An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)

Y’all know me, or at least regular readers do. I love surprising our son with what we’re going to watch. And if I say so myself, I was positively devilishly clever in surprising him this week. As always, he demands to know what’s coming up – and often I do tell him, because I’m mischievous and not mean – and this time, I was pretty whimsical. I told him that we were watching something with three actors he’s seen fairly recently in Doctor Who. It stars Jessica Raine, who he saw earlier this month in the episode “Hide”, as a television producer, along with Sacha Dhawan, the Master in the most recent series, as a television director, and David Bradley, who was the villain in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, as an actor who gets the role of a lifetime. Plus it was written by Mark Gatiss, who had written all sorts of Who adventures.

Of course, the downside to being deliberately oblique and obscure is that it dampens the enthusiasm somewhat. There was no boy standing at the foot of the stairs at the crack of dawn demanding an immediate start to the promised spectacle. This was a boy who took his sweet time finding breakfast and flopped on the sofa with the weight of obligation. Then I told him it was a true story and had no explosions, chase scenes, or fight scenes. But his eyes widened and he started to smile when he recognized the weird and distinctive “howlaround” visuals used in the original Who title sequence.

Hey, waitaminnit, my copy of that book has William Hartnell’s face on it!

Anyway, as part of Who‘s 50th anniversary celebrations, Mark Gatiss successfully pitched the idea of a docudrama about William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor, and how the show was made, from an idea by a Canadian avalanche of an executive named Sydney Newman, played here by the awesome Brian Cox, and built into life by Verity Lambert and a team that included director Waris Hussein, associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, and designer Peter Brachacki. The show takes a few small liberties with history – but don’t they all? – but it’s also full of love and in-jokes and affection.

Put another way, I enjoy most of Gatiss’s Who stories very much, and I still wonder where in the world a TV adaptation of his novel Nightshade is hiding, but An Adventure in Space and Time may be his masterpiece. This was the fourth time I’ve watched this movie and I’ve been a teary mess every single time. Lots of stories are full of triumph and feature long, sad endings, but there’s so much affection and care for this story that it just punches me in the gut, hard.

One small part of this is a weirdly personal one. Without his Hartnell wig, David Bradley looks quite a lot like my grandfather, Joseph Trummie Goggans. During the climactic “I don’t want to go” moment, he looks precisely like my grandfather. The first time I saw this, in between moments of cold fury at BBC America for all the breathtakingly poorly placed commercial breaks, I probably stopped breathing from sorrow. Then when Hartnell looks across the TARDIS console and sees that everything will be okay… I had to dry my left eye again just now typing this.

Unfortunately, for a nine year-old, that long, sad ending was probably a little too long and a little too sad. Our son enjoyed this to a point, but really it was just the triumphs that kept him rivetted. Happily, the triumphs are really spectacular. The introduction of the Daleks, the “pied piper” bit on Hartnell’s day off in the park, and Newman telling Lambert that the space monsters had brought them 10 million viewers all scored. He stays mostly quiet during movies, but he enjoyed getting in a dig when the ratings justified the budget overspending that Newman was discussing with some BBC executive played by Mark Eden. Eden is one of several performers from the original run of Who to make little cameos. William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Jean Marsh, and Anneke Wills also got to enjoy the fun.

An Adventure in Space and Time is a beautiful look back to London, 1963, full of great clothes and hair and cars and the BBC’s big round television centre and the smoke from a million cigarettes. If the movie has a flaw at all, it’s that they cut too much out of the very short segment where electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire and her associate Brian Hodgson demonstrate their work, but at least more of it’s available as a deleted scene on the Blu-ray. But it’s a film full of magic and wonder and sadness and it’s far better than most movies that were released on the big screen. Do I like it more than the actual 50th anniversary episode? We’ll see later this week.

Doctor Who 7.12 – The Crimson Horror

It’s not like I was chomping at the bit for a Paternoster Gang spinoff series in 2013 – I’m nowhere near as enamored of these characters as their many fans – but it felt absolutely true then that the BBC missed a trick in not making one, and it feels triply true today. First because the Disney+ streaming service is proving pretty conclusively that there is definitely a market in keeping spinoffs rolling along and engaging fans, and second because our son likes the characters even more than I’d have guessed. Why is the corporation lazily trundling forward making fewer hours of Doctor Who every year? I guess they don’t have enough money. They certainly don’t have enough ambition.

Anyway, Mark Gatiss’s “The Crimson Horror” isn’t a favorite, but there’s still a lot to like. Diana Rigg is the villain, which is pretty appropriate, since the story feels a lot like it’s an Avengers plot in places. I particularly enjoyed Jenny learning that the factory is a fake, with old gramophones playing the sounds of machinery in an otherwise empty room. That’s exactly the sort of visual Mrs. Peel would have stumbled onto forty-seven years previously.

While overall he liked this one a lot, our son was confused by Diana Rigg’s character leading a temperance sermon about the moral decay of the age in order to drive recruiting for her mysterious planned community. We paused to explain how this sort of thing was very common, and how he’d actually seen something a little similar in an episode of Legend that we watched a little over a year ago. With typical nine year-old behavior, he could tell you everything about Ezra and Ahsoka and all the tech in any given episode of Star Wars Rebels, but old Westerns that he politely tolerated have mostly evaporated. “I must not have liked that story very much,” he shrugged.

Doctor Who 7.9 – Cold War

During supper tonight, I gave the kid – and Marie, who knows little of early eighties synth music – a potted history of Ultravox, from their cold and clinical early days with John Foxx as the singer through their huge success with such hits as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” I even sang that bit from “Vienna,” which nobody appreciated. I explained that Ultravox, like all acts who have a solid period with lots of hits, reached the end of their period of massive sales quicker than anybody would like, and split up about 1987. Nothing lasts forever.

“So we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?” our son asked.

“What makes you think Doctor Who has anything to do with Ultravox?” I replied.

“Because it’s more likely that a show about time travel would have something to do with Ultravox than a show set in Zoo Neeland or ancient Greece.” Clever kid.

This focus on fondly-remembered musical acts kept him perfectly distracted, satisfying him as guest star David Warner warbled “Vienna” almost as badly as I did, so the surprise appearance of an Ice Warrior, back in the show after a thirty-nine (!) year absence blindsided him wonderfully. The more excited he gets, the more babbling he can’t stop, and he could not stop babbling for an hour. He was thrilled.

I enjoy most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Who. I think this one sags a bit in the middle, the result of too much action at the top and the tail, but it’s still very entertaining and fabulously claustrophobic. It’s one of those Whos that plays out in nearly real time, meaning that Martian spaceship at the end must have a heck of a good radio receiver and quite an engine. The kid was thrilled and said that he knew he was going to like it when he realized it was an Ice Warrior, but he liked it even more than he thought he would. I like the Ice Warriors a lot. I even like them more than I like Ultravox.

Doctor Who 6.13 – The Wedding of River Song

I think our kid summed up the majority of viewers when he called this one “completely and totally ridiculous.” It’s a mess, sometimes a very entertaining mess, but I really believe this was a draft or two away from being really satisfying. I did warn him that Steven Moffat’s story throws viewers right in at the deep end, which is part of the problem for me. There’s so much lunatic spectacle, with Romans and pterodactyls and Wars of the Roses eating up so much time that could have been spent detailing the story and giving the characters more room and time to breathe.

The biggest disappointment that comes from this business of throwing everything at the wall is that the Doctor and River’s handfasting is far, far too rushed. There’s about a minute of screen time regurgitating that business of “the universe thinks you’re wonderful and won’t let you die” bit from Moffat’s “Curse of Fatal Death” that could have been given to the Doctor and River to just talk quietly about how she felt, instead of desperately shouting because there’s no time.

I don’t know why I wanted this in particular to be better, but I really did. The whole production is achingly close to pleasing me, but there’s just too much going on to distract from the heart and soul of it.

On the other hand, Moffat pulls a really great sequence out of his hat when the Soothsayer starts telling Ian McNeice’s character of Emperor Churchill what all has gone wrong with time. Over the space of about three minutes, the Doctor decapitates a damaged Dalek, looks for dead men in shady taverns, is a contestant in a game of coliseum death chess, and deals with some carnivorous skulls in a catacomb. I’ve often referred back to the wonderful line of comics from Doctor Who Magazine, and this sequence feels effortlessly like kicking back and reading about six of those Steve Moore – Dave Gibbons one-shots from 1981 back to back. Montages like this happen a few times in Moffat’s tenure, but this is my favorite of them.

Oh, and the actor playing death chess against the Doctor is actor/writer Mark Gatiss, under a ton of prosthetics and makeup, to look like Rondo Hatton. He’s credited under the pseudonym “Rondo Haxton.” I thought about asking the kid whether that character didn’t look an awful lot like the big mean henchman in The Rocketeer, but I don’t think he enjoyed the story enough to appreciate it. Maybe he’ll like the DVD bonus mini-episodes better.

Doctor Who 6.9 – Night Terrors

Our son remained silent and attentive through this story until about forty minutes in, when he grumbled “There are some episodes of some programs that I just don’t like, and this is one of them.” He didn’t connect to this story about a terrified kid with psychic powers at all. We talked a little afterward and figure it’s possibly because even though our son has his own nighttime rituals, he’s never really experienced the monster-under-the-bed sort of phobias that this kid has, and couldn’t understand why George was afraid of absolutely everything.

As for me, Matt Smith sells a really excellent moment where the Doctor talks about how far into space George’s psychic message traveled, and structurally it’s a far better script than Mark Gatiss’s previous contribution, “Victory of the Daleks”, but it dissolves into another power of love resolution and never really gelled for me. Our son noticed the similarities between this apartment block and the Powell Estate from series one and two, but that location seemed much more real and full of people. The only people we see in this building have speaking parts. There’s no life or energy in the script or in the place they filmed it.

Doctor Who 5.3 – Victory of the Daleks

Yesterday afternoon, I finished watching the Blu-ray set for Who season fourteen – you can announce the next one now, please, BBC Studios – and our son joined me for the hilarious little TV commercial for the line of Doctor Who dolls from 1977. The funniest thing about these dopey toys is that the Dalek is massively out of proportion with the other characters, coming up to Leela’s chest, which sparked some discussion about how tall the Dalek should be. Then the very next episode we watch introduces some new, taller Daleks, as if to confuse the issue.

Ian McNeice’s character of Winston Churchill, seen in a little cameo in the previous episode, makes his second of four appearances in this story. It was written by Mark Gatiss and it’s my least favorite of his otherwise splendid scripts by about a million miles.

The worst moment? Out of lots of possibilities, it’s the way it feels like Gatiss and Moffat were keenly aware of fans and critics grumbling about “power of love” resolutions to various Russell T. Davies-era stories and so, just to remind everybody who’s in charge, they literally defuse a sentient bomb with false memories by reminding it how unrequited love feels. Then everybody hugs and pats themselves on the back to remind viewers how brilliant and amazing they are, and despite Churchill’s desire for war-winning tech being a running gag, they leave the sentient bomb in wartime London instead of dropping it and the rest of the alien gadgets off on a Robot Free Planet in the Andromeda Galaxy in the 276th Century.

The kid loved it, of course. I try to tell myself that’s all that matters, but one day he’s going to grow up and move out and, at least for a time and maybe even for good, will lose interest in Doctor Who and I’ll be sadly reflecting that it only took Gatiss and Moffat three weeks to show an episode as bad as Davies’s worst. Oddly enough, that episode, “Fear Her,” had one of those “power of love” endings as well.

I think the second half of the Silurian story is even worse. We’ll see in a couple of weeks.

Doctor Who 3.6 – The Lazarus Experiment

Our kid’s figuring this whole television thing out. We pointed out that this was not the first time that a mysterious figure called “Harold Saxon” was mentioned in the recent set-on-Earth stories. He chewed on it for a second and said “We’ll probably find out who he is at the end of the season.”

So today’s episode is a pretty simple monster movie that bends, with minimal effort, into the Who format, although giving a scientist who wants to live forever and cheat death a name like Lazarus is a bit on-the-nose for any silly sci-fi adventure. Lazarus is played by Mark Gatiss, who had written a couple of previous episodes and has a few more really good scripts to come. Lazarus, in a supremely silly moment even for this often exceptionally silly series, somehow transforms into an enormous CGI monster. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it does result in an eye-poppingly grotesque beast to scare the kids. Our son described this one as “a skeleton-human-scorpion mix” and really enjoyed being grossed out – slash – frightened by it.

Despite being every bit as scientifically nonsensical as the previous story, I still have a soft spot for this one for lots of small reasons. I like Martha’s relationship with her family, I like Gatiss as the villain, and I really do enjoy the ending, which is set in a big old London cathedral. In much the same way that “Gridlock” had been a small tribute to 2000 AD, this story is a clear tip-of-the-hat to the BBC’s original Quatermass serial from 1953, which also ends in a big showdown in a cathedral. The later episodes of that serial were shown live and were never actually telerecorded – almost as though the BBC wanted to save its people the trouble of actually destroying them twenty years later – but the story was remade as a film by Hammer in 1955 called The Quatermass Xperiment which most everybody involved in this episode knew backwards and forwards. That’s certainly the case with both David Tennant and Mark Gatiss, who had actually performed in a live restaging of The Quatermass Xperiment for BBC Four just two years before they made this!

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.7 – Two Can Play That Game

I’m afraid the previous three episodes were really uneven, but Randall & Hopkirk went out on a high note written by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson as a very cute tribute to The Avengers. It’s “Death at Bargain Prices” crossed with “The House That Jack Built” as Jeff and Jeannie are trapped in an escape-proof department store full of lethal traps. And just to add to the tips of the bowler, they brought along some mannequins that evoke the Autons from Doctor Who and dressed one of them like Steed.

Weirdly, in both the previous season ender, “A Man of Substance,” and this, Marty becomes incredibly petulant and selfish. This time, he has such a ridiculous and petty argument with Jeff that Limbo actually recalls him and dumps him in a seaside town where the very creepy ghosts of others who have fallen out with their chosen ones reside. Eleanor Bron and Roy Hudd play two of these sinister weirdies, who had our son even more riveted than the department store plot. I enjoyed both threads a lot, even if the twist to what’s going on in the shop will be obvious to anybody older than our kid.

My favorite moment of the experience, though, was the kid asking me to pause it to tell him where he’s seen Roy Hudd before. As it happens, I’ve double-checked and he’s never seen the actor in anything. I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen him twice myself. What I think happened is that early in the story, Jeff and Marty are watching a repeat of an old kids’ show with Hudd and an uncredited actor who plays his eventual chosen one, and our son didn’t quite make the connection that “Dicky Klein” is both the man in the silly popcorn slapstick while alive and the ghost stuck in the end of the pier show while dead.

I haven’t read much about this show’s background, but apparently the ratings were pretty good and some people were surprised that the BBC didn’t commission a third series. But one viewer who wouldn’t have watched a third series would be Marie, who gave up on this show partway through the first, finding Reeves and Mortimer like nails on a chalkboard. What a shame; I like everything I’ve seen them in, together or solo. I really like Vic Reeves as a singer. “Dizzy” is my favorite Wonder Stuff single, and if you want to hear a real surprise, find a copy of Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs Of Noel Coward, which is jam-packed with songs by performers I absolutely love – Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Suede, Texas, Pet Shop Boys – and Reeves has the best song on it. Then go to YouTube and search for Bob telling his story about Chris Rea on Would I Lie to You?. I was still chuckling ten minutes later.

About ten years after Vic & Bob’s Randall & Hopkirk ended, the Syfy Channel was said to be developing an American version with Jane Espenson, who was then best known for her scripts for Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, in charge of production. It never made it to the pilot stage, but ten years on from that, who knows? I think the Vic & Bob version shows that you can approach a classic with a different perspective, and a different sensibility, and occasionally come up with something really interesting.

And just to underline how strange the passing of time feels, when I was in high school, I was hunting high and low for episodes of The Avengers, a show that was then twenty years old and felt like it came from a different era. Twenty years. That’s how old the Vic & Bob Randall & Hopkirk is today. It always feels like “only yesterday” when you actually lived it, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who 2.7 – The Idiot’s Lantern

The most interesting thing about Mark Gatiss’s “The Idiot’s Lantern” – although by no means the most entertaining – is the brutal depiction of a very unhappy family. The Connollys are the emotional core of this story, and the father is an unpleasant, desperate tyrant so obsessed with his reputation in his neighborhood that he doesn’t realize that he’s destroyed his marriage. I think the actor’s portrayal is too broad, bordering on caricature, but there’s another actress who plays a relative who really gets to the heart of family dynamics in the 1950s when she silkily recommends, in a room full of guests, that he gives his son a good beating to knock the “mommy’s boy” out of him. That’s the most spine-chilling moment.

But there’s a lot of honesty in this, as painful as it might be to watch. I’ve mentioned previously how many awful, unhappy marriages that we saw in The Twilight Zone. We’ve seen a few ugly ones in Night Gallery so far as well. We spoke with our son about this and while we’d like to think that control freaks like the father of this family might not be as common today, relationships like this do exist. I think they were a little more common back when divorce was rarely an option. So the father leaves, his reputation – if anybody in his neighborhood bothered to notice – in tatters. Thank heaven for divorce is all I can say.

Outside of this family, the story’s a typically fun frantic adventure. The Doctor and Rose have, for the second time this year, aimed for a historical concert and ended up in the wrong place. They were shooting for Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1979 in “Tooth and Claw” and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show this time, which accounts for David Tennant’s wonderful hairdo. Ron Cook, who played Parker in the live-action Thunderbirds a couple of years previously, is one of the villains, and his TV sets, which house an energy being from space, get to play old footage of Muffin the Mule and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. There probably isn’t too much else from 1953 in the BBC’s archive, is there?

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.1 – Drop Dead

“I bet that’ll be good,” I said, twenty years ago when I heard they were making this. I hadn’t seen much of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s comedy, but I had landed about eight episodes of their demented and hilarious game show Shooting Stars a few years earlier, toward the end of my VHS tape trading days, and laughed myself stupid. If, like most people in the US, you’ve never seen Shooting Stars, you’re missing out. Any time I see the name “Daws” anywhere, I don’t think “Butler,” I think Vic and Bob screaming bloody murder at Matt Lucas, dressed like a baby called George Daws and ignoring them.

So anyway, I had heard that the two comedians were doing a remake of the classic Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and traditionalists cringed and wept. There are probably still eight or nine people on rec.arts.tv.uk bashing their keyboards in horror. Charlie Higson, who’d been writing for as well as performing small parts in Reeves and Mortimer’s various programs throughout the nineties, produced and co-wrote most of the episodes. The BBC commissioned two short series made by Working Title which aired in 2000 and 2001, and our heroes, who are played sort-of straight with a few gags, are joined by Emilia Fox as Jeannie and by a host of recognizable faces. The first episode alone has Charles Dance, David Tennant, and Mark Gatiss, and I understand we’ll be meeting a very interesting recurring character pretty soon.

I thought it was good, if not groundbreaking. This Randall and Hopkirk are typical late nineties lads. They’ve got a PlayStation in the office, and nobody should find that surprising. This Jeannie is far more resourceful than the original, and she and Marty hadn’t tied the knot yet. In this version, Marty is killed the night before their wedding.

So while the first episode didn’t rise anywhere near the original at its best, our son adored it and had some great laughs, and I found a lot to enjoy as well. I think Higson must have had a ball writing the script and filling it with moments where the audience gets to ask “Is THIS it? Is this where Marty dies?” only to fake us out about four times. Anybody who doesn’t smile when Vic raises his arms in imitation of Kenneth Cope, only to not get run over, has a heart three sizes too small.

Doctor Who 1.3 – The Unquiet Dead

“The Unquiet Dead” is the first TV Who episode written by Mark Gatiss, who’d contribute several episodes, as a writer and, twice, as an actor, over the course of the next ten series. I like most of them a good deal. Gatiss had written a pair of Who novels for Virgin in the 1990s. I remain very surprised that Gatiss has never scripted a TV adaptation of his absolutely splendid book Nightshade, which I imagine could work perfectly as an hour-long episode.

There would be occasions in Who where I looked forward to an episode based on the strength of the writer’s previous work and be badly let down, but I’ve always thought “The Unquiet Dead” was a very clever and strong story. It’s about Charles Dickens’ world getting turned upside down on Christmas Eve, 1869, when he helps the Doctor and Rose deal with some gaseous aliens who are a lot more malevolent than they let on. Dickens is played, naturally, by Simon Callow, in much the same way that if the Doctor ever ran into Oscar Wilde, they’d offer the part to Stephen Fry. Eve Myles, who would later play Gwen in Torchwood, plays a servant girl with second sight.

Our son was excited and a little frightened, but mostly – happily – he wanted to know more about Charles Dickens, thanks to the Doctor telling Dickens that his books would last forever, and me snarking afterward about how that probably wouldn’t include The Pickwick Papers, because that one went on too darn long. So he asked about Dickens and his work and we talked a little about A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and, of course, both Oliver Twist and its 1968 film adaptation. Hopefully he’ll be as interested in Agatha Christie when the Doctor and Donna meet her in series four. I’m on surer footing when talking about Christie.