Monthly Archives: October 2013

Silver Nemesis

Another season, another disappointing Cybermen story, although I don’t expect much from them anymore. As this is their last appearance in the classic series, it is fitting that they go out with a bang, much like the Daleks did, but that’s not the only similarity with Remembrance of the Daleks – the plot is rather familiar too.

One more time. The Cybermen's final appearance in shiny jump suits.

One more time. The Cybermen’s final appearance in shiny jump suits.

So, there’s an all-powerful god-like statue thing (the Nemesis) about to collide with the Earth, that the Doctor sent into orbit in the 17th century, and the Cybermen have rocked up to Earth to claim it for their own. They have rivals also searching for the Nemesis, namely some 1988 neo-nazis (the Fourth Reich) and a time-travelling sorceress and her servant from 1638. There is little time to develop the character motivations, unfortunately, so we’re left with three underwhelming groups of villains.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

There is some hint of a sort of non-linear storytelling early on, when Ace sees a painting of her in Windsor Castle that she hasn’t had painted yet, but nothing ever comes of it. The Doctor’s previous (unseen) adventure in the 17th century is alluded to, and there are some hints of a dark secret that he has that the Nemesis (and sorceress) knows of, but, again, it’s not explained. It’s just a tease, a way to inject some mystery into the character. Which is fine, but it was pointless here.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I do enjoy the anachronistic elements of these types of stories. Lady Peinforte and Richard walking around modern day England, struggling to understand the culture and technology, but these comedic scenes take away from the serious tone of the story. The bit with the Queen walking her corgis around the grounds is just plain weird.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

Elsewhere, the Cybermen are relatively unthreatening, failing to hit their targets at close range, and falling for the Doctor’s rudimentary tricks. I don’t know if it speaks more of the Doctor’s cunning or of the Cybermen’s stupidity that his “piggy-in-the-middle” trick with the bow actually works. The Cybermen are all talk, no action. Ace takes out loads with some gold coins and by knowing how to duck. Ducking is a technique that solves so many confrontations, it seems!

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

This isn’t particularly good, then, but it has some fun humour and some of the action is good. While it’s hardly unwatchable, it is messy and, at times, rather silly.

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The Happiness Patrol

Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who is sponsored by Bertie Bassett. I mean, really, just as the show is starting to improve, it descends into pantomime again. The Kandy Man probably seemed like a clever idea at the time, a squeaky-voiced sugar-coated psychopathic robot, but it’s just laughably bad to watch, and only adds to the overriding feeling of silliness in this serial.

The Doctor and Ace confront the Kandy Man. Those eyes! Those spinning eyes!

The Doctor and Ace confront the Kandy Man. Those eyes! Those spinning eyes!

Which is a shame, because it does have some good ideas, or at least good intentions. “What if it was illegal to be unhappy” is the sort of nightmarish scenario that creates some of the best conceptual science-fiction, however it’s just too broad to work. At every level you just think “that would never happen”. It’s just not feasible for anybody to enforce a society where happiness is mandatory. Not without some other sci-fi element at work, a psychic energy field or mood altering drugs in the water supply, something like that. The Happiness Patrol takes an all too simplistic approach – if you’re looking miserable, you’re put out of your misery. It’s satirical, it’s political, it’s possibly saying something insightful about the nature of happiness, but it just doesn’t hold together.

The Happiness Patrol. Smile, or else!

The Happiness Patrol. Smile, or else!

Fortunately, Sylvester McCoy is pretty great in this and I’m already warming to his style. He has an impressive range in just this one story, at one point talking a sniper out of shooting him by bluntly putting the nature of death in front of him, and then later roaring in fake laughter to confuse the armed guards. The other cast are not so good. Sheila Hancock is fine (particularly at the end when she’s crying over her dead dog puppet thing), but Georgina Hale hams it up with her nasally speech that ruins everything she says. The other cast are forgettable and Ace is her usual rebellious teenage self.

Nothing says "sad ending" like a dog dying.

Nothing says “sad ending” like a dog dying.

While some of the production is well-accomplished, the overall look of this serial is cheap and small. This is supposed to be a vast human colony, but it seems to contain a couple of tiny streets. It very badly looks like a small television or stage set, especially when the Doctor is making a getaway in his little buggy, travelling at a generous five miles per hour. Perhaps better direction could have helped it, but I’m not sure. The camera work in the tunnels is better, but not great.

Earl's blues playing is the highlight of the musical score. Mmm... melancholy.

Earl’s blues playing is the highlight of the musical score. Mmm… melancholy.

No, I’m afraid this one did not hit the mark. Its silliness, cheapness and naffness undermine any social point it’s trying to make, and I’m not quite sure what point that is anyway. Still, it has created something of an iconic villain, even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Remembrance of the Daleks

There has been an enduring image in my mind since age six, which is brought into focus whenever the word ‘Dalek’ is spoken. This is an image of the Doctor peering into the open top of a Dalek casing and a clawed hand or beak reaching out and grabbing him by the neck. This is my earliest memory of Doctor Who, an image that has stayed with me for 25 years, and I’ve finally found where it was from! Wednesday, October the 19th, 1988.

A strange sensation. The fine details have faded over the years, but I distinctly recall watching this scene 25 years ago (probably from behind the sofa).

A strange sensation. The fine details have faded over the years, but I distinctly recall watching this scene 25 years ago (probably from behind the sofa).

Remembrance of the Daleks has its own historic date, set as it is in 1963, taking place around the time and place of the very first episode, the school and junk yard in Shoreditch. There are plenty of references to An Unearthly Child, as well as an in-joke while Ace is watching a television broadcast, and the announcer almost says Doctor Who is about to start. It’s cute, but perhaps that’s taking an homage too far! The pre-UNIT military taskforce is investigating a Dalek incursion, and it turns out to be one of the best Dalek stories in quite some time.

A Dalek hovers up some stairs, dispelling the myth that stairs can thwart them! Funny, I wrongly assumed this didn't happen until the 2005 series.

A Dalek hovers up some stairs, dispelling the myth that stairs can thwart them! Funny, I wrongly assumed this didn’t happen until the 2005 series.

Remembrance is quite ‘plotty’, but not overly so. There’s the central focus on the two Dalek factions looking for the Hand of Omega to control time, and within the ruckus is the Doctor taking charge of the military and causing an awful lot of explosions. There’s some great misdirection, as we’re led to believe the renegade Daleks are commanded by Davros and the Imperial Daleks by the Emperor. There’s the mysterious little girl who seems to know more than she should. There’s the military man on the inside giving information to the traitorous group working for the Daleks. There’s even actual themes explored, like using the Dalek segregation as an allegory for racism. It’s a very smartly written story, all told.

That Dalek armour is no match for Ace's turbo-powered baseball bat.

That Dalek armour is no match for Ace’s turbo-powered baseball bat.

It’s also the first chance Sylvester McCoy has had to properly get into the character of the Doctor. He’s actually really good in this. Curious, cunning, quick-witted and commanding. He’s got the right balance of respect and annoyance for humanity and gets to give a good talking to Davros at the end. There’s a scene where he mentions to Ace about previous monster invasions (Yetis, Loch Ness monster), and the human capacity to deceive themselves, which is a knowing wink to the way everything on Earth seems to return to normal (a habit unbroken by the modern series). Ace is also turning out to be a capable and worthwhile character. She’s given a lot of the action roles in this, smashing up Daleks with a various weapons (baseball bat, rocket launcher) and diving through windows.

The Daleks bring in the heavy guns. A 'special weapons' variant. Nice.

The Daleks bring in the heavy guns. A ‘special weapons’ variant. Nice.

A lot of the production is set outdoors or in real locations, which does lend an appealing sense of realism. The visual effects are quite ambitious and the amount of explosions is insane. The “oh, I reprogrammed the McGuffin” resolution is perhaps a bit cheap, but wiping out Skaro is a dramatic conclusion, fitting for the Daleks’ final appearance in the classic era, making sure they go out with a bang (or several!). Remembrance starts to feel modern, in production, direction and writing, but it’s also my earliest (and perhaps only) memory of the classic era show. The title is appropriate, then, and the story is a good one. I enjoyed this a lot.

Dragonfire

This has been a thoroughly terrible season so far, but thankfully Dragonfire tries its best to pull it back from the brink. The setting is a lively shopping district on the imaginatively-named Iceworld, populated by the hustle and bustle of aliens coming and going. While it still has a slightly silly feel with a sprinkling of slapstick here and there, Dragonfire is a good old-fashioned adventure, going after a mythical dragon and his treasure, exploring caves with a old map, and uncovering a three-thousand year-old mystery. It has a good sense of fun and even Sabalom Glitz returns for some more mischief.

Kane's frozen base of operations.

Kane’s frozen base of operations.

Kane is a cool villain (quite literally) with a heart as cold as ice. He casually murders a whole bunch of people after chasing them into a boobytrapped spaceship. It’s strange that no-one comments on that afterwards. Kane’s death is unexpectedly brilliant as he melts in front of an unfiltered window, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I wonder how that got through in a kids’ show!

Nightmares.

Nightmares.

Dragonfire introduces new companion Ace, a 20-century Earth girl who got pulled into some sort of time/space vortex that landed her a waitressing job in Iceworld. Appropriately her real name is Dorothy – perhaps she should have tried clicking her heels together? I’m not convinced she’s that much better than Mel just yet – their scenes together are a bit “Grange Hill” for my liking, and I reckon her catchphrases could grate. Brill or naff? It remains to be seen. Still, I’m definitely glad to see the back of Mel, but her exit comes out of the blue. She’s just… had enough? If she actually had some character in the first place, it might make more sense. A total non-entity, purely there to fill a void and scream. Good riddance.

The ice caves look cheap and repetitive, but what can you do?

The ice caves look cheap and repetitive, but what can you do?

Dragonfire has a few issues, certainly. The actual ‘dragon’ monster itself is decidedly ropey, looking like somebody cosplaying the alien from Alien. The literal cliffhanger at the end of part one is inexplicable, but McCoy does good physical comedy and the expressions on his face are priceless. It’s a solid story overall, if a little rushed towards the end, and shows some genuine promise. A shining ice crystal amongst a season of tepid water, then.

What a strange mess to get himself into.

What a strange mess to get himself into.

Delta and the Bannermen

One awful serial is to be expected now and again; call it a slip in judgement. Two in row is an anomalous accident, perhaps. But three absolutely awful serials in a row? This can only be by design. For one reason or another, the powers that be have turned Doctor Who into a very strange, very silly, programme, which this time seems intent on mimicking an episode of Hi-de-Hi. That is, if Hi-de-Hi was set in Wales and had alien bounty hunters in it. I’ve probably made that sound far more interesting than it actually is.

The Nostalgia Tours "space bus" hits a satellite and crashes. Oh, what japes!

The Nostalgia Tours “space bus” hits a satellite and crashes. Oh, what japes!

I’m not adverse to comedy in sci-fi – in fact, some of my favourite Star Trek episodes are ones that don’t take themselves too seriously. Unfortunately, this era of Doctor Who just isn’t funny. I think laughed once, and that was when one of the (awful) American characters says “we’re in Wales… in England”.

Ken Dodd as the toll master, because... well, why not?

Ken Dodd as the toll master, because… well, why not?

There are hints of seriousness, of war and genocide in a far away galaxy, as if somebody is trying to inject a bit of serious drama into the show, but it’s all at odds with the overall ‘campy’ tone. Even when the bus-load of alien tourists is blown up, it’s almost played for laughs and then forgotten about. The characters are paper-thin caricatures (although I must say, “Ray” gets by on good looks and a sexy accent – she should have been the new companion, darn it!). The Doctor has a fairly good confrontation with Gavrock in which he pushes his luck in a rather endearing way, but that’s about it. I quite like this new Doctor, but it’s so frustrating not letting him sink his teeth into a meaty role. Speaking of meat, Gavrock chewing on a big lump of the stuff is really quite disgusting.

Gavrock misses an opportunity to drastically improve the show when he spares Mel's life.

Gavrock misses an opportunity to drastically improve the show when he spares Mel’s life.

It’s just so bad, it’s painful to watch. The music is absolutely awful. Some of it is rubbish cover versions of fifties songs, and then there’s the use of the “Devil’s Galop” during the chases, which does nothing to help the naffness of the thing. And the bit with the green baby – oh my god, what were they thinking? And Queen Delta can communicate with bees or something? What? THIS IS COMPLETELY STUPID!

Did it just grow a green onesie or is that supposed to be its skin?

Did it just grow a green onesie or is that supposed to be its skin?

I have almost nothing good to say about this one at all. I think we’ve just struck solid Low, buried fifty feet underneath Lowtown, in Lowestoft. Let’s keep it down there and forget this whole thing ever happened.

Paradise Towers

Paradise Towers isn’t quite as awful as Time and the Rani, but it has its own set of problems. It’s arguably a lot more disappointing, because it has elements that show promise. The cyberpunk-esque setting and hints of war and disaster elsewhere paint a rich science fiction canvas. The enclosed setting of the tower building has allowed for a self-contained culture to develop. Unfortunately, it’s been filled with excruciatingly silly cartoon characters.

The Doctor shows the 'Kangs' how to use a vending machine. Mmm... fizzade.

The Doctor shows the ‘Kangs’ how to use a vending machine. Mmm… fizzade.

Gangs of kids are never fun to watch singing, chanting and mocking. Admittedly, their use of language and names is somewhat imaginative, but the performances are painful. Then there’s Mel’s tea break with Tilda and Tabby – oh my word, these scenes are diabolical. It’s one part kids’ comedy show, one part weird horror (again with the cannibalism; give it rest, writers!). What with the music that frequently sounds like it’s from a soap opera, it creates completely the wrong atmosphere (unless the intended atmosphere was of a soap opera version of Dredd / The Raid!). The thing is, it could sort of be weird enough to work, but then someone like Pex turns up and all hope is lost. Not to mention the Chief, played by Richard Briers, who hams it up throughout, putting on a performance that goes from Blakey from On the Buses to a gurning robo-zombie. Just so, so awful.

Mel enjoys some tea and crumpets with Tilda and Tabby, who then try to eat her. I can't help but think they'd be better off just eating the crumpets. This whole scene is seriously WEIRD.

Mel enjoys some tea and crumpets with Tilda and Tabby, who then try to eat her. I can’t help but think they’d be better off just eating the crumpets. This whole scene is seriously WEIRD.

The one element of humour that I think actually works is the rules and regulations that all the caretakers abide by. Panicking patrols having to call out ridiculously long numbers just to report in is the sort of satirical humour that works well in science fiction, but it is completely overplayed, and the Doctor’s escape by faking the rulebook is unbelievable.

Why does a cleaning robot need a drill and a circular saw?

Why does a cleaning robot need a drill and a circular saw?

Further, the robot cleaners are pathetically unthreatening, looking like a group of Robot Wars rejects, the ‘action’ is laughable, Mel is excruciating, and the silly tone turns a potentially interesting premise into a joke. This is not Doctor Who’s finest tower.

Time and the Rani

It had to happen eventually. CGI has invaded Doctor Who. I’m sure the title and Tardis sequences were absolutely cutting edge in 1987, but that shiny computerised Tardis looks awful compared to the stunning model photography from the previous season. I hope they don’t rely too much on these ambitious but dated digital effects. I kinda like the new logo, but the less said about the Doctor’s creepy winking face, the better.

I wouldn't have thought it was possible to have a regeneration sequence without the original actor being there, but they put Sly McCoy in a wig and did it anyway!

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to have a regeneration sequence without the original actor being there, but they put Sly McCoy in a wig and did it anyway!

Doctor Who’s downward spiral into misery continues, and Time and the Rani is quite possibly the low point of the whole show up until now. It contains so much badness that I had to keep notes on all of it. Amongst the mind-boggling awfulness is the Rani putting on a wig and pretending to be Mel to fool the amnesiac Doctor. One Mel is bad enough as it is (particularly in this story where she seems to have a screaming addiction), but the Rani pretending to be her is bafflingly stupid and further reinforces the idea that this is barely pantomime level of drama. The only thing that could top it would be somebody shouting “she’s behind you!”.

I mean, where did the Rani even get the wig and clothes from in such short notice? How did she know the Doctor wouldn't remember her clearly? What a bloody stupid plan!

I mean, where did the Rani even get the wig and clothes from in such short notice? How did she know the Doctor wouldn’t remember her clearly? What a bloody stupid plan!

Pratfalls, slapstick ‘comedy’, mistaken identity and a bizarre wrestling match between the Doctor and Mel, all make for terrible viewing. The Rani’s plan is insane, too. Apparently, amongst other things, she’s unhappy with the evolutionary direction that Earth took after the dinosaurs were wiped out, so she wants to erase the worthless humans from history. To do this, she requires genius humans pulled from history. What.

Duh, me brain not think so good.

Duh, me brain not think so good.

It’s a script that has a lack of thought put into it. It may be nitpicking, but at one point, the Doctor breaks out of his prison cell using a secret code. The code is the Rani’s age, which the Doctor knows because it’s also his age. Now, a sensible writer would have made it an unchanging number like the year of their birth, not their age, which is entirely relative to the year that it currently is and the timeframe that they’re both from. What are the chances that both time travellers would be operating in sync like this? It’s bad enough when villains turn up from any point in time ahead of when they previously appeared, but this is just extra lazy.

It's not just Mel who has awful clothes, the Lakertyans' are an eyesore too.

It’s not just Mel who has awful clothes, the Lakertyans’ are an eyesore too.

I’m struggling to find anything of value in this serial. Okay, I suppose some of the music is quite exciting, if a little overbearing. The tripwire exploding ball things are also pretty cool. And those bat-like creatures… yes, they have that “man in a suit” problem and look ridiculous, but I like that they’ve got eyes all around their head and their vision superimposes all the images together. Nice touch.

In such a daft story, the blood-sucking bat-monsters are almost incongruent.

In such a daft story, the blood-sucking bat-monsters are almost incongruent.

I suppose the only good thing about all these problems is that any issues with the new Doctor are sidelined. I must say, though, that going from an extroverted loudmouth in a clown costume to a small mumbling Scotsman who looks like a Batman villain is a change that will take some getting used to. At times, I struggled to hear what he was saying. I did enjoy his self-loathing and mixed metaphors, though. I wonder if they’ll remain his “thing”.