Doctor Who: Paradise Towers (take two)

This morning, something unexpected happened. I’d planned for us to watch Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and the kid just absolutely tuned out twenty-odd minutes in. The film’s intense depiction of loneliness was just overpowering to him, he was radiating misery through every pore, and I stopped the movie. If it’s worth anything, I did tell him last night that it’s not at all like any children’s film he’s ever seen, and that many parents and families were disappointed or annoyed with it when it was released. I’ve always figured parents were expecting the same ingredients as every other dumb kiddie movie of the 2000s: kung fu anteaters, a “show me the money” gag, and a centuries-old white woman dancing to “Single Ladies,” when what Jonze gave them was a meditation on imagination and sadness. Our kid would have preferred the anteaters.

So I told him to pick something else, and he wandered to the Doctor Who shelf, announced that he was considering one of the Key to Time adventures, then thought about “Enlightenment”, and then surprised me by picking “Paradise Towers”, which we first watched about two years ago, instead of something with Daleks in it. He really enjoyed it again, probably more than he did when he watched it at age eight, and even wondered whether the Great Architect in this story might be the same one that was mentioned in “Time Heist”. Funny how he remembered the name, but not the revelation that it was the Doctor himself who built that story’s bank. Anyway, this was a story from season 24 with Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford, written by Stephen Wyatt after he and the show’s new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, bonded over a shared appreciation for Alan Moore’s Halo Jones and J.G. Ballard’s High Rise. Richard Briers overacts to the point of cringe in part four, but it’s a very good script.

I thought this was very cute timing, because this is almost certainly the last time I’ll dust off this DVD before selling it on. The season 24 Blu-ray set containing this adventure will be out this week in the UK; the American release is about three months down the line. In September and October, we’re also going to get to upgrade a couple of other things we’ve enjoyed for the blog, because Kino Lorber is releasing the Kolchak: the Night Stalker TV series to accompany their splendid releases of the two films, as well as, to my considerable surprise, the Pufnstuf film. We may be able to preorder the completely remastered MacGyver from Koch Media by the end of the year as well. Who sez physical media’s dead? Not this boy!

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (parts three and four)

I’m not surprised that our son came around in the end. He still had a couple of moments of fright, but between all the explosions, and the Doctor’s magic tricks, and the incredibly fun cliffhanger to part three, he was much more excited tonight than scared. Happily, our son’s still not quite at the age where he can see what’s coming very easily. I’m pretty sure any grownup would figure out that a girl from a planet called Vulpana who gets frightened by pictures of the moon and who gets taunted with a silver bullet might just be a werewolf. Not this eight year-old.

By a weird coincidence, over supper, our son asked me what my favorite Who stories are. I mentioned some from the shows that we’ve watched together: “The Enemy of the World,” “Spearhead from Space,” “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “Kinda,” and “Snakedance.”

And then there’s this one, which is just completely brilliant.

That’s the end of this batch of stories, but we’ll watch the last of the original seasons of Doctor Who in July. Stick around and stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (parts one and two)

Tonight’s Doctor Who adventure has our son absolutely freaked out. He hasn’t been this completely frightened by the series in a long, long time. He spent most of the second episode behind the sofa. That’s in small part because the clowns at the Psychic Circus have got under his skin, but mainly because the sense of something being badly, badly wrong is totally overwhelming. He’s really enjoyed the heck out of the last seven stories, and then this thing turns out to be a nightmare.

It’s a delightful shame, because I love this one to pieces. “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” was written by Stephen Wyatt and features a fun guest performance by T.P. McKenna as an intergalactic explorer and blowhard. Along with him is a curious girl in very, very late eighties makeup and hair played by Jessica Martin. This is one of Ace’s finest stories. She’s every bit a sixteen year-old grump in this one, and it really looks like for once, the Doctor’s got it all wrong because Ace is absolutely right to be worried and afraid of the circus.

Doctor Who: Paradise Towers (parts three and four)

From the beginning of 1984 through the end of 1987, I was as wild and enthusiastic a fan as you’ve ever seen. I absorbed just about every bit of information and ephemera that I could find, drew hundreds of pages of woeful Doctor Who comics, attempted to follow a couple of the walking tours of London in the poorly-edited Travels Without the TARDIS, got snooty because a well-intentioned relative bought me the Target Web of Fear novelisation with the Andrew Skilleter cover instead of an earlier edition with massively superior Chris Achilleos art, and even ran a British TV fan club that, by the beginning of 1988, had a lot more articles about the Smiths and George Harrison than about television.

During this period, one of the biggest and best cons in the Atlanta area was Dixie Trek, which was run by a great fellow called Owen Ogletree and his pals, and which you should read about at my best friend Dave’s site here. Dig around the rest of the site when you finish; it’s a super look at what Atlanta fandom was like when we were in high school. Dixie Trek was typically held in May at a pretty big hotel. Every November, they put together a much smaller one-day show, with no guests, at the Oglethorpe University student center, where Dixie Trek had first begun. The small show was called Britcon, and it had panels and trivia contests and a small dealers room and two video rooms.

In November 1987, my pal Shelby and I went to Britcon, and I met up with some other friends and had a good time and spent a little money, and we watched the most recent seven episodes of Doctor Who: all of “Time and the Rani” and the first three parts of “Paradise Towers.” We’d had part one of “Rani” for a few weeks; mine was a third or fourth gen from that original camcorder copy that I mentioned. It was great to see the rest of that one, and “Paradise Towers” was even better.

At that time, I was a fifteen year-old long-haired hippie weirdo completely obsessed with Who and Monty Python and 2000 AD and “Towers” was written specifically to appeal to me. Obviously from the cold eyes of adulthood, the silly voices and overacting of the Caretakers are an obstacle, but I loved it at the time. And the Kangs? I didn’t need a guidebook to explain that these girls were talking the same language as Halo Jones, Rodice, and the Different Drummers. I had my Increased Leisure Citizen T-shirt, unlike you thrillsucking non-scrots.

I left Britcon punching the air, wondering when I’d see the conclusion. And several weeks later, I found myself not caring.

I never fell out of love with Who, and I certainly thrilled to just about everything that came next, but sometime between Britcon and actually getting copies of the episodes, I hit that wall that boys hit when guitars suddenly make more sense than Doctor Who. And this was never more true than when the issue of Doctor Who Magazine shown above (source: The Grand Comics Database) made it to shops. My interest in the magazine had been waning a little bit because the artwork in the comic wasn’t appealing like it did. (I liked John Ridgway’s art, but not when Tim Perkins inked him, sadly.) Then they cut eight pages and put the American price up to $3.50. I could buy a used Depeche Mode LP for that.

And that issue was the first one I didn’t buy after about three straight years. I could get a Banshees twelve-inch single or I could get Sylvester McCoy and Richard Briers lit like a pair of old pumpkins.

Ages later, it seemed, I finally saw part four of this story. Sure, the first three parts are badly flawed in retrospect, but it really is a good script with some great ideas and good characters. Then part four features Richard Briers’ absolutely unbelievable performance, just hands down the worst acting in the entire run of Who.

Taking girls to concerts seemed like a much, much better use of my teenage time after that.

Doctor Who: Paradise Towers (parts one and two)

There’s always a disconnect between the aims and ideas of a screenplay and how these can be achieved onscreen. On a low-budget program like Doctor Who, the gap was often wide. But I’m not sure there’s a more unique case in the original run of the show where you had a script this terrific and a production this lousy. The tone is often very wrong – the sub-Monty Python stylings of the Caretakers and their funny voices being the nadir of the first two parts – and the casting is so breathtakingly wrong that it still amazes me. The actresses playing the Kangs are too old and the actors playing the Caretakers are far, far too young.

And then there’s Pex, who should have been played by a bodybuilder, somebody who looks like he could dismantle a truck with his bare hands, and most importantly somebody who looks stupid. When the guy wrenches a light fixture off the wall to show off, he should have absolutely no awareness that he did anything wrong. It’s not just that the actor who plays Pex is too small, it’s that he looks capable of learning.

Our son said that if this was a comic book, then there would be little question marks appearing over his head because some of this was so confusing. Some of it was also really frightening for him: the big robotic Cleaners had him hiding in worry, and his favorite part was the Doctor tricking his two jailers into believing there’s a dopey rule in their never-mistaken rule book that allows him the freedom to escape. So there are highs along with the lows.

Behind the scenes, something incredibly interesting happens starting with this story: Doctor Who cuts its ties with the past. The new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, succeeds where neither of his predecessors, Douglas Adams and Eric Saward, could, and never once commissions a story from anybody who had written for the show before. Of course there are some old monsters and villains to fight again in stories to come, along with two old friends, but this story is such a break from the past that there isn’t a single reference to any previous adventure in it, which hasn’t happened in years.

This serial was written by Stephen Wyatt, and Cartmel himself didn’t commission it. The producer got a copy of a pilot script that was making its way around the BBC to general enthusiasm, and asked him in to pitch. Critics who know a little bit about what they’re talking about will often compare this story to something from 2000 AD, usually citing Judge Dredd or Alan Moore’s Ballad of Halo Jones, especially when the Kangs are speaking. The garbled grammar of A Clockwork Orange is certainly an influence on both of them, but the Kangs’ slang is incredibly like the Hoopspeak in Halo Jones Book One. “Paradise Towers” as a whole feels like one of Moore’s Future Shocks from around 1983, except that Moore could have told this story in five pages, with a much better ending.