Friday, 27 February 2015

Journey through TIME: concluding thoughts

I began my Doctor Who Books Project back when the universe was only half its present size, in September 2011 when I was aged three. Since then I have read over 50 stories between Adventures in Time and Space and Journey through TIME - a few of them have been very good, many have been average, too many have been diabolically awful, but most have just been disappointing in some way.

One of the interesting things about the books is that the writers and artists are never credited, which removes any temptation I might have to pre-judge a story based on who has written it. And even after having read a story I might think it has Terry Nation-like or Sawardian qualities, for better or worse, but I couldn't be sure they were the writers or if some other manny had written it in their style, either accidentally or on purpose.

One thing I can say is that, towards the end of Journey through TIME, the stories tended to be set on Earth in (or at least near) the present day, as though limited by the same budgetary constraints of the TV series. While seeking to emulate the source material is admirable in a way, the book took it too far and chose to emulate the wrong qualities of the series. The final result is that, one way or another, the fingerprints of Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner are all over the Colin Baker-era stories, to their detriment.

Now for some awards.

First, the top 5 best stories in their order of appearance:
'The Vampires of Crellium'
Emsone's Castle
The Armageddon Chrysalis
Winter on Mesique
The Real Hereward

And now for the 5 worst stories, ones to avoid (unless they might just be so bad they're good), again in order of appearance:
The Sinister Sponge
The Planet of Dust (part one) (part two)
On The Planet Isopterus
The Greation of Gamelot
Class 4 Renegade

The Art Award for Characters Most Resembling Their TV Equivalents goes to:
The Oxaqua Incident

And the hotly contested Art Award for Characters Least Resembling Their TV Equivalents has been won by:
The Sinister Sponge

And finally, the Confuse-A-Cat Award (for the most confusing, insane, or downright weird story) goes to:
War on Aquatica

I hope you have enjoyed the Doctor Who Books Project, but all good things must come to an end. Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.

But wait...

What's this?

Check out these pistols!

The Mystery of the Rings

The very last story in Journey through TIME is The Mystery of the Rings, which has a good but very posed picture of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant as the Doctor and Peri. Also helping to capture the feeling of the TV era of the time, it begins with a scene of them arguing in the Tardis.

"This machine, Doctor," she said loudly. "It's done nothing but malfunction ever since I came aboard."

This transitions gradually into a step towards the plot as the Doctor tries to fix things.

"We'll have to take her down for a while so that I can spend some time on this. That'll be nice for you, won't it? You can have a wander round instead of having to watch me fiddle about, can't you?"

Naughty Doctor. The Tardis lands on
"Earth," said the Doctor, with satisfaction. "Strange, how this primitive planet draws one back again and again, isn't it? And almost your own modern times, too," he added, glancing out at the landscape. "At a rough guess, I'd say late seventies, wouldn't you?"
Peri sighed.

There's no need for the Doctor to call attention to the frequency of Earth visits, this was already obvious. The Doctor needs to go to the shops to buy a "small screwdriver" (sonic level unspecified). The manny who sells him a screwdriver acts suspicious of them.

"He doesn't seem at all friendly, does he?"
The Doctor grinned. "It's the old English custom of never accepting strangers," he said. "It happens everywhere; until you've lived somewhere for over thirty years, you're a newcomer and not particularly welcome."
"Well, thank goodness that doesn't happen in the States," said Peri with a snort. "We're civilised over there."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Really?" he said, dryly.

I notice that the writer makes Peri talk with British English spelling of words like "civilised".

I am confused as to what the point of this digression is, but it takes us almost a third of the way into the story and we have still not struck the plot yet. It is also immediately reversed when the manny comes back and is friendly to them giving them the exposition they need to get involved.

"Sorry to be a bit - well, stand-offish, you know - but we've been having a lot of strange folk round these parts lately."

To cut a long string of expositional dialogue short: strange folk = strange goings on = "The Rings" = a stone circle.

"You can count them three times or more, and never get the same answer twice."

That often happens to us cats; it is because we are not very good at counting. Having been brought up to speed on events, the Doctor can't wait to get cracking.

The Doctor nodded. "Well, how much do I owe you. Come on, Peri, we'd better get cracking."

This sudden haste may be due to the Doctor realising that they are already on page three of a six-page story. The Doctor and Peri go to the hill where the stone circle is. The Doctor decides that they can save time if he already knows what's going on.

"Well, what is it?" demanded Peri. "Space creatures or some-thing?"
"That's one way of putting it," said the Doctor grimly. "Aliens, if you want to be more accurate. I can't be precise as to their origin until I've seen them, but I would hazard a guess and say they're from Valiark, a small planet I've visited before."

Naturally their aim will be to invade, or "colonise", the Earth. For some reason Peri finds this hard to believe.

"Colonise the earth!" repeated Peri, laughing.
"That's the trouble with you young people today," exploded the Doctor. "You don't accept the truth for what it is even when it's staring you in the face!"

I can't decide if this story has terrible characterisation for the Doctor, or spot on characterisation for the Doctor as he was circa season 22. Sadly I must conclude it may be both.

At the standing stones there are mannys standing around, they have been hypno-eyesed. Inside the circle of stones are the aliens.

About a dozen forms were moving about inside the ring of stones. They were much, much larger than humans were, and their bodies were totally unlike anything she had ever seen before. They had no shape, no rigid lines - instead they were fluid, liquid almost, and they glowed with a silvery light. They were beautiful, so beautiful that they were almost repellent, and Peri felt her eyes drawn to them against her will.

This is a decent descriptive paragraph, but as an attempt to build an atmosphere it is too little and too late on in the story - we are already over halfway through. The Doctor saves Peri from being hypno-eyesed by slapping her on the hand to distract her.

Seeing them has confirmed to the Doctor that the aliens are from Valiark, although they have not yet adopted their final forms, and then they run away to hide from them. The aliens don't come out of the circle, and the Doctor deduces they have to stay within the boundary because of the magnetic field there. He plans to lure them out of the circle, hoping that breaking the magnetic field will destroy them. Hoping...

That will break the forcefield, and destroy the aliens. At least, it should do . . ."
"You mean you're not sure?"
"Well - almost sure. It's bound to do something, though, isn't it?"

The Doctor and Peri shout taunts at the aliens, confusing them and causing one of them to break their field. This frees the hypno-eyesed mannys and forces the aliens to adopt their true appearances.

Twisting her-self, she saw the aliens, their silver loveliness vanished as if it had never been. They were hideous, their faces grimacing and leering evilly, their bodies hunched and bent, the colour of putty. Then, even as she looked, they began to fade away, to dissolve into the air as though they were dreams.

The Doctor's plan worked, so all that remains before the Doctor and Peri return to the Tardis and leave is for there to be a joke about domestic violence.

"There's no point in staying to be thanked - they'll none of them have any idea what happened. Hypnosis works like that sometimes - especially if the subjects are weak enough. You were nearly under their influence yourself, weren't you?"
Peri glared at him. The Doctor laughed. "It's a good thing I was there to slap you out of it!" he said, and skipped neatly out of the way of her raised hand.

The Mystery of the Rings has an original idea for its alien invaders, conveyed quite well in a couple of places, but they are squandered in a poor story that is so thin it could have been half as long, or else spent its first half on building up atmosphere instead of on Tardis squabbling or whatever it was that was going on with the unfriendly-friendly manny in the village.

In its portrayal of the Doctor and Peri, as well as in its inability to live up to its premise in execution, The Mystery of the Rings is a typical example of mid-1980s Doctor Who. Likewise as the final story in Journey through TIME it is an average example of the standard of the stories I have read which, with a handful of notable exceptions, have been less good than they could have been.

Stay tuned for my concluding thoughts on the Doctor Who Books Project.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Time Savers (part two)

The story so far.

The Doctor and Peri are taken to "a large, brightly-lit laboratory."

One entire half of the room was filled with a complex mass of wires and electrical equipment which the Doctor stared at with interest.

They also meet Professor Thomas, who the Doctor recognises as "Earth's most famous scientist". Professor Thomas thinks the Doctor is responsible for the "ghosts", by which he must mean the appearing and disappearing mannys - the description of them as "ghosts" has shades (lol) of Day of the Daleks.

The Doctor tries to pass himself and Peri off as "psychic investigators", a callback to last time's mention of "Aly-sia Jenkins, President of the National Union of Psychic Investigators" but Professor Thomas doesn't buy it.

"All right, all right," answered the Doctor, sighing and sitting down. "I'll tell you what I know if you'll answer one question. What is that machine you are building?"
Professor Thomas shrugged. "I don't suppose there's any reason why I should not tell you now - when it's so near completion. There have been rumours in the papers already. It's a time machine. It will make it possible to travel into the distant past and the far future."
"But that's impossible!" burst out Peri.

Mew, I hope that is meant to be quick thinking on her part, or else she has not been paying attention for the last eight pages, to say nothing about the previous four stories in this book with her in them and however many TV stories (at least two more) precede The Time Savers.

At this point the story manages to get sillier and yet somehow better at the same time:

The professor looked at her, puzzled. "It was difficult, I admit. First I had to accept some totally foreign amendments to the concepts of time and space we have known for so long . . ."
"Ah . . . these amendments," interrupted the Doctor, picking up a metal plate gingerly. "Where did you first get these revolutionary new ideas from?"
"From me, Doctor."
The Doctor turned round to see a familiar figure in the doorway. "The Master! Of course!" he breathed.

The revelation that the Master is involved manages to instantly move this story up a notch in terms of dramatic stakes. There is no picture of the Master accompanying this story, and no description of him either (though he is a "him") so we are left to guess at who is playing the Master here. I think this is the most appropriate option:

"I prefer to be known as Professor Masterman here, Doctor. Surely you are not surprised to see me? Why, you yourself confined me to this planet when you stole the time-matter adjustment valve from my Tardis. That is why I am using my knowledge to benefit humanity."

This is a clever subversion of the usual trope regarding the Master - his obvious pseudonym is only revealed after we already know it is him. The last time we saw the Master was back in The Greation of Gamelot, so either the Master has been hanging around on Earth for a very long time or else there has been another, missing Master story since then.

The Master wants Professor Thomas to invent time travel so that he can travel to the future and "obtain the necessary components" to make his Tardis work again. The Doctor, who it seems is accidentally responsible for setting in motion these events, tries to talk the Master out of giving time travel technology to mannys, but he never listens does he?

The Master finishes making his time machine and is about to turn it on when the Ipsilon Foundation mannys turn up and capture everybody. They have a lot of exposition to deliver, and so want a captive audience for it.

"Professor Thomas, we cannot hope that you will understand what we are going to do, but we will explain it to you. It is only fair. You are working on a system of time travel. You may therefore be able to accept that we ourselves are time travellers from 327 years in your planet's future."
"You can tell me then!" interrupted the Professor, excitedly. "My plan - does it work?"
"Yes," replied the first man, heavily. "Yes, it works, and for a while you are the most celebrated scientist that the world has ever known. For a while," he repeated softly. "But then your invention is turned to evil uses. People plunder the future and the past for knowledge and for material wealth. By the time the authorities realise what is going on there is no future left for Earth. It has all been used up by men greedy for wealth and knowledge. Time, as you know it, had ceased to exist by the time we were born, and your name is an evil one, synonymous with the destruction of Earth. There was only one thing left to do," he continued. "Four volunteers were sent back through the chaos - it was not easy; we had difficulty locating the exact time and place - to stop you inventing your time machine, to give the Earth a chance to survive."

This exposition is lengthy but it is evocative, reminding me of a cross between the future in The Terminator Franchise and, again, Day of the Daleks, when Monia gives the Doctor exposition about the war and Dalek invasion. The Master tries to convince them that changing this event will cause a paradox and erase them, but they don't care. However Professor Thomas is convinced.

"No! I understand what you do and why you do it. Take my notes and destroy the machine - I would not be responsible for the destruction of my race. I am a scientist - a creator, not a destroyer."

The Master gets halfway through his next sentence of counter-argument before Professor Thomas ignores him and hands over his notes to the Ipsilon mannys, so
With a sudden movement the Master flicked the switch on the time machine and vanished.

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and hoping each time that the next leap would be the leap home.

In the same instant the Ipsilon men fired their weapons at the massive metal device and it melted into oblivion.

I don't doubt that, had this been a TV story, the Master's escape would have been kept ambiguous - did he really escape using the machine, or was he killed when it was destroyed?  His escape would only be confirmed the next time he returned to the series. Either this ambiguity was too difficult for the writer to portray in text form, or else they were for a second time cleverly subverting a typical Master trope. The consequent ambiguity as to which of these it is is nomably ironic.

The Ipsilon mannys vanish for the final time when the machine is destroyed, because they have erased themselves from history.

"But the Master," said Peri. "He escaped!"
"Yes," replied the Doctor, "into the future somewhere, and with-out his Tardis. He's certainly exiled now, and he's only got himself to blame!"

The Doctor is being very dim today - he has already forgotten that travelling to the future was the Master's objective all along. Professor Thomas and his guards are too confused to stop the Doctor and Peri leaving, although the Doctor does have to ask Professor Thomas one last question before they go.
Now then, as one scientist to another . . . could you tell us how to get out of this place?"

That comedic moment is effectively the end of the plot, but as this is a longer than usual story it has the luxury of an extra final paragraph back at the Tardis.

Peri opened the Tardis door. "Where now?" she asked. "The time disruption has been corrected, although we didn't actually correct it . . ."
"Oh, I don't know!" said the Doctor modestly. "I think our presence probably delayed the Master long enough for the Ipsilon men to get there.

This feeble final attempt to cover up the fact that this is another story where the Doctor didn't really affect the course of events at all, something that happens a bit too often in these stories.

That said, The Time Savers is an enjoyable story despite its many silly bits - it has a more sophisticated take on time travel than is commonly seen in Doctor Who; borrowing from Day of the Daleks is borrowing from the best. And the presence of the Time Lords and then, especially, the Master manage to raise it to another level in the way that a more generic baddy somehow would not.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Time Savers

If The Planet of Dust was the grand finale of Adventures in Time and Space, even though there was one more story after it in that book, then The Time Savers fills the same role in Journey through TIME. It is 10 pages long and is the penultimate story in the book.

To add to the epic scope of The Time Savers, it has an appearance from the Time Lords of Gallifrey, which may explain why they had been referred to several times recently, as a form of foreshadowing.

Switching on his scanner the Doctor noted that he had landed exactly in the middle of the Panoptican, the meeting place of the Council of Time Lords, and that the Council was in session; twenty four of the most important and influential Time Lords were seated in a circle. It was into the middle of this circle that the Doctor stepped when he opened the door of the Tardis.
"Doctor." The deep voice of the Lord President greeted him. "Please be seated - a place has been prepared for you."

I bet the Doctor pood his pants when he heard those words spoken, lol!

"The matter concerns a planet with which you are better acquainted than most of us here," continued the President. "That is why you have been summoned. Earth, Doctor, is in danger of destroying not only itself, but also a large part of the rest of the universe."
"The Earth?" repeated the Doctor, surprised. "What's been happening there? It's usually a peaceful enough planet, and too far away from any other inhabited planet to be a major force in any interstellar war."

Lol, if there's trolling to be done the Doctor gives as good as he gets. The Lord President tells the Doctor that "someone has interfered with time on Earth" and sends him to Cambridge in the future year of 1996 with no more details than that.

Doctor, your mission is to save time. You must leave immediately."

Considering how many of these written stories begin in media res, we could have saved time by skipping this initial 'mission briefing' bit, but it does set the scene quite nicely and the first picture, of the Doctor meeting the Time Lord Council, is one of the best in the book and captures well the appearance of the Time Lords in the 1980s TV series.

After a humorous interlude about the Doctor taking a bar of chocolate with him that goes with this picture but has no other impact on the plot, the Doctor and Peri set out on their mission. They find a manny having sleeps under a hedge.

"Doctor! Look! What's the matter with him?" The man was surrounded by empty bottles, and looked extremely ill.
The Doctor picked up one of the bottles. "Methylated spirits," he announced briskly.

The Doctor wakes the manny up and gives him £10 to tell them the way to Cambridge. When they get there the Doctor sits on a park bench and, having no idea how to get to the plot from there, waits for it to come to him. Obligingly, two mannys "wearing identical brown overalls" appear "suddenly" and then disappear "inexplicably."

The Doctor recognises them.
Those men were wearing the uniform of the Ipsilon Foundation, an organisation which will not exist on Earth for another three hundred years. They were time travellers, Peri, and that is rather ominous."
"How did . . .?"
"Exactly. How did they get here?"

Amusingly, despite having seen the time travellers, the Doctor still has no idea what to do about them, and so he remains sitting on the park bench for "several hours". In the manner reminiscent of the GM of a Role-Playing Game trying to get his errant PCs to get on with the plot, another clue chances by the park bench as if for the benefit of the Doctor and Peri, this time in the form of an overheard radio news broadcast.

"And finally news of mysterious happenings at the Arthur Jeffries Building in Cambridge. Police have received several accounts of strange figures which, witnesses say, materialised out of thin air in and around the building last night. No damage was done and the local police are treating it as a practical joke. That view, however, is not shared by everyone. Miss Aly-sia Jenkins, President of the National Union of Psychic Investigators . . ."

The Doctor is then made to seem very silly by what he says next.

"The Arthur Jeffries Building! Of course! Why didn't I think of that earlier? That's by far the most likely place for any experiments of a dubious nature to be conducted!"

Of course! The Doctor and Peri go to "the Arthur Jeffries Building" and we get a paragraph of exposition so that we know why this should have been so obvious to the Doctor.

The Arthur Jeffries Building was a grim and austere structure which had obtruded upon the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside for the past six years. It was a squat, graceless building of concrete and steel; a purely functional building designed by an architect with a singular lack of imagination and inspiration. Although nobody knew exactly what went on inside the building everyone suspected that it was something vital to the future of the world and scientists spoke of those who worked there in hushed tones of awe and respect.
Peri, although she had been told of the reputation of the Arthur Jeffries Building by the Doctor, could think of it as nothing but an ugly menace. She shivered.

I like the way this seemingly gratuitous exposition transitions into some quite nice atmosphere building by the end. The Doctor and Peri break in using the Doctor's penknife (whether this penknife is sonic or not is unspecified).

"Well, that was easy," the Doctor said. "I must say, I thought their security arrangements would have been better. Still, we shouldn't complain."

This has the feel of a moment of comic relief before the real action commences - a feling added to by the next bit, when they get lost.

Corridors stretched away endlessly in all directions, all apparently the same.

Mew, this is not an original joke, not even in the 1980s. Once again the plot comes to them.

The Doctor and Peri are captured by guards, but at the same time the Ipsilon Foundation mannys appear again and run away, so some of the guards chase them. The leader of the guards stays with the Doctor and Peri though.

"You two!" he added, nodding at the Doctor and Peri with grim satisfaction. "Follow me."

Crash-zoom to the Doctor's face: cliffhanger!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Vorton's Revenge

Peri wakes up to find that, as usual, we are starting in the middle of the story.

What had happened? Her eyes told her the indestructible Tardis had crashed, but her mind was completely blank.
A sudden thought flashed rudely into her senses to clear the haziness.

I also sometimes have rude thoughts when I wake up, usually about Avon. I expect Peri, having never met Avon, thought about Tekker instead.

The Doctor thinks "some force" has brought the Tardis to the planet they are on. The Doctor and Peri leave the Tardis and have time to see they are in a dead forest before they get captured.

Four humanoid figures strode towards them carrying awesome-
looking weapons. They were no taller than four feet and each was dressed in a dark blue garment in the style of a tent, with an opening at the front at chest level, from which one grey, spindly arm with a claw at the end poked out. Their heads were completely hidden by helmets of the same dark blue.

They are taken to the aliens' leader.

In front of them was another figure like the others, except for the fact that his robe was red.

Their leader is colour-coded so they know which one he is. With a dead forest outside their city, and the fact that these aliens are short, dome-headed, one-armed and colour-coded, they are like cheap knockoff Daleks. The Doctor speaks to the leader.

"May I ask, first of all, who you are and what this planet is?"
"I am Vorton, and this planet is Exclon," was the reply.

Realisation dawned in the Doctor's mind. "Of course! You and your people were condemned by the Time Lords for your attacks on neighbouring planets and attempts to take possession of these. They launched a full scale attack on your planet and devastated it!"

Do you think the Time Lords maybe had a Time War with the wrong aliens? It looks to me as though in Genesis of the Daleks the Time Lords sent the Doctor to Skaro instead of Exclon by mistake.

Just like Davros, Vorton has a plan to get revenge on the Time Lords for their policy of interference. He has developed "weapons that are strong enough to destroy the most powerful nation" and plans to attack the Time Lords with them.

How... cute.

(I'm using the word cute in that way that doesn't mean cute it means something like a cross between silly and pathetic.)

Vorton wants the Doctor to play a part in his plan by going to the Time Lords and telling them Vortron comes in peace and means them no harm, and then Vorton will attack when they think he is a friend. As silly as this plan sounds, the story wants us to take it seriously - after Vorton tells the Doctor his plan, it says
It was suddenly quiet, and the atmosphere was charged with power.
Which is a book's way of going dun-dun-DUN!

The Doctor asks Vorton a question while he is in a gloating mood.

"How did you manage to pull the Tardis here?"
"Our control chamber is equipped with gravity control, Doctor," explained Vorton. "Anything that comes within 1,000 Earth miles of Exclon can be overpowered by it. You obliged us in a most unexpected way by coming within that limit.

So many questions arise from this absurd statement, but I think they can be answered if we assume the writer of this story thought the Tardis was powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive.

Vorton has the Doctor and Peri kept prisoner in a cave while he puts the final touches to his plan, but when he tests his spaceship it causes the cave to cave in. The guards run away so the Doctor and Peri are free to go looking for the spaceship. They are immediately captured again.

As they ran down yet another tunnel, Vorton and a blue-clad figure emerged, clutching a threatening laser gun.

They all go to the biggest cave where the spaceship is. For no reason that is ever given, the spaceship decides to explode.

The guard is knocked out so the Doctor and Peri run away again. This time they run all the way back to the Tardis.

"Well," said the Doctor, gasping for breath, "the Time Lords have nothing to fear now. Vorton will no longer be a threat to any planet."
"Thank goodness!" replied Peri - and promptly fainted.
"Time for us to leave," the Doctor said to her unconscious form as he carried her into the Tardis.

That is the end of the story. Mew, what an anticlimax! Explosions may be exciting, but they are no justification in and of themselves for having the plot solve itself.

In the end, Vorton's revenge looks like is was doomed from the start, with the Doctor having taken no action to foil it. This makes Vorton look like nothing more than an incompetent mad scientist wannabe; a downmarket Davros in charge of bargain basement Daleks.

For the first half of the story it is as though we should take Vorton seriously as a threat to the Time Lords of Gallifrey, but the rest is unable to sustain the required sense of universal threat. You could make this story seem better by doing some reading between the lines if you wanted to (maybe the spaceship suffered some temporal sabotage rather than just blowing itself up for no reason), but taking it at face value it is terrible.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Are You Assassinator?

Assassassin is the last bad episode of Blakes 7, but it manages to be so bad it is as if they were trying to squeeze all of the badness of the last seven episodes into this one to get it out of the way.

Here's Avon, being handsome on location. That's a deceptively promising start.

Avon gets captured and teams up with the Doctor (Richard Hurndall from The Five Doctors), here undercover and going by the name "Nebrox" for some reason, possibly to do with copyright.

Avon is going to be sold as a slave, and naturally Servalan wants to buy him, even offering £2,000 to the baddys who captured him. This is where the episode starts to go wrong.

The other mannys who want to buy Avon, but sadly for them don't have as much money as Servalan, are dressed very eccentrically - the one in the middle above looks as though he is Omega from The Three Doctors (possibly explaining what the Doctor is doing here - I'm sure there is a much better Doctor Who story going on at the same time as this rubbish Blakes 7 one). The overall feel of the setting and costumes for this auction scene is of the worst kind of Middle-Eastern cliche, displaying a lack of imagination that the low budget cannot excuse.

But the worst is yet to come...

This is the exact moment when anyone who has seen this episode before will display the kind of fear we can see reflected in the face of Piri here... only better, because she is not a good actress. Every scene with her in it is cringe-inducingly awful.

Piri wants hugs from Tarrant and Avon (who can blame her?) and sets them against each other.

Avon's expression here suggests that he is trying to work out how to introduce the possibility of a three-way cuddle into the conversation. Naughty Avon.

What a twist!

(I mean the hair.)

So Piri was really Cancer the Assassinator all along. She gets bitten by her own spider and goes
and that's the end of the episode.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Space Museum Fall Out

Several Doctor Who stories are reminiscent of The Prisoner. Perhaps the most obvious is The Macra Terror, shown in 1967 (the same year as The Prisoner began) and concerning mind control and sinister goings-on beneath the surface of a seemingly holiday camp-like colony.

Predating this by two years is 1965's The Space Museum, one of the second season's less well remembered stories. The plot of this closely parallels the story arc seen in Patrick McGoohan's famous series, as the TARDIS crew are forced into violent revolution to escape their ordained fate.

In the first part of The Space Museum, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki jump a "time track", temporarily becoming ghostly mannys to get a glimpse of their future as immobilised, permanent exhibits in the space museum of the Moroks. The remainder of the story sees them try to avert this from coming to pass.

In the episode Living in Harmony, Number 6 gets a taste of what is in store for him when his Sheriff persona is shot dead by the Judge (Number 2) for ultimately refusing to work for him. It seems an obvious reading that the same fate awaits Number 6 if he continues to hold out against the Village authorities indefinitely, unless he escapes or otherwise takes action to prevent this.

Siding with the young Xeron rebels, the TARDIS crew lead a violent uprising, a revolution, against the Morok baddys using their own guns against them. One of the highlights of the story is Vicki in The Search, having reprogrammed the computer guarding the Morok's armoury to open the door to her responding truthfully to its questions:
Computer: "What is your name?"
Vicki: "Vicki."
Computer: "For what purpose are the arms needed?"
Vicki: "Revolution!"

While the Doctor and Companions are continually put in danger on their adventures, having to try and avoid death at the hands of Daleks, Sontarans, Hoovers, etc. these situations are different because a chance of capture, hurt or death is not the same as seeing with their own eyes the certainty of their future.

So while it could seem that they act somewhat out of character in this story, with first Ian and later the others turning to guns and violence far more readily than usual, I think it is an attempt - a not wholly successful attempt, more on this later - to show their reactions to the exceptional pressure they are under, and their desperation to escape an awful fate.

In Fall Out, Number 6 is seemingly offered the chance to lead the Village (it may be a genuine offer, but it is likely a trick - this is Fall Out, so everything is open to interpretation) and then sees his own face reflected when he finally meets Number 1 (silly Number 6, don't you know what a mirror is?) and, after that revelation of an alternative destiny for him, he leads fellow prisoners Number 2 and Number 48 in an armed uprising against the Village.

The Space Museum has original, imaginative ideas at its heart, but it is almost the forgotten story of its era because the execution of the production falls short of the concept in every important respect. There are nice moments in each of the four episodes - the TARDIS crew confronting their frozen selves; the Doctor outwitting Lobos's mind-reading machine; Vicki hacking the armoury's computer; and the Doctor recovering from being partially frozen - all good bits, but they cannot save the story as a whole from being less than the sum of these parts.

The guest cast - the Morok baddys and the Xeron rebels - have too little to help them stand out, not helped by all the Moroks dressing and looking alike, and the same goes for the Xerons. The sets of the space museum are uninspiring, drab and grey (I know it is in black and white, but there's grey like Expensive Luxury Cat and then there's grey like John Majors) and these factors seem to sap the energy from the story.

The script may have a solid core concept, and some great individual scenes, but it cannot live up to the full promise of part one because we are never fully sure if the main characters are acting out of character or from the sense of real desperation I argued earlier. Even the magnificent acting of William Russell (purr) does not put this across. The script also falls short in portraying the Moroks and Xerons - the portrayal of the Moroks on screen makes them seem like bored, petty bureaucrats, while the exposition given by Tor and the other Xerons tells us they are supposed to be enslaving tyrants.

The charge of inconsistency could be leveled at The Prisoner also, but it gets away with it by seeking refuge in audacity with the magnificent allegorical ending of Fall Out. Doctor Who has its own rules that it has to work within (most of the time), so does not have this freedom. In the end the best that can be said of both series is that they told their stories using the resources that were available to them at the time.

The Space Museum is far from perfect, but it achieves a synthesis of Doctor Who with the spirit of The Prisoner. If only for a moment, it is wonderful.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Avon vs the Space Mouses

"Ah, Stardrive. There's got to be more for me and you to do in this one than in Traitor, right Vila?"
"Er, Avon, you do remember who we're up against in this one, don't you?"


"Right, let's get this over with. Hand over the stardrive so we can get the hell out of this episode, and you can get back to Warhammer 40,000."

"At least I'll get a chance to look cool on film while we make our escape."

"This is the life. It's a pity more of Stardrive wasn't like this bit, then the story might be better, and better remembered as well."

"It'll be remembered, Avon... but for the wrong reasons, if anybody finds those outtakes."

"What outtakes?"

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Starcat and Scary Cat Have Been Assigned

Introduction by Big Gay Longcat

My friend Scary Cat wants to review his favourite scary TV series Sapphire & Steel, just like when I review Blakes 7 and so on. But Scary Cat does not have as much experience as me in reviewing things on the internets so he asked his best friend Starcat to help him. This is their review of the first six episodes of Sapphire & Steel, which together make up the story known as Assignment One.

Starcat and Scary Cat review Sapphire & Steel: Assignment One

By Starcat and Scary Cat

If you do not know what Sapphire & Steel is about then you should watch the title sequence. Here it is, and don't worry because it is hardly scary at all:

Now you have watched that you know about as much about Sapphire & Steel as any cat who has watched it.

"It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
-- Winston Churchill describing Sapphire & Steel in 1939.

Sapphire & Steel was first shown on TV in 1979. You may be confused as to how Winston Churchill could describe it 40 years earlier, or even a little bit scared, but you needn't be. Things being out of their proper place in time is part of Sapphire & Steel.

Rob and Helen's dad and mum disappear, and they are scared by this. This is not too surprising. Starcat thinks that he would be scared if his dad and mum disappeared, except that he is made from socks. Scary Cat wouldn't be scared because he is the bravest of all cats, and is also made from socks.

Sapphire and Steel arrive to investigate what has happened. Some TV series take a while to get going, because they take their first episodes to establish the main characters and setting or format. Sapphire & Steel spends only seconds out of its first 25 minutes to introduce the two regulars - cleverly doing so by presenting them as outsiders to Rob and Helen.

What the first part spends its time on instead is establishing the atmosphere. The three key scenes that do this are the pre-titles sequence, the scene where Sapphire and Steel recreate the parents' disappearance and conjure up... we don't know what, but we do know it is something scary, and, of course, the final scene where, no matter how ambiguous the events have been so far, we are left in no doubt that there is peril here so the cliffhanger is terrifically effective in making us want more.

The no-nonsense acting of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley as Steel and Sapphire set about their task makes us take the drama seriously throughout and prevents the scary threat from ever seeming ludicrous. They are backed up by the absolutely wonderful ambient sound effects of the old house, and the clocks ticking - or not ticking - better than any background music.

All this makes for one of the great first episodes of any TV series, and Scary Cat's favourite of all.

You don't get any real answers in part 2. For all that Sapphire demonstrates her power to "take time back", she steadfastly refuses to explain how she does this. Meanwhile Steel manages to be even more of an enigma than her - he seemingly relies on Sapphire entirely for the supernatural abilities in their partnership, and yet he humanises himself more by saying the word "please" to Rob than Sapphire manages by being constantly charming. In fact she comes across as distinctly sinister in places. We know they're the goodys but at this point they're almost as scary as the baddys!

So the main - or rather the title - characters are only marginally closer to Rob, and thus any cats watching, than they were when they first turned up in part 1. Rob is still the character we can relate most closely to (there aren't any cats in this story). The attachment we are obviously supposed to feel to him is then tested brilliantly by the closing scenes when his 'mother' (who is obviously not actually his mother) calls to him from the boarded up room. You can't help but go
and are desperate for Rob to not be such an idiot. It makes for a second great cliffhanger ending, and is suitably different from the first.

The house is given its own character by the great direction, including a scene that is - at first - just shots of the interior of the house, with the ticking of the clocks the only sound. Then the 'buzzing' background noise - which we are being trained to associate with the scary supernatural force - fades up as the shots rise up the floors of the house until we see the boarded up room - with a scary white light coming out from under the door.

The 'buzzing' is a lot like the sound that accompanied the manifestations of the ghostly (and very scary) Tall Knight of Dark Towers.

The room that Sapphire is trapped in in part 3 is brilliantly directed, with the rope in the background and the cleaver in the foreground making it scary from the first time we see them, and combines with Lumley and McCallum's acting to create the tension in these scenes. Once again the threat is so... abstract... that we buy it only because of the strength of the acting and direction.

Steel is forced into taking obviously supernatural action for the first time, somehow freezing himself using a chest freezer that looks quite a lot like the one that lives in the kitchen and is the servant of Hoover.

Steel says "I know my history." It's a great line to create the impression of 'the other' or 'the outsider' in Steel (and by implication in Sapphire too) and comes at the point in the story when this is needed - with Rob now trusting them, this one line is all that is needed to help keep them at a distance by reminding Rob (and hence the viewers) that they are still mysterious.

Big Gay Longcat thinks the reason Steel doesn't know much about the English Civil War is because he's Scottish. Starcat thinks it is because Steel was around in the time before internets.

In part 4 Steel saves Sapphire from the picture and disposes of the Roundhead ghosts but at some sort of cost to himself, but fortunately there is then a respite: a significant difference between episodic TV pacing and movie pacing, in a movie you would expect the pressure to be kept on the goodys constantly from this point on.

During the respite night turns to day and then we get the arrival of Lead, who joins in with the already established characters - we don't need to go through the same process with him as we have already been through with Sapphire and Steel, i.e. for him to come in as an outsider and earn the trust of Rob and Helen.

We probably get more name-dropping of Sapphire and Steel's friends in this episode than anywhere else in the whole series outside the main title sequence: not only does Lead show up, he references Jet, Copper and Silver, and Sapphire gives their total number as 127 (from which Steel would like to exclude the Trans-Uranics - "they're unstable" - to make 115). Very little is explained by this, but much mystery is added.

Day turns to night again and the scariness level rises towards the end, with much of this being created just by wind in the rooms, and the light and shadows being cast. Simple but effective, expertly judged by the director, and makes for another suspenseful cliffhanger.

After starting with a moment of action following the reprise of the end of part 4, most of part 5 is concerned with the building of tension as we know that Sapphire and Steel (and Lead)'s opponents are up to something, but have no idea what. Neither, it seems, do our heroes - they are still on the back paws even in the penultimate part of the story.

Rob's scary fake 'dad' appears to fool Rob like his scary fake 'mother' did back in part 2, and then the story moves up another gear when 'dad' and Rob go into the parallel house, one where the kitchen is still tidy and the clocks are all working, which is amazingly effective when we get to the parallel scenes contrasting them against Sapphire and Steel in the wrecked kitchen, and Sapphire sensing something is wrong but not knowing precisely what. It gives the antagonists a real sense of menace that they have abilities like this to counter the supernatural powers of Steel, Sapphire and Lead, and conveys that Rob is in real danger.

The episode ends abruptly, with Lead knocking down the door to the basement. Not a cliffhanger at all, but it does leave us with the impression that the goodys are finally taking some action.

In part 6, we feel that the goodys earn their victory even if we can't understand exactly what they did. This is conveyed by a combination of the acting powers of the leads - they sell the ending with the same brilliance that they sold each of the earlier installments - and the use of pacing, moving from slow when ratcheting up the tension to sudden short bursts of action at crucial moments. We have to give credit to the director for this. The use of Helen's slow nursery rhyme leading up to the climactic moment is a triumph of building suspense.

The minimal SFX are used to great effect here, particularly the fake mother's eyes as the trap is sprung on Rob - this is one of the scariest scenes in the whole story and is a favourite of both Scary Cat and Starcat (even though Starcat got scared by it).

Scary face!

Assignment One concludes as it began, with the focus on Rob, but when Sapphire, Steel and Lead appear to Rob on the stairs, their presence indicates that it will be Sapphire and Steel that return next time, not him.