Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why you'd name a cow

The Village has not exactly been known for its laugh-a-minute joyousness but there was a good joke in episode 3. Having learned that the rich people have names for their animals, we see dour working-class farmer Middleton (John Simm) with his six cows - which he can tell apart. If you want to see for yourself, it's at 23:00...
(POINTING TO A COW) She was my first.

You should give her a name.

(BAFFLED) She's a cow.
It raised a rare smile and, for a character not given to expressing his feelings, let us see some of his view of the world. Yet, watching Michael Wood's Christina: A Medieval Life on Sunday, it turned out it might not be quite right. 12:20 in, Chris Baldwin, a farm manager, tethers two cows to a plough and explains their importance to the medieval peasant - and also why they had names.
This is Grit and Graceful - single-syllable nearside, double-syllable offside so that when you're working the two of them they know who you're talking to.
Should have thought of that for my cats.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Doctor Who: 1973

Episode 350: The Green Death, episode 1
First broadcast: 5.50 pm, Saturday, 19 May 1973
<< back to 1972
The Doctor reacts to Jo declining a trip to Metebelis 3
The Green Death, episode 1
There are those who will tell you that, unlike this modern Doctor Who, the old-skool show did not dwell on relationships or extended family, that such things were hardly deemed suitable for a family audience and got in the way of the adventures. There are even those who say such things should not feature in new Doctor Who.

But the scares and excitements are all the more palpable when we care for the Doctor's friends. Some of the most powerful moments have come when those relationships are tested: for example, the Doctor and Barbara's arguments in The Aztecs about changing history or Jamie accusing the Doctor of being too callous in The Evil of the Daleks. The departures of companions are often extremely effective because they play to our emotions.

Even today, most companion departures occur at the end of a story - often as a shock twist. The audience may know an actor is leaving but the drama is in how. I'd argue that the departures of Susan, Steven and Victoria all have an impact at least as powerful as anything done since 2005. But they're nothing compared to the loss of Jo Grant.

The main reason for this, I think, is that Jo doesn't leave at the end of The Green Death. Yes, that's the last time we see her (until her return in The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2010). But she actually makes the break from the Doctor in her first scene in episode 1.

In that scene, she and the Doctor talk at cross purposes: him about a jaunt to the planet Metebelis 3 (mentioned in last week's Hide, if not with the same pronunciation), Jo about the latest news of strange things happening in Wales. When she runs off to pack a suitcase, the Doctor thinks she's all set to join him on another adventure. "I'm not going to Metebelis 3!" she snaps - and this most erudite of Doctor's is completely lost for words. He sees what she does not: they're going their separate ways.

Later he tries to persuade her: "Jo, you've got all the time in the world - and all the space. I'm offering them to you." It's one hell of an offer, the same one that makes so many other young women go rather weak at the knees.

"All the time in the world, and all the space.
I'm offering them to you"
The Green Death, episode 1
Yet Jo still turns him down. Worse, she says she's leaving him for a man just like him but younger. As the Doctor says, "I don't know whether to feel flattered or insulted." But he puts on a brave face and is all smiles until the moment she's gone.

"So the fledgling flies the coop..."
The Green Death, episode 1
It's perfectly written and played to pack an emotional punch. There's a hint, too, that the Doctor's been waiting for this to happen. As I've argued, Jo's never been interested in all of time and space. After the events of The Three Doctors when he regained control of the TARDIS, she joined him on a test flight to Metebelis 3 - but they never got there. Having been chased by giant Drashigs in Carnival of Monsters they crash into another spaceship. "I'm never going in that thing again!" Jo complains of the TARDIS. It takes 12 weeks to get home again - after battles across space with Ogrons, the Master and Daleks - but then Jo is as good as her word.

So the Doctor goes to Metebelis 3 on his own. And perhaps Jo's got a point: it's not quite the tranquil place he described.

The Green Death, episode 1
Jo, meanwhile, has met the young man so like the Doctor. Just to hammer home the point, she does exactly what she did the first time she met the Doctor and ruins an experiment. It's the start of a beautiful friendship - and something altogether more.

It's not just that dashing Clifford Jones is like the Doctor but younger: he's also permanently earthbound. Jo's keen to save the Earth as it is not swan about in the future pretending to be someone important. You could argue that her first trip in the TARDIS only underlined her sense of priorities: she saw in Colony in Space what pollution would lead to.

Yet as the story plays out she's also the last to spot what's happening between her and Cliff and between her and the Doctor. That means we're one step ahead of her in what happens next. For the next five weeks, the audience reads between the lines of dialogue and notes the telling glances, and adds layers of extra meaning to what could otherwise be a silly tale about giant maggots.

In the last episode, the villains and monsters are defeated relatively early, allowing time to tie up the loose threads of the "family" surrounding the Doctor. Mike Yates - created specifically as a love interest for Jo - hears that she's engaged and looks momentarily distraught before telling her, "Well, that's marvellous". Only the Brigadier spots that Mike is being brave.

"Uh... Uh... Well, that's marvellous!"
The Green Death, episode 6
(On the rebound, Mike considers his future - and the future of the Earth. It's therefore Jo's fault he'll betray his friends.)

The Brigadier raises a toast and Benton starts singing: we should delight in what's happening. But the Doctor glowers sadly, knocks down his organic fizz and slips off without a word. It's brilliantly rich in things unsaid and yet the meaning is clear: the Doctor loves Jo and she knows all too well as she leaves him for another man.

Down in one.
The Green Death, episode 6
I find myself wondering if the modern series would dare do something so haunting and brave?

Next episode: 1974

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Doctor Who: 1972

Episode 330: The Three Doctors, episode 1
First broadcast: 5.50 pm, Saturday, 30 December 1972
<< back to 1971
The Time Lords watch a new Second Doctor story.
The Three Doctors, episode 1.
First two items of trivia of no interest to anyone but me. The Three Doctors opened Doctor Who's 10th season but was shown closer to the ninth anniversary of the first episode being broadcast than it was the 10th. And when Patrick Troughton returned to the series, he'd been away for less time than David Tennant will have been when he comes back this November.

Anyway. I asked in my piece about 1970 how different Doctor Who's seventh season would have looked to viewers at the time. For all the Doctor might be stuck on Earth in an indeterminate near future, I argued that a lot of the show - the feel, the monsters, the quarries and corridors, the Radiophonic effects - were exactly the same. What changed was that we didn't see inside the TARDIS and the Doctor stopped being a reluctant hero and willingly sought out adventure. With 1971, I argued that Jo Grant made us wonder why we'd want adventures in space and time anyway.

By The Three Doctors, the Doctor had been stranded on Earth for three seasons, just three of the 13 stories allowing him to set foot on another world (four if you count wherever it is the TARDIS comes to rest in the last episode of The Time Monster). But of five stories in Season 9, two were about travelling in time on Earth and two were set in outer space. The production team have since said that the "exile" format was limiting and the show's original format had started to push through.

The Three Doctors, as well as bringing back the first two Doctors Who, also returns the show to the format as it was in their day: at the end, the Doctor can once more travel freely in time and space. (Jo doesn't seem all that thrilled by the prospect of the wonders to come: "I suppose you'll be rushing off, then," she sulks.)

But the story doesn't just free up the future of the series: it does the same for its past. In episode 1, the Time Lords must nab the Second Doctor from his timestream and plonk him into his own future. We glimpse on screen what he's up to just before they grab him.

The show has always hinted in dialogue at events we never saw - the First Doctor's time on Quinnis or with Henry VIII, the Second Doctor taking a medical degree under Lister, the Third Doctor knocking about with Chairman Mao and Napoleon. But here, on screen, we glimpse an adventure: the Second Doctor running from what might be an explosion or weird fog, then stopping to consider his next move.

It's not a clip from some old story: it's something new, presumably meant to fit unobtrusively among his original run of stories.

He's not alone. The First Doctor, too, is glimpsed in a new adventure with him pottering round a nice garden (which features again in The Five Doctors (1983)).
The Time Lords watch a new First Doctor story.
The Three Doctors, episode 1.
And the Radio Times special released to mark the show's 10th anniversary also boasted a series of photos showing strange new adventures for the Doctor's former companions...
A new Cyberman adventure, with Ben and Polly.
Radio Times Doctor Who 10th anniversary special / BBC.
So I'm monstrously grateful to The Three Doctors. It didn't just set the series back on course. The books and CDs I now write for a living basically started here.

See also @theMindRobber's Twitter feed from 1972.

Next episode: 1973

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Freedom, dignity and drones

I've been reading BF Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which argues for a "technology of behaviour" or "cultural engineering". That sounds like the sort of thing that might feature in a sci-fi dystopia - which is chiefly why I've been reading it.

In some ways, Skinner's book reads as a chillingly impersonal manifesto for more control by the state or scientific elite over how we're brought up, arguing that much of our behaviour is simply a response to the conditions around us. In the nature/nurture debate, such a hot topic at the time, it's firmly on the side of the nurture.

Yet it's less about what should actually be done than it is how we think about improving behaviour. If we can only get beyond outdated ideas such as "free will" and autonomy, Skinner argues, we might finally progress.

I've found it by turns fascinating and frustrating, and it's often hard to tell when Skinner's examples are the results of scientifically rigorous experiment or just things he thinks to be true. But every so often there's a passage that stands out, such as this on the conflict between dignity and freedom.
"From time to time, advances in physical and biological technology have seemed to threaten worth or dignity when Medical science has reduced the need to suffer in silence and the chance to be admired for doing so. Fireproof buildings leave no room for brave firemen, or safe ships for brave sailors, or safe airplanes for brave pilots. The modern dairy barn has no place for a Hercules. When exhausting and dangerous work is no longer required, those who are hard-working and brave seem merely foolish.

The literature of dignity conflicts here with the literature of freedom, which favors a reduction in aversive features of daily life, as by making behavior less arduous, dangerous, or painful, but a concern for personal worth sometimes triumphs over freedom from aversive stimulation - for example, when, quite apart from medicinal issues, painless childbirth is not as readily accepted as painless dentistry. A military expert, J.F.C. Fuller, has written: 'The highest military rewards are given for bravery and not for intelligence, and the introduction of any novel weapon which detracts from individual prowess is met with opposition'."
BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), p. 56.
(Fuller is apparently from "an article on 'Tactics', Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edn.")
I find myself instinctively wanting to counter this thesis. Yet surely that last point is at the heart of discussions about the morality of using the atomic bomb at the end of World World Two (see my post on Codename Downfall - The Secret Plan to Invade Japan). It might also help explain why the use of remote drones seems so particularly wrong. The argument is often used against them that they kill civilian women and children as much as they do enemy combatants, but that can also be true of using soldiers. Is the problem more that drones, by reducing risk to our soldiers, make it too distastefully easy?

I'm not convinced but I find myself puzzling over that when I should be building my dystopia. As so often, I post it here to clear it out of my head.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Doctor Who: 1971

Episode 293: Colony in Space, episode 1
First broadcast: 6.10 pm, Saturday, 10 April 1971
<< back to 1970
Jo unimpressed by all of time and space.
Colony in Space, episode 1
There now seems to be a format for introducing new companions into Doctor Who. First, there's an adventure set in the present day - where the proto-companion lives and works. The Doctor stumbles in and they glimpse a strange, madder, better universe of wonders than they'd ever dreamt of. How can they resist when the Doctor offers to show them more?

The next stop is an especially mad future followed by a trip to somewhere in Earth history (or the other way round and they visit Earth history first). In doing so, the Doctor sets out his stall for Clara, Amy, Donna, Martha and Rose - and reminds the viewer at home of the scope and scale of the series. We are likely to be just as wowed by the new girl at all the show can do.

But it was not always like that. In the Doctor Who of the last millennia, companions weren't always from Earth, let alone the present day. Some didn't even seem bothered about travelling in time and space.

On screen, Liz Shaw never got to leave contemporary Earth (though a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures says she now works on the Moon). Jo Grant didn't take a trip in the TARDIS until her 15th episode in the show. And her response to her first sight of an alien world is quite striking:

That's an alien world out there, Jo. Think of it.

I don't want to think of it. I want to go back to Earth.
It's the same a year later in The Curse of Peladon - Jo would much rather go on a date with dashing Mike Yates than visit another world. I'll talk another time about Jo's reasons for leaving the Doctor but I think it's important to see how early it's established that all of time and space is simply not her thing.

Why would a production team make a companion not want to travel with the Doctor? In the case of Jo, I think it's an important cue to the audience. The Third Doctor is stranded on Earth, unable (mostly) to go anywhere or when else. He's really quite cross about it - sulking and muttering and behaving in a way that even he admits is "childish". He resents his exile. In some stories that's used to great effect because we're not sure if he'll betray Earth and his friends just to get the TARDIS working.

But isn't there a danger, then, that we in the audience will also resent his exile - and the smaller scale and scope of the stories? He is, after all, the character we take our cues from. Well, not if the new companion can embrace the new format. If she says, "I don't want to travel in time and space anyway", then neither do we.

Next episode: 1972.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

L for Lloyd

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes but yesterday at the splendid SWALC do run by Si Spencer, I got to meet David Lloyd - artist on V for Vendetta.

While he drew a portrait of V in my battered, beloved copy of the book that I bought when still at school, I told him that I'd once sat next to a pretty girl at a party who'd explained a point by saying, "It's a bit like in V for Vendetta". I few years later that pretty girl was my wife.

Gracious and engaging (I had to battle to buy him a pint), we also nattered a bit about politics and his new venture Aces Weekly, which is just £7 for a subscription and well worth your investment.
Artist David Lloyd kindly defacing
my copy of V for Vendetta
My copy of V for Vendetta
kindly defaced by David Lloyd
I also got to natter to Matthew Graham too, and compare notes on how cold it was at the filming of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. There were lots of other fine people, too. And ale. And sausage rolls.

Thanks to William Potter for suggesting such grand day out. Here's to the next one. See also my great long essay on the alternate present in V for Vendetta. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Doctor Who: 1970

Episode 271: Doctor Who and the Silurians, episode 7
First broadcast: 5.15 pm, Saturday, 14 March 1970
<< back to 1969
The most un-Doctor Who that Doctor Who has ever been
Doctor Who and the Silurians, episode 7
How different would Doctor Who’s seventh season have looked to viewers at the time?

The show was now in colour but most viewers were still watching in black and white. UNIT – the Doctor’s new employers – had been introduced the year before and his friend Lethbridge-Stewart even before that. New companion Liz Shaw is not all that different from Zoe from the previous year.

The look of the series was also familiar. Spearhead from Space was shot on film but then the series was back to being made in a TV studio, with the same fixed-camera look it would keep til the end of the 80s. The design, eerie music and men in rubber suits were all just as they had been.

But there are two major changes to the show. First, it’s all set in one place and time. We never even see inside the TARDIS – instead, the Doctor drives to his adventures in a funny yellow car.

Previous production teams had tried to make Doctor Who more contemporary and relevant. But Season 7 does not strand the Doctor in the (then) present day. Instead, the four stories are set a few years in the future – one with more stylised uniforms and where the space race has reached Mars. This allows the show a bit of freedom to play with new technologies and kill off half of London with a plague.

This near future is pretty bleak. Part of that bleakness is the way it wa shot. For example, on the gas towers in episodes two and three of Inferno, the location, acting, music and direction all make this ‘real’ world so distubring.

But this future Earth is also a serious, professional place. We never see the Brigadier or Liz Shaw’s home or friends, or get any sense of their lives outside their work. Each story is about large institutions: UNIT, a plastics factory, a mining operation, the space programme, another mining operation. When we do meet ordinary people, it’s just to see them scream before the monsters kill them.

The monsters this year – all new creations – are generally good. The Autons and Silurians both quickly returned to the series and still crop up in the series today. The Ambassadors are creepy but their story doesn’t really warrant a comeback (though baddies wearing space suits are cool), and the less said about the Primords the better.

But this season is less interested in monsters as our own bad behavior. More often than not stories turn on the greed, ambition and paranoia of ordinary humans.

There’s greedy poacher Sam Seeley in Spearhead and General Scobie’s pride over the waxwork of himself. In Doctor Who and the Silurians the Doctor is as much fighting the self-interest of Quinn, Masters and Lawrence as he is the creatures – who, just when he’s made peace, the Brigadier blows up. The Ambassadors of Death turn out to be quite friendly, the deaths the result of their misuse by nasty humans. In Inferno, Professor Stahlman refuses to heed health and safety warnings and nearly destroys the world. In the process, we glimpse another Earth where even the Doctor’s friends are baddies.

It’s no wonder the Doctor so resents being stuck on Earth – another reason this season seems so cold and hostile. It’s very different from his usual attitude, that humans are his favourite species, Earth his favourite planet.

That's the second thing that's changed. This Doctor is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s not just the incongruous sights of him naked in the shower or sporting a white tee-shirt and a prominent tattoo – the most un-Doctor Who that Doctor Who has ever been. Even when he wears old-fashioned clothes and has that same mix of brilliance and mischief, this is a different man from the first two Doctors. He’s not a reluctant hero but willingly seeks out adventure.

The Doctor’s new-found dynamism often drives the stories – he alone makes a deal with the Silurians, goes into space to rescue Mars Probe 7 and crosses over to the alternate Earth.

Until now, the Doctor always had a male companion to do the fights and stunts, but the Third Doctor is an expert in alien martial arts. The Brigadier – who could have been given all the action – is often more of a hindrance than a help. Meeting the evil Brigade-Leader doesn’t mellow the Doctor’s opinion of his boss. He storms off in protest at the end of the season, and then has to come crawling back when he needs the man’s help.

It’s this relationship that defines the season. Professional, cold and uneasy, Season 7 is a bold, grown-up take on Doctor Who.

(A version of the above appeared as "Countdown to 50: Season 7" in Doctor Who Magazine #436 in June 2011. Thanks to Tom Spilsbury for permission to reproduce it here.)

See also: my friend Matthew on Spearhead from Space and the changes to the show.

Next episode: 1971

Friday, April 19, 2013

Doctor Who: 1969

Episode 236: The Seeds of Death, episode 5
First broadcast: 5.15 pm, Saturday, 22 February 1969
<< back to 1968

"Patrick Troughton was very good at looking scared"
The Seeds of Death, episode 5
I love The Seeds of Death, and tried to match the tone and feel of it when I wrote my Second Doctor audio story Shadow of Death.

I also got to make a short documentary that went on the Seeds of Death DVD, "Monsters Who Came Back For More!", where wise Nicholas Briggs said:
"One thing that used to scare me as a kid was seeing how scared the other characters were on television. Which is why [I remember] the Second Doctor stories ... with such fondness because Patrick Troughton was very good at looking scared. And that's what kids respond to. They respond to cues. You say to them "this is scary" by doing that and they believe it."
That nicely follows on from what I said last time about Doctor Who's scariness being a big part of its appeal. We'll come back to the importance of cues to the audience another time...

Sadly, we'd didn't get commissioned for what may be my favourite thing we ever pitched:
"Attack of the Bubble Machine
CBBC’s Ed Petrie and Oucho recreate the cliffhanger of The Seeds of Death episode 5, showing us how it was done. First they build a giant bubble machine. But it’s not just the physics of how the machine operates, they also need the all-important sound effects (added later). Ed and Oucho create their own sound effects (perhaps with the help of Dick Mills). Then, the most important thing: the actor selling the effect with studied realism i.e. Ed trying to replicate Troughton larking about and corpsing in the bubbles. If budget allows, we have Ed being saved by Wendy Padbury, who explains she couldn't stop laughing last time."
But something a little like that worked really well when Dick and Dom discovered the genius of Delia Derbyshire (bother: it's just been removed from iPlayer).

Next episode: 1970

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Two comics with William Potter

A few years ago, I worked for William Potter on the esteemed journal SpongeBob SquarePants' Krusty Kards Collection and a Shrek sticker book. I have also bounced around to his band, CUD, more than once. But more recently, we've worked on some comics.

The 100% Awesomes was produced for the Autism Education Trust as part of a teaching pack to "promote awareness of difference and autism" among school children in years five to seven. Here is the first page:
The 100% Awesomes, page 1
Art by William Potter
William and I then worked on a pitch for an original series, Wind-Up Wilbur, about a robot boy (sadly, the strip wasn't picked up). Here's the first page of that:
Wind-Up Wilbur, page 1
Art by William Potter

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Doctor Who: 1968

Episode 191: The Enemy of the World, episode 6 - or rather, just after it
First broadcast: 5.46 pm, Saturday, 27 January 1968
<< back to 1967

I've chosen something a bit different this time: something that there aren't any images from and that wasn't even an episode. But TardisTimegirl has done an amazing job, animating the surviving soundtrack of a specially shot Doctor Who trailer. It was shown at the end of the final episode of The Enemy of the World to advertise the next story.

It's fun, the Doctor warning children that their parents might be scared of the next story. But it's also a bit cheeky. Not long before this trailer must have been written and filmed, the makers of Doctor Who were in trouble for making the series too gruesome.

On 23 September 1967, part four of The Tomb of the Cybermen included a scene of white goo foaming from a dead Cyberman's chest. That had generated some degree of complaint, and on 26 September co-writer Kit Pedler appeared on a new BBC programme, Talkback, to discuss whether the show was too violent for children.

The footage for that programme no longer exists, but the soundtrack survives - and an excerpt is included on the audiobook Doctor Who at the BBC volume 2. Referring to the debate in the following programme (which does exist in the archive), presenter David Coleman joked of Doctor Who, "perhaps it's too scary for grown-ups"...

And that's what the trailer is playing on. It’s a fun gag, but it acknowledges something that was then quite new, something we almost take for granted now. Doctor Who is best when its scary; that's why children love it.

See also: My chum Matthew on The Web of Fear and its legacy.

Next episode: 1969

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Crossing the Rubicon

On 10 January, 49 BC, Julius Caesar marched his army south over a small river called the Rubicon - and the world changed. It was not the size of the river that mattered but that it was a border. Caesar was breaking a sacred law by taking an army into Rome - that single act is often seen as the pivotal moment in the collapse of the Roman Republic.

Tom Holland's Rubicon (2003) is excellent at explaining why, and charting a hundred years of history to give us the full context. Comprehensive, insightful, dryly witty and full of telling detail, its an excellent book - I only wish I'd sooner heeded all those who told me to read it.

I already knew a lot of the story from studying Asterix books and Shakespeare's plays, and watching I, Claudius and Rome. More recently, I loved Imperium and LustrumRobert Harris' excellent Cicero novels, as told by his slave Tiro (who invented shorthand and in some ways the parliamentary reporting job I do now).

There's a reason the fall of the Republic is so well known. Partly, it's because so much of the legal and political systems of Western civilisation are based on those of Rome. That's why the books and TV dramas still resonate so strongly. Harris, for example, makes Cicero's political wheeler-dealing feel entirely modern.

But it's more than that. The fall of the Republic is a tragedy about a system established for the common good being undone by personal gain. It serves as a warning to the liberal minded and a benchmark for the greedy. It's almost too easy to link the fall of Caesar to that of the last of his namesakes, the Csars, in Russia less than a century ago; or to link the fall of the Republic to what happened in Germany in the 1930s. The Royal Shakespeare Company's current production of Julius Caesar "finds dark contemporary echoes in modern Africa". Or we might liken the fall of the Republic to what's happening now to the welfare state or NHS, or even press regulation - as the Prime Minister did.

Holland doesn't make those pat analogies, thank heavens, concentrating instead on the personalities and culture. He's especially good at conjuring the worldview of the time.
"As ever, [Caesar] loved to dazzle, to overawe. The building and levelling of a bridge across the Rhine had served only to whet his appetite for even more spectacular exploits. So it was that no sooner had Caesar crossed his men back into Gaul than he was marching northwards, towards the Channel coast and the the encircling Ocean.
Set within its icy waters waited the fabulous island of Britain. It was as drenched in mystery as in rain and fog. Back in Rome people doubted whether it existed at all. Even traders and merchants, Caesar's usual sources of information, could provide only the sketchiest details. Their resistance to travel widely through the island was hardly surprising. It was well known that barbarians became more savage the further north one travelled, indulging in any number of unspeakable habits, such as cannibalism, and even - repellently - the drinking of milk. To teach them respect for the name of the Republic would be an achievement of Homeric proportions. For Caesar, who never let anyone forget that he could trace his ancestry back to the time of the Trojan War, the temptation was irresistible. 
... It was indeed to prove a journey back in time. Waiting for the invaders on the Kentish cliffs was a scene straight out of legend: warriors careering up and down in chariots, just as Hector and Achilles had done on the plain of Troy. To add to the exotic nature of it all, the Britons wore peculiar facial hair and were painted blue."
Tom Holland, Rubicon - The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, pp. 274-5.
As a result, we get a sense of why the Romans found Caesar so extraordinary. His "invasion" of Britain was hardly a success, and yet:
"Even the lack of plunder did little to dampen the general mood of wild enthusiasm ... In their impact on the waiting public Caesar's expeditions to Britain have been aptly compared to the moon landings: 'they were an imagination-defying epic, an achievement at once technical and straight out of an adventure story'."
Ibid., p. 276 (the quotation from Goudineau, César, p. 335).
I had some sense of the brutal power of the Roman war machine having read Mortimer Wheeler's The Siege of Maiden Castle, England - read it; it's a brilliant reconstruction based on the archaeology, and informed by Wheeler's own hellish experience of World War One. With similar ghoulish delight, Holland describes over five pages (pp. 277-81) Caesar's siege of Alesia (near modern Paris), where he was vastly outnumbered and facing an implacable foe in the Gaulish leader Vercingetorex.

At one point, with the town starving, Vercingetorex sent the women and children out of the town, trusting that Caesar's army would not kill them. They did not; but nor did they let them pass, and the women and children were left to starve to death outside the town walls, Caesar shaming Vercingetorex in the most appalling way. Yet it's hard not to admire Caesar at this point.
"Outnumbered by the army he was besieging, and vastly outnumbered by the army that had been besieging him in turn, Caesar defeated both. It was the greatest, most astonishing victory of his career."
Ibid., p. 280.
He ought to be a monster, and yet somehow he's a hero. Though that's not quite how the story was depicted in Asterix:

Incidentally, I have a pet theory that Asterix's blacksmith, Fulliautomatix (Cétautomatix in the French original) is based on the famous sculpture "The Dying Gaul":

The Dying Gaul, photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist
The Dr tells me that nineteenth century classicists had much fun pointing out the likeness between the statue and the eminent archaeologist, Adolf Furtwängler...

Anyhow, we were talking about Caesar. The one thing I'd never quite understood was why Caesar decided to break the rules of the Republic, so sacred for centuries, and make himself dictator - effectively a king. Holland shows how previous bully-boys such as Sulla ended up, and suggests that Caesar was more than merely yet another Roman gangster.

He also shows us how shrewd an operator and gambler Caesar could be, playing the system to advance to the top. And he suggests that Caesar's sex life was not wanting. In readings of Shakespeare, and in the series Rome, Egypt is the decadent fallen empire, the temptations depraved and libidinous. It had strategic value because it supplied grain to the Roman empire - so anyone who ruled Egypt had a leash round the throat of Rome. But for all that, I never quite got why Caesar fell for it so completely.

And then Holland opens a chapter with a glorious bit of scene-setting:
"The coastline of the Nile Delta had always been treacherous. Low-lying and featureless, it offered nothing to help a sailor find his way. Even so, navigators who approached Egypt were not entirely bereft of guidance. At night, far distant from its shore, a dot of light flickered low in the southern sky. By day it could be seen for what it was: not a star, but a great lantern, set upon a tower, visible from miles out to sea. This was the Pharos, not only the tallest building ever built by the Greeks, but also, thanks to its endless recycling on tourist trinkets, the most instantly recognisable. A triumph of vision and engineering, the great lighthouse served as the perfect symbol for what it advertised: megalopolis - the most stupendous place on Earth. 
Even Roman visitors had to acknowledge that Alexandria was something special. When Caesar, three days after Pompey's murder, sailed past the island on which the Pharos stood, he was arriving at a city larger, more cosmopolitan and certainly far more beautiful than his own. If Rome, shabby labyrinthine, stood as a monument to the rugged virtues of the Republic, then Alexandria bore witness to what a king could achieve."
Ibid., p. 325.
And it all clicked into place.

I've concentrated on Caesar here, but Holland's book is dense with characters, strangeness and wonder - a history to be savoured, then pored over again.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Doctor Who: 1967

Episode 181: The Ice Warriors, episode two
First broadcast: 5.25 pm, Saturday 18 November, 1967
<< back to 1966

Varga the Ice Warrior menaces Victoria
The Ice Warriors, episode two
Tonight, the Ice Warriors return to Doctor Who in Cold War - their fifth story, and their first since 1974. I've chosen a moment from their debut story to talk about something clever the show does to disguise its limited budget. It's something that also means it better gets into our heads...

Doctor Who has all sorts of tricks for making it seem more expensive than it really is. In reality, there are a limited number of sets, set-ups and actors, but the producers reuse sets and costumes, or film different episodes (set in different times, even different planets) in a single block, and use effects to fool us.

When the Ice Warriors made their first appearance in 1967, the clever producers had also established a formula that made the most of the limited studio space available to the show at the time. Almost every week, the Doctor would be trapped in a control room with a group of terrified humans while monsters tried to break down the door.

Yet, those adventures still suggested an extraordinary scale. The first episode of each story quickly sets up that we’re somewhere strikingly different, usually with location filming. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, we cut from the interior of the TARDIS (shot on film and looking amazing) to a multiracial expedition of archaeologists setting off explosives on an alien world. In the next story, we see Doctor Who’s first location filming in another country, as a Welsh valley doubles for Tibet. Then it’s The Ice Warriors, in which glaciers roll over Britain in the future. The next story begins with a helicopter chase on a beach in Australia, like something out of a Bond film. They’re all big, vivid worlds created very quickly (and economically) before we get locked in a control room.

We deal with big concepts, too: a world war that changes which nations are super powers or climate change run out of control. The Wheel in Space riffs off the near-future realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey - which had its premiere two weeks before the broadcast of episode one.

But these big images are grounded in simple, cost-effective reality. The Web of Fear manages to convince us that London is deserted by showing us a newspaper billboard and the power being off in the Tube.

This season is all about inexpensive tricks done with maximum effect, such as when the Doctor turns out to be the spitting image of the wicked Salamander. Previous stories had shown us doubles of the Doctor, but this is the best example yet. We’re not always sure who we’re watching – our hero or the villain – right up to the neat twist at the end where Salamander tries to steal the TARDIS.

Another neat trick is bringing young Professor Travers back two stories later but as an old man. And is it conscious that this season even plays with its own ‘base under siege’ format? In The Enemy of the World, the Doctor needs to rescue people from their underground base.

But the moment I've chosen from The Ice Warriors because of a line of dialogue. Often, the most vivid moments of Doctor Who are things we never see: the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi mentioned in The Brain of Morbius, World War Six as described in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Time War between the Doctor's people and the Daleks that has haunted the show since it came back in 2005...

It's not just big events, either. Varga the Ice Warrior threatens Victoria, but she doesn't recognise the device he's holding. "Sonic gun," Varga hisses - and we'll see it used to kill people in this and the Warrior's next three TV adventures (and perhaps tonight as well).

It's a pretty boring prop, just a tube with a light in the end when it's fired. There's then a wobbly effect over the person being killed and the actor cries out and falls to the floor. It's not much different from any other sci-fi killing, except that I find the deaths by sonic gun particularly vivid and horrible, because of a line of dialogue describing something we'll never see. I think it colours every future death inflicted by the Ice Warriors, and makes them a far more chilling monster.

Varga warns Victoria: "It will burst your brain with noise."

Next episode: 1968

Friday, April 12, 2013

Doctor Who: 1966

Episode 136: The Power of the Daleks, episode two
First broadcast: 5.50 pm on Saturday, 12 November 1966
<< back to 1965
The Daleks recognise the new Doctor
The Power of the Daleks, episode two (1966)
image from BBC website
We take the Doctor being played by different actors so much for granted now that it’s worth spelling out: Patrick Troughton didn’t play the Second Doctor merely as a younger version of William Hartnell. He was a different man.

Other, more timid shows would have played it safer. In the first story to feature a new actor in the lead role, another character might have commented that the Doctor seemed slightly different, perhaps with a wink to the camera, and then we’d rush on just the same. But The Power of the Daleks embraces the weirdness of the change full-on. In the first episode, companions Ben and Polly voice what viewers must have thought – that this strange little man can't possibly be the Doctor they knew.

His identity is not confirmed for another week, and then - in the last scene of episode two - by the least likely source: a Dalek. It’s a bold move, and one that works perfectly. In recent years, it’s even become a tradition: the iconic moment when we see a new Doctor through a Dalek eyestalk establishes that yes, it’s really him.

The new Doctor recognises the Dalek
Victory of the Daleks (2010)
Next episode: 1967

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Three milk churns in Berkhamsted

These are the old milk churns in which were found rolls and rolls of film of ordinary people larking about, shot by Mitchell and Kenyon a century ago. The churns stand to one side in the reception of the BFI archive at Berkhamsted, which opened its doors to a select clutch of visitors yesterday, including yours truly.

It's a treasure-trove of fascinating things. Next to the milk-churns was the blood-red costume worn by Ingrid Bergman as Paula in Gaslight (1944) - looking in good nick for its 70 years. Facing that was a costume worn by Greta Garbo. As we made our way round the building, we saw continuity photos from Star Wars, the Academy Award won by Cecil Beaton for Gigi, an invitation to Peter Sellers' first birthday and Derek Jarman's scrapbook from filming Jubilee

Having nosed round and worked in a number of archives, and nattered to curators and experts in a variety of fields in a variety of pubs, what struck me more than the splendid artefacts was how well organised the tour was, with a good range of material covered and engaging people to talk to us. They answered our questions and kept to time, while sharing their expertise in a way I could understand. That is no mean feat.

As well as the special collections of props and paperwork, the tour covered the BFI's efforts to preserve old film and TV. We saw a two-inch tape machine, like the ones on which programmes such as Doctor Who were once recorded. The tapes, at £400 in the early 60s, cost more than the cast were paid for a week, so the tapes were reused and episodes were wiped... We saw the wet-gate process and how it vanishes the cracks and damage on old film. We even got to handle film strips and poke our noses round the vast stacks of film cans with alluring titles...

Most fascinating to me (chiefly because I already knew a fair bit about telly preservation) was the discussion of silver nitrate film stock. It's not just highly flammable; as it burns it creates oxygen so can't be put out. Our guide told us of a safety demonstration where burning film had been placed in a bucket of water and then, when it was removed, had reignited. The burning film also releases noxious gases such as cyanide.

So there's a reason there are so few Art Deco cinemas survive - they burned down. Now you need a specific licence to run silver nitrate film in a projector. The BFI have the two licences, and also the largest collection of nitrate films as most other archives have transferred their stock to safety film (which has its own problems with mould and vinegar syndrome) and destroyed the dangerous stuff. We got to nose round the chilly, concrete bunker where rooms of the dangerous nitrate are stored.

There are those who argue that silver nitrate is better than subsequent formats, though one of our guides suggested this was because it tended to be struck from the original negative, rather than being a later-generation copy. Nitrate also used to be cheap: its use was as much about cost as its quality.

It was a grand day out, and thanks to my chum K for letting me tag along after her.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Doctor Who: 1965

Episode 97: The Feast of Steven
First broadcast: 6.35 pm on Saturday, 25 December 1965
<< back to 1964
Screen shot by Robert Jewell, taken from
The Destruction of Time website
The very first Christmas episode of Doctor Who is an odd one: a light-hearted trip to what's effectively another popular TV show of the time, then a chase through a silent comedy - all told in intertitles - before the Doctor hands his companions some Champagne. Just to underline that we're not meant to take it very seriously, he turns to the viewer at home to wish us a merry Christmas.

Not that I've seen the episode. The Feast of Steven is one of the 106* episodes of Doctor Who missing from the BBC archive.

[*Since I first wrote this, more episodes have been found.]

I am haunted by the Doctor Who that isn't there. More than one-eighth of all of Doctor Who's 791 episodes (up to and including Saturday's The Bells of St John) is missing. More episodes are lost than have been broadcast since the series returned eight years ago.

(Okay, the missing episodes are shorter than the ones broadcast today, so how about this: the missing minutes and seconds of Doctor Who last for longer than the minutes and seconds of all of David Tennant's time as the Doctor. Bothering, isn't it?)

We can at least listen to the 106 missing episodes as soundtracks exist for all of them. There are various clips, too, and "tele-snaps" - photos taken by John Cura of his TV screen as the episodes were broadcast. There are also novelisations of all the missing stories. But these things only serve to make the missing episodes more tantalising.

Of all the missing episodes, The Feast of Steven is likely to be the oddest. It's technically part seven of a bleak and brilliant 12-part story about the Daleks trying to fit together an ultimate weapon. Two companions die in it (yes, I count them both as bona fide companions). That wasn't exactly festive, so this episode is a fun, silly interlude, away from the main adventure. The Daleks don't appear in it at all and when the story was sold abroad, this episode wasn't included - foreign stations just skipped from episode 6 to episode 8. That means it's the episode least likely to be returned to the archive from overseas. It was made to be disregarded.

It's also the hardest to judge from what little remains. As clever Jonathan Morris says in his introduction to Doctor Who Magazine's special The Missing Episodes - The First Doctor (out in all good magazine shops now), the "virtually incomprehensible soundtrack" gives little sense of the tone. How slapstick and silly was it? How broad did everyone play it? How far did they push what they could do?

The DWM special, which publishes all John Cura's tele-snaps of missing First Doctor stories, doesn't include the above picture of the Doctor toasting his audience. I was curious why, and so - in preparation for this post - last week I asked Jonny if he could explain. He said the picture isn't technically a tele-snap as it wasn't taken by John Cura but by Robert Jewell, an actor who appeared in the story. Jonny directed me to the extraordinary The Destruction of Time website where I could see the other 19 images from the episode.

There are times when ZOMG!!1! does not adequately cover it. I'd only seen two images from The Feast of Steven episode before. And there, concisely annotated, with context and background, are 18 all-new glimpses of this most unlikely of episodes. Truly, we live in an age of wonders. Though of course I only want to see the missing episode all the more.

Incidentally, there are those who are quite bothered about the Doctor turning to camera and ruining the otherwise perfectly maintained realism of our beloved TV nonsense. I don't mind this one-off gag at all, and it's easy enough to explain within the fiction of the series. We know from an earlier story (The Chase) that the Doctor can watch any moment in history on his TV-like space-time visualiser. So why wouldn't the Doctor assume that he himself is being watched?

But perhaps it's even more pointed than that. He's started to take a more active role in the times and places he visits - toppling tyrants and muddling up the machinations of monsters - so he even knows who will be watching. The Time Lords take a dim view of interference, as we'll see much later in the series. And that's why this traveller who we know isn't from Earth says, "A merry Christmas to all of you at home..."

Next episode: 1966.