Christmas Day was a very Doctor Who affair this year. Not only was there the official Christmas special in which Peter Capaldi handed over the reins to Jodie Whittaker, I also spent the afternoon watching the latest Blu-ray release direct from 1979 – “a little later than planned” as the introduction wittily explains.
The six-part serial “Shada” has legendary status among Doctor Who fans. Intended as the final story to season 17 of the classic series, it’s the only one in the 54 years of the show’s history to fail to make it to air. Of course there have been all manner of story ideas that even made it as far as being commissioned as scripts, but none have actually started filming only to be abandoned midway through.
That’s what happened to “Shada”. Industrial action saw the plug pulled after initial location filming in Cambridge and the completion of the first of three recording blocks back at BBC Television Centre. All the extant footage was carefully stored away, but with series stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward departing the show the following year there was no opportunity to go back and remount the production in order to complete the missing scenes. The existing material has been released in various forms over the years, including a VHS version with linking narration covering the missing scenes supplied by Baker. There was an animated version rewritten to star the Seventh Doctor (Paul McGann) and more recently a novelization of Douglas Adams’ scripts by Gareth Roberts. Read the rest of this entry »
The six-part Doctor Who serial “The Seeds of Doom” dates from 1976 and was part of the show’s 13th season, which has a strong claim to be considered as one of the best runs of the classic era of the show since it also included “Terror of the Zygons”, “Planet of Evil”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Android Invasion” and “The Brain of Morbius”.
Sadly I didn’t see any of these stories when they originally aired, since I’d gone off in a major pre-teen strop on the quite sensible and reasonable grounds that Tom Baker was not Jon Pertwee. I have repented in the 40 years since of course, and have caught up with all the aforementioned stories on UK Gold or more recently on pristine digitally remastered DVDs, and while many Whovians cite “Zygons” or “Pyramids” as their favourite story from this period I have to say that speaking for myself I think it has to be “The Seeds of Doom”. Read the rest of this entry »
This is not a review as such, but more a rare foray into public service announcements for anyone who is a fan of the classic Doctor Who era of stories and who has access to CBS Studio’s Horror Channel digital satellite and cable station in the UK.
In case you missed the recent announcements, the Horror Channel recently just completed a deal with BBC Worldwide to show a number of Doctor Who stories from the original run between 1963 and 1989 and starring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – and of course the iconic Tom Baker, who has been also lending his voice to a number of on-air promotional trailers that have been running in the past week. Read the rest of this entry »
Even when this four-part story originally aired back in September 1979 it was a distinctly pedestrian outing for Doctor Who. Time hasn’t really done all that much to improve things – 35 years on it remains thoroughly mediocre. But nonetheless there’s a reason why I wanted to revisit this story in particular, as it holds a quite important pivotal role in my relationship with the series as a whole. Allow me to explain…
By the time “Destiny of the Daleks” made it to air, it had been more than four years since I’d watched the programme. I simply hadn’t been able to reconcile myself to Tom Baker taking over from Jon Pertwee, and as a result my childish petulance meant I missed out on seeing the original transmissions of some of the greatest classic Who stories of all time. I’d been oblivious to the delights of such stories as “Terror of the Zygons”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Robots of Death” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, and what I saw when I finally climbed off my high horse to give the series another go didn’t exactly fill me with confidence or lead me to suspect the series had been any good in my absence.
What finally did draw me back, of course, was the Daleks. Just knowing that they would return for the first story of the new season gave me an impetus to check out the show again. It felt appropriate, because almost the last serial I’d watched before my self-imposed exile had been the brilliant “Genesis of the Daleks”. If only this new story could be half as good as that, I thought to myself … Read the rest of this entry »
The problem with creating a 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who is finding a story that not only has space for all 13 incarnations of the titular character, but one that actually warrants multi-Doctor involvement. It’s not like the Doctor should be going around and dropping in on himself every other week for tea and scones.
In current Who lore, there’s pretty much only one thing big enough to justify the Doctor calling up his own selves as reinforcements. The Time War was a rather brilliant concept introduced by showrunner Russell T Davies in 2005 so that he could sweep away the clutter of too much complex backstory continuity and free the show up for its reboot for a brand new audience complete with a new, dark and angst-ridden central protagonist unlike any Doctor previously seen in the classic era. It did its job superbly – but also became such a huge part of the show’s mythos that it was impossible not to prod and poke it further over the years. Even though RTD’s successor Steven Moffat has been less inclined to utilise it since he took over, the spectre of the Time War has continued to loom over the show and the character with an ever-increasing weight. And that’s because there was an unforeseen problem.
Put simply: the Time War ended when the Doctor annihilated two whole civilisations. That’s bad enough, even if one of them is the Daleks; but when the Doctor is responsible for the genocide of his own people it leaves a stain on our supposedly heroic character that becomes increasingly untenable. The pivotal moment is when you frame the emotionally loaded but entirely warranted question, “How many children did you kill?” as indeed the 50th anniversary special does. Once asked it cannot be taken back, and you soon realise that this act cannot be allowed to stand. No matter how much you try and rationalise it or quarantine off the guilt of the heinous atrocity onto one disowned incarnation of the Doctor, no matter how much the Doctor suffers with the burden of his actions, it will never be enough: a Doctor who did this can no longer be our or anybody’s hero. And that is a big problem for the show. Read the rest of this entry »
My apologies, it’s been a bit quiet on the review front – for the simple reason that I haven’t been watching, reading or otherwise partaking of anything that warrants a review. It’s just been that sort of start to the year. Hopefully things will pick up as we approach Easter.
In the meantime, to keep the blog ticking over, a little diversion in content. Regular readers will know that I’m rather partial to the series Doctor Who (it’s also pretty obvious from one glance at the site tag cloud!) so I thought I’d do a short-ish piece on my personal history watching the show. Anyone not interested in Doctor Who should probably look away … now. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s fair to say that this Doctor Who serial is not going to be anyone’s top pick of “best story of all time.” The making of this instalment was fraught with all sorts of problems, and they’re all right up there on the screen for all to see and cringe over.
To add to the collapse in budgets to the point of infeasibility in 1979, and the ever-present threat of industrial action from militant unions that year, was added the disastrous mis-selection of a totally inappropriate director. Alan Bromly was a semi-retired member of the old school style of directing, with no interest in science fiction and totally overwhelmed by the show’s growing technical complexity. As he floundered around more and more out of his depth, relations with the principal actors collapsed and led to on-set shouting matches with both Lalla Ward (playing Romana) and Tom Baker (the Doctor) – something that never happened in TV production at that time. Finally, the studio session went for a tea break – and Bromly never came back. Whether he walked out or was fired is a matter of conjecture.
Given this back story it’s amazing that the show ever made it to air at all, but it did and all the problems and repercussions of the situation are much too evident – starting with the set, which is not so much designed to be a “luxury cruise liner” as simply assembled out of whatever they had to hand in the scenery department, with the “ship’s bridge” looking like a store cupboard. Tatty flats are augmented by anything that 1970s glam rock had to offer as looking remotely futuristic, and it’s all held together by black and yellow striped tape making it look like a health and safety crime scene gone berserk – appropriately as it turns out, since the doors wobble when closing and the stairs visibly collapse under foot as the Doctor gives chase.
This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.
Season 17 of Doctor Who has to be one of the oddest, most split-personality seasons in the classic show’s history. On the one hand it contains one of the best and most beloved serials of all time, which itself also boasts the show’s largest-ever episode audience viewing figure (over 16m). And on the other hand, the series contains some of the series worst and laziest disappointments.
By the latter half of 1979, Doctor Who was frankly running on empty and looking tired. Tom Baker was bored and not taking it seriously anymore; producer Graham Williams had done his best in a job that had been foisted upon him against his will two years before, but his heart was no longer in it either. The show had the same theme music, title sequence, star, costume and incidental music that it had used for the last five years: it felt stuck in a time loop. Anyone coming back to test the waters of the show post-Star Wars after five years of not watching – which was pretty much my situation – would have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a period drama rather than a science-fiction show.
That year, the show was also fighting a losing battle against slashed budgets and increasing industrial unrest with the unions. Against this background Williams came up with a cunning plan to try and do the best he could with his shrinking resources: he would split the season into two, with one half being big, impressive tentpole productions and the other half being dross assembled out of whatever sticky-back plastic he could scrape together. It was a genuinely smart plan, and if it had worked then we might be hailing season 17 as one of the best. Unfortunately for Williams, circumstances conspired against him.
His first idea for a ‘tentpole’ production was the return of the Daleks after a five year absence following the acknowledged classic “Genesis of the Daleks.” What could possibly go wrong? It was a sure-fire winner with which to start the season. Unfortunately Dalek creator/writer Terry Nation was just as much in the grip of malaise as the rest of the show and indeed the rest of the country. He turned in a clichéd, charmless script for “Destiny of the Daleks” that lacked any creative imagination but simply fell back on the same tried old tropes that had looked dated even back in the 1960s. Add to that battered Daleks that looked as though they’d been brutalised in five years in a locked props cupboard, charmless new ‘arch-rivals” the Movellans, and an actor playing Davros saddled with an ill-fitting mask not even made for him, and you have some idea of how tired and disappointing this sure-fire ‘winner’ ended up being. In many ways, it perfectly personified the current state of the show as a whole and displayed all the problems facing the production team.
When production on a second ‘tentpole’ collapsed because of union strike action – “Shada” being perhaps the most mythologised story in all of Who fandom, and well worth getting Gareth Robert’s just-released novelisation of Douglas Adams’ scripts for this, or better yet getting the audiobook version narrated by series star Lalla Ward – it left “City of Death” as the season’s only successful aired prestige serial. And it really is excellent. A star cast (Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, even a cameo from John Cleese) and a truly innovative sci-fi idea (probably Douglas Adams’ best TV work of all time) coupled with the show’s first foreign location shooting and some great production values and FX. If “Destiny of the Daleks” and “Shada” had been anywhere near this level then series 17 would indeed have been a classic year.
But they weren’t, and instead “City of Death” finds itself the sole stand-out in a year otherwise populated by the sacrificial budget-saving time-filling dross of “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon”. Between them, those two stories don’t have two decent original science fiction ideas to rub together; but the scripts manage to contain more gaps in logic than there are holes in a string vest. The production values are lamentable (although “Pit” does at least use number 1 tropical forest studio set from the prop store, which at least makes it look better than the dull corridor sets of “Nimon”) and the acting is extraordinarily bad from people who should know better (such as veterans Bill Fraser and Graham Crowden, the latter of whom provides one of the most spectacularly dreadful performances of a major guest star of all time. And to think, he was apparently offered the chance to play the fourth Doctor!)
And then there is “Nightmare of Eden”, which finally comes to DVD this week – one of the last Tom Baker-era serials to come to the format.
Now it’s a funny thing about “Eden”, because by rights it falls firmly in the “dross” category. It has the same faults as “Pit” and “Nimon”: some dreadfully overcooked acting (Lewis Flander’s Tryst would have been too absurd even for ‘Allo ‘Allo, Geoffrey Hinsliff looks like he’s auditioning for his later role in soap spoof Brass, while David Daker still thinks he’s playing Irongron from season 11’s medieval serial “The Time Warrior”); some laughably bad overlit generic-SF corridor sets; a monster that looks exactly like a man in a fur-lined rubber suit that comes complete with built-in 70s flares; FX that show a total lack of time and budget; sets that literally collapse underfoot but for which there is no time to mount reshoots.
But here’s the thing: I can’t help rather liking “Nightmare of Eden” for all that. Almost admire it, in fact. It’s clearly not one of the production team’s favourite sons of 1979, but it at least has the spirit and wits to try and fight on regardless.
For one thing, it presents an unusually overt tale of drug abuse at a time when television (let alone BBC family time TV) was very squeamish about even hinting at such things. There are some interesting science fiction concepts: the CET (Continual Event Transmuter) machine used for recording and transporting samples from explorations; the two ships stuck together phasing in and out of warp drive at the same spot; the secret of the origins of the drug in question. For the only time in series 17 in a non-Adams story, this is a show with more than one creative idea in its head at any given time, and not just that but ideas which actually weave together coherently without leaving vast gaps in the story logic. Despite Baker hamming it up dreadfully to keep his own spirits from flagging, the serial even manages to produce a half-decent sense of pace and danger at times.
I shouldn’t like “Nightmare of Eden”, then – but I do. I’d go so far as to say that if it hadn’t had a spark of life in it, some glimmer that the show didn’t have more to offer than the two stories that bookended it to either side, I might not have come back to watch series 18 at all and I would have dropped out of Who fandom for good this time.
Even so, it was clear to everyone involved that something – indeed, pretty much everything – had to change in Doctor Who for 1980. Williams finally got his parole and moved on, and the BBC hierarchy looked for anyone dumb enough or hungry enough to take on the poisoned chalice of one of the Corporation’s longest-running shows. They didn’t have to look far, and found the man they wanted in the Doctor Who office: production manager John Nathan-Turner. And it turned out he had a few ideas that meant that season 18 would be very different indeed, and season 17 soon became just a distant nightmare tucked away in a CET machine. Or DVD player, as we call it these days.
While I appreciate that I probably have something of an “avid Doctor Who fan” reputation, the truth is that my Whovian education is sorely lacking in some key areas. There are several periods of the classic series where I was not watching the series as it aired for some reason, and have somehow neglected to backfill my Who education even once it became possible with home video releases and via endless reruns on UK Gold in the 1990s.
One major gap is the middle period of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor, the classic series’ undisputed golden era. While I’ve caught up on a number of the most stand-out stories from this time (like “Seeds of Doom”, “The Robots of Death,” “Horror of Fang Rock” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” classics all) there have been others for which I have just never had the right moment. One such serial is “The Masque of Mandragora” from 1976, which means that despite knowing the basic story from episode guides, this week’s viewing of it is literally the first time I’ve seen it properly from beginning to end. A brand new Tom Baker adventure for me to experience – even if it is nearly 36 years old!
I happened to pick up the paperback of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil last week from HMV for the scandalously low price of £2, and was therefore rather interested to listen to a new Radio 4 Extra production of it, my only previous experience with the story being the 1978 film version starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. That film is not exactly an all-time classic and in all honesty is probably merely average as a thriller, but I remember being wowed by the shocking, bold high concept at the heart of it and the chilling realism of how that idea is then followed through by the antagonists.
Unfortunately most of that was lost in this audio production, an abridged reading by the actor Alex Jennings. Jennings is one of those people who by rights should be a far bigger star, but in lieu of that has done much radio and audiobook work. He is certainly the best thing about this version, giving a good, solid performance and coping with the different voices of the characters without much trouble – and given that a particular denouement depends on someone recognising particular vocal intonations, authentic voices here are essential.
Unfortunately the book simply defeats the abridgement. Whereas the film is two hours long – and the unabridged audiobook is eight an a half hours long – this tries to get the job done in around 75 minutes and it just doesn’t work. The story is left choppy and incoherent, jumping all over the place and forced to leave out key moments that establish the realism, suspense and threat of the story while consistently throwing away its key shocks by underplaying. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story itself (and I hadn’t read the book I’d just purchased prior to listening and last saw the film many years ago, so I’m far from an expert) then you’ll be struck by the sudden jumps and omissions throughout. You can sense whole chunks being ripped out as you go, and it combines to leave you feeling rather puzzled for the wrong reasons rather than on the edge of your seat.
The key problem would appear to be that the length of the adaptation is just too short for the source material, which is as much down to the commissioning editors and the nature of the book itself as it is to the ensuing work of the narrator, abridger and production team under the given constraints. It was pretty much seriously compromised before they ever got underway. Still, even given those caveats, I have to admit that I found this whole production rather flat: it’s someone simply reading a book at you and there’s no excitement to it. It certainly lacks the dynamism of full-cast productions (like the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays, or the Paul Temple plays I’ve written about) which are amazingly real and vivid in the mind after you’ve heard them.
You might think that comparing a narrated reading with a full cast play is unfair, a comparison of apples and oranges – and with good reason. Even so, too many audiobook productions are just dull, lifeless affairs. They do a serviceable, mannered job in reading the words but seem disinclined to do anything further to bring the subject matter to life. There are honourable exceptions to the rule, and perhaps unsurprisingly it’s often when they have a younger, more demanding audience in mind: the audio adaptations of the old Doctor Who Target novels for example – such as the current BBC Radio 4 Extra airing of “The Giant Robot” – make effective use of not just their narrator but also of minimal sound effects and music cues that instantly make them more immersive experiences. Plus of course this one has the inimitable Tom Baker: his voice might be too richly distinctive to create as believable an array of different characters as Jennings can, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s Tom Baker, after all – the Doctor!
Otherwise I’ve come to rather avoid audio ‘readings’ because they simply don’t work for me, which is a shame. They can be made effectively after all, as I pointed out last year with my review of At The Mountains of Madness, an abridged reading of an HP Lovecraft story, an author of whom I’m not exactly a fan. The whole thing should have been a complete no-no for me and yet I absolutely loved the end result, which managed to convert an ordinary audiobook reading into something as powerfully vivid and atmospheric as any full-cast audio play I’d heard thanks to a seamless bit of abridgement, a few intelligent production tricks and the application of a truckload of imagination.
The same team that produced At The Mountains of Madness is behind next week’s BBC Radio 4 Extra première, Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (6.30pm weekdays from Monday, October 3) and it will be fascinating to find out whether they can achieve the same feat a second time around. I guess I’ll be reporting back next week on whether they did.