Wednesday, 27 September 2017

UNADULTERATED BOORISH OPINION: UNSUNG CLASSICS - PART 3

"Wait a minute!", you may be saying to yourself, "Weren't we in the middle of chronicling Silurian History?! What's going on here?!" 

Work has been really busy - that's what's going on, here. While I have arranged all the Silurian stories in proper chronological order, I still like to watch them all just to ensure that they line up properly before I start writing my essay. I wanted to stay away from opinion pieces but they're quick and easy to write. So, we're going to slip one or two of them in again while I work on Part 2 of Silurian History. 

My Unsung Classics Series did seem to get a lot of good feedback so I've decided to look at another New Series story that deserves more respect than it gets. Here's a quick cut-and-paste from Part One just to refresh your memory about how this particular brand of essay works. If your remember reading it, just skip to the good stuff!


UNSUNG CLASSICS:

The stories fandom, sometimes, label as "Classic" can seriously boggle me. Genesis of the Daleks, for instance, is a story that works far better in theory than it does in actual execution (far too many captures and escapes - even by Classic Who Standards!). I've never understood all the fuss about Talons of Weng Chiang, either. I mean, it's a fun story - for the most part (that dumbwaiter sequence is four minutes of my life I'll never get back!). But I certainly don't think it's this amazing piece of television that so many other fans believe it to be. I know it's to be viewed contextually, but it's still pretty hard to get over the fact that they've cast a white person as an Asian. It's a bit like that discomfort you feel when you see old footage of actors performing in blackface. It's awkward.

What confounds me even more is the fact that there are some excellent stories that fandom seems to completely overlook. In some cases, minor quibbles have been found with them ("Kinda is an incredible exploration into the human psyche and an extravaganza of rich subtext - but I don't like it cause the snake looks fake!"). Or, for whatever reason, they just don't seem to resonate with the audience. Even though, to all intents and purposes, they're as well-constructed (or even better) than "classics" like Genesis of the Daleks or Talons of Weng Chiang.

My Unsung Classics Series will explore these stories. I'll not only look at what it is about them that I think makes them so great - I'll also try to figure out why they didn't go over as well as they should have. I'll probably also stun you a bit with what I consider to be a great story. Try not to be too shocked. Remember: The Sixth Doctor is my favorite - so I'm bound to have some weird views!



SERIES TEN AND ITS HIDDEN GEM

At the time of writing this, Series Ten concluded a short while ago. Overall, it's been very well-received by hardcore fans and the casual viewer. Quite simply, the season contains some very solid stories.

Even though it's very recent (things, such as these, should be allowed to age), World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is being labeled by many as a Classic. It's hard not give it that sort of title. On top of being a well-put-together tale, we've got Mondasian Cybermen and a double-Master reunion. And a teaser at the end makes Christmas feel like it's a million years away. Those kind of elements make it near-impossible to not totally fall in love with it.

But if we are willing to attach such labels to something so new, then I say we've missed a story earlier in the season that also deserves to be called a Classic. Oxygen, if you'll pardon the pun, really took my breath away. To me, it stands out just as well as the season finale.



PART THREE: OXYGEN

Like many other stories in the Capaldi era, Oxygen gets its lead actor to do a sort of opening narration that seems like the breaking of the Fourth Wall but isn't (or in the case of Before the Flood it just breaks the Fourth Wall). In this instance, the Doctor's sinister voice-over about the dangers of space turns into a lecture in his class. It's a clever use of the device that signposts what Oxygen does best: be clever. It's a somewhat simple story that presents itself in the smartest way possible. This, quite often, is my favorite style of Doctor Who adventure. A supremely complex plot can be fun but it is not necessary. A simple idea dressed up in a way that makes it sparkle as brightly as possible brings me far more joy. If you look at my Top Ten Stories list (http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html - start here and keep following) it includes stories like Ark In Space and Earthshock. Both have pretty simple premises (Ark: "We need to get off this space station before the Wyyrn eat us" Earthshock: "We need to stop the Cybermen from blowing up the Earth"). Oxygen takes a similar tact with its "We need to escape the zombies on this space station" premise. But it does so with great style and aplomb.

The pre-title teaser does a beautiful job of setting the tone. It lets us know that we are going to be dealing with nasty space zombies. Which is great. How can you not love space zombies, right? But it does something else far more impressive. In a few quick snippets of dialogue, it humanizes the hell out of the two characters we're watching on the space walk. So that when one of them does get zombified, we truly feel the loss. She had just decided she wanted to have children with the man she loves - and now that's never going to happen. Even worse, he never got to know about her decision. None of this was necessary to write into the sequence. We just needed to see space zombies doing their thing. But the fact that the time is taken to have that moment included in the sequence shows us that this story is going to be written with a degree of sensitivity. It's not just going to be a rollicking adventure. We're going to care a bit about these characters who are fighting for their lives.

With the opening credits out of the way, we take a quick trip to the university the Doctor's teaching at to let us now there was no Fourth Wall Breaking going on. Most stories of Series 10 start here and it's a nice piece of familiarity that makes us feel comfortable. The idea of setting the whole season in this location was a good one. It does have just a bit of that UNIT family atmosphere going on.

We don't dawdle at the university, though. We get to the good stuff nice and quick. The first few minutes with the TARDIS arriving on the space station and our three intrepid heroes exploring are glorious. Again, we are taken back to a vibe from the Classic Series. We feel like we're back in all of those lovely stories from the 60s where they spend the best part of the first episode just wandering about and getting to know where they are. They find various things that signpost what's to come later when a real plot starts to develop. But, for now, they're just wandering. The Classic Series would occasionally re-create this device in later stories (Ark In Space and Destiny of the Daleks) and I loved it when they gave us a first episode like that. To see them doing something similar in the New Series was truly impressive. Entertainment seems to be completely geared to people with ADHD, these days. So I must applaud the braveness of this decision. To just let the TARDIS crew meander for a good ten minutes was very bold. It also gets the story to feel very distinctive from a lot of other stuff we've seen in New Who. I hope we see this some more. Not every episode, of course. Just now and again.

And then, finally, we get some more zombie horror. We're also introduced to the surviving crew members. All of whom do a pretty good job of seeming three-dimensional even though some of them aren't going to last too long. It's a nice testament to the writing and the acting when expendable crewmembers can still make a lasting impression.

Bill seeming racist to the blue crewmember (Dahh-Ren - great gag!) is our last little bit of levity in the storyline. Once that's out of the way, the tension in Oxygen kicks into high gear. For the rest of the episode, it is impossible to tear ourselves' away from the action. Problems present themselves' at all the proper moments to keep us engaged. It's executed quite masterfully, really. The writers for The Walking Dead really need to watch this episode. They could learn a few things about how to create effective zombie action.

And then we get to that magnificent airlock scene. Who can forget it? It's one of two great sequences in the episode where we really see just how attached we've gotten to Bill in such a short time. We are utterly horrified by the whole moment. There seems no real hope for her.

The surreal half-conscious effect that is created in the space walk is absolutely gorgeous and gives us another minute or two of beautiful suspense. We have no idea what's going on. But it looks absolutely fabulous and keeps us wondering.

When things do start making sense, again - we find ourselves' completely falling in love with Doctor Twelve. Yes, he was very spiky in his first season but the gradual softening of the character has led us to moments such as these. The Doctor sacrifices his sight to save a friend. The fact that he was so much colder a few seasons ago makes the gesture all the more beautiful. We were sure the heart(s) of gold was still there. And we get to see it in its full glory, here.

Things don't stay too calm for long. The space zombies finally find their way in and the tension picks up, again. And, if the airlock sequence wasn't terrible enough, what happens to Bill in this moment truly horrifies us. There seems no clear way out for her when she gets zombified. It's completely brutal to watch. It also gets us to see, even more, that we've fallen in love with her and don't want to lose her.

The final solution to Oxygen is what propels it into Classic Status. Too often in New Who, we get endings that seem to rely just a bit too heavily on waving the sonic screwdriver about and using some convenient pseudo-science. Oxygen stays away from that and has the Doctor being genuinely clever (he, in fact, loses the sonic screwdriver fairly early on). He susses out what's really happening at about the same time as we do. He understands that corporate greed is the true enemy, here. He then uses his enemy's power against itself in a very smart and down-to-earth way. It really is cleverness that saves the day rather than something that feels a little bit more on the deux ex-machinae side of things. We also get a brilliant speech where the Doctor inspires the remaining crew to sacrifice themselves' heroically. This, to me, is the way a story should end. The Doctor is genuinely brilliant rather than just tech-savvy. Absolutely brilliant stuff.

There's also several truly delicious moments in that climax that really make it pop. The way the Doctor delivers the word: "Expensive!" shows us how he was hatching a scheme the whole time. It halts the zombies in their tracks and changes the whole tide of the story. What a flood of relief that falls over us as he saves Bill, too. And then, finally, we get the sad reunion of the two lovers we saw at the beginning of the story. It's a truly painful moment as he must look into the dead eyes of the woman he loves. As she gives him her air canister to keep him alive, it gets us to wonder if love can even survive beyond death. There is a sense that things have come full circle with the story, now. The lovers are reunited. Not quite in the way either had hoped for, but they are together again. Once more, Oxygen shows us it's not just about space zombies - it's also about the people who are struggling against them.

The denouement is very quick and hopeful. We get a bit of future history as we learn that capitalism is soon to die. And then, we get a wonderful cliffhanger to lead us into a mid-season 3-part epic. The Doctor announcing in black-out that he's still blind is absolutely gorgeous.

I'm hard-pressed to find anything wrong with Oxygen. It's one of those stories that's written so tightly that quarters could bounce off of it for centuries and never cause the slightest dent. It's a shining example of a great Who story that relies purely on the merits of being good in its own right. Our season finale is also magnificent. But, as I mentioned, it has the added bonus of using some elements from past continuity to make it that much more enjoyable. Whereas Oxygen stands up on its own.

Which means it might just be that little bit better...



WHY IT DIDN'T GO OVER AS WELL AS IT SHOULD HAVE:

There are probably several factors that affected how Oxygen was received. First and foremost, it's in the middle of a season of really well-crafted stories. So that makes it that much harder to stand out. We also had a more-than-stellar season finale which really ended up dwarfing anything else that went on during the actual season. Even though I allege that Oxygen might be better than the finale, seeing the First Doctor striding through the blizzard to meet Doctor Twelve will get a fan to forget about everything else that went on this year!

Finally, of course, there's the fact that it is so recent. I mentioned earlier that a Classic does need some time to age (like a fine wine). So, maybe, in the next few years, we'll all stand up and take notice of Oxygen. We'll recognize its absolute brilliance and give it its due credit.





Okay - Part 3 done. Being a lover of narrative symmetry, I'll probably do a Part 4 before I get back to Silurian History. To balance things out even better, I will pick something from the Classic Series that deserves more respect than it gets. 

What story will I pick? I don't even know, yet. But I've got plenty to choose from.

Suggestions are welcome, by the way. Leave them in the Comments if you so desire....











Saturday, 16 September 2017

CHRONOLOGIES AND TIMELINES: A PROBABLE HISTORY OF HOMO REPTILIA (AND/OR SILURIANS AND/OR SEA DEVILS AND/OR EOCENES AND/OR WHATEVER!) -PART 1

So I'm holding back on establishing a timeline for the Cybermen til the Christmas Special rolls around - just in case it has anything to add to the whole Mondasian Cybermen epic that we got for the Series Ten Finale (we did, after all, see the First Doctor during his final moments of The Tenth Planet so they may touch upon Cyber-History a bit more during the Christmas Special). But that doesn't mean I can't work out some other probable histories for other species we've had repeated encounters with.

As the entry title implies, what exactly we should be naming these creatures is a huge debate in itself. For the most part, I shall employ their most frequently-used title: the Silurians. However, there will probably be a sentence or two where I am desperate for a synonym. During those instances, I'll probably use the more accurate, all-encompassing title of Homo Reptilia. The spelling of "reptilia", by the way, could be a legitimate debate too. I'm going to stick with the one I'm using.  



HOMO REPTILIA: WHO'S MOST THREE-DIMENSIONAL MONSTER

Perhaps the most beautiful trait to this particular creature is just how much those who have written them try to ground them in reality. Other non-human species tend to be very much of one mind. Daleks and Cybermen are the best example of this, of course. But even if we look at a race like the Ice Warriors - who start off being nasty but eventually become a force for good - they tend to all be ruthless conquerors during one period and then they're all intergalactic peacekeepers, later (with the exception of a breakaway faction here and there!).

What I'm really trying to say is: quite often, your common Doctor Who monster can lack some depth. This is true of most science fiction, of course. It's just difficult to portray a diverse culture in an alien race. There's only so much time you can spend on such a task before it gets in the way of the story. So we make them a little on the two-dimensional side.

Not so with the Silurians. Malcolm Hulke, the man who composed their first few adventures, was always intent on creating shades of grey in his scripts. He didn't like adventures where the antagonists were blacker than black and the heroes whiter than white. He wanted us to understand why everyone was doing the things they were doing. Whether the actions seemed good or bad  - we could empathize with the people who were committing them. For this reason, most of his stories lacked true villains or even true heroes. Everyone was flawed and everyone was noble.


PART 1: THE EARLY YEARS - IN TERMS OF HISTORY AND TRANSMISSION ORDER

I am realizing, as I write this, that chronicling the timeline of this particular species is going to take a bit longer than I expected. So we'll need to do this in two parts. I promise this won't be like Dalek History, though (this is a link to the first part http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/06/chronologies-and-timelines-tymecian.html- the other parts follow immediately afterwards - strap yourself in for a good afternoon of reading, though!). I really will stop after two installments. Unless I have to do an Appendix some time later because some new Silurian stories came out.



ANCIENT HISTORY: WHEN DID IT ALL ACTUALLY TAKE PLACE?!

We're not entirely sure when Homo Reptilia ruled the Earth. The Doctor, himself, even makes errors in estimates. He's calling them Silurians during their first story because he believes that's the era they hail from. In their next story, he claims that they should actually be called Eocenes. But that's also a misnomer. At least if you go by what we've seen of their culture.

Homo Reptilia seem to live in the same Age as the dinosaurs. Which would indicate the Jurassic Period. But they also claim to have been aware of the ape-like species that would eventually become man. Most paleontologists would have you believe that dinos and monkeys did not exist at the same time. Another key event that is mentioned in most Silurian stories is that the moon had not yet arrived in Earth's orbit. This makes determining the time period they lived in even more complicated. Dinosaurs, early humans and a pre-moon Earth are all very difficult to place in the same period.

I would guess that the Silurians dwelt in several pre-historic eras. Their civilization could be that ancient. Having them as creatures that roamed the Earth for a few million years would enable them to really devote some time to evolving into such an advanced species. So my guess would be that they were at a very primitive stage until sometime around the Jurassic Age. That's when they really started become technologically sophisticated. They probably experienced a major setback when the space freighter from Earth's future wiped out the dinosaurs. From there, I would guess they set up an early-warning system that spotted the moon as it was approaching the Earth. The moon's approach took place sometime after early homo-sapiens arrived on the scene. According to modern science, the moon formed far sooner than homo-sapiens did. But we just have to assume that history did not flow in quite the same fashion in the Whoniverse as it does in ours (considering the moon in their reality is actually the egg of a giant space dragon - that's not too big of a leap!). This is, probably, the best way to get it all to work cohesively.


KEY POINTS ABOUT SILURIANS WHILE THEY RULED THE EARTH.

Probably the biggest thing we should take stock of regarding this species is that, just like humanity, they have several different races. At this point, we have seen four of them. No proper names have been assigned to the different categories so we'll give them very simple ones. There are Two-Eyed Silurians, Three-Eyed Telekinetic Silurians, Three-Eyed Non-Telekinetic Silurians and, of course, Sea Devils. All these different races all seem to bow to one supreme governing force: The Triad. A group of three specially-selected members of their society that govern the entire civilization. At the time of The Approaching Cataclysm, at least one member was a Three-Eyed Non-Telekinetic Silurian named Icthar.

Other knowledge that we've gathered about their society is that they seem to have blended biology and technology very closely together. Much like Ice Warriors. But not quite to the extreme that the Axons or the Zygons have taken things. Still it does look like much of their electronic devices were grown as much as they were built.

Siluirans also seem to have become fairly competent geneticists. When the dinosaurs were around they did seem to alter some of them (the T-Rex in Doctor Who and the Silurians seems to have unusually long arms and they can actually control its actions, to some extent). Besides tampering with dinosaurs, they also created their own specialized reptilian beasts. The Myrka would be the best example we've seen, thus far, of an original creation.

Like any civilization, they've faced a natural disaster or two that nearly wiped them out. Not just the approaching moon - but they also had to deal with a breed of creatures that they named The Red Leech. Which may have been a by-product of their own chemical experiments. We do see in, at least, one story that they are also quite comfortable with bio-chemical warfare (the Silurian Scientist hands a virus over to the Young Silurian in Doctor Who and the Silurians - almost like it's an everyday thing). Potentially, the Red Leech was actually something they created in an experiment gone wrong.  

We should probably also note that the Silurians did achieve space travel. At least one group of Two-Eyed Silurians created a large colony ship to avoid a disaster.


THE FIRST RE-AWAKENING

As has been explained in several Silurian stories, something went wrong with their hibernation chambers (surprise, surprise - this never happens in Doctor Who!). It could be a simple fact that they actually constructed some sort of detection equipment to register the effects of The Approaching Cataclysm. Since the actual disaster never happened - this may have confused the detection instrumentation. Which, in turn, caused the Resuscitation Program to never kick in.

As humanity evolves, we keep stumbling upon some of their hibernation chambers and accidentally waking them up. Thanks to the non-linear nature of the program, the first time we see this happening is not truly the first instance of an accidental revivification. Strictly as the chronometer flies, the first time we wake up a group of Silurians would have been the hibernation chamber that Madame Vastra was in. Which means that, technically, the Paternoster Gang Adventures are the earliest Silurian stories. By the way Vastra, Jenny and Strax interact with the Doctor each times he meets them, we can also assume that the adventures we've witnessed all happen in chronological order. This isn't some River Song thing again - where their encounters are out of sequence. So we can just list the Paternoster Gang stories in the order they were transmitted and that is also the order in which they occurred.

A Good Man Goes To War (at least, the opening scene where the Doctor picks up Vastra)
The Snowmen
The Crimson Horror
The Name of the Doctor 
Deep Breath

We are lucky enough to even get dates assigned to certain stories in the subtitles. The Doctor arrives in London in 1888 to gather Vastra and Jenny for his oncoming battle with the Silence in A Good Man Goes to War. The Name of the Doctor uses the same convention and is given a date of 1893. A few deductions can be made about the dates of stories between these two watermarks. The flashback to Doctor Simeon as a child in The Snowmen, for instance, is given a date of 1842. The Doctor states in a later scene that the snowman started talking to Young Simeon fifty years ago. So we can then guess that the adventure, itself, is taking place in 1892. In some cases, we don't even need to make deductions. In The Crimson Horror, the Doctor just, flat-out, tells Clara that it's 1893 as they emerge from the TARDIS

Unfortunately, we are only given scant details of how Madame Vastra was re-awakened. A bit of throwaway dialogue in A Good Man Goes To War provides us with the vaguest of back-stories. Apparently, some human tunnel-diggers of some sort inadvertently de-activated the hibernation units in the survival chamber that a group of Two-Eyed Silurians were sleeping in. Everyone else but Vastra was killed. It would seem the humans caused the deaths by accident but Vastra still tried to wreak vengeance upon them. The Doctor arrived on the scene and managed to stop the slaughter. He even managed to settle Vastra down and convince her to live among humanity peacefully. That's the story I've pieced together from the dialogue, at least. Truthfully, it's highly subjective and you could devise any number of different narratives from what we were given. But this is the one I choose to believe in.

Whether this is truly the very "First Re-Awakening" of the Silurians is difficult to determine. It could be that earlier revivifications have happened - we just haven't seen the adventures involving them, yet.


A BIT MORE ABOUT VASTRA...

Because we're only provided with limited information to explain it, we can't be sure of the exact date of Vastra's re-awakening. Again, we are given a date of 1888 when the Doctor comes for her assistance in the Battle of Demon's Run. We can assume she lived in London for quite a few years before that. She would've needed that time to establish herself. By the time we do see her in 1888, she's a woman of property with an ongoing professional relationship with the upper echelons of the police force. She has also had time to fall in love with and marry Jenny. I estimate that it's been, at the very least, a good decade since she's been re-awakened. Possibly more. Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence to ascertain any of this. Still, I'm going to say that the first Re-Awakening of a Silurian hibernation chamber that we've seen on the show took place some time around 1878.

Living among humans has probably significantly changed Vastra. Particularly since she has developed an intimate relationship with one of them. So some of the behavior we see her exhibiting is probably not typical of her people. Eating human flesh, for instance, is probably not something most Silurians have indulged in. I prefer to think this is a taste that she has very specifically developed on her own.


THE FIRST RE-AWAKENING THAT WE SEE

We can't say, for sure, what has become of Vastra by the time we reach the events of Doctor Who and the Silurians. We don't know the lifespan of her species.  Even if she can live that long - she may have met some untimely end.

Or, for all we know, she is still kicking around in the late 20th Century but is maintaining a certain level of secrecy. The Doctor may have even explained that he has no recollection of meeting her during the many 20th Century adventures that he experienced in his past so she might intentionally be keeping to the shadows.

Assigning a specific date for Doctor Who and the Silurians (if you pedantics don't mind: I may just refer to it as The Silurians - just to keep it easier) can be a bit difficult. It opens up the complicated dating the UNIT stories debate that I'd rather not delve into, right now. So I'm just going to say that The Silurians takes place in 1970. If you want to argue that date - wait til I actually tackle it in an essay specifically about when the UNIT stories take place (should I ever have the courage to write such an essay!).

We get the vaguest impression that the Doctor has met the Silurians before when he first talks to one in Doctor Quinn's cottage. "You're a Silurian, aren't you?"seems to imply some sort of familiarity. He could have made deductions about these creatures based on the notes he found in Quinn's office. Or he may have even read the same "Secret Files of the Time Lords" that the Master claims to have gotten his hands on during The Sea Devils.

Or it could just be that there was an untelevised adventure during his first or second incarnation where he encountered them. I would guess it was another one of those tales that took place in the notorious Season 6b that many of us fans love to believe in (I discuss this in several different essays - this one addresses it the most directly: https://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/06/fixing-continuity-glitches-double.html). I like to believe that he has dealt with them once before. But that the encounter was fleeting, at best. And it was probably with a different race. This is why he's not entirely sure of who he's talking to in Quinn's cottage.



A BIT MORE ABOUT THREE-EYED TELEKINETICS....

The Doctor meets Three-Eyed Telekinetic Silurians for the one and only time in The Silurians. During this particular encounter, we learn a fair amount about them.

That third eye in the forehead seems capable of doing all sorts of things for them. Most frequently, we see it being used as a weapon. But it also seems capable of controlling various types of technology and can even work as a bit of an energy source. Oddly enough, it isn't used much for the simple moving of objects - the task we most often see telekinesis being employed for.

This particular breed of Homo-Reptilia has a weird effect on humans. Some people, when feeling their presence nearby, revert back to primitive caveman behavior. I would suggest that has something to do with the fact that this branch of Silurians have advanced mental powers. Perhaps they send out some sort of telepathic signal to humans that can have adverse effects on them.

The Silurians also demonstrates a very interesting trait in their culture. For all their advancements, there is still a very barbaric side to them. The Young Silurian seems to usurp the Old Silurian through simple trial by combat (and he even appears to cheat). Had this happened in human culture, of course, he would not have been allowed to lead. In fact, he would've probably been considered a criminal and been arrested for murder. Whereas the other Silurians seem to accept him as their leader with little or no protest (the Scientist does put up the slightest resistance but quickly submits when he is threatened by the Young Silurian). It would seem that the Silurian culture accepts a certain level of brute force to determine social order. We see evidence of this in other stories but this is where it is most blatant. Even Vastra shows signs of extreme savagery. But, since she is atypical to her culture, we couldn't be certain if this was an accurate depiction of her people. We also can't be entirely sure if the Silurians truly base their leadership on a survival of the fittest basis. They were in a pretty extreme situation at the time - so they might be more accepting of such measures.

Whatever the case, the Doctor will soon be encountering another race of Homo Reptilia who definitely lean more on the violent side of things. But that's for Part Two....



Okay then, that's enough for now. As I mentioned earlier, Silurian History seems more elaborate than I first anticipated so we'll continue this later.

In Part Two, we'll meet the Sea Devils for the first time. We'll also look at the exploits of Homo Reptilia in the Twenty-First Century. We'll even try to determine if there's much hope for the Silurians in the far-distant future....