Friday, July 31, 2020

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.





Monday, March 30, 2020

There must be three more people who want to know what a I think about Bob Dylan? Hell, I want to know what I think about Bob Dylan and I can’t find out without writing a review...


Friday, March 27, 2020

12.5 Fugitive of the Judoon

The Two Doctors

I enjoyed Fugitive of the Judoon in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. It was the first episode of this season—the first episode in Doctor Thirteen's run—which I might have enjoyed if it had been part of a brand new TV show that I didn't have any investment in. It was the first episode in I don't know how long—since Matt Smith's first season, perhaps—that made me think: "Well, that was fun."

It's easy enough to see why it worked. It followed a perfectly standard structure of escalating tension. Introduce the main plot; escalate to crisis; cut away to subplot; escalate to crisis; repeat for tertiary plot. Then return to first plot; escalate crisis to a higher pitch and cut back to second plot: continue until all plots converge in one massive crisis. 

It has a central mystery: and each time part of the mystery is solved it reveals a deeper mystery beneath it. There is something a bit mysterious about Lee. The Judoon have come to earth looking for some fugitive. The fugitive is seems to be Lee: but what is he running from. The Judoon are interested in a box in Lee's possession, but why? The Judoon were hired by Gat, who has a former connection with Lee, but what? Gat kills Lee: it wasn't him she wanted, after all, it was his wife Ruth. But why?

And so on, until the great big question mark on which the episode ends, which I very much hope will never be resolved. (I am writing this review straight after watching the episode, and definitely have no idea what will happen in the Season Finale, oh no.) 

And the stuff which happens while the tension is being ramped up and the Russian dolls are being unpacked is great fun. We immediately like Ruth as a character. We care that no-one comes on her walking tour and Lee hasn't ordered her a birthday cake. (Is there really only one cake shop and one coffee bar in the whole of Gloucester?) We enjoy the scenes on the Judoon spaceship, with military music and marching boots and silly chants and figures in spacesuits silhouetted against bulkheads. They made me think of 1970s TV adverts for space-toys you were never actually going to be able to afford. Everyone falls in step with that sense of slightly retro generic skiffy, referring to the Judoon as "space-rhinos". The Judoon were created as a rather weak place-holder for the Sontarans: but they are silly enough to be fun and menacing enough to be exciting. A rhinoceros is an intrinsically silly beast. Rhinoceri in spacesuits are joyous. 

When I like a Chris Chibnall episode I often say that it felt like an episode of the Sarah-Jane Adventures. But then I frequently said that Sarah-Jane was more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who was at the time. It retained a sense of fun and playfulness and story and was not overwhelmed by Numan Interest. (But on I cared much more about what happened to Clyde and Luke than I ever have about Yaz and Ryan.) Doctor Who has BBC Children's Television in its DNA: there is something endearingly childish about Fugitive of the Judoon which puts us off guard for the big dramatic serious ending. 


So, Andrew, you might as well leave it there. "It was a good story. I liked it. I wish there were more stories like this." What else is there to say?


Before Fugitive of the Judoon was released, the BBC put out a short teaser trailer which made it clear that the big revelation that O was the Master in Spyfall was only the beginning: this weeks episode was going to contain an even bigger revelation. And that trailer totally changed how we experience the episode. Every plot twist—every red herring—makes us think "Is this the big revelation? I wonder what the big revelation will be? When will the big revelation come?" Telling us that there is a big surprise but not telling us what it is is almost as much a spoiler as if it the episode had been entitled "Day of Tour Guide Who Turns Out To  Be The Doctor." 

The guy in the coffee shop has been compiling a dossier on Lee. Is that the revelation? Is the revelation to do with Lee's identity?

It turns out that the Judoon have come to arrest Ruth—who seems to be completely innocuous— rather than Lee—who is obviously hiding something. "So" we can't help thinking "That must be the big revelation. The big revelation must be something to do with Ruth. What can Ruth's big secret be?" 

This is why John Bloody Barrowman is in the episode. The dreadful Torchwood turned Captain Jack into an annoying, camp Action Man, but I have to admit that this episode's digression restores the character to what he was in the Empty Child—a flamboyant polysexual Han Solo. He really shouldn't exist in the story, and he gets to comment on the narrative from the outside, rather as Missy did in World Enough and Time: 


"Listen, kid, working with some low-rent equipment here." 

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" 

"Oh, she likes them mouthy, then, huh?" 

"Yeah, one up from cheesy." 

"Okay, he's my favourite."


It's like two eras of the show are being allowed to comment on each other. Jack assume that Graham is the Doctor: and one suspects that in Jack's era, he would have been. 

Jack has nothing to do with the story: he is only here to deliver a message: "Beware the lone Cyberman"—presumably a set up for the season finale which I definitely haven't watched yet. It is quite fun that a flying saucer pops up in the middle of an already quite complicated narrative and quite convenient that Graham, Yaz and Ryan get beamed out of the story just at the point when the Doctor and Ruth need time for some quality exposition. 

But the main point of Captain Jack is to be a red herring. We have been told that there is going to be a really big revelation. A major, major character who we haven't seen in a decade pops up. Here comes the revelation, we think: Jack is going to tell us the big secret. But it turns out that his message has nothing to do with the revelation, or to do with anything else in the story. Which is kind of cool.

A heavily trailed revelation was always going to be about the format; about the mythos about, as we now have to say, the lore. "Yaz is pregnant", "Ryan becomes a Muslim" or "Graham's cancer comes back" would count as major revelations in a soap opera or drama, but in Doctor Who they would barely register as sub-plots. The twist has to be a twist about Doctor Who itself. Ruth as a secret. And within the rules of Doctor Who, there are really only three things it can be: 

1: Ruth is the Master

2: Ruth is some other Time Lord—the Rani or the Corsair or the Monk or Omega or Rassilon. 

3: Ruth has some family connection with the Doctor: she is her child, or her former wife, or her mother. 

We do not see "Ruth is the Doctor herself" coming. And how could we? We were looking for a twist within the rules of Doctor Who. But the twist is that the rules of Doctor Who have been broken. Ruth can't be the Doctor. But she is.

I have used this illustration before. Children's riddles and cracker-jokes depend on a question being understood in a non-obvious way, or there being an equivocation about the meaning of a word. Why did the man throw his watch out of the window? In order to see time fly. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. So "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side" is funny because it breaks the rules of joke telling. The joke is that it requires a perfectly ordinary answer: the joke is that it is not a joke. Many, many children's riddles are anti-jokes of this kind. What is white and can't climb trees? What is green and pear-shaped? Where would you find a tortoise with no legs? 

Ruth can't be the Doctor, because there is no Doctor for her to be. If she had simply been the fourteenth (or, depending on how you count, sixteenth) Doctor, it would have been quite surprising but not a major twist. "I am your next incarnation, but not for a couple of seasons yet". I have thought for a long time that it would be cool if the BBC could somehow spring a regeneration on us without the traditional eighteen month build up. But Doctor Ruth is not from the future (she doesn't remember having been Doctor Thirteen) nor is she from the past (Thirteen definitely doesn't remember being her). And there is nowhere else for her to be from.

It could all be sorted out very easily by saying that she is the Doctor from a parallel universe; or by saying that our Doctor had pre-Hartnellian lives but is for some reason suffering from amnesia. Neither solution would be nearly as interesting as the mystery. "There is another Doctor in the universe who logically can't exist" is quite an appealing addition to the mythos: particularly if the Doctor and the Other Doctor can be contrived to be at loggerheads. 

I can't help thinking — and I definitely, definitely haven't watched the season finale yet—that "logically impossible Doctor" is what Chibnall is driving at. Doctor Ruth very pointedly does not know what a sonic screwdriver is, which puts her pre-Troughton: but her TARDIS is already shaped like a London Police Box, which puts her post-Unearthly Child.

We see the Time Lords casting the Doctor out in the War Games; and we see the Doctor arriving on earth in Spearhead From Space: many fans have theorized that there could be any number of untold adventures in between. (The theory is well established enough that if you refer to "Season 6 B" Who fans generally know what you are talking about.) But there is really no scope for a Season 3 B in between the last William Hartnell story and the first Patrick Troughton one. Moffat's Twice Upon a Time rather ruled that out. 

Vinay Patel, who is credited with Chibnall as co-writer of the story, also wrote last year's Demons of the Punjab, as story which was greatly admired by people other than me. It is interesting that there are two writers; because it sometimes feels as if Fugitive of the Judoon is two different stories.

Is Patel a Doctor Who geek? Did he go to Chibnall and say "I've had a cool idea for a story in which there is an extra, impossible Doctor, in between Hartnell and Troughton?" Or did Chibnall go to Patel and say "Since we liked your very political historical story last season so much, we think you are the idea person to write a mythos heavy narrative which sets up a puzzle about Doctor Who continuity." Neither scenario is impossible. But I have this nagging feeling that maybe Patel pitched a clever character piece in which an ordinary lady and an ordinary man living ordinary lives in Gloucester turn out to be alien war-criminals hunted by the Judoon. And that Chibnall looked at the script and said "That's a cool script. But I want to incorporate it into my masterplan. I want the lady to turn out to be, not an alien war criminal, but a logically impossible Doctor." 

There is one very suspicious thing. In the very good cathedral scene, when the Doctor and Ruth are surrounded by Judoon, Ruth unexpectedly grabs a gun, threatens the Judoon, does Martial Arts and rips off one of their noses. This gives the Doctor the clue that she, Ruth, has a different identity hidden inside her. Ruth doesn't know what has happened; it is like someone else is controlling her. 

Now, if you wanted to give a clue that a Numan Bean is really the Doctor in disguise, is Martial Arts and mutilating bad guys what you would choose? Wouldn't you show that she has a knack for improvising plans, or impresses the Doctor by her understanding of super-advanced science. If in the original script Ruth had been, say, an alien ninja with an activation code; or a renegade space cop who had resigned from the force, the scene would have made a lot more sense. 

The second half of the story is very well done. The juxtaposition of Ruth breaking the glass and starting to "regenerate" and the Doctor finding the TARDIS buried beneath an unmarked grave is very powerful. And the final scene on the Judoon ship, when it transpires that Gat is taking her orders from the Time Lords and that the Doctor—Ruth—has always been her quarry is pleasantly surprising and interesting. There is a bit of chemistry between the two Doctors. And the aftermath, with the Doctor brooding about what has happened and the Famous Three promising to stick by her whatever comes next, is very well done. But I am terribly afraid that we are looking at two different scripts. And when you realize that it, it is not too difficult to see the join.



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Patreon Update

If...some....new people join my Patreon then I will break off from going on and on about Doctor Who and go on and on about Bob Dylan's marvelous new opus...

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Oh Bob what have you done?

https://open.spotify.com/track/55dw4v6Uw6lmqGUxM6vdzV

Thursday, March 26, 2020

12.4 Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

A Light Bulb Moment

The TARDIS lands in the past. The Doctor gets starstruck by an historical figure and bounces about how wonderful humans are. There are spooky men in cloaks with glowy red eyes. There is a big spaceship populated by Scorpion-Borg hybrids who want to destroy the world. Probably. The Doctor has a cunning plan. Everything is wrapped up in time for tea. 

This week's episode feels like one of those vignettes Stephen Moffat used to insert into his stories, a thirty second snippet of a completely different adventure. I have a general impression that a Doctor Who story just happened; but am not honestly sure I could tell you any of the whys and wherefores .

Nikola Tessla and Thomas Eddison fighting space scorpions in turn of the century New York. Yeah. Okay. Why not? The scorpions themselves are quite well done. I enjoyed the scene where they chased Yaz and Edison through the empty streets, running up the sides of buildings and getting tangled up in the scenery. It made me quite nostalgic for wet Sunday afternoons watching Jason and the Argonauts on BBC 2. Maybe we should have just had a really well done monster story without the historical baggage? I liked the alien space ship too, but the scorpion queen felt altogether too much like the spider from The Runaway Bride.

I must admit that, like the Doctor's moronic companions, I hardly knew who Nikola Tessla was. Olden days science dude: had a rivalry with Edison, particularly over electric currents. Going by this story he was an "inventor" in the pulp science fiction sense: great ideas pop into his mind. He keeps on nearly inventing things which would come true further down the line, but he gives them cool steampunk names, so his idea for radar would have been called an "exploring ray" and his idea for X-Rays would have been called "shadow photography". He even nearly invented the internet, insofar as his Wardenclyff tower would have wirelessly transmitted audio and possibly visual images all round the world. It isn't quite clear if "conceiving a machine which would let anyone in the world access all the knowledge in the world remotely" is the same as "inventing" it. I am not quote sure what it would have meant to "invent the internet" 40 years before the existence of anything which could be called a computer. 

Against this stands wicked Thomas Edison, who actually gets things done. Edison makes things and creates things and markets things, but he doesn't have his own ideas. He creates factories where dozens of scientists conduct experiments, and isn't respectful of other people's intellectual property. 

There is one good exchange between the two men, in which Edison states his point of view very clearly:


"Anyone can have ideas. I make them happen. All those men, all those inventions, I turn them from a sketch into real things people can buy. That's how you change the world. You're too blind to see that my factory is the best idea either one of us ever had. "

"And you are too narrow-minded to grasp the genius of my work, and that is why you will never achieve real greatness. You're not a man of vision, you're a man of... parts."


But the viewer's sympathy, and the Doctor's is with Tesla. It is better to be a dreamer who has singular ideas than a technician who gets things made. 

I suppose we are supposed to see a connection between the scorpion-borgs, who travel around the universe stealing other people's technology, and Edison, who steals other people's ideas. The idea of turning Tesla's wireless electricity transmitter into a giant zap-gun to blast the scorpion-borg out of the solar system is fairly cool; but there is an overwhelming sense that the baddies were conceived of as a hive mind to make this plot-device work.

Scorpions and death rays in Old New York is quite fun; but "quite fun" doesn't carry the day. It feels very much as if there was an envelope somewhere with "aliens steal earth's greatest scientist" written on the back and "twist: in the Olden Days!!" underneath. I've been watching a lot of Old Who, and Old Who is full of hoary old cliches stitched together. But Old Who (for the first eighteen years, at least) was sustained by charismatic front-men who you couldn't take your eyes off. Jodie Whittaker is not Tom Baker. She is barely even Sylvester McCoy.

*

Edison is played by Robert Glenister, who played an officer named Salateen in Caves of Androzani. He was Peter Davison's brother and flatmate in a long-forgotten situation comedy.



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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pyramids of Mars

I can watch Terror of the Zygons and Planet of Evil with fresh eyes. They are old TV shows that I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. Rubbery monsters; fascist space men; artificial forests; bagpipes. Retro-sci-fi with charming performances by Tom and Lis and Nick.

But how do I write about Pyramids of Mars? Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Pyramids of Mars is iconic. Sci-Fi Now's list of Greatest Doctor Who Moments (by a writer I respect and admire) said that Pyramids of Mars Episode 1 had the greatest cliffhanger in Doctor Who's history.

We experience these classics not as 100 minute narratives, but as fragments which have embedded themselves in the collective memories of fandom. A pyramid. Mummies. An old house. "I am the servant of Sutekh. He needs no other." Which of us can remember what happened next?




Episode 1

Episode 1 of Pyramids of Mars is relentlessly, self consciously theatrical. There is a butler. He says "sir" a lot, explains the plot, and gets killed. There is a mysterious foreign gentleman who must not be disturbed under any circumstances. He wears a fez, plays the organ, and gets killed.

The Butler introduces a character called Wollock. He asks the foreign gentleman lots of questions, during which the backstory comes out. The acting and the script scream "Act I of a Victorian Thriller." Quite a good Victorian thriller, being put on by a first rate Am Dram outfit.

The Doctor is on the periphery of the play. He literally stands outside the window and eavesdrops as Ahmed and Wollock work their way through the script. He peeps through the doorway, Scooby-Doo style, at the Very Famous Cliffhanger.

There is lots of plot, and there is no plot. There is a redundant prologue, in which Prof Scarman opens an Egyptian Tomb, full of artifacts. All the artifacts are sent back to England and Ahmed, the Foreign Gentleman takes control of Scarman's estate. By the time the curtain goes up, there are Mummies in the basement and a sarcophagus in the study.

Ahned is clearly coded as "Muslim", but he is actually a worshiper of the ancient Egyptian God Set – Sutekh. There is no particular reason why a professor of Egyptology shouldn't have a church organ in his study. And there is no reason why a turn of the century Egyptian shouldn't have a taste for English organ music and ancient death-gods. But the organ is a meta-textual joke. Gothic horror of this kind often has a melodramatic organ accompaniment so wouldn't it be a wheeze if the baddie was playing the background music himself? (The Goons did the same joke on a weekly basis.)

It is the winter of 1975. The idea that the Gods are really Aliens is in the air. Next summer Marvel Comics would publish Kirby's final masterpiece, the Eternals. Chariots of the Gods came as recently as 1969 and one could trace it backwards to Quatermass and the Pit (1959) Childhood's End (1953) and ultimately to the Cthulhu stories (1920s). Marcus Scarman's steamer-punk radio-telescope, installed on the sideboard of his Holmsian sitting room, is hardly the same thing as Kirby's vast Aztec signalling temple, but they have drunk at the same mythological well. The gods are out there, but its science, not prayers which will call them back.

"Beware Sutekh! Beware Sutekh!"


Tom Baker spends most of the episode being solemn and serious; really only cracking a smile when he is mocking and patronizing Marcus. The earth is facing the greatest peril in its history; the forces at work are more powerful than "anything even I have ever encountered". Superlatives became rather a hallmark of the Baker era, and one more reason that Early Fandom got cross with Robert Holmes. But in this case it is an important part of the story. Sutekh is not only a baddie: he is the ultimate baddie. For almost the first time, the Doctor is facing off against someone who scares him.

The Doctor is discovered, head bowed in the TARDIS declaiming to Sarah that he's a Time Lord and walks in eternity and will soon be middle aged. I don't think Robert Holmes thought in terms of story arcs; although every story since Planet of the Spiders had neatly dove-tailed into the next one. But it is hard not to wonder if the Doctor has been changed by his encounter with the anti-matter monster. Forcibly reminded that he is not merely alien, but ontologically apart from the humans he fraternizes with. And yet he is still tying to fulfill his promise to meet the Brigadier in London.

The Brigadier was introduced into Doctor Who as part of the 1970s semi-reboot, when Doctor Who became for a brief time, an odd-couple show about a no-nonsense soldier and an amnesiac alien who fight alien invasions in their different ways. The Doctor officially ceased to be an exile four seasons ago; but "the Doctor is scientific adviser to UNIT" is still an irreducible part of the shows mythos. Planet of Evil and Pyramids of Mars are detours: there is still a Brigadier shaped center of gravity that is pulling them home. Sarah suggests that if he is tired of working for the Brig, the Doctor should resign. He doesn't actually reply: but an apron-string is cut at that moment. The brooding alien Doctor who cries out "but I'm a time lord" can't be the establishment figure who is happy to work with, if not for, the Brigadier. The BBC can't yet admit it to the kids, but the marriage ended a year ago.




Episode 2

Sarah and the Doctor hide from the Servant of Sutekh in a priest hole.

"A priest hole" ad libs Tom Baker "In a Victorian mock Gothic folly?"

Indeed. What, after all, is Pyramids of Mars—if it comes to that, what is Doctor Who—but a mock Gothic folly?

*

An English poacher is doing his rounds. He spots an Egyptian Mummy with its leg caught in a trap. It kicks, and frees itself. The poacher runs away, but not before picking up his rabbit.

To the Doctor, Mummies are just dead bodies: of course they can't walk around. ("But this one did", says Sarah.) But to the audience, a Mummy is primarily one of the walking dead. When you say "The Mummy" you instantly think of a zombie wrapped in bandages: probably one terrifying Scooby Doo and Shaggy.

Multiple mythologies are colliding. Poor Ernie has a lineage which goes back at least as far as Robin Hood, the romantic poacher who nobly steals rabbits off rich people's lands. A Mummy comes from Egypt; and more recently, from Hollywood. There is no way a dead Egyptian should be stuck in an English poacher's snare. There is no way that a figure from a 1930s Universal horror flick should be running around the grounds of an English country house. There is no reason that an alien called Sutekh would have robots wrapped in bandages. There is no reason that the Ossirans would design a time tunnel to look like a coffin. The story is about gods and demons and queer alien magic. There is just enough scientific mumbo-jumbo to permit the mythological mumbo-jumbo to manifest in the very early 20th century.

It is supposed to be 1911. The term "robot" will not be coined until 1920; Karloff will not play the Mummy until 1932.

*

Hidden in a high tech prison somewhere on earth there is an alien criminal. The alien criminal is contained by a force field which is driven by a power source on the planet Mars. A harmless human, mind-controlled by the evil alien, is constructing a bomb which he means to fire at Mars; destroying the power station and freeing the criminal's corporeal form. He is aided in this task by powerful, mindless robots to whom he says things like "Seek and destroy" and "The humans inside the deflection barrier must be eliminated".

There is nothing remotely Gothic or Egyptian about any of this. Very easily the robots could have been Cybermen and the possessed human could have been a crazy industrialist or a mentally challenged scientist. Robots look like mummies; generator loops look like funeral urns; time tunnels look like coffins. Egypt is just window dressing to decorate a bog-standard space-opera.

Contrawise: Egyptian mummies; demon possessed archaeologists and sinister organ-playing foreigners are purposefully walking around an English country house, killing butlers and terrifying poachers. There is some hastily recited science fiction jargon to justify the mystical jargon. What we are clearly looking at is evil Egyptian gods resuming their centuries old battle. Sutekh is not being freed from an alien prison cell. He is breaking free of his ancient bonds.

*

So: Ahmed opens the sarcophagus in the organ room, and a black robed and masked figure floats down a kind of time-space tunnel. It is hard not to read this as a parody of the opening credits of Doctor Who. Each week, Tom Baker floats down a very similar time-tunnel, into our living rooms. We are being very subtly told that Sutekh is the anti-Doctor. 

Everyone knows what happens next. Ahmed greets the figure, using Christian, liturgical language. (" All high, all powerful, most noble Lord, thy humble servant welcomes thee.") He prostrates himself before the figure: "I am a loyal servant of the great Sutekh". And the figure unceremoniously kills him: "I am the Servant of Sutekh: he needs no other." It's a fine, Hitchcockian stunt: the character who has been set up as the major villain is killed-off before the end of episode one.

I had forgotten what follows. The black robed figure morphs into the shape of Lawrence Scarman, (the archaeologist who opened the tomb in the prologue). He spends the rest of the episode ordering Mummies around, building the rocket to destroy the Martian power source to free Sutekh.

We  are never told why Scarman manifests in this form; or why he talks in a scary deep voice on that one occasion. The servant really is Scarman, albeit possessed by the spirit of Sutekh. But Scarman killing Ahmed at the end of episode one would have had no visual impact and might even have confused the viewer. Holmes has created an iconic scene and then retrofitted it into the story. That's the way he works; and it's not a bad way of creating Doctor Who.



Tom Baker carries the episode by sheer force of charisma. Look at the scene in the storeroom. He tells Sarah he has no idea what the Mummies are doing; casually remarks to Marcus that a lump of technology is "a resonating tuna" and then gasps and whispers "they must be building a rocket" as the camera slowly closes in on his face.

Look at his boyish grin when Marcus sees the inside of the TARDIS for the first time. ("Are you going to say that it transcends all normal laws of physics?") Before too long, that grin will dominate the Doctor, become his whole personality. Today it is an interruption, a ray of sunshine breaking out from behind sombre clouds.

And look at the astonishing scene where the Doctor shows Sarah what the present day will look like if Sutekh destroys the world in 1911. 

"Well?" he says to Sarah. 

"We've got to go back" says Sarah. 

And a nod, and that quiet grin, and the single word "Yes."



"Holy Moses!" exclaims Ernie the Poacher when he runs into an invisible force-field. Well, no, not exactly. But Moses came out of Egypt; and if Egyptian civilization is based on alien war criminals then I suppose Jewish and Christian and Western civilization must ultimately come from the same source.



Episode 3

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen very much spend this episode being The Doctor and The Doctor's Assistant. They walk around the house and its grounds formulating plans to defeat Scarman and the Mummies, none of which quite come off. The script pretty much depends on finding entertaining ways for Sarah to say "What are you going to do next, Doctor?"

The story is driven by McGuffins and plot coupons; but the characters have to struggle to find them, and the threads are woven admirably tight. Scarman is going to send a missile to Mars to destroy the power source that is keeping Sutekh in prison. The Doctor wants to blow the rocket up. In order to blow the rocket up, he needs gelignite from the ex-poacher's hut. In order to get to the hut, he needs to get through the force-field that Scarman has thrown up around the house. In order to find a door to the force-field, he needs to disable one of Sutekh's force-field generating funeral urns.

Which leads to this kind of thing:

"Door....key."

"As simple as that?"

"No, not really."

"Didn't think it could be."

In music hall, the straight man often commanded a higher fee than the comedian: any clown could be funny if the feed-lines were delivered right. The Doctor is the star of the show, but it's Sarah's understated "didn't think it could be" that gets the laugh. She's been in this game for years. She knows the rules: but there is no undercutting of the material. Sutekh really could destroy the universe. Sarah knows her role; she accepts that she is subordinate to the Doctor; but she stands up to him as well:

"Are you going to help or are you just going to stand there admiring the scenery?"

"I actually wasn't admiring the scenery, I was waiting for you to tell me what to do."

The Doctor gets to be callous and alien because Sarah is sweet and human and knows that he doesn't really mean it. Her finest moment comes when Lawrence Scarman kills his brother Marcus (eliminating the last human supporting character from the narrative.) The Doctor regards it as a minor distraction. Sarah sees that a man has just been murdered 

"Sometimes you don't seem..."

"Human?" suggests the Doctor. 

Jon Pertwee was a posh scientist who we sometimes remembered wasn't really one of us. The alien-ness of Tom Baker is foregrounded in every scene.




Episode 4


"A man was going to Brighton, when he lost his way. He came to a main road. There were no sign posts, but two men were standing there. The trouble was, one of them always lied and one of them always told the truth, but which was which, the traveler didn't know..."

I first came across this puzzle in the Puffin Joke Book, published two years before Pyramids of Mars (in 1974). It is quoted alongside the one about the old man who told his sons to have a camel race: the boy who's camel lost would inherit his land.

As a puzzle, it goes back at least to the 1950s: more complicated versions involve a third guard who alternately tells the truth and lies. The hardest logic puzzle in the world involves guards who lie, guards who tell the truth, guards who randomly lie and tell the truth—and a traveler who doesn't know what the words for "yes" and "no" are in their language.

The usual, elegant solution is to ask "If I asked the other guard the way to Brighton, what would he say?" and then go the opposite way. But "If I asked you which road to take, what would you say?" would do just as well. It's a version of the liar paradox which Captain Kirk used to crash an alien computer in "I, Mudd".

A lot of people say that the final episode of Pyramids of Mars lets down the story: a very atmospheric sci-fi gothic set-up is spoiled by some childish puzzle-solving and a slightly too-easy denouement. The puzzles are indeed a little bit obvious and boring and the idea that Eye of Horus is hidden in a labyrinth surrounded by traps feels a little bit too much like a Dungeons & Dragons scenario. (This was before Dungeons &-- Dragons.) But the Eye of Horus sequence has been allowed to unfairly overshadow the episode.

The Ossirans are mythological gods with the thinnest possible veneer of pseudo-science. The Doctor has flown down a time corridor to confront Sutekh in his prison. So the final episode is clearly a spirit quest: and what is more natural in the realm of the gods than a series of tests?

The tests themselves are not very well done. But they will serve as placeholders. The Eye of Horus is hard to get to; Scarman gets there first and destroys it. Sutekh is free. But having failed the gods' test, the Doctor defeats Sutekh anyway—not with virtue or strength or power but with a tricksy little bit of scientific knowledge. The wrap-up is rushed (Doctor Who wrap-ups are always rushed) but the opening of the episode is one of the best things in the Tom Baker era.



At the beginning of the episode, Sarah believes that the Doctor is dead. She leans across his prostrate body and weeps openly. And the Doctor says "You are soaking my shirt" before explaining that he had a special Time Lord get-out-of-jail card (a "respiratory by-pass system"). Were these kinds of remarks on-set ad libs? Or was Tom Baker already amending the scrip during rehearsals? Is it possible that Robert Holmes was playing Eddie Braben, writing routines that reflected the real-life rapport between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen? Nothing in the Leela or Romana eras ever felt this natural.

The history of the writing of Pyramids of Mars is a bit of a muddle. Someone called Lewis Griefer wrote an earlier version, but Hinchcliff found it unfilmable so it was rewritten from the ground up by Robert Holmes. (Stephen Harris is a made up name.) The title of "show-runner" didn't exist in the 1970s but Holmes writing style permeates Baker's early seasons (just as Douglas Adams' equally distinctive voice would run through the later ones.) Only Holmes could have written something as descriptive and at the same time as meaningless as "they have heads like domes and cerebellum like spiral staircases".

Holmes' attitude to "lore" haunts Doctor Who fandom to this day. It wasn't that he didn't care. He knows that the UNIT stories happened, not in the present, but in the very near future: Sarah says several times that she comes from 1980. When the Doctor is navigating the Ossiran labyrinth, Holmes has Sarah reference the not-dissimilar Exillon city from Death to the Daleks -- something only a small number of wide-awake viewers would be likely to have picked up on. He even has the Doctor mention former companion Victoria, who left the TARDIS in 1969. The problem is not that he ignores established facts. The problem is the gay abandon with which he creates new ones. If it suits the mood, then of course the famously uncontrollable TARDIS can nip forward to 1980 and back to 1911; or ferry the cast to and from Mars with pin point accuracy. If Sutekh wants to use the TARDIS as an escape-vehicle, then of course the Doctor can suddenly announce that the controls are "isomorphic" and that only he can operate them. And of course he has a respiratory bypass system which enables him to recover from his death. The lines are spoken with such conviction that we take it for granted that they are true. Probably we had already heard of Sutekh and the Ossirans and had somehow forgotten. Almost certainly the TARDIS controls have always been isomorphic and we have false memories of Susan operating them. And we have always known that Gallifrey is in the constellation of Kasterburus.

What does constellation mean in this context? What, for that matter, would a staircase shaped head look like? Tom and Robert are weaving a spell made of words, and looking for consistency will break the magic.



Davros was insane: but his madness had a rationale. The Daleks had to destroy everything in order to survive. If the Daleks ruled the universe, there would be no more wars. In the end, Davros worships his own ego: he would release the killer virus to set himself up as a god.

Sutekh really is a god: and like Davros, he wants to destroy everything. But there is no rationale; no justification. Like the Scorpion in the fable, he kills because it is his nature.

"You use your powers for evil."

"Evil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good."

"Then I curse you, Sutekh, in the name of all nature. You are a twisted abhorrence"

Sutekh's language explicitly mirrors Milton's Devil; indeed, the Doctor has just claimed that Satan is one of Sutekh's names. But the Doctor is also speaking religious language. "I renounced the society of Time Lords long ago". He didn't leave because he was bored. He renounced them. He is not a boffin talking to an alien: he is one mythological being addressing another.

The aforementioned Jack Kirby created Darksied, who worshipped Anti-Life; Marvel Comics countered with Thanos, who was in love with the personification of death. Darksied, Thanos, Sutekh and Davros are the same kind of enemy. This isn't a moral conflict; it's a conflict between death and life; between death and nature.

"What interest have you in humans?"

"All sapient lifeforms are our kith, Sutekh."

"Horus held that view. I refute it."

"Our kith." The Doctor values Sarah Jane, not because she is Sarah Jane, but because she is a living thing. To the Doctor, this is self-evident: to Sutekh, it is merely a point of view. Davros could theoretically have been reasoned with: he tries to defend the Daleks from within the Tao. Sutekh has no code: killing everything in the universe is good because he feels that it is good.

And yet Sutekh is neither a wild beast nor a Mummers play devil. He is pitiful, and this makes him even very slightly attractive. He talks about torturing the Doctor as a diversion; he calls him his plaything. He uses the same word again at the end: he tries to bribe the Doctor by offering him the earth as a plaything. If all life is not your kith, then it can only be your toy.

And yes; the Doctor tricks him and its a silly trick which doesn't have quite the mythical grandeur that the build-up required. It takes radio waves a few minutes to travel from Mars to Earth; so Sutekh's Egyptian prison remains secure for a few minutes after its Martian power source is destroyed. In which time the Doctor can redirect Sutekh's time corridor far, far into the future.

Tom Baker has spent four episodes convincing us that he is scared of Sutekh; that Sutekh really could destroy the world; that Sutekh is the most powerful being the Doctor has ever faced. And when we meet Sutekh we believe this. How clever of Holmes to present the ultimate villain as only potential evil; evil waiting to be released; evil that can't actually do anything and needs humans to fuddle around with Chinese Puzzles. But at the end, Sutekh is just another alien to be defeated with quick wit and a wise crack. And after a quip about the fire of London we are back to the TARDIS and UNIT and another adventure. Business as usual.

On one level, Pyramids of Mars is a good story, but not a great one. The secondary characters are hammy; the story relies too heavily on McGuffins and while it looks great it never quite manages to makes sense. But it is the story in which we most perfectly see Tom Baker's vision of the Doctor. And that makes it quite possibly the greatest Doctor Who story of all.

*

They each jump on the other brother's camel and ride hell for leather to the finish line.



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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

12.3 Orphan-55


Invasion of the Tropes

1:HI DI HI? (HI DI HO!)

The Holiday Camp is a 1950s British precursor to the Theme Park. It has no connection to an American summer camp. Families all go together and stay in small multi-occupancy apartments known as chalets. Decades after their heyday, the Holiday Camp remains a potent symbol of a good old-fashioned holiday, but with a strangely sinister undercurrent. The Prisoner’s Village is clearly a remote outpost of Butlins. The idea of merriment enforced by uniformed "redcoats" who encourage you to participate in slightly humiliating fun and games and wake you up in the morning with a hearty “wakey wakey campers!” is the antithesis of the buttoned-up stiff-upper-lip and at the same time the most English thing you can imagine.

"Tranquility" has a luxury pool and a spa: one somehow doubts that there are competitions for the Knobbliest Knees and the Most Glamorous Grandmother. But the Tannoy telling everyone to have a good time, and the feline Sue Pollard who greets them, is straight out of Maplins.


2: IN SPACE, NO-ONE CAN HEAR YOU

Doctor Who has its own iconography of fear: a Dalek or a Cyberman may not be all that frightening to look at, but everyone knows that they represent the Scariest Thing In the Universe. Orphan-55 chooses not to draw on that native iconography but instead to borrow from a 41 year old movie named Alien. The teeth, the strangely shaped head, the habit of massing in corridors and showing up as green dots on computer screens all call to mind the first two Ridley Scott movies. In case we miss the point, we get a close up of the Doctor face to face with a scary set of teeth, obviously referencing the iconic image of Sigourney Weaver and the Alien Queen.

“Alien meets Hi-Di-Hi” is a not unamusing premise for a Doctor Who story, but it's basically lazy. Stick a recycled image of “horror” alongside a recycled image of “fun” and see what sparks fly off.

Everyone's favorite fact is that Ridley Scott worked for the BBC in the 1960s, and narrowly avoided designing the Daleks.

3: THESE CHAOS MUTANTS EAT RADIATION!

The idea of a world so polluted that the native life-forms breathe filth and are repulsed by cleanliness is a venerable old sci-fi stand by. At least it sounds like it should be. I can’t immediately think of an example. The first Dalek story was set in the aftermath of a nuclear war: the Daleks were originally the survivors who had adapted and now needed radiation to survive -- their plan was to contaminate the whole planet, allowing them to leave their city but destroying the Thals in the process. There is a very apocryphal story that Nation reworked the Daleks from a rejected Tony Hancock sketch about people who lived in dustbins and ate radiation after World War III.

The Dregs have adapted to guns and nuclear winter and have evolved to live without oxygen. They breathe CO2 in and oxygen out, like “really angry trees”. The idea that the creatures who live on a horrible planet would necessarily be horrible is probably a science fiction version of what English teachers call the pathetic fallacy (rain at funerals, sunny at weddings.) I suspect it is also very slightly racist. 

4: THE CURSED EARTH

Iconic British anti-hero Judge Dredd lives in a self-contained urban sprawl, surrounded by an impregnable wall beyond which lies a radiation infested wasteland populated by hideous mutated monsters. It is hard not to recall this imagery when the massing army of Dregs break through the force-field into Tranquility; although perhaps a more current reference point would be the White Walkers and the Night Watch. The vehicle in which our heroes sally forth to rescue Benny very much resembles the Landraider in which Dredd crossed the Cursed Earth.

5: WE ARE THE DALEKS

In 1973 Terry Nation wrote an alternative origin for the Daleks. It turns out that some cavemen got separated from the rest of humanity and placed on a planet where evolution happened much more speedily. The amazing twist ending is that these proto-humans eventually turned into Daleks: humanity's worst enemy is actually an offshoot of the human race. He recycled the idea in the final episode of the third series of Blake's Seven: our heroes believe they are trapped on a planet populated by the monstrous remote ancestors of the human race, but it turns out that the savage brutes are what the human race will eventually evolve into. (In The Curse of Fenric it turns out that Vampires are in fact human descendants from a hideously polluted future Earth.)

The idea that the Dregs represent human survivors is rather cool. I do like the idea that the Dregs are literally the Dregs of humanity. But not many science fiction readers will have had their minds completely blown by the revelation.

6: BASE UNDER SIEGE

Many of the stories in seasons four, five and six of the original show were set in bases. Quite often they were besieged by aliens.

7: THEY FINALLY MADE A MONKEY OUT OF ME

The conceptual sibling of "I have found the alien and it is us" is "the alien planet turns out to have been the earth all along"; it has an equally venerable lineage. Charlton Heston takes an inordinately long time to realize that the alien world where Chimps and Orangutans exhibit humans in cages and will not allow anyone to ask questions about history is in fact his own earth some years after the Big War. In the awful opening segment of the awful Trial of a Time Lord, the Doctor realizes that the Mysterious Planet Ravelox is actually the earth, way in the future. The Doctor works out Ravelox’s secret when he spots the sign for Marble Arch Tube station; someone has to bash Charlton Heston over the head with the Statue of Liberty before he spots the perfectly obvious.

The revelation that Orphan-55 is earth is pretty well set-up: first we find out that the Holiday Camp is an artificial environment; then we find that it is part of a plot to terraform an inhospitable world; then we find that the world was previously ruined by its original inhabitants; and then the Doctor stumbles on the Russian metro sign. (Why is it always tube stations?)

The Doctor finds out the backstory by Mind Melding with one of the Dregs. The Vulcan Mind Meld is Mr Spock's unique selling point. Allowing the Doctor to use a Time Lord Mind Meld when she needs an info-dump feels distinctly like cheating.

8: NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE PLANET ZOG

All the supporting cast have isshoos, mostly involving family. Some of them resolve their ishoos and some of them lay down their lives nobly for the greater good. A terraforming holiday camp besieged by Aliens on a far future post holocaust earth is not sufficient basis for a story: it has to really be about how one of the supporting characters doesn’t feel that her mum loved her. (It turns out that Mum built the terraforming holiday camp in order to demonstrate her love for her daughter: as you would.) Ed Hime has got the memo that Doctor Who is an emotionally literate soap-opera which happens to have monsters in it.

9: WE ALL HATE POVERTY, WAR AND INJUSTICE: UNLIKE THE REST OF YOU SQUARES

In the early 1970s, every third children's TV series contained a warning about something called "pollution", usually conceived of in terms of Other People pumping smoke into the atmosphere, or Us carelessly dropping crisp packets. It was safe moralism; something everyone agreed with but no-one needed to do very much about. Environmental issues have a much greater urgency in the present day, and young people in particular are rightly quite cross about them.

Nevertheless, when a Doctor Who story starts to talk about "global warming" with the caveat that ordinary people can make a difference many of us groan slightly. Not because it is wrong, but because it is a bit obvious. (Is that what the kind of people who call things "woke" mean when they call this kind of thing "woke"? That it’s a bit obvious?)

Having said all that the central metaphor of Orphan-55 stands up quite well. The one thing we can definitely all do to prevent earth turning into a desolate quarry populated by CO2 breathing mutants is recycle as much as possible. And this story sets an excellent example, being entirely constructed from recycled plot elements.


I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Saturday, March 21, 2020

12.2: Spyfall part 2


In Which The Doctor Is Unbounced 


The Doctor's unique selling point is that she has a Time Machine: so the series has to find new ways of being about Time Travel. Old Who used use history as a source of settings and locations R.T.D and Moffat were more interested in using Time to create complicated four dimensional narrative structures. This week, Chibnall allows the Doctor to jump between three different historical settings in a single episode. If the Doctor is going to encounter the Master again, she might as well encounter him in  Victorian England and World War II Paris. This foregrounds the fact that the Doctor is a Time Traveler and ups the ante a little bit higher. We now know that the Alienses are active right through human history. But it doesn't disrupt narrative causality in the way that Moffat's constructions tended to. 

Very Old Who just dropped the Doctor into an historical genre -- knights in armour or cowboys and Indians or the Scarlet Pimpernel. Less Old Who, from the Time Monster inwards, used historical backdrops to tell the same kinds of alien invasion tales that could just as well have happened in 1980s London. New Who Historicals generally involve the Doctor meeting up with some important historical character and bouncing about how famous and important they are. I rather enjoy seeing the Doctor get starstruck, but speeches about everyone being amazing and important in their own way can get a little wearisome. 

This weeks she meets Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and then leaps forward half a century and meets Nora Baker in Nazi occupied Paris. Ada Lovelace is important to the plot because the Alienses are messing around with the development of computers. Nora Baker just happens to be the nearest famous person to the Doctor when the TARDIS misfires.

The scenes are quite fun: I enjoyed the Master coming over all General Zod and forcing the Doctor to kneel to him. The encounter between the Master and the Doctor at the top of the Eiffel Tower was worth the price of admission on its own. They felt like actual people with interiority and motivations; while also being representatives of an alien civilization with a history that they know about and we don't. A hundred and twenty minutes provides the narrative space for longish conversation of this kind. It is taken for granted that Ada Lovelace is the significant person: Babbage comes across as a typically patronising Victorian male. Sylvia Briggs deserves a lot of kudos for playing Ada completely straight; and the script allows her to talk more or less like a Victorian lady is supposed to talk. 

The three plot threads completely fail to come together in an convincing way. The presence of the Master disrupts everything. Daniel Barton is very plausible as a completely unscrupulous computer whiz kid who is still bitter about his upbringing and needing the approval of his mother. He could have been an interesting baddie in his own right. His speech to the conference about how people have given all their personal data and control over their lives to billionaire tech magnates like him was fairly interesting. There could have been an interesting story about what an amoral character could do with all that information. But all Barton's really does is make a Faustian pact: he sell the human race to the Alienses in return for... 

I am not actually quite clear what he was getting out of the deal. It's hard to see what someone who likes fast cars and parties and prestige would do in a world where all the rest of the human race has been wiped out. And although there is a bit of waffle about how the Alienses are made of data and want to rewrite human DNA because the human mind is the most powerful hard drive in the universe, it really boils down to "They want to conquer the earth because they are Doctor Who baddies and that is what Doctor Who baddies do." 

The presence of the Master saps both the human and the Alien villains of any agency or motivation. The Master does stuff because he's Evil. Barton and the Alienses do things because the Master has manipulated them. The whole scheme was only ever a ruse to get the Doctor's attention so the Master can tell her what he has discovered about the True History of Gallifrey. 

I guess the Master has to exist. Once you have had the idea of a traveler who bounces through history doing Good Things, the idea that she has a counterpart who growls through history doing bad things is irresistible. In some way, the Monk was a better idea: a naughty version of the Doctor who mucks around with history because it's fun. The Monk had an objective: the Master is evil for the sake of being evil; because being evil annoys the Doctor. Delgado and Ainley were Punch and Judy devils; John Simm redefined that character as a psychotic imp, with a sadomasochistic crush on the Doctor. Missy was pure, genre bending camp and quite brilliant at it. If a series allows character to regenerate, this is what regeneration should look like: versions of the same character who are completely unlike one another. It is easy enough to believe that Jodie Whittaker is a different manifestation of David Tennant. Believing that John Simm and Michelle Gomez are the same person requires an act of faith.

Sacha Dhawan can definitely act. But he's doing John Simms all over again: a grinning, gleeful, Luicferian clown. 


The Master's revelations -- that Gallifrey is dead, again, and that there is something unpleasant in Gallifreyan history that even the Doctor doesn't know about -- noticeably changes Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. We find out that she can brood as well as bounce. The final scene, with her separated from the rest of the TARDIS crew while Graham awkwardly asks her questions about her identity, fixes a lot of what was broken in the last season. Bradley Walsh is wonderful in scenes like this, when he has to act as the grown-up member of the crew: I wish Chibnall could resist the temptation to use him as comic relief in other scenes.


*

Back in Human Nature, Paul Cornell playfully claimed that the Doctor's parents were named Sydney and Verity. In An Adventure and Time and Space, Sacha Dhawan did a very good turn as Waris Hussain. So it is now canonically true that the Master produced the First Doctor.


I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)