Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis (part one)

“Cybermen! Cybermen mean trouble! Cybermen TOTALLY mean trouble!” That was our son’s excited response to this episode’s cliffhanger. I asked him what he thought of the three evil parties now competing for a statue made of living metal. “The Cybermen want it so they can make MORE Cybermen, and the Nazis want it to last for a thousand years, and the evil lady just wants it.” We’d paused earlier to explain what the Nazis’ leader meant when he gave his soldiers – who, like no Nazis I ever heard of, are armed with Uzis – a toast to the Fourth Reich. Television Nazis are always offering toasts to the Fourth Reich.

The evil lady is played by Fiona Walker, and interestingly, her character, Lady Peinforte, is presented as an old foe of the Doctor’s from an adventure we’ve never seen. This would be done again to better effect in the next season with Fenric. Her henchman is presented as a ruthless criminal and murderer. In the same way that the story itself will disappoint us over the next two parts, he’ll deteriorate into a comedy stooge.

This morning was the first time that I’ve watched this episode as it was broadcast in almost thirty years. The script editor, Andrew Cartmel, did a lot for Who that we can genuinely praise, but the fellow was just no good at actually timing the scripts before they taped them. Most of the twelve serials that he worked on overran by several minutes, and most of the DVDs feature some deleted scenes.

When they released “Silver Nemesis” on VHS, it was in an extended edition, with each episode bulked up with material, about twelve minutes in all, most in part one. I certainly used to have a DVD-R of the tape, but I seem to have gotten rid of it, which isn’t like me. What’s more like me is buying the official release and putting the sleeve and proper disk into a double-disk case with the bootleg of the extended edition.

I recall watching the extended version with my older kids around 2005, and my son spotting Nicholas Courtney as an extra in the Windsor Castle tourist group, and shouting “Hey, it’s the Brigadier!” That shot didn’t make the broadcast cut, so even if our boy, who is the same age my older kid was when he saw it, was able to identify actors, he never had the chance. Courtney’s back is to the camera in the only shots in the original version. I am disappointed that the BBC didn’t include the extended edit on the DVD version, although there is a lengthy deleted scenes package, so we will go back and see the timey-wimey moment with Ace’s portrait later tonight. Funny how I got so used to the longer VHS version that its original twenty-five minute form felt like watching a “chopped for syndication” version. Hey, there’s a scene missing there!

Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (part three)

There’s a moment in this episode where Helen A calls the Kandyman. He picks up an old-fashioned telephone and says “Kandyman!” That slays me every time. It’s so perfect.

For a long time, I would have gladly told you this was one of my favorite stories without even paying any attention to what was happening when the Kandyman was offscreen. See, there was a good chunk of time there when… well, I had a long-running association with a certain illegal hallucinogen. And when you’re in that incense-and-peppermints / listen-to-the-color-of-your-dreams state of mind, an amazing visual like the Kandyman kind of pops out a bit and lingers.

A couple of years later, I actually paid attention to the rest of the story. It struggles with many of the things Doctor Who always struggled with: there are nowhere close to enough extras, the sets don’t convey the scale and scope of the city, the microphones are never in the right place to clearly catch Sophie Aldred’s wonderful dialogue and delivery. But the ideas at work here are fascinating. This is a story about empires toppling, about this Doctor getting furious enough to flex his muscles and overthrow a totalitarian government in a single night. David Tennant’s Doctor owes a great deal to the Seventh. “Don’t you think she looks tired?” is something this incarnation would have come up with.

It’s a fabulous story full of great performances by John Normington, Harold Innocent, and especially Sheila Hancock, who gets one of the best climaxes any Who villain ever gets. It is bring-a-tear-to-my-eye good, every time. Part of me wishes the budget could have given the story a little more visual depth, but part of me likes it just fine the way it is. “The Happiness Patrol” transcends its low budget limitations and remains one of my five or so favorite Who stories. It’s a simmering, angry masterpiece.

Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (parts one and two)

I had the silly idea to distract from the astonishing first appearance of the Kandyman in tonight’s story – more about him next time – by telling our son that there was a dog in this serial. A mean dog. Well, sort of a dog. He’s called Fifi and he’s owned by an even meaner woman, a despot called Helen A who talks a lot like Margaret T and acts a lot like Pinochet. Helen A is played by Sheila Hancock and it’s a terrific performance. It’s possibly not quite as devilish as Spitting Image was to Thatcher, but it’s devilish, all right. Some time after Doctor Who became popular again, there was a newspaper story about how this one time in the late eighties, this show was being… gasp! political! Took them long enough to notice.

But no, the Kandyman quite naturally stole the show from Fifi. Our son responded with a face of utter astonishment and even after it resolved into smug satisfaction because he “knew it was a robot,” he was amused and amazed and had a lot to say. He complained that Fifi didn’t do very much, and I assured him that we’d see more of Fifi tomorrow night, and that we’ll see the Kandyman answer the phone. “What’s he going to do,” our son asked, and I’ll grant you this very next bit is a very odd thing to say, “take his arm off and scream ‘Gilbert! I’m stuck in the lemonade again!’ or something?” Then he wondered whether the Kandyman would win a fight with a lemonade stand, and for the next two minutes, he bellowed “Gilbert!”

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts three and four)

Why yes, as a matter of fact, our son really did love the Special Weapons Dalek. It’s a Dalek “tank” that can blow up two or three renegade Daleks at a time.

“Remembrance” may be a case of style over substance, but it’s an incredibly fun story. I kind of wish the music was a bit less eighties and a little more sixties, but it’s a fine production of a good script. I definitely wish the show had been this confident and this much fun every week between 1982 and 1986.

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts one and two)

We’re in 1988 now, and the Doctor and Ace are back at Coal Hill School and I.M. Foreman’s junkyard in 1963 with Daleks, because it’s the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and that’s what you do for anniversaries on television: go and revisit the past. But in the case of Ben Aaronovitch’s debut serial for the show, “Remembrance of the Daleks,” reveling in nostalgia works just fine. This is a splendid story with lots of location filming, some recognizable guest stars including Simon Williams and Pamela Salem as sort of the early sixties version of UNIT, and George Sewell as a fascist who’s allied himself with one of two rival factions of Daleks. They even found small roles for Peter Halliday and Michael Sheard, who’d appeared in something like a combined nine prior Who stories.

This looks and sounds a million times zippier than Who did just three years previously. We’ll hit a couple of places in the show’s last two years where the emphasis on speed will derail the program’s ability to tell a coherent story, but “Remembrance” gets it incredibly right. The action scenes are staged and directed far better than Who could typically manage, leading to the beautiful cliffhanger to part two, in which Sophie Aldred and her stunt double beat the daylights out of a Dalek using a supercharged baseball bat and then jump from table to table and out a glass window. I really love that scene!

Our son was in heaven, of course. There are Daleks and death rays and lots of explosions. In fairness, though, the two of us did see Godzilla: King of the Monsters this morning and he’s been dancing on air ever since. (I didn’t post about it because I didn’t want to sound like too much of a fuddy-duddy, but when we picked up Marie for lunch, she said “The movie was longer than I expected” and I replied “I checked its running time first and it was longer than I expected, too.”) So yes, he liked these two installments quite a lot, but I thought to remind Marie of Quatermass and the Pit between episodes so she’d catch the Easter egg in part three. She said “Yeah, the one with the buried alien monsters, right?” and our son said “That reminds me of Godzilla somehow!”

Doctor Who: Dragonfire (part three)

“Dragonfire” is an uncommon example of a story that bridges two companions. It’s Bonnie Langford’s final serial and Sophie Aldred’s first. Watching these again, I’m forced to concede that Melanie never did really work as a character. The program never told us who she was or why she was traveling with the Doctor, and while Langford’s effervescence and sense of optimism makes her a really watchable person, especially compared to some of the misery-pants who preceded her, it’s not surprising that people tend to forget her.

But Ace is unforgettable. I think she has a great start here, with lots of terrific moments to come. She’s unlike most Doctor Who companions because she’s clearly a badly broken person full of anger who keeps people at arms’ length through rage and very weird insults. She keeps calling Mel “Doughnut,” which might mean she’s disdainful of how sweet Mel is, I guess!

Aldred plays the introspective character stuff incredibly well for an actress new to television, and she really sells Ace trying to be nonchalant when she’s really sad and worried. To be fair, when she’s given a mouthful of ungainly Doctor Who dialogue, she’s about as successful as you or I would be. At one point, her writer makes her ask something like “Do you want to have an argument with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?” That’s the sort of line commercial producers gave Orson Welles when they wanted to piss him off.

We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives. In July, Nitro-Nine explodes there…

Anyway, around these parts, this season went over miles better than “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Our son was blown away by the new title sequence and arrangement of the feem toon, and wouldn’t let me skip through it even once. He says that he can’t decide which of the four stories is his favorite because he liked them all, and his favorite part in this story was surprisingly not the climax, where Edward Peel does his Ronald Lacey impression, but a moment about halfway through part three, where two of Kane’s guards set off a booby trap inside the dead dragon’s head and are electrocuted. And despite the grumble I have about the catacombs and caverns being too close to Iceworld’s surface to believably hide any kind of secret for three thousand years, this was a very good story that’s aged really well. And since the next season is one of my favorites from the entire run of the show, liking this even more than I remembered makes me wonder how much more fun I’ll have this time around.

We’re going to take a break and savor the anticipation for a few weeks though. We’ll watch season twenty-five of Doctor Who in June, but first we’ll have fun looking at something from Who that’s both old and new in just a couple of days, and we’ve got some other great new-to-the-blog programs in the weeks to come, including one I’ve never seen before, so stay tuned!

Doctor Who: Dragonfire (parts one and two)

“Dragonfire” has aged very well. Until I suddenly found myself loving “Delta and the Bannermen,” it had been my favorite story from this season. The script is the first for the show by Ian Briggs, and it’s a really entertaining story about a treasure hunt on a frozen planet, with Tony Selby returning as the criminal Sabalom Glitz, and Sophie Aldred making her debut as Ace. Aldred’s the last example of the series casting actors who are visibly much older than their characters. Ace is sixteen and Aldred was about twenty-five. I’ll talk more about Ace another time. Also joining the regulars this week, there’s Patricia Quinn from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Edward Peel, who was always playing detective chief superintendents in cop shows.

Design-wise, “Dragonfire” is like a lot of Doctor Who in that it aims way past the program’s limitations. I still think the lower levels of Iceworld needed a couple more sets to really sell the place being enormous and twisty and the sort of place that nobody would ever go. Like Peladon, the famous planet that Jon Pertwee’s Doctor visited a couple of times, it really feels these allegedly distant places are just a few feet from the surface. I have trouble believing that it’s so difficult to get to these hidden caverns when all the action seems to take place in a single afternoon and you can access the upper chambers of the catacombs through a side door in the soda shop.

Everybody enjoyed “Dragonfire” tonight. Marie said that she likes McCoy much more than the previous Doctor, and our son chirruped “Yeah, he was so rude!” He thought the dragon was incredibly cool, especially when it’s revealed to be a robot or a cyborg at the end of the second episode.

Doctor Who: Delta and the Bannermen (part three)

Sylvester McCoy may have come in to Who on the end of its run, but he benefited from something that the program should have done many years before: shorter stories. Half of his serials are a lean three episodes each. They’re not all as trim and well-designed as this one – “Ghost Light” in particular could have used another half-hour – but there’s no flab or padding, and for a brisk and light romp in the pretty Welsh summer of 1987, it’s the perfect length.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and I couldn’t agree more. Don Henderson, who is best known for playing a cop called George Bulman across three separate programs over a dozen years, plays the ugly and mean villain, and comedian Hugh Lloyd is a local beekeeper who observes everything with a quiet and kind detachment. Along with Stubby Kaye, who had played Marryin’ Sam in Li’l Abner and was in the UK filming Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it’s a great guest cast. (Bulman, incidentally, started out as a kind of equivalent to Inspector Zenigata in the Lupin III franchise. He was the antagonist to a heroic master criminal called Spider Scott. I’d like to see that someday.)

There’s a scene where the bad guys break into a shed outside the beekeeper’s house while a cover of that dopey old song “Lollipop” plays on an old clock radio and set off a trap. Shelves full of jars of honey crash down on them and they slip and slide on the floor, then get stung by hundreds of bees. “This is hilarious!” our son shouted. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s definitely fun, which is what Doctor Who should be, and which it hadn’t been for such a long time. The story ends with a sweet little doo-wop song with the vocalist singing “Here’s to the future,” and you’d have to be a real sourpuss to disagree.

Doctor Who: Delta and the Bannermen (parts one and two)

Sometimes, kids offer the oddest observations. I was certain that the character of Jesse Colton, who we met in a couple of MacGyver episodes, was described as a bounty hunter, but our son, who turned eight yesterday, exclusively associates the term with Star Wars, just like he might with “Jedi Knight” or “Sith Lord.” Fantasy is that much bigger than reality. Real bounty hunters are nowhere as glamorous as IG-88 or Boba Fett.

There is, briefly, a bounty hunter in the first two parts of the absolutely wonderful “Delta and the Bannermen.” It’s a story that I originally considered the weakest of the four in season twenty-four but later came to love. It’s a huggingly wonderful and silly story full of great dialogue, broken hearts, and rock and roll. But in 1987-88, when Who fandom had so many loud voices demanding SRS BSNSS from this show, “silly” was not what the Hive Mind wanted. I never really noticed, then, the delightful moment in part one when the lovestruck Ray, realizing her fella only has eyes for a girl from space, hugs the Doctor and buries her tears in his shoulder, and the Doctor responds with an awkward “there, there,” utterly unsure what he’s supposed to do about this.

So much of this story is unsaid, but it moves at such a brisk pace that it never seems to matter. It appears that the Doctor and Mel arrive at the Tollbooth without travelling in time. They seem to have just met the evil and ruthless Bannermen; the unfortunate aliens who just wanted a time-travel tour of 1959 Disneyland also know who they are. So they’re all leaving a time when these villains are known to everybody around them, and the explanations that would slow down the narrative are unnecessary. The audience doesn’t need to know. They’re the guys with black hats; we get it.

Then there are the two aging American agents bumbling around the Welsh countryside looking for a satellite with a telescope in the middle of the afternoon. One of them’s played by Stubby Kaye, who gets to impotently protest “Hey, that’s the property of Uncle Sam…” after the villains blow up his radio. I love how these well-meaning clowns just happen to be in the right place at the right time. They must have done something right, once, but very little since, and so their bosses, who are probably much younger and much more competent, just send them as far away from the action as possible because for some reason they can’t fire them. Thus Wales, and a telescope.

I’m glad that our son has developed an understanding of the comedy of anticipation. He had some chuckles and some thrills as the story progressed, but his favorite moment was when the Bannermen’s spaceship lands behind the two agents as they look for their missing satellite. He knew these two fellows’ day was about to get a lot worse. He later protested that the Bannermen aren’t only doing the wrong thing, but doing it the wrong way. He knew that the villains should have searched the tour bus for the woman that they’re hunting before blowing it up. We’ll see whether these bad guys can do something right tomorrow.

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.