Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Doctor Who: 1978

After episode 491 (The Stones of Blood, part 4)
22 November 1978
<< back to 1977

Frank Bough interviews Tom Baker
Nationwide, BBC1, 22 November 1978
In the early evening of 22 November 1978, the BBC's live news magazine Nationwide (basically, The One Show but without the view out the window) celebrated the 15th birthday of Doctor Who. It was, in the best traditions of a show about a rackety time machine, a day early.

Nationwide spoke first to the show's original producer, Verity Lambert, and then to actress Carole Ann Ford, who'd played the Doctor's first companion (and granddaughter), Susan. Then presenter Frank Bough spoke to Mary Tamm - the Doctor's current companion, Romana. Finally, he turned to Tom Baker, who sat brooding beside him.

What happens next is fascinating. You can watch it as an extra on The Stones of Blood DVD or, ahem, on YouTube. Tom seems in a garrulous mood, or bored, and his answers brusque, even combative.
Of course, you are Doctor Who aren't you?

Well, yes I am. I am.

I mean, all the time - aren't you?

Well, I mean I'm not as benevolent as... Doctor Who is not really an acting part but I mean I'm not as benevolent as the character and as kind as the character and even-tempered as the character. But yes, it's just me. That's all I suppose.

But you have to be Doctor Who all the time, I'm told. People regard you totally where they see you as Doctor Who and nothing else. Do you see that?

Well I don't have to be Doctor Who any more than you have to be Frank Bough!

Yes, but I am Frank Bough!

Yeah, I know you are. I'm Doctor Who because I only have a fictional image.

But I don't have a fictional image. I am me.

Of course you do. People don't really believe you exist. They only see you on the television. I mean, I see you at cricket games and things like that. But it's true, people have a televisual impression of you as they have of me. In my case, of course, I play a heroic figure whereas you're associated with rather terrifying -

They want to talk to me about sport but they want to regard you as Doctor Who. Now, can't you stop being Doctor Who and become Tom Baker occasionally?

Well, of course I can. I do that at home or I do it in the bar with Mary Tamm or somebody like that. But the point is when I meet anybody who's interested in Doctor Who there's no point in presenting Tom Baker because they find Tom Baker very dreary.

Tell me a bit about how people regard you and the effect you have on the audience, who are convinced you are Doctor Who. What sort of way do people behave when they see you?

Well, I mean mostly the reaction is one of cheerfulness and happiness because they associate me with the children being vastly amused by me or interested in what I do as the character of the Doctor. And they also ascribe to me - such is the gullibility of the public and the potency of television – they ascribe to me all the virtues of Doctor Who. For example, I don't need anything boring like a bank card, for example. I don't even need money now because people make the assumption because I play this benevolent fictional character that I am, you know, that my probity is totally beyond question.

So you have to work very hard – if you're not very nice as Tom Baker then you have to be very nice as Doctor Who when the occasion demands it.

Ah ha! Yeah, it's not difficult. I get on all right with people – superficially.
Bough failing to appreciate the difference between his real self and his televisual image would ultimately cost him his career. Wikipedia quotes Paul Connew, formerly of The News of the World, saying that the 1988 sex and drugs scandal,
"caused a sensation at the time, given Bough's public image as the squeaky clean frontman of breakfast and sports television."
It's fascinating to see Tom address the power that television gives him over members of the public in the light of the awful revelations about other TV stars of the time. Television was much more influential back then - with fewer channels, fewer alternatives to telly, and bigger, less media savvy audiences. Tom clearly saw the impact of that influence in his daily dealings with the public - and he took his responsibilities to them seriously.

He was certainly no angel - his autobiography is candid about booze and sex and being difficult on set - and yet he tried not to let children see him with a cigarette or beer, or being ordinary and dreary. Even when adults spotted "the Doctor", he tried not to disappoint them by merely being himself. It's striking that Bough seems amazed he'd make that effort.

Playing the Doctor is more than just an acting job, it also involves a public-facing role: you're expected to charm and entertain children off-screen as well as on, there are conventions, signings, charity things. Even years after you leave the role, it's the first thing people will mention. There are all the many people who, thrilled by your adventures, feel kinship, ownership, entitlement (look at how I blithely refer to my childhood hero as "Tom", when I've met him fleetingly a handful of times...).

Is it different from other leading roles? I suspect the presenters and stars of children's TV are the ones most likely to cause offence by not appearing as they seem on screen. But I'd love to know from David Tennant, for example, how much his dad's job as Moderator of the Church of Scotland, served as a model for how to conduct himself as the Doctor. Tom, after all, was once a monk...

Next episode: 1979

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tell me of your homeworld, Usul

I've just finished rereading Dune, having first got through it in my teens. In my head, the book is rather overshadowed by the 1984 film - which I adore - and more importantly by the stickerbook that I and my classmates devotedly filled up because of/despite being far too young to see the film.

As before, I was struck by the richness of the story, the wealth of memorable characters, the complexity of the court politics and the worlds created. The desert planet Arakis is an extraordinary creation, with sounds, smells and language, and a whole ecology, that feel tantalisingly real.

It's not perfect. A lot of the dialogue is horribly clunky, and I can see where the film has cut down or modified examples to make it work more smoothly. Early on, Herbert constantly tells us what's about to happen, which initially adds to the suspense and then just gets annoying. It's at its best when we're left with more work to do as readers, spotting the gaps between what people think they're doing and what they're seen to be doing, or being able to join up the dots of future history. Quotations by Princess Irulan discuss events we're yet to see, placing them in a context of an as-yet-unknown future and adding a scale and importance to the most minor scenes of intrigue. It's a thrill when we meet her in person towards the end of the book, as if we've entered some new age.

Nosing through the web, I've found analysis of the book's links to drug, ecological and countercultures, the islamic influences and so on. I've also found plenty of criticism, such as Samuel R Delany taking
"offense that the book's only portrayal of a homosexual character, the vile pervert Baron Harkonnen, is negative."
Wikipedia, Dune (novel)
At least as objectionable is the simplistic gender binary that runs through the book, with hero Paul fulfilling a prophecy to be the only man capable of doing something normally the province of women. When he succeeds and fulfils the prophecy, it seems to prove the truth of this strict binary division between men and women.
"Paul said: 'There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it's almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman the situation is reversed ... The greatest peril to the Giver is the force that takes. The greatest peril to the Taker is the force that gives. It's as easy to be overwhelmed by giving as by taking.'"
Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 505.
That certainty sits oddly at the end of a book so otherwise - brilliantly - caught up in doubt, counterplot and pragmatism, where characters die brutal deaths suddenly and without warning.

I found myself wondering how rare it is in sci-fi for a prophecy not to come true, or a young hero turn out to be not the messiah... Yes, I'd welcome examples.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Doctor Who: 1977

Episode 455: Horror of Fang Rock, part 2
First broadcast: 6.15 pm, Saturday 10 September 1977
<< back to 1976
Leela threatens Lord Palmerdale,
The Horror of Fang Rock, part 2
(image swiped from Doctor Who gifs)
As wise Jonny Morris puts it in the most recent Doctor Who Magazine,
"this story is the third in what has to be the most impressive run of stories in the show's history."
Part of the strength of The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock is how well written the new companion is. Leela is a brilliant character: bold, brave and never stupid, she's grown up as a "savage" (the word the series uses) on an alien world where life is very hard. She's a sci-fi twist on Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, but for all the Doctor is Professor Higgins, teaching her about science and manners and getting her to put some clothes on, he never quite tames the savage within. Leela's best moments are when she doesn't behave like a lady.

Yet there's something troubling about a companion so comfortable with killing, who'll reach for a weapon whenever there's a problem. Tom Baker objected, too, insisting that when Leela kills someone in her first story that the Doctor replies with cold fury:
That wasn't necessary. Who licensed you to slaughter people? No more Janis thorns, you understand? Ever.
After that, she tends to wound not kill people (aliens apparently don't count).

Why is it a problem? It's not as if the Doctor hasn't previously had companions who are ready to fight and kill. All the male companions until Harry were called upon to fight and kill baddies, usually brawling with bare hands as if that's morally better. Sara wanted to kill the Doctor the first time she met him; Zoe was skilled in martial arts (as was Jo, though she rarely used it). The Doctor and his friends are frequently caught up in battles that leave their enemies dead.

Leela, though, is unlike any other companion before or since because of her relish for killing. As I said, we rarely see her kill after her first story so it's all in her words. There's her response to Palmerdale that I've chosen as my image:
Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart.
There's more in part four, as she taunts the Rutan:
Enjoy your death as I enjoyed killing you!
Later, the Doctor's chides her again - but she won't be chided.
Been celebrating, have you?

It is fitting to celebrate the death of an enemy.
Most brutally of all there's the moment she thinks she's been blinded right at the end of the story.
Slay me, Doctor.


I'm blind. Slay me now. It is the fate of the old and crippled.
This response to disability is foreshadowed in the opening episode, where Leela misunderstands a reference to Reuben "killing himself" with work, and asks if he is crippled. It's a shocking idea to put into the mouth of our main identification figure in a family show on at Saturday tea-time. Yes, it helps that the Doctor tells Leela quite clearly that she's wrong - but I'm not sure quite enough.

Part of the problem is the strength of the imagery. It's not just Leela's death we conjure in our minds but also that of the old and crippled. I spoke before about how the language used can make Doctor Who more vivid and horrible than anything we're shown on screen.

And yet, I think it's important that when Leela says these things she's not dressed as a savage: she's in ordinary jeans and a jumper. It's a brilliant juxtaposition: the words she uses cut against how she appears. She might look like an ordinary young woman but inside she's something wild. It's very rare in the old show to get inside a character's head and see the world as they do - but with Leela we do.

It's a shame that, from the next story, Leela takes a retrograde step and puts her animal skins back on. Actress Louise Jameson has said before that it's almost as if those in charge could (unconsciously) only allow such a strong female character if at the same time they took her clothes off. But I'm not sure I agree, because when they take Leela's clothes off her again the writing stops being as strong.

With the one exception of The Sun Makers - where Leela gets lines like,
You touch me again and I'll fillet you.
- for the rest of Season 15 she is written as rather a generic companion, chasing round after the Doctor to ask him what's going on. How much more brilliant and rich and rewarding if she had worn ordinary clothes? The writers would have had to remind us in dialogue and action that she wasn't what she seemed, and that would have meant more compelling stories and better served the character.

For all she grew up on another planet, Leela is a human - the last human companion in the series for some time. But when she's written well, with such bloodthirsty imagery, she's the most alien best friend the Doctor ever had.

Next episode: 1978

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cast and crew of Graceless 3

The splendid fellows at Big Finish have announced the cast and crew of Graceless 3, what I wrote. Their announcement goes like this:

Champagne celebration for final Graceless

The third – and final – series of Graceless will be released at the end of June, bringing an end to the adventures of time-travelling sisters Abby and Zara. The three-part series, written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman, reunites Ciara Janson as Abby and Laura Doddington as Zara – along with a guest cast of new and familiar faces to the Graceless universe.

“It’s sad to be saying goodbye to Abby and Zara, but after three series, we felt that the story of Graceless was coming to a natural end,” says producer Mark Wright. “It’s been such a happy creative time working with Simon, Lisa, Ciara and Laura over the last few years, and I think that the scripts Simon has come up with for this last series really do the characters justice. And it’s been a real privilege to work with a fantastic guest cast, and to welcome back some old friends to the series for the final episode.”
Part one, The Edge, resolves the series two cliffhanger, which saw Abby and Zara lost in the vortex, with Abby washing up at a strange hotel on the edge of a cliff in search of Zara. But will she want to be found? Tim Bentinck and Sunny Ormonde – better known as David Archer and Lillian Bellamy in BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers – guest star as Albert and Miss Simone, along with Joe Coen as Kurt and Paul Copley as Dennis. Joe recently appeared in the TV mini series The Bible, and for Big Finish has recorded the Doctor Who audios The Elite and Binary. Paul Copley’s extensive CV includes The LakesDownton Abbey, the Bafta-winning Last Tango in Halifax, as well as the acclaimed Big Finish Doctor Who audio Spare Parts.
Part two, The Battle, takes Abby and Zara to the Battle of Maldon in 10th century Britain, where they discover the true consequences of their actions throughout space and time. Can they convince a historian in the far future to help them put things right? Critically acclaimed actress Geraldine James guest stars in The Battle as Chi. Amongst her many credits, Geraldine has starred in TV drama Band of Gold, as Mrs Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr, and most recently in Channel 4’s Utopia. Tim Chipping (Troyand the Big Finish Companion Chronicle The Wanderer) joins the cast as Burtnoth, with Joe Coen as Olaf.
With a universe and history against them, Abby and Zara find they have nowhere else to go – apart from the one place they nearly called home. But what will they find there on the day they choose to die? Consequences, the final episode of Graceless, sees the return of Michael Cochrane and Joanna Van Gyseghem reprising the roles of Brondle and Wing, first seen in series two’s The Flood. They are joined by another old friend to the series in Fraser James, who once again plays Marek – but is it a Marek that Abby and Zara will recognise?
“Lisa Bowerman has assembled such a brilliant guest cast for this third series,” says Mark, “and to be able to welcome back Michael, Joanna and Fraser for the final episode was the icing on the cake. We’ve loved every second of making Graceless over the years, and we hope our listeners enjoy the finale as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.”
Graceless III is available to pre-order now as a three-disc CD box set for the special pre-order price of £22, or as a digital download for £17.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Doctor Who: 1976

After episode 427: (The Seeds of Doom, part six)
July 1976
<< back to 1975
Doctor Who and the Fish Invasion of London
You can establish the credentials of a Doctor Who fan with a few quick questions. Who is their favourite Doctor? What was the first story they ever saw - and do they know the name of it and when it was broadcast? What episode was first broadcast closest to the day they were born - and do they have to work it out or do they already know?

I was born in June 1976 in the gap between the end of Season 13 (The Seeds of Doom, part six, was first broadcast on 6 March) and the start of Season 14 (The Masque of Mandragora, part one, was first broadcast on 4 September). So I like to think that my birth story is the LP Doctor Who and the Pescatons, released that July.

It was the first Doctor Who story produced in the audio format, and starred the two leads of the show at the time (Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen recorded an episode of the educational radio programme Exploration Earth a few weeks before they recorded The Pescatons, but that episode - "The Time Machine" wasn't broadcast until October).

It's a daft old story - a giant space fish invades London before the Doctor and Sarah Jane can defeat it using special sound. Writer Victor Pemberton reused elements (i.e. the whole plot) of his Second Doctor story Fury from the Deep (1968) - which had itself reused elements of an earlier radio play.

Listening to it again, I realised how similar the format is to a lot of the Doctor Who audio adventures I write now for Big Finish. It's two episodes; it's a mixture of narration and dramatised scenes; there's one guest actor; and it tells an ambitious story that the TV show probably couldn't afford to realise while still trying to emulate the feel of the TV show of the time.

The Pescatons has clearly been written with Tom Baker's Doctor in mind - it's full of his eccentricity and strangeness, and the action scenes are more violent than anything from the Second Doctor's time.

But for all it stars Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah Jane, their characters don't quite ring true. The tone is really peculiar. The Doctor's narration is oddly jokey delivery, such as in this scene from episode 2:
The creature reared up; its long, pointed teeth moving in for the attack. For one moment, it looked as though the creature was going to ignore me and claw straight into Sarah Jane and the baby. To regain its attention, I had to do just about everything except turn a cartwheel. Thinking about it, I'm not too sure I didn't even do that. Anything I could lay my hands on I threw at it: stones, dustpan bins, milk bottles, even an old boot somebody had discarded in rather a hurry. But still the creature ignored me and slid closer and closer towards Sarah Jane and the baby.
It might have his voice but this doesn't sound like the Doctor. Today, that sort of thing would usually be picked up and corrected by the script editor and producer, or caught by the unblinking eye that we refer to, in hushed whisper, as "Cardiff". I suspect the Doctor making jokes while a baby was in danger would also be cause for concern.

I don't mean this as any kind of judgement on The Pescatons, just to note the historic moment and show how things have changed. After all, how can you not love a story in which the Doctor saves Sarah Jane and a baby from a giant alien fish by singing "Hello Dolly!"?

Next episode: 1977

Monday, May 06, 2013

Diegesis, fabula, synergy and syuzhet

A few weeks ago, Brother Tom and I were asked to speak to some AS and BTEC students about making short films. We basically told them, "Don't listen do us: go and make stuff".

I was fascinated by one of the teaching rooms, the walls covered with technical terms the students needed to know for their exams. Here's just a small selection:

Friday, May 03, 2013

Doctor Who: 1975

Episode 408: Pyramids of Mars, part 3
First broadcast: 5.45 pm, Saturday 8 November 1975
<< back to 1974
Sarah Jane takes aim
Pyramids of Mars, part 3
This blog thing of choosing one moment from each calendar year of Doctor Who has taught me a new fact! Until I started thinking about what I'd do for 1975, I'd never noticed that that year boasted a whopping 39 new episodes - from Robot part 2 (4 January) to The Android Invasion part 4 (13 December). I wonder how much showing a season and a half in one year helped cement new Doctor Tom Baker in the public mind? We can but dream of such riches today. Anyway, this plethora of episodes made choosing one moment quite tricky.

I've chosen something from Pyramids of Mars - a story I'm especially in love with. It's a very good story to show people who don't know old Doctor Who (see an introduction I wrote to it for some students). That's why it, of all Sarah Jane's 18 adventures with the Third and Fourth Doctors, was included on the DVD of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Fourth Series to thrill a new generation of viewers. In 1998, readers of Doctor Who Magazine voted it the 4th best Doctor Who story ever; in 2009 they voted it seventh best of the then 200 stories.

It was also the first old Doctor Who story I - or rather my brother Tom - owned. My elder brother and sister bought the video as a Christmas present for him in, I think, 1990. We watched it endlessly and it's the Doctor Who story I know best of all. Yet I still spot new things each time. Watching it again recently I was struck by how often our heroes depend on the most extraordinary good fortune.

In her first scene, Sarah just happens to have rummaged through a wardrobe in the TARDIS and put on a period dress before the TARDIS crash lands in the year 1911 - where the dress fits in just right. This coincidence isn't helped when the Doctor says the dress was worn by his former companion Victoria: she was from 1866, nearly 50 years earlier.

In part 3, when the Doctor explains the history of villainous Sutekh and the ancient Egyptian gods, Sarah already knows some of it, referring to,
The seven hundred and forty gods whose names were recorded in the tomb of Thutmoses the Third.
That's quite a precise bit of egyptological knowledge. As I discovered when I visited the Valley of Kings in early 2012, the tomb of Thutmoses III is not one tourists usually see. It's an earlier tomb than the rest, the wall decorations (which do indeed name 740 gods) simpler, less striking, so tourists are often disappointed. It's conceivable that Sarah has been to the tomb or had read about it somewhere, but it's still quite a thing to be able to recall when needed. (Presumably, it's from whatever reference book the writer used as a basis for the story.)

Later in the same episode, Sarah also just happens to be a brilliant shot - though she and the Doctor never mention or use this skill again in any other episode she appears in. There's something striking and cool about Sarah Jane in an Edwardian frock pointing a rifle at an alien spaceship but it's completely out of place for the character. (I'll talk about companions wielding weapons another time.)

It's not just Sarah. In part 1, the Doctor congratulates Laurence Scarman on conveniently,
Inventing the radio telescope forty years early.
In part 2, Laurence shows Sarah a good hiding place in the house - a priest hole he and his brother found when they were boys. The Doctor isn't impressed when Sarah mentions this priest hole.
In a Victorian gothic folly? Nonsense.
But pointing it out as nonsense doesn't excuse it being there. In part 4, two things that help the Doctor outwit Sutekh - the TARDIS controls being isomorphic so only the Doctor can work them and the Doctor's respiratory bypass - have never been mentioned before.

These things suggest a script rewritten in some haste, and it's a mark of the quality of the setting, characters and dialogue - as well as the design and performances - that I'd never spotted them before. Brother Tom reckons that we only notice continuity errors or poor design and performances when we're not caught up in the story. This period of Doctor Who, under producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, is often brilliant at ensnaring us, the stories so shocking and thrilling, the characters so lively, that we rarely notice the joins.

See also: my friend John J Johnston, vice-chair of the Egypt Exploration Society explains a bit about Sutekh's love life.

Next episode: 1976

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Doctor Who: 1974

Episode 370: The Monster of Peladon, part 6
First broadcast: 5.30 pm, Saturday, 27 April 1974
<< back to 1973
"Anybody would think you would prefer me dead."
The Monster of Peladon, part 6
In December 1973, during production of Death to the Daleks, Jon Pertwee gave notice to his producer that he would leave Doctor Who. He would leave at the end of the season, so with 12 episodes still to be made that effectively meant three months' notice. But those 12 episodes broke down into two stories, one just about to start filming.

We don't know the exact day that Pertwee tendered his resignation. The script for the season finale, Planet of Spiders, was not officially commissioned until 5 December 1973 - perhaps after Pertwee had given his notice or with a suspicion that he would. The story had been in development for some time before that (though I couldn't track down it being announced in Radio Times earlier in the year). Elements of the plot may have been carried over from the story originally planned to end this season, The Final Game - which would have written out the Master had the actor Roger Delgado not sadly died.

But once the production team knew Pertwee was leaving, Spiders becomes all about writing him out - and does so very effectively. My chum Gary put it all much better than me, saying the
"story weaves together the warp and weft of a whole era ... Planet of the Spiders sends the Third Doctor off in style; buried like a Pharaoh with all the symbols of his glorious reign. This is a story with much lingering power, and has a greater influence of modern Doctor Who than any other. "
That ought to be more than an enough of a send-off for the magnificent Third Doctor. But I love the fact that the previous story includes some nice foreshadowing of the death to come, added to the script at the very last minute. In part 6 of The Monster of Peladon, Sarah finds the Doctor seemingly dead and there's a poignant close-up on her tears - before he opens her eyes and tells her not to be silly.

It's especially brilliant because it's so similar to the same scene between them six weeks later, when the Doctor really does die. The audience also knew that Pertwee was leaving (it was announced to the public on 8 February) so might even have thought this was it. The scene plays on what we know in addition to what's happening on screen, and the lightness of the Doctor chiding Sarah for her tears is doing what so many production teams have tried to do since in the lead up to a finale. It teases us, "Keep watching: there's something big to come."

But best of all is Sarah's reaction as she follows the Doctor out of the room to get on with things. That resigned shrug to the madness of it all is one of my favourite things in Doctor Who.

Next episode: 1975