Nice Guy, Nasty Cosmos

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The great Timelash II rehash finally hobbles to a close.  Here's the last roundup.  Seasons 19-21.


Castrovalva

This is a story, like ‘Logopolis’, that achieves greatness despite its many flaws. Flaws first:

“Take your hands off me – this is an official uniform!” and “We’re perfectly harmless, unfortunately!”

Seriously… who the hell talks like that? I can forgive “I know so little about telebiogenesis” because Nyssa is an alien scientist child prodigy aristocrat. But Tegan is supposed to be a down-to-earth working woman. And, on that subject, it becomes abundantly clear during this story that the programme makers aren’t going to exploit the contrast between the two characters’ backgrounds and attitudes for interesting dramatic conflict. Nor are they going to milk the business of the Master inhabiting Nyssa’s father’s body for dramatic potential either… though, to her great credit, Sarah Sutton is still trying to use her face to express anguish at the Master’s appearance.

Ainley, it need hardly be said, excels as the delightful Portreeve (channelling Olivier to the point that it becomes beside-the-point that it’s always obvious who he is) but suddenly goes crap when called upon to play an obtuse, snarling Dick Dastardly. At times, when playing the Master at the end, Ainley moves and looks like no-one other than Groucho Marx (my second favourite Marx, as it happens... but there's a time and place for everything). As in ‘Logopolis’, we needed a better villain. It seems hardly credible that a dunce like this Master could devise a trap of such subtlety and beauty as Castrovalva, let alone characters like Ruther and Mergrave. (One can only assume that they come as much from Adric as from his captor.) Ironically enough, we’re meant to be wrong-footed into suspecting Shardovan of villainy… because he’s a villain stereotype in black clothes and a black moustache.

The first two episodes are a bit of a trudge. There are lots of good bits, but they could easily be condensed into one episode. Again, Bidmead makes the TARDIS into an almost metaphysical space, a peculiar and vaguely-sinister labyrinth with healing rooms that smell of roses, rooms that can be ‘deleted’ as though the whole structure exists as data on a hard drive, rooms that seem to have been placed in the Doctor’s way by the TARDIS itself (to help provide him with a new identity) and medicine chests with Alice in Wonderland-style bottles inside marked ‘The Potion’, ‘The Ointment’ and ‘The Solution’. “Ah my little friend… if only you were!” Gorgeous.

Sadly, the business with the TARDIS being sent back to the hydrogen inrush is a bit of a mcguffin… and, again, as in ‘Logopolis’, Bidmead feels the need to have characters naming and explaining this story’s Big Theme to each other… just in case we miss it when it pops up. Having said that, the business with the Index File being listed in the Index File under Index File is very clever, both conceptually and linguistically. But the second half of Episode Two, featuring Tegan and Nyssa slowly carrying a box through a (admittedly beautiful) forest, is possibly the most boring thing ever committed to film. And it robs ‘Kinda’ of the location shoot that it needed and this story doesn’t.

But then…. ahh, but then we arrive at Castrovalva, and everything clicks wonderfully into place. Suddenly, instead of inexperienced young actors trying their best with often-clunky dialogue, we have a screen full of experienced old thespianic troopers, relishing lines of delicious, archaic, polysyllabic grace and wit… with nods to Shakespeare (“is this a holiday?”)… representing a complex and detailed society of bibliophiles and chemists and librarians and washer-women and recreational hunting and magic tapestries and hilariously jarring sexism… in a beautiful set reminiscent of both Escher and the Southern European late Renaissance… lit like a Vermeer painting… lovingly directed with a camera that prowls up and down, from level to level, looking up at people, looking down at people, looking down over people’s shoulders, etc… With Paddy Kingsland’s lyrical score in the background, the scenes with the Portreeve’s night-time visit to the Doctor and Nyssa’s morning walk through the town square while Tegan sleeps, are among the most beautiful ever filmed for Who.

When the conceptual ideas at the heart of the story kick in, we get wonderful scenes like the confused Doctor being re-taught how to count by a little girl… and, even better, the scenes where Mergrave and Ruther place landmarks on a map many times because they can be approached by several routes. The idea of a world created five minutes ago, populated by people who’ve been created to believe they’ve been alive for years and filled with books that tell of a long history… the idea of space itself folding and closing in on you… the idea that we are so much a part of space that our consciousness is created by it and works according to its rules even if they’re eccentric… these are great, thought-provoking, deep and inherently Whoish ideas… and they’re done brilliantly using dialogue and performance… of course, the effects weren’t really up to creating the Escheresque absurd architecture that the script screams for… why didn’t they do some new CGI for the DVD release? Of course, we can always watch Labyrinth, which can do visually what ‘Castrovala’ actually bothers to think about.

The tapestry is the key to it. A genuine 'space' all to itself, a 2D world made of pixels of thread. It shows what is happening on its surface, demonstrating 3D space and time in its own reduced continuum which works with different dimensions and at a different speed. It could be television itself... or Castrovalva... or the art of Escher... but it's also the pretty frontispiece over a trap, created by the trapping and enmeshing of the creative imagination within a web... a web broken by the free will of a character who was created to be a tool and a slave but who chose to become a human being.

The excellence of the direction shows again in the final few moments, with the last shots of the Master - trapped in the dark with the victims he created, torn at by them in their existential panic - genuinely hellish.

In the end, for all the vagaries of the first two episodes, and the inherent disappointment of the Master, ‘Castrovalva’ triumphs in the second two, blossoming into one of the most genuinely conceptual, thoughtful, witty, clever, beautiful and - to me - moving stories in the canon.


Four to Doomsday

Looks amazing. Very off-the-wall. Imaginative. Lots of great dialogue ("you may keep the pencil"). A sense of history. Great villain - Stratford Johns plays Monarch with a lovely line of ingratiating bonhomie, masking autocratic arrogance and megalomania.

It's just an alien invasion story really, but a decidedly odd one... told from the P.O.V. of the alien ship as it approaches.

Enlightenment and Persuasion. That's imperialist euphemism-speak for colonial policy, isn't it? Like hearts and minds. Bring enlightenment to the natives and persuade them to do as they're told... by any means necessary.
At bottom, some of the underlying ideas are a bit banal (democracy better than monarchy, flesh and blood better than circuit boards, etc.) but banal ideas have never been done this stylishly before.

Anything that has a trio of giant frogs quoting Jean Renoir at each other gets my vote.

The Blue Peter-style displays get a bit wearing, especially when they all happen at once. And the end, with everyone laughing and smiling is very Scooby Doo. And the regulars' new hairdos are pretty awful. And the characterisation of Adric and Tegan is appalling. Just shows they should've dumped them both ASAP and just had the Doc travelling with Nyssa.

Flawed, but fascinating.


I haven't really written about Kinda myself, but here's an interesting guest post about it by my forum buddy vgrattidge-1.


The Visitation

The idea that its a mystery how people can love both war and beauty is very fatuous. Is there a single culture in history, including some of the most warlike, that hasn't also loved art and beauty? The Spartans perhaps. Can't think of any others.


Black Orchid

It's nice to see the TARDIS crew letting their hair down and having a crack for a change. The Doctor has a game of cricket, Tegan enjoys spectating and then has a dance and a flirt with a cute old geezer, Nyssa makes a friend, Adric pigs out at the party and Nyssa tells him off, etc. Cute. They're behaving vaguely like real people for a change.

Shame it couldn't just be that. Sadly, it all gets wrapped up in a daft Agatha Christie pastiche with no mystery, zero tension, loads of infodump dialogue, etc.

And there are the usual intimations of colonialist racism which a pastiche of this kind could hardly help but inherit from its source material.  The white explorer goes up the river into the 'heart of darkness' (different continent, I know, but the principle is the same) and finds only horror.  He comes back mutilated and mad because of his contact with the natives.  The benevolent figure of Latoni mitigates this a tad, but the implication is that, once touched by the natives, only natives can deal with George.  George, meanwhile, suggests a link between disfigurement and evil (a link seen elsewhere in the show - Davros, anybody?) which is an enduring problematic in Western fiction.


Arc of Infinity

...is just achingly bad - not because it's overlit (though that doesn't help) or because of the dull and pointless location footage (which is only saved by the squirmingly hilarious crapocalypse of seeing Peter Davison startling innocent Dutch bystanders with his facial Rice Krispies), but because it thoughtlessly wallows in a badly-recalled version of the show's continuity, making itself simultaneously self-involved and lazily un-epic.


Snakedance

Ahh, now that's more like it!

It's hard for me to not see 'Snakedance' as the latest in an irregular thematic sequence of stories dealing with the nightmare of history... 'City of Death', 'Warriors' Gate', 'Kinda'... and now this.

Manussa. A world of bored aristocrats, anxious mothers, tedious pedants, dodgy traders, cheap relics, tatty amusement arcades, trick-or-treating (the attendent demon), fake fortune tellers, loquacious showmen, redundant rituals and decadent prosperity.

Manussa is very much a development of Traken. Less fairytale, more anthropology, more economics... but the there are many traits in common, particularly a stifling bourgeois complacency in the face of evil. (Is it too much to relate all this to the social atmosphere of Thatcher's Britain?) Deadly secrets hidden under a smug smile.

Like Traken, Manussa has (and dwells upon) class and hierarchy... though Manussa is brazen and proud of its inequalities while Traken tries to deny them. Of course, both worlds have an ideology to explain them. On Traken, people become powerful politicians because of their "purity of spirit" (and we saw how that worked out) whereas on Manussa, people are royal because they claim descent from an ancient liberator. You only have to look at the pols who fall over themselves to appropriate Poppy Day to see how this kind of ideology works.

Manussa has two extra things: boredom and history.

Boredom? Well, Traken society may be complacent but the Trakenites look interested and happy, whereas the Manussans (at the top and bottom of the social ladder) all look and speak like they are bored to death with trudging through mundane prosperity.

History? Traken never feels like it has a past. Manussa feels real because it looks like its present society has been improvised and cobbled together on top of past societies. Time can be seen in layers.

The boredom and the history meet. The nightmares of history are reduced to silly games, toys, parades, tatty merchandise and inevitable tedium. The Mara is to Manussa what the Nazis have become to us. Unspeakable evil that has been ridiculed, commercialised and trivialised. Like us, the Manussans play with evil at their peril. (Just look at how the EDL and scum like that are gearing up to try and exploit the recession, helped by the glib scaremongering of the tabloids and our culture's trivialisation of fascism by using it as a buzzword to apply to anyone we want to invade or persecute.)

The horrors of history always return, produced by 'progress' as much as regression, if you don't find the still point.


I've looked at the (much underrated) Black Guardian Trilogy, here.


The King's Demons

Want to alter history?  Substitute your android for the King.  'Cos King's make history, don't they?  All by themselves.

Also, whenever Kamelion is on screen I always expect Judith Hahn to walk on and start patiently demonstrating him to us.


The Five Doctors

They say old Who was lacking emotion.  Well, there's a lot to say about that... but by the evidence of this story...

FIRST DOCTOR:  This is Susan, my granddaughter. 
FIFTH DOCTOR:  Yes, I know.  (Shakes her hand)

...you can see what they mean.  This is the first time he's seen his granddaughter in hundreds of years.  And that's it:"Yes, I know" and a handshake.

Glib isn't in it.


Warriors of the Deep

A tedious, "action thriller" script that is under the erroneous impression that it has Stuff To Say about racism, war, genocide, etc. Horribly made. The bright lighting allows you to see every centimetre of the make-up smeared gurning faces of the guest cast as they overact all over the place. Turlough has some good moments, but that's about all that can be said for this ghastly mess. The Doctor is particularly repellent here, wringing his hands and whingeing even as he kills everyone.


Frontios

All sorts of problems with this. The music is awful, as are some of the performances (Peter Gilmore, I'm looking at you... Mark Strickson, there are moments in this story when I can't look at you).

But, on the whole, this is really good. Very interesting, eccentric, grisly ideas. Largely good production design. Davison is on top form, seizing the opportunity the script affords him to play the snappy, intellectual, wry, acerbic  sneaky, sarcastic, old-man-trapped-in-young-man's-body version of the Doctor. I love the way he flim-flams the Gravis.

You get a picture of a totalitarian society from the point of view of the totalitarians... and yes, it sympathises with the ruling class far more than the ordinary people... and there seems to be an acceptance that people are basically just ruthless animals when they are not controlled by society (hierarchy)... but, I don't need to agree with a story to enjoy it.

Also, like so much of Bidmead's output, this is all about entropy.  Decay, malfunction, depopulation and extinction.  The Tractators, in their way, are fighting entropy with their grisly machines and their gravity drive.


Resurrection of the Daleks

A gauche, gallumphing orgy of wrongness. Painful, wannabe-butch (i.e. camp) dialogue. Several different plots fight each other mindlessly for supremacy, slaughtering each other's protagonists... until nothing is left but a mess, with fragments of aborted narratives and the torn bits and pieces of lots of cardboard characters littering the floor.


I looked at Planet of Fire, here.


The Caves of Androzani

A brilliantly constructed, superbly characterised, perfectly paced script with crackling dialogue, political satire, inky black humour and a raw, emotional intensity to some scenes that is frankly startling... interpreted (rather than just filmed) by a uniquely interested director, under whose auspices the story is given an amazing guest cast, a powerful central performance from the leading man, some of the greatest incidental music ever created for the show (from a composer whose previous scores had given little hint of what he could do when pushed), a compulsive rhythm that ratchets up the tension to screaming point, great lashings of dark irony and a feverish feeling of slow catastrophe that builds to the most visually and emotionally powerful regeneration ever.

Some people say it's "overrated". Not a whit. In fact, if anything, it's underrated. Even the story's staunchest advocates usually concentrate on the heady style... but the style only brings out the strengths of a script that bursts with character, subtexts, ambiguities and suggestions. Is Spectrox a medicine, an elixir of youth… or a drug? Is it addictive? It certainly seems compulsive in at least some senses. Why does Morgus talk about it as something like a preservative while Jek calls it “the key to eternal youth” and implies that it can keep Peri alive forever? Is Morgus cutting it with something else? Something that dilutes its real power? How ironic that a substance with the notional power to bestow immortality manages to kill just about everyone it touches.  Still, that's the commodity for you.  It promises the world even as it kills you.

In the hands of someone other than Graeme Harper, with an actor less committed than Christopher Gable, Jek could've seemed like just another disfigured madman purloined from fairytales and melodrama. Harper and Gable seize upon the sheer emotional power of the writing to create a study in narcissism, hate, self-hate, self-love and obsession that becomes genuinely tragic. Is there a single more powerful moment in 80s television than this terrifying exchange…

JEK: (raging) Do you think I’m mad? 
PERI: (utterly terrified) No. 
JEK: (suddenly quiet) I am mad.

Watch the scene in which Morgus and Stotz reach their new understanding, considering the new economic facts of life as Morgus' empire (and, it is implied, the whole structure of Androzanian society) starts to totter. "I'm descended from the first colonists," brags Morgus coldly. Stotz reminds him that things have changed. "You're just a man with a gun... there'll be none of the 'one point for me, four points for you' business." Has any other scene managed to so subtly convey so much plot information, so many clues about character and personality, so many hints about how a conjectural society works... and also, at the same time, sourly comment on the contradictions and fragilities and brutalities of capitalism?

Thatcherism, unemployment, class, snobbery, imperialism (the “pathetic little local war” is Northern Ireland, Vietnam; every war fought by a big power for imperialist reasons), the "war on drugs", anti-aging products, parliaments in the pay of business… they’re all swiped at in this depiction of the “war of all against all” that prevails in the corporate system. Holmes ransacks Jacobean revenge tragedy, Dune, The Phantom of the Opera, Marx (overproduction) and turns them into a local, insignificant, small-scale squabble… with epic implications.

Okay, the whole Magma Beast subplot is unfortunate… but who can complain when the other two cliffhangers are probably the greatest the show has ever produced? The nerve-shredding climax to Part Three, with the Doctor nosediving into almost certain death yet yelling defiance, is almost unbelievable from a show that, only the previous year, had indulged in the smug, shallow complacency of ‘The Five Doctors’.

Okay, Morgus’ personal organizer is a video remote… but who can complain when he then looks into the camera and delivers his paranoid suspicions direct to camera/audience like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale?

The greatest thing about this story is probably the structure. Misunderstandings (born of paranoia and fear) snowball on top of each other in a deadly chain reaction that starts with the usual bit of Doc-and-friend-arrested-as-spies nonsense and ends with a planetary eruption (of mud and dirt rather than lava), an entire social system beginning to crumble, a general bloodbath steeped in grim irony (Jek is found by his killers because he switches on a fan to keep a dying girl cool) and the annihilation of the fifth Doctor, his last word being a gasp of guilt that reveals why he has sacrificed himself rather than let an innocent kid die.


The Twin Dilemma

The "grinding engines of the universe... the crushing boredom of eternity" speech is great.  It feels like a summation of the themes of the series since Season 18.  Entropy, the tedium of time and the nightmare of history.  It all comes crashing over the Doctor as he has his post-regeneration nervous breakdown.  This is brave stuff, even if the trashy production values undermine it.

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