unduly critical. The Face of Evil has staying power and works brilliantly as the opener for several highly regarded stories. It offers hope and stability for the new year. Yes, I will attempt new things and stretch myself in ways that I never conceived. Unexpected events will test me, possibly set me back and force me to find new, creative ways to meet the future. But for this short period of time, during this "mid-winter feast" I can stop, catch my breath, and revel in the familiar, comforting stories of the past.
Merry Christmas and may the New Year be grand!
Original viewing date: December 18, 1983.
Wine: Sparkling wine + orange juice = Mimosas! Nothing goes better with Christmas morning or Doctor Who viewing.
Music: "Say, Say, Say" by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
The Deadly Assassin is a game changer, no matter how you look at it. After this solo outing, no longer is it the Doctor and Sarah--it's the Doctor and companion. Because for the first time in history, a Doctor carries a story pretty much on his own. Sure he gets to play off of Spandrell and Engin, but the Fourth Doctor is front and centre in a new way. Mind you it wouldn't have worked indefinitely. Having the Doctor talk to himself so much is a bit self-conscious.
From the moment we get the scrolling prologue and voice-over, everything feels differently. Like a television series beginning a new season with big changes. Except, the tone still feels recognizable. Hinchcliffe/Holmes is still driving the car, but they've shifted gears up to third. It must have been positively epic for viewers at the time, the Doctor goes home. History tells us that many fans were spitting blood. Gone were the Time Lords of The War Games. In their stead were aliens more at home in Westminster: cynical, conniving and vain. Thank God Robert Holmes decided to bring it all down to Earth. I cannot imagine watching the boring, lifeless Time Lords we eventually got in Arc of Infinity. Apart from the gripping, surreal action in the Matrix, the best parts of the story involve Borusa, Runcible and the daffy double act of Spandrell and Engin. Even the Master is kind of throwaway in the story.
I still laugh out loud at the chalk outline of the fallen President, or Borusa's tampering with the truth. The only thing missing is an old Time Lord stashed away somewhere actually playing the organ in the narrative. That would be brilliant.
Too bad most of the subtleties of the story went over my head at 14. Most of my enjoyment came of the fan-wanky thrill of seeing the Doctor's home planet or the Matrix sequences (they reminded me of the Star Trek episode "Arena"). Now I couldn't care less--it's just a fantastic and inventive story that shifts gears in the same way that say Inferno does. One minute you think you've got the gist of it and then it takes a 180 turn. Rather like the series as a whole. And because I watched the story in re-editing movie version, I was never aware of the freeze-frame cliffhanger controversy until years later. In fact I would argue that the story is one of the few that holds up well in movie-format.
Liqueur: I decided to watch the story on Sunday morning, so Bailey's Irish Cream in my coffee seemed the obvious choice.
Original viewing date: December 11, 1983. (Okay, I've taken a stand and decided that KVOS was quite consistent with showing all their stock of Doctor Who stories in chronological order, thus they must have played Revenge and I just plain missed it!)
Music: "Major Tom (Coming Home)" by Peter Schilling.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
She burst onto the scene in all her mid-70s-TV-feminist glory, hands on hips, shouting at men with medieval attitudes as companion to Jon Pertwee's Doctor. She morphed into the spunky, endearing best friend of Tom Baker's Doctor. Later after her departure in The Hand of Fear, Elizabeth Sladen was invited back on a couple of occasions (to no avail) to reprise her role as the ever popular journalist (once for the Key to Time season and later to bridge the Baker/Davison transition). An unsuccessful spin-off series, a return for the 20th anniversary, multiple returns in the new series and a second (and successful) spin-off series this time bearing her character's name.
Her place within the Doctor Who mythos is really quite remarkable. Who else holds such a distinctive position? She really does get a great send-off here. It feels completely authentic and just a little work-a-day (in a good way). It plays both ways: you almost feel that Doctor will return to collect her once he's finished with his Gallifrey business, and yet it also has that sense of finality too. Like they both know it, but aren't able to admit it.
Looking back over seasons 12 & 13, I just don't buy Russell T Davies' little bit of retcon, asking us to believe that Sarah had any kind of romantic feelings for the Doctor. But the bond was really strong, and I can certainly see her pain at being left behind. As my friend Graeme points out, there's much more evidence to indicate that there might have been something going on between Sarah and Harry.
The Hand of Fear has a very fresh feel and must have seemed quite contemporary at the time. I love the creepy way Liz Sladen choose to play the possessed Sarah, almost as if Eldrad has misinterpreted the character's spunky/cute attributes (in the same way that animators mistake human attributes in the creep-fest that is The Polar Express).
The simple effects for the hand itself are excellent, resulting in a superb cliffhanger to episode 2 where the silicon appendage suddenly comes to life.
Still love that simple scene where Professor Watson calls home to talk to with wife during the nuclear crisis. Moments like that make me love Doctor Who all the more.
My 13/14-year-old memories: The Hand of Fear will always have a special place in my heart. In a motel room in Kenora, Ontario did I see my first ever episode of Doctor Who. It was probably on TVOntario but it might have been a PBS affiliate, I'll probably never know. My family was driving across Canada from Nova Scotia to BC following our return from a 4 year stint on an air force base in West Germany.
After bugging my mom for some change to get a root beer from the pop machine, I flipped on the TV and started surfing through the channels. Doctor Who caught my attention immediately. I was glued to my seat until the shocking moment that Eldrad was skewered with the poisoned spear. Needless to say I flipped futilely through the channels the next night in Moose Jaw, vainly hoping to find the next part. It would be another year and a half before I agreed with Sarah that "I quite liked her, but couldn't stand him."
Number of times someone proclaims "Eldrad must live!": 22 (almost all of these are in episode 2 spoken primarily by Sarah and Dr. Carter, with the Doctor saying it 3 times in a row as a point of clarification; we also hear "Somebdoy must live" and "Eldrad lives!")
Original viewing date: Episode 3 - August 1982; Full Story - November 27 or December 4, 1983
Spirit: Bombay Sapphire Gin, the choice drink of silicon-based lifeforms everywhere.
Music: "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. I have a very distinctive memory of first hearing it at our class Christmas party.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Lovely set design, reasonably interesting characters and fantastic location filming at Portmerion: there is much to love about The Masque of Mandragora.
And the Doctor is fascinating to watch in the story. He seems so in control; he’s a man with a mission, he’s gonna clean up his mess, dodge the local political intrigue, and put out the red firecracker. In some ways it’s a very unusual Doctor Who story with its diffuse, triangulated plot: Count Fredrico wants to do away with his nephew, the rightful heir of San Martino, and he employs the help of the local astrologer Hieronymus, who in turn (with Helix help) has bigger aspirations to be head cheese of the world. Fredrico seems to sense the bearded one and the cult of Demnos are a bit of a threat so he tries to take them out too. Many peasants get slaughtered, and Sarah’s on sacrificial lamb duty.
I must confess that the ending thoroughly confused me. I get the basic idea that the Doctor saves the day by using himself as a human grounding wire, draining the Mandragora Helix. But doesn't the Helix have a central intelligence? So once he drained off the Hieronymus part, didn't the rest of it inhabiting the other acolytes know what was going on?
The cliffhanger at the end of episode three is fantastic, mind you, with Hieronymus removing his mask to reveal blank light and then Fredrico being stuck down in all his arrogance. Maybe that's the problem, the subsequent ending to the story never really surpasses that moment. Ultimately, the whole thing suffers from being too diffuse. Instead of one big show-stopping finale, we got stages of defeat for the Doctor's antagonists. And when the end finally came, I never really doubted for one moment that it was the Doctor behind Hieronymus' mask. I guess I just wanted something more clever. Or perhaps for Giuliano to play a more pivotal part in the big showdown. In a Davison story he would have been the pseudo-companion!
But Doctor Who’s difficulty with endings could be viewed as a by-product of one of its great strengths—it always, always (well almost always) shoots for the moon. Star Trek TNG or other sci-fi series are mere procedurals by comparison, concerned with reasoned, neat stories that make a clear point, with no greasy fingerprints on the door-frame. Doctor Who is messy and inventive like play. With great whimsy, romance and imagination comes great corners to be backed into.
When you're nicking gorgeous costumes from the BBC wardrobe department and mingling with the ghosts of The Prisoner on the grounds of Portmerion who has time for tediously laid tongue twisters of technobabble. Scary, faceless cultists and a bon vivant Doctor tripping executioners with his scarf and jumping onto every horse in sight is what you pays yer money for.
What really would have made the story more interesting, besides a better ending, was if Guillermo had had more of a personality or even just a few more character beats. But I suppose he was a goody in the classical sense (where actors talk about how they’d much rather play a baddy).
Of course season 14 is about to ramp up and I’m quite excited about the weeks to come. Doctor Who is at its height and if Mandragora isn’t quite stellar, it has much to recommend it.My 14-year-old opinion: Back then the plot never really held my attention. My memories are of creepy Hieronymus and his funky beard, the masks, Sarah picking oranges and the copious use of horses in the story.
Original viewing date: November 20 or November 27, 1983
Wine: What else, a half decent Chianti (served without fava beans) from the Rocca delle Macie.
Music: "Eyes Without a Face," by Billy Idol.