purplecat: The Fourth Doctor (Who:Four)
The Power of Kroll is not generally considered highly and certainly tends to be compared unfavourably with the rest of the Key to Time season that surrounds it. However, I had a feeling going in that it might not be that terrible and so didn't mention its reputation to Tame Layman, though I did say "All Hail Kroll!" to which he responded "Oh, it's one of those stories is it?"

And it honestly isn't that bad. On the other hand, it's not really that good either.

The biggest problem is the swampies (or, I suppose, the bad CSO of a giant squid attacking the swampie camp, but mostly I feel one is missing the point if you complain about the effects in 1970s Doctor Who). The swampies are clearly intended as an analogue for Native Americans and the story clearly wants to say something about the displacement of native peoples and the need to respect their cultures, unfortunately the swampies contrive to look faintly ridiculous and we are never invited to actually respect their culture (what little we see of it), nor does anyone ever really seek to present a point of view on what is worthwhile about their culture (beyond a little bit of random Earth people all live in metal boxes stuff which doesn't even really reach as far as suggesting that they have lost touch with nature). Their worship of Kroll (which is about all we know about them) is mostly held up for ridicule, particularly by the Doctor. Robert Holmes, of course, is neither the first nor the last author to attempt to address an injustice and contrive to be rather offensive about the victim of the injustice in the process, but he normally had a defter hand than this.

Swampies aside, the story has several decent characters, with a spectrum from narrow-minded ideology to pragmatism and compassion on display in the debates both within the refinery and in the swampy camp. The location filming is actually rather impressive and makes a change from quarries. One feels that series 11 NuWho with its anamorphic lenses and love of scenery would have made much of the flat landscape of marsh and reeds. The nuts and bolts of the plotting is perfectly coherent and has several clever bits, including the story behind Kroll's great size. We get to see the actor who played K9, which excited tame layman no end.

I suspect The Power of Kroll suffers both from comparison to the first stories in the Key to Time sequence, which are much better than this, and from a few key production points that let it down but it is mostly a perfectly solid Tom Baker story.
purplecat: The second Doctor reading his 500 year diary. (Who:Two)
The Abominable Snowmen was one of the very first Doctor Who novelisations I ever had, so I'm very familiar with the story. I'd never actually watched it all the way through, however, though I had seen the second episode (the only one remaining) a couple of times.

Superficially, its another Troughton base-under-siege story and yet it feels very different from the stories that surround it. Possibly this is because Troughton's bases tend to be full of scientists with a clearly defined external threat. The Abominable Snowmen is mostly about understanding what the real threat is, and instead of a base full of scientists, we have a Tibetan monastery full of monks and moreover, we have an antagonist who is working much of the time to minimise loss of life and is fundamentally sympathetic to the Doctor and his companions. It is also, of course, one of Doctor Who's few forays into non-Western history though it isn't very obvious that it is supposed to be set in the 1920s.

Victoria has been one of my companion disappointments with the randomiser, but she's not too bad here and given the novelisation is probably the first time I came across the character, that might explain why, as a child, she was always one of my favourite companions. I think quite a lot of the book is written from her point-of-view and she is given more inner strength than often came across on the show. That said, she is more inconsistent, than uniformly strong here. Her characterisation veers wildly almost from scene to scene, at one moment she will be your typical companion: curious, a bit reckless, determined to investigate and moments later she is the Victoria we saw more often: timid and anxious to be somewhere safe.

Somewhat to our surprise it was quite difficult to find a reconstruction of the missing episodes on YouTube. Our normal source - Loose Cannons - didn't seem to have one. Our options appeared to be two different animated versions, we picked the one that looked to have been made from telesnaps/screenshots and were, after a while, quite taken with the effect of animated still pictures against CGI backdrops. We thought it was something that with a little more time and money could have been very effective. However that gave out after episode 4 and the final two episodes were full CGI affairs made, we were fairly certain, using machinima techniques (i.e., moving the characters around inside a game engine). This was quite odd in places since much depended upon the models available in the engine. Mostly it was OK, but the final confrontation was rendered almost incomprehensible - Jamie and the monk, Thonmi, disappear behind a screen from where smashing noises are heard, the search for the right thing to smash takes place entirely unseen, meanwhile the Doctor, Victoria and Padmasabhava stand around doing nothing (presumably in reality there was much acting of struggling against mind control going on, but the 3D models weren't really up to that).

As the story which introduced both the Yeti and the Great Intelligence to Doctor Who, you would expect The Abominable Snowmen to have been an obvious choice for an attempt at animation. Instead it seems strangely neglected. I wonder if there is a concern that it will fare no better than The Talons of Weng-Chiang if exposed to 21st century fan attention - certainly the Tibetan monks are all played by people with names like Norman Jones and one has a nasty suspicion that the writers did not know a great deal about Tibetan buddhism.

That said, I nevertheless wish more of this story existed. I remain very fond of it and think it is an interesting and different take on the base-under-siege format. More than many, I think it is a story that would have benefitted from being able to see what the actors were doing.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
The Tardis doors open during flight and as a result of "space pressure" the Tardis crew are all shrunk to the size of an inch. Planet of Giants is one of those Doctor Who "might-have-beens". The idea of a minaturised crew was mentioned in the original outline for the series but seems like an outlandish idea now, one that, as presented here, doesn't quite fit in with the show's internal logic (even given the show has a massively inconsistent internal logic). The result is a story that is quite strong on visuals, particularly set design, but a little weak in terms of story - even more so given that episode 3 was originally intended to be two episodes, and this shows in places. Dudley Simpson's first score for the program is oddly intrusive.

Episode 1 is probably the best. The reveal of the problem takes up a lot of the episode and the secondary plot - of the development of a deadly insecticide that will eventually wipe out life on Earth, and the attempt to cover up its effects - is interestingly topical (particularly for 1964). However, as is so often the case, its easy to set up a situation in an engaging fashion, but less easy to resolve it. The result is a lot of the Tardis team climbing up things or down things. There is some really pointless stupidity on the part of Barbara (and weirdly not even stupidity that is needed to move the plot along). Barbara gets her hands contaminated by some of the deadly insecticide. Initially she doesn't mention this because events keep interrupting, but then it moves on to a point where she is just wilfully not telling people she is ill, until the Doctor works it out. At this point Barbara persuades the rest of the crew that nevertheless they need to stay to expose the creators of the insecticide and everything continues. That said, the plot about the insecticide is actually mostly resolved through the intervention of a nosey telephone switchboard operator and the Tardis crew have relatively little to do with it. Meanwhile, a lot of the discussion about how Barbara will recover if bought back to her original size, just rather highlights some inconsistencies about what does and does not shrink (or grow) under "space pressure" so that Tame Layman started worrying about how everyone's miniature lungs were coping with Oxygen.

At the end of the day Planet of Giants is an interesting curiosity. At only three episodes, at least it doesn't really have the time to get too dull, and it definitely looks good (better than I suspect it would have done if made 10 years later when CSO would probably have been used extensively) but the plot doesn't really work and its not clear the writer knew what to do with the concept beyond showing off some nifty ideas about how miniature people would interact with everyday objects. It's kind of Doctor Who does The Borrowers and fun for that, but there isn't much else there.
purplecat: The Third Doctor (Who:Three)
Insofar as there are unloved Pertwee stories, Planet of the Spiders, is unloved. I think The Time Monster has worse rep in fandom, but Planet of the Spiders is often discussed as too long and derided for devoting an entire episode to a chase scene.

Tame Layman loved the chase episode. This may have been because it gave him an opportunity to debate the merits of hovercraft as a mode of transport, with particular reference to 1970s attitudes to the same, but frankly one of the advantages of a chase it that events at least keep happening.

Personally, I think the story slows down mostly with events on Metebelis 3. The buddhist retreat in the UK is more relatable, as well as being something of a period curiosity, while society on Metebelis 3 is one of Doctor Who's more generic attempts consisting primarily of evil overlords/spiders, oppressed peasants (complete with Mumerset accents), and reckless young men. It doesn't help that a lot of the scenery is CSO. The spiders, a brave attempt at puppet work by the production team, are the most interesting thing there. There is a genuine attempt to differentiate them and give them some politics. The puppets themselves occasionally veer on the edge of ludicrous (especially during the several scenes where the spiders debate among themselves) but mostly, I think, the production gets away with them.

I'm inclined to agree that the story could use a trim, but its the Metebelis sections that really need the attention, not those set on Earth.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I was really, really, not looking forward to the moment the randomiser would throw up The Aztecs. As a story it is generally highly regarded in fandom, in part because it has the structure of a tragedy and in part because it is the show's first attempt to address the question of whether history can be changed and possibly because it is one of the few times the show has ventured outside of European history. I've read the novelisation and watched the third episode as part of the original randomiser, plus of course reading a lot of fan commentary down the years and the whole concept has always made me curl up with secondhand embarrassment in the way some sitcom plots do.

I don't think I've ever met anyone else, even people who dislike the comedy of social embarrassment trope, who it takes the same way. When I discussed episode 3 in the original randomiser the other mailing list members were rather fascinated by my reaction, though I don't think we ever came to a real conclusion about it.

Watching the whole thing was, well, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. As Tame Layman said, towards the end, the story touches on a lot of quite meaty subjects (which are less well discussed in fandom, to be frank, than the can't change history thing). One of the moments I was most dreading was Barbara's decision early on to use her status as a god-like figure* to prevent a human sacrifice - a lot of commentary has focused on how this derives from her desire to change history and "save" the Aztecs which, even allowing for the fact she is new on the Tardis, is really something she needed to talk through with the Doctor before embarking upon - however in context it is clearer that this is, if not exactly a spur of a moment thing, a straightforward matter of the fact that she is not prepared to be complicit in allowing human sacrifice**. Ian, who has to hold the victim down, prefigures this with his own reaction to being given the task. The Doctor manages to convince Ian that, for the safety of all of them, he must go through with it but Ian is generally much more likely to sacrifice ideals for brute pragmatism and is in a position of less notional power than Barbara. I still think the way it is presented involves Barbara being a bit stupid, but it wasn't the total idiocy it has always been in my imagination.

That said, The Aztecs does seem to involve the Tardis crew taking turns to hold the stupid ball as they blunder through Aztec life making only minimal attempts to understand it and fit in, and apparently unaware of quite how precarious their position is. Weirdly, Ian who volunteers to become a warrior, more or less gets away with his stupidity even though, best will in the world and accounting for the fact he has done national service, I would not frankly rate the chances of a schoolteacher from the 1960s against the Aztec warrior elite. The Doctor, the only one who really appreciates the situation, gets away more lightly. He is aware of the risks he takes and even though he is out-maneuvered occasionally he's not obviously being stupid about it. He does manage to get accidentally engaged to be married, but frankly he doesn't seem too put out by the idea - just going to show really that the Doctor has always been a flirt. Susan gets to carry the stupid ball big time however, particularly in episode three which was the episode I had previously watched in isolation. I'm not really prepared to give her a pass for being a teenager. She and the Doctor are supposed to be experienced travellers and one feels she ought to have known to keep her head down and hope they could get away quickly, rather than loudly railing about how she wouldn't conform to Aztec marriage customs.

So, yes, there is a lot of stupid going on and, in particular, a lot of stupid that is driven by a lack of a nuanced appreciation of a society and culture. Obviously, that is partly the point. Writer John Lucarotti wants to explore cultural misunderstandings; the West's dogmatic assumptions about its own superiority and mission to "save" other people; he wants to have the debate about the tensions between cultural respect and morality; the fact that if a god orders you to do something you don't agree with you are as likely to decide the god is false as to change your beliefs; and it wants to explore how far people are prepared to go to preserve their own safety and that of those close to them or, alternatively, to promote their ideals. I can see why the people who hold the story in high regard do so, but I would still have enjoyed it more if there had been a bit less stupid on display and perhaps if it had been prepared to explore the moral dilemmas inherent in the situation a bit more, and focus a bit less on the fact that you can't change history "not one line".

I'm not sure I'll watch it again. The Aztecs still pings badly on my personal embarrassment meter, but I'm glad I saw it once.

* As a result of a frankly bizarre bit of tomb robbing. I really doubt Barbara is the kind of person who, on finding a mummified body, would just casually strip it of jewellery.
** In more recent years some of the commentary has centred around whether Barbara is more fundamentally in the wrong here for not respecting Aztec culture. There is obviously a hugely complex debate about moral relativism but, broadly speaking, its an over simplistic position to assume a culture gets to do whatever it likes just because it has a different set of ethical norms. I do not actually think it was wrong, per se, for Barbara to take the position that she can not stand by and do nothing while a human sacrifice takes place ostensibly with her blessing.

Resolution

Jan. 24th, 2019 08:36 pm
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
I'm in two minds about Resolution. I thought it was an excellent Dalek story - strongly evoking Dalek from series 1, but to be honest I didn't think it was such a great Doctor Who story.

I'm in the camp of fans who think that Dalek stories generally work better the fewer Daleks you have. When you have an army of Daleks (given the Doctor has to defeat them), they often end up looking both weak and a bit stupid. Individually, you can emphasise their power, ruthlessness and cunning without making them impossible to contain. Lin's possession was excellently done, scary and a logical progression of what we've seen previously from the Daleks. The scene where the Dalek builds its own casing was great, and a nice echo of the Doctor building her own sonic screwdriver. The confrontation with the army was a great (if somewhat unnecessary) set piece. All in all it was a story that show-cased the Dalek nicely and even managed to do something a little different with it.

The rest of the story though I wasn't so keen on. There was a moment when the Doctor first started tracking the Dalek in the Tardis, that I was worried that we were in for 40 minutes of the Doctor watching events unfold on a Tardis monitor while the Dalek ran amok. Fortunately that isn't quite what happened, but after the strong opening the structure of the story is essentially an extended chase in which the Doctor mostly fails to find the Dalek in time and when she does find it, fails to effectively contain it.

The interplay between Graham and Ryan has been one of the strengths of the season but, to be honest, I felt it had reached its natural conclusion at the end of The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos and what we got here felt rather tacked on, seeming to stop the story instead of fitting naturally into the story. Other weaknesses were inherited from series 11: Yaz was underused (again) despite the fact that the Dalek steals a police car and murders two police officers which, you would have thought, would have provided an excellent route to showcase her and her background a bit more. Cute as Mitch and Lin were, and nice as it was that they weren't simply killed off once the script had no more use for them, the Tardis became even more crowded than usual. It was nice that Ryan's Dad and Chekov's microwave oven got to feature in the defeat of the Dalek but I was a little disappointed that it was Ryan's Dad's idea - once again we missed the chance for the Doctor to do something brilliant (apart from slide across the floor obviously - it depresses me that the most brilliant thing she did in Resolution was slide across the floor).

I was interested by the moment the Doctor asks for affirmation from the others that she has offered the Dalek a chance. It was a odd moment of anxiety. Previous Doctors, of course, have often offered their enemies false choices, effectively goading them into self-destruction. I wasn't quite sure if this was an implied criticism of that previous behaviour, or the first real sign we've had that this Doctor has a weakness - some anxiety about whether she is fair enough or kind enough or something.*

I thought Resolution was one of the better Chibnall scripts for this series. It was fast paced, exciting, with some nice bits in it. But I still fundamentally feel that the Doctor isn't getting enough to do in these stories, and it was the same here.

* While it would be nice for her to have a bit more character depth, I'll be disappointed we get some kind of storyline about a flaw so female coded as lack of self-confidence.
purplecat: The Sixth Doctor (Who:Six)
"You thought The Woman who fell to Earth was a bad regeneration story!" says I. "Wait 'til you see this!"

Strangely enough, the Teenager, was not motivated by this statement to watch The Twin Dilemma with us.

Actually way back when, in 1984, The Twin Dilemma was the story from the previous season that I chose to keep on video tape while over-writing the others with different programmes (Betamax tapes were quite expensive (at least on my pocket money) so space on them had to be rationed). This, in retrospect, seems like an odd choice but just because fan wisdom has consigned The Twin Dilemma to the very bottom of the polls doesn't actually mean its bad, does it?

Well, there are moments, particularly when Maurice Denham is on screen, that The Twin Dilemma shows signs of being good. It is not unusual for a Dr Who guest star to appear to think they are in an entirely different show from the rest of the cast. However normally this manifests as scenery chewing, while everyone else vainly tries to take things more seriously. In The Twin Dilemma we have the reverse. Denham's Azmael is restrained and dignified while everything else is over the top and garish. But then the eponymous twins will put in an appearance, or a particularly clunky piece of dialogue will go down, or the "super genius" villainous Mestor will do something pointless and/or idiotic and you'll realise that yes, it really is bad.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. I think there is lots that is rubbish about The Twin Dilemma which has nothing to do with the Sixth Doctor himself, however the introduction of the Sixth Doctor at his most unpleasant does not, in retrospect, help the story. At the time, in so far as I remember, one of the things I liked about the story was Colin Baker's performance. This was in turn fuelled by some of the pre-publicity. I think in particular an appearance of Colin on Blue Peter where he was enthusiastic and entertaining in person, and the clips selected as previews (the "noble brow" speech, I think) seemed equally funny and entertaining out of context. In context, well, the attempted strangulation of Peri is uncomfortable to watch and the resolution awkward. Since the show is unwilling to really examine what it would be like to be stuck in a time and space machine with a dangerously unstable Time Lord who might attempt to murder you at any moment, it falls back on making Peri whiny and petulant. Thus is a Doctor and companion dynamic established that it would take the show far too long to overcome. A better script/better direction might have redeemed this presentation of the Doctor, but what we get is heavy-handed and clunky, lurching as awkwardly as the Doctor from peril, to comedy, to exposition.

Weirdly, large sections of the plot seem to have been lifted from Frontios earlier in the season. I'm not sure if that's pure coincidence, or a sign that The Twin Dilemma had to be written and produced in a hurry. However, given Frontios is pretty decent despite its dodgy monster costumes and story of giant woodlice trying to take over the universe via planetary mechanics (woodlice that turn back into harmless creatures when cut off from their leader), there is no reason The Twin Dilemma could not have been pretty decent with its dodgy master costumes and story of giant slugs trying to take over the universe via planetary mechanics (slugs that turn back into harmless creatures when cut off from their leader).

The Twin Dilemma is better than Time and the Rani. Somewhere in there, there is an at least half-decent story. We get glimpses of it from time to time - from Azmael's quietly despairing dignity, to the hints of politics both on Earth and on Jaconda. But the script feels like a first draft, the sets and direction look like they were thrown together at the last minute, the twins acting ability is functional at best, and stilted at worst. It was an unfortunate start to the Sixth Doctor's era and where Time and the Rani turned out to be very atypical for the Seventh Doctor, The Twin Dilemma functions more as a template for the era. Much of what was wrong with the 1985 season of Doctor Who has its roots here and that probably makes it a worse regeneration story than Time and the Rani, because its effect was far more long-reaching.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos is an odd episode. It manages to be both very like most of series 11 and something of an odd-one-out. Similarly it is both like a traditional NuWho finale and like a traditional classic Who season ender. The whole is not quite the sum of its parts.

As with much of series 11, most of the emotional heft of the episode is being carried by Ryan and Graham, particularly Graham's desire to kill Tim Shaw. As viewers, we pretty much know he's not going to do it - or at least I never for a moment considered there to be any possibility he would go through with it. It's a nice end to that emotional journey but doesn't really have quite the space it needs and it ends in a kind of bathetic humour, that ultimately doesn't work as well as some of the Graham and Ryan stuff elsewhere in the season. Meanwhile, since Graham and Ryan are dealing with Tim Shaw the Doctor is left somewhat on the sidelines not dealing directly with the major antagonist. We add to the flesh-eating water in The Ghost Monument, and the Doctor's limp from The Tsuranga Conundrum a reality bending psychic field around the planet which seems like it should have an obvious plot payoff and doesn't. In this case it seems mostly to be there so that Paltraki can only explain what is going on in fits and starts rather than providing an info-dump all at once. It also seems possible the psychic field is supposed to explain the behaviour of the Ux, but in lots of ways that explanation raises more questions than it answers, though the Ux are, in general under-explained and rather poorly motivated.

On the other hand, unlike much of series 11, there was a genuine bad guy. The Doctor got to stand up to him. We began to have a more nuanced explanation to her "no guns" attitudes of earlier in the series and there was a bit more story to get our teeth into (no pun intended) than we have had with many of the other Chibnall episodes. Sadly Tim Shaw is not that compelling a villain and his final incarceration is unsatisfactory. Maybe, because we never believe Graham will kill Tim Shaw, we are never really asked to confront the question of whether killing Tim Shaw (who has wiped out several planets since the Doctor last failed to kill him) might actually be a reasonable course of action. The Thirteenth Doctor's tendency to ignore the bigger problems and the bigger villains, to dodge complex moral questions by simply walking away, continues and it remains unclear if this is meant to be a virtue or a flaw or is just some weird coincidence arising from the way these stories have been constructed. The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos not only has no conclusions about this it barely seems to recognise it as a point of discussion despite it being implicit in the return of Tim Shaw.

In classic Who the last story in a season was nearly always just another story. The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos has much of this feel to it. Although we have the return of Tim Shaw, it's not something that has been building all season and, though the stakes are high, they are not presented in a particularly epic fashion.

It's a perfectly fine story, probably in the bottom half of those this series, but not terrible. I'm not fond of the overblown NuWho finale and I like this better than some of those, but it is a shame the series couldn't end on a stronger note.

Although, obviously, possibly it did, depending upon one's views about Resolution.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
It Takes you Away starts well, looking as good as series 11 often does, and with a set-up that's both novel and atmospheric. Then it all sort of falls apart a bit.

I don't object to the sudden turn to the left, while it would have been fun to have a monster story set in the Norwegian forest, the idea that actually its not that at all, and the reveal that the monster is entirely made up by Erik is both clever and, in an entirely different way, equally horrific.

I didn't particularly mind the frog on the chair, that's a gloriously bonkers Doctor Who kind of concept. I did think the frog on the chair was rather poorly done though. It looked like a fake frog on a chair which may, just, have been deliberate but I suspect was lack of budget. However this was one of those moments when I think the dialogue let the show down. I could not tell whether the Doctor was genuine about wanting to stay with the frog (the performance suggested she was, but she didn't really seem to have been there long enough for that to be earned) or whether the Doctor was bluffing the whole time and looking for a way out (which doesn't really seem in character for the thirteenth Doctor). In the end I just couldn't quite believe in that scene and undermined the whole frog on a chair concept.

I did think the antizone was kind of pointless. The flesh-eating moths seemed, in the end, to be a lot less dangerous than their publicity suggested. Certainly Ryan and Hanne didn't seem to have much trouble with them, and all the stuff about the Doctor needing a thread to find her way conveniently went away at the end. It was obviously there to inject some actual peril into the episode but it felt like the modern series equivalent of running down corridors.

All the stuff with Graham was great (arguably one of the problems with series 11 is that all the stuff with Graham is great) from his sandwich (the sandwich was the best bit, to be honest), to his interactions with "Grace", to Ryan finally calling him grandad (we all knew it was coming, but it was nice that the show got there). However almost everything else I could have quite happily lived without.

I know a lot of people liked the story, but frankly I thought it the weakest of series 11.
purplecat: The Third Doctor (Who:Three)
For some reason I'm constantly surprised by how grounded in reality a lot of the Pertwee era feels. There's obviously something about being embedded within an Earth organisation, but in some ways it's the details: travelling places by car, using locations to represent themselves. It happens in other eras as well of course, but there's something about the style of Pertwee stories that seeks to makes even its more outrageous ideas seem more everyday - at least some of the time (I'm not about to claim Carnival of Monsters feels grounded in reality).

In The Mind of Evil it is particularly the prison sequences (and the storming of the prison by the army) that convey this feeling, similar perhaps to the way I was struck by the high profile presence of the army in Claws of Axos. This may be because Doctor Who often treats even the presence of soldiers by populating the background of a scene with a couple of extras so it is a bit startling when you have lots of people on screen scaling walls with ropes and so on.

The rest of the story doesn't quite work. It's not that its disparate elements: murders at an international peace conference; a new technique for "curing" prisoners; and a nerve gas missile convoy don't fit together but some of the plot connections between them are rather thin and its easy to forget how you reached point B in the story from point A. It is also quite a convoluted plan on the Master's part, but then the Master likes over-convoluted plans so that is probably fair enough.

It's a very good story for Jo, who organises a prison recapture, knocks out the odd rioting prisoner and generally holds the fort at Stangmoor Prison, despite the presence of the Master, his henchfolk and an evil mind parasite. This shouldn't need saying, but it does.

All Pertwee stories are watchable, and nearly all of them are solid from a plot point of view. It's not my favourite era of Doctor Who and this isn't my favourite story from that era, but even so, I'd happily watch it again.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
In many ways, The Witchfinders was the most traditional of the Doctor Who stories in series 11. It had a beginning, a middle and, most importantly, an end. It had proper monsters and a proper villain who was proper defeated, albeit one who was not as interesting as the historical celebrity. I'm not surprised that lots of people really liked it. I thought it was a good strong story, but I preferred the other two historicals of the season. I suspect it was trying to tell a tale exploring misogyny, just as Rosa explored racism and The Demons of the Punjab explored religious intolerance. Its distance from the events allowed it a lot more freedom both to make stuff up, and to insert the Doctor and aliens more directly into the narrative, both of which gave it the feel of a much more traditional structure but, at the same time, rather watered down its messages.

Lots of people seem to have liked the moment where the Doctor complains that she would have been able to get on with things more quickly if she were male. I really disliked this bit. Part of the point of the Doctor is that 90% of the time he/she walks in and assumes authority just because, the other 10% of the time the story tends to revolve around the fact that no one in power will believe him/her. I wanted the first female Doctor to have this same ability just to walk into a room and 90% of the time just get away with bossing everyone around and the other 10% of the time I didn't want her ineffectiveness to be about her gender. I mean, yes, obviously 16th century England and all that, but Doctor Who has always been happy to hand-wave issues of the Tardis crew not obviously fitting in when not convenient to the plot and, again, I feel the thirteenth Doctor should be able to get away with this too. I suppose I don't want being a woman to be much of a thing from the point of view of the Doctor herself.

That aside, this was definitely one of the better stories of the season, again we get some stuff show-casing Yaz's skills and hinting at her police officer background of the kind we really needed more of earlier in the season to give her a more solid grounding as a character. The plot was solid. Alan Cummings was hugely watchable. Graham got to wear a hat.
purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
I recall from dim and distant Oxford DocSoc days a review of Frontios which described it as an excellent story up to episode three where everything went downhill (literally) to the underground evil weevils. This has stayed in my mind since as my appraisal - nice setup, all goes wrong in episode three, but I actually think that is a little unfair.

It's a grim and militaristic tale, but not in the "unpleasantly violent and fixated on space mercenaries" manner of a lot of Saward Era stories. It sets itself in a military dictatorship, but one which is shown to collapse partway through the story and one in which the dictator is at least benevolent in intention. One wonders if writer, Christopher H. Bidmead and Eric Saward had some discussion in which Saward was pushing for soldiers and military uniforms, and Bidmead went with it but chose to colour in his world in a way which showed the limitations of a military dictatorship, even one that desired to be benevolent.

As the long ago review notes, the set up is tense and atmospheric and, for Doctor Who, we actually get a lot of world building showing us a colony on the point of collapse from bombardment by enemies unknown. As for going downhill underground to the evil weevils? Well there are some problems with the evil weevils. The costumes look great from the knees upwards, but are rather obviously skirts from the knees down (a problem suffered by a number of 1960s aliens but not really seen since) and the Tractators are definitely rather less interesting than the society above ground. I remember Bidmead complaining that budgetary shortcomings had also short-changed the depiction of Tractator technology which he had very much wanted to be constructed entirely from human "spare parts" but even what was shown here was enough to have Tame Layman comment that it was "really rather unpleasant". It's not as good as the rest of the story, but I don't think the evil weevils hugely let it down. It's a little too convenient that the solution turns out to be simply a matter of isolating the chief Tractator from the rest of them, but this will not be the last time 1980s Doctor Who decides to use this get out. However, even while we are getting a certain amount of running around underground tunnels being pursued by evil weevils, we are also seeing the collapse into anarchy of the regime on the surface, so the story doesn't really lose the atmosphere it has built up.

We watched An Adventure in Time and Space shortly after this and it was more than a little odd to see Jeff Rawle in both. In An Adventure in Time and Space, where he plays Mervyn Pinfield, you could argue he's very much playing a straight version of his George Dent character from Drop the Dead Donkey - mild-mannered, a little put-upon, wears cardigans. In Frontios he plays Plantagenet, the slightly useless son and heir of the colony's leader, Captain Revere. While Plantagenet is depicted as, well, slightly useless, the story is clearly reaching towards an idea of him as the dashing hero who comes into his own. Seeing him 30 years later in a cardigan is a bit of a shock.

The performances are generally excellent in keeping with most of the script and, even when faced with the Tractator costume, no one chooses to treat the story as a pantomime (except for, perhaps, some rather awkward dialogue in which Tegan has to pretend to be an android which fails to really be as funny as is necessary to justify its inclusion).

Frontios is an oddly over-looked story. It seems very much in keeping with the Saward era, but avoids many of its excesses. It is quite grim, but not relentlessly so, and not as an end in its own right. The result is tense, atmospheric and thoughtful... and also has evil weevils (but this is Doctor Who).

Kerblam!

Jan. 12th, 2019 02:06 pm
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
This was another strong episode. The construction of the hunt for the villain, with its undermining of expectations was well done. The very on point parallels with Amazon also worked well. I'm not going to call it satire because I don't believe it was structured that way, but it isn't the first Doctor Who story to model its alien/future world on something existing in our world sufficiently closely that it can be treated as a critique and I doubt it will be the last. There was an actual villain, though not one who showed any real interest in chewing the scenery.

I had a lot of opinions about the whole depiction of Artificial Intelligence, specifically the system's decision to kill Kira in order to make a point to Charlie, but they would form a long essay on machine ethics and the likely legislation surrounding AIs. Suffice it to say on Thursday after the episode I pitched an article on the subject to The Conversation and actually got a response to the effect that they'd have published it if I'd thought of the idea on Monday. I won't bore everyone with it here. I think the AI behaviour works fine within the context of Doctor Who, but its highly unlikely it would work like that in the real world.

Lots has been written about the implicit politics of the episode. This is definitely a story I'd hold up as supporting my thesis that Chibnall (so by extension the Doctor Who he oversees) is interested in systems of oppression but recognises that the Doctor isn't really a suitable hero to tackle them. I think we see here something working towards the idea that you can change the system by engaging with it and influencing those with the power to enact change, and also the acknowledgment that change is show (despite the undertaking to employ more people* and to give the current workers a holiday, they only pay these people for half the time they are giving them off). All that said, on the assumption that that is the kind of discussion the episode is trying to have, I think the execution was a little clunky. Certainly many seem to have interpreted the story as ultimately in favour of Amazon Kerblam! and against people who agitate for better treatment of its workers. That's not my reading of it, but its a perfectly valid reading given what is on screen.

This is also the first time since The Woman who Fell to Earth that we see Yaz act in ways that are clearly influenced by her police background. I wish this kind of thing had been in the scripts from earlier in the series. It feels like too little, too late at this point. The juggernaut that is the relationship between Ryan and Graham has irretrievably sucked the oxygen out of the other characters and their interactions and episode 7 out of 10 is too late for them to gain any momentum.

I don't think Kerblam! is as good as either of the historical episodes that preceded it. It's probably better than any of the Chibnall scripted SF episodes though. It has a clearer idea of what its trying to do and a more equitable use of its characters and I think the series as a whole would have benefitted if it had been appeared earlier.

* The AI expert in me worries about how this would work economically, but I'm already overlooking the ethics and legal issues with AI in the story so lets overlook the economic issues as well.
purplecat: The Fourth Doctor (Who:Four)
I was looking forward to The Ribos Operation. I've seen it at least a couple of times and had a positive memory that it looked good, had pretty solid characterisation and a nice sense of humour. It isn't an especially showy Doctor Who episode but, in some ways is the better for it. It doesn't raise over-high expectations, nor does it try to deliver on special effects beyond its ability. I was also expecting Tame Layman to like it, its a decent fourth Doctor episode with, again, a good sense of humour and I thought he'd be all over Binro the Heretic and the trials of a scientist in a superstitious culture.

Tame Layman was mostly rather unmoved by it and his main comment, in episode four, was that it was a bit of a pantomime. Now we had just watched Demons of the Punjab and I think pretty much any Tom Baker episode would look a little pantomimic next to it, but this was the moment in which the Doctor, Romana and Garron all try to hide in an alcove by lying on top of each other so you could see his point. In fact, while fandom has tended to laud Garron and Unstoffe as a classic Holmesian double-act, there is a fair bit of the DNA of pantomime in their interactions, schemes and sleight of hand.

All that said, of all the episodes of Doctor Who to get labelled "pantomime", The Ribos Operation would not be the one that instantly sprang to my mind. Everything I remembered about it still holds true: it does look good (in part because the BBC Costume department, as I've noted before, was much better at costumes with a historical flavour than it was at envisioning futuristic clothing). The characterisation is a little broad brush perhaps but the characters do benefit from being distinct and memorable with (mostly) their own agendas. There is plenty of humour not just from the "Holmesian double act", but also between the Doctor and new companion Romana and the pair of them and Garron. But I can also see why this doesn't make top ten lists, its a little too straightforward, it doesn't quite embrace its atmosphere of a medieval ice planet and the humour is often a little too arch and pleased with itself... and in direct comparison with Demons of the Punjab it does look a bit like a pantomime.

Poor Ribos Operation, I fear that circumstances on this viewing were against you.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
I saw this twice. Tame Layman missed it first time around but expressed an interest in viewing it when I said it had been good. We both thought it was the highlight of the season.

Personally I think Demons of the Punjab and Rosa were the stand out episodes of series 11. They both took Doctor Who to places it had never really been - shining lights on recent bits of history that are relevant and important to large numbers of British people but also often over-looked in school history. They looked stunning. The world's they presented had a genuine depth of detail missing from more futuristic episodes*. They managed to deal with big issues of human inhumanity without become overly didactic or overly simple. They had resolutions but steered clear of offering trite solutions. Where, for me, Demons of the Punjab wins out is that Rosa has deeply constrained by everything we know about Rosa Parks. The story the Doctor and her companions participated in had to be constructed around the edges of Rosa's own story. Demons of the Punjab in focusing on a family known only to us through the tales Yaz recalled being told by her grandmother had the freedom for the Doctor and friends to be more integral to events and the ending to be less pre-ordained - though it was pretty obvious from early on that things were not going to end well for Prem.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out if it would have been better without the aliens. In the end they are kind of superfluous to the story and seem to be there in part simply because the production team lacked the courage to go full on pure historical. On the other hand, the confusion they introduce into the story and the way they force involvement from the Doctor and interactions between the Tardis team and the family, helps drive the plot. Without them there is rather less to happen. Other incident would have to have been created. They also provided a natural way to bring in the themes of witness and remembrance which were obviously important given the story's air-date of Remembrance Sunday.

The Teenager agreed that it was good telly but was adamant that it was not Doctor Who. We muttered about William Hartnell to her but she took the line that what might have been Doctor Who forty years before she was born was entirely irrelevant to what counted as Doctor Who in 2018. I'm not sure she's right in its entirety, but I can see there is an argument that this is sufficiently different from the current status quo to feel like a different show altogether.

Where, in general, I've been rather `meh' about series 11. I am absolutely behind the re-introduction of the educational historical story. I wouldn't want an entire season of them, but I think they have proved they have a place in the Doctor Who mix and its a shame it has been so long without one.

* Yes, obviously, detail is difficult to do from scratch.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
The Tsuranga Conundrum turned out to be quite a divisive episode. It was presumably aiming to be light-hearted and a little cooky (in the way Doctor Who is normally light-hearted - so a light-heartedness that still involves people dying) and approached from that angle it at least succeeds in being rather less divisive than Love and Monsters.

Unlike Arachnids in the UK which I find I like less when looking back at it, I find I like The Tsuranga Conundrum more. It has more going on than The Ghost Monument, comes to a proper conclusion at a sensible pace, and the solution is even a little bit clever (albeit somewhat telegraphed in advance). The Pting is, in many ways, a genuinely original monster concept (managing to be both cute and very dangerous and never sacrificing the one in favour of the other). By this point in series 11, the lack of a good villain to conclusively defeat was beginning to grate with a large number of fans and the Pting is almost aggressively the opposite of that so one can see how it became a lightening rod for a certain strand of criticism, but taken out of that context unless you feel that Doctor Who monsters should always be serious in some sense, then there is nothing wrong with the Pting at all. I'd definitely take it over the Slitheen any day. While they felt like escapees from Children's TV, the Pting feels to me like a much more natural denizen of the Whoniverse. The story also features some decent, understated bits of world-building. I particularly like the "prayer" at the end and the way it emphasised that this future society has its own rituals which are sufficiently universal within the particular culture that the Doctor knows them as well, just as she can quote Shakespeare and could probably recite the Lord's Prayer if the situation so required.

That's not to say the story is without flaws. I didn't particularly care about either Eve Cicero or her brother. Her death was the most obvious resolution to that story strand and I wasn't moved by it. The pregnancy storyline was OK, fit in with the light-hearted and a little cooky vibe and allowed for some nice character stuff with Ryan and Graham, but was basically irrelevant to the rest of the plot. Like the flesh-eating water that turned out not to be Chekovian in The Ghost Monument, here the Doctor is injured and limping about all over the place and this turns out to have no bearing on anything whatsoever. The info-dump about the anti-matter engine, as with most of the attempts to do "science education" in the series, seems too info-dumpy and feels out of place.

All that said, this is much more its own thing than the other "sci-fi"-ish plots in series 11. All the elements may not have quite come together and its attempts at whimsey may be a little clumsy, but on the whole it was interesting and a little different and I find myself with considerable retroactive goodwill towards it. Someday I may even rewatch and see if the memory cheats.
purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
It's 1980s Who with "Time" in the title. This never bodes well!

Actually, to be fair, there are bits of Time Flight that are quite reasonable. Most of the stuff at Heathrow is actually passable and sufficiently novel in terms of location and style to be quite interesting. One suspects if the story had managed to maintain its air of some kind of airport based procedural story it would have been much better. Both the Concorde crew and Professor Hayter are surprisingly good characters who manage (mostly) to be both interesting and competent, and the idea of a race that has converted itself into some kind of mental gestalt but still has warring "good" and "bad" sides is sufficiently interesting to have potential for good Doctor Who.

To be honest, in lots of ways, Time Flight's biggest sin is that it rather obviously ran out of money halfway through. Pretty much everything on prehistoric Earth looks shoddy and the story lacks the necessary charm or energy to overcome the general cheapness. Obviously there is also the issue of the Master and his entirely pointless disguise, but the Master obviously just likes dressing up so why not? especially since there is always a chance the Doctor will turn up. Tame Layman was genuinely surprised by his appearance so on some kind of basic level it was doing its job. It also provides a rather nice opportunity for Hayter and Captain Stapley's determined rationalism to trump the Doctor's vague assumption of more complex psychic forces, as they investigate "Khalid"'s crystal ball to reveal the electronics beneath.

I honestly think that with one more pass of the script to tighten it up, and enough money to realise its locations, Time Flight would be a much better liked story.
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
At the time of watching, I felt that Arachnids in the UK, while not in the same league as Rosa, was preserving a general upward trend in the quality of the stories in series 11. I now feel like I'd like to revist both it and The Woman who Fell to Earth since I'm not sure it would stand up terribly well back to back with the latter.

While Arachnids has better narrative drive, certainly than The Ghost Monument, like The Ghost Monument it just seems to stop at the end of its allotted 50 minutes. The situation is apparently contained and we can infer that something is done about the baby spiders in the panic room, but a little bit more would have been welcome. Allowing Chris Noth's Robertson to leave apparently scot free is another odd choice. While it could be argued this is a case of the Doctor choosing not to interfere with a more systemic problem, the man has clearly broken a number of laws (including waving a gun at a police officer - even if she hadn't identified herself as such) and, as many people have pointed out, would it really have hurt to have had a newspaper headline, or throwaway comment, that he was now being investigated by the authorities?

Where the series set up as a whole is reminiscent of the early Davison years, and its historical reminiscent of early Hartnell, Arachnids invokes late Pertwee with its giant spiders and environmentalist underpinnings. That said, it didn't feel much like a Pertwee story to me. Robertson wasn't a consistent enough antagonist and the spiders not really enough of a threat. As in The Ghost Monument the presentation here of the Doctor's anti-gun stance seems more hypocritical than usual - allowing creatures to die of suffocation or, we infer, starvation in preference to killing them directly.

Yaz and her family were fun, though even with their foregrounding here, she continues to feel oddly underdeveloped.

I enjoyed it at the time but in retrospect Arachnids in the UK feels like an oddly unsatisfactory tale.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I had heard The Sensorites both highly praised (particularly for an atmospheric first episode) and high derided (for being deeply boring) so I was kind of interested to see which I would think it was.

Ultimately I thought it was fine but unspectacular, which surprised me a bit for an episode which seems to generate such strong opinions. Like Edge of Destruction there was just a bit too much random and not terribly well explained behaviour in the first episode for me to buy into its spooky atmosphere, meanwhile there was enough event in the later episodes, even if much of it does not bear up to close scrutiny, to keep me happily watching.

The Sensorites is a bit Star Trekky in its presentation of an Earth Space Crew of the future and in its attempt at something vaguely high concept in episode 1. But, to be honest, it pretty much loses interest in this when it moves down to the planet and into its vague tale of mystery and political intrigue. As noted above, enough is happening to keep the attention (at least I thought), but the moment you actually think about any of it an awful lot of questions of the "how did that work/was that supposed to work?" arise. Like much of early Doctor Who, its very serialised plotting, with an assumption that the viewer doesn't have a detailed memory of what happened before the episode began and a happiness for each episode to go off in its own direction without necessarily much strong over-arching plot coherence. Frankly however, there is an awful lot of Doctor Who that contains an awful lot more pointless padding than is on display here.

There are some nice bits with Susan using both her telepathy (for once!) and taking a look at her relationship with her grandfather (insofar as 1963 Doctor Who does relationship development), and some quite fun bits with Ian and the Doctor down in the sewers.

While quite a bit of the world-building is stupid (or at least in need of better development), it is one of early Doctor Who's more serious attempts to present an alien society and that is not without interest as well.

Overall a perfectly serviceable slice of 1963 Doctor Who and I'm mostly mystified that anyone thinks otherwise.

Rosa

Dec. 30th, 2018 04:58 pm
purplecat: The Thirteenth Doctor and Tards (Who:Thirteen)
When I first heard Doctor Who was going to do an episode about Rosa Parks I thought it was a brave choice in pretty much all senses of the word. You would think that either the plot "racism is caused by aliens" or "The Doctor inspired Rosa Parks" would have been obvious no-nos in 2018 but frankly you never know and this was possibly half-written by the man who gave us Cyberwoman*. So the early reveal that the SF-part of the episode would be about preventing someone from changing history came as something of a relief. Of course, Malorie Blackman, may well deserve much of the credit for the deft way Rosa handled its subject matter, and I'd certainly argue this was the best script of series 11 with Chibnall's name on it but, still, he's clearly come a long way since Torchwood series 1.

"This is more like it," B. remarked about 10 minutes in to the episode. Having been somewhat disappointed with the start of the series, there was already plenty here to get your teeth into and certainly more of a feeling of substance.

As the episode progressed I did begin to wonder a bit if we were getting The Ladybird History of Rosa Parks, this was partly the colour palette chosen for the episode that did remind me rather of the illustrations in Ladybird books, but also the way the episode was carefully presenting lots of Facts about Rosa, as people looked up bus time-tables, and recalled lessons from primary school. Of the many mistakes this episode could have made, erring on the side of being a bit over-didactic, was probably the one to go for. Moreover placed in the context of the rest of the first half of the season, there is a clear desire to go back to Doctor Who's educational routes which frankly works better in the historical stories than in the random science info-dumps some of the other episodes chose to give us. It's probably also fair to say that the most the average British person knows about Rosa Parks is that a lady who refused to give up her place on the bus had something to do with the American Civil Movement so a certain didacticism is probably fair enough. None of the online comment I've seen has felt the story was over-simplified, at least not in the way I feared, so my concerns there were probably needless.

Of course, the pitfall the episode didn't entirely avoid is espousing a kind of Great Man theory of history - the suggestion that only Rosa Parks and only on the 1st December 1955 could have started the Montgomery bus boycott. It clearly tries to mitigate this with its presentation of the meeting with Martin Luther King and the implied suggestion of the organisation behind the events, but I don't think that really succeeds.

Another problem the episode has, though one it shares with many in the series, is the lack of a good villain. I suspect this was a deliberate desire not to have a villain that over-shadowed the character of Rosa herself (who did not have the option, really, of chewing scenery in the time-honoured Doctor Who fashion) and it may also have been a meta-commentary on the nature of modern overt racism. While, in some ways, I think the episode might have worked better as a pure historical, it is difficult to see how the Doctor could have believably become involved without the villain's presence and actions and it would certainly have been impossible to have the very powerful scene of the Doctor and her companions on the bus as Rosa is arrested without the earlier set-up. It was also a moment where an episode which had, up until that point, been anxious to carefully spell everything out for the viewer, had the courage to let the actors and direction convey both the narrative and its underlying issues and themes.

Rosa was the first really excellent episode of series 11, in my opinion. I think it has flaws, many of which are inherent in trying to grapple with a subject as emotionally charged as the American Civil Rights movement in the context of a Doctor Who "celebrity" historical, but given the hot mess it could have been what we got was nothing short of a triumph.


* Yes, I know he claims the costume was not his doing and he only found about it too late to rectify but the costume isn't the only problem with the episode, and he was also well, status a bit unclear, but he was far from random jobbing writer on Torchwood so I'm dubious about this claim that the costume was completely outside his control.

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