Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

The most important thing is that our son recovered very well from last night’s meltdown, and he had as fine a day as a kid can have in lockdown when he’s meant to be on fall break and playing and his parents have to work. And he completely loved tonight’s puzzle box of a story, which arguably features Steven Moffat’s absolute finest use of what he calls timey-wimey storytelling, even resolving – as some people guessed (though not me) when it was shown ten years ago – the strange reappearance of the Doctor’s jacket from episode five.

Overall, our son laughed and wowed all through it, particularly adoring the Doctor’s fez and his idiot dancing, and told us in the end that it had blown his mind all the way to Norway. Norway’s been on his mind lately, since Slartibartfast started telling us about its fjords in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Me, I adore it, and just wish we could have spent some more time in Amelia’s starless world. I wanted to read the museum exhibits! I also need to get myself one of those Stone Dalek toys. For myself, not for the kid to pilfer and join his mob of toys.

We’ll start watching series six of Doctor Who in early November, but we’ve got a few related things to check out first. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 5.12 – The Pandorica Opens

This didn’t go as planned. I was really looking forward to watching this again and moved it up a day, and it all fell to pieces in the end. Our son, I mean. A cliffhanger ending hasn’t hit him like this in years and years. He was devastated.

For a good while, though, he was enjoying this as much as a kid could. We hear Dalek voices from space and then Cybermen voices and then River lists a gang of alien ships in the atmosphere and he was hopping around, so completely thrilled we told him to knock it off. Everything the show gave us just blew him away. I loved hearing his little incredulous voice when the Roman legionnaires’ hands drop away to reveal guns. “…Autons?!”

If you’ve never seen this, it ends with one of the most over-the-top cliffhangers ever. Everything goes wrong, everything falls apart, to the point that Steven Moffat honestly spent the next five series in charge of this show trying for something else with the emotional and narrative oomph of this revelation. The Doctor is imprisoned in a trap designed to lock him away forever. About the only thing I ever figured out before Moffat revealed it was that the box was built for the Doctor, and oh, how delicious it was to see that unfold. Amy is shot dead by Rory, who’s somehow been reincarnated as an Auton, and River is trapped in the TARDIS, which has materialized in rock and is exploding. Then all the lights in the universe go out, fade to black.

Among the named baddies that we don’t see among the Alliance: Draconians, Drahvins, Chelonians. They stuck some Silurians and Roboforms and a Hoix in the room but I guess they didn’t have room in the budget for some new costumes for a one-off. Nice of them to pay for Christopher Ryan to come back and play another Sontaran general, though.

Ah, but the poor kid. Overstimulated, he let his worry for the characters bubble over, and exhausted, he let his annoyance that the story wasn’t finished bubble over, and wishing for a happy ending, he let his frustration that it looks a lot like the heroes have failed bubble over. He wept and stormed and we had to have a long talk about treating anger as a warning sign and needing to calm down. It’s okay to be disappointed, but anger is a little troubling to us. He felt a lot better after a good talk, and then Marie went upstairs to read his night-time story: David Whitaker’s novelization of “The Daleks,” which probably won’t help the overstimulation issue much.

Doctor Who 1.1 – Rose

“Breaking news!” announced our son. “There is a headless Auton with paddle hands destroying a restaurant! His paddle hands can be used to smash tables and also as cutting boards!” But that was after the episode. He was really amusing to watch as the episode played out. For those of you who have never seen Doctor Who‘s re-debut episode from 2005, the story starts out with mannequins coming to life, and plastic trash cans swallowing people with belches, and duplicating hapless twentysomethings and giving them weird plastic smiles. And while our son enjoyed everything that went on – especially, of course, the belch – he wasn’t quite willing to definitively declare these strange monsters to be Autons.

But toward the end of the adventure, a whole shopping mall full of mannequins comes to life. And then one raises its hand in a vintage 1970-71 gesture and its fingers fall away, and, magically, because the new showrunner, Russell T. Davies, is enough of a fanboy to get this right, we hear the classic sound effect of an Auton handgun. And our kid shouted “I knew it! They’re Autons!” I mean, a living plastic mannequin could be anybody. Only an Auton makes that kind of noise when it shoots somebody.

So I was intending to watch this tomorrow night, but when I put The Hardy Boys back on the shelf and pulled out Christopher Eccleston’s run of Who, the kid bounced off the ceiling and he’s been waiting very, very impatiently. And, ah, heck, I wanted to see it again too. Eccleston is joined by Billie Piper, Noel Clarke, and Camille Coduri for his first adventure, and it’s a great reintroduction to the show.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the 1996 movie and how it worked under the assumption that anybody who tuned in already knew Doctor Who inside and out. I told him tonight to watch how this story works as though nobody in the audience had ever seen the program. I like it a lot. I like its speed and its pace, and I really like Eccleston. I’m a little less on Rose’s side, but she’ll have a moment or two.

The Twilight Zone 1.34 – The After Hours

Great day in the morning, was THAT ever entertaining! Sure, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the most important of the fourteen episodes that we watched, but Rod Serling’s “The After Hours” is downright fun.

Sure, grownups will probably figure out the twist as Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and starts hearing the mannequins whispering her name, but it’s such a delicious twist that it would be churlish to complain. The direction by Douglas Heyes is completely wonderful, with lots of little things to catch. I love how he puts a telephone front and center in one shot, but doesn’t have the character rush to it for help just yet.

Of course I asked our son, who said this was “SO CREEPY” and watched most of the weirdness with his security blanket balled in front of his mouth, whether he was reminded of the Autons in Doctor Who and of course he was. It’s a terrific, safe little horror movie for younger viewers, and I think that the success of this installment foreshadows future avenues that Zone would take in its next series. It’s very obviously an antecedent of “The Invaders,” which we’ll certainly be watching before too much longer…

That’s all from The Twilight Zone for now, readers, but stay tuned! We’ll begin looking at a selection of second season episodes in December!

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part four)

Like many middle-aged American Doctor Who fans, I first found the series via the edited-into-a-movie omnibus versions that Lionheart syndicated in the mid-eighties. By that time, the BBC had wiped several of their color copies of Jon Pertwee episodes, and so five of the stories, including this one, were offered as black-and-white movies. I taped my copy off WGTV one Saturday night in 1986 and watched it so often I can still recite whacking great chunks of dialogue.

Color copies in various levels of condition – often poor – circulated for most of the episodes as well. A decade previously, Time-Life had successfully sold most of the Jon Pertwee stories, in their proper episode-by-episode form, to several PBS stations around the country. At least one person copied a 1977 broadcast of “Terror” on Chicago’s WTTW, and I landed a copy around 1991 or so. My eyes just about fell out of my skull when I saw it, not because the quality was so poor – it was probably fifth or sixth generation – but because it proved that the BBC’s black-and-white master copy had been cut by five or six seconds.

The black-and-white “Terror” that I’d seen a hundred times was one where the UNIT forces defeat the Autons pretty decisively. The shootout at the radio telescope at the show’s climax was kind of disappointing, but UNIT had the upper hand, for once. That’s because somebody decided to carefully snip out every shot in which a human gets blasted or knocked off the tower. It’s so nice to have a complete color copy of this fun story at last.

Our son also thought this was very fun in the end, giving this his thumbs-up “pretty cool” seal of approval. He thought the Autons’ daffodil was “crazy.” I remember reading about the daffodil around a year or so before I saw this story and thinking that was exceptionally grim when I was a teen: a weapon that kills you by gluing four square inches of clingfilm around your nose and mouth. Best not to linger on it. It’s no less grim in the cold light of middle age.

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part three)

Last night’s episode, while “super duper scary,” did not produce any nightmares. I asked our son about it today and he said “Nope! I didn’t have a bad dream. I only had one dream, and it was about ice cream.” Nevertheless, when the Auton troll doll came back to life in tonight’s episode, he was back behind the sofa like a rocket.

For a long time in the eighties, the carnival-headed Autons were the only ones we had photos of. I love the delightful garish fellows in their “Plastic Comes to Town” bus, giving out the strange plastic daffodils. Although it did mean that I pictured these big-headed guys when I read the Terrance Dicks’s novelization of their first appearance, “Spearhead from Space,” which was entitled Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. When I saw “Spearhead” some time later, at a Terminus TARDIS meeting at Emory, I was surprised to see those Autons were shop window mannequins with normal-sized heads.

This story’s writer, Robert Holmes, is often praised for how well he created worlds and backgrounds in dialogue without resorting to clumsy exposition. Probably only Douglas Adams did it as well as Holmes. Over these three episodes, we’ve seen so much about the Farrell family with so little screen time devoted to them. I didn’t really connect all the dots until Tat Wood pointed them out in volume 3 of About Time, but isn’t it strange that John Farrell and Mr. McDermott are so set in their ways that they don’t want Colonel Masters as a customer, even though the old plastics factory is clearly failing, running at less than half capacity, and this mysterious colonel is, on the surface, going to keep them at full production? The elder Farrell retires, their son turns the dying business around, and these two idiots can only think that Rex, played by Michael Wisher, must have done something wrong. Well, it turns out that he did, and he gets both of them killed, but their first instinct when they hear “revolutionize” is “Oh, God, what has Rex done now?”

I also note that there is no indication that Rex has visited his mother in the wake of his father’s murder. They must have had a grim and unhappy life, and then the Master came and made it even worse.

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part two)

So, season eight of Doctor Who. It’s more colorful, isn’t it?

It’s not just the costumes, but they’re a start. Jon Pertwee has traded in his black and white for red and purple. In later stories, he’ll find some green and blue smoking jackets. The UNIT men have traded their beige uniforms for green. Caroline John had worn dark reds and blues. Katy Manning, the new companion, is very pink and yellow. And then there are the backgrounds…

Season eight is when Barry Letts made a more obvious mark on the look and feel of the program. He’d been brought on to produce season seven in an incredible rush, and was told to get some ideas together for a replacement program, because nobody at the BBC was certain that Who would continue after Pertwee’s first four stories. Letts would occasionally mention a little about what he’d worked out as that replacement: Snowy Black, sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama with an Australian cowboy lead character. Since the same pipe-smoking “serious drama” people who ran the corporation were already unhappy about Paul Temple being sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama, it’s hard to imagine Snowy Black succeeding. Letts never seemed to go into much detail into what he imagined for Snowy Black, and since he never revived the idea after leaving Who, he probably didn’t spend all that much time developing it.

Letts agreed to produce Who if he could still occasionally direct, and so “Terror of the Autons” became his return to the control room. It is colorful, garish, and looks downright weird. Letts fell completely in love with the blue-screen chromakey tech, and used it for every possible special effects shot, including creating places like museums, and, in part two, the kitchen of a small house. It’s not that it all looks fake necessarily – although it certainly does – it’s that it looks amazingly unreal.

You aren’t supposed to look at the environments of a television narrative, even environments as seen in modern TV that are created entirely by CGI over green-screen sets, and ask what in the world you’re seeing. You go to the movies and intuitively, immediately, instantaneously understand that Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed as Dr. Strange, was in a studio and computers filled in the weird world around him. You see the actress Barbara Leake in front of what seems to be a kitchen and it all looks so amazingly wrong that it becomes weirdly unsettling.

And it keeps happening! The same scene includes a pair of shots where the troll doll, an Auton weapon used by the Master, is played by an actor in a suit CSO’ed onto the “sitting room” set, and the special effects people can’t get the doll’s size right in relation to the furniture. So the milliseconds that it should take to process these weird images get a little prolonged. It doesn’t seem “bad,” to me; it seems “wrong.”

The troll doll is one of the great Doctor Who monsters. Does anybody else remember those from the seventies? They were unaccountably popular in the Scandinavian countries, but there was a shop in Vinings GA – the cottage on Paces Ferry where the Old Vinings Inn has thrived for many years – that had some of those beastly things in the windows and on the porch.

The doll succeeded in scaring the pants off my older kids. They watched this serial years apart. My older son was so worried that he asked me to keep his beloved teddy bear, Fluffy, in the den, and to put Fluffy in the freezer if he should come to life. (The Master’s doll is activated by heat.) My daughter saw it about five years later, and she didn’t just have an entire wall full of teddy bears, dolls and stuffed animals, she even had an inflatable chair. She slept in her brother’s bed that night.

Our favorite six year-old critic doesn’t actually have a teddy bear. Fingers crossed!

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part one)

There were a few big changes for Doctor Who as it started its eighth season. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks returned as producer and script editor. Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, and John Levene were all back, but there were three major new additions to the cast.

First up, there’s Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates. The producers correctly decided that UNIT would feel more alive if it didn’t just cast new speaking parts with each new serial. Levene went from a recurring character to one who appears in each “present day” story, but the Brig needed a junior officer rather than an enlisted man for closer collaboration. Ian Marter, who would later play a different regular part, Harry Sullivan, was almost cast as Yates but had a prior commitment which would interfere with filming later stories. It’s kind of become trendy to mock Franklin’s casting; he doesn’t really radiate the macho action-officer vibe the writers seemed to want, but I like the character. He’s a bit ordinary here, but he gets a surprisingly good storyline a little later on.

And then there’s Katy Manning. On the one hand, her character, Jo Grant, is a very deliberate step backward from the resourceful and intelligent Zoe and Liz, and some of Terrance Dicks’s commentary about the requirements of a Doctor Who companion seem less and less sensible the older we get. She’s scatterbrained and silly. But she’s fantastic all the same. For somebody in the “damsel in distress” school of Who, she’s much more able than her dumb foibles in this episode would suggest, and she grows and matures like few other Who companions are allowed to. Jo is one of the greats.

But this episode is completely dominated by the villains. The Autons don’t get to do very much this time out, but never mind them, because the great Roger Delgado is here as the Master.

I don’t like the Master, generally. I just really, really like Roger Delgado. He spent his career playing forgettable guest star parts, a sheikh here, a Spanish ambassador there, usually a villain, usually quickly dispatched. Many of his earliest performances are lost, but he’s in two episodes of Quatermass II from 1955 and he’s the best thing about that whole fun production. Well, episode six is completely ridiculous, but the other five parts are pure quality and Delgado’s journalist is my favorite thing in them. See, it’s not that the Master’s a great villain; he’s usually a very silly and, eventually, tiresome villain, and every other actor who has ever played other incarnations of the Master is operating in Delgado’s long shadow, because he’s that good.

(Well, I guess Peter Pratt got to do something different and strange in his one-off appearance, but Anthony Ainley didn’t impress me until his last performance in the role, in 1989’s “Survival.” The less said about Eric Roberts drezzzing for the occasion in ’96 the better, Derek Jacobi didn’t have time to make an impact, and John Simm was godawful in his first two appearances. Michelle Gomez has been the first performer to really consistently satisfy me since Delgado, but even she was hamstrung by a self-consciously “wacky” Jim Carrey Riddler direction in “Death in Heaven.” She, and her scripts, improved a hundredfold after that, and darn if Simm didn’t rein it in and be completely fantastic in last week’s new episode.)

Anyway! Our son better get used to the Master, because he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “You can X out me liking him,” he said with eyes wide. “He even shrunk that guy and put him in his own lunchbox!” He also noted that the Autons look somewhat different to the way we saw them last time. I foreshadowed a bit, and reminded him that anything plastic can be an Auton, not just mannequins.

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (part four)

I love, love, love the last part of this story. The bit where the window dummies come to life and start indiscriminately killing pedestrians and policemen is just terrific. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of Doctor Who, directed and shot just perfectly, with some of the most well-matched incidental music in the entire series to accompany it.

Our son handled it very bravely. His jaw unclenched and he looked in wide-eyed surprise at what he was seeing, but nothing really frightened him this time out. There are some very nicely staged action scenes throughout the episode – and, in fairness, Jon Pertwee making faces while great big green plastic tentacles wrap around his head – but while they were all well-staged by the director, Derek Martinus, they weren’t quite enough for him. He was ready for the tanks and the bombs. His favorite part was when the Nestenes’ big gestalt body died and all the Autons collapsed. “I liked it best when the bad guys either die or get knocked out!” he said.

Overall, he said that “Spearhead” was “pretty cool,” but Pertwee has yet to dislodge Patrick Troughton as his favorite Doctor so far. But he’ll have plenty more chances. There are twenty-three more serials to go!

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (part three)

I like how our son correctly likes and yet doesn’t like all the frightening bits. He liked/didn’t like the Auton coming to the remote cottage and terrifying Mrs. Seeley, and he liked/didn’t like the Auton facsimile of General Scobie showing up at the general’s door at the cliffhanger. That’s how it should be when you’re six. We had to pause and give him a chance to run for his security blanket.

I mentioned last time that this restoration looks amazing, but to be clear, “Spearhead from Space” has always looked great because the whole thing is – for the only time in Who‘s original run – on film. The plan, when they made it in late 1969, was to do all the relevant location work and then go into the studio and do all the interior sets on videotape as usual. But while the BBC had been slowly moving to color for a couple of years already, there was still a very tight fit to get all the drama and comedy and light entertainment in the studios with the new color equipment. When one of the unions involved called a strike, there wasn’t room to remount this serial when everything was rescheduled.

This was a very similar situation to the one that would befall the story “Shada” about a decade later. It was canceled after its location work and one of its three studio sessions. But Derrick Sherwin, who admittedly tells the story on one of the special features making himself out as quite a hero, wasn’t going to let that happen in ’69, and he got some 16mm color cameras and told the location manager to get him some facilities to get the story in the can. The result is excellent, even if it’s a little slower-paced than what our son is used to seeing. It actually is a little more deliberate than the black-and-white years of Who, but that’s going to change in a big way in tomorrow night’s installment. It’s a great serial, one of the program’s very best.

Kind of makes you wish Sherwin was still around the BBC in 1979. Reckon he’d have got “Shada” made?

Anyway, I’m jumping ahead just a touch, but this was actually Sherwin’s last Doctor Who production. While he was deep in the trenches working on season seven, he got the call to rejoin his colleague Peter Bryant on Paul Temple. The first season of this detective series began broadcast in the UK, also in color, in November 1969, but it needed some help. So Sherwin finished work on “Spearhead” and rejoined Bryant for three seasons on Temple as Barry Letts came on board to produce the rest of Who‘s seventh year. After Paul Temple ended, Sherwin went on to work on the BBC’s star-packed drama Man Outside and a ghost story called Nobody’s House for Tyne Tees Television.

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (part two)

Another first appearance in this Doctor Who serial: John Woodnutt, who will appear in at least two more Who serials in the years ahead, joins the cast as Hibbert, the manager of a plastics factory that’s been taken over by Channing and his as-yet-unnamed Autons. We meet the mannequins for the first time in this episode: a small group of bald and eyeless shop dummies that dress in dark blue denim suits. The cliffhanger, in which an ex-employee of the factory makes his way into his old lab to find it full of strange equipment and motionless Autons, is one that’s much loved by fans. When one of the Autons slowly reacts and walks toward the intruder, our son was up like a rocket. “What’s going to happen?!” he shouted.

But he was quite clear that the ending was one of only two parts that he enjoyed. “This is not too exciting,” he explained, although he really did love the bit where the Doctor has a quick bath and leaves the cottage hospital after stealing some other peoples’ clothes, and a big fancy red car. Otherwise, it’s not engaging him quite as much so far.

Speaking of mannequins, I do want to recommend that everybody buy the upgraded Special Edition DVD of this story, even if you have the original R1 release already. I’ve never felt like I had the disposable income to purchase all the many Special Editions that they’ve released, but early last year I decided to finish my DVD collection and was first annoyed to see that I’d waited too long and missed the R1 edition of “Terror of the Autons,” and, out of print, it was then going for $100 on Amazon, and secondly annoyed that in the UK, “Terror” was issued in a box set with the Special Edition of “Spearhead” called Mannequin Mania. You can’t get one without the other.

But the annoyance was short-lived, because they did an amazing job restoring a serial that had always looked perfectly good, I thought. But now the colors just pop out and it looks amazingly vibrant. It honestly looks like it was shot on 35mm film instead of 16mm, and the only annoyance left afterward was realizing that the rest of the series is going to be on that blasted British videotape instead of looking as fabulous as this every week.