The Faceless Ones (Animation)

I had dropped out of the habit of getting the animated reconstructions.  I bought Shada (which wasn’t quite the same thing as later releases) and The Power of the Daleks, but had not bought The Macra Terror and had not thought about getting The Faceless Ones urgently.  I had the audios and the surviving episodes and clips and did not think I would gain much more from the animations.

I recently bought The Macra Terror and was impressed enough to quickly by The Faceless Ones too.  They give a better idea of the story and how it would have looked.  The animation of The Faceless Ones seem more fluid and detailed than the previous releases, although I was surprised they gave the titular Faceless Ones crude faces (eyes, nose, mouth) when the surviving photos show that they had no face at all, not unlike the people from The Idiot’s Lantern .

I was glad that they have chosen to animate overlooked stories like The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones alongside more obvious crowd-pleasers like The Power of the Daleks and Fury from the Deep (coming soon).  I do hope for a swift release of The Evil of the Daleks, although I imagine it would be an expensive production, given the number of characters and settings.

The Faceless Ones has a fairly strong plot, about the kidnapping of holidaying teenagers by aliens who are identity thieves of a rather different kind.  Strangely, the Invasion of the Body-Snatchers card is not really played very much here, with only a few scenes where it is unclear who a character is.  It makes a change from the usual Troughton base under siege and the story has a 1960s vibe previously only seen in The War Machines (broadcast the previous year, but set on the same day).

The final episode in particular is strong as the Doctor exploits the divisions between the aliens (classic Troughton deviousness) while his friends try to keep up with his bluffing.  It’s good to have a visual record of this at last.

The plot is stretched a bit thin, with some padding with death-traps, although the Goldfinger-style laser scene is better animated than on audio alone.  Malcolm Hulke (here getting his first Who credit, alongside David Ellis) was not the greatest plotter, but his usual strong characterisation is present here, particularly the Commandant (who transforms believably from uncomprehending bureaucrat to valuable ally over six episodes) and Scouse teenager Sam Briggs, who comes across as even more contemporary than Ben and Polly, who are sadly absent for most of their final story.

There’s good acting too, particularly Donald Pickering as the villainous Captain Blade and Bernard Kay as Inspector Crossland – two actors who made a number of strong Doctor Who appearances, but never seem to be spoken of by fans in the way that, say, Michael Wisher or Michael Sheard are.

One of the amusing things about this story is the way that the Chameleons, who are not exactly a premier league enemy, are convinced of their own superiority, and the intelligence of their Director.  At least they have self-belief.

Neglected Gems Part 4

The final part of my mini-series on unfairly neglected Doctor Who stories!

Fear Her

I’ve never understood the sheer hatred Fear Her has inspired since its broadcast.  Indifference I could understand, but not hatred.  To many fans, this is the worst episode of Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, if not one of the worst of all time.

I concede that the monsters are subpar.  The father in the wardrobe conceit doesn’t really work.  We don’t see enough to really buy it as a threat, and what we do see isn’t scary enough.  And there is a huge dollop of sentimentality, especially over the Olympics.  But excess sentimentality is, in my opinion, a problem with a lot of Davies-era stories and never stopped episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End topping polls.  At least in this story the Doctor and Rose seem likeable and believable, compared with other stories this season, where they often radiated smugness, acting like a couple of demi-gods who deigned to descend from Olympus to patronise us mere mortals.  The bit where Rose shoots daggers at the Doctor for eating marmalade out of the jar is one of my favourite Doctor/Rose bits in this season, not least for being done non-verbally.

I suspect the problem for a lot of people with this story is that it goes further into both fantasy and children’s fiction than Doctor Who usually ventures, and low fantasy at that, thus alienating all the fans who insist that Doctor Who is Serious Adult Science Fiction.  If you’re one of those fans, then this probably isn’t for you.  But please don’t stop me from liking it.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

This story seems to get a lot of flack just for having a TARDIS interior without roundels.  In fact, the “roundels everywhere” approach is inconsistently applied in the original series – just see Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction if you prefer) or The Invasion of TimeJourney to the Centre of the TARDIS is hardly flawless, with some confused plot elements that took me a couple of viewings to fully understand and a strange twist that requires the Doctor to fake a threat of destruction before the story introduces a real one. I have to say this is probably one of the weaker stories on this list for me.  However, the TARDIS is presented convincingly as a living labyrinth leaking time, the Doctor is quietly manipulative and there are some nice surreal moments even if they production team’s intentions didn’t quite meet the budget with some rooms reduced to views through doorways.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood

I was going to write about In the Forest of the Night, but much of what I said about Fear Her applies to it.  So I’ll go for Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which surprised me by appearing near the bottom of the poll for series nine.

I feel it has a lot going for it: the enclosed atmosphere of the first half (ghost story/base under siege hybrid) broadening out to the surreal abandoned mock-Soviet village of the second.  The time travel paradox is handled well (I like time-travel stories, but they’re rare outside of Moffat’s time on the show, except for Dennis Spooner’s tenure  as story editor*).  It’s very creepy even if the pseudoscientific explanations don’t entirely hold water (again, not unusual for Doctor Who).  There’s a decent monster too who towers over Peter Capaldi, although he isn’t seen much.  The story even gets away with breaking the fourth wall, just don’t ask me how (well, as we would find out a few episodes later, the Doctor always needs an audience).

Arachnids in the UK

I admit that I don’t know which Jodie Whittaker stories are considered good, beyond knowing that I’m in a minority in preferring her first season to her second.  Arachnids in the UK is a rather silly story, but a lot of fun, even if the not-Trump is a bit of a stock “evil American businessman.”  Giant creepy crawlies is something Doctor Who has done quite a bit, with varying degrees of efficiency.  It’s no surprise this feels like a bit of a throwback to the Pertwee era, with giant spiders, a corrupt businessman and an ecological theme.  Leaving all the spiders to die is a bit of a brutal ending though.

That said, my favourite bit only happened in my head: when the Doctor asks “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” Robertson responds, “Some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”

*For more on the appearance of time travel stories under Dennis Spooner and Steven Moffat, see my book, Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, by D. G. Saunders, available from Lulu.com and also Amazon US, Amazon UK, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble!

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

Listen and Time Heist

Listen is many things: chamber piece, ghost story, sit com, origin story for the Doctor.  It’s also an attempt at Blink II, but it tries to hard.  Blink tried hard too, but it tried to be new and to appear effortless.  Listen tries too hard to be Blink for it to really be Listen.  It possibly tells us a little too much about the Doctor’s personal history (see also The Doctor’s Wife and The Name of the Doctor), but that’s not the main problem.  What we learn of the Doctor’s past is shrouded in enough mystery to preserve the enigma of the main character, or what elements of an enigma still remain after years of Time Lords, old school friends, The Dark Times and so on.  The problem is more that nothing quite gels, and that it tries to eat its cake and have it too.

Nothing gels because the sit com scenes are too painful to bear.  Moffat found fame as a writer writing relationship sitcoms and has a go at another one here, as we see the hilarious results of dates interrupted by the spacesuited descendents of the daters (almost certainly not direct descendents, given the events of Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but we didn’t know that at the time.  And why did the Doctor send Orson anyway, and why did he have to wear a spacesuit?), as well as dates (OK, the same date) interrupted more mundanely by tasteless jokes and confused remarks resulting from time travel.  Moffat clearly wants to cross the science fictional, the romantic and the comic, but nothing fits together.  I don’t think that comedy needs to be corralled into special “comedy episodes” but the gear changes here are just too great.  Ghost stories rely on tension, but humour dissipates tension.  It is possible to use comedy to increase tension, but it needs to be done more skilfully than here.  A good example is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when Chang, performing on stage, appears to be about to shoot the Doctor.  “Chang shoot fifteen peasants learning this trick” he states.  It’s his showman’s patter, but in the circumstances, we take it as a threat and the tension ratchets up.  Nothing here works that way, though.  The comedy and the ghost story exist side by side and ultimately detract from each other.

Then there’s the problem I summarised as trying to eat its cake and have it too.  It teases us with an unseen monster present all the time.  At the same time it teases us with the first story without an antagonist (villain or a monster) since… well, I’m not entirely sure.  Inside the Spaceship, probably (although arguably the Doctor was the antagonist there!).  It is possible to be ambiguous and ask questions without answering them, but here things are pushed just a little bit too far.  The moved chalk is OK, but the “LISTEN” graffiti is harder to explain away as something the Doctor forgot he had done and we hadn’t.  The “boy” on Rupert’s bed is one thing, but pause the story just before he departs and that doesn’t look like a human head, although it’s hard to be sure.  Maybe it’s a boy wearing a Halloween mask.  Maybe.  And then there’s Orson’s heritage and connection to Clara and his time travelling ancestor, which seemed to suggest he was Clara and Danny’s descendent, but by the end of the season we knew he couldn’t be.  Too much of what is here seems contrived, at least in retrospect.

This is a pity, because although I have spent nearly 600 words criticising it, in parts at least Listen is very good.  When it stops trying to show off and when Moffat isn’t juggling too many balls, this is a strong ghost story, something new Who has not dabbled in much, preferring to show off its monsters rather than keep them out of sight.  (Classic Who often didn’t have the choice.  It was keep the monsters in the dark or expose them to ridicule.  Warriors of the Deep shows what happens when the production team chose wrongly.)  The scenes in the children’s home the scenes at the end of the universe are very good, tense and eerie.  So good, in fact, that Moffat would return to the ghost story format the next season in Hell Bent.  Actually, at times Listen seems like a dry run for Heaven Sent (for my money the greatest new Who episode to date), with Capaldi being given long speeches and generally being allowed to flex his acting muscles for the camera.  It’s remarkably ‘out there’ in places, something unlike anything else on television and deliberately subversive of Doctor Who’s clichés, and I will always award marks for episodes that try to do that, even if they don’t completely succeed.

On to a quick word about Time Heist, a story that in many ways is the inverse of Listen.  If Listen was the story that seemed great from the pre-publicity, but which disappointed on viewing, Time Heist seemed like a crazy idea in advance (the Doctor robs a bank?!), but everything just slots neatly into place, like a well-picked lock.  Peter Capaldi’s Doctor finally comes into his own here as someone who has earned the right to be rude by his brilliance and quiet compassion.  The criminal team is small enough for everyone to get something to do in the short time available (actually, Clara doesn’t do much except allow for exposition) and likeable enough to be worth spending time with.  I’m not really one for sequels, but a return visit to Psi and Saibra might have been worthwhile.  (Or possibly not, given that their characters were significantly altered by the end.)

The reason for the bank job is ingenious.  I’m sure the idea of a Doctor Who heist movie episode came first, but working from that premise, the easy way of bringing the Doctor into the story would be that the TARDIS was lost in the vault, or the villain threatened to kill Clara or destroy Earth if the Doctor refused to rob a bank for him.  The solution here, that the Doctor was acting to save the “monster” and its mate, is clever and like all good mystery fiction solutions it is hidden in plain sight, yet impossible to guess.  The only really off moment is the memory worms at the beginning.  While it made sense to use something relatively recently established in the canon (see The Snowmen), they had originally been used as a comedy moment and then a dramatic denouement only seen for a few seconds.  Here, while still not seen for long, they seem tonally out of place in an opening sequence that is trying to appear serious and cyberpunky, particularly as the props look a bit, well, silly.  It might just be my favourite episode of the season, though, even more so than Mummy on the Orient Express (although I’m chronically indecisive about favourites, so don’t hold me to that).