Doctor Who – Planet of Giants. Part Two – Dangerous Journey

 

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At the start of Dangerous Journey there’s no real reason why the Doctor and his friends don’t return to the TARDIS and leave. Although they were concerned about Farrow’s dead body in the previous episode, the Doctor accepted that given their current size there’s nothing they can do to help. But the arrival of Forester and Smithers panics them and Ian and Barbara run straight into Farrow’s briefcase (another nicely designed prop). They could have hardly picked a worse place to hide in as it’s then taken into the house.

Smithers might be a blinkered scientist, but he’s not a a complete fool. He quickly ridicules Forester’s claim that Farrow was killed in self defence, pointing out that the unfortunate man was shot through the heart at point blank range. Smithers, unlike Forester, isn’t interested in profit – he’s motivated purely from a desire to save lives. “I’ve seen more death than you could imagine. People dying of starvation all over the world. What do you think I started on research for?”

But whilst he may have the best of intentions, he’s blinded to the issues with his formula. The misguided scientist would be a character who would feature numerous times in subsequent Doctor Who stories. Normally the Doctor would have a scene where he could explain to him or her the error of their ways. But due to the Doctor’s small stature this can’t be done here, so Smithers remains unenlightened until he reads Farrow’s notes in the next episode and finally understands just how flawed his work is.

One thing that’s always slightly irritated me about the story is the moment when Barbara touches some seeds which are coated with DN6. She mentions this in passing to Ian (who ignores her) but when she realises that she’s been infected, why doesn’t she tell Ian? Ian doesn’t come out of this very well either as he’s shown to be, once again, rather slow on the uptake.

But although the story isn’t quite gelling you can always just sit back and enjoy the visuals. The sink, complete with plug and plughole, is yet another wonderfully designed Raymond Cusick set and the animated fly is also stunning. Doctor Who had its fair share of design disasters (the paper-plate Dalek flying saucers in the very next story, say) but when things work they really work.

There’s a faint touch of the series’ original educational remit as the Doctor tells Susan that since they’re in the sink their voices will be magnified. Ian also explains why communication with the people in the house would be impossible. “Imagine a record played at the wrong speed. We’d sound like a little squeak to them and they’d sound like a low growl to us”.

The cliffhanger is a decent one – the Doctor and Susan shelter in the sink’s pipe as Smithers washes his hands. That such a mundane action could be fatal – they risk being swept away by the deluge of water – is one of the main strengths of the story.

Doctor Who – Planet of Giants. Part One – Planet of Giants

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Planet of Giants opens with the Doctor fretting over the fact that the TARDIS doors opened just before the ship materalised.  He’s clearly extremely worried about this and it’s possible that the scripted anxiety seeped into Hartnell’s performance as he’s rather incoherent during the scene.  But once the Doctor calms down, Hartnell also seems to recover somewhat.

When they venture outside, the four split up (bad move, you’d think they’d have learned by now!) to explore and begin to puzzle over the strange things they see (such as giant earthworms and ants).  The audience, thanks to the episode title, is slightly ahead of the TARDIS crew but it takes the reveal of items like a huge matchbox to provide the final clues.  The Doctor has finally managed to steer the TARDIS back to Earth in the 1960’s but they’ve all been reduced to the size of an inch.

Ian’s slow to accept this, preferring to believe that what they’ve found are nothing more than advertising props, built for an exhibition.  Given all that he’s seen over the course of the first season it’s a little jarring that the rational Ian fails to grasp the truth.  However this does, for once, enable Susan to be shown to be the sensible one (although she still has her fair share of hysterical outbursts).

A minuscules story had been planned right from the beginning (originally it would have followed on directly from the first episode).  It’s a clear technical/design triumph – Raymond Cusick, on the show’s usual tight budget, works wonders (the glass-shot of the house is a stand-out shot).  The various dead insects are also impressive.

But the story tends to fall down with the sub-plot of the giants.  The trials and tribulations concerning the TARDIS crew’s attempts to return to the ship are fine, but they wouldn’t have been substantial enough to carry a four-parter by themselves.  So in this first episode we meet the single-minded businessman Forester (Alan Tilvern).  Forester has invested a great deal of money in a new insecticide called DN6 and he’s perturbed to learn that the man from the ministry, Arnold Farrow (Frank Crawshaw), is recommending that it doesn’t go into production.  The reason is quite simple – DN6 is an indiscriminate killer and wherever it’s applied nothing (not even insects) will survive.

Because the Doctor and his friends never directly interact with Forester and later on the deluded creator of DN6 (Smithers), there’s a disconnection between the two main plot-threads which is one reason why the story never quite satisfies.  But on a positive point, Tilvern is a suave villain who thinks nothing of shooting the unfortunate Farrow dead (which could be said to be a mercy killing, thanks to Crawshaw’s distracting speech impediment).

Behaving Badly – Simply Media DVD Review

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When Bridget’s husband (Mark) leaves her for a younger woman after twenty years of marriage, her life initially seems to be all but over. For a while she falls into a defensive pattern – attending church, taking pottery lessons and generally behaving as a respectable middle-aged woman – but eventually she decides that enough is enough. For the first time in her life she’s going to put her own needs first and have some fun, even if it means disrupting the lives of everybody around her ….

Originally broadcast in 1989, Behaving Badly is a quiet gem which boasts an impressive cast, headed by Judi Dench as Bridget. Adapted by Catherine Heath and Moria Williams from Heath’s novel, there’s certainly plenty of material for Dench to get her teeth into. To begin with, Bridget’s conventional programming is so ingrained that when Mark (Ronald Pickup) breaks the news that he’s leaving her, all she can think about is when they last had turbot (hence the title of the first episode – The Tale of the Turbot).

There are strong supporting performances – Gwen Watford as Mark’s smothering mother Frieda – but it’s Dench who holds most of the interest across the four episodes.  As we proceed through the serial, Bridget shakes up the settled lives of her ex-husband Mark and his new wife Rebecca (Frances Barber) before moving on to her grown-up daughter Phyllida (Francesca Folan).

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What makes the serial especially interesting is the fact that in part it was something of an autobiographical study. Catherine Heath did admit that she felt a twinge of disquiet when Dench came onto set as the dowdy Bridget (she was dressed in an almost identical raincoat to her!) Although Heath at the time stated that she’d be interested in writing more for television, this remained her sole credit.

If Catherine Heath was something of a newcomer to the world of television, she was bolstered by some experienced production hands. Producer Humphrey Barclay started his career in the 1960’s working on several pre-Python shows (Do Not Adjust Your Set, Complete and Utter History of Britain) whilst his most recent production is the John Cleese sitcom Hold The Sunset. Director David Tucker had previously helmed A Very Peculiar Practice amongst others.

Behaving Badly mixes humour and pathos (many of the funniest lines come from Frieda)  and whilst it’s fairly low-key, the cast are a pleasure to watch. In addition to those already mentioned, the likes of Douglas Hodge, Joley Richardson, Hugh Quarshie and Maurice Denham are all excellent value. An entertaining character piece, it’s certainly worth your time.

Behaving Badly is available now from Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Bodily Harm – Simply Media DVD Review

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Mitchel Greenfield’s mid-life crisis is a bit more extreme than most. After being fired from his job, learning that his father is dying and that his wife has been carrying on with a loathsome neighbour, Mitchel snaps in a major fashion – causing havoc to those closest to him ….

Like The Fragile Heart, this is another Channel 4 drama that’s slipped into obscurity, which is surprising given the cast.  Timothy Spall is perfect as the initially affable Mitchel who, following crushing blow after crushing blow, begins to devolve into an irrational and at times violent individual. Spall, due to his lengthy film and television career, already carried a residual groundswell of public affection, which helps to explain why we’re on Mitchel’s side right from the start.

Mitchel’s a middle-aged stockbroker with a fairly affluent lifestyle, although he seems curiously out of place amongst the younger and more thrusting wheeler-dealers.  So quite how he’s managed to hang onto his position for so long is something of a mystery.

Lesley Manville, as Mitchel’s wife Mandy, offers a contrasting but complimentary performance. Poles apart in temperament (Mitchel, at least to begin with, is self-contained whilst Mandy is outgoing to an extreme level) they seem to have little in common.  Mandy’s desire to throw a massive birthday party for him and their daughter Nic (Sadie Thompson) is a good example of their non-communication. Both Mitchel and Nic view the prospect of a party with little enthusiasm, but as ever Mandy gets her way.

It’s fascinating that Mitchel and Nic seem to enjoy a stronger bond than Mitchel and Mandy. When the teenage Nic expresses her desire to move away from home (to a place where, she says, she won’t be viewed as a misfit) Mitchel is bereft at the prospect.

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Bodily Harm is very dark indeed. There are a few moments of twisted humour though, and one which works well is the sequence when a drunken Mandy succumbs to the dubious charms of Tintin (Jay Simpson) in one of the upstairs rooms at the party. Dressed as an angel, as Mandy’s enthusiastic blow-job reaches its, um, climax, her wings flap with an ever increasing fury.

The quality casting continues with Mitchel’s parents Sidney and Sheila (George Cole and Annette Crosbie). Their story occupies the darker end of the narrative – an ailing Sidney locking himself into a suicide pact with a compliant Sheila. As with Spall, the familiarity of these two veteran actors ensures that we’re invested in their fates just that little bit more.

Tony Grounds’ script is sharp and punchy and features a few unexpected diversions along the way.  Originally broadcast in June 2002 across two episodes (the first running for fifty minutes, the second for eighty five minutes) it’s another Channel 4 drama that I’m glad has been brought back into circulation by Simply. Not something to watch if you’re feeling a bit down, Bodily Harm nevertheless crackles with an angry and uncomfortable intensity.

Bodily Harm is available now from Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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The Fragile Heart – Simply Media DVD Review

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Edgar Pascoe (Nigel Hawthorne) is a leading Cardiac surgeon who finds himself embroiled in difficulties inside and out of the operating theatre. His wife Lileth (Dearbhla Molloy) is a GP who becomes increasingly distanced both professionally and personally from him whilst their daughter Nicola (Helen McCrory) causes friction due to her single-minded desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.

The death of a patient during a routine operation sows the first seed of doubt in Edgar’s mind. Later, during a trip to China as the head of a medical delegation, he finds himself confronted not only by an ethical dilemma but also by his own failing health.  Could traditional Chinese methods of healing possibly hold the key? The rational Edgar has always viewed such things with disdain, and yet ….

Written by Paula Milne and broadcast over three episodes during November 1996, The Fragile Heart has somewhat slipped into obscurity despite Nigel Hawthorne’s BAFTA-winning performance (this would be Hawthorne’s sixth and final BAFTA award).

Paula Milne’s writing career stretches back to the early seventies (beginning with an episode of Crossroads). Shortly afterwards she would develop the medical drama Angels before contributing to a number of established series including Z Cars, Coronation Street and Juliet Bravo.  Her first single drama – A Sudden Wrench – was aired in 1982 as part of the Play For Today strand, whilst later career highlights include Driving Ambition (1984), Chandler and Co. (1994-95) and The Politician’s Wife (1995).

The opening of episode one sees Edgar give a speech to a roomful of fellow professionals. This is a handy device, as it allows him to state his medical ethos quickly and succinctly. He believes whole-heartedly in the advancement of medical science – especially when connected to the development of new technology. The Fragile Heart is something of a time capsule of the period – it was a period when computer technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated (even if some of the examples look a little low-tech today).

This early monologue is a fine showcase for Hawthorne, who – as you might expect – doesn’t disappoint. And as we proceed, further layers are added to Edgar’s character.   Existing in the rarefied upper echelons of the medical profession, he conducts his professional business with efficiency but little personal empathy.

This is exemplified when an anxious patient, Peter Sedgley (Sebastian Abineri), expresses doubt about the operation Edgar has arranged for him. Politely but firmly disagreeing with Sedgley that herbal alternatives may be beneficial, the routine operation goes ahead but tragedy strikes as Sedgley dies on the operating table.  Hawthorne again impresses during these scenes, especially during the moment when Edgar is confronted by Sedgley’s grieving widow, Margaret (Marian McLoughlin).  That he chose to delegate a junior to break the bad news to her is a telling character moment.

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Whilst Edgar maintains a dispassionate profile, Lileth is quite different. The contrast between their working environments is immediately obvious – his patients are wealthy and private whilst hers are poor and public.  Lileth’s tactile interaction with her patients makes the point that technology is only part of the medical solution – personal contact is also important.  Further to this, witness her reaction when confronted with a demonstration of a long-distance diagnosis (with a doctor at the end of a computer screen). This theme of science versus nature is one which occurs multiple times across the serial.

As for the rest of the family, Nicola’s naked ambition quickly comes to the surface.  Happily plagiarising the work of others, she’s unrepentant when confronted by her colleague, Dilip Satsu (Ian Aspinall). This was an early role for Helen McCrory who immediately catches the eye.  Nicola’s twin, Daniel (Dominic Mafham), is the one non-medical member of the family and there’s the sense that this is something of a disappointment to Edgar.

The return of a vengeful Dilip – threatening to expose Nicola as a fraud – is a key part of the second episode. They don’t confront each other directly (she, along with Daniel, are both in China with Edgar) but the fall-out is very interesting anyway.  Nicola’s casual admission of guilt to her father, followed by a suggestion that he should fake the records to support her story, is a dramatic moment which triggers another of Edgar’s attacks (which have been increasing in frequency).

The aftermath – Edgar is treated in his hotel-room by a Chinese doctor – begins the process of chipping away at Edgar’s belief that science is always right. This is developed across the third and final episode, which sees Edgar continue his journey of self-discovery.

Running for three episodes each of approximately sixty six minutes duration (an unusual format) The Fragile Heart is a somewhat leisurely watch, but it’s held together by Nigel Hawthorne’s magnetic central performance. There’s something undeniably poignant about watching him act the part of a man whose powers were waning (just five years later he would die of a heart attack). Easy to see why he won a BAFTA for this role and two decades on his playing has lost none of its power. This one is well worth checking out.

The Fragile Heart is available now from Simply Media, RRP £11.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror. Episode Six – Prisoners of Conciergerie

 

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The final episode of The Reign of Terror is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the serial. There’s a couple of possibilities to consider – either Dennis Spooner ran out of plot and had to bolt this epilogue on or maybe it was felt that after five episodes of capture/escape/capture there should be an ending that looked ahead to France’s future.

Lemaitre reveals that he’s the English spy, James Stirling. Or at least he says he is – it’s rather remarkable that everybody takes this statement at face value without asking for any sort of proof. After the moral complexities of the previous episode it’s a little unimpressive – what better way could there be for an agent of the Revolution to infiltrate the rebels than by claiming he’s one of them? But thankfully Stirling is who he claims to be and quickly ropes Ian and Barbara into assisting him with a dangerous mission.

This is another strange development – out of all the people that he could have been chosen, why pick Ian and Barbara? But these scenes – the pair go undercover at a tavern to spy on a meeting between Paul Barrass and Napoleon Bonaparte – do help to give the story a wider scope (even if they’re historically very dubious). Still, we get to see Barbara as a serving wench, so it’s not all bad.

Robespierre’s final appearance is brief. He’s shot in the jaw (off-screen) and later finds himself incarcerated at the Conciergerie, where the jailer gleefully receives him. The turncoat nature of the jailer – he’s now happy to share in the derision heaped on Robespierre, whereas an hour earlier he had been his most loyal servant – stands in sharp contrast to the unswerving viewpoints held by the likes of Jules and Leon.

Even if this episode closes the story with something of a whimper rather than a bang, the final scene, set in the TARDIS, is interesting as it offers another restatement of the belief that Earth’s history is unalterable.

IAN: Supposing we had written Napoleon a letter, telling him, you know, some of the things that were going to happen to him.
SUSAN: It wouldn’t have made any difference, Ian. He’d have forgotten it, or lost it, or thought it was written by a maniac.
BARBARA: I suppose if we’d tried to kill him with a gun, the bullet would have missed him.
DOCTOR: Well, it’s hardly fair to speculate, is it? No, I’m afraid you belittle things. Our lives are important, at least to us. But as we see, so we learn.

It’s easy to believe that this scene was the handiwork of David Whitaker, as Dennis Spooner would soon gleefully prove that history could very easily be changed. In retrospect it’s clear to see why this was untenable – the concept that history (or at least, Earth history) was fixed whilst the future (or at least, the future as seen from a 1960’s Earth perspective) could be altered at will was a rather bizarre one.

Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror. Episode Five – A Bargain of Necessity

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At the end of the previous episode Ian was captured by Leon, who reveals that he’s an agent of the Revolution. “I’ve been loyal to the Revolution from the beginning. If you’d known what France was like six years ago, before the Bastille, you’d understand. France will never be anything until we’re rid of these high-born leeches who’ve been sucking the life-blood of France for so long.”

Although Leon could viewed as a villain, like Robespierre he’s convinced of the right of his actions. And whilst he chains and threatens Ian, there’s the sense that he does so reluctantly. This scene is open to various interpretations though – maybe Leon is a skilled manipulator and tells Ian exactly what he thinks he wants to hear. Or is his desire to spare his life genuine?

It’s no surprise that although Ian is restrained and several menacing guards are present, there’s no attempt to torture him for the information which Leon is convinced he has (Jules appears and kills Leon before this happens). Saturday tea-time back in 1964 wouldn’t have been the place for explicit scenes of suffering (which makes the subject matter of this serial an odd one to have chosen).

The dramatic highlight of the episode, indeed the entire serial, occurs when Barbara is told of Leon’s death.

IAN: It was the only way, Barbara.
JULES: He deserved to die. He was a traitor.
BARBARA: What do you mean, he was a traitor?
IAN: When I got to the church, he turned on me. He was going to kill me.
JULES: He betrayed us, Barbara.
BARBARA: He was a traitor to you. To his side he was a patriot.
IAN: Barbara, we’ve taken sides just by being here. Jules actually shot him. It could just as easily have been me.
JULES: And what about Robespierre? I suppose you think ….
BARBARA: Well just because an extremist like Robespierre
IAN: Oh, Barbara, Jules is our friend. He saved our lives!
BARBARA: I know all that! The revolution isn’t all bad, and neither are the people who support it. It changed things for the whole world, and good, honest people gave their lives for that change.
IAN: Well, he got what he deserved.
BARBARA: You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.

It’s a sparkling scene for both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill and offers a rare opportunity to see Ian and Barbara at loggerheads. Although Barbara’s view of Leon is no doubt coloured by her appreciation of him as a man, the point she makes (Leon would have been viewed as a patriot by his own people) is a valid one. But Ian’s retort that they’ve chosen sides and Leon had to be viewed as an enemy is equally valid. By showing Leon to be a cultured, well-educated man who also happened to believe that the overthrow of the ruling elite was morally justified, Spooner’s script has a level of complexity which wasn’t always present in Doctor Who. Generally, during this era of the series goodies and baddies tended to be painted in broader brushstrokes (although the historical stories did seem to offer more scope for nuanced character studies).

The Doctor spends the episode manipulating the hapless jailer in order to obtain Barbara and Susan’s release from prison. It provides a spot of comic relief which counterpoints the darker theme of Leon’s death. But it looks as if the Doctor hasn’t quite been as clever as he thinks – as we see that Lemaitre is still the one pulling the strings ……