Tuesday, 29 December 2015



In my review of Ark In Space, I mention how my deepest appreciation of the story stems from its ability to be so intensely involving that we see past how cheap or dated it may look.   That we get so swept up in the story that a bad monster costume or a poorly-achieved special effect can't mar just how darned excited we are over what we're watching. I also mention how there is a second story in my Top Ten that also achieves this.    

Earthshock is that other story. And, even though Ark In Space is a better-written story, Earthshock ranks higher in my book because it takes that core quality that both stories have and presents it better.
In the simplest of terms, Earthshock is the most intense story Doctor Who has ever produced.   You have just a few minutes at the beginning of Episode One with Lieutenant Scott farting around outside the cave where you're allowed to relax ever-so-slightly and then, after that, it's just the biggest, scariest roller coaster ride that the show has ever provided us with.    And, while there may have been a nasty plot hole or two and even some poor production decisions that were made, this story earns so many extra points because of its pure thrill factor.    It is truly Doctor Who escaping from its own confines and giving us something that even the deepest hater of science fiction will still find too engaging to stop watching once they've gotten past those first few minutes of afore-mentionned cave-farting.   
Earthshock is such an exhilarating piece of television to watch that I find myself mentally blocking out some of the problems it suffers from.     They're there, I know.   But so many other things about the story are just so wonderful that I find myself able to look past those few flaws - no matter how problematic they may be.   
Consider Episode One all by itself for just a moment.   It's brilliant, really.   Saward is just trying to weave some story in until we can have the huge shocking reveal at the cliffhanger.   Thankfully, our embittered script editor veers away from the usual tricks the show employs to mark time.    Which is good since the show has never been all that subtle at achieving this trick.    It seems that, whenever there is a need to stall things for a bit in a Who story before getting on to some legitimate plot and/or character development, things come to a complete grinding halt.    Some of the worst examples of this were seen in mid-70s tales like Death to the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Hand of Fear where an entire episode gets eaten away as the Doctor faces a series of traps based on maze-solving and "odd man out" challenges.  
But instead of blatant padding, we get a gripping 25-minute suspense/terror that stands alone as an almost complete story in itself.   Never have two blokes in black uni-tards seemed more chilling!   More impressively, we actually get a bit attached to all the different soldiers that are being slaughtered by those nasty androids and their deaths are all-the-more disturbing because of it.    The whole staging of Episode One is masterfully-crafted.    With our poor lad on the scanner forced to watch various teams of his comrads dieing over and over each time there's a flare.   It's, quite possibly, the most solidly put-together episode of Classic Series Who that we've ever seen.   
But a brilliant first episode has not always guaranteed a fantastic story all the way through.   We can go as far back as The Space Museum to see that the next three episodes in a Who story can fall pretty flat on their asses after a really good Episode One.    Hell, we might even say the same thing about Unearthly Child if we're feeling really mean-spiritted!    But Earthshock assails this hurdle with ease and continues to deliver solid excitement for the next three installments.  
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the Cybermen of Earthshock is that after their shocking reveal at the end of Episode One, they actually live up to the hype they created.   The Cyberleader, although a bit self-contradictory in his claims to being emotionless, is still an absolutely fantastic villain to watch.   He is sinister to the core with his deep rumbling voice and superiorlistic stance.    And we adore it every time he declares "Excellent".    David Banks' return appearances would always fall a bit short of this original portrayal - but it is a very tough act to follow.   Writing, directing and acting all line up beautifully for the Cyberleader in this story (It's almost like everyone is apologizing for the Cyberleader we got in Revenge of the Cybermen and are doing their best to make up for it) and getting lightning to strike twice in future Cybermen stories was just too tall of an order.
But it's not just the Cyberleader who makes the return of the Cybermen so triumphant.   Nor is it merely the excellent support that the Cyberlieutenant provides.   The fact of the matter is, this is the best story the Cybermen have ever had.    They truly are at their most fearsome, here.   Not only are they ably-represented as being brutish and powerful, but some excellent measures are taken to make their numbers seem overwhelming (barring, of course, that really bad blended shot at the end of Episode Three that is kept mercifully short!).    The Cybermen almost seem to have infected the space freighter like a host of termites.  Which creates an unparallelled sense of menace to the whole tale.    You just know, at every turn, that a Cybermen is going to pop up in your path.    Just look at how they handle Tegan's capture in Episode Four.    It could have been a very quick and simple sequence with Tegan just stepping around a corner and running right into a patrolling Cyberman.   But, instead, it becomes an absolutely wonderful "jump-moment" where we feel the insurmountable number of Cybermen in the hold closing in on her without a hope for escape.    It's delightfully ominous and disturbing.    So much so, that I have actually suffered a series of nightmares throughout my life where I suddenly find myself in Tegan's place, attempting to escape in a giant maze of metal corridors as the Cybermen are slowly, but surely, surrounding me.    To this day, this dream still recurs from time-to-time.    This, to me, is the strongest testament to the effectiveness of the monsters in this particular story.    Years later, I'm still having nightmares about them! 
Of course, there's more to Earthshock than big, nasty Cybermen.    There's pace and astmosphere.    More accurately, there's about twenty tonnes of pace and atmosphere!    Lots of interesting andecdotes have circulated regarding Peter Grimwade's eccentricities during his directing of these four episodes.  But, as many have also said, he got results.   Amazing results, in fact.   Saward, himself, admits to the horrifically cruel amount of quick, short scenes that he wrote into the script.   But Grimwade understood what the author was trying to achieve and does a miraculous job of bringing it all to life.    Earthshock moves at the pace of a magnificently-constructed action movie.   The word "breakneck" tends to sit at the back of my brain every time I watch it.    Everything really does move fast in this adventure.    And, to be quite honest, no other story in New or Old Who ever quite achieves the speed that Earthshock moves along at.   It is, perhaps, the greatest attribute to this story.    There's never a moment to catch our breath.    New complications and developments are being hurled at us all the time. 
And then we have that wonderful "emotions are a weakness" debate in Episode Four.    Not only a great moment for the show - but a really great moment for Doctor Five.   Up until this sequence, we're not a hundred percent sure about this latest incarnation of the Doctor.   After twelve years of  Doctors who always seem to be in control of everything, it's difficult to see the Doctor being meek again.   Unlike Pertwee and Tom Baker, he doesn't always win every argument he's in (including the one we just saw him have with Adric in Episode One). He doesn’t browbeat his enemies like his predecessors did, either. Instead, he just seems to get moody and upset with them.   He even seems a bit timid.   

But then, along comes that wonderful moment of verbal sparring with the Cyberleader.    It's like Peter Davison has been storing up for this moment and he rips the Cyberleader a new one in a way no other Doctor has ever managed to do with a villain.    And, suddenly, we know that this is the Doctor.   The doubt in our minds is gone.  It's also a wonderfully economical moment.    No disrespect to New Who, but I can't help but think that an argument like this would've gone on twice as long and would've probably even dragged a bit.   
As if a triumphant return of the Cybermen, one of the Fifth Doctors greatest moments, and an incredibly well-paced plot weren't enough - we get one of the most tragic moments in the series' history: a companion actually dies.   Yes, this is not truly the first time a companion dies.   And, no, we didn't like Adric much, anyway.    But his death still means a whole lot more than fandom likes to let on to.   Adric dieing at the end of Earthshock sent a clear and simple message to 80s viewers:
Nothing is safe.  
The idea of a Doctor dieing was even something we'd all gotten accustomed to - but a companion who had put in a legitimate amount time travelling aboard the TARDIS getting killed was not something we thought would ever happen.    Could you have imagined Jo Grant or Sarah Jane Smith being written out in such a manner?   Or even Jamie McCrimmon?    Hell no.   If such companions didn't get a happy ending, they, at least, got one where their skin was still intact.    But now, suddenly, the rules were changing once and for all.    Anyone could meet a tragic end in Doctor Who.    This is, perhaps, the biggest impact that Earthshock has.   Its ultimate coup-de-grace.   We've have this wild roller-coaster ride of legitimately scary Cybermen.   We've enjoyed some great suspense and an awesome flashback sequence in Episode Two.   But, as I said, none of that was enough.    The shock and awe that washed over me as those silent credits roll over the broken star-badge was truly the most poignant moment of the whole story.   Thanks to all the great stuff that led up to it, the moment was made all the more breath-taking.   I can't think of a single other instance of television where I was as unsettled as I was at the end of Earthshock.   And a story that can accomplish that, to me, deserves the status of "Classic" way more than some of the usual suspects that make the Top Ten lists of fan-favorites.




Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Robots of Death

Like Kinda and Human Nature/Family of Blood, the quality of Robots Of Death's script is what earns it so many points.   
There's a lot to be said about the other aspects of this story's production.    It's a very solid cast of actors - several of which were so good that they would be hired again in future stories.   The "extreme art deco" set and costume design is magnificent, too (well, perhaps they went a bit too far with the hats!).    The director also did a solid job.   Shooting things in a way that makes the lovely sets still feel claustrophobic and the elegant mechanical men still seem sinister.    It's a great touch, really.   Making the pleasant aesthetics, somehow, dangerous at the same time.   Even the charming robot voices are suitably creepy.    
But so much of what truly makes Robots of Death the treat that it is derives from a ridiculously well-written script.   Everything else is awesome, too - don't get me wrong.   But the script really sells it. 
There's a great sense of economy in the telling of this tale.  Everything feels very "tight".    Not just in terms of creating an enclosed setting with a limited group of characters - but there's not a wasted word of dialogue, either.   Everything that is said does something to propel the plot forward and/or add to the sinister atmosphere that hangs over the whole story.    It's rare that you see a writer achieve this in any manuscript.   Inevitably, "filler" is created to pad out the story or fill in some time.   This, however, never seems to occur in Robots of Death.   Even the silly scene in the console room at the beginning with Leela and the Doctor gives us some nice insights into both of the characters and actually goes to the trouble of trying to explain transdimensional engineering a bit.   It's still the closest the show has ever come to telling us how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than it is the outside.   Which is a special treat in itself!
Still, before dwelling too much on this, Chris Boucher throws the Doctor and Leela into the action.    Their first few moments of peril aboard the Sandminer immediately demonstrate his writing abilities.    Thanks to a well-executed plot, our two time travellers are saved from the oncoming storm (no pun intended) because Chubb's murder forces Uvanov to shut down the scoops.    Instead of employing the usual "waving the sonic screwdriver at it" technique, Boucher relies on the circumstances of the plot to save the day.   It's our first clue that this is going to be a well-conceived script that will consciously choose to stray away from so much of the formulaic nonsense that litters 70s Who.  This is an early Fourth Doctor/Leela story where the conflicts will be resolved with cleverness and wit rather than Janis Thorns and sonic screwdrivers.
And yet, for all its economy, Robots of Death still remembers to include a lot of charm in its narrative.   Oddly enough, we see little of it in the human cast.    The humans, in fact, are largely unlikeable.    A group of people who have been stuck together for too long and are really starting to wear on each others' nerves.    Which is a great dynamic to have when one of these characters is meant to be a murderer.    But our real charmer in among this cast is the remarkably-loveable D84.    He genuinely steals the show and gets all the best lines.    He doesn't really start shining til Episode Three, of course.   But once he steps into the full spotlight, we can't get enough of him.    With great lines like: "Please do not throw hands at me!" and the notorious "I heard a cry...." it's difficult not to be just a little teary-eyed when he presses the final de-activator and wistfully declares:  "Goodbye, my friends".    Tom Baker turns in a great performance, here.   But it's gotta be pretty tough to watch someone in a full mask that renders them completely expressionless upstaging you.   And it's completely evident that this is going to happen just from what's on the page.   Forget about watching the final product!   
Boucher manages to have a bit of fun with some of the other robots, too, of course.  Like so much else that went into the script, it's done in a macabre manner.    The highlight of this is that great moment where SV7 watches impassively as the two Voc-class robots bungle up their attempt to take out the Doctor and Uvanov in Episode Three.   How can you not adore a line like:  "Please stop killing me."   It's there beneath a mix of other dialogue that's far more important to the plot.   But we listen for it every time we watch cause it's just delightfully absurd in its politeness.
But this is the more subtle stuff of Robots of Death.   Its real "meat" is found in the murder mystery storyline.    Here is where Boucher earns his greatest praise.    There seems to be this unwritten law that a good murder mystery does not need to be wholly consistent in its telling.    That it can, in fact, have gigantic, bulging plot holes if it so desires.    After all, even Agatha Christie did this sort of stuff with her novels.  Boucher, instead, goes to painstaking lengths to make sure everything cross-checks and lines up.   Another great example of the "tightness" of the plot I was mentionning.    Quite possibly, the most important aspect of the whole script.   As a murder mystery, it stands head-and-shoulders above most of what is written in the genre because it makes that conscious choice to tell it right rather than use the "Ah well, if certain things don't jibe properly, no one else seems to care when they write a murder mystery" philosophy.  It's nice to see someone go that extra mile and make the whole plot work.
Of course, the tact Boucher takes with presenting the mystery is another high point of the script.    We know, within minutes, who is committing the murders.   We actually see the robot stalking towards its first victim and strangling him to death.  The scene plays out right before our very eyes.   We must share in the Doctor's frustration as he claims, over and over, to various characters that the robots are murderers but is believed by no one.    It's a very novel way to present a whodunnit, when you think about it.   We know the answer to half the mystery and must just sit tight until other characters accept it. 
The real mystery doesn't truly start playing out til Episode Three - where we realise that, although the robots are the killers, we still don't know who's re-programming them to do it.    Most of the characters we saw in the earlier episodes are now dead and we've narrowed things down to just a few suspects.    Enough evidence is presented to us so that we, now, even know that the person messing with the robots' programming is a male.   It is at this point in the tale that I become seriously impressed with the writer's plotting.    He puts in place certain situations that cast aspersions on all three of the remaining male characters.   Zelda finds evidence that Uvanov is responsible for someone's death.  Leela and the Doctor both indicate that there is something more to Pool than meets the eye.   And, of course, Dask places the corpse-marker on the destroyed robot.    Thanks to some really clever scene arrangement, our suspicions are cast about in every possible direction.   We have no truly clear idea of who might've done it.  
As we move on to Episode Four, Boucher continues to manipulate or even break all those firm laws of mystery-writing.    There's no gathering of suspects in a single room by the detective where the suspects are whittled down to one.   Again, by arrangement of scenes and circumstances, we are allowed to do this ourselves'.    Pool's robophobia dismisses him and Uvanov clears his name, too.    So we know it's Dask - if we've been watching close enough, we may have even figured that out back in the latter half of Episode Three.   And yet, the final reveal of him in robot make-up is still so disturbing because it shows the truly maniacal levels that this character has plunged into.    He's not just a murderer - he's nuttier than squirrel crap!    That nice little extra twist really adds to what could've been a fairly anti-climactic plot revelation.
And all these painstaking efforts that Boucher takes is what propels this story to the high level of praise and respect that it receives.   Not just from me, but from Fandomn, in general.   In the Mighty 200 survey, you'll note that this story made it in to that particular Top Ten, too.  In fact, this is the only moment where I seem to agree with The Mighty 200's choice of what deserves to be in the Top Ten.  And the main reason why this story is as popular as it is with both myself and the rest of fandomn is because it truly is a great piece of writing.    It's my sincere belief that authors who work in the mystery genre could really learn alot from watching Robots of Death.   The plot to this tale is so tight, you could bounce quarters off of it.   




Saturday, 19 December 2015



There is a great irony concerning sci-fi TV.    Like all the other mediums that science fiction languishes in, many have considered it to be "television for egg heads".    The type of stuff that only really intellectually-centered people would enjoy because it's written in a convoluted manner.
The ironic point is, of course, that if you look at the overall history of science fiction in television it's frequently the exact opposite.    A lot of the genre appeals to an almost "lowest common denominator" sci fi crowd.   There's an over-reliance on action - with laser-gun fights and spaceship battles happening whenever they can.    The characters are often two-dimensional.   Our heroes are whiter than white and villains blacker than black.    And the way female characters are treated is often deplorable.    They are the traditional maiden in distress and/or sex object but are, otherwise, quite useless.  
These are just a few traits.   And you don't have to look too long to see that even Who, itself, has committed quite a few of these crimes.    Of course, sci-fi TV has improved dramatically in the last few years and the attitudes towards it have also changed.    Not only have a lot of these shows become very intelligently-written - but audiences have grown more sophisticated and, therefore, no longer see an over-complicated plot as a thing of evil.   
Still, a quick review of the long-term history of televisual science fiction reveals that most of it was a series of efforts to "dumb down" all that makes this genre so enjoyable. 
Which means that a story like Kinda appearing when it did in the early 80s makes it stand out like a sore thumb.      
Or, perhaps, a beacon of hope might be a better term!
Kinda fulfilled all the stereotypes that the common viewing public was making about sci-fi TV, at the time.   It is near-impossible to appreciate it unless you are capable of interpreting, at least, a bit of its incredibly thick subtext.   There is so much brewing "under the surface" of this story that the whole thing might seem just a bit boring if you're not, at least, a semi-educated viewer.   
But that's what I actually love the most about Kinda.    It makes no effort to simplify itself or satisfy the groundlings.   It is, quite simply, a smart script.  Which is an odd thing to say about the script, really.  It has such a simple central premise: a malevolent being from some other reality is trying to enter our own and wreak havoc.   Nothing new for Doctor Who  - we've seen this trope a dozen times or so, already.    But Christopher Bailey seems to take that well-tread storyline and build a bunch of things around it that are so amazingly beautiful to watch that we barely seem to notice that we've been down this path so many times.   
He starts by building two intensely interesting societies.   That of the high-tech colonists and the supposedly-primitive Kinda people.  The usual temptation that a writer falls into when world-building is then resisted.   Whereas most sci-fi authors then take painstaking lengths to fully explain the societies they've created through unnatural-sounding expository dialogue, Bailey only gives us as much as we need to know.    We suspect that the colonists are from Earth - but it's never properly revealed.     The Kinda seem to work through cycles of highly advanced technology and primitiveness - but we never see full proof of this.    It's so much better that all this is left to our imagination rather than littering the story with those forced "let me tell you about the society I live in" moments that the genre is so notorious for.   
The next Spectacular Window Dressing To Distract Us From The Overused Central Plot is characterization.   Which prompts us to give some seriously honorable mention to someone else besides the author.    Simon Rouse plays Hindle with such astonishing skill that we find ourselves' wondering if maybe the actor had a legitimate mental breakdown during the filming of the episodes!     Like Bailey (who must also be commended for writing the character so well), he resists the temptation to overindulge.    Usually, when an actor is handed a character who emotionally disintegrates, there is a desire to become very "theatrical" with the whole thing.   To take it a bit over the top and make it almost just a tad fun to watch so as not to disturb the audience quite so much.   Rouse, instead, plays it completely straight.  Thus enabling us to become genuinely unsettled as we observe him emotionally collapsing before us.   I have watched Kinda more times than I can count, and Rouse's performance still gives me  chills every time.   He is completely genuine in his execution of the role.   One is almost inclined to believe he made extensive visits to local asylums and studied the mannerisms of the inmates, there.    He does such a good job that the whole plot could have been about Hindle's madness and I think I would've actually been okay with that.      
Although, some major kudos must also be handed to Richard Todd.   The strange, macabre double-act that he has with Rouse in the later episodes is a sheer delight to watch.   It's equally-impressive to see the personality changes Todd must take his character through every time the Box of Jhana is opened in front of him (which happens to the poor man quite frequently!).   It's the type of solid performance that only a veteran of his standing can produce.    Or perhaps it was some helpful advice from Matthew Waterhouse that got him to pull it all off!    
Behind the scenes humor aside, everyone really deserves praise for the performances they hand in.   There is an atmosphere to the script that almost makes it seem more like a play than a TV show and all the actors pick up on this.   They appear to have given their characters the time and attention that they would  normally devote to a stage role whilst still maintaining a proper sense of naturalism that a television camera requires of them.   It's remarkable, really.   Look at other stories shot in and around these episodes and you'll see the difference in the performances.    The actors are doing something special, here, and it really shines through.
But enough about actors.    Back to the writing end of things.    Christopher Bailey provides some absolutely smashing dialogue for his characters.   Again, Hindle gets all the best stuff.  His wonderful monologue about the evil of the trees outside is truly ominous.   Both on paper and through Rouse's delivery.   "Change and decay in all around I see." is a great line that is masterfully delivered.    But my absolute favorite has to be:  "Don't be silly!   You can't mend people, can you?!   You can't mend people!".   Probably my favorite line of dialogue ever delivered by a supporting castmember.   
Of course, on the downside, we can't complete this review unless we deal with the elephant sitting on the table.  Or, more appropriately, the giant snake curled in the circle of mirrors.   Much criticism has been leveled about the full manifestation of the Mara that occurs at the end of Part Four.    And you know what?   It is a far-from-perfect effect.   But it's not as bad as people like to say.   In fact, our director does his damnedest to work around the problem.    Tight shots that wobble and blur so that we don't get the clearest view of our cheap-looking snake are employed to their fullest potential.    Frequent cutaways to horrified Kinda people and TARDIS crew also help to distract us.    We're even given some pretty creepy incidental music.   So that the story's climax actually manages to work half-decently - even if the Mara is far from horrifying.  But Fandom, as always, must blow negatives out of proportion wherever it can!   
And if they're going to make such disparaging remarks, Fandom should also note the effectiveness of the various dream sequences in this tale.  This is where Kinda uses its low budget effectively.   The images that fade up when the Box of Jhana is opened are well-shot and the music enhances these moments to no end.   The symbolic vision that Panna summons at the end of Episode Three is also very stirring.   But, of course, the truly enduring imagery is the dream Tegan lapses into during Parts One and Two.    When it comes to creepy moments in 80s Who, this is one of the best.    A brilliant choice made by the writer.   It's almost as if he understands that the TV show can't produce the sort of scary monsters that it used to because it's no longer capable of keeping up with the sophisticated prosthetics we were seeing in movies, at the time.   So, instead, he devises a new way to frighten us.   The stark simplicity of characters in front of a black screen acting in a very off-skewed manner is so  much more disturbing than any rubber-suited monster could ever hope to be.  If we have to put up with a few minutes of a big fake snake at the end in order to also get this kind of stuff, then I'm perfectly all right with that.
I could keep going on about the brilliance that is Kinda. There is so much more to discuss.   But I'll stop, for now.    
I've only placed the story at Number Six because I do recognize that it's not the most approachable of stories.    No doubt, it actually alienates a lot of its audience and that does cause it to lose a few points.   But that egghead that lingers deep inside of me who finds documentaries on geology intensely fascinating or loves to have a really complex physics equation explained to him puts Kinda at Number One.   It's only the fact that I've actually got a well-rounded personality (or, at least, I like to think that I do!) that causes me to view the story more objectively and bump it back a few slots in the countdown!    

Want to read the rest of my Top Ten? Here they are: 

#10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html

#9 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

#8 -   http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-10-fave-who-stories-8.html 

#7 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-7.html     


Tuesday, 15 December 2015



Multi-Doctor stories (which would include The Two Doctors, Time Crash and, even, to some extent, Deep Breath) and anniversary stories (which would include Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis) are difficult to be objective about. There's a certain level of nostalgia that goes on in these stories. Or fanwankery, as it is more commonly-known. Such sentiments can cloud one's critical thinking. Let's face it, watching verbal sparring matches between two or more different incarnations of the Doctor can make up for a pretty threadbare plot. Deliberate nods to the past in a way that pays tribute to the long history of the show can get us to ignore all kinds of poor characterization. And so on...

When these elements combine and we have an anniversary tale that is also a multi-Doctor adventure - then objectivity withers even more. Let's be honest, there's not a whole lot to either The Three Doctors or The Five Doctors. But we don't really care. Doctors Two and Three arguing with each other in the TARDIS console room throughout all of Episode One is just so much fun that we can gloss over the many problems of The Three Doctors. Just as the Cybermen slaughterfest at the hands of the Raston Warrior Robot gets us to totally forget that The Five Doctors has the most slender of storylines.

And that's why Day of the Doctor is the thing of beauty that it is. It is the first time that an anniversary tribute with a multi-doctor plot device really remembers to have all those other important elements that good story-telling contains.

First off, there’s enough plot. We’ve got a good strong Thread A involving the Zygons and their Sinister Plan to Overthrow Humanity at a More Convenient Time. It’s a clever tale, really. Told a bit backwards so that we only truly understand what’s going on near the end of the episode (Oh neat! They’ve used Time Lord technology to hide in paintings!). And then there’s Thread B – The Time Wars Happening Not Quite the Way We Thought. A perfect subplot that will, basically, take the show in a whole new direction. Thankyou Mister Moffat. You’ve given us just enough story so that we’re not blushing when people with only a casual interest in the show decide to watch this because it’s an anniversary special and a lot of attention has been drawn to it. But you’ve still made sure that said plot doesn’t get in the way of multi-incarnation verbal sparring and all that other good stuff.

There’s a couple more features that really make this the most beautiful of anniversary tales, though. Elements that any good anniversary special should have. First off, there’s the Reveal That Turns Established Continuity On Its Ear. A secret incarnation of the Doctor that we’ve never heard of?! What?! This could have backfired hideously, of course. But John Hurt is so magnificent as the War Doctor that we fall in love with him, instantly. In just one story, he becomes as great as any other incarnation of the Doctor. Just like Paul McGann, we want to see more of his adventures.

Another important element that any good anniversary special needs is the Significant Change In The Show's Direction. Until Day of the Doctor, The Three Doctors illustrated this best with the Doctor getting his exile rescinded at the story's conclusion. After being stuck on Earth for several years, he was a free man, again. The show can revert to its original format. It was perfect to have this occur during the Tenth Anniversary Special. It makes the moment all the more special. Day of the Doctor pulls off that same trick and does it beautifully. It starts with that oh-so-solemn moment as the War Doctor returns to his own time to finally push the big red button and Doctor Eleven has different ideas. As the multiple Doctors arrive to triumphantly save Gallifrey during its greatest moment of peril, the Significant Change In The Show's Direction is set in stone. But its true revelation doesn't come until the delightful Tom Baker cameo. From hereon in, the Doctor will be trying to find Gallifrey. He will do it in his usual roundabout way, but this will be his mission. We shiver as he makes this vow in the dream sequence at the end where all his incarnations stand in the dry ice cloud.

Deciding to save Gallifrey after it had been destroyed for a good seven seasons was  a move that even Moff has found himself doubting. It was a very bold choice for RTD to make when the series re-started in 2005 and restoring the Time Lords does run the risk of cheapening the whole gesture. But, as Moff said, himself: it was the fiftieth anniversary and the Doctor needed to get a gift. This was the best present we could give him. Even though the showrunner seems to now regret doing it, I actually think it was the best thing he could've done. I'd even go so far to say that the story wouldn't have been half as good if he hadn't.

Of course, another vital ingredient to a good anniversary special is all that fanwankery that I was talking about at the beginning. We get that in spades. The inclusion of popular monsters from the past. The in-jokes involving such things as UNIT dating and the Doctor's age. Actually letting us see a bit of the Time Wars. The Doctors, just once, being able to defeat a Dalek with the sonic screwdriver (a super-duper ultra fanwank moment). It's all there. And it's done wonderfully with just the right sense of economy so that it's not too indulgent.

But all of this would come to ruin if we didn't get what every good Doctor Who anniversary special needs most: multi-incarnation sparring. For some reason, Bob Baker and Dave Martin decided way back in The Three Doctors that the Doctor is not a man who gets on with himself. Since then, whenever different incarnations meet up, there's been in-fighting. And, for an even odder reason, the fans seem to love it. The First Doctor calling his Second and Third selves' a clown and a dandy. The Fifth Doctor mistaking the Tenth for a fan. Even the Sixth and Second yelling "Snap!" at each other simultaneously. We adore that stuff. And Moff makes sure to give it to us all over the place. In so doing, he also creates a sort of "Classic Series Doctor judging how New Series Doctors behave" undertone that makes the arguing all the more succinct. Of course, I could point out that the War Doctor comes after Doctor Eight, who was already behaving like a teenager, but I won't be that pedantic (Oh wait. I just was!). Still, it adds an extra dimension to the disagreements the Doctor has with himself that makes it even more fun. And makes that final resolution made at the Moment all the more touching. Because, despite himself, all the Doctors are coming together to do something amazing. Which creates that one more element that every good anniversary special needs: charm.

The Fiftieth Anniversary Special seemed like an impossible task.  There was no way it could be as good as we all wanted it to be. And yet, somehow,  Moffat makes it better than anything any of us expected.

Previous Pretentious Reviews:

Fave Story #10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html

Fave Story #9 -  http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

Fave Story # 8 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-10-fave-who-stories-8.html

Saturday, 12 December 2015



Let's be honest, Classic Who can really be a "tough sell", sometimes, to the newbie fans who only discovered the show in 2005.     Not only does the production value of the Original Series make it look laughably cheap, but much of the show needs to be viewed contextually.    People, back then, enjoyed television in a totally different manner than they do today.   And the New Who fan has a hard time getting his or her head around this.    They expect their TV to be a mini-motion picture every week - and Classic Who seldom worked that way.    It was all meant to be a bit more ponderous and static.   Like watching a play on a television instead of a movie.
But there are a small handful of Who Adventures from the Original Series that move at such a cracking pace and use atmosphere so well that all the wobbly sets and rubber monsters in the universe can't work against them.    Whether you watched the original transmission or are re-watching it, today - it stays relevant.   It keeps moving along so quickly and effectively that the New Series Fan will enjoy it just as much as the stuff that's coming out this year.   Even if it all "looks a bit hoaky" by today's production standards.  
Two stories that have made it into my Top Ten achieved this. 
Ark In Space is one of them.   
Yes, Robert Holmes has written many brilliant scripts (and a few not-so-brilliant ones - but someone as prolific as him is allowed to have his off-days!).   But I like this one so much because it is such a stripped down version of what he usually does.    Rather than load up the tale with his usual hallmarks, he sticks to story.   There are no subtle satires being told.   No eccentric characters.    There's not even a colorful double-act to be found.   It's all about plot, here.    And it's nice that, even when his script is in it's most simplistic state, Holmes still fires on all cylinders.  
Episode One is truly intriguing.    Bob almost seems to be trying to parrot Terry Nation, here.   The whole episode chiefly concerns the TARDIS crew wandering around a bit in the new setting, discovering a few minor plot points and getting into some trouble.   Something that happens in most of the scripts our famous Dalek Author hands in.   But whereas a lot of Nation's first parts have been such pure filler that you can almost skip them and still understand what's going on - Holmes uses this style to full aplomb.   We get some important plot information that makes the first episode still necessary to watch.   We also get some nice characterization and one of the best-written monologues in the show's history.    And, of course, we get a lot of the main characters falling in and out of trouble.    In fact, a sense of danger runs quite strongly through most of the episode and keeps it very interesting.   Especially in those first few minutes as various members of the TARDIS crew suffer from oxygen starvation, battle a dangerous automated guard and get teleported into permanent cryogenic suspension.  The high level of threat that comes barreling in at the beginning of this whole adventure really catches our attention and keeps us involved.
But we've seen any number of Who four-parters where Episode One is highly promising but the other Three never live up to their potential.  Holmes, with his incredible eye for what does and doesn't work in the show's format, has probably even recognized the problem he's created.   So he makes sure that those other three parts have just as much memorable stuff in them.    And, again, he's all the more impressive because he doesn't resort to any of his favorite tricks to do so.
Functionalism in the supporting cast is brought to its ultimate forefront in this plot.  This is meant in a completely literal sense.    Each character gets introduced because their background serves to specifically benefit the workings of the Ark.    We've got medtechs and engineers and the like.    It is a group of people that have done their damnedest to ween out personality and focus on pure survival.   In many ways, the honeycombs of the Ark remind us all-too-succinctly of another set where a race was cryogenically frozen for an indefinite period of time.    Not only does Ark In Space visually resemble Tomb of the Cybermen, but the beings that have frozen themselves' within the Ark's pallets are very similar in characterization to the monsters of Telos.   Particularly as we hear Noah ranting on about killing the Doctor, Sarah and Harry simply because they are "regressive".  
But this whole approach with the supporting cast makes it almost impossible for Holmes to inhabit the story with his usual gang of colorful characters.    He can't offer us a loveable rogue because the society of the Ark would never permit one to exist.    This is a great move on Holmes' behalf as it forces him to dig into characterization in a whole new way.  Admittedly, there is little humor in Ark In Space.   But this just means that our favorite author can take the drama to untold heights.   
The most noteworthy example of this, of course, is Noah's Great Internal Struggle.   His fierce dedication to successfully completing the Ark's mission constantly clashes against the Wiirn's control over his mind.   Kenton Moore, the actor portraying Noah, does the most amazing job of fleshing out this conflict.   The Discontinuity Guide put it best when it pointed out how quickly we forget the embarrassment of the bubblewrap glove and focus, instead, on the tension of that particular scene.    To be so easily distracted from such a blatantly bad visual says a lot about Mister Moore's abilities as an actor.   And what could have been memorable for all the wrong reasons, instead, becomes the most iconic moment of the whole story.    Noah's fight against himself, alone, makes this story a classic.    But Ark in Space offers us so much more...
The general sense of claustrophobia and horror that hangs over everything is another powerful element of the storyline.   And like Moore's performance - it is another instance where content overcomes the limitations of budget.
The design of those Wiirn outfits is not exactly impressive.   Especially when you start trying to figure out how the creatures actually manage to get about.  Anything remotely resembling a limb is several feet away from touching the ground!  Essentially, these creatures appear to be mobile torsos bouncing around on a space station.   With a nasty bug-head and spindly arms added to them almost as an after-thought rather than a prominent feature.   It's not the most effective of visuals.  
And yet, we're on the edge of our seats as a Wiirn suddenly lunges for Sarah Jane's leg from the ventilation grille.   We're full of fear when the Doctor hides himself in a cryogenic pallet while a Wiirn searches the room for him.    Even the gastropodic version of these creatures, in all their "bubblewrapic splendour", manage to provide us with a few highly riveting instances.    It's because the Wiirn or so well-presented on paper and then shot as cleverly as possible on video that the visual downside of them becomes almost negligible.   These monsters may not look all that formidable, but they still feel absolutely terrifying.   
This is where we truly see the brilliance of Ark In Space.   Where it supersedes the limitations of the era it was shot in and becomes something bigger and better than just a mere four episodes of an old cult T.V. show that was recently brought back to life under better production conditions.   No matter which period of television history you watch Ark In Space in, it remains a truly creepy tale that unsettles you.  That's why it remains so highly-regarded by both myself, and fandom, in general.  
But not only is the story timeless, it also gives us some of the best supporting cast acting we've ever seen.  It's a brilliant script by Robert Holmes where he actually manages to completely re-invent himself.   Most writers produce a whole bunch of bad material when they attempt such a process.   But Holmes, genius that he is, gets it right first try.   
Both Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat site this story as their all-time favorite.    It was even partially responsible for inspiring the whole Alien movie franchise.   And it's not hard to see why Ark In Space remains so influential.    It's not only a story that continues to scare us to this very day, it's just damned good television.

Other fave stories:

#10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html

#9 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-fave-who-stories-9.html

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


The countdown continues with Story #9 - 


This story had a lot to live up to.    I was a pretty avid follower of Virgin's series of New Adventure novels (at the time, they were the only way to get "New Who") and Paul Cornell's Human Nature  was, without a doubt, my favorite book in the whole range.    And while there were several novels in the New Adventures that had been masterfully written by other authors, Human Nature was head-and-shoulders above the rest.   A beautifully-written tale that worked magnificently on so many levels. It's such an excellent example of above-par authorship that even someone who had never in their lives heard of Doctor Who would still thoroughly enjoy it.   But, of course, a die-hard fan such as myself would love it all the more.  
Fast-forward a dozen years or so and we now find ourselves in late 2006.   They're announcing the stories for Series Three of New Who.   And lo and behold, smack-dab in the middle of the press release I read that Paul Cornell is adapting his Human Nature novel into T.V. episodes.   I'm equal parts ecstatic and terrified.  I'm thrilled that my favorite novel is going to get re-invented for a new media.   But I'm also fearful that this interpretation might fall horrifically-short of the genius of the book.    Surely, there's no way Cornell can get lightning to strike twice.   The televisual version will never live up to the printed word.   
But then, we're talking about Paul Cornell, here.   
What gets Human Nature/Family Blood to work so well is that Cornell knows exactly when to follow the pattern of his novel and when to veer away from it.    The main plot and character elements of the novel are all there.    As well they should be.    The basic premise of the novelization is brilliant and its core values should be maintained.    Otherwise, there's no point giving the two stories such similar names.   But there are many aspects of the book that only work in that format and would never translate well to the Small Screen.    And Cornell, brilliant man that he is, understands this perfectly and pens the story accordingly.    
But before I extol too heavily on the Greatness of Cornell - let's talk about the tale's other enormous strongpoint: the directorial choices.  Human Nature/Family of Blood is the period piece to end all period pieces.    Not only do we get the most authentic-looking locations and costumes but, more importantly, the performances the director evokes from the actors are outstanding.    We get characters that really seem from the era the storyline's meant to hail from.    The various pleasant and unpleasant social paradigms are clearly on display in the script and faithfully followed by the director.    We see wonderful examples of chivalry and honor, but we also see racism and class-discrimination.   And those negative and positive qualities can be seen in both the likeable and unlikeable characters that populate the tale.    Which is what makes the "period feel" so much more real.   These are people from a more primitive time and the conventions of that era are going to have adverse effects on them that will make us view them with mixed feelings.    So the performances are not only classical in nature - but they also seem genuinely believable.
I shall resist for one or two more paragraphs before fully indulging in my "Cornell-love" and speak of another prominent strongpoint to this story: Tennant's performance as John Smith.    Sci-fi/fantasy television shows frequently create storylines that cause the main actor to suddenly become a new character.   In fact, we'd seen this previously in Tennant's reign as he gets possessed on various occasions by sentient suns and skin trampolines.
To be perfectly frank, I've never liked David Tennant's acting style (please, no post-bombs, anyone) and his limitations as an actor become even clearer when he must be the Doctor who is being someone else at the same time.    The various possession scenes that he's had to act out (particularly the one in  New Earth) always seem a bit painful to watch.    But, here, Tennant really redeems himself.    Again, some credit must go to the writer for making John Smith so three-dimensional.     But Tennant really takes the script he's handed and makes sure the character is fleshed out beautifully.   So much so, that when Smith is fully confronted with the fact that he's a fictional character, we completely sympathize with him as he resists returning to his true state.    Even though the plot demands that he do so.    We believe John Smith to be a real character at this point.  We even love him a bit.    So having to transform back to the Doctor seems like a gesture that is tantamount to murder.    And much tribute must be given to Tennant's performance for stirring such feelings in us as an audience.   He's truly at his best, here.
Okay.   I've resisted long enough.   Time to indulge in full-blown Cornell Adoration: 
I love what this story has to say about war.   Ultimately, it is an anti war story.    It shows us, over and over,  that man should never be reduced to a "kill-or-be-killed" situation.    That war is an evil thing that we should avoid at all costs.    This is not a theme that Doctor Who has never explored before.   Armageddon Factor, Warriors of the Deep and Genesis of the Daleks are just a few anti-war stories that immediately spring to mind.    There are several more, of course.    But Nature/Blood introduces some new concepts that all the other anti-war adventures in Who never touched upon:  That, sometimes, war cannot be avoided and that it is genuinely necessary to take arms against your enemy.  And that, as evil as war is, a certain degree of reverence and respect must be paid to those who still showed the courage to fight in one.     In the last few minutes of the story - these two notions are re-inforced the most strongly.   When the Doctor gives the fobwatch to Tim and the young boy proclaims that he believes the oncoming war is one that must be fought - we find ourselves' agreeing with him.    And in the beautiful memorial service at the end where a much older Tim catches sight of Martha pinning a poppy to the Doctor's lapel. After these two scenes, we can't help but feel that we should do more than we normally do to commemorate Remembrance Day the next time it comes around.   Cornell shows a sensitivity to our veterans that all the other anti-war tales of Who forgot to talk about.  And that's damned good writing.   
But the damned good writing doesn't end there.   Has there ever been a better monologue written about what the Doctor is like?    The actor playing Tim delivers it masterfully, of course.    But one can't help but marvel at the well-chosen words that were put into his mouth.    It's one of the speeches that can stand proudly beside such other greats as "In all my travelings throughout the Universe..." or "Homo Sapiens - what an inventive, invincible species!" and no one would bat an eye.    It's nice to see that New Who remembers, now and again, that a good monologue is a vital ingredient of the show's format.    Thanks for that, Paul!  
But I think my favorite twist that Cornell adds into the story is how he puts the plot's antagonists to rest.   The whole voice-over treatment with a series of montage shots was an extremely bold way to handle the resolution of the story's conflict - and it paid off beautifully.    It is, without a doubt, the most original way to end a Who story.    And the story is all the more memorable because of it.   But besides being unique and different - it's just really well-done.    We get a whole new insight into the Doctor's sense of mercy.    That he could have taken these enemies down effortlessly but he was trying to be nice puts such a new complexion on the way this man exhibits compassion.  
The actual defeating of the bad guys was also wickedly cool.   Particularly, of course, the way in which Daughter-of-Mine is dispatched.    Such an imaginative explanation for those strange moments when we look in the mirror and see movement in the background when there shouldn't have been!   

I think, however, that the very different approach that Nature/Blood takes to its ending is also an attempt to say something about the nature of the story, itself.    That the nasty monsters that are necessary to every good Who tale are not always as important as they seem.    The villains are dealt with so simply because we're not meant to get too caught up in what they're up to.    Human Nature/Family of Blood is really a tale of Love and War (Love and War - how about that?!).   It explores both these themes in a very profound and multi-layered manner.   The budding romance between John Smith and Joan Redfern that is cut off before it can truly develop is the real story to be watching.  Just as Tim coming to terms with his own sense of duty and honor for his country should be at the forefront of our attention.     Even Martha's continual struggle to come to terms with her unrequited feelings is the real drama we should be sinking our teeth into.   Those nasty aliens with their green-glowing faces and handguns and their army of evil scarecrows, they're just there because every Who story is required to have them.    But if you focus too hard on those window-dressings then you miss what the story's really about.    And that would be a crime.   Because the real story of Human Nature/Family of Blood is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful tales in the whole history of the series. 

Missed the first review? Here's the link: