Friday, May 17, 2013

Bobi Bartlett RIP

Robina ‘Bobi’ Bartlett

Robina ‘Bobi’ Bartlett was born on 13 February 1939 and attended art school in Somerset before training in fashion design at the Royal College of Art in London. She then worked for three years as a designer for a number of large companies in the fashion industry before launching her own design label selling young, trendy clothes to large stores and boutiques.

Bobi designed the new Martian Leader for
'The Seeds of Death'
Image (c) Estate of Bobi Bartlett.
She eventually joined the BBC as a Costume Designer around 1967 as they were looking for designers to be specifically trained in the techniques of colour television, ready for the start of colour production. One of the first programmes on which Bobi Bartlett worked was the police series Z Cars, and this was followed by the first of many assignments to Doctor Who. This was the eight-part Patrick Troughton adventure ‘The Invasion’ in 1968. For this she not only redesigned the look of the Cybermen, but also provided the uniforms and badges for the military organisation UNIT in their first appearance on the show. ‘When I came to design the UNIT uniform, I tried to keep in mind the fact that it was for an organisation that was supposed to be an international taskforce under the command of the United Nations,’ she explained in a later interview. ‘It had to have an international look about it, and not resemble too closely the established uniform of any particular country. It also had to be very up-to-date and maintain the traditional macho, masculine image of the military.’

A Kroton.
Image (c) Estate of Bobi Bartlett.
After completing her work on ‘The Invasion’, Bobi Bartlett went straight on to work on the next story, ‘The Prison in Space’. Unfortunately the story was abandoned at a late stage, and Bartlett’s design work on it went unused. ‘I’d already completed most of my designs for it. I’d even started making up a few of the costumes. The plot involved a race of dictatorial women, and I was going to have them in a lot of very nice leather wear.’ The story that replaced ‘The Prison in Space’ was ‘The Krotons’, and Bartlett designed the crystalline monsters and other costumes for the show, as well as for the following story, ‘The Seeds of Death’, which saw the return of the Ice Warriors – including designs by Bobi for a new rank of the alien race: ‘The Ice Warrior commander hadn’t appeared in earlier episodes, so I designed an altogether smoother version of the head, and the rest of the costume also became more streamlined.’ – as well as several futuristic outfits for the cast.

In this period Bartlett also worked on episodes of the popular sit-com The Liver Birds and an episode of The Wednesday Play called ‘Emma’s Time’ starring Michele Dotrice, Andrew Kier and Ian Holm. A year or so later saw Bartlett again assigned to Doctor Who for a Jon Pertwee story called ‘The Mind of Evil’ which again featured the UNIT organisation. ‘There was a location sequence, early on in the story, which featured some children playing in a park in a London square, and I remember that my son Blake appeared as a little boy on a tricycle. He and some other children were asked to be extras, as the director had decided at the last moment that he wanted to have them there to complement the action. Very conveniently my son had come along that day to see Jon Pertwee performing his scenes as the Doctor.’

Bobi working on 'The Invasion'.
‘The Mind of Evil’ marked Bartlett’s last contribution to Doctor Who and subsequently she worked on episodes of All Gas and Gaiters (with Derek Nimmo) and Sykes (with Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques) before leaving the Corporation to go freelance. She went on to work on two television plays in 1975, an episode of One-Upmanship (with Richard Briars, Peter Jones and Frederick Jaeger) for the BBC in 1976, 1990 (with Edward Woodward) again for the BBC in 1977 and finally on the Worzel Gummidge series (again with Jon Pertwee), in 1979.

In later years she returned to teaching, including at the University of the West of England in Bristol, introducing a new generation of students to the art of costume design.

Bobi Bartlett died from a stroke in her home in Brighton on 9 April 2013. She was unmarried at the time of her death and leaves one son, Blake, from her first marriage.

David J Howe, with thanks to Stephen James Walker and Blake Bartlett. © 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

White Witch of Devil's End

Delighted to announce this project, which I worked on last year with Sam. Reeltime Pictures have now issued the formal press release and so we can at last talk about it!

It was a great challenge to pull together a script like this, Sam first defined the overall story and then worked with the writers - including me - to deliver scripts for the production which were then all merged together to create the final screenplay. This was then revised and edited by Sam to make it work in terms of timing and details and so on.  Great fun!

Here's the details of the production:


Reeltime Pictures are pleased to announce a new drama production for release on DVD to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

White Witch of Devil’s End is a spin-off from the highly regarded Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story 'The Daemons' and will star Damaris Hayman reprising her role as Miss Hawthorne.

At the grand age of 84 (in June this year), you’d expect Damaris would be happy to be enjoying retirement quietly in her Cheltenham home … but no! When approached by producer Keith Barnfather about the idea she jumped at the chance. “I shall retire, I think in my coffin!  Miss Hawthorne was my all-time favourite role and I was enchanted by the thought of being her again for a little while.”

“I was amazed and delighted that, as an octogenarian, Damaris was prepared to take this on,” says Keith. “We had recently recorded an interview with her for our Myth Makers series profiling actors who had appeared in Doctor Who and I already knew she still had a hunger to act. But I really didn’t expect her to be so keen.”

Although eager to take the project on, Damaris knew she had to pace herself, so in an innovative move, director Anastasia Stylianou decided to film the drama in a “talking head” style – adding dramatic cutaway material to bring Damaris’s words to life!

Says Anastasia; “I knew it would be a challenge. We needed to film a 50 minute drama at least, so I decided to make an asset out of a limitation.”

Primary filming has already taken place at a cottage near Damaris’s home. The crew collected and returned Damaris each day – allowing her to return home each evening to recover and study the next day’s script!

“We used autocue to help Damaris,” says Keith. “It was an impossible task for any actor to learn so much dialogue. Damaris was a true professional and took to it instantly.”

With a planned release date of 31st October, which is appropriately also Halloween, Anastasia hopes to have the project completed for the 50th anniversary celebrations. “It’s just getting all the dramatic cutaway material ‘in the can’ that is crucial. The drama is really an anthology – a set of connecting stories about Olive’s life told, as it were, in her own words.”

When considering who to approach to write these stories which would exist within an overall theme, Keith immediately thought to contact old friend David J Howe at Telos Publishing. “I thought it would be fantastic to ask individual writers knowledgeable in the occult and magic to write each story and David, through Telos, knew so many of the best young talent in the country.”
“I was delighted when Keith got in touch,” says David Howe, “and immediately started to think of who might be a good fit for the project. Along with my partner, the award-winning author Sam Stone, we contacted several authors who we felt would be sympathetic to the material and were pleased to get them all on board for the project.”

“I took on the task of outlining the whole story,” says Sam Stone, “and then asked the writers to come up with ideas which fitted that framework. We needed to tell stories at different points in Olive Hawthorne’s life, and the writers rose to the challenge and delivered scripts which exceeded all my expectations. I then worked with them to refine the scripts into the completed screenplay.”

The writers involved in the project are, as well as David J Howe and Sam Stone, Raven Dane, Debbie Bennett, Jan Edwards and Suzanne J Barbieri, with a final script-polish from Big Finish writer Matt Fitton. All have brought a unique perspective on Olive’s life, and the end result is an anthology of tales which will surprise, entertain and hopefully move the viewer.

Does Damaris have any regrets about throwing herself into such a big commitment? “Definitely not! I was enchanted to work with Anastasia and Keith again, who are great friends anyway. After a lot of working together consulting over the scripts, I’d subsequently never enjoyed filming more - and I can’t wait now to see the final result.”

PROD No: RTP0431
RRP: £12.99

Monday, May 13, 2013

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver

Regular readers of my scribblings will be aware that I am a massive fan of the Cybermen. Always have been. For me, the background and ethos of them is far more interesting than that of the Daleks, and they have tended (until the new series unfortunately) to be well handled in the context of the series. I love the sixties stories, and even 'Revenge of the Cybermen' is good if you can overlook the fact that the logical creatures would not understand the concept of 'revenge'.

It wasn't until 'Silly Nemesis' (which I insist on calling the 25th anniversary story 'Silver Nemesis') that it all went a bit wrong for them, with a script that just wasn't up to par, and then in the new series, they reinvented them as robots, not even from Earth, but from a parallel dimension ... and now with this latest story they're back again.  Of course, 'Nightmare in Silver' is written by Neil Gaiman - who is a friend and a writer I greatly respect - and he is also a self-confessed fan of the creatures. I wonder then where it all went wrong.

I suspect it is something to do with the scripting and rewriting process, that some ideas get jettisoned and some end up half-formed and half-baked, the overall result being something of an echo of what the author intended. And here we have an echo indeed, a hint of what could have been a much better story ... and indeed, the opening seems to have been lifted from a Big Finish drama called The Silver Turk, written by Marc Platt. Poor Marc must be fuming at the gills. First they take his Big Finish adventure Spare Parts and use it as the basis for 'Age of Steel'/'Rise of the Cybermen'. Now they take his idea of a Cyberman being part of an automated chess-playing machine, and he gets no credit or involvement. You can see my review of the audio here - - overall I found it disappointing, but the conceptual use of the Cybermen in it is good. Why can't Marc be asked to write for the show himself rather than just borrow his ideas?

The Doctor, along with Clara and two annoying kids - Artie and Angie - arrive at a place called Hedgewick's World - a fantastic amusement planet, and the Doctor has a gold ticket to the park. But it's closed and dead. So why didn't he arrive when it was operational? There's no suggestion at the moment that the Doctor can't control the TARDIS, so this seems a little strange. But for a dead world, there's a lot of people there! There's an army platoon run by Tamzin Outhwaite off of Red Cap, the vampire cop from Being Human as Webley, the owner of a waxworks sideshow, and the wonderful Warwick Davis off of Idiot Abroad and Life's Too Short as a character called Porridge!

So why are they all here? Not sure on that one. Webley shows off his exhibit to the Doctor and friends, and reveals an empty Cyberman shell which plays chess, controlled by Porridge sitting underneath ... so given that the place is deserted, how long has he been sitting there? And what do any of these people eat or drink or otherwise do all day? It's all very puzzling.

But there is something else there too: lots of little silver insect things, which are marvellous indeed. I love the idea of this: small little cybermites as the Doctor christens them, with audio and video capabilities, and something is watching them all.

Apparently Webley has three Cybermen in his collection, and these all look to be more like the Cybus-men from the parallel dimension. A shame they couldn't have been a mishmash of older costumes though. But then, unexpectedly, Webley is grabbed by his chess-playing shell (how? It's a shell!) and the cybermites get into him and part-convert him into a Cyberman. I'm not sure why the process stopped or why it didn't continue as the episode went on, but he stays like this for the rest of the time.

So now, the Doctor puts the kids to bed in the waxworks place and goes off to explore. So this is an alien planet, and he knows something's going on, but he leaves them there! Why not put them to bed in the TARDIS? Much safer ... Or just take them home.

Anyway, everyone eventually ends up at the barracks with the Soldiers, including the very annoying Angie, and suddenly there's a Cyberman there. It moves fast, like in The Matrix, and grabs Angie and is off!  Nothing can stop these new Cybermen, and for some reason they now sound like the Judoon. But this element is never used again, instead the Cybermen stomp around slowly for the remainder of the story. Maybe they forgot about this 'upgrade'.

Everyone thought the Cybermen were extinct, but now there is a live one on the planet. Sounds like they therefore need to blow the planet up with a handy implosion device the Army have. But the Doctor doesn't want the planet blown up just yet. He puts Clara in charge while he heads off to investigate. Clara therefore decides that the most defensible area is Netty Longshoe's Comical Castle, so they all head off there.

The Doctor finds a cybermite, hooks into a local transmit signal and transmits himself to Cyber-HQ, which does look very impressive. But where the heck is it? Hidden somewhere on the planet I guess, and looking very nicely like the Tombs in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' from the sixties.

The two kids (now in a Cyber-coma) and Webley are there, and Webley is speaking on behalf of the CyberPlanner - they need the children to use to build a new planner as their brains are better for this. But now they have the Doctor, they don't need the kids. He goes on to explain that the Cyberiad brought damaged Cyber-units to the park, to repair using any organics they could harvest, and now they want to create a new Planner. He throws some cybermites at the Doctor, and he is transformed into Locutus of Borg ... sorry, wrong series.

This is where it starts to all go wrong really ... the Doctor and the Planner set up dual conversations where both seem too like the Doctor for it to be convincing. Why isn't the Planner cold and unemotional ... instead he leaps around like the Doctor, using all his language and words and actions ... while the Doctor - in his own head at least - seems cold and collected. All very strange.

Now we see more Cybermen, and they start to kill/convert the soldiers. The army has one gun (with about 12 blasts left) a few hand pulsars (which will disable a Cyberman if you apply them to the back of their heads, assuming you can get close enough) and a bomb to implode the planet. Meanwhile the Doctor decides to play chess with the Planner, the winner getting the Doctor's brain. Except that the Doctor knows that earlier Cybermen Operating Systems had weaknesses due to cleaning fluid and gold, and the present OS still has elements of the earlier versions ... and so he slaps the gold ticket he has on his face and stops the Planner controlling him.

What utter rubbish. If you're going to reuse an old monster, at least get your facts right. The cleaning fluid reference, I assume, is to the story 'The Moonbase' when the Doctor's companions use a mixture of solvents to soften and dissolve the plastic in the creatures' chest units, suffocating them - nothing to do with Operating Systems! And the reference to gold is to 'Revenge of the Cybermen' wherein powdered gold clogs and coats their breathing system - so again nothing to do with Operating Systems. The Doctor putting a gold ticket on his face would make no difference to the CyberPlanner whatsoever.

And the Cybermen are not robots! So why can they take their heads off? And why does choreographer Ailsa Berk make them all walk and move like robots? Someone should sit her down and explain exactly what they are - humanoid bodies encased in metal shells. This is the biggest issue here - the creatures look fabulous, but they move all wrong, and are stompy again when they should be silent (or maybe reintroduce the weird buzzing noise from 'The Wheel in Space' or something). Anyone watching this story and not knowing the history would come away thinking the Cybermen are robots ... in which case why do they need the humans? And when there is a CyberPlanner anyway, why do they need to build another? And why do they need the Doctor's permission to do that? Why all the internal and external dialogue and arguing about it? Why would the Planner consent to a deal with the Doctor? That's not logical. They would just take what they wanted.

Moreover we learn that there are three million Cybermen on the planet. Three million! That's an awful lot of humans that have gone missing then ... no wonder the Fairground went downhill. And these Cybermen can upgrade themselves against electrocution and against the big blasty gun thing - they are just like the Borg from Star Trek (to be fair, the Borg were based on the Cybermen in the first place, so this is just Doctor Who returning the favour!) 

So ... for reasons I missed, the CyberPlanner releases the two kids from their Cyber-coma, and the Doctor makes the whole Cyber-mind think about a chess problem, causing them all - all three million of them - to stop mid-attack. Eh? This is Douglas Adams territory here (cv the Heart of Gold computer being asked why Arthur likes tea). The Cybermen are not a hive mind. They have always operated independently from each other ... so what's all this about? It's reinvention for the sake of ...

In the middle of the confusion of three million Cybermen attacking half a dozen humans (Why did they bother to attack them at all? And why build three million Cybermen but no spaceship to take them off-planet? No wonder they need a new CyberPlanner!) the Doctor gets rid of the Planner in his head with a jolt of electricity, Porridge is revealed as the missing Emperor (don't ask), he primes the planet-imploding bomb, and they all transmit to his spaceship which is in orbit (again, don't ask - if it was so easy for the humans to escape all along ...)  The Doctor asks for the TARDIS to be transmatted too.

And the planet explodes. Note that it explodes. Not implodes like everyone told us it would. Obviously someone in effects didn't read the script closely enough.

We close with Porridge asking Clara to marry him ... and she answers in her curious stilted not-real, chirpy way from earlier stories: 'I. Don't. Want. To rule. One Thousand. Galaxies.'  Grief ... *shakes head*

So the Doctor returns the kids and Clara home, and pontificates on her skirt being tight (very un-Doctorly) before we see a bit of Cyber-flashing light on the planet's debris ... perhaps they're not all destroyed after all. *Cue too loud and intrusive dramatic music by Murray Gold*

Okay ... so I've gone on a bit there about how badly the Cybermen have been handled ... and it's only because I care, and it's a shame when the script would seem to need a further polish - or perhaps less interference from elsewhere - to really make it all work and be coherent.

There's a great story struggling to escape here ... The Doctor and Clara could arrive on the blasted holiday world, expecting it to be all active, but it's not. In the wreckage they could find Webley with his remnants, and among them a lone Cyberman. Clara could give it power by mistake, and it vanishes, going underground to a vast Cyber-storehouse where it activates the Planner, and the Cybermen start making plans to emerge and conquer once more. Other characters could be there too - maybe some partially converted people taken from when the Fairground was active - Or we could have the Army people arrive to explore (shades of 'Tomb of the Cybermen' or even the Clerics from the Angels/River Song story in the crashed spaceship - the Bysantium was it?)  There's any number of ways that a story and ideas can be spun so that they actually make sense, show plot development and character interest, and lead to the same end-game - having to destroy the planet to kill the Cybermen off.

We really don't need the two kids - they add nothing to the drama, and do nothing anyway. And the CyberPlanner is really badly handled. Even 'The Invasion' with its collection of flashing plastic cups and rotating clothes dryer device is better than this vague Doctor-talking-to-Doctor approach.

A CyberPlanner. Yesterday.
But all this is conjecture. Overall I did enjoy much about 'Nightmare in Silver', but it's too fast and flashy for it to really work for me as a story. The Cybermen are disappointing - and moreso after the hype that they would be scary again, and move silently and so on. They're just not. I'm afraid that for me, this wasn't a Nightmare at all ... more an entertaining diversion. Other plus points are Warwick Davis, who is simply superb! And Jason Watkins as Webley is also really good - until he becomes a Cyberpawn, when he stands around and doesn't do much.

I like the look of the Cybermen, and I even like the idea that they can upgrade to overcome things. I loved the Cybermites, and the idea that the Cyberman's hand could operate independently of the body ... but all these individual elements need a strong plot and script to bind them together. And that, unfortunately, was what the episode didn't have.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror

There is a grand tradition in Doctor Who that when the production team recreate a Victorian setting, they do it really well. This results in stories as excellent and as rich as 1977's 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' as well as 1989's 'Ghost Light', and now we have another to add to the list ...

I loved 'The Crimson Horror'! I have to admit, on first viewing, its breathless pace and cornucopia of ideas left me a little bewildered, but a second watch confirmed that 99% of the explanations are there - they are just so fast! - and that the story as a whole packs so much into 45 minutes, that I was longing for a two-parter to really do it all justice.

What I like about 'The Crimson Horror' especially is that it brings a graphic novel approach to the storytelling, shortcutting things in a way to keep everything visual, but still managing to tell the story. Mark Gatiss has delivered, I think, the most clever and successful script yet to the show, and yet he manages to keep it all feeling fresh and original, while also touching on many inspirational elements from the world of horror films along the way.

Lets get going then, and see what 'The Crimson Horror' has to bring.

We open in Yorkshire in 1893, and another cool caption (I have a thing for these, and I love when they are integrated into the action! Probably my favourite use ever is in the film Zombieland ...) We find Mrs Gilliflower, perfectly played by Diana Rigg, with a brace of creepy girls, facing off against a woman whose husband ends up bright red on a mortician's slab. Shades of 'The Green Death' here. This death is, however, called the Crimson Horror! Mr Flower pays to see the body - it is his brother after all - and takes a photograph of the corpse's eye - an Optogram - as apparently you can see an image of the last thing the person saw recorded there. He then heads to London to secure the services of Madame Vastra (a Silurian for those of you who recall such things), but when she removes her veil to look closely at the photograph, Flower faints. But wait ... there's an image of the Doctor in the eye ... so Vastra and Jenny must take a trip up North!

There is so much story here already, and I think that to try and detail things as I usually do, will get long and complex, so I'll try and keep things short!

Back up North, Mrs Gilliflower is holding interviews for people to come and live and work in her new match factory, called 'Sweetfields'. Her daughter, Ada, is blind, afflicted by her husband in a fit of rage apparently, but has a speechless 'Monster' caged in a cell-like room (shades of Frankenstein and 'Ghost Light' here).

Jenny signs up for a place at Sweetfields ... acting as an insider for Vastra and Strax - who have a great line in humour threaded throughout - to see what's going on there.  I did notice at this point a poster on the wall advertising a 'Human Waxworks' run by someone called Carred Sam, and a poster advertising Circus freaks and 'Dastardly Donnai', but these seem to have no relevance to the story!

Jenny investigates, and finds that the sounds of machinery are just that - sounds - and sees people carrying jars of strange red liquid. She then discovers that the 'Monster' in the cell is actually a bright red Doctor! So she gets him out, and locks him in another cupboard where he returns to normal, apparently with the help of his sonic screwdriver. This is perhaps the one really unexplained thing about the story - how the Doctor, and later Clara, are returned to normal. A shame as there should have been something to explain how this happened.

I loved the vat of red liquid and the people being dipped into it - straight out of Carry on Screaming! 'Frying tonight!' - and the whole flashback where the Doctor explains what happened to that point was inspired. I loved the music for this sequence and the archive look and editing given to the pictures ... a very clever way of filling the audience in. Of course if this had been a two-parter, then all of this would have been in part one! I wish the Doctor hadn't snogged Jenny though! That seemed out of place.

Interesting too that Clara doesn't get a line until 21 minutes in! I was wondering if this was her 'episode off' and that we wouldn't actually see her at all!

We learn that Mr Sweet is Miss Gilliflower's 'silent partner' and that she is keeping people frozen under giant bell jars! So Clara and the Doctor are captured and 'dipped' - On Clara the process works, but on the Doctor it fails, and he would have been destined for the canal, but for Ada rescuing him and chaining him up in the cell.

It seems that Mr Flower fell into the vat (shades of Quatermass II) and then encountered the red Doctor, which is why the Doctor's image was in his eye when he died!

Meanwhile, comedy turn Strax gets lost in the streets and finds an urchin called Thomas Thomas (Tom Tom ... satnav ... geddit?) who can direct him. This fairly obvious pun is groan-worthy, but allows a respite from the fast-paced drama.

Okay ... The Doctor finds Clara frozen under one of the bell jars and puts her in the same cupboard he was in to save her - it works and she is fine!  Not sure at all how this works though - she didn't seem to have the sonic screwdriver with her this time!

Anyway, when Miss Gilliflower attacks with her creepy women (no explanation too as to who her 'pilgrims' are or why they are so subservient to her ... I assume she hypnotised them or something, but it's not explained), Jenny strips off to a black catsuit and kicks some ass (in true Diana Rigg/Avengers style, which is a nice touch) until Vastra and Strax arrive as reinforcements and drive them all away.

We now learn that the red liquid is a venom-like poison secreted by a red leech 65 million years ago ... but what is it doing in Victorian Yorkshire? Suddenly Clara mentions a chimney which doesn't blow smoke - now I might have missed something here. Was this mentioned earlier? I didn't make a note ... and if not, then I'm not sure how Clara comes to this assumption. Maybe something was lost in the editing here. Anyway, the chimney houses a rocket, and Miss Gilliflower intends to rain the poison down on the World! She also has a pipe organ (shades of The Abominable Dr Phibes) which hides behind it a control panel for the rocket.

So ... what's really happening here is that Miss Gilliflower has one of these red leeches on her chest, and she has been feeding it!  I loved that the creature was real and not CGI, and I like the rather rubbery look of it, suggesting films like Basket Case as well as various portrayals of freaks in the movies over the years. Somehow the leech has driven her mad, and she wants to wipe out humanity - all except those perfect specimens that she has dipped in the venom and which have survived. They will apparently awake several weeks later and inherit the world. Which is of course shades of 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs'.

She had to experiment on her own daughter, Ada, to find the anti-venom to protect herself, a process which blinded the girl. A nice touch, and in keeping with the characters and story we are presented with.

So we move to endgame. Miss Gilliflower launches the rocket and it takes off, but Vastra and Jenny have removed the payload and it's therefore harmless. Not sure how everyone survives being in such close proximity to the rocket mind you ... Meanwhile Strax is atop the chimney, and fires down, causing Miss Gilliflower to fall to her death down the gantry. As she dies, so 'Mr Sweet' - the leech - leaves her body and is then beaten to a pulp by Ada as it tries to crawl away.

So all is well ... I guess the people turned into waxworks by Mrs Gilliflower will recover in time, and Vastra, Jenny and Strax return to London to continue their sleuthing. Then Mr Flowers arrives again, and seeing the TARDIS vanish, faints again ... another running thread of humour in the production, which I'm sure echoes a horror film, but I can't recall which. Where the detective faints away every time he's confronted by a body. I'm sure someone will tell me!

We end with Clara being returned home by the Doctor. I'm not sure about this. Why does she need to go home after each adventure? It's a little weird I feel. But anyway, doing this allows her to be confronted by the two kids she nannys for, who have found photos of her in all her adventures with the Doctor - including one of her as a Victorian Nanny, which of course isn't this Clara at all. They say they want to go time travelling with her, or they'll tell their dad that their nanny is a time traveller! Personally I'd have told them to do just that and see how far they got!

Now I'm sure this last bit was added by the production office as, for some reason, they wanted the kids in the following story ... but it's all a bit Sarah Jane Adventures/Tracey Beaker/CBBC for me, and not really necessary.

Overall then, a truly cracking and awesome episode, that actually makes sense from start to end - with only a couple of unexplained McGuffins - and which thrills and entertains too. There's great performances from all the cast, comedy from Strax, kick-ass catsuited women, Clara looking divine in a lovely Victorian dress and hair-do, and Dame Diana Rigg!  It's worth mentioning that Rachel Stirling who plays Ada, is actually Rigg's real life daughter, and she is also so good in this production!

It's a cracker, as they say, and while it could have benefitted greatly from more time, it stands as one of the best episodes yet presented for the 11th Doctor.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

I have a feeling that Steven Moffat commissions Doctor Who stories on concept rather than on actual plot. A lot of the episodes seem to have a great idea at their heart, but which then fails to work as an actual piece of television drama. 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS' is one such idea.

Moffat seems to be a little obsessed with the TARDIS - we have seen it personalised in 'The Doctor's Wife' and destroyed and blown up countless times ... and now we get to see a lot more of it!

We open with a spaceship (shades of Red Dwarf) and music which is straight out of 2001 A Space Odyssey. But this is the Van Baalan Bros salvage ship, and the TARDIS is in their sights. So they activate a McGuffin called a Magno-Tracker, and the bomb-thing they use rolls across the TARDIS floor ('How' we cry, knowing that nothing but Sutekh can get inside the ship ... ahh ... but just wait until later) and there's a massive explosion and ...

I actually love how the titles crash in these days, the little cliff-hanger piece before them slightly sates my desire for proper episode-ender cliff-hangers ...

So ... hmm ... the Doctor is now outside the TARDIS somehow, but Clara is still inside, and there's three black guys, one of them apparently an android who can 'feel' the TARDIS. The Doctor has the bomb-thing from one of the guys - it's a Magno-grab remote apparently - and the TARDIS' fuel lines are broken. So the Doctor recruits the three guys to help him rescue Clara.

But the ship is full of poison fumes, so they need respirators to get in there ... except that it's not as Clara is actually fine and wandering down corridors which thankfully are not covered with roundels. In fact, I quite like the TARDIS interior, though it's a little sterile perhaps. The shape of the corridors and the doorways are nicely designed. Clara's dress, however, is just awful - very old maid.

So the Doctor vents the poison gasses (which weren't there), and he pretends that he has set his own ship to self destruct in 30 minutes if they don't find Clara by then - this is all mental!

So Clara wanders about, finds a room full of junk - River Song's cradle is there, and Amy's TARDIS model - as well as a monster which seems to be following her/chasing her for no discernible reason. I wondered if they were perhaps TARDIS anti-bodies which it had released to try and repair the ship - maybe by using human parts to do so ... at least that thought was more original than what we got!

There's a room with a machine-making device - an Architectural Reconfiguration System - which looks like the Animus off of old sixties Doctor Who (and which some suggest was in fact The Great Intelligence - ahah ... perhaps I am onto something here ...) with glowing light bulbs as 'fruit', and one of the guys takes one of them ... but the ship won't let them go if he has it ... but he takes it anyway and nothing seems to happen ... just one of many totally random bits of nonsense that litter this script.

Another of the guys dismantles the console and we hear whispered voices - which is actually really neat - from other stories. I spotted Susan and Ian from the first ever episode, and the 9th Doctor going on about Genghis Kahn. (Apparently the full list is: 'An Unearthly Child', 'Colony in Space', 'The Robots of Death', 'Rose', 'The Beast Below', 'Smith and Jones', and 'The Doctor's Wife'.) Meanwhile Clara finds a library (having passed a telescope room and a swimming pool) and a book called The History of the Time War and, on looking at a couple of pages, comments: 'So that's who ...' Interesting ... also corny and deeply cringe-inducing.

A monster interrupts her reading, and there's another nice moment when bottles of Encyclopaedia Gallifrey spill letters out amid whispering voices - shades of Harry Potter I felt - which are very nicely done, if totally irrelevant to anything else in the episode. (Apparently the audio is from 'The End of Time' but I swear you'd never know!)

So they all wander around some more, get confused as to where they are as the TARDIS is trying to trap them as they have that globe thing, they get back to the console room, except it's not the console room but an echo of it, and Clara is also there, but she can't be seen by the others but she can be heard, and there's a monster, and it attacks her, but the Doctor finds her and pulls her into his echo version of the room and ... what???!!!  I have literally no idea what is going on.

The Doctor tries to turn off his fake countdown, but the ship is going to explode anyway, so they head for the centre of the TARDIS. By this time I've lost the will to live. Monsters are circling them but not attacking for some reason. The Doctor seems to know that one of them is a 'she' ... But then they are attacked by metal needles punching through the walls, and the Android guy is pinned ... but he's not an android but human - his brothers have pretended he's an android to stop him being leader or something - a subplot which sort of got lost I suspect in the editing/rewriting of the story (at least I hope that's what happened).

The Doctor reaches the power source - the Eye of Harmony, or room with an exploding star in the sky - and one of the guys' Alien-like sensors identifies Clara as 'Lancashire. Sass'.  Now it gets even more confusing if that's possible. Monsters attack, they get killed by being pushed off the walkway, but then one of them is also identified as 'Lancashire. Sass' and Clara realises it's her. Another is the Doctor (with hand over its face) and a conjoined duo are two of the black guys ... something to do with leaking time and this is their future perhaps? The brothers turn into the conjoined duo after they kill them, and the Doctor and Clara escape.

So the Doctor and Clara head to the Engine Room, which seems to be outside by a crevasse ... except it's not, it's just an illusion. But they spend some time with Clara wondering who the Doctor is as she saw his real name in that book ... so they jump and end up in a void where time seems to have stopped ... the engine is exploding, but the TARDIS has stopped time to prevent it. Or something?  But Clara has a backwards 'Big Friendly Button' written on her hand from when she picked up the unexplained remote thing at the start ... so the Doctor writes 'Big Friendly Button' on the remote he has, and uses a very convenient time rift in the engine room to throw it back in time into the TARDIS at the start of the story ... and this time the Doctor grabs it and pushes the button to stop everything from happening in the first place.

Yes ... it's a great big effing reset button. The most obvious and derided McGuffin of them all in Time Travel stories. I just don't know how the production team had the gall to use it!

So the TARDIS is not destroyed, Clara does not find out the Doctor's name as written in The Book of the Time War (and who wrote that book anyway - I thought the Time War destroyed everything!) And the black guys stop making fun of their brother and pretending that he's an android.

It says everything about this story that I have no idea what their names are. One is called Tricky - he's the not-an-android one - but the other two? No idea. And actually I don't care.

Frankly, this is rubbish. It's boring to watch, and even the CGI can't save the tedious nonsensical plot, the running about, monsters which are there for no reason, lack of coherence in every aspect of the storytelling, and hanging threads and ideas which are not developed.  It's as though they just threw everything they had into a story about going to the heart of the TARDIS, with no awareness of how or why that might be at all interesting to the viewer.

Way back in the day, we had a TARDIS tale called 'Inside the Spaceship' and it was actually the third transmitted story. This two-parter is superior in almost every way, delivering psychological tension and drama instead of empty visuals. Even in 'The Deadly Assassin' we had ideas and concepts of being within a pan-dimensional matrix which were better thought through and executed than this mess.

Really, it needed to be rewritten from top to bottom, starting with what the point of it all actually is. There's no message, no theme, it's just a runaround. We don't even discover anything about the TARDIS. Another series I'm reminded of is the 'Inside the Robot' episode of Lost in Space, where the Robot is made giant-size and Will and Doctor Smith have to get inside it to save it ... even that, hokey and sixties kitsch as it was, is better than this.

I keep coming back to this same point ... Doctor Who works when it's not about Doctor Who. It is best when presenting adventures in time and space. With horror. And monsters. And plots. And characters you care about. The moment you start worrying about the mechanics of the series, and start to make it be about its own mythology, or about the Doctor, then it all falls apart. This is what has ruined so many other series, making them steadily more impenetrable to a general viewer so that people just turn off or over. I don't want that to happen to Doctor Who. Ever.

It's such a shame that after two cracking episodes, that this has to come along and let the side down so badly. Such a shame.

Doctor Who: Hide

It's often been said that Doctor Who can be many things. To some it's science fiction, to others a sort of fantasy, but to me it has always been horror. And it's when it did horror that it really worked. Of course horror, like many of the genres, is not limited. And again it works best when it's mixed in with something else (add Romance and you get everything from Twilight to Death Becomes You; add a Western and you get From Dusk Till Dawn and The Burrowers; and add Science Fiction and you get things like Resident Evil, Daybreakers and Event Horizon). Thus Doctor Who tales like 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', 'Pyramids of Mars' and 'Blink' work perfectly within the Doctor Who format as they mix and blend horror into the science fictional workings of the show. With 'Hide', author Neil Cross tries to do the same, and while it works for the most part, it ultimately falls down on a poor ending and poor internal themes.

We open with some traditional horror tropes: a raging storm, thunder and lightning. I'm sure I've heard the thunder before, and I think it's both from the BBC's 1977 adaptation of Dracula with Louis Jordan as the Count, and also possibly from the storms on Mount Megashra in 'The Curse of Peladon'. Whichever, it's very nasty weather, and also of course recalls the opening of 'The Daemons'. There is a spooky big house, and a couple of ghost hunters. I found the pre-title sequence to be reminiscent of the Sapphire and Steel story 'The Railway Station', the way the protagonists call out to the ghosts, only to have the Doctor and Clara/Sapphire and Steel appear instead. There's also an Evil Dead-like camera rush through the house ... so there's certainly a lot of good antecedents contained in the build-up.

After the titles, we discover it's 1974, and the Doctor wants to see the ghost of Caliburn House - a spirit which has been seen time after time over the years. Our ghost hunters are Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and Emma Grayling (Jessica Rayne) who is described as an empathic psychic (I'm now getting shades of Robert Wise's The Haunting coming through). There are scary pics of the ghost and the ramping up of terror is excellent. Then something physical moves past a doorway - what is it? And there's something part-seen in the darkness, again brilliantly done ... so there's something in this house apart from the ghost ... We then go on ghost-hunting duty with the Doctor and Clara and they feel they're being watched. There's a cold patch and the Doctor draws a chalk circle around it, which then steams itself away. There's a banging noise from somewhere ... a window frosts over ... all is very creepy ... then a portal thing appears and a forest, and a figure crying out for help ... and finally HELP ME is seen written on the wall of the staircase.  Whew. This is heavy duty scary, so we need to pull back a little.

Thus we get some talky bits, the Doctor commenting that he thought ghost hunting would be fun. And then he's off in the TARDIS with Clara, visiting all ages of Earth and taking photos while dressed in one of the 10th Doctor's old red spacesuits. And now this is when the plot starts to fall apart because the ideas behind the resolution don't match what we have seen so far.

The Doctor returns with all these slides (how did he get them developed? We see Palmer developing black and white prints, but it's a whole different process and chemicals to develop slides!) and shows them to the Ghost Hunters - their ghost is a woman trapped in a pocket dimension and moving at a different speed to them as she's in a different timezone. So how could she call out to them, how could she write on the wall? Why did the window freeze over, and what is the other thing in the house, and why has no-one realised or taken photos of that over the years as well? A lot of questions.

So the Doctor heads off and gets a crystal from Metebelis 3 (and the fans groan as Matt Smith mis-pronounces it twice! This is something else which I cannot understand. If you're going to use a continuity reference to the past, at least pronounce it correctly! Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and just about every other fan working on the show know it's pronounced Meta-beelis as the Doctor says the name several times in the classic series. So why does Matt Smith now pronounce it Meh-teb-belis? A small thing, but annoying) to focus Emma's mind and allow him to access the pocket universe.

So he jumps through the portal wearing a rope harness, and when he arrives in the Forest, he promptly takes it off. Not sure what the point was then. It's very creepy in the Forest, and the scenes, as with the whole episode, are very well directed. The Doctor finds his time-trapped woman (called Hila Tukarian (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and then tries to get back to the others ...

... hang on ... I thought time flowed differently in the pocket universe ... so how could this possibly work?  For every second spent there, 1000s of years are passing on Earth. Maybe Emma is somehow equalising the timezones, allowing the Doctor to get in there and do his stuff in the same timezone as in the house? That must be it. But then Hila is pulled back through the portal and is safe, but it closes behind her, trapping the Doctor back in the Forest with the creepy thing that is tracking him. So ... if the portal is closed now ... the Doctor must be millions of years in Earth's future in a matter of moments ...

Clara races for the TARDIS, but the door won't open for her ... there's a nice bit of interaction with the TARDIS - first time ever - where we see a hologram of Clara, speaking as the TARDIS (hey, maybe that's it, Clara is a TARDIS herself !) Clara convinces the TARDIS to help her to help the Doctor and off they go into the time vortex to do just that. But Emma needs to open the portal again ... not sure why ... and the TARDIS with Clara on board heads off to rescue the Doctor.

Meanwhile (although it can't be as it's now billions of years in the future) the Doctor realises that the thing in the Forest wants him to be afraid (not sure why, there's no rationale given) and wants to come back to the house with the Doctor. So scaring someone is a good way to get a favour from them? I like the idea of a creature from elsewhere wanting to hitchhike with the Doctor back to Earth - it worked for Mandragora, so why not here. I also like that the creature is straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing. Rob Bottin's legacy lives on! But then the TARDIS arrives, the Doctor grabs onto the outside, and is whisked back to the house. I think we need to overlook the whole 'Doctor holding onto the outside of the TARDIS as it travels' thing. Didn't Captain Jack do that as well? Personally I suspect that the forces in the Time Vortex would rip him apart, but what do I know!

Another question: if the TARDIS could get to the pocket universe to rescue Hila, then why didn't the Doctor do that all along? Why put himself through all the risk of heading unprotected through portals? Anyway ...

The next day, everything is fine. Hila is back on Earth (in 1974) and we learn that she's Palmer and Grayling's great great and so on grand daughter from the future ... okay ... and also that all the Doctor wanted all along was to ask Emma about Clara - what kind of a girl she was (and the reply is not helpful at all!) So why choose this night and this place to do that? Why not pop over when she's not quite so busy.

But now the Doctor realises that there are two monsters - one is in the house (the half-seen creature we 'saw' earlier) and one is trapped in the Forest. All the monster wants is to be back with its partner ... so the Doctor again heads to the Forest to rescue it ... and Clara comes again with the TARDIS to get them both out.

Oh dear. So creepy crooked men need love too. The Doctor is apparently leaving the house now occupied not by a ghost but by two monster-things which wanted to be together ... this sort of rips the heart out of the preceding 43 minutes of drama. It also has no bearing on anything else that's happening. There is a fundamental rule of storytelling, that everything that happens should spring from the same roots. So you shouldn't introduce random elements into your story which cannot be reconciled with the mainstream of your plot. What we have here fails to follow those basic principles, and so ends up being sloppy.

I loved the whole of the first part. I liked how the ghost turned out to be a trapped time traveller, and I liked the idea of an unseen creepy creature hunting first her, and then the Doctor. But the incidentals just don't work. With a little work on the plot, the whole thing could have been so much more coherent. For example: The Doctor and Clara could have been drawn to the house by the time disturbance being created by Emma's psychic probing. The monsters could have been just monsters ... maybe coming back with the Doctor when he rescues Hila, and then providing a great, exciting ending as they play cat and mouse through the house, before the Doctor ejects the creature back to the forest once more through a portal. Emma and Alec's relationship could have echoed the Doctor/Clara/TARDIS's relationship and provided a mirror to what was happening there, and Hila could be the key to something greater which was happening season-wide (maybe she is, I have no idea at this stage) ... that is far more satisfying and rounded than what we were presented with, but maintains the themes and horror tropes which the writer is playing with.

I have to ask, also, why is the story called 'Hide'? No-one is actually hiding here. The word could mean 'a hide', somewhere you go to be unobserved while you watch wildlife, but that doesn't fit either. I feel this is again symptomatic of the ideas not being cohesive enough ... there isn't a basic underlying theme from which the drama is springing, and thus coming up with a suitable title becomes that much harder.

Overall, this is a superior episode. The atmosphere is electric, and it's probably one of the most terrifying episodes yet transmitted, with the Crooked Man the very epitome of half-seen night terrors, creeping up at you from down dark passages, from behind smoke-wreathed trees, and from under your bed ...