Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Short breaks in Elizabethan England

I loved Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England when it was on the telly a few weeks ago and have finally made an effort to read the book, which I got for my birthday almost exactly a year ago.

Mortimer's idea is brilliantly simple: to present the past as if we can walk round it, scouring sources for details on food, accommodation, manners and everything else. He's good at detailing the smells and textures of the period as well as the dry facts, and writing it in the present tense really helps to breath new life into an age that's been well covered before.

This vivid conjuring has a slow-burn effect: you notice it long after reading the words on the page. On Sunday morning, as I wandered round my old home-town of Winchester, I found myself picking out details I'd never seen before - Tudor beams and windows above the shops in the high street, the plan of the backstreets, the medieval buildings that would have seemed old even to the Elizabethans.

A lot of the book is devoted to ordinary life - the limited flavours and colours, the wealth of ripe odours. But he's also good at making sense of the politics, too. Why, for example, did Elizabeth have such a long and successful reign?

Mortimer makes the case that, unlike her predecessors in the Middle Ages, Elizabeth had few relatives - siblings, cousins, those related by marriage - in contention for the throne. She was the last of Henry VIII's children and he was the only surviving son of Henry VII. Even so, Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed and Lady Catherine Grey imprisoned.

But Elizabeth was also careful to establish and underline her authority. Mortimer details her "mannish" behaviour, her progresses round the country so her subjects could see her, and the ways she dominated parliament. Parliament was, for example, banned from discussing the question of who would succeed her, and she called only 10 parliaments anyway in the 45 years of her reign (rather than the customary one a year).
"Like her grandfather Henry VII, Elizabeth has a policy of not creating any new earls, marquesses or viscounts, and she creates very few barons. The reason is to limit the power of her subjects and thus strengthen the authority of her government." 
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England (2012), p. 46.
What's more, a traditional rival to the English monarchy had been done away with by Elizabeth's father: bishops no longer served the Roman Catholic Church but answered directly to her.
"Elizabethan England is thus devoid of private armies, royal dukes and political bishops. Those considering revolt against Elizabeth have no one to turn to for leadership ... After the execution of the duke of Norfolk [in June 1572], the highest rank in the peerage is that of marquess. Never a common title, there is just one in 1600 (the marquess of Winchester), plus a dowager marchioness (the widow of the last marquess of Northampton, William Parr, who dies in 1571). Third-highest in rank are the earls; there are eighteen of these in 1600. Next come the two viscounts, Lord Montagu and Lord Howard of Bindon. The lowest rank is the baronage: there are thirty-seven barons in all. In total, just fifty-seven peers are summoned to parliament at the start of the reign and fifty-five at the end (underage heirs are not summoned)." 
Ibid., p. 47.
Given my day job, it was interesting, too, to learn that peers could not be imprisoned for debt, and other privileges included "the right to be judged by his peers, paying very little tax and freedom from torture" (p. 48) - though Mortimer explains Henry VIII got round that last one by having peers summarily executed and Elizabeth locked up some nobles for years in the Tower without trial.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Doctor Who: 1982

Episode 572: Earthshock, part 1
First broadcast: 6.55 pm, Monday 8 March 1982
<< back to 1981

"Ah! We're not the only ones to have a facelift!"
Earthshock, part 1
The return of the Cybermen for the first time in seven years! The producer of Doctor Who would surely want to shout about that. Their return would thrill fans and entice more casual viewers to tune in, ensuring a bumper audience. Wouldn't it?

Yet in 1982, producer John Nathan-Turner declined an offer to put the Cybermen on the cover of Radio Times so as to maintain the surprise when they showed up at the end of part one. That might seem an odd thing to do: rewarding the fans already watching instead of trying to draw more punters in front of the telly. But rewarding your audience isn't a bad thing, and I suppose there's an argument that they will generate excitement, so more punters will tune in to see what they're missing - in time for the shock ending of the story as a whole.

(At least in theory. The audience dropped slightly from 9.1 million for part one to 8.8 million for part two.)

Teasers and spoilers are a tricky business. There are those who try to avoid all details of any forthcoming episode; their are those who devote every spare moment to deducing what's to come. Even when we don't try to find things out, details get out anyway.

Unless we've been extremely diligent, we already know some of the guest cast of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who which won't be on for another five months. We probably know the name of a monster that will be in it, might have seen pictures - even video - from the filming. The darker regions of the internet can probably furnish us with elements of the plot of whole lines of dialogue. There are leaks, errors... and even carefully mounted publicity.

The producers of the show walk a difficult line in wanting to keep the surprises secret but knowing that a tantalising hint of what's to come will build interest in this creaky, long-lived series and ensure people tune in. They have to assume scenes shot on location will get papped and put on the net. But they also need to think about what to reveal in publicity and trailers - and how close to transmission to show them.

Even now, with the internet and what seems a whole industry devoted to ruining surprises, there are still some brilliant shocks. For a week in 2009 it seemed the whole nation was thrilled by the ending of The Stolen Earth - when nobody seemed to know if the Doctor was going to regenerate (and those who knew kept silent). For that week, there seemed no distinction between "fans" and ordinary people who watched the show.

Things were different in the early 1980s. There was no internet to share insider gossip quickly, while the producers of the show were only starting to get their heads round an organised fandom that was getting much better at finding things out. I wondered how much the return of the Cybermen was a surprise to those who were very involved in fandom at the time.

So I asked three of my friends.

Nicholas Briggs:
Ah, well, you see, the surprise got spoiled by the fact that the Cybermen were featured in a small comic strip thingy at the back of the Radio Times, which came out in the week before the episode was aired. I didn't know before that, though.
Cyber-spoilers in the Radio Times
Even so, not everyone knew. Peter Anghelides says:
I saw that episode in a university student hall of residence. Much grumbling from the non-fan student audience (still watching it, of course) about how the show wasn't as good as they remembered it. Me sitting quietly watching, not making a fuss but slightly aggrieved that they were TALKING DURING THE BROADCAST!! And then the big surprise at the end. The next day in the hall dining room, the non-fan conversation was all about "the Cybermen are back!"

I may have heard a rumour in fan circles that the Cybermen were returning some time in that season. But I certainly wasn't expecting them in that particular story. So it was a delightful surprise for me as a viewer, and as a fan seeing the reaction from others watching the show.
Gary Russell:
I knew but for a while thought the silly Androids were the Cybermen while watching that first ep. I was therefore very pleased by the cliffhanger, simply cos I realised that was the new Cybermen!

That night I went to my drama school and everyone was talking about it. That was the point I realised how disappointing being an in-the-know fan could be. The Sontarans in Invasion of Time and Davros in Destiny had been such brilliant surprises for me, and although I knew about the Master in Traken, I had assumed he was Tremas (not just the anagrammatic name but because I knew Ainley was him in Logopolis). So the Melkur thing was a surprise. But Earthshock was my first experience of seeing a group of peers genuinely shocked and excited, and me realising I wasn't – that I was missing out on that thrill because I was "in the know". This year's 50th anniversary special will be the first time since Season 17 where I'll be completely unaware of what the story is beforehand.
Next episode: 1983 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

I was spellbound by Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon but find it difficult to say exactly why. It seems effortless, even breezy – I suspect because it's so carefully, expertly wrought.

Two friends struggle to keep their record shop going despite mounting debts and the threat that a new mall will be built nearby with a lavish music store inside. Meanwhile their wives face a crisis in their midwifing business because the medical establishment doesn't take them seriously. At the same time, their sons dream of working with Tarantino.

There are lots of other characters and stories – we learn one old man's tragedy in a single sentence shortly before he dies. It's a rich tapestry of human life, comingling and complex, funny and sad, full of telling detail and characters we feel we know; sort of west coast Dickensian.

Threads run through the disparate lives. Many characters hanker for the past – music, traditions, the way it looks in old films. The book is full of references to pop culture, used as analogies to explain behaviour or events. Things from Star Trek or Star Wars illuminate the every day. (I recommend Matthew Sweet interviewing Michael Chabon on Night Waves last year, where they discuss Chabon's fascination with Doctor Who and the illness of nostalgia.)

There's a compelling sense of the benefits of change: racial politics and empowerment better than the old days, an acceptance of fluid sexualities. Set in 2004, there's a surprise cameo from Barack Obama, offering the hope of change – rather than change to be scared of.

But again, it's more complex than that: characters aren't set free by letting go of the past, rather forms warp and shift and people just sort of deal. Decisions are made, battles fought, there are moments of sudden violence... and life rolls ever on.

It's this good-natured languidity that makes the book so appealing. The setting and laid-back feel reminded me a lot of Philip K Dick’s Mary and the Giant. There are clever lines and observations, and in the middle of the book a single sentence lasts 12 pages. It's clever – and deserving of a second read to pick up on more of the tricks. But the lasting impression is one of ease. A great, smart, feel-good book perfect for lazy-day reading.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Doctor Who: 1981

Episode 553: Logopolis, part 4
First broadcast: 5.10 pm, Saturday 21 March 1981
<< back to 1980

The death of Doctor Who
Logopolis, part 4
I was four when Logopolis was first on TV, five when it was repeated. I didn't see it again for a decade and yet this story, in which Tom Baker's Doctor dies, haunted me for years.

Watching it again, I'm struck by how complicated it is. Logopolis is all about the heat-death of the universe being held back by pure mathematics - numbers so powerful that they warp reality and can't be processed in a computer. It's about as high concept as you get, and I'm still not entirely sure how much it makes sense (I struggle with physics at the best of times).

But that never bothered me as a child. I never expected to understand Doctor Who anyway. It was a grown-up show, watched by my elder brother and sister (who seemed part of that grown-up world though they weren't yet in their teens) that I was allowed to sit in on so long as I didn't speak. If it presented a strange and dangerous universe, governed by unfathomable rules, that was how the world seemed to a child anyway.

Then again, what do you actually need to know to follow the story? That the Master is a baddie and up to something bad, and the Doctor is trying to stop him. Everything else, all the natter about block transfer computation and the properties of bubble memory, were - to this child, anyway - so much hand-waving between the running around.

Yet it was still compelling. Doctor Who rarely addresses the TARDIS itself in any great detail, and Logopolis makes the experience deeply unsettling. It is full of extraordinary moments that linger long in the memory: the TARDIS landing inside itself, with the police box prop stood inside the control room; the ivy-shrouded cloister room where the Doctor can brood; the TARDIS shrinking with the Doctor trapped inside; the radio telescope looming over an alien town. The TARDIS's cloister bell, warning of disaster, works so well it's still used in the series today.

My chum Matthew Michael has written intelligent things about Logopolis and points out the best of cliffhangers is a striking visual moment: the Doctor shaking hands with the Master. The Doctor siding with his mortal enemy is all the more disturbing because the Master here is a monster, not the softly spoken charmer as played by Roger Delgado. His monstrousness is underlined by him killing close relatives of two companions (Nyssa's dad Tremas and Tegan's auntie Vanessa). He chuckles to himself as the Doctor falls to his death.

There are oddly silly bits, too, like the plan to open the doors of the TARDIS while it's under water, or Tegan's getting lost in the ship being played for laughs. But the general tone is muted, and that's largely down to Tom Baker. For all the apparent hard science in the script, the story packs a punch because of how it feels. The Doctor's weary resignation as events unfold is so out of character, it feels so wrong, that it utterly enthralled this small boy.

Next episode: 1982

Monday, June 10, 2013

Doctor Who: 1980

Episode 534: Full Circle, part 1
First broadcast: 5.40 pm, Saturday, 25 October 1980
<< back to 1979

My earliest memory of anything:
K-9 and the Doctor, Full Circle part 1
This is where I come in. My earliest memory of anything at all is the Doctor crouched with K-9 in the reeds, watching the Marshmen emerge from the swamp – and then the scream of the closing credits.

It's still a brilliant moment, beautifully shot and directed. Years later, when the Haemovores rose up from the sea in The Curse of Fenric (1989), I assumed it was a homage. Then, as I watched my way through all of old-skool Doctor Who, I assumed both were nicked from The Sea Devils (1972).

But – as this blog has been making quite evident – what do I know about anything? So I asked Full Circle's writer Andrew Smith whether that was intentional, and also about how he came to write Doctor Who on TV while still in his teens...

SG: Hullo Andy. So, as I've told you, that scene is my first memory of anything ever.

AS: Wowza.

How much of it was nicked from The Sea Devils?

None it it! (Laughs) The cliffhanger of them coming out of the marsh was one of the first things I thought about when I was writing the story. That was the standard at the time, which people have forgotten now. The usual thing was that your main monster would turn up as the cliffhanger of episode one. It's kind of what I did with [2012 audio story] The First Sontarans, too. People complained that you don't hear a Sontaran in that until the end of the first episode – but that's classic, godammit!

A lot of old stories would start with what I like to call a “Stuart Fell sequence”, which is some hapless person being killed by something we don't see. And then we see what it was at the end of the first episode.

Yeah, and in Full Circle it was actually Stuart Fell! He gets dragged underwater by a wire. Yeah, the whole thing is set up for the monsters and then there they'd be at the end. Of course [director] Peter [Grimwade] and [film cameraman] Max Samett just did it fantastically well. It's quite a daring way to film it, all in silhouette, really. I was so glad to see Max Samett interviewed on the DVD. I meant to mention him on the commentary because I remember him very clearly on location. The stuff that he did was incredible. We were lucky with the weather and everything else as well. I was really impressed with it when I saw it broadcast, even having been there.

[Andy's kindly provided me with this scan of a polaroid photo taken by Continuity when the Marshmen were being filmed emerging from the lake. “I scanned it to send it to you, so it's previously unseen,” he says. Yes! An exclusive!]
Continuity shot from the filming of Full Circle
Care of Andrew Smith

How old were you at the time?

That was filmed four days before my 18th birthday, so I was 17 when I wrote it.

It's quite a thing to have written Doctor Who in your teens.


You talked to Toby Hadoke in his podcast about writing to the production team and being a fan, but did you know other people who were writing and sending stuff in? Was there a gang of you?

No. I wasn't a member of anything. I don't think I even knew local groups existed. I was in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, which I joined after I'd been to the Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool in I think October '75 – Planet of Evil was on, so whenever that was – where I discovered the Target novels. That was when the fandom stepped up a gear. It would have been fairly soon after that that I joined the Appreciation Society. I think their details were in the novels at the time and that's when I found out about them. But I wasn't aware of any groups. I was still at school – and then university, later in the year. But I wasn't associated with anyone else who was writing, I was just getting on with it and not really aware of my age.

It's funny, I was interviewed by Radio Free Skaro and they asked if I ever mentioned my age when I wrote in. I'd never been asked that before. I thought about it and no, I didn't, but then I can't think why I would have. If you were 22 or 38 or 52, would you mention your age? I didn't. I think I was 14 or 15 when I sent the first one in. I didn't mention my age because you just wouldn't. At what point do you say, 'Oh, by the way, I'm 14' or whatever? You want to write, you've written something and you want to see if people like it so you send it in. The mental process is... Well, I never thought I'd be too young to do it.

So when did they realise how old you were?

I really don't know. (Laughs!) I came down to see Douglas Adams and they were filming The Creature from the Pit – so whenever that was, sometime in early '79, I think. He'd have met me and realised but whether we sat down and discussed my actual age I don't know. It was never an issue really.

After Full Circle I did a play for television. We were in production when the series it was part of was previewed in TV Times and they talked about me and the other writers. It said 'Andrew Smith, 23, blah blah blah'. I spoke to Robert Love, who was the Head of Drama at Scottish Television at the time and who'd given the interview with my age in it. I said, 'Where did you get the idea that I was 23?' He said, 'Oh they asked your age and I said that was about right. Was it?' I said, 'Actually, I'm 18.' He went: 'Oh!' As I said, we were in production at the time – and from that point on I was patronised by the director. Not by Robert; he was really good. But the director, no question, patronised me, didn't buy me another drink (laughs) and wasn't sure about letting me in the bar. It was really odd.

So Doctor Who wasn't the only show you had pitched to? 

Yeah, because I pitched to things like Shoestring and other shows and even got some feedback. I remember feedback from Robert Banks Stewart where he talked about stuff he'd done on Doctor Who and other programmes he'd written. I remember he was quite impressed that I knew about a daytime series he'd written called Rooms. So there was that and there would have been a couple of other things. I wanted to write, it wasn't just writing for Doctor Who. Doctor Who was always there.

The first thing I had on telly wasn't Doctor Who, it was a quickie on Not The Nine O'Clock News. I'd written comedy sketches for Week Ending before that. I was 15 or 16, I think, when I had my first sketch performed on Week Ending. So yeah, I was pitching around a few places. It took about three years, I think, to get to the point on Doctor Who where they said, 'Okay, we'll ask you to write a script and see what we think'. Whereas of course on other programmes they'd have finished their run before you got to that point.

You've talked elsewhere about writing more Doctor Who and one of your unused stories became The First Sontarans last year. But at what point did you decide to stop writing and join the police?

It was about four years into it. I was always really interested in joining the police and wanted a bit of excitement: it was that positive thing of wanting to do it. With the writing as well, there were a few things: the insecurity of it worried me, especially projecting very far ahead and knowing it would be a constant gamble. I knew other writers, older than me, and saw what they went through. And I just liked the idea of the excitement and the security of the police.

It's a mug's game being a writer, that's what you're saying.

Well, no, it was great. But it would have been a real leap in the dark and I recognised that if I carried on doing it, I'd probably have a feast or famine existence. It would have been a gamble with no guarantees of anything. I'd really enjoyed it but what I also found was that there was almost no time off. That thing of holiday? No chance. I'd think, 'I'll go on holiday but I'll take the typewriter with me anyway'.

In those four years I always had a commission for something until I had to begin turning things down as I approached the start date with the police. There was always that constant pressure of not having a working day. I just felt guilty. Again, sometimes I do now. I've decided to stop, sit down and watch TV with the family or whatever and I think, 'Should I be back there continuing?' You'll know this: sometimes you can't stop. Sometimes it's a little like pushing a bus. It takes a bit of effort to work up momentum but once it's going it's difficult to stop the bugger.

Last thing: Full Circle is all about evolution. Lalla Ward (Romana) has since married Richard Dawkins. Is it right that he's seen it? What does he make of it?

I have no idea! In fact, we didn't discuss it, I don't think, when she recorded The Invasion of E-Space (2010). We chatted about a lot of things but I don't think we talked about Full Circle. We never did a thing of 'Oh, do you remember when...' It was more just a chit-chat and what have you.

Do you think the story would stand up to his scrutiny?

(Long pause) To be honest, I don't really know. I'm aware of him but I've not read his books. I don't think I've ever seen an interview with him. About the only time I've ever seen him speak was when he had that cameo in Doctor Who. (Laughs).

Well, that's no help at all, is it? Andrew Smith, thank you very much!

(Postscript: when Dawkins was interviewed by Benjamin Cook for Doctor Who Magazine in 2008, he mentioned his wife being in the series:
“I didn’t watch it at the time, but I’ve loved seeing many of her episodes on DVD...”
But which episodes?!? I must know!)

Next episode: 1981

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Who are you calling clever-clever?

Due to a holiday plus some regular commuting in the last few weeks, I have read a few books for fun and not solely to steal from for work (I've also done that, too). To remind myself in ages to come and to break up my ongoing Doctor Who project I shall endeavour to blog my thoughts on these books. First off:

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
I’d meant to read this for some time but Steven’s accolade as one of Granta’s Young Writers To Stalk (sort of like Springwatch for typing) prompted me to get on with it. It’s exciting, smart and ridiculous (as I tweeted him), taking the high-concept wheeze of a man who’s memories are being eaten by the abstract idea of a shark, and then seeing what happens next.
“'This is so crazy I'm not even going to ask.'

'Probably for the best,' the doctor said. 'It's easier if you just accept it.' 
Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts (2007), p. 317.
Mark Haddon calls the book “The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The da Vinci Code” - on a genuine post-it note stuck rather than printed on the title page, itself an achingly trendy conceit. The book ought to so drip with its own clever-cleverness that I’d have given up early on. The 52-page interruption in the prose where the image of a shark composed of individual letters heads towards us as in a flickbook ought to take us right out of the adventure – as similar textual gimmickry did, I felt, with Philip Palmer's Debateable Space. I want – I love – to be lost in a story and resent the author waving from the margins.

But Steven contrives to make this sequence and the book as a whole enthralling, with twists and characters and digressions on the nature of language that kept me reading on. Bother him, I found it very difficult to put down, right to the last page. I look forward with feverish anticipation to his next one. (There's an excerpt from it in Granta #123; and also he's written some knock-off Doctor Who.)

Friday, June 07, 2013

Doctor Who: 1979

Episode 516: The Creature from the Pit, part 3
First broadcast: 6pm on Saturday, 10 November 1979
<< back to 1978
The Doctor, er, greets Erato
The Creature from the Pit, part 3
Most DVDs of old-skool Doctor Who include a documentary about how the story was made. Not all stories have a making-of, and The Creature from the Pit has something a little bit different. "Team Erato" is a rather good 15-minute analysis of what went wrong with the design and construction of the monster.

It's got plenty of insightful detail on the way BBC Visual Effects operated at the time, and the problems of translating ambitious scripts with only limited time and resources. It's essentially about why the monster in the story, Erato, was not realised especially well. The implication, if only because there's no making-of to address the rest of the production, seems to be that the silly-looking monster ruins the whole story.

I don't mean to criticise either the documentary or the story. I like The Creature from the Pit, in part because it is silly and fun. But I also wonder how much a Doctor Who story lives or dies on the quality of its monster.

Many of Doctor Who's most acclaimed old stories have shonky-looking monsters: giant clams in Genesis of the Daleks, a fluffy giant rat in Talons of Weng-Chiang, the smiley dragon in The Caves of Androzani. So what makes The Creature from the Pit different? In those stories, the monsters only play a minimal role, while the real villains - Davros and the Daleks, Li H'seng Chang and Magnus Greel, and Sharaz Jek - are terrifying, grotesque creations that linger in the memory. In The Creature from the Pit, Lady Adastra is a perfectly serviceable tyrant. So it isn't that.

The Wirrn in The Ark in Space are also not entirely brilliantly realised - and for a lot of the time, the only evident villain is a man wearing bits of green bubblewrap. And yet that story is a chilling classic while The Creature from the Pit is not.

It's not as if Erato is indicative of a general lack of visual pizzazz in the story. The scenes of jungle and tunnels shot on film at Ealing really impress, the stakes raised by this being one of the few times we see the Doctor ever break a sweat. This is a dirty, grimy planet - bearing the influence of Star Wars in its grubby realism.

It's not just that the stuff shot in TV Centre on video looks a bit flat. (Again that's not unusual for Doctor Who - and I'm told a general audience usually couldn't tell the difference between video and film, though I've never met anyone that was true of.)

And it's not as if David Fisher's script isn't full of real jeopardy or doesn't tackle sophisticated ideas:
"To revise his climax, Fisher sought the assistance of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University -- a process made easier when it was discovered that some of the faculty were fans of Doctor Who. They offered a neutron star as a potent weapon, and suggested that one way to avert the threat would be to encase it in aluminium."
But there's something about the tone of the story that suggests we not take it too seriously - a silly monster in part 3 only compounds that feeling.

This won't come as much surprise to many old-skool Doctor Who fans. In 1993, Douglas Adams was interviewed about his time as script-editor on the show, which include The Creature from the Pit.
"Cause when I was working on Doctor Who, inevitably quite a lot of humour was in the programme and some people liked this and some people didn't. I have to say that in fact the way the humour went into the programme wasn't exactly the way that I intended it to ... A danger one runs, and I kept on running into this problem, is that the moment you have anything in the script that's clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks, 'Oh, well we can do silly voices and silly walks' and so on. And I think that's exactly the wrong way to do it ... I think that Doctor Who is at its best when the humour and the drama work together and that however absurd a situation may be it is actually very, very real and has very real consequences. That's the moment at which something that's inherently absurd actually becomes frightening." 
Douglas Adams, speaking on More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS
What he's talking about is tone, and I think tone is the secret of successful Doctor Who. This is something I've a personal stake in and I think about it a lot, so here's my current thesis:

The most successful of the Doctor Who spin-off stories I've written have each had a recognisble tone: Home Truths is a BBC Ghost Story for ChristmasShadow of Death apes the TV Doctor Who story The Seeds of DeathThe Pirate Loop is a manic, free-wheeling comedy from the first sentence. They work, I think, because they create a definite tone in the first scene and maintain it to the end. That helps an audience immerse themselves in the world of the story, and gives them cues as to how to respond. Other stories, despite great performances or plot twists, despite the best or worst structural tricks or special effects, seem not to satisfy to the same degree because the tone is inconsistent.

Sometimes Doctor Who on TV uses inconsistency to achieve a dramatic effect. The first half of the very first episode, An Unearthly Child is a kitchen-sink drama about a school girl who behaves oddly; then her teachers push their way onto the TARDIS and it becomes something completely else.

In fact, I think the TARDIS travels less in time as it does in genre. One week it might land in a slightly knowing Midsomer Murder, the next it arrives in the midst of the movie Outland, the next a classic serial with the best in BBC facial hair. Two stories set in the same calendar year can be completely different because they have different tones.

The problem, I think, with The Creature from the Pit, is that the tone is inconsistent. It ought to be dirty, sweaty space opera in the style of Star Wars, and sometimes - especially early on - that's exactly what it is. Or, it ought to be a light entertainment comedy, like the previous (and far more effective) story, City of Death. Being both, we never know quite how to respond to what we're shown, and that takes us out of the story. That's when we start to notice problems with the design or the way the story's been shot.

The Doctor's first meeting with the vast, uncommunicative Erato, played for laughs rather than as high-concept SF, is the worst moment of this mismatch of styles. So I'd argue that it's not the monster that's at fault, but the inconsistent way that he's spoken to.

Next episode: 1980