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Doctor Who: Survival (parts two and three)

For the most part, our son enjoyed Doctor Who‘s final adventure in this format, but the cliffhanger at the end of part two left him both angry and creeped out. The alien planet has a pretty nasty effect on anybody trapped there who get too savage and violent. Ace, having whacked one of the Cheetah People in the head with a rock, loses control and starts to change, and she turns to the camera with bright yellow cats’ eyes, and our son was out of the room like a rocket.

In the “really nitpicky” stakes, I think that the props department made a silly error when they were dressing Midge’s apartment. Ace flips through his records and comments that U2, of all bands, were bound for the old folks’ home when she left Earth. But the LP that sparked the comment is War, the group’s third – and the only one I can stand – which came out in 1983, around the time that her thirteen year-old self was burning the house in “Ghost Light” to the ground. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have her grumbling about a record that came out since she left Earth?

There are probably bigger things in any Who story to nitpick, but I’ve always got a kick out of that one.

Anyway, “Survival” isn’t great, but it’s a good story to end on. It’s made very well, there are lots of great directorial choices and the music’s pretty good. Anthony Ainley got to give one of his most restrained and successful performances as the Master, and McCoy and Aldred are terrific together. I wish they’d have got a few more TV stories, but I’ve got most of the novels from Virgin and really enjoyed the Doctor and Ace’s further adventures. And I enjoyed Benny and Roz and Chris, even if I choose to pretend that the business about Tobias Vaughn’s brain being downloaded into some supercomputer and thriving for centuries never happened.

We’ll look at two of the next things that happened in Doctor Who in August, and two more in September, and run away with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Survival (part one)

We’re very nearly to the end of the original run of the series. I had thought about watching the first two parts tonight, so we could end with the original run’s final cliffhanger, but it’s been one of those days where I think the TV’s been on enough.

“Survival” was written by Rona Munro and directed really, really well by Alan Wareing. He also did the entirely studio-bound “Ghost Light” in the same block as this all-location taping – “Light” was the final story to be made – and it’s like night and day just how much better this looks. Had Who continued for another batch of stories (in 1991, they say), I’d have hoped they employed Wareing for one of the all-location ones. Episode one sees the Doctor bringing Ace home to Perivale a few years after she left, for a dreary greased-tea, silent-but-not-gray Sunday to find that many of her old friends have moved away, but at least three of them have vanished in the last couple of months.

Julian Holloway guest stars as a neighborhood watch “sergeant” who clearly isn’t doing a particularly good job, and he reminds – slash – chastises Ace that her mum had listed her as missing, and that it only costs 10p to phone home and let someone know you’re alive. The Doctor overhears this, and I choose to believe that’s why, when he started carrying a sonic screwdriver again, he learned how to make cellphones phone home from anywhere in time and space.

Not surprisingly, our son liked this much, much more than the previous two adventures. The Cheetah People on horseback gave him a pleasant surprise, and he loved the scene where Ace uses playground equipment as obstacles to keep the one from getting her. His favorite bits were the mild comedy scenes of the Doctor trying to catch the smelly-looking black stray, only to attract first the wrong cat, and then a small dog.

He also figured the mystery villain was the Master almost immediately. I remember that being a big surprise when I first got hold of a copy!

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric (special edition)

A few chapters back, I mentioned how, from the fall of 1993 on, I didn’t go out and play in Athens GA as much as I should have. But I’d been living in Athens for four years at that point, and I went out and played as often as possible before (a) I started making calamitously stupid decisions about my living arrangements and my future and (b) American television finally started making shows that I really wanted to watch again. And because I’d largely stopped spending whacking great chunks of my time watching and rewatching and absorbing Doctor Who – I didn’t even have a television for a year there – I didn’t get incredibly familiar with “The Curse of Fenric.” I saw it once and maybe twice, enough to say “Wow, that was really, really good,” but then I had records to buy and bands to see and girls to chase.

And so, a few years later, sometime after the wrong chase and the calamitously stupid decision, I found myself going out far, far less and had more time to fall back in love with Doctor Who. “The Curse of Fenric” was released on VHS in a special edition extended by six minutes and I watched and rewatched and absorbed it. “Fenric” was what I showed people who had once enjoyed Who when Tom Baker was the Doctor but lamented how silly and/or stupid it got in the eighties. With maybe one exception, everybody who saw it with me agreed that dang, this truly was really, really good.

But then time moved on and formats changed and I still wish I’d have transferred that extended VHS to a DVD-R, because the officially-released DVD doesn’t have that. It has the as-broadcast four-part version, which I hadn’t seen in many years, and an even-more-extended movie with twelve minutes of additional material. So in 2006, when my older kids and I got to this story, I didn’t want to watch it as a movie, I wanted to see it in four parts. And knock me down, but the broadcast version of “Fenric” was borderline incoherent. Hot on the heels of “Ghost Light,” which the children hated, here’s another story which left them baffled and confused and mostly indignant that the show they loved had become such an impenetrable mess. It felt like those six minutes they cut for broadcast were pretty critical to anything and everything making sense.

Lesson learned. Tonight, we showed our son the movie version.

Our kid still doesn’t have anything nice to say about “Ghost Light,” but he liked this one and it gave him another great behind-the-sofa moment when the evacuee girls go swimming and something underwater is about to get them. It’s as technically flawed as everything else from the era – only the veterans among the guest stars, including Dinsdale Landen as a 1940s scientist and Janet Henfrey as a stuck-up old crone, know how to project their voices toward the microphones – and the script desperately needed less of Sylvester McCoy being otherworldly and mysterious and more of him providing the backstory directly instead of yammering on about “EVILevilsincethedawnoftime.” But the music is by leagues the best of its era, the director did one of the best location shoots in the whole of the series, and there’s an awesome performance by Nicholas Parsons, who was apparently a game show host of all things, as a vicar who’s lost his faith in God.

I like how this story is so full of gloom and foreboding. We were later getting back than planned, and the sun went down about a third of the way into the story. It’s a good one to watch in the evening with the lights out. Sure, it may work even better on an October night with the first winter chills blowing through, but even in a miserably hot July, “Fenric” is a very moody and effective story when seen in full.

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (part three)

John Hallam shows up as one of Doctor Who‘s immortal super-being characters in this story’s final episode. I don’t know that Light is in the same league as the White and Black Guardians or the Eternals. He’s kind of stupid. Tens of thousands of years ago, he came to Earth and catalogued all life on the planet and then went to sleep. Light’s never encountered life that evolves before now, and when he wakes up in 1883, he becomes furious and the Doctor talks him into one of those “does not compute… self-destruct!” moments that we saw, with eyes rolled, on television in the sixties and seventies, or at the end of “The Daemons.”

At least Light’s goal made sense to our son. I gave him a recap over supper, and we talked about the show afterward, and he understood that Light wanted to catalog everything without it evolving. He also understood that Control, who has evolved into a female humanoid with good dress sense, wanted to be free. He didn’t understand anything else at all, which makes him a member of a very large club. Maybe after nineteen more viewings and twenty thousand online reviews and blog posts, he’ll figure it out.

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (parts one and two)

In early 1990, I got the first seven episodes of season 26. They were maybe fourth gen. I thought “Battlefield” was pretty good. “Ghost Light” wasn’t. The tape hiss obscured most of the dialogue. I had to turn the volume way, way up and I still couldn’t make any sense of it. The only actors – and this remains true, twenty-nine years later – who seem to have ever been in a television studio before and know how to project toward the microphones are John Nettleton, who plays a deliberately annoying comedy vicar, and Frank Windsor, who plays a racist Victorian policeman. I had no clue what anybody else was saying.

About a year later, I finally watched a movie version that I’d recorded, or had somebody else record for me, off WGTV. The excuse this time was that somehow the BBC’s new stereo sound mix got messed up by Lionheart, the distributor who edited these into movie versions. Watching this was still a chore and a half, but I started to get it and enjoy it.

In December of 1993, I was in London and bought a copy of the fanzine DWB, which was celebrating Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary with essays loving and praising each Doctor. Virgin had just published Kate Orman’s debut novel, a Seventh Doctor adventure called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and here she was in DWB singing the praises of McCoy, and “Ghost Light” in particular. The story started making a lot more sense when explained by its champions.

And that’s what makes “Ghost Light” such a weird piece of television. It’s a story that could have worked a million times better, but fans of this one – and of “Fenric” – respond with absolutely breathtaking smugness when you mention that you had trouble understanding it. It’s not just the unbelievably bad sound mix and godawful delivery, which the later commercial releases still provide, which is why we watched the DVD with the (often comically inaccurate) subtitles tonight, it’s that the writer and script editor wanted to send the audience on a thrill ride and give them all the information they need in passing, without spoon-feeding anybody, or having the Doctor sit down with his audience identification character and explain what’s happening.

So in the late nineties I liked it – it was, once, incredibly interesting watching Orman and her husband-to-be Jon Blum and their internet pals defend the show’s last three seasons on rec.arts.drwho – but, over time, I liked it less and less. In early 2006, I watched it with my older children. They loved every minute of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years, and then we hit this and “Fenric” and they reacted like they were getting lessons in Esperanto instead of time-travel teevee.

My older son was about nine then. “This sucks,” he said, with emphasis.

I was Livejournal-friends with a McCoy-is-God fellow in Indiana then. I reported how badly they reacted to these popular stories, and how the third cliffhanger of “Fenric” – which I’d have said was the original run of Who‘s last great cliffhanger – ended with the kids asking “What? What did he say? Did he stand up? This is stupid.” The guy said that my kids were wrong.

No, I’m pretty sure that when Doctor Who‘s target audience of thrilled seven and nine year-olds stop enjoying the show and start telling you that it sucks that they may be onto something.

And tonight, subtitles on to help – not that the half-assed transcription helped a very great deal – our favorite eight year-old critic didn’t find it thrilling, either. He found it weird and hard to follow. It makes sense to me, because I’ve sat through it twenty times and can see how all the explanations are hidden here, there, and everywhere except in an A, B, C pattern, and I have read twenty thousand essays, reviews and criticisms of this weird story that celebrate its weirdness, often very smugly.

“But did you like it?” I asked our son.

“I like having my tummy rubbed,” he replied.

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Doctor Who: Battlefield (parts three and four)

The end of part two certainly scared our son, but otherwise he really enjoyed this story. It’s full of swordfights and explosions and knights and soldiers brawling. As ever, there aren’t enough extras and stuntmen – and what is with that one knight of Morgaine’s stomping around in red pajama pants? – but the stuntmen that they did employ got blasted and blown up and did somersaults in the air quite magnificently. So he loved the action and all the gags landed with bullseyes. He particularly loved the Doctor interrupting two fellows’ fight by walking between them like a comedian from the silent film era.

Jean Marsh gets a great finale during her final argument with the Doctor, although – and I say this as a huge fan of the Seventh Doctor and the fellow who portrays him – I’m afraid that Sylvester McCoy’s long experience in fringe and experimental comedy leaves him pretty far in the dust in a big, important scene against the classically-trained Marsh. I have no idea what he even looks like in this scene because you can’t take your eyes off Jean Marsh, who does more with disbelief in her eyes and a twitch of her lip than McCoy does with all his yelling. The writer, Ben Aaronovitch, gave the Doctor a great speech, but it’s how Morgaine responds to it that sells it.

So season 26 continued the trend of the crew taping way, way more than they had time to broadcast. I’ve never actually watched the “special edition” cut, which is about six minutes longer and I believe contains my favorite scene, which was cut from the broadcast edit (it’s in the More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS documentary, which we’ll watch next month). About my only grumble with the otherwise splendid DVD range is that they re-edited a few stories into extended-length movies instead of into an original-but-longer episodic format. That said, we will be watching “The Curse of Fenric” in its full-length version next weekend, because it kind of demands to be seen in full.

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Doctor Who: Battlefield (parts one and two)

And now we travel to 1989 – possibly – as Morgaine Le Fay invades our dimension from whatever realm she came from. Jean Marsh had previously played a witch queen in the films Return to Oz and Willow, and decided to make it a hat trick here. It’s also her third appearance in Doctor Who. Uniquely, Marsh played a guest star and a companion and a villain in the show.

I’ve never thought Ben Aaronovitch’s “Battlefield” was all that well realized, but behind its many poor line readings and stagings and a couple of diabolically bad performances – stop laughing, Mordred – there’s a good story here that comes across much better in Marc Platt’s novelization for Target Books. Later on down the line, David Tennant’s Doctor was completely baffled and stumped to meet River Song for the first time when she knew him already. That’s precisely what happens here – all these knights of old know a future Doctor and call him Merlin – and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor understands it immediately. Maybe McCoy’s Doctor read the book The Time Traveller’s Wife and then erased his own memory.

It’s set a few years in Ace’s future, but we never learn exactly when Ace’s present is – there’s no reason to think it’s 1987 – and yet here we are in 2019, still without a king on England’s throne and without five pound coins. We were just talking today about old TV and books getting their future predictions wrong. And of course, Nicholas Courtney is back as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and this story is so set up to be his grand finale with a valiant death in episode four that when it doesn’t happen, it ends up feeling like they forgot to tape something important.

Incidentally, both Marc Platt’s novel and a subsequent title in Virgin’s New Adventure range establish that the future Doctor, the one who regularly had scraps with Morgaine and Mordred at King Arthur’s side, is a Doctor with red hair. If we ever do meet a red-haired Doctor on television, about nineteen of us are going to call him Merlin.

So what did our kid think? We gave him a crash course in King Arthur today to make sure he knew what was going on. He mainly reported that he thinks that Lancelot might have been like Tony Stark and Gawain like the Hulk. He was enjoying things just fine until episode two’s cliffhanger, where the Doctor and Ace set off a trap and a very 1980s computer effect hisses around the room and attacks them. I would never, ever have thought this moment would have been anywhere near Who‘s most frightening cliffhangers, but it scared him so badly that he left the room and ran to the top of the stairs. I’m always amazed by how he reacts to something I took for granted.

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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!

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