Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Doctor Who-Survival
                    Considering all the internal wranglings in the BBC regarding Doctor Who during the mid to late 1980's,it was only inevitable that the tension would snap. Finally towards the autumn of 1989 it happened: Doctor Who aired the last serial of it's 26 year run. It was the longest running televised science fiction program the world over by then,with it's Tom Baker era gaining it fame on public TV in America. It had been a very long journey from the black & white children's educational program it was during 1963 when William Hartnell was playing the title role to Sylvester McCoy's era,featuring lots of location shooting,very philosophical themes and the beginnings of CGI effects. During the final two years of McCoy's time on the show,the focus had gone strongly towards companion Ace and her somewhat symbiotic relationship with the doctor. Serving as part guidance counselor and father figure,there was of course always that inevitability Ace would have to go back where she started to come full circle. And that's what happened here.

                  The TARDIS arrives in late 80's Perivale,at Ace's suggestion only to find that many of the residence,including many of Ace's mates,have mysteriously disappeared as she (apparently) had. Only they are not off with space/time travelling time lords. Each of these disappearances is accompanied by the presence of a black cat. While Ace searches for her friends and the doctor for clues to this mystery,they both end up on a dying alien planet the doctor recognizes as the planet of the cheetah people. Normally a playful race,these cheetah people are now pawns to a major problem along with the Doctors old nemesis The Master. He along with the cheetah's are now linked to the dying planet,which amplifies violent thoughts. While the Master attempts to keep control,Ace and her friend Midge soon fall under the planet's spell. The doctor uses this to every ones advantage to get Ace and her friends home. However the Master has merged with the mind of the living planet to become an even deadlier presence. And the doctor is forced to feign his own death,and Ace has to face the very real death of her transformed sister before she departs back into the cosmos with the doctor she trusts most.

            With most of the doctors famous adversaries covered in the programs silver anniversary season,one had been left out-perhaps deliberately. And that was the master. Usually every bit the doctors doppelganger in the sense that he always used his great self control to manipulate and control others,in this case the Master is undergoing an identity crisis.His deviously intelligent mind if being fueled by the primal hostility of a living planet. And along with the mistakes made by an arrogantly aggressive human self defense teacher in this serial,it brings out that it typifies the general message of Doctor Who itself. And that's the message of brain over brawn being the more preferred method of what the Master keeps referring to as "survival of the fittest". Also Ace's story comes full circle. She started as an insecure young lady in need of guidance. And by the time,between being the catalyst for her own existence and knowledge of her being used as a "wolf of Fenric",had grown much more confident and strong of will in the process. It would be seven more years until Sylvester McCoy's seventh doctor regenerated into Paul McGann's eighth. This may have theoretically made him the longest character to play the doctor next to Tom Baker,although present for much of that time only in novels and radio plays of Doctor Who. But even though it's original run was over,this would luckily not be the last time we'd be hearing from this maverick time lord.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Doctor Who-The Curse Of Fenric
               With both the cold war environment and Doctor Who itself winding down roughly around the same time,it was only inevitable that the program would reflect on some of the changing moral conditions of the world. A lot was starting to be questioned in society around this time. It was a precursor to the "nothing sacred" attitude of the decade to come. Also there was one very important loose end to tie up. Since her debut in the episode 'Dragonfire',Ace had been a one of the few of the doctors travelling companions next perhaps to Sarah Jane who was a genuine sidekick rather than a screaming fellow traveler. The doctors mentoring relationship with her had also got to a point where he recognized a struggle within her between good and evil. In this episode that struggle,in general and within the Ace character herself was dealt with to the point of a near resolution.

             The doctor and Ace arrive in a small English Coastal town in 1943,as the Second World War is coming to a head. There are a number of events occurring all at the same time. There is a man using a new super computer called Ultima to crack an ancient Viking code,a Nazi double agent,a Reverend who is losing his faith and two young evacuees who are swimming in a taboo area. What do they all have in common? Every one of them is looking to assert themselves in an environment of violence and secrecy. Soon this code is uncovered by the doctor as being a connecting thread between families involving The Curse Of Fenric,an entity who is the very personification of evil and whom the doctor has encountered in the distant past.  While Ace meets a lady whose baby shares the same name as her mother,and while allegiances are splitting between Nazis and communists alike the Doctor at last faces down Fenric and his wolves-controlled henchmen consisting of both hemovores,vampire like humanoids and others represented later stages in human evolution.

           Fenric has been manipulating the events at the end of this war,hoping to destroy humanity many millennia before it is supposed to occur in order to gain easier control over life on the planet and of the universe. During this time Ace's allegiances are torn in every possible direction. The new friends she makes in the two female evacuees are transformed into hemovores,and even an officer which she begins to romantically involve herself with soon becomes the unwitting human host to Fenric himself. Even as Ace herself has figured out the solution to the chess game the doctor and Fenric must play to balance harmony. In the end there's a surprising revelation made in order to defeat Fenric;that Ace herself was another of these "wolves of Fenric" and the baby she was so attached to really was her mother. Upon the defeat of Fenric a very worn,but much wiser Ace leaves Earth with the doctor to conclude her travels with him.

          This serial qualifies as one of the most emotionally intense and dramatic stories written for Doctor Who. And perhaps one of the best the series has to offer. And it's not because the plot of vampires,WW2 and super computers cracking ancient codes are particularly original. Rather it's the personal consequences to the two main characters. As for the doctor this points more than any other serial perhaps how much of a personification of good he represents,and how much unspoken knowledge about his links to humanity just bubbling under the surface,yearning to come out but never able to. For Ace,it's an emotional roller coaster. In this serial new friends turn on her, a potential lover and she becomes the unwitting catalyst for her very existence by saving the life of her infant mother. And to top it off,the doctor must reveal his true reasons for taking her under his wing and (convincingly) persuade Fenric that Ace's faith in him is misplaced. This leads to a scene where the usually maverick Ace completely breaks down at the perceived betrayal,until the doctor explains what he did and she symbolically wipes her slate clean. This story has a strong encouragement to faith about it. Not faith in something unknowable. But faith in ones positive aspects to fend off evil of all sorts.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doctor Who-Ghost Light
               During the final two seasons of it's first run,Doctor Who began a process of re-imagining themes that had been at the core of many of it's different incarnations over the years. Perhaps because of the length of time he played the part,a lot of the Gothic horror aspects of the Tom Baker years of the show had been largely ignored. But during the seventh doctor era he was given a new companion in Ace,someone with origins and a past easily as cryptic and uncertain as the doctor,even to herself. Little by little bits of her story had filtered out in the story. But towards the end of the shows run more portions of it began to come out. And this story,while reviving one old theme of the classic series,actually opened the door to a huge degree of character development on the newest companion.

                  The TARDIS finds itself in the residence of Gabriel Chase,in the rural town of Perivale in 1883. The people populating this building are,at best,zombified eccentrics including a mentally ill explorer intent on keeping a mildly radioactive snuffbox. As it turned out the man behind all this is Josiah Samuel Smith,an extraterrestrial who keeps his spaceship in the upstairs of the building and his using the population and others out of Earth's past to forward self involved experiments in evolution,including the assassination of Queen Victoria and plans for world domination. In the meantime,Ace confronts the dark elements of her own past and future when she realizes that,in a centuries time she commits an act of arson on the building out of fear she sensed from it. That fear is soon personified by a humanoid version of light itself,desperately hoping along with Smith to stop evolution of life on Earth to ease it's own cataloging mission on the world. In a way even uncertain to Ace,the doctor manages to end this process. Even back handily congratulating Ace on what is her future choice in regard to destroying the building.

               This Doctor Who serial is one of the most complexly written serial of the classic series in terms of dialog,in some ways paving the way for the nature of the relaunched series a decade and a half later. The pace of the story is picked up to a maddening degree,with even the doctor musing in character at all the different plot points interconnecting. The central theme here,of all of them is that of evolution versus creationism. Darwinism is mentioned many times. And so each characters mission is about confronting their fears. There's Josiah's fear of his identity being discovered,Ace's fear of the undefined evil that overwhelms her from the surroundings and even the fear of the human personification of light itself at losing control of time and space somehow. A lot of the themes for this episode are very philosophical and may require many additional viewings to fully grasp. But the general concept,of evolution being the constant that brings death to what came before it,is the important and easily graspable story element.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Doctor Who-Battlefield
           Considering that pretty much all parties in Doctor Who knew that the programs 26'th season was to be it's last. The BBC and the public attitude on it had been on a downward spiral pretty much since Peter Davison left the series in 1984. After having an excellent silver anniversary that provided the show with some of it's best episodes however,it's creative energy was firmly on the upswing. Considering the decidedly nostalgic tone the program took in it's previous season,it was surprising that this serial would pick up on a significant element in the doctors connection to the human race: UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Doctor and the Brigadier had been the ultimate complimentary "night and day" element of the show,essentially with the same goal but different approaches. And this particular serial gives that plot a lot to work with.

       The Doctor and Ace respond to a distress call on Earth sometime in the 1990's. Apparently there's been some explosions near an archaeological dig where the sword Excaliber was thought to have been. Not only does this give Ace a semi new companion in Shou Yuing,who shares her love of explosives but the doctor with the Brigadier himself who was bought out of retirement specifically to assist him. After a journey onto an underwater spaceship it's discovered that the once legendary characters of King Arthurs round table were no legends but ancient space travellers. Their leaders Morgaine and Mordred,by the use of the monstrous Destroyer are intent on destroying the Earth to finish her final battle and that the doctor,who they perceive to be Merlin,the fame magician of their era,is another enemy for standing in their way.

         In the meantime the knight Ancelyn develops a peculiar relationship with UNITS new Brigadier Bambera as they both ally with the Doctor,Ace,Lethbridge Stewart and Shou Yuing in defeating Morgaine,who intends to launch a nuclear weapon to defeat her enemy and revive King Arthur,who has actually turned to dust. Ace soon gains custody,but almost looses,of Excalibur. And is able to travel into Morgaines alternate dimension with the doctor to try to defeat them. While they are double crossed by Morgaine's powers again,it is the doctor who persuades Morgaine herself into stopping her deadly assault. Though it's the stubborn Brigadier's silver bullet that destroys the destroyer in the end. After,at the brigadiers home the Brigadiers wife,Ace,Bambera and Shou Yuing go in the doctors car Bessie on a girls night out leaving the Lethbridge Stewart,Ancelyn and the doctor on their own accords. Of course,the doctor will be doing the cooking.

         This is actually one the strongest and most well rounded of all the seventh doctor stories. The presence of two UNIT Brigadiers,in a semi rivalry over which generation essentially will prevail is in contrast to the doctor and Ace's earnestness in their mission. The idea of King Arthur's court and Merlin being aliens from another dimention is a fascinating idea,hearkening back to earlier Doctor Who tales of fiction versus fact,even evoking Arthur C Clarke's famous law that "any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from fiction". Humor is also a big part,particularly with the semi romantic/sparing comedy between Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera. The Doctors succinct and to the point discussion with Morgaine at the end of the episode also brings up the anti nuclear war theme at the end of this story. Only after the doctors Helen Caldicott-like emotional yet level headed description of the medical consequences of nuclear war does Morgaine realize the futility of the weapon and decides on a new course. One of those Doctor Who stories were all the programs best elements fall right into place.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Doctor Who-The Greatest Show In The Galaxy
                           With the ending seemingly looming on the horizon,Doctor Who was exiting it's silver anniversary season when this serial began airing and entering the final season of it's original run. It was a very strange ending to say the least. The program had gone from the peak of it's popularity,from the Jon Pertwee up through the Peter Davison era of the show as one of the premiere science fiction programs of it's day,when it seemed to be able to do no wrong even when the budget was occasionally tight. The BBC were viewing sci fi at the time as a distraction from the realities of the world,not a metaphoric medium that could in any way imply any change on the future of the world. Doctor Who not only needed to prove them wrong,but to do so by reflecting this attitude in different ways in the show itself.

                      The Doctor and Ace receive a robotic advertisement for something called the Psychic Circus on the planet Seganax. The Doctor decides to take Ace even after her revealing her fear of clowns. When they arrive they encounter not only distrustful natives,but a shady explorer Captain Cook and his companion Mags. When they enter the circus,they find a ring occupied by only one family so it seems and when they think they've been invited in as part of the act,they are taken prisoner. After Mags and the doctor engineer an escape with Ace,who discovers that the circus itself,having originally arrived with Utopian intentions are now being manipulated by another force.

                     The doctor and Ace find companions in Bellboy,who designed robot clowns who are now used by this greater force to kill "unworthy acts" in the circus and Kingpin,whose mind has been swiss cheesed for trying to discover the true nature of this greater force. While playing the conniving Cook and the other clowns at their games the Doctor soon discovers this great force that turned the Psychic Circus into a murderous cult are the Gods Of Ragnorok,powerful sadists using the circus people to entertain only themselves. The Doctor is able to topple their game with his own brand of slight of hand,using a medallion they created to harness their power to destroy them in the end. When invited to join Kingpin and Mags new circus the doctor and Ace,now free of her fear of clowns decide to depart Segenax,with the doctor concluding circuses have grown sinister to him.

                On the top of this story is the idea of the circus that comes into town and causes trouble with the locals. But there's a stronger message to this story that the writers don't even try to hide. The Gods Of Ragnorok  are clearly manipulators of the people of the Psychic Service,whose Bohemian ideals allowed their world access to evil. The word "hippie" is even used several times,the doctor himself stating he never has strayed from his Bohemian nature that first become obvious with Tom Baker years before. The Psychic Circus is only turned murderous when the free spirited circus people have their own imagination and creativity turned against them and their customers. As with all quality Doctor Who,it becomes a show championing the free spirited and creative people over tyrannical leadership. In addition to the presence of a rapping ringmaster and it's abundance of colorful,surreal imagery this goes down as one of the most inventively designed and compellingly written stories of the classic Doctor Who series.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Doctor Who-Silver Nemesis
           During 1988,the year in which this particular Doctor Who serial was aired,was the programs silver anniversary. At a quarter of a century it was a bit of a pitty that Doctor Who wasn't exactly at it's highest point of popularity with BBC or the general public. Popularity or not,the fact is the show was entering into another creative high point. Starting with 'Remembrance Of The Daleks' there was a feeling of bringing the program somewhat back to the questions Ian and Barbara asked of the Doctor when they first encountered the doctor and his TARDIS. And this episode,although like many of the seventh doctor era represents one of the shortest serials of the series,seeks to answer some of the shows biggest questions.

            The story begins with the doctor and Ace enjoying an outdoor jazz concert from Courtney Pine when the are attacked by a pair of armed henchmen. Meanwhile in 1638 the conniving Lady Peinforte believes she's found the secret of the Nemesis. But the doctor already knows that secret. It's an artificial life form made of a living metal called Validium,which comes from the time of Rassilon and Omega. It circles around to Earth every quarter century,causing mass chaos in it's wake such as the first world war and JFK's assassination. Which is why in 1988 a neo Nazi faction are after the Nemesis as well,along with a fleet of Cybermen who are about to invade Earth with a swarm of clocked ships. In the end it's the Nemesis that defeats all parties based on their own avarice. Though more questions are raised about the doctor than are answered as a result.

           In this serial one begins to wonder if the Doctor has access to a source of enormous power he isn't letting on. He has intimate control over Nemesis,implying to a degree he has participated first person in the evolution of life on Earth. The idea of "the doctor as god himself" has been hinted at many times before,but is almost directly answered here. The idea of Ace using Courtney Pine's jazz cassette type to jam the Cybermen's signals is an excellent analogy: the adversarial relationship between improvisation and clinical totalitarianism. The Doctor's manipulative and highly cryptic manner is played up to a huge degree here. In particular when you see his genuine mentoring/father figure relationship to Ace,who shares his earnestness and mutual trust even if she has questions as to his identity. Solid proof the questions of Doctor Who are more important than the answers.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Doctor Who-Delta And The Bannermen
          One of the things that tends to be a debate among Whovians is the witty humor of Doctor Who. It was always a show that never took itself 100% seriously. There are many episodes throughout the series that are created largely for comedic purposes. Some of them are revered as some of the best episodes of the series. Others are seen as embarrassments of the highest order. It depends a lot on the part of the popularity of the series at any given time. Or the popularity of the doctor. With both of those things said,this serial never had much of a chance to go over well with much of anyone because of it's timing.

          The last survivor of the Chimeron,Queen Delta escapes from her peoples massacre by the ruthless Bannermen. She encounters Mel who,along with the doctor travelling along with the TARDIS is on route to 1950's Earth on the shape shifting Navirino race,who have as huge a fascination with 20'th century American nostalgia as Mel. While at first the journey is a fun romp in time the Doctor and Mel are soon menaced by the Bannermen,who have followed everyone back in time to find Queen Delta and her special cargo-an egg that is about to hatch into the last surviving member of her species. With the help of the period couple,Mel and the Doctor are able to catch the Bannerman and therefore save the Chimeron race.

            This episode has a minor story of genocide wrapped into what is largely a light hearted context. The idea that a non humanoid alien race would find 1950's America to be one of the greatest moments in history is a superb satire on the "traditional values" attitudes of period political leaders. One thing this character does is more heavily develop the seventh doctors strong sense of morality. He makes a strong point of the Bannerman's completely self centered attitude towards exterminating the Chimeron. Even though it sadly remains the butt of a lot of jokes even among some of the hardest core Whovians it's one of the wittiest and most entertaining stories from Sylvester McCoy's first series as the doctor.
Doctor Who-Paradise Towers
                Sylvester McCoy was only one serial old by the time his second came into being. So far his reception as the seventh doctor was almost worse than that of Colin Baker before him. He was seen by and large as a comic buffoon. So there was a concerted effort on the part of the writers on the show to bring more topical and modern stories into the framework of the program. It was probably believed that this would create a more provocative identity for the new doctor. The Thatcher/Reagan era presented a lot of social problems for both England and America. In particular the concept of urban decay and the advent of mechanization. And this is the topic of this serial.

              Looking for a vacation spot with a swimming pool for Mel,she and the Doctor misread the brochures from Paradise Towers,a 22'nd century high rise. They arrive years too late to find a building fallen into disrepair,led by neon haired female gangs called red and blue Kangs. The Kangs and the ruling Caretakes believe the doctor to be the "great architect". In their search for the truth Mel escapes from two cannibalistic residents called "ressies"  and a cowardly wanna be vigilante named Pex. In the end it's not only up to the ressies,Pex and Kangs to unite up with the Doctor and Mel but to understand that the designer of Paradise Towers designed a deliberately parasitic building to satisfy his ego. In the end Pex sacrifices himself and unites the population of Paradise Towers.

            Aside from an excellent story of noble sacrifice in the face of despotic ruling this episode does an interesting job of addressing it's social concerns in the science fiction format. The Kangs are modernized 'Clockwork Orange" like cyber punks with their silly "ice hot!" catch phrase. And the cannibalistic "ressie" characters are cast very happily against type. They are not a group of foreign seeming head hunter style cliched stereotypes.  They look and act like regular middle aged English women from the late 20'th century. In this serial you have the beginning of the seventh doctor using his wit and humor to disarm and distract rather than muddle about aimlessly. Not only was this a quirky,colorful and topical episode but also did a lot for the character of the new doctor.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Doctor Who-Time And The Rani
                Even as American television was warming quickly to science fiction with the huge success of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 the same couldn't exactly by said for the BBC. Every important sci fi program they aired were either cancelled or transferred to BBC2. Especially with the controversies surrounding every aspect of Colin Baker's all too short tenure on the program,Doctor Who in particular was singled out. Though at one time a BBC institution of sorts the program,with it's serialized format and elongated story lines were beginning to seem like the last gasps of another age. An age that had gone by. Things went down so badly with Colin Baker that he wasn't even invited back to do is own regeneration. New doctor Sylvester McCoy had to don a wig and do it himself. But regeneration stories were always a great opportunity to add a different spin to stories. And especially since the show needed it very much here bringing the relatively new time lady The Rani into the story was an excellent idea.

               The TARDIS is pulled out of time by the Rani to the planet Lakertya,where the doctor is forced into regenerating do to injury.  The Rani is constructing a rocket to harness the power of an on coming asteroid containing what the time lords call strange matter,an unusually powerful substance she plans on using to transform the planet into a gigantic time regulator to control the temporal flow of the universe. But the new doctors post regeneration doesn't know any of this so the Rani takes advantage of this by impersonating companion Mel. Mel meanwhile is assisted by one of the Lakertians in locating the doctor,who she doesn't recognize at first but both convince themselves of their identities and set about trying to thrawt the Rani's sadistic plan. She plans to use the power of the doctors mind,along with other historical figures like Albert Einstein's to harness a giant autonomous brain that will operate her launching device. Catch is the Lakertians,whose she's made pawns of in different ways are enslaved by her using a technology the doctor uses to thrawt her plans. And after escaping in her TARDIS the Rani is captured by the Tetraps,triclops creatures with a literal eye in the back of their heads who she basically enslaved.

             While this serial,as with any featuring Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford were pretty much roundly scoffed at by the media and public alike in their day,and often still are this is an excellent story that could possibly put a cap on the Rani's story. With a brilliant mind the doctor continually shows admiration for, she lives without any conscience and all of her practices show no ethics or compassion. He even sites the incredible feats she could've created if she had used her mind for good as he does. The most interesting elements to this story is the doctors regeneration. The seventh doctor is manic and confused during his post regeneration crisis,quite a different reaction than the sixth doctors needlessly violent treatment of companion Peri a couple years earlier. It's a testament to the Rani's intelligence that she was able to fool another time lord,even in a semi amnesiac state,so easily. The Lakertians for their part are a race that the Rani have either intimidated into complete servitude or made into what are literally slaves to pleasure. This points to perhaps a highly domineering aspect to her personality. An excellent start to the seventh doctor era and an excellent character study for what is one of the doctors most compelling adversaries.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

                                 On August 20'th of this year Sylvester McCoy,who portrayed the seventh incarnation of the time lord known as the doctor on 'Doctor Who' will be turning 69. You;d probably have to put a zero after that nine to indicate the actual age of the character. But over time Sylvester McCoy's portrayal of the seventh doctor has been re-evaluated over the years.  Portraying the doctor as a wily and somewhat manipulative personality who frequently uses witty wordplay to make his points he,at the very least got a chance to do a regeneration sequence which his predecessor Colin Baker never got a chance to do. I am devoting the period up until his birthday to review the seventh doctor serials of the series in tribute.