Posts Tagged With: third doctor

Skip Nine

I’ve decided that hanging around Doctor Who forums is a bit like hanging out in a shopping centre with a bunch of teenagers on a Sunday evening. Occasionally you’ll witness a witty exchange of banter, a decent rap battle, a spot of genuine affection from a young couple, a dazzling display of skateboarding. But most of it is people trading insults and showing off. Occasionally a bottle of alcopop gets thrown at a window, although if you’re lucky you can avoid the crossfire: ‘Hide post’ is the equivalent of taking an abrupt right turn into the alley that cuts through past Card Factory and the back of New Look and through to the bus stop, where (mother of mercy) the 8:13 will be along any time now.

Why do it? I get this question thrown at me regularly, mostly by people who are far more sensible and who have full time jobs and who don’t understand (or have simply forgotten) the blood, sweat and tears that go into procrastination when you’re filling in the spare minutes between piano lessons or waiting for an article to go live. Yes, I know the kitchen needs cleaning; I’ll do it later. In all seriousness it’s mostly about people watching. It is by observing them, lurking silently and engaging when you have to, that you find out what makes them tick. There are sociological benefits: we think we understand the fans, but perhaps we cannot say this is truly the case until we have walked a mile in their Converse boots, or at the very least followed at a respectable distance, clearing up the misunderstandings.

In any event – when you hang around the forums, certain phrases jump out at you. “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey” is bandied about more than a geek’s underpants in a school changing room. “The Doctor lies” is another. Both are typically employed in situations where someone wants to contribute to a technical discussion whilst having absolutely nothing of any value to say. Laura Marling titled her second album I Speak Because I Can, which is a noble sentiment unless all that comes out of your mouth is irrelevant drivel.

But here’s one I see a lot. It’s one that deserves discussion – decent, consolidated discussion, which basically means everything I’ve ever written about it on Facebook, conveniently collected into a lengthy fan-baiting article. It’s the “Don’t skip Nine” thing – for the uninitiated, the fearful, almost fanatical devotion that self-proclaimed ‘serious’ fans have towards respecting the legacy of Eccleston, to the extent that they will cajole, ridicule and bully any other fans who say that they’re not particularly taken with him.  And it strikes me, having encountered it for years, that we have to clear this up. We have to clear it up because it is a talking point, because it says a lot about what’s wrong with the fandom, and because posts about it are endemic. Seriously. I’m looking at one right now. “Respect the first series,” it says, “and don’t skip it”.

At first glance it seems there is a bit of a straw man thing going on here. I’ve been wallowing in the murky depths of fandom for longer than I care to count and, despite looking very hard, I have yet to actually encounter anyone who says “Do skip Nine”. There are plenty of people who advocate watching it however you want (which is – to throw in a spoiler – basically what I was planning on doing for the rest of this post). But then you do a little digging and you discover that all too often, the Eccleston series gets missed off the American network broadcasts, and as it turns out it is these broadcasts that provide the only Doctor Who that many people the other side of the pond get to see. And thus, when hard-up high school students who can’t afford Netflix grumble that they never get to see the Eccleston episodes and is it really worth seeking them out specially, they’re typically reassured by well-meaning fans who say “No, it’s fine, you can jump ahead if you wan-”

“DON’T SKIP NINE!!!!”

Or, if you want to be marginally more polite, “Respect the first series and don’t skip – ” Look, if I really have to unpack this then let’s get a few things straight: first and foremost, if we’re counting, it wasn’t the first series. It was the twenty-seventh. It’s the first if you count Nu Who as a reboot – which I kind of do, most days, because while many people maintain it’s a single show that gradually evolves, there are still watershed moments and there is a colossal sea change between 1989 and 2005. ‘Rose’ is incredibly different to ‘Survival’. Really it is. Oh, you can talk about common threads and nods to Pertwee, but stylistically, structurally and tonally there is a huge chasm between Seven and Nine: it’s like a great big fiery ravine, with the 1996 TV movie standing in as one of those wobbly bridges that is in danger of bursting into flames and collapsing at any moment.

I don’t think you need to cross that bridge, necessarily. There is no problem with starting in the modern era and leaving it there. The past is another country, a Shangri La (literally, if Ken Dodd has anything to do with it) of strange and wonderful delights, but let’s deal with the elephant in the room: a lot of Classic Who is slow and doddery and while I love it to bits, it really isn’t for everyone. If we’re ever going to move on, we need to accept that some of it is boring. I still haven’t seen ‘Meglos’. It’s partly because the Target cover scared the crap out of me when I found it, as an uninitiated ten-year-old, in our local library, but it’s also because I’ve just never bothered and from what I can gather I haven’t missed very much. Those of you who are in here regularly will know that I write for The Doctor Who Companion, which periodically puts out feelers for new staff. When Phil (the site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief) was on one of his previous recruiting drives he included the following: “You have to like the show, but it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen every episode”.

Here’s the thing: half the people who are shouting “Don’t skip Nine” (and I know this, because I’ve talked to them) are happy to wallow in blissful ignorance when it comes to their knowledge of pre-2005 Doctor Who. “Oh, it’s not the same thing,” they say when I bring it up. “Because, you know, it’s a clean break. But there’s so much in that first series that defines what follows. If you don’t watch Eccleston, you don’t know about how he met Jack and Rose and how he helped Jack and how Rose helped him. You don’t know about Bad Wolf and so ‘Day of the Doctor’ makes no sense, and you don’t know how the Ninth was born in battle, full of blood and anger and reven-”

OK, stop. You’re quoting now and it’s embarrassing. I mean, I get all that; honestly I do. But it works on the other side of the coin. I have never been comfortable with this idea of the Doctor as a composite – it always strikes me he’s a dazzlingly inconsistent character who was written to reflect whatever attitudes the writers of the day wanted to advocate. But if we must see him this way, then we need to start at the beginning. For example, if you skip Hartnell, the significance of companions in the Doctor’s life will be lost on you. You’ll never really understand Donna’s words at the end of ‘The Runaway Bride’, and why he really does need someone with him. If you skip Troughton, you’ll miss out on why the Doctor was running, and why the clownlike persona that later informs Smith’s era is actually a facade, even though a number of people find it irritating.

If you skip Pertwee, you don’t understand the Doctor’s ambivalent relationship towards the military, and how the Brigadier’s actions at the end of the Silurians are echoed, to a certain extent, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, and you’ll fail to grasp the Doctor’s relationship with Sarah Jane; hence most of ‘School Reunion’ will go over your head. If you skip Baker (the first), you’ll never fully understand ‘The Witch’s Familiar’. If you skip Davison, you won’t understand why the death of Adric haunted the Doctor for years, and had a keen bearing on the way the Eleventh Doctor developed. If you skip Baker (the second), you’ll miss out on a crucial plot development that informs, at least in part, the War Doctor’s eventual decision to use the Moment. If you skip McCoy, you’ll miss out on the gradual darkening of the Doctor that is the first stage of his road towards the Time War.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

There’s a problem with that little rant, and it is this: it’s possible to enjoy ‘School Reunion’ without having seen ‘Hand of Fear’. Consequently, it is equally possible to enjoy ‘Utopia’ without having seen ‘Parting of the Ways’. And yet the Eccleston warriors persist in their hundreds, insisting that he must never be skipped. It’s all very noble (sorry, that’s the wrong companion, surely?) but it betrays a certain hypocrisy, because when you actually confront indignant fans – you know, the ones who insist there is only one way to watch Doctor Who, and that’s from the ‘beginning’, right the way through – then the argument collapses faster than a house of cards that was sitting on a table at the onset of a small, localised earthquake. It turns out that many of these people have not seen Troughton. For them, the beginning is 2005, and everything that precedes it is commentary. I know this because I have checked.

And it goes further: I have to have the same conversations with Classic puritans for whom 1963 was the Alpha and 1989 a kind of Omega, and everything that follows that is commentary. Both theories have their advocates, but what about Big Finish? If I was to say that the only way to have a full appreciation of the show was to listen to the hours of supplementary audio material that accompanies it, could you really argue with me? What about the books? The comics? The video games? Where do you draw the line? Canon, you say? All right, what’s that?

You get this sort of double standard all over the forums. Just the other day, for example, I had an altercation with a fan who took umbrage with the Thirteenth Doctor’s ‘cruel’ or ‘cowardly’ behaviour in a few hand-picked (and misrepresented) scenarios: her callous treatment of the spiders, for example, or the irresponsible manner in which she flushes the P’Ting into outer space where it will presumably inflict more damage. “Not only has this Doctor forgotten the promise,” he griped, “She doesn’t even know what the promise means.”

Well. First and foremost, the ‘promise’ is a shameless bit of retconning from Moffat, albeit retconning I’m happy to endorse on the grounds that it’s his remit (and, as this chap pointed out, “Every episode since 1963 is to all intents and purposes a retcon”. But that’s kind of the point. The ‘cruel and cowardly’ thing was an off-the-cuff Dicks remark that later became a myth, albeit of the fluffy sort. It’s mostly harmless, but preaching it as some kind of orthodox liturgy does the Doctor something of a disservice, given that he’s broken it on multiple occasions throughout the years: witness the destruction of Skaro, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, the Ogron who got shot in the back, the climax of ‘The Dominators’ (and please don’t get me started on Hartnell). Frequently the Doctor will casually blow something up and then walk away without a second thought. Sometimes he’ll even crack a joke (sit down, ‘Vengeance on Varos’, the macaroons are in the oven). The Doctor has no business being a role model of any sort – and if you’re going to chew out Whittaker, you have to chew out every single one of them.

I don’t have a problem with people who think Eccleston’s series is important. It is, even though I never really took to him as the Doctor. I also agree with the notion that watching it gives you a decent grounding in things that happen later, just as I maintain that a decent knowledge of the Peladon stories is helpful when you’re watching ‘Empress of Mars’. Things only become unpleasant when you decide that your own particular approach is the only sensible way to watch Who – in other words, when it is used (as it frequently is on the internet) as a stick with which to beat other fans. That’s when it gets sticky, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun. When I eat scones, I start with butter, then add a layer of jam, and then a healthy dollop of cream. In Devon, they do it the other way round. Believe it or not, I’m OK with this, just as I am OK with people who have sugar in their coffee. Why should there be only one way to skin a cat?

If you wanted to watch Doctor Who, you could start at the very beginning and work your way through. Or you could start at 2005 and then go back to the Classic episodes when you’re done with series 11. Or you could do as I did, and dip in and out, watching old stories in between the new ones. Watch a different story for each Classic Doctor and then investigate the ones you like. Or skip the eighties entirely; many people do. There is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ way of doing it. There is the approach that works for you, and that’s all that matters. Certain things are improved when watched in order – ‘Earthshock’ loses a certain something, for example, if it is the first Adric story you’ve seen. Conversely you can watch ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ having never seen ‘An Unearthly Child’ – or anything with Davros, for that matter – and you’ll be quite content. This is a show about time travel, and if some things happen out of order, it’s not a big deal. Welcome to the Doctor’s universe.

So skip Nine if you want. No one worth their salt will care, and anyone who lectures you about it isn’t worth engaging with. As with any other Doctor, he lifts right out and it’s possible to enjoy the show for what it is having never seen him. You’ll miss out on the gas mask zombies, one of the finest (and most fearsome) creations ever to grace our screens, but you’ll also miss ‘Boom Town’. Every cloud has a silver lining, just as every rose has its thorn. And believe it or not, there are some Roses you don’t have to pick.

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Have I Got Whos For You (February Made Me Shiver Edition)

This week in Whoville, there’s trouble in paradise.

This is from a film, right? They walk around wearing blindfolds for some reason. Is it like that bit in ‘Flesh and Stone’ where Amy has to navigate the Angels? Can someone enlighten me seeing as I can’t be bothered to Google this afternoon?

Elsewhere, it snowed, so obviously.

I was chatting to Christian Cawley on Twitter. “Having just finished PD’s memoirs,” he said, “Davison, Troughton and Pertwee pushing the snow onto Tom Baker might be more apt.”

“There were so many combinations,” I told him. “It was almost the Brigadier and Jo pushing the snow onto an unsuspecting Pertwee. I like the idea of Capaldi being caught out, but the real reason Baker and Pertwee are up there are simply because they’re the only ones who would balance.”

Still, you can’t keep a good Time Lord down. Not when there’s a big game on.

In case you were wondering, most of them are Falcon players. I went for the ones that were already transparent, as I couldn’t be bothered to do any cutting out. I have no idea if this makes any sort of statement on the quality of the game or the people that play it. I don’t even know what I’m looking at. I played an early John Madden game on the Sega Mega Drive but I never really got to grips with it; the whole thing seemed awfully stop-and-start. You will notice the Doctor is the only one not wearing any padding, and there’s a hint of sneering culture wars at play here: my feelings on American Football (or, as they call it, Football) aren’t exactly well-documented, except to say that over here we call it rugby. And we don’t use helmets.

But by the time you read this, of course, the Super Bowl will be a distant memory, because it’s all about Chinese New Year. Only with the Doctor, of course, it never goes to plan.

Gung hay fat choy…

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Have I Got Whos For You (Vernal Equinox Edition)

I am working on something resembling new content, honest, but I’m also writing a book. So you’re going to have to be patient, OK?

With that in mind, here’s two scenes, sandwiched together. Obviously.

Elsewhere, the Sixth Doctor’s new companion gets a facelift in the wake of a new merger between Panini and Dreamworks.

And there was sad news in the entertainment world yesterday as we learned of the death of Jim Bowen – late of Last of the Summer Wine, but best known for the long-running darts quiz Bullseye. Which, unbeknown to many, once guest-starred Jon Pertwee…

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The Rainbow Connection

Today, boys and girls, you have a choice. You can read this through, or you can skip to the bottom. That’s where the video is. I will not hold it against you, and I’ll never know you did it. Your time is precious. But do, at least, spare five minutes to watch the Thing At The End, because that’s the whole point.

Somewhere in the home counties – I’m thinking Surrey, although it’s never clear – in a cheerfully painted house, a fluffy gay hippo is carefully stacking blocks. To his left, there is a weird orange thing that may or may not be extraterrestrial, doing a puzzle. There is a piece missing: in his frustration, he chucks the box in the direction of the hippo, upsetting his tower. “Ooh, Zippy!” complains the hippo, rife with melodrama. “Zat’s very naughty! Now I’ve got to start again!”

“Oh, well, never mind George,” says the alien. “You can always make another one.”

Stage right, there is a large brown bear reading a comic. “Oh, Zippy,” he sighs. “You are careless.”

“Yes, well, it’s not my fault!” says the alien. “He shouldn’t have been building right next to my jigsaw!”

Their greying foster carer – all sensible shirts and white trainers – walks in, carrying a basket of washing that is inexplicably full given that he’s the only person in the house who wears any clothes. Scenes like this no longer astound or surprise him the way they once did: he’s watched every episode of The Dumping Ground and accepts most of his job is firefighting the squabbles and arguments his young charges have daily. He suspects the alien may have ADHD. He has caught the bear rewiring the electrics once or twice and has asked him not to. The hippo is constantly put upon by his would-be siblings, and the people down the road are always holding impromptu glee clubs in his front room. This, he reflects, was not how he saw his life going when he signed up for this gig.

When we were children, Rainbow was a part of the furniture. It had been around so long that no one gave its murky origins a second thought. There were all manner of questions about the setup in the house – who were these strange anthropomorphic characters and why were they living with this middle-aged storyteller? What did they do for money? And are the frequent fourth wall breaks some sort of indication that they’re in some sort of kids’ version of Big Brother, mercifully without the sex? But no one really asked. It was just something we accepted. It was, like Doctor Who, more about the situation, and the hijinks that ensued, than anything that might have led to them.

It’s strange when you reflect upon how much things have changed. I often read comments on the CBeebies Facebook page about The Tweenies, usually complaining about something obnoxious that Bella is doing. It is inconceivable that a show like that would be made today. Everyone spends all their time arguing. The characters are real, but they’re not a good influence, and even though their behaviour usually results in consequences and discipline, that’s lost on today’s thou-shalt-parent-my-children-for-me audience. While it’s hard to pinpoint precisely where it happened, somewhere along the line we lost the concept of dramatic irony.

There was – I swear I’m not making this up – an episode of Rainbow where Rod, Jane and Freddy sang a song that went “A flying saucer / In our garden / It must have come from outer space…”. Whereupon Zippy poked his head out of the window and offered them a trip to the stars, which they gleefully accepted, finishing the song along the way. It was, to my mind, the best origin story for Zippy that we’ve ever had. There is no other explanation for a creature with a zip sewn into its mouth, other than one that evolved on a planet where it’s an essential survival feature. Perhaps he was expelled from his home world for being thoroughly obnoxious – it would explain why ‘cousin’ Zippo is so mind-numbingly placid, at least until that later episode where he develops a bad American accent and starts talking about crisps.

Little moments like this are integral to our understanding of Rainbow. There are episodes where Geoffrey randomly ‘has to go out’. We never know where he goes (unless he returns with something plot-related) or why. Sessions at the dole office immediately spring to mind. So too do images of Geoffrey attending a drug deal or hiring himself out as a gigolo. It all depends on the mood I’m in. So you can understand why I’d latch onto the image of Zippy emerging from a wrecked spacecraft and setting up home with a bear and a hippo, which is to all intents and purposes what the song implies. (It also implies, of course, that Rod, Jane and Freddy were actually housed together in some sort of communal living situation, which corroborates many 1980s tabloid rumours.)

Then there’s…um. Rainbow cosplay.

I mean, seriously. What the hell is that? It’s like Zippy ate him. At least he can still breathe, which is presumably a situation that can be quickly altered with the swipe of a zip at the top. Come to think of it why does this have a working zip anyway, given that its sudden closure by an external party is likely to render the occupant airless and blind in an instant? Is this some sort of gimp outfit you use for fetish games? Does Christian Grey have one? It is only marginally less disturbing than the Rainbow comics which hit the stands back in the 1990s, in which every character looks basically normal except for George, who bears the haunted, blank-eyed stare of a hippo possessed.

(If you enjoy exploring the seedy underbelly of the animals in the house, you would be well-advised to check out World of Crap, who have devoted pages and pages to rewritten Rainbow comics with amusing captions.)

I’ve dabbled with Rainbow before, of course, in a video that I still quite like, some six years after its creation (not to mention Roy Skelton’s death, which upped the hit count considerably). But Zippy’s only one part of the trio – and while he’s the obvious candidate for voice transposition, that doesn’t mean the others don’t have potential. Except that George is timid and often stumbles over his words, of course, which makes placing him difficult. That left Bungle, who is usually well-spoken, as well as prone to bouts of pomposity. When it came to finding a Doctor Who character for him to replace, there really was only one choice, and that was Omega.

It’s not that I don’t like ‘The Three Doctors’. I think it’s overrated, not to mention structurally problematic – one of those stories that is beloved because it was the first multi-Doctor fusion (and even then, it fails to deliver on its title’s promise). The bickering between Pertwee and Troughton is about the best part of the story – although an unexpected highlight occurs when Benton walks into the TARDIS for the first time, and refuses to state the obvious. The Gel guards are quite fun, but this one is perhaps the epitome of the ‘Stupid Brigadier’ phase, in which U.N.I.T.’s finest devolves into a reactionary simpleton who refuses to accept the evidence of his own eyes.

Then there’s Omega, a villain so melodramatic it’s impossible to see him as a serious threat. Omega’s role in ‘The Three Doctors’ is to shout. In ‘Arc of Infinity’, it’s to shout some more, and then decompose at the edge of a river, just after bonding with a small child over the sight of an organ grinder. In ‘Omega’, the 2003 Big Finish audio drama, his role is to convince you that he’s the Doctor, which he manages with aplomb. But for the most part it’s just a lot of shouting. There must be a reason for all that anger. You almost want Tennant to lean round the door of his chamber, survey Omega’s colossally oversized mask and mutter “Compensating for something?”

Still, masks are handy. I use masks a lot, simply because it makes the dubbing much easier. And there’s something fun about having a supposedly sinister character rendered ridiculous. In the case of Omega, it only half works. You can make him ridiculous all right; he just isn’t very sinister.

When it came to putting this together, I wanted it to feel as close to an actual episode of Rainbow as possible, so I started with the animations. There are two of them, built up in that slow, frame-by-frame style (the sound effects, by the way, are all ripped directly from the show). Originally it was just going to be K-9, but I put the other one in just for the heck of it – the same might be said for the Rod, Jane and Freddy song that shows up later, although that’s partly the silliness of Pertwee’s slow motion fight with Omega.

The biggest problem was Bungle’s voice, which is less consistent than you imagine (unlike Zippy, who always sounds like Zippy). It’s perhaps most obvious in the opening scene, in which the changes are obvious. This being a Classic episode, I didn’t have the luxury of score-free dialogue, which meant dealing with ambience and the occasional sting from Dudley Simpson (who recently turned 95, if you want another entry to your list of Entertainment Veterans You Hadn’t Realised Weren’t Dead Yet). As a result it’s rather rough around the edges, and I almost like it that way.

Oh, and make sure you watch to the end…

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Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train

Murray

The first time I really became aware of television was the early 1980s. There were four channels filled with light entertainment, grainy video-shot soaps and the slightly creepy atonal horn motif that denoted the Open University programmes. The thought of an entire station dedicated to children’s broadcasts – let alone four or five – was a distant novelty. We had to put up with the odd half an hour of cartoons in the mornings (mostly The Pink Panther) and half an hour after lunch, and that’s your lot.

I’m a sucker for details when it comes to things like this. There are various programmes I remember, many of which subsequently passed into obscurity and which my friends and colleagues would categorically deny existed until – oh, sweet rapture! – the arrival of YouTube, and decent quality, ready-to-stream video that proved (once and for all) that I was right all along. Oh, it’s easy when it’s something like Chock-a-Block – the antics of Fred and Carol and their electric cars were familiar talking points around many a primary school water fountain – but when I talked about Wattoo Wattoo Super Bird I got met with a sea of blank looks. And then it was on YouTube and the rest was history. I dearly wish I could find a version of that in English, but at least I can now prove I wasn’t making this shit up.

A programme whose existence you never had to contest was Camberwick Green, which – to those of us growing up in the 1970s and 1980s – was as regular in the fixtures as Bagpuss or You and Me. “Here is a box,” announced narrator Brian Cant (omnipresent in more than one sense of the word; was there a BBC children’s programme in 1981 that didn’t involve him in some aspect or other?). “A musical box. Wound up and ready to play.” And thus the box would open – its triangular spikes retracting like some sort of art deco prison – and the character for the day’s episode would rotate upwards through the opening, peering through the deconstructed fourth wall and seemingly not caring that there was a huge head in the sky looming over the set, watching Trumptonshire’s every move like a hawk, or at least a very interested chaffinch.

Camberwick Green was one of those idyllic rural places where nothing much happened, and the nothing much happened very slowly. It was a village (supposedly in Sussex, but who knows?) where millers wore smocks, women gossiped and everyone knew everyone else. The postman danced with his postmistress before delivering the mail. The aforementioned miller rode a tricycle and played chicken with the windmill sails. The local doctor led a protest to stop a destructive piece of urban development that turned out to be a simple misunderstanding. Oh, it was all going on in Camberwick Green. On the outskirts of the village sat Pippin Fort, where six raw but well-intentioned recruits would parade and solve local problems, and then presumably get hopelessly drunk in the village pub (never seen or mentioned, which retrospectively seems a little odd).

Camberwick Green was launched in 1966, some fifty years ago last January, and adventures in Trumpton and Chigley followed a couple of years later. Trumpton was a fully working town in its own right, complete with a carpenter’s workshop, Miss Lovelace’s hat emporium and the much beloved Trumpton Fire Station, whose crew (due to technical limitations) never had to actually put out a fire, leaving plenty of time to rescue lost hats, erect bill posters (or, to be specific, fail to do so) and practice for the daily band concerts, where they would always play the same tune. “There were no fires in the afternoons,” Trumptonshire Web puts it, “but then there were no fires in the mornings either.” Meanwhile, Chigley was a tranquil but industrious hamlet nearby that revolved around a local biscuit factory, owned by the affable Lord Belborough – a dignitary rather too in touch with his inner child, given that he would leave the solitude of Belborough Hall on the slightest whim to travel up and down the local branch line on Bessie the steam engine, ably assisted by his trusty manservant, Brackett.

For people who skipped the 1990s it’s hard to explain just how much these characters permeated popular culture. There was the episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? in which Tony Slattery and Josie Lawrence redubbed a scene from Camberwick Green between Mickey Murphy and local gossip Mrs Honeyman. Years before Life on Mars?, there was the Spitting Image thing. Most of all there was the music, whether it came in the form of Half Man Half Biscuit’s riotous (almost literally) take on ‘Time Flies By’, or the bizarre, done-on-a-shoestring / could-this-be-any-more-1992 acid anthem that was ‘A Trip To Trumpton’.

You see what I mean.

There was an innocence to the whole thing, even in the notorious scene in which Windy Miller gets drunk on his homemade cider (or ‘sleepy’, as Cant puts it). It’s the sort of innocence that came to later define programmes like Balamory – a show about adults who behave a little like children, and solve their problems in much the same way. There was something sweet about a fire crew whose greatest challenge was a stranded cat (did they attend the same training academy as the crew from Pleasantville, by any chance?) and the tortoise and hare encounter that is Windy’s race with Jonathan Bell the farmer. But as with many children’s programmes, the greater the innocence, the more marked the contrast when you undermine that innocence – there are, for instance, assorted urban legends about Gordon Murray’s decision to burn all the puppets in his back garden after completing filming (although he may have kept one or two). It’s the sort of vibe that Radiohead presumably tapped into when they commissioned their video for ‘Burn the Witch’, a stop-motion affair that mashes up Camberwick Green with The Wicker Man – a film whose director, by curious coincidence, also died this week. It’s the sort of thing that really shouldn’t work, but it does.

You can’t call the deaths of Robin Hardy or Gordon Murray in any way tragic, given that Hardy batted for 86 and Murray was just five shy of a century. But it’s difficult not to feel a sense of nostalgia at the passing of Murray (we’ll deal with The Wicker Man another time, but suffice to say that nostalgia wasn’t exactly on the radar yesterday). The success of Trumptonshire owes much to Cant – and also to scriptwriter Alison Prince, whose narratives were always engaging without being complicated, and necessarily formulaic without being repetitive – but ultimately it was Murray’s creation, and we thank him for it: this fabulous county of hedgehogs and fishmongers, of biscuits and six o’clock dances, of parks and bandstands, and of nattily dressed doctors travelling round the countryside in vintage cars.

Mopp_Pertwee

Yes. Well.

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Random things I noticed from watching ‘The Mutants’

There are plenty of essays and articles about the social commentary and technical realisation of ‘The Mutants’, all over the internet. This is not one of them. However.

1. The old man who meets a premature death (but only just) in the opening credits is a dead ringer for – well….

Mutants_Python

To be fair, I am really not the first to pick up on the Monty Python’s Flying Circus thing. It’s all over the internet, and Barry Letts spotted it in 1972. It’s kind of hard to miss.

 

2. More subtly, the colonists’ outfits do seem to have had some sort of influence on Steven Kynman’s Robert the Robot costume, as worn in Justin’s House.

Mutants_Robert

Or perhaps I just watch too much CBeebies. Actually I think we could safely say I watch too much CBeebies anyway, irrespective of any influences here, perceived or otherwise.

 

3. Whenever Geoffrey Palmer turns up in Doctor Who, you can guarantee he will last two episodes tops. (That two-episode limit is imposed by ‘And The Silurians’, in which he takes a comparatively long time to die, eventually managing it in style not far from a London railway station. Apart from that, he’s usually dead within twenty minutes.)

Palmer

Actually, looking at that ‘Voyage of the Damned’ image again, it really does look as if he’s fallen asleep at the (ship’s) wheel.

Palmer’s tendency to die on-screen is far from unique, of course. Kevin Stoney meets the Doctor three times and only in ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ does he live to fight another day. And Michael Sheard appears in no fewer than six Classic Who stories, dying on-screen in two of them and left to an uncertain fate in ‘Castrovalva’. But heavily recurring actors is for another day and another blog entry, so watch this space.

 

4. There’s a lovely scene in episode 5 when the execution squad come into the Marshal’s office, ready to kill Jo and the others, and two of them turn on cue, while the other one apparently forgets, then awkwardly shuffles round so he’s facing the same way as the others. Here it is: start at 3:21, if the embed code doesn’t work properly.

(Apologies for the unskippable ads, if you see them first. My hands were cuffed.)

 

5. The story is renowned for its eclectic range of accents and (for 1972) diverse casting. But primarily I noticed John Hollis, playing a (presumably Dutch) scientist who’s a dead ringer for Lex Luthor.

Mutants_Lex

 

6. ‘The Mutants’ is two parts social commentary to one part sci-fi: it can’t decide whether it’s mainly about decolonisation or slave labour. By and large it balances in favour of the former, but it’s also interesting that the role of Cotton, a redeemed lackey originally written with a Cockney’s voice in mind, was given to Rick James.

Cotton

Hang on, what’s this? An ACTUAL BLACK MAN cast in 1970s Doctor Who? Well, this is a turn-up for the books. Or it would be, were it not for the fact that Rick James is dreadful. The dialogue doesn’t help. I can imagine lines like “He’s sort of a mate o’ mine” delivered by Barry Jackson in ‘The Armageddon Factor’, but as rendered here it’s simply clunky. James is clearly out of his depth, and is churning up a lot of foam simply trying to stay afloat. I daresay given the right script he’s wonderful. Sadly, this isn’t it.

Still, you can’t entirely blame the casting. Not when you have scenes like this.

(Start at 23:05.)

I know we ranted a lot about series 8, but I do think that Ruby’s panicky exclamation in ‘Forest of the Night’ was a considerable improvement.

Forest_Ruby

Well, I knew that episode would eventually be good for something.

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Let’s do the time loop again

There’s a bit about halfway through ‘The Claws of Axos’ when Jo Grant and the Doctor are trying to escape from an alien spacecraft, and Jo is very close to losing it. In order to focus her, the Doctor is yelling multiplication sums in her ear, while Katy Manning (who really doesn’t have much else to do in this story) is screaming “I CAN’T! I CAN’T!”. It was great, largely because I’ve been in maths lessons just like it.

As I go to press it’s about 10 pm (GMT) on Groundhog Day, and Punxatawney Phil has predicted another six weeks of winter. That’s fine. His prediction rate levels out about 39%, of course (higher than the Met Office) but even if we’re destined to be surrounded by snow, I don’t really mind. Being English perhaps invalidates my opinion, of course, but I will never truly understand this particular quaint tradition. It’s one thing being afraid of your own shadow, but when we have to be afraid of a groundhog’s then I can’t help but wonder at the state of the world.

I didn’t watch the Bill Murray. I’ve seen it, more than once. I have wondered, many times, what I’d do if stuck in a similar loop. Probably finish that novel, except that presumably hard drives don’t survive the loop, and are ceremonially wiped at the end of each day. So, too, Phil’s body clock and physical state is reset at the beginning of each twenty-four hour period, so I couldn’t even write something and then save it to a Flash drive before swallowing it for safekeeping. Anomalously, throughout all of this the synaptic nerves in his brain were left absolutely intact, allowing the accumulation of knowledge, and suggesting perhaps that the loop was endured on a metaphysical, rather than purely scientific level. Groundhog Day may be the strongest cinematic argument we have for the existence of the soul, outside What Dreams May Come, which no one talks about, largely because it’s crap.

But I was watching ‘The Claws of Axos’ last week and the end of the final episode – in which the Doctor traps the Axons in a time loop – really did strike me as having great potential. If you’re going to have a scene that talks about a time loop, particularly in such a roundabout way, then it’s a joke waiting to happen. Red Dwarf got there first, of course, with a scene that has been done to death, but here it is for posterity.

“Most people seem to remember the RD scene for: ‘So what is it?’, ‘I’ve never seen one before – no-one has’, ‘I think we’ve encountered the middle of this conversation’ and ‘somebody punch him out’,” said Gareth. “And then say these in a random order.” It’s true; this one is up there with the Knights who say ‘Ni!’ for oft-quoted tediousness. (If you must quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail at parties, do Tim the Enchanter. It’s funnier, and if you get the inflection right you’ll have them rolling all over the kitchen.)

My initial thoughts were to try and emulate the scene from ‘White Hole’ by chopping and pasting it around so that the middle of the scene happened at the end, with the ending happening in between, and then random repetitions. It was a mess. It’s very hard to do that in a way that makes sense. So I abandoned that and had the Brigadier stuttering ‘T-t-t-time loop’ like Damien at the beginning of that godawful cover of the Rocky Horror song. It was ridiculous, and only when I could feel Nicholas Courtney turning over in his grave (presumably after being prepped for nano-conversion) did I have a rethink.

All of which led to the video you saw at the top. It took me an hour. It then took me another half hour after I showed a rough cut to Gareth and he suggested taking out some of the random silliness in the second half and focussing on the time loop. At some point I may show you that rough cut, but today is not that day. There’s always tomorrow.

That’s assuming, of course, that tomorrow comes at all…

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The Frank Spencer / Doctor Who Connection

“Have you ever been in Casualty?”
“Yeah.”
“The TV show Casualty?”
“Well, no.”

 (Extras, 2005)

Here’s a funny thing. We were watching Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em the other night – a third series episode where Frank gets to be a motorcycle courier, with suitably disastrous results when his brakes fail. It’s an episode of two halves: the first is typical slapstick tomfoolery, culminating in a madcap chase through a building site and dockyard which only ends when Frank inadvertently trashes the very office he’s recently left. The second half consists of a lengthy courtroom sequence in which Frank defends himself in the sort of flamboyant, utterly oblivious style Michael Crawford developed in series three, when his character became far more self-confident (and the theme music, as if to underpin this, grew a bassoon part underneath those Morse-emitting flutes.)

But what’s interesting about this episode, at least to someone who watches a large amount of Doctor Who, is that the sinister courier for whom Frank is working is played by none other than Derek Newark. In the first instance, this will mean nothing to you if you haven’t seen ‘Inferno’. It’ll also mean nothing to you if you can’t remember that Derek Newark played Greg Sutton – one of the few characters who was basically honourable and decent in both the real universe and the parallel, totalitarian nightmare into which the Doctor is thrust. It wasn’t his only appearance in Doctor Who, of course – but having watched ‘Inferno’ quite recently with Thomas, it was a surprise for both of us to see a slightly podgier, moustachioed Newark playing such a slimy piece of work.

Newark

The episode is on YouTube if you want to see it, but the story doesn’t end there. Because it wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the crossover. We’d already spotted Neil McCarthy – he did a couple of memorable turns in the Pertwee and Baker era, but to me he’s always going to be…well, you’ll see below. If it sounds a little obscure, it’s worth bearing in mind that as well as having a reasonable eye for spotting guest stars who have been in other things, I also have a personal stake in this – Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em was a big part of my childhood, as it was for pretty much everyone of a certain age, at least in the UK. Playground shouts of “Ooh, Betty!” were as common as the cries of “Exterminate!”. (I was going to do a comparison with whoever the kids are impersonating in the playground now, but it occurs to me that I actually don’t know what they’re watching and who forms the basis of their adolescent party pieces. This is the price you pay for not really using Tumblr.)

So I took the liberty of doing a little research and finding out which British actors have both Doctor Who and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em on their CVs. And by god there are a lot of them.

The BBC network is part of it. Crossover is inevitable – and I’m not talking about the stunt casting of soap actors appearing as crotchety commanders on space stations, or cameos from news anchors, or the general over-use of the admittedly talented Olivia Coleman. There’s a large pool of actors that the BBC use again and again, and ’twas ever thus. But there does seem to be a strong parallel between Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and the adventures of everyone’s favourite Time Lord, perhaps because Classic Who did a large number of episodes per year that called for no end of extras and guest stars, so pretty much everyone who was required for a walk-on in the chronicles of Frank was also required, at some point or another, to brandish a spear or a laser gun in Who. More often than not, you’ll examine their IMDB profile to find a plethora of work during the 1970s and 80s, then a long gap, and then Doctors. This is because everyone has been in Doctors. Even Lynda Baron has been in it.

But I’m rambling. Having noticed a common trend of Who / Mothers guest stars, I have cherry-picked a few of my favourites, and I include them below.

 

Peter Jeffrey

Peter Jeffrey was a renowned character actor whose career is too vast and varied to explore in any detail here, although I’ll always remember his turn as Cromwell in By The Sword Divided (a series that stays etched in my brain only because it was the first time I saw a corpse swinging from a tree). Still, his Count Grendel is a career highlight – a Machiavellian rogue who you can’t help liking, simply because of Jeffrey’s charm and swagger, and a reminder that he could have been great as the Master. Here he plays Frank Spencer’s driving examiner, a job for which it is impossible to get any life insurance. The ‘start at’ function doesn’t work with WordPress embeds, so I’ve had to upload the whole episode, but jump to 37:30 for the driving test. It does not end well.

 

Neil McCarthyCyril Chaps

You get two for the price of one here. As Frank and Betty visit a seaside hotel on a second honeymoon which culminates in broken wardrobes, a collapsed bed and a huge hole in the floor, the already uptight manager reaches new levels of frustration as his business comes (quite literally) crashing down around him. McCarthy’s character here is more like a polite version of his tyrannical Thawn (‘The Power of Kroll’) than the childlike Barnham (‘The Mind of Evil’) but even he can’t cope with Frank’s disastrous attempts at D.I.Y. Playing the timid Kenny is Who veteran Cyril Chaps (‘The Ambassadors of Death’ and ‘The Androids of Tara’, amongst others), in a Norman Wisdom-esque turn that is ever so slightly camp.

 

 

Richard Wilson

This is cheating a little bit, really – Wilson’s role in his only Doctor Who story, ‘The Empty Child’ / ‘The Doctor Dances’, amounts to little more than an extended cameo, and is perhaps most memorable for the moment that a gas mask grows through his face. Still, he’s very good, and he tackles the role of Dr Constantine with the same calm (all right, not so calm) dignity with which he tackled Victor Meldrew and Dr Thorp in Only When I  Laugh, and in any case it gives me the chance to show what is perhaps my favourite moment in the third series. What’s great about this scene is the corpsing that follows Wilson’s sudden descent into the sofa – watch Michele Dotrice’s hand fly to her mouth to hide the fact that she’s laughing, before Crawford’s lip trembles a little as he struggles to maintain his composure, while Wilson himself makes a futile attempt to salvage some dignity, before giving up. Comedy gold.

 

 

Elisabeth Sladen

Sarah Jane Smith wasn’t always an investigative journalist – before falling in with the Third Doctor and U.N.I.T., she helped run the family greengrocers. Here she is trying to serve the hapless Frank on his way to visit Betty in hospital. Despite complaints from Sladen (in her autobiography) about Crawford’s general aloofness, the scene doesn’t suffer for it – Sladen’s increasing irritation is perfectly pitched, and the punch line, while obvious, is still flawless in its execution.

 

Not only but also…

I’ve omitted a great many memorable guest turns here – watch ‘Scottish Dancing’ and ‘R.A.F. Reunion’ for a few particularly interesting appearances from Doctor Who aficionados. For the sake of it, here’s a near-as-dammit-complete list of everyone who’s been in both shows, from the chunkiest guest starring role to the smallest uncredited walk-on, in no particular order, purely in the interests of democracy.

 

Peter Roy

Lee Richards

Mike Mungarvan

Monty Morriss

Brian Moorehead

Steve Ismay

Ridgewell Hawkes

Roy Brent

Eileen Winterton

Jules Walters

Ken Tracey

Bruce Callender

Frederick Wolfe

John Witty

Elaine Williams

Nick Thompson Hill

John Tatum

Rosina Stewart

Eddie Sommer

Richard Sheekey

Joe Santo

Katherine Rosenwink

Arthur Parry

Ricky Newby

Kevin Moran

Raymond Miller

Giles Melville

Emmett Hennessy

Patricia Gordino

Stenson Falke

Martin Clark

Amanda Carlson

Constance Carling

Gordon Black

Sue Bishop

Barbara Bermel

David Bache

Nancy Adams

Kelly Varney

Fulton McKay

Richard McNeff

Ben Aris

Kenneth Watson

David Quilter

Richard Seager

Brian Hawksley

Seymour Green

Graham Ashley

George Baker

Milton Johns

Tenniel Evans

John Ringham

Norman Jones

Glyn Houston

Eric Mason

Mark Allington

Andrew Lane

Norman Hartley

Derek Ware

Renu Setna

Daphne Oxenford

Christopher Holmes

Frederick Jaeger

George Sewell

Jay Neill

Stuart Fell

Eric Francis

George A. Cooper

Ralph Watson

John D. Collins

Cyril Luckham

Jane Hylton

Vernon Dobtcheff

Ken Barker

Royston Tickner

John Harvey

Eric Dodson

Campbell Singer

Bartlett Mullins

John Scott Martin

Harriet Reynolds

Andrew Downie

Peter Greene

Norman Mitchell

Alan Chuntz

John Caesar

 

Frank for the next U.N.I.T. commander, perhaps…?

gettingajob1

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‘Hide’ – 1970s style

Watch this first.

There’s a bit about a third of the way through the first episode of ‘The Mind of Evil’ that more or less encapsulates Doctor Who as it was in the 1970s. The Doctor is attending a demonstration of a new machine that purports to suck the evil out of men’s minds. When the Doctor raises valid ethical concerns, the egotistical professor in charge asks what he could possibly find objectionable. Pertwee adopts a theatrical flourish in his response. “UNIT, sir, was set up to deal with new and unusual menaces to mankind,” he says. “And in my view, this machine of yours is JUST THAT!”

[DRAMATIC MOOG MUSIC AS THE DOCTOR STOMPS AWAY]

If you’re so inclined you can watch it here. Skip to the eight minute mark.

Anyway, Emily and I were watching this very episode a number of weeks ago, and when this happened we both roared with laughter.

“What I’d really like,” said Emily, “is for them to do a modern episode of Doctor Who that plays like one of these. Maybe he gets stranded in time and winds up in 1980s U.N.I.T. And they have wobbly sets and weird special effects and a funky score.”

Just because the Doctor gets to leap around in time, it doesn’t mean the show doesn’t age. The problem with any episode of a programme about time travel is that whenever it’s set historically, it’s always going to be aesthetically bound by the period in which it was filmed. In other words, if you shoot a story that’s set in medieval Italy, but do so in the 70s, it’s still going to have that visual style attached to it, even if your costumes are authentic. Likewise, if you shoot a story on a distant alien planet, but fill the background music with orchestral hits and Korg samples, it’ll come across as being very 80s. Big explosion? Drop in a white-out. Someone’s having their mind probed? Put swirly effects all over the screen. And don’t forget the facial zooms, the sort of thing that Mike Myers and Dana Carvey would later parody extensively on Saturday Night Live.

This was standard practice, of course. There were certain things you did back then, simply because everyone else did. I couldn’t find a decent version on YouTube, but anyone who’s seen the first Superman film will remember the moment when Christopher Reeve discovers Margot Kidder’s car with her lifeless corpse inside: his reaction as he takes in the scene is filmed from multiple angles, and while it might seem old hat now, it heightens the emotional pathos no end. Or there’s the scene in Carrie where John Travolta and Nancy Allen approach the blood-soaked titular teenager on her way home from the prom, and Carrie’s acts of telekinetic revenge are preceded by jerky zooms. Watch it and not only will you see what I mean, you’ll also recall you’ve seen a hundred things from the same period that did things this way. Fast forward a quarter of a century, of course, and every action film post-Matrix features tedious bullet time camerawork and excessive use of slow motion, with the refreshing (and intentional) exception of The Expendables.

This is not a criticism. Not really. You’re tied to what’s perceived as cutting edge. It’s become very fashionable to sneer at the stop-motion used in the likes of Robocop and Ghostbusters. But I do wonder if we’ll look back in twenty years at episodes like ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and laugh at them as naff and silly. And I can’t help thinking that this will be futile. The point is that while sneering at the Thunderbirds effects at the end of ‘State of Decay’ may make for an amusing documentary soundbite, it ignores the fact that at the time they never let plastic doors and rickety staircases stop them telling a good story. It’s common knowledge that the ‘cheap production values’ of Doctor Who were laughed at even back in the 70s in the wake of Star Trek and Star Wars, but by and large the people cracking the jokes today are the very same people who were hiding behind the sofa during the likes of ‘Earthshock’. Or, as Colin Baker puts it, “I get a bit impatient when people say ‘I loved watching Doctor Who because of the shaky sets’. No you didn’t, you liar. You loved watching because you believed it and you were scared.”

In any case, Emily’s ruminations on contemporary Who filmed in a 70s style got me thinking. We might call it a parody. But it needn’t be. Part of the appeal of Hot Fuzz (a film you really should see, if you haven’t already) is that while it takes the conventions of the action blockbuster and changes the setting to a sleepy English market town, it works precisely because it refuses to send up the genre it’s referencing – it’s a tribute, rather than a parody. (The same cannot be said of Scary Movie, a sneering, puerile effort that fails partly because it sends up a film that was itself a parody, although the main reason it doesn’t work is that it simply isn’t funny.)

So it’s a fine line to walk. Still, the idea of reworking modern Doctor Who and changing it a little bit was an appealing one. ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ has dated in many ways (giant rats, anyone?) but the episode five cliffhanger in which Leela pulls off Magnus Greel’s mask to reveal a hideous, deformed face underneath is one of the great episode endings, right up there with the ascending Dalek and, well, this:

Second rate story, but oh my.

Anyway: when it came to actually picking an episode, ‘Hide’ seemed the obvious choice. It’s structurally flawed, but it has some lovely Doctor / Clara moments, is appropriately scary at given points, and it has Jessica Raine. The Doctor’s hop through time is a gratuitous use of the CG budget, but the monster is reasonably convincing, and the National Trust property they used for the mansion’s interior could have come straight out of the Baker / Pertwee era.

I’ll try not to bore you too long with the technical stuff, but here it is. The trickiest stage was choosing a suitable clip, because so many of them are riddled with fancy camera angles and quick jump-cuts, so that they’d still look contemporary even if you changed everything old. In the end I plumped for a scene about halfway through where the Doctor and Clara get a scare on the landing, before the ‘ghost’ appears downstairs, accompanied by a spinning black disc. It builds in intensity, without being too effects-heavy. I stripped out the score and replaced it, and then re-sequenced things so that the jokes were gone and the spinning disc formed the cliffhanger. After that it was a question of filtering to death – I think I used about three different filters, stretched and reprocessed across two software packages – in order to make it look as if it were shot under the harsh lighting of an old studio. The ‘effects’ – polarising filters, a spontaneous zoom at a crucial moment and one of those grainy things that break up the picture at the end – were the last thing to be added.

In case you were wondering, the score samples used are (in order):

  • The Mutants (from ‘The Mutants’)
  • The Axons Approach (from ‘The Claws of Axos’)
  • Keller Machine Appears and Vanishes (from ‘The Mind of Evil’ – this was the pulsing effect used in the last forty seconds)

Does it work? More or less. The filtering isn’t as I’d have liked it, and I’m sure that someone with more technical expertise could have improved the processing. But even if it doesn’t really look like an old episode of Doctor Who, it does at least look a little bit like a new episode that’s purposely trying to look old. Which was the entire point, so I guess we can call that a win.

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‘The Green Death’: Redux

This will only make sense if you’ve seen ‘The Green Death’, and if you know your internet memes. But if you haven’t seen ‘The Green Death’, you really should. It is wondrous.

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