Spyfall

Spyfall is, of course, a James Bond parody.  James Bond and Doctor Who are very different and while it is amusing to see Doctor Who pastiche elements of Bond (the briefing, the casino and dinner jacket, car chases and assassinations), it feels quite different to Bond, especially in the time travelling second half.  Inasmuch as it is Bond, it’s more For Your Eyes Only than The Spy Who Loved Me, a slow-burning character piece rather than an epic action spectacular.  In fact, the most effective scene is the horror/suspense sequence of the Kasaavin attacking the Australian agents in the Outback, which is not Bond at all.

The first part is brisk and effective, but the second episode falls apart a bit.  The cross-temporal story feels bitty, not lingering in any locale long enough to build up a sense of place or tension.  Daniel Barton is sidelined when we really need to see more of him and his plan.  Once O’s true identity is revealed, Barton goes from master villain to henchman, which is disappointing, as Lenny Henry was sinister in the first half and later in the lecture scene as he plan appears to be about to work.  I’m not sure why the Kasaavin want to turn everyone into computers or what Barton thinks he’s going to get out of it.  Info dump scenes where the villain reveals his whole plan are endemic to both Doctor Who and James Bond, so it’s no wonder the Master delivers a big one here.  Sacha Dhawan does at least portray a Master malevolent enough to make his plan seem reasonable, at least to a psychopath.

To be honest, I don’t like “celebrity historicals” much.  They seem to assume the audience are ignorant and lazy, info dumping information for context instead of leaving the audience the fun of independent research (let’s not forget Doctor Who was originally educational).  It leads to very stilted dialogue and storytelling.  Ada and Noor could each have their own episodes, whereas here they are reduced to bit-players.  A more focused episode two could have reduced the time travelling and spent more time on the Fam on the run.

The ontological paradox on the plane escape is a narrative flaw of a different kind, essentially just a cheat, and one already over-used by Steven Moffat.

Sacha Dhawan is probably the highlight of the story in what are essentially two different roles.  More than any other Master, he seems to be playing a part as O, not just wearing a mask.  He says he had “fun” impersonating O and appears to have taken the role seriously enough to work for MI6 to infiltrate properly (unlike the John Simm Master who faked Harold Saxon’s background).

The result is a story which starts well and is generally good when Dhawan is on screen, but which loses its way a bit.

Neglected Gems Part 1

I want to re-start my blog now that I’ve finished my Doctor Who book (Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, available from Lulu.com, Amazon UK, Amazon US, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble).  I thought I would start with a lockdown-friendly list post.

Are you fed up with watching the same old classic stories again and again in lockdown?  Here are thirteen neglected gems, one for each (main) Doctor!

The Space Museum

The Space Museum is a story that no one seems to like very much, at least not beyond the first episode or so, but I feel it has a lot going for it, even once you get past the excellent, unsettling first episode.  Although it’s usually dismissed as clichéd, as Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles pointed out in About Time 1, this is really the first time we see some of Doctor Who’s standards, like the scene where the Doctor resists interrogation by some kind of “mind probe” or the villains being a bunch of bored bureaucrats rather than Space Nazis or the Lovecraftian horror of The Animus.  There’s an early bit of postmodern “meta” humour in episode two where the Doctor hides in the Dalek casing, and I’ve always been fond of Vicki telling the armoury computer that the Xerons want arms for “Revolution!” – Vicki was a far more spunky character than Susan, and sadly ignored by fans.  The music, although all from stock, is fairly atmospheric too.

The story has some downsides: a “rebels vs. tyrants” set-up that had already been seen twice this season, wet rebels (although one went on to play Boba Fett, seen as the ultimate in SF cool) and drab sets, but it has enough going for it to be worth a look, particularly if you haven’t seen a Hartnell for a while.

 

The Underwater Menace

I feel rather sorry for The Underwater Menace, a story remembered for one line (“Nothing in the world can stop me now!”), and not in a good way.  Even when episode two was suddenly rediscovered, it was soon overshadowed by the return of The Enemy of the World and most of The Web of Fear, both of which made it to DVD long before The Underwater Menace episode two, an episode which for some months seemed to be in the unenviable position of being the only classic Doctor Who episode that the BBC was too ashamed to release commercially.  Even when it did appear on DVD, the reconstructions of the two missing episodes were cursory and not really intelligible without another guide, like the narrated audio CD.

Fandom seems to have discovered season four lately with the animated releases of The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones and while The Underwater Menace is undoubtedly the runt of that litter, it is still a lot of fun in a similar vein.  Zaroff is an over-the-top villain, but that has never really stopped anyone in Doctor Who before (just ask Missy) and, like a true Bond villain, he has a pet octopus to feed his enemies to, while asserting that he has a sense of humour.  Zaroff’s plan to destroy the world is nonsense, but at least the characters in the story dismiss it as such, unlike Davros’ similar plan to destroy the multiverse in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, which was presented as a sensible thing to try to do.  Troughton is, as ever, on form in his earliest surviving episodes, cheerfully blowing pepper through his recorder and wearing outrageous headgear (as does Polly).  The Fish People are less than terrifying on screen, but conceptually they are the type of body horror that would come to be associated with the programme, plus I can’t help but like a story where the Doctor and friends defeat the villain by persuading the monsters to form a trade union and go on strike.

 

The Mutants

I found the novelisation of The Mutants to be the most boring thing ever, but when I finally got around to watching the original episodes, I was pleasantly surprised to find them a very different proposition.  It’s a Pertwee era “political” story, so it wears its heart on its sleeve, but no one is really going to argue with its anti-racism-and-imperialism narrative.  The acting is mostly solid, with one or two unfortunate exceptions, and it’s always nice to see Geoffrey Palmer die horribly again.

The story has an intriguing “hard science fiction” premise of a kind that Doctor Who did not always attempt and the Solonians’ lifecycle fits with the early seventies atmosphere of New Age renewal and homo sapiens making way for homo superior.  Bob Baker and Dave Martin were noted for sprawling, out of control storylines that had too much happening and would be too expensive to make, but The Mutants is arguably more comfortable with its length than their previous The Claws of Axos, with the big ideas of terraforming Solos and the Solonian’s evolution fitting together fairly neatly.  Jim Acheson’s Mutant costumes are some of the most impressive seen in Doctor Who, leaving viewers wondering how the actors had to contort themselves to get inside the non-human form.

Part two coming soon

Dark Water/Death in Heaven, Last Christmas

I don’t like Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but I find it hard to work out why.   The direction is good and occasionally striking, with some good cinematography.  The acting is fine, with Michelle Gomez being quite disturbing in places as Missy.  The idea of a hyperactive childish ‘kerazy’ Master has never entirely sat well with me (I prefer the quiet, sinister presence of a Roger Delgado or a Geoffrey Beevers), but if you are going down this route, Gomez was much more disturbing and convincing than John Simm.

The script is more problematic.  The plot, about zombie Cybermen pollinating across Earth, is silly, but no more so than a lot of Doctor Who, or most of this season, which delighted in throwing the most bizarre ideas at us.  There isn’t actually much substance to the plot; like a lot of new Who, it’s involved in a frantic rush from set piece to set piece without much actual exploration or discovery, but again, this is symptomatic of new Who as a whole[1].  The story is rather bleak, but so are stories like The Caves of Androzani and Heaven Sent that I like a lot.

The story does eventually resolve the season’s “Am I a good man?” arc by deciding the Doctor is an idiot helping out and learning, not a good man, a bad man, a hero, a president or an officer, but it’s interesting that I completely forgot that, having twice seen the episode before – it drifts down in the mix and gets lost.  It doesn’t help that none of the Doctors are really idiots.  Part of the problem is that we know the Doctor too well by this stage to really make us think that he is a bad man, although we have been alienated by stories that portrayed him as a rude and unpleasant man.  This is the same mistake that was made with the sixth Doctor’s first season and it’s surprising to see Steven Moffat making it again.

I’m not offended by the dark subject matter, or the stuff about cremations or the concept of an afterlife apparently being made up by the Master.  The death of Osgood was sad, but was never intended to be permanent.  So is it just the cumulative effect of all these little things that annoy me a bit that stops me liking the story?  Is it just one of those stories that presses a lot of my buttons?  It is hard to tell.  Certainly I prefer emotional subtlety, which we don’t always get with new Who and which we certainly don’t get here.  I will always prefer something like the underplayed relationship between Professor Palmer and Emma in Hide to the tearful goodbyes here.

As someone who does not celebrate Christmas, I’m always wary of commenting on Christmas specials, as I’m not really in the audience and watching Last Christmas at midday in an August heat wave does not really encourage the necessary atmosphere.  It is a fairly involving and in places slightly horrific story, somewhat sentimental, but arguably more justifiably so than Death in Heaven.    Steven Moffat uses the special as a coda to the previous season finale and a breathing space to allow for characterisation rather than making it an epic event in its own right, a technique he would later take even further with Twice Upon a Time.

It’s funny in parts, scary in parts, silly in parts, sad in parts, which is probably what was required.  I found it hard to get involved on repeated viewing knowing what was ‘real’ which is not a problem I have with Amy’s Choice and I’m not quite sure why that was.  Perhaps there isn’t much to this other than the dream within a dream gimmick, at least if you aren’t invested in the Clara/Danny relationship, and I’m not.

Nick Frost is credited in the opening titles, which probably makes Dream Santa technically a companion, at least in the ‘one story companion’ sense that Adelaide Brooke, Lady Christina de Souza and the like are considered by some fans, although it was Shona who proved the surprise hit with fandom, probably largely on the basis of her fearlessly geeky dance routine at the start.  (‘One story companion’ has always seemed vaguely like an oxymoron to me.)  And I did like the joke about Alien although as with similar jokes later in Capaldi’s tenure, you have to wonder about the Doctor’s pop cultural knowledge, which seems either ridiculously detailed or utterly non-existent, depending on what type of joke the writers are aiming for.

[1] One thing that has really struck me watching all of Doctor Who in order again is how little exploration and deduction the modern Doctors do when compared to the stories of the sixties and seventies.  When you get an episode like The Long Game (originally pitched in the late eighties) or Fear Her, with a lot of investigation and deduction, it stands out.  And far from exploring new planets, the Doctor always seems to be trying to take his companions to places he’s visited before, although he doesn’t always succeed.

I guess partly from lack of time and partly to make the Doctor seem even more amazing (new Who spends a lot of time telling us how amazing and all-powerful the Doctor is) he usually knows everything straight off.  Even when he does make a deduction, it’s often based on something already known to him, but not to us, like the significance of the sevens and the Shakri in The Power of Three.  Even when the Doctor doesn’t know what’s going on, he has to know something in advance.  In A Town Called Mercy the Doctor is taken by surprise by street lights that are ahead of their time and makes some deductions… but as soon as Kahler-Jex appears, he’s babbling on about how great the Kahler are because he already knows of them.  I feel something has been lost.  The Doctor has become an explorer who never explores, who seems to know almost everything in advance in a series that used to be at least vaguely about empiricism.  This isn’t quite unique to new Who as the sixth and seventh Doctors had similar troubles at times, but with the latter at least it was part of a radical reimagining of the programme.  This just seems like laziness.