Sunday, 29 June 2014

Winter on Mesique

Winter on Mesique manages the rare achievement of being nothing like any story from the Doctor Who TV series and yet, at the same time, it feels like the embodiment of what a Doctor Who story is capable of.

The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan arrive on the planet Mesique, which the Doctor has visited before and made friends with the mannys who live there. According to the Doctor it is "an unusually hard winter for Mesique".

"Well then," said Turlough, "shall we go and see if they've survived or not?"
"Sometimes," the Doctor said, "your flippant remarks are somewhat out of place. The people of Mesique are very good people, and worthy of more than a little concern and respect. They came originally from earth, you know, although that was generations ago.

This exchange cleverly manages to combine a little bit of characterisation for the Doctor and Turlough with establishing some important background exposition. They travel to visit Sellot, "the leader of Mesique," and, although initially met with some suspicion from a guard, are warmly welcomed by Sellot without being accused of being responsible for any murders or anything at all.

In this picture Turlough's eyebrows are so arch it is as though he is trying to do an impression of Kevin Stoney.

He's still doing it on the next page. Sellot wastes no time in getting the Doctor involved in the plot.

"We are not accustomed to such harsh winters, as you know, and neither, apparently, are the creatures who share this planet with us."
"Which creatures?" asked Tegan.
"Two species in particular are a problem," answered Sellot. "You remember, Doctor, last time you were here I showed you specimens of a large rodent, very like the coypu we knew of earth?"

Coypu are a kind of rodent, and rodents are a kind of mouse. As all cats know, Mouses Are For Pounces! If mouses are involved then the Doctor will have his work cut out for him, unless he has a cat to help him solve this problem. They clearly don't have any cats on Mesique because Sellot says they are "in danger of being overrun by the animals."

They have a second problem, which is that there is another animal that has been noming their cows.

"I don't know what to call them," said Sellot, "some people call them after the similar creatures men used to search for on earth - the Sasquatch. But there is a difference between these and the earthly ones. These eat flesh."

Sellot's friend Varl has just captured one of the creatures and has put it in prison. Sellot takes the Doctor there. They hear it "roaring and whimpering" as they approach its cell.

"The Abominable Snowman, eh?" he muttered to himself. "There's food for thought."
"What did you say?" asked Tegan.
"Nothing. I was just imagining what the people on earth would have done to their Sasquatch had they ever caught one. Killed it out-right, I dare say."
"We prefer to examine the creatures who share this planet with us," said Sellot, turning to smile at his companions. "It is not our policy to kill without very good cause."
"I know," replied the Doctor, "I wish more people thought along those lines."

They look into the cell and the Doctor sees the creature.

It sat huddled in the farthest corner of the cell, shivering with cold, its body covered with long thick fur of a pale brown colour. Its face was hardly visible, except for two slanting black eyes that stared, in some-thing like desperation, at the door.

The Doctor and Tegan suggest feeding the creature, but Sellot sadly tells them that they barely have enough noms to feed the mannys on Mesique.

Tegan sees the creature pounce on a coypu-mouse "as big as a small dog" and nom it. As a cat, I approve of this approach, and to me it proves that the creature is not a baddy really. Sellot is worried about how many of these creatures there may be, in case there are so many that there aren't enough mouses to go round, but the Doctor deduces that this must be the last of its kind from the amount of cows that had been nomed.

The Doctor suggests giving it a house to live in, but Sellot is still concerned:

"But how do we know if it's friendly?"
"We'll find out." The Doctor unlocked the cell door and went slowly inside. The creature whimpered with fear and tried to push itself further into its corner.
"Gently, gently," soothed the Doctor and extended his hand, palm upwards, towards the creature. It watched him nervously, then leaned forward to sniff at him curiously, and put out one tentative paw to touch the fingers of the extended hand with its own claw-tipped ones.

So the Doctor makes friends with the creature, and gives her his cloak. He discovers that she is "about to give birth" and insists she needs somewhere warmer than the cell to stay in. Sellot, all his doubts answered by the Doctor, offers his own house for her to stay in and where he will look after her.

The Doctor led the creature to the door of the cell.
"Sellot," he said sincerely," I wish more people were like you. Shall we go?"

And with that the story ends, no more needing said.

In the last three Doctor Who stories we have seen the return of the Master and a sci-fi action-adventure with strange aliens in strange places, but Winter on Mesique is by far the best story of the three - not only as a short story, but as a Doctor Who story. While the first two may be better at emulating the typical trappings of a Doctor Who TV serial - especially those of the 1980s - the latter manages to capture the heart and soul of Doctor Who by telling a simple tale of a wandering scientist helping strangers to solve their problems.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Oxaqua Incident

The Oxaqua Incident is packed with twists, turns and incident (so to speak), so much so that it has to start in media res. On the planet Oxaqua, the Doctor, Turlough and Tegan are already involved in helping Obedee of the Basks negotiate with Ghum of the Theigs, who appears to be a terrorist intent on blowing up the Bask city because they built a dam. But all is not what it seems, as first hinted at here:

"Can't you make a deal with him?"
"A deal?" said Obedee indignantly. "With a Theig? Just look at him!"
The Doctor was forced to admit that Ghum was not the most visually appealing being he had encountered in his journeys through space and time. Short, with a pointed head twice the length of his body, Ghum's eyes were perhaps his most distressing feature. Attached to thin tentacles on either side of his head, they moved independently of one another, ceaselessly roaming the immediate area surrounding him.

This story is about how you should not judge by appearances, a Doctor Who staple trope since at least as far back as Galaxy 4. As soon as the Doctor persuades Ghum to hand over his bomb's detonator, Obedee is revealed to be the real baddy as he orders the execution of Ghum, and the Doctor and friends too even though they just helped him.

With a fast-paced plot to keep moving, there is no room for the development of subtle characterisation. Obedee orders an overly elaborate and unnecessarily slow-moving form of death to demonstrate how evil he really is in as few words as possible - they are to be squashed by a "metal slab" and stabbed by spikes when acid burns through the wires holding the slab above them.

They are rescued by other Theigs, one of whom uses a "Lazooka" to blast their way in to the room. Naturally they arrive only in the nick of time.

The metal slab slammed down inches from Turlough's still tethered hand.

Now it is time for a chase sequence, which isn't as exciting when written down as it might be on TV. However it is illustrated by the, um, illustration on that page.

In this picture I do like the touch of Ghum's eye looking around at their pursuers while the other eye is looking at where he is going. I may have googly eyes but I can't do that. They hide in a building when they get shot at by "Beam Guns", which I think must be a kind of pewpewpew gun.

A beam of white hot light knifed through the wall into the gloom. The floor caught fire, and then the roof fell in.
"Unh!" said Turlough, brushing the thick white dust from his clothes. "Where are we?" he looked around him. In the dark-ness  he could just make out the figure of the Doctor helping Tegan to her feet.
"We're in the cellar of that house," explained Ghum. "When the roof fell, so did the floor."

This is an effective, minimalist way of conveying the action, when the story does not have time for a detailed description of the roof and floor collapsing on and under them. It seems as though they are trapped, but Ghum is able to use his pointy head to make a tunnel, burrowing like a bunny. That makes me wonder if Theigs are also cat noms?

They escape out of the town into a desert, then Ghum separates from the others because he has a plan. Obviously because he has by now demonstrated the ability to tunnel using his head, he uses it again to leave them.

Obedee and his henchmannys catch up to the Doctor, Turlough and Tegan. The Doctor sees "many tiny little hurricanes that were being whipped up by the wind."

"You shouldn't have built that dam," said the Doctor. "You've upset nature's delicate balance. I've seen these mini tornadoes before. They can sand-blast the flesh from your bones in seconds!"

Obedee is caught by a hurricane and says "AAAAIIEEEH!" By which he means

The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan are saved when the sand suddenly becomes "cold and wet." Ghum has blown up the Bask dam and everything is now - apparently - all right.

Whatever was left of Obedee was never found. Without him to stir up trouble the Basks were only too willing to draw up a new Co-existence Code with the Theigs.

So all's well as ends better. It's back to the Tardis for a truly terrible jokey ending to an otherwise pretty good story.

"Ghum," repeated Turlough, "he cut it a bit fine when he flooded the desert."
"Well, you know what they say on Capu 2."
"What do they say on Capu 2?" asked Tegan.
"Skirri bip hoom da lunce."
"What does that mean?"
"I've no idea, but they're always saying it on Capu 2."
Tegan's laughter rose above the gentle hum of the Tardis.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Night Flight to Nowhere

Before we start, let's just compare this picture of Davo with the last picture from The Haven (the previous story in Journey through Time), which, in the book, appears on the page opposite this one.

It looks strange and wrong for two faces that are so similar to be next to each other like that.

It also suggests a lack of originality in the artists for them to draw Davo's face in exactly the same way.

Night Flight to Nowhere features the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa. And because it also features Heathrow Airport, a jet plane, the Master, and the Master's plan to steal the plane, it closely resembles (in feeling though not in plotting) the TV story Time Flight. This isn't a good thing to be like.

The story begins with the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa just hanging around at Heathrow waiting to meet one of Tegan's friends, and spends much of the first page (out of seven) trying to establish characterisation by having the Doctor be exasperated with Tegan.

"I can't wait to see her again!" Tegan offered, trying her best to cheer the Doctor up. "We were best friends on my stewardess training course, you know!"
The Doctor did know; Tegan had told him over and over again. He sighed. One day he would get himself a companion who didn't talk so much. He remembered that Tegan had never really stopped since the day she had accidentally stumbled into the Tardis while on her way to her first job as an airline stewardess.

Is this the story purposefully showing Tegan as the sort of person who would repeatedly tell the Doctor things he already knew, or is it accidentally undermining itself by lampshading the artificiality of the exposition required to get the plot going? I think the latter, but because it's Tegan I'm not entirely sure.

They see Tegan's friend Julie Harris, but Julie blanks Tegan and this is - apparently - a sure sign that all is not well.

Julie Harris walked like a robot, her legs and arms stiff, her eyes glass-like as if she had been hypnotised.

The Doctor decides to investigate, and almost immediately he sees the Master. This is the first time an antagonist from the TV series has appeared in the Doctor Who Books Project, but the reveal is handled very casually instead of making a big, dramatic moment out of it.

At the boarding point, a group of businessmen were filing through. In the centre of them, a darkly-set man looked around, a slight smile of satisfaction on his lips. He was in sight for only a second and then he had moved on, but the Doctor found himself running after him, only to be stopped once more at the gate.
"This flight!" barked the Doctor to the security guard. "Who chartered it?"
"This flight, sir?" answered the guard, checking his roster. "Why, the gentleman who just passed through. Rupert Masters of the Masters Corporation."

Oh come on! Mew! The Master isn't really trying these days, is he? Or has he decided to double-bluff UNIT by choosing a pseudonym that they'll think too obvious to check up on? The Master's plane takes off and the Doctor spends most of the third page of the story flying the Tardis to land on the plane while it is flying.

Basing his figures of course, speed and altitude only on a copy of the Master's flight plan that he had acquired from the airport, the Doctor intended to rematerialise the Tardis thousands of feet up in the air, aboard the speeding plane!

Of course!

The Doctor stepped out, followed by Tegan and Nyssa, looking shaken but otherwise unharmed.
"Welcome, Doctor," said the Master.

The story needs to get moving so the Master captures them straight away.

He puts them in chairs in front of "a large spinning disc" so that they will be hypno-eyesed like the rest of the passengers. To save time, he also explains his plan - he has captured lots of important mannys who are on the plane so that he can replace them with android duplicates.

He reveals that Julie Harris is an android, and he plans to make copies of the mannys that are as good as her so that they can take the place of the original mannys and then he will take over the world. Except...

Julie Harris walked like a robot, her legs and arms stiff, her eyes glass-like as if she had been hypnotised.

So about par for the course for one of the Master's plans, lol. The Master leaves them to get hypno-eyesed and they escape in the following paragraph. They follow the Master to the flight deck.

"It's too late, Doctor! Look!" the Master boasted, pointing out of the front windscreen.
Ahead of the plane was a nightmare. The Doctor knew immediately what it was. The Master had used his Tardis to rip a hole in the fabric of space, a rip which manifested itself in a bright red gash that spread down from the heavens! A gash through which the plane was about to disappear!

I think that is what is known as 'Freudian'. The writer may have had some issues about some things that I don't understand, being only a cat.

It is hard to tell who is playing the Master in this story from these pictures. To me it looks more like Roger Delgado's first Master than that of Anthony Ainley (who was playing the Master on TV at around the time this story would have been written), especially in the second and third pictures he is in. Compare:


The Doctor and the Master have a fight and the Master is knocked out, disposed of in as casual a manner as he arrived.

The Master proved to be the smallest of the Doctor's problems. Ahead of the plane, the gash came closer and closer, glowing like the entrance to hell and, try as they might, none of them could deviate the plane from its course!

That sentence contains quite enough deviating in my opinion. They rescue all the passengers using the Tardis, and then this silly story ends with some bafflingly pointless philosophising from the Doctor.

With Nyssa in her room, and Tegan searching the airport for the real Julie Harris and the rest of the crew, the Doctor had a rare chance to be alone.
He wondered what had happened to the Master in the gash. Would he survive? Would he return? With a nod of inevitability, the Doctor realised that the answer was definitely, very definitely, yes.

I wonder if this ending is the writer making a subtle dig at the repeated returns the Master makes from certain death during the Davo era?
With a nod of inevitability, Big Gay Longcat realised that the answer was definitely, very definitely, no.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A fool knows everything and nothing

"Moons of madness, why am I encumbered with incompetents?"
"Captain, sir."
"Your report, Mister Fibuli."

"Yes, sir. I have it."
"It is thirty seconds late."
"Yes, sir."

"My qualities are many, Mister Fibuli."
"Oh, yes, sir. I..."
"But an infinite capacity for patience is not amongst them."

Somewhere inside The Keeper is a much better episode trying to get out, but its qualities are rarely visible from under the confused script and hammy acting.

Bruce Purchase gives one of Blakes 7's hammiest performances ever, and considering his competition includes BRIAN BLESSED, Colin Baker and, yes, Paul Darrow, that's quite an achievement... of sorts.

Avon wisely decides to stay on the Liberator this week, to avoid getting into a ham-off with Bruce Purchase down on the planet.

Paul Darrow does his best with minimal material to make these scenes tense and exciting, but ultimately they are filler scenes, only there to provide a reason for not teleporting Blake, Vila and Jenna back when they get into trouble.

Travis and Servalan are wasted in this episode, having only about two scenes each. Servalan didn't need to be in The Keeper at all, and Travis accomplishes more off screen than he does on it. The trouble is that the script focuses on all the wrong things.

For example, a lot of time is spent on the subplot of Jenna finding out who has the brain-print that is the clue to the location of Star One that they are searching for, and - to give The Keeper some credit - it is a clever reveal that neither of the two obvious "keepers" really are The Keeper.

But most of the subplot is spent on Jenna pretending to have fallen for Bruce Purchase, while he goes on a lot about wanting to "pair bond" with her. I don't know what that means. This uses up time that could have been spent better foreshadowing the twist, or on showing Travis finding the secret of Star One before Blake.

Flashes of the hidden, much better version of The Keeper come through in Cengiz Shaner's performance as the Fool, which is of a significantly higher quality than anyone else's. He seems to be really trying to give his character depth and realism through every physical movement, and he makes the most of the handful of lines he has.

And this scene, where everything comes together with the location of Star One being revealed from the dying old king and the Fool, goes some way towards redeeming the episode as a whole. The Fool's haunting song sung over his master's body, and the way he recites the location of Star One, sell it.

Yesterday was my birthday. I am now six years old. I spent it watching Blakes 7 (when I wasn't having important sleeps), so it is a shame that it was The Keeper and not a better episode. But The Keeper is the episode that comes between Gambit and Star One, so you have to take it as part of the journey that is Blakes 7 season 2.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Avon Takes Cat Check

Gambit is a turning point in Blakes 7 for several reasons. Visually it is by far the most outright camp and fabulous of any episode up until this point, and sets the tone for the following season in that respect.

The other main way it is a turning point is the way that Blake is no longer clearly the main character in the series named after him, and for this story is confined to only one of several interconnected plotlines - not even the one with the most screen time.

The main plot thread of Gambit sees Avon, Vila and Orac performing a Mission: Impossible-style caper in the casino of Freedom City, which is run by the villainous Krantor.

Krantor is playing host to Servalan, who is accompanied - for this episode only - by the most randomly Scottish henchmanny imaginable. His job is to be somebody for Servalan to give the exposition to - but cleverly she is not just giving it to us, the audience, but in the story she is giving exposition to Krantor who is secretly listening to and plotting against her.

Servalan also breaks her usual habit of wearing white, competing with Krantor for the most fabulous costume in the episode.

This is Krantor and he has a cat! As Krantor is a baddy then it is probably a bad cat, unless it is being held hostage by Krantor in which case I hope Avon and Vila rescued the cat as part of their plan. Sadly the cat has no lines so I don't know.

Blake, Jenna and Cally, in their Space Western subplot, are looking for Docholli (who was the manny Space Major Provine told them about in Countdown, and whom they hope will tell them where to find Star One) but they meet Bill Filer from Doctor Who's Claws of Axos instead.

Travis has his own subplot too, as he makes the transition from Federation officer and chief henchmanny of Servalan of the earlier stories into the ultimate baddy he will be in Star One. His line "Oh yes, I'm a hero too," says much about who he wants to be as opposed to who he has become. He seems pathetic when captured by Bill Filer and then Servalan, and when he needs Docholli to fix his robot arm - a tragic character that you could almost feel sorry for - but switches instantly back to dangerous as soon as Blake appears.

Blake doesn't get the location of Star One from Docholli, but he does get another clue that leads to The Keeper, so a partial success there.

Krantor (no sign of his cat in these scenes) catches on to Avon's plan to win all his money and he drugs Vila so that Vila agrees to play Speed Chess against Ze Klute, and Ze Klute always kills anybody he beats.

Avon's reaction to this turn of events is priceless, one of the best moments in the episode, because at this point he doesn't know Vila has been drugged so he thinks Vila must have volunteered to play.

Vila comes to his senses when he is already sat next to Ze Klute and looks scared, but you can see from Avon's face that he has a plan - he thinks Orac can win at Speed Chess just as he won at the gambling.

Ze Klute concedes a draw to Orac, so Avon and Vila win 10 million space pounds (or whatever the currency is meant to be), breaking the casino and defeating Krantor.

Back on the Liberator, Blake is suspicious that Avon and Vila have been up to something while he was away doing the proper plot.

Vila and Avon try to look innocent and say they just had sleeps and "played a little chess." Blake would be angry if he knew they had been having a much better subplot than him!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Servalan's Cane de Showbizness

Here's Blake in a spacesuit giving Voice from the Past the thumbs up. To a cat 'thumbs up' is a dreadful insult (because we don't have thumbs so it just looks like showing off), but I do like Voice from the Past anyway.

Here's Avon looking handsome, as usual, and also worried about Blake who has been mind-controlled this week. That isn't usual. On the other hand, if it had been Cally...

His attempt to cure Blake with hugs doesn't work so well, neither does his karate chopping Blake (twice) solve the problem.

You can tell things are really serious because Jenna actually gets to leave the Liberator for a change. Seriously, she hasn't been off the ship since Pressure Point.

Travis makes a surprise appearance, having been cleverly disguised as Shivan with his face and robot hand covered up, and putting on a fake accent so convincing that I was completely fooled the first time I saw this episode. I'm sorry if this is a spoiler for you because this bit is a great twist.

Although she is not in it much, this story is dominated by Servalan, who has set a trap for the rebels who mind-controlled Blake, her giant face appearing to spring the trap and gloat in a very effective scene.

Her trap is very cinematic (because it seems to take place in a cinema, lol), with the lights going out and all her henchmannys appearing in spotlights to illustrate to the rebels how trapped they have been. This demonstrates that Servalan has a flair for showbizness even if she is a baddy.

Voice from the Past isn't perfect, but it is an ambitious episode with a political story which twists and turns. The failure of the coup against Servalan and the Federation is nicely placed in the season as a whole because it helps to set up the importance of the events of Star One.