We ride to destiny. Doctor Who – Silver Nemesis

silver

The Doctor is custodian of an ancient Gallifreyan artifact of almost unimaginable power.  One of the Doctor’s oldest enemies wants it (as do others) and after various adventures they acquire it.  But far too late they discover that they’ve fallen into the Doctor’s trap.

Sounds familiar? It should do, since it’s the plot of Remembrance of the Daleks. And then a month later exactly the same story was used in Silver Nemesis.  It’s hard to believe that Andrew Cartmel would have commissioned two writers to pen the same story, so presumably it was a coincidence.  But when the similarities became apparent, Silver Nemesis really should have been rewritten.

To be honest, Silver Nemesis really isn’t very good.  It’s similarity to Remembrance is only one of its problems.  I’ve always found the notion that the Doctor set his pocket watch to remind him that the Nemesis statue would crash to Earth in 1988 to be bizarre.  He has a time machine, so why didn’t he nip forward 350 years as soon as he’d launched the statue, in order to deal with the consequences?

And the scenes with the skinheads are particularly painful.  Why keep them in, since they don’t advance the plot at all, when other cuts were made which did impact the narrative?  The story would have probably been better as a four-parter, or a re-drafted three-parter, but what was transmitted was a bit of a mess.  The VHS edit (incorporating some of the cut footage) was an improvement – but the DVD only had the broadcast version.  If ever a story needed a re-edit, then it was this one – but sadly the DVD didn’t get it.

The Cybermen aren’t much cop (there’s a train of thought that posits it was all downhill for them after The Tenth Planet).  Even the briefest touch from a golden arrow is enough to kill them (whereas in Earthshock the Doctor had to grate Adric’s batch into their chest unit) and even worse, they run away when they spot gold on the ground.  As Ace would say, wimps!

Anton Diffring adds a touch of class as De Flores.  It’s not much of a part (he’s the leader of an inept bunch of neo-Nazis) but he does what he can.  Fiona Walker makes a fairly forgettable villain, although Gerard Murphy as Richard gives a nice, comic performance.

Silver Nemesis is also notable for dropping hints about the “truth” concerning the Doctor.  All this “more than a Time Lord” business was covered in depth later in the New Adventures, which was probably the best place for it.

This story is a perfectly inoffensive 75 minutes, but as its sandwiched between two stories that have considerably more scope and depth, it can’t help but look a little threadbare.

I make sweets that are so good, so delicious that sometimes, if I’m on form, the human physiology is not equipped to bear the pleasure. Doctor Who – The Happiness Patrol

hp

The Happiness Patrol is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time.  That’s not possibly a view that’s particularly widely shared (it ranked only 172 out of 241 stories in the DWM 2014 poll).  But then The Gunfighters could only manage a ranking of 202 in the same poll, which is even more bizarre.

After watching The Happiness Patrol on its orignal transmission back in 1988, my first thought was that it was like Paradise Towers – only done right.  There’s a lot to enjoy in Paradise Towers, but some of the performances do let it down.  Happiness is cast so well, with no weak links.

Sheila Hancock is Helen A, an autocratic leader who has little time for anybody else’s point of view.  Saddled with an apparently subservient husband, Joseph C (Ronald Fraser), they were seen at the time as obvious caricatures of Margaret and Denis Thatcher.  The tone of Hancock’s delivery, for example, is clearly modeled on Thatcher.  Hancock told DWM in 2001 that she hated Mrs Thatcher “with a deep and venomous passion” so it’s not surprising that she took the material in the script and pushed it, possibly, even further.

Sheila Hancock and Ronald Fraser
Sheila Hancock and Ronald Fraser

But though Helen A can be seen as a Thatcher-clone, the script is pointing in another direction.  Take the final scene between Helen A and the Doctor.

HELEN: They didn’t understand me.
DOCTOR: Oh, they understood you only too well. That’s why they resisted you.
HELEN: I only wanted the best for them.
DOCTOR: The best? Prisons? Death squads? Executions?
HELEN: They only came later. I told them to be happy, but they wouldn’t listen. I gave them every chance. Oh, I know they laughed sometimes, but they still cried, they still wept.

Helen A had been running a reign of terror, with mass murders, referred to as “disappearances”.  Whilst Margaret Thatcher had many faults, “death squads and executions” weren’t amongst them.  This aligns Helen A and Terra Alpha much more with countries such as Chile, where political opponents of the military junta in the 1970’s also “disappeared”, never to be seen again.

Helen A has some loyal soldiers to call on – such as Daisy K (Georgina Hale) and Priscilla P (Rachel Bell).  Both Hale and Bell are great value, Hale’s drawling style of delivery can make the most out of even fairly mundane lines, whilst Bell is given some good scenes which highlight exactly how much of a fanatic she is (and just the type of solider Helen A requires when things turn desperate).

PRISCILLA: I used to work with explosives when I was in Happiness Patrol B, the anti-terrorist squad. We worked the night shift. I like working late at night.
ACE: Not interested.
PRISCILLA: Night times are when they come out.
ACE: Who?
PRISCILLA: The killjoys. Depressives, manic reactive indigenous. We got them. All of them.
ACE: What do you mean, got them?
PRISCILLA: They disappeared.
ACE: You make me sick.
PRISCILLA: I did a good job, and then they put me on this. It’s not fair. I know the streets. I’m a fighter.
ACE: No, you’re not. You’re a killer.

John Normington (Trevor Sigma) and Lesley Dunlop (Susan Q) had both guest-starred in S21, but had very different roles here.  Trevor Sigma is a much less showy part than Morgus (Trevor Sigma exists only on the periphery of the plot and his major contribution is to confirm exactly how many people have disappeared on Terra Alpha in the last six months).

Dunlop is much more central to the action and gives a very nice, understated performance (which isn’t easy in that costume).  In episode one she discusses the futility of her life and how she welcomes the possibility of her own death – something that it’s hard to find many examples of in the series, prior to this story.

But I did wake up one morning, and suddenly something was very clear. I couldn’t go on smiling. Smiling while my friends disappeared, wearing this uniform and smiling and trying to pretend I’m something I’m not. Trying to pretend that I’m happy. Better to let it end. Better to just relax and let it happen. I woke up one morning and I realised it was all over.

Sophie Aldred and Lesley Dunlop
Sophie Aldred and Lesley Dunlop

Ronald Fraser has little to do throughout the story except react to other characters (although his final scene is a gem).  But Fraser’s lovely as the befuddled consort and he adds another touch of class to the story .  Richard D. Sharp (Earl Sigma) is very solid and provides a good foil for McCoy’s Doctor, which leads us onto the most controversial aspect of the story.

Yes, the Kandyman looks like Bertie Bassett.  For those who can’t get beyond that, The Happiness Patrol is clearly a disaster.  But the Kandyman is a wonderful creation – visually he looks great, he’s got some killer lines and despite the heavy costume, David John Pope gives him a definite character.

And there’s a fabulous relationship between the Kandyman and Gilbert M (Harold Innocent).  Virtually every scene they have together is laugh-out-loud funny, starting with the first when Gilbert returns to the Kandy Kitchen and the Kandyman angrily asks him “What time do you call this?“.

I also love this exchange in episode two.

KANDYMAN: What’s affected me? Help me!
GILBERT: It’s quite simple. Created as you are out of glucose based substances, your joints need constant movement to avoid coagulation.
KANDYMAN: What do you mean?
GILBERT: You’re turning into a slab of toffee. I saw this at the planning stage, and then I realised what the solution was.
KANDYMAN: What’s that?
GILBERT: I’ve forgotten.

The Kandyman does rather fade out of the story after episode two though.  He only has one good scene in the last episode before meeting a rather sticky end.  So whilst many people, I’m sure, would have been happy if he had fewer (or no) scenes, when re-watching the story I’m always disappointed he doesn’t have more.

The Doctor and Ace are in the thick of the action.  Ace gets to make friends with Susan Q and the Pipe People, as well as tangle with Helen A’s pet, Fifi.  Aldred continues to impress, especially since given her inexperience she’s always mixing with actors who have had much more experience than her – but she more than holds her own.

McCoy has several stand-out moments – the final scene with Helen A and the encounter with the two snipers in episode two (“Why don’t you do it then? Look me in the eye, pull the trigger, end my life. Why not?”).  This is a defining moment for the Seventh Doctor, which McCoy pulls off very well.  As previously mentioned, when he downplays, McCoy’s very effective.

The notion of the Doctor initiating a regime-change during the course of one night does seem a little unlikely, so it’s best to suppose that the rebellion was already well under way and the Doctor’s arrival was simply the spark that lit the flame.

There’s very little that I can find fault with – although I do wish that it had ended on the pull-back shot of Helen A comforting Fifi.  That seemed to be the ideal ending – and the typical good-bye scene with Susan Q and Earl Sigma that actually closed the story did seem like something of an anti-climax.

It would have been the easy option to fill all the stories from S25 with old monsters, but thankfully with The Happiness Patrol they wanted to do something different and they certainly succeeded.

What am I dealing with? Little green men? No, little green blobs in bonded-polycarbite armour. Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks

remembrance

In 1988, Doctor Who celebrated it’s 25th anniversary.  So bringing back the Daleks (and setting the story in the location and timescale of the first episode from 1963) seemed to be as good a way as any to kick off the anniversary year.  Although there are various nods to the past (Coal Hill School, Totters Lane, etc) they aren’t allowed to overwhelm the story, which is traditional in some ways but also quite different in others.

On the traditional side, the Doctor and Ace link up with the military, who function as a surrogate UNIT.  Group Captain Gilmore (Simon Williams) is visually and character-wise a dead ringer for the Brigadier whilst Sgt Mike Smith (Dursley McLinden) performs the functions of Yates/Benton.  The Doctor’s role as scientific adviser is filled by Dr Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) and Allison (Karen Gledhill).

The early action in episode one is impressive.  After the fairly lightweight S24, it seems that Remembrance was an attempt to get back to basics.  The Doctor is a more withdrawn, mysterious figure than the open and, at times, guileless character from S24.  As with some of his earlier incarnations he has a lack of patience with the floundering humans (“Nothing you possess will be effective against what’s in there!”).

The thing “in there” was a Dalek and it’s the first one we see in the story and also the first to be destroyed.  This must be the Dalek story, to date, with the highest number of destroyed Daleks.  And whilst the Doctor put paid to this one with a few cans of Ace’s Nitro 9, he was mistaken about the military being unable to deal with them.  Some of their weaponry would later prove to be very useful.

If you like explosions, then Remembrance is certainly your sort of story, although there’s still time for some quieter, character-driven sequences.  One of the best occurs in episode two, as the Doctor is musing over whether he’s right to do what he’s decided to do.

JOHN: Can I help you?
DOCTOR: A mug of tea, please.
JOHN: Cold night tonight.
DOCTOR: Yes, it is. Bitter, very bitter. Where’s Harry?
JOHN: Visiting his missus. She’s in hospital.
DOCTOR: Of course. It’ll be twins.
JOHN: Hmm? Your tea. Sugar?
DOCTOR: Ah. A decision. Would it make any difference?
JOHN: It would make your tea sweet.
DOCTOR: Yes, but beyond the confines of my tastebuds, would it make any difference?
JOHN: Not really.
DOCTOR: But
JOHN: Yeah?
DOCTOR: What if I could control people’s tastebuds? What if I decided that no one would take sugar? That’d make a difference to those who sell the sugar and those that cut the cane.
JOHN: My father, he was a cane cutter.
DOCTOR: Exactly. Now, if no one had used sugar, your father wouldn’t have been a cane cutter.
JOHN: If this sugar thing had never started, my great-grandfather wouldn’t have been kidnapped, chained up, and sold in Kingston in the first place. I’d be a African.
DOCTOR: See? Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.
JOHN: Life’s like that. Best thing is just to get on with it.

Tea and sympathy
Tea and sympathy

Eventually it becomes clear that the Doctor has lured the Daleks to Earth in order to allow them to steal the Hand of Omega (a mystical Time Lord device that the first Doctor dropped off sometime prior to the events of An Unearthly Child).  This story marks the start of the Doctor as a cosmic manipulator which after the series was cancelled was developed much, much further in Virgin’s range of New Adventures novels.

I have to admit to being somewhat uneasy with the Doctor’s actions in this story.  All of the deaths can be laid at his door, because if he’d removed the Hand of Omega from Earth then there would have been no reason for the Daleks to come here.  And when you tot up the number of people who died (as well as the fact that the Doctor also destroyed an entire planet – Skaro) it’s hard to argue that it was worth it.

The Doctor has been ruthless in the past (destroying the Ice Warriors’ fleet in The Seeds of Death, for example).  But at least in Seeds you could say that the Ice Warriors made the first move by attempting to invade Earth.  Here, the Doctor appeared to initiate events for no other reason than he fancied wiping out the Daleks.

The original Dalek story was concerned with, as Ian put it, “a dislike for the unlike” or as Ace says, “racial purity”.  This is also developed here, as we see two Dalek factions – the Renegades and Imperials.  It’s something of a surprise to find that Davros is now leading the Imperial Daleks, particularly when you remember he was captured by them at the end of Revelation of the Daleks.  Clearly Davros was a smooth talker!

The Dalek factions are intent on wiping each other out, since both sides consider the other to be an abomination, and this is also paralled with the humans.  It may seem a little crude now, but Mike’s views – “You have to protect your own, keep the outsiders out just that your own people can have a fair chance.” and the sign in the boarding house run by Smith’s mother (“No coloureds”) are attempts to connect Doctor Who to the real world, something which had rarely happened in the series before.

On a more trivial level, Daleks can now climb stairs and the cliff-hanger to episode one is a glorious moment.  The Daleks’ new extermination effect is very impressive as well and the Daleks themselves look pretty good – although they do have a tendency to wobble when out on the streets.  Historically, the Daleks always moved best on a smooth studio floor and whenever they were called out onto location they tended to be placed either on boards or tracks.  A new system was tried for this story, which allowed the Daleks to move more freely, although on cobbled streets they did tend to rock from side to side!

From Genesis onwards the Dalek stories were dominated by Davros, so only having him appear right at the end was a good move.  The battle computer was a clear attempt to fool the audience into believing that it was Davros, and  this works quite well – particularly the creepy moment when the girl (Jasmine Breaks) is revealed.  But as she was seen watching Radcliffe in the scene prior to this, it’s something of a mystery how she was able to get back to Radcliffe’s yard before he did.

"That's some serious hardware. Did you see that, Professor? Unsophisticated, but impressive."
“That’s some serious hardware. Did you see that, Professor? Unsophisticated, but impressive.”

Sophie Aldred has some good material to work with here.  She gets to attack the Daleks with a baseball bat (“Who are you calling small?”) and enjoys a close relationship with Mike that is instantly soured when it’s revealed he’s inadvertently helped the Daleks.

Remembrance also allows us to bid farewell to a number of Doctor Who stalwarts, all making their final contribution to the series.  Michael Sheard and Peter Halliday had both appeared in numerous stories dating back to the 1960’s whilst John Scott-Martin and Roy Skelton had also racked up numerous credits since the 1960’s as monsters and monster voices respectively.

Although I have issues with the Doctor’s actions, there’s no denying that Remembrance is a well-made story with some fine performances.  The return of the Daleks was a canny move, since it generated some good publicity and as the story didn’t disappoint it was surely responsible for hooking some new viewers into tuning in for the following adventure.

Do you fancy a quick trip round the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea? Doctor Who – Dragonfire

dragonfire

Back in 1987 Dragonfire topped the DWM best story poll.  Maybe this was because it was the most “traditional” story of the season and that was why it appealed to the fans.  But though it’s a decent enough romp, the lack of logic in the plot (and some of the performances) are a bit of a problem.

Edward Peel, as the villanious Kane, is one of Dragonfire’s highlights though.  Peel doesn’t have to do a great deal – except loom menacingly – but he looms very well.  He does has the benefit of playing against Patricia Quinn as Belazs, who has a nice line in frustration and despair.  Tony Osboa as Kracauer isn’t so good though – he’s rather overplaying throughout all his scenes.  And Kracauer is clearly not too bright.  Having agreed with Belazs that it would be a good idea to kill Kane, he then waits around after sabotaging the temperature controls for Kane to wake up and kill him.  Not a good move!

I also have to mention the ice statue created of Kane’s dead partner, Xana.  He’s clearly delighted with it – “A work of artistry, my friend. Incandescent artistry. I could almost believe Xana lives again.” – but it doesn’t look very impressive to me and not even a terribly good likeness of Xana from the brief picture of her that we see.

The Doctor and Mel are on the hunt for a Dragon, assisted, in his own unique way, by Glitz (Tony Selby) and Ace (Sophie Aldred).  The icy lower levels allow McCoy plenty of opportunities to slip and slide, whilst episode one ends with a notorious cliffhanger – as the Doctor, well, hangs off a cliff.  Apparently it should have been made clear that the Doctor had to go down since he couldn’t go back – but why wouldn’t he have waited for Glitz?  And how did Glitz get down in order to rescue the Doctor?

Bonnie Langford was uncertain for a long time whether or not to return for S25.  When Dragonfire was written it still wasn’t decided, so there were two endings scripted – either Mel went off with Glitz and Ace joined the Doctor, or Ace left with Glitz.  As it was, shortly after the first studio session Langford decided to leave after all, so Ace would become the Doctor’s new traveling companion.

Kane has a tempting offer for Ace
Kane has a tempting offer for Ace

Sophie Aldred was incredibly inexperienced (Dragonfire was the first time she’d been inside a television studio) but she acquits herself well.  The character of Ace is not as well defined in this story as it would become – but given the fact that many companions never develop at all during their time on the show, the growth and journey of her character is quite remarkable.  For some fans in the late 1980’s, it was Aldred’s show with McCoy playing second fiddle.

Some of the plot-threads in this story will be picked up and developed across the next two seasons, and already we have the sense of a damaged girl hiding behind a tough, streetwise facade.

MEL: You’re from Earth?
ACE: Used to be.
MEL: Whereabouts on Earth?
ACE: Perivale.
MEL: Sounds nice.
ACE: You ever been there?
MEL: No.
ACE: I was doing this brill experiment to extract nitroglycerine from gelignite, but I think something must have gone wrong. This time storm blows up from nowhere and whisks me up here.
MEL: When was this?
ACE: Does it matter?
MEL: Well, don’t you ever want to go back?
ACE: Not particularly.
MEL: What about your mum and dad?
ACE: I haven’t got no mum and dad. I’ve never had no mum and dad and I don’t want no mum and dad. It’s just me, all right?
MEL: Sorry. What about your chemistry A level, then?
ACE: That’s no good. I got suspended after I blew up the art room.
MEL: You blew up the art room?
ACE: It was only a small explosion. They couldn’t understand how blowing up the art room was a creative act.

Things tick along quite nicely for the first two episodes.  The Doctor/Glitz and Mel/Ace make two good teams but everything collapses in episode three as there’s no escaping the major plot flaws.  Kane’s been imprisoned on Svartos for three thousand years, so why has he only decided now to escape?  And if the Dragon (the biomechanoid) is his jailer (and how exactly does this work?) then why does it contain the key which enables him to escape his exile?

And the silliest part of all – are we really supposed to believe that during the last three thousand years, when he’s been running the galactic equivalent of Bejam, he’s never once checked to see how things were going on his home planet of Proamon?  It was destroyed by a super-nova two thousand years ago and nobody thought to tell him or he didn’t discover this for himself?

There’s an echo of The Hand of Fear here, but at least Eldrad had a good excuse for not knowing about the current situation on Kastria as only his fossilised hand remained, buried deep in the Earth’s surface for millions of years.  Therefore you can’t blame him for not keeping up to date with the latest news (unlike Kane, of course).

Episode three also has the rather uninspiring bug hunt with McLuhan and Bazin and rather too much of the cutesy Stellar (Miranda Borman) for my taste.  So ultimately Dragonfire is a bit of a damp squib, though the future was looking brighter.

S23 and S24 had been difficult times for the series, but S25 and S26 would see something of a creative rebirth.  As it remained scheduled against Coronation Street there was a general public indifference and the critics were rarely kind either.  Doctor Who might have become a beleaguered and largely unloved series, but it still had a few tricks and surprises up its sleeve.

Here’s to the future. Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

delta

Delta and the Bannermen is another good story from Doctor Who’s most unfashionable season.  It may be pretty light fare but there’s something infectious about the production that induces a feel-good factor.  Well, for some people anyway.  Others can’t get beyond the Ken Dodd factor.

Doddy is something of an infamous guest star, but he’s only on screen for a couple of minutes so he’s not really much of a problem.  His appearance does indicate that this isn’t going to be the most serious of stories, but while there may be plenty of comic moments everybody tends to play it pretty straight, well most of them anyway.

Richard Davies, as Burton, was a familiar face from British sitcoms (a regular on Please Sir and a guest at Fawlty Towers, for example) and his performance is pitched at that level.  After all, it’s difficult to deliver lines such as “now, are you telling me that you are not the Happy Hearts Holiday Club from Bolton, but instead are spacemen in fear of an attack from some other spacemen?” without having a certain comedy knack.  Davies has the knack and his bewildered but enthusiastic presence is one of Delta’s many strengths.

Hawk (Morgan Deare) and Weismuller (Stubby Kaye) are also good value, although they don’t have a great deal to do with the main plot and their subplot (looking out for an American satellite) is rather odd, to say the least.  But it’s Stubby Kaye! In Doctor Who! He may be dressed as the oldest teenager in town but he gives a charming turn.

The main plot (Gavrok hunting down the Chimerons) remains somewhat vague.  We never know why Gavrok hates the Chimerons, so he’s ultimately a rather sketchy villain.  This lack of motivation meant that it required a good actor to make something out of a fairly nothing role and Don Henderson certainly delivers.  Henderson was a popular television face (The XYY Man, Strangers and Bulman) and he’s able to generate a suitable level of boo-hiss villainy.

Sadly, the object of his pursuit (the Chimeron Queen, Delta) is something of a weak link.  Belinda Mayne gives a rather colourless, passionless performance and it’s hard to really connect with her or sympathise with the plight of her people.  The other main female lead (Sara Griffiths as Ray) was much better.  It’s easy to see why Ray was originally planned as companion material, although if she had joined she would needed to have brushed up on her end of episode acting.  At the end of episode one she’s threatened with death, but there’s a singular lack of anxiety on her face – just a look of mild inconvenience!

The rather lovely Sara Griffiths
The rather lovely Sara Griffiths

Given the comic-strip nature of the story, Gavrok’s destruction of the Nostalgia Tours bus at the end of the second episode is very jarring.  The murder of thirty or forty people should be shocking (particularly those we know, like Murray) but it never really registers.  Partly because the effect doesn’t convince but also because it seems out of place in the story to date.

The likes of The Myth Makers had three episodes of comedy followed by a dark, violent fourth episode.  If things had taken a similar turn in Delta then this scene may have worked better, but events carry on as normal in episode three (with, for example, the bees attacking the Bannermen – a rather silly scene).

With two female guest roles and only three episodes, Bonnie Langford is a little sidelined in this story (she doesn’t do much at all in the last episode).  Sylvester McCoy is on fine form though.  I love his scenes with Ray in episode one, where he does his best to console her after she’s discovered that Billy (David Kinder) only has eyes for the lady from another planet.  His hesitant comforting of the sobbing girl shows a tender side to the Doctor that we don’t see very often.

“Love has never been known for its rationality”

And his confrontation with Gavrok at the end of episode two is very good, especially the last line.

GAVROK: Give me Delta and I will give you your life.
DOCTOR: Life? What do you know about life, Gavrok? You deal in death. Lies, treachery and murder are your currency. You promise life, but in the end it will be life which defeats you.
GAVROK: You have said enough. I have traversed time and space to find the Chimeron queen. I will not be defeated.
DOCTOR: As you will. I came here under a white flag and I will leave under that same white flag, and woe betide any man who breaches its integrity. Now step aside! Release those prisoners.
(A Bannerman moves to obey.)
DOCTOR: Gavrok, it’s over. You’re finished, and we’re leaving.
(But as the Doctor, Mel and Burton walk to the motorbike and sidecar, they hear the sound of cocking weapons behind them.)
DOCTOR: Actually, I think I may have gone a little too far.

All this, plus a guest appearance by the legendary Hugh Lloyd (Hugh and I, Hancock’s Half Hour) and a stack of great 1950’s music makes me genuinely puzzled as to why this remains amongst the also-rans in every Doctor Who poll.  You wouldn’t want every story to be like it, but once in a while it’s good to let your hair down and have a bit of a party – and Delta and the Bannermen certainly delivers that.

Ice Hot. Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

paradise

Like the rest of S24, Paradise Towers remains somewhat unloved by Doctor Who fandom.  Out of 241 stories, the 2014 DWM poll places Time and the Rani at 239, Paradise Towers at 230, Delta at the Bannermen at 217 and Dragonfire at 215.

Is Paradise Towers really the 11th worst Doctor Who story of all time?  I don’t think so, and whilst it has serious faults (hello Richard Briers, especially in episode four!) there’s plenty of things that do work.

Firstly, Sylvester McCoy is very good.  His performance is far removed from the prat-falling Doctor seen in Time and the Rani.  Here, the Doctor is content to watch and listen, and at times there’s a nice sense of stillness from him.  As will become clear when we move through his era, McCoy is at his best when he’s downplaying and at his worst when he has to shout and emote.

Most of his best scenes are with the Caretakers, and this one is a particular favourite.

DOCTOR: I suppose how you guard me is in that rulebook.
DEPUTY: Yes. Rule forty five B stroke two subsection five.
DOCTOR: I wouldn’t mind having a look at that rulebook, if that’s not against the rules. I mean, after all, I am a condemned man.
DEPUTY: Hmm.
(The Deputy consults the rule book.)
DEPUTY: Yes, we can count that as your last request. You’re entitled to one if you’re to undergo a three two seven appendix three subsection nine death. Not a pretty way to go.
(The Deputy passes over the rule book and the Doctor leafs through it.)
DOCTOR: How extraordinary. No, no. It can’t be true.
DEPUTY: What’s that?
DOCTOR: Oh no, no. It’s. You couldn’t possibly.
DEPUTY: If it’s there, it’s true. Rules are rules. Orders are orders.
DOCTOR: If you say so. I don’t want to make a fool of you.
DEPUTY: Read out what it says.
DOCTOR: Oh, very well, but I find it hard to credit
DEPUTY: Read it!
DOCTOR: It says here about a three two seven appendix three subsection nine death, that after you’ve been guarding the condemned prisoner for (checks his wristwatch) thirty five minutes, you must all stand up.
DEPUTY: But if we
DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know, I find it extraordinary. I don’t really expect you to do it. But it is in there.
(The Deputy and the Caretaker stand up.)
DOCTOR: The Caretakers present must then move five paces away from the prisoner.
(They do so.)
DOCTOR: Five. Close their eyes and put their hands above their head.
(The Doctor tiptoes up to the back of the Deputy and carefully picks his trouser pocket, removing his wallet containing a selection of cards.)
DEPUTY: How long do we do this for?
DOCTOR: For about a minute and a half. You see, that’s how long the prisoner needs.
(The Doctor takes his umbrella from the Caretaker.)
DEPUTY: To do what?
DOCTOR: Find the key card to the door and escape.
DEPUTY: Sorry?
DOCTOR: Find the key card to the door and escape.

Rules are rules
Rules are rules

Clive Merrison, as the Deputy Chief Caretaker, gives a lovely comic performance throughout.  As everybody’s come up against the relentless grind of bureaucracy at some time, the rule-book spouting Deputy is something of a joy.  Richard Briers, as the Chief Caretaker, is pretty good in the first three episodes (although there are signs of the problems to come) but everything falls to pieces when he gets to episode four.

Once the Chief has been taken over by Kroagnon, Briers’ performance goes into free-fall.  It’s astonishingly bad and the question has to be why did JNT and director Nick Mallet allow him to do it?  This is probably the reason why the story is so poorly regarded, but even so, there’s some good material and performances in the rest of the story.

Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs) are great fun as the two old dears who want Mel to stay for lunch, as it were.  Their eventual fate (vanishing down the waste-disposal unit) is one of many points in the story which signify that this isn’t a Doctor Who that’s operating on a realistic level.  The tone of the piece and the performances are pitched more in the style of a slightly twisted fairy tale rather than the straight-ahead realism of, say, The Caves of Androzani.

The Kangs are interesting, with a slang language all of their own – but the casting seems a little off.  They appear have been written as gangs of teenage girls, but the actresses playing them look too old and sound too middle-class.  There’s possibly nothing that could really have been done though, since younger actresses would have had limitations on the hours they could have worked, which would have been a problem for the production.

There’s some nice satirical points in the story, particularly on the problems of urban decay.  At one time, tower blocks were seen as the only solution to the post-war housing problem, but only a few years after they were built they had become virtual prisons for some of their inhabitants.  Kroagnon’s opinion that Paradise Towers would be fine if only it wasn’t full of people is one that was shared by certain other architects.  But a building has to be designed to be lived in, not just to exist as a form of modern sculpture.

This type of tale is naturally not going to be to everyone’s tastes.  A frequent criticism of Paradise Towers is that it looks and feels like a children’s programme (an odd comment to make about a Doctor Who story surely) but I’d sooner have something like this, which is attempting something different, than another Dalek or Cybermen story.

Back in the late 1980’s, a term was coined for these types of stories – “Oddball”.  And whilst the series would later give the fans some of the things they wanted – the return of the Daleks, Cybermen, the Brigadier, etc – they would also throw a few Oddball stories into the mix.  And some of the Oddballs have aged pretty well, certainly they stand up to scrutiny better than the likes of Silver Nemesis or Battlefield.

It’s hard to imagine Paradise Towers ever being reclaimed as a classic (or even a halfway decent story) by most people, but thanks to some good performances (McCoy and Merrison particularly) it’s well worth pulling off the shelf and revisiting.

Time and tide melts the snowman. Doctor Who – Time and the Rani

time and the rani

Time and the Rani seems to be nobody’s favourite Sylvester McCoy story (including McCoy himself).  It was a rather uneasy collaboration between old-school writers Pip and Jane Baker and the new script editor Andrew Cartmel.  Although I’m sure we’ll have more to say on Cartmel’s work as we move through the McCoy era, one positive step he took was to find and encourage new writers.

Eric Saward had always found the job of locating new writers to be a problem, but everything Cartmel commissioned (Time and the Rani was in preparation before he joined the series) was from writers new to Doctor Who.  And although Cartmel had a fairly low opinion of Time and the Rani there wasn’t time to do a major re-write, so the story went into production pretty much as written.

This, of course, marks Sylvester McCoy’s debut as the Doctor and his performance is, broad, to put it mildly.  There’s plenty of clowning and pratfalls (which naturally didn’t please some sections of Doctor Who fandom at the time) and it doesn’t take long before the new Doctor demonstrates his ability to play the spoons (twice!).  But buried amongst the humour are some quieter, still moments which hint at the Doctor he will become.

Mel gets to scream (an awful lot) and forge a friendship with the hot-headed rebel Ikona (Mark Greenstreet).  Like the other main characters, Ikona is very much a generic Doctor Who character (we also have Donald Pickering as the noble leader and Wanda Ventham as the proud, supportive wife and mother).  There’s a slight sense that three good actors are being wasted in fairly nothing roles, but the story does benefit from having them here.

The Rani’s back! And since she’s no longer has the Master hanging around, she needs another Time Lord to help her with the fiddly bits of her master-plan (this all gets explained in the last episode but it’s not really worth waiting for).  She snares the Doctor by diverting his TARDIS with a very small gun.  It’s worth wondering how long she spent on the planet’s surface, looking up to the heavens, waiting for the Doctor’s TARDIS to appear.  Actually, it’s probably best not to dwell on this, because it is a very silly idea.

rani

Seemingly unconcerned that she’s triggered a regeneration for the Doctor, the Rani then plays dress-up (see The Mark of the Rani for another example of her cosplay skills).  This time she’s dressed as Mel and there’s some fun to be had with Kate O’Mara’s wicked mimicking of Bonnie Langford.

Although the story is fairly derided, it does chug along quite nicely.  The small cast means that the focus is very much on the Doctor, Mel and the Rani.  How much this appeals does depend on your opinion of all three actors – so for some this is clearly not a good thing at all.  The Tetraps are a bit iffy though – they look like men in costumes, wearing masks (which is what they are, but it’s a bad sign when they look so fake).

But whilst I can’t make the case that this is an overlooked classic, it’s possibly not quite as bad as some would have you believe.  It’s certainly not Underworld bad, which is one of those stories where I find my brain switching off during episode two and by the time the credits for episode four have rolled it’s very hard to remember exactly what’s happened during the last 75 minutes (apart from bad CSO, rocks, more bad CSO and more rocks).

Given the rather indifferent nature of The Trial of a Time Lord, S24 really needed a substantial opening story that would refire the public’s imagination.  Time and the Rani certainly wasn’t it (in fact we’d have to wait another year and Remembrance of the Daleks for the first signs that Doctor Who was starting to recover it’s strength) but Time and the Rani is a diverting enough way to spend 100 minutes.