Saturday, January 23, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 07 – Ten Reasons to Watch The Rescue
Introducing Doctor Who – The Rescue…
A poor orphaned waif with a forbidding guardian, waiting to see if their ship will ever come in. The sinister figure that terrorises her while claiming to be her protector. This is Doctor Who at its most Dickensian – set on an alien world four hundred years in the future. Maureen O’Brien debuts as the series’ first ‘new companion’, to be comforted by William Hartnell’s Doctor at his most delightful and menaced by Sydney Wilson’s dastardly Koquillion (but it’s not him who callously kills her pet). A small but perfectly formed story from 1965…
I’m celebrating Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary with one story every week (though I’ve got some catching-up to do right now) for a year – and my husband Richard is joining in with his own eclectic choices if you want different recommendations. You can read more of what this Doctor Who 52 is all about here. But if I were you I’d just read on, then press Play on the DVD.
Seriously, just press Play, especially on this one. Usually the DVD menus have a mix of tantalising moments from the story, like an ambient trailer; that’s how the main menu works here, but the Special Features sub-menu is just one continuous clip of the climax. There are some preposterous decisions elsewhere in the range, but this probably wins the ‘What were they thinking‽’ award for most random and complete spoiler. So when I say there are spoilers lower down my list this time, I mean it…
Ten Reasons To Watch The Rescue (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – It’s an ideal Doctor Who story for New Year (and yes, I have failed my resolution to write these on time each week). It’s a bit of a new start, but not too much. It’s small and manageable, not too complicated, but with a refreshing twist. And they get to sleep some of it off. While The Rescue didn’t start a new season, it was first broadcast on January 2nd, 1965, and it’s perfectly pitched for new viewers to jump on board with the new companion. We see the TARDIS materialise – literally a beacon of light throughout – before we see within, always crucial in making us appreciate that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, and the small cast gives us much more time with all the characters. Most of all, we get to know newcomer Vicki, and we get to know the Doctor all over again. Written by original Doctor Who lead writer David Whitaker, this is quietly the series’ first relaunch. Of course, the honest New Year Doctor Who would be Resurrection of the Daleks (massive overindulgence followed by regret and resolutions that you’ll break immediately and double down instead) then The Twin Dilemma (the awful hangover)…
“We can travel anywhere and everywhere in that old box, as you call it. Regardless of space and time.”
“Then it is a time machine?”
“And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it.”
2 – Vicki is the first new companion. And the story goes as far as it can to make that easy on the viewers – or, rather, to make us go easy on her. When we first met the Doctor, it was through his granddaughter Susan, a mystery for her schoolteachers Ian and Barbara to follow. But Susan fell in love and out of the TARDIS in the previous story. How would the Doctor take to someone else? How would we get used to a new teenage face in the show? And what could bring her on board? She’s not another relative, and while the Doctor effectively kidnapped Ian and Barbara, that was bundled up with the role-reversal on teachers who know nothing, and not something a kinder, gentler Doctor could do to a teenage girl. The producers nearly brought on board a gutsy young freedom-fighter from the previous story, but instead chose to go quite the other way. They pull out all the stops to make us feel sorry for her and want her looked after.
Vicki seems, to begin with, much younger and less capable than Susan. Maureen O’Brien – here beginning an impressive career, though thanks to a forgotten early work of Andrew Davies’ I grew up thinking of her as an evil witch-nun – plays her with huge eyes, a waif-like form and outfit, and just enough pluck that she doesn’t make the audience wonder why on Dido she’d want an abundance of adventure after spending every scene cowering. Today Vicki is easy to read as abused or at least crushed by her multiple bereavements and oppressive semi-guardian – she’s young and full of hope that’s ever cowed, he’s dark and brooding and rains on every parade – and to see how after being adopted into a friendlier sort of family she’s going to gain the self-confidence of a cheeky teen anarchist (though inconsistent writing will give her wild mood swings between the two).
But for now, Vicki sets a template that will often be repeated for new companions, and which I once sarcastically labelled ‘Daddy was a lord, but he’s dead now’. Her mother has died, so her father takes her away to make a new home on a colony world. But their ship crashes on the inhospitable planet Dido, so they don’t get to their new home. And then her father dies too. Not just him, but a massive explosion that takes out every other person she knows, except one. And he doesn’t like her. So there is literally no-one on this planet who loves and will look after her. She is the most thoroughly orphaned person possible (until the show eventually takes this to extremes with Nyssa), and the Doctor and his friends spend most of the story getting to know and befriend her, so by the end of the story there can be no possible objection to her choosing – and she is very carefully given a choice and time to choose it – to leave on the TARDIS. Just to make sure we get the point that she is utterly and totally destined to be the new companion, she even introduces herself to Barbara twice. The second time spelling out her name, letter by letter.
3 – Even more effectively than it introduces Vicki, The Rescue reintroduces the Doctor in a subtly reworked role that retains all of William Hartnell’s intelligence and authority but allows him to be kindlier and funnier, giving us his ‘twinkle’. This is a great place to start for Mr Hartnell, showcasing just how versatile the Doctor could be and will be from now on – stern, affectionate, vulnerable, incisive, embarrassed, and often comic here, too. People often dismiss the youngest Doctor – the one looking like the oldest man – as a grumpy old thing, not least because when we first see him he’s terrific but not kind in running rings round his companions. He takes a while to warm or warm to, and longer to seem trustworthy. Yet I can’t think of another Doctor with more facets. This story doesn’t so much soften the Doctor’s character as give him a chance to shine in many different ways, not least as the only person who sees everything that’s going on in the story. I love Bill for his speeches and his passion, and there’s plenty of that here – at the climax of the story, he follows previous ‘courtroom’ triumphs with a stunning confrontation in a majestic Hall of Judgement. He charms budding companion Vicki with his understanding, then is chuffed to bits overhearing how much she already likes and trusts him. He promises her he’ll be diplomatic… Which last about ten seconds before – though he’s the last Doctor of whom you’d expect it – he picks up a girder to use as a battering ram and determines on breaking a door down.
William Hartnell turned a powerful acting presence learned as the stern sergeants and ruthless crooks of his film career into the perversely authoritative anti-establishment Doctor… But he also had great comic timing, and his vulnerability in a character role inspired producer Verity Lambert to make him the Doctor. Both are on full display here. The show needs us to move on from Susan, but the Doctor can’t forget his granddaughter just yet; rarely do we see the Doctor so quietly hurt as when he starts to ask her to open the doors here, and falters, Barbara gently offering help instead. Before long he’s showing he’s sharp as ever to Ian, then wondering if he can get away with pretending he landed on Dido deliberately before remembering that he did it in his sleep, playfully undercutting the danger of his becoming a know-it-all. On the surface, The Rescue may be designed to repair the ensemble cast by introducing a replacement fourth member, but compare it with a year earlier and it’s not just the teenager who’s changed, nor even the Doctor’s character that’s evolved – it’s not an ensemble any more. He’s the Doctor. The ‘new companion’ makes it clear that the others are just that: his companions. If there was ever a doubt who was the star, there isn’t now.
4 – Alien Design. This is a small, cheap story, but designer Raymond Cusick – who created the series’ first alien world – carefully chooses where to put detail that fills in a civilisation. Though his big alien beastie here isn’t a patch on his Daleks, the various stylised representations of it are fabulous. Massive carvings draw your attention from bare rock walls; pillars give shape and purpose to the Hall of Judgement, transforming it from a big empty space to the eerie, majestic heart of the story, aided by smoke and (reused but atmospheric) musique concrète. And the alien figure of Koquillion, all leering tarantula-faced bristles and tusks with the manner and mendacity of a wicked Dickensian stepfather, is decidedly creepy every time he comes to call and tell Vicki not to go far from the crashed ship, or he might not be able to protect her from his people…
5 – The Doctor’s sympathy versus Barbara’s exasperation. One of the biggest changes in the Doctor since the series started a year before is that he’s now much more concerned for and tactile with his companions, no longer just with his departed granddaughter. In their first scene together here, the two teachers are worried; she’s noticed that the vibration of flight has ceased, meaning that for the first time, the Doctor’s slept through a landing. They rouse him and he comes to, embarrassed but charmingly tactile with his friends, pretty much giving each of them a hug, so when Barbara breaks his flow to try and tell him what’s happened, he jumps wonderfully to the wrong conclusion and clasps her hand to his breast in concern and delight. Then he’s more embarrassed when he realises what she actually meant…
“Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.”
“Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you’re feeling better. Hmm!”
“No, not me – the Ship!”
“Oh, the— Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.”
6 – The Doctor’s knowledge versus Ian’s exasperation. Ian and Barbara have developed since the of the series, too – this time, they go off exploring, while the Doctor dozes in the Ship. But when they’re menaced by Koquillion, Barbara’s toppled from a cliff and Ian caught in a rock fall, the Doctor springs out to help… Only to wind Ian up by knowing considerably more than he does, despite as far as Ian is concerned having only been outside for a moment while he was out risking his neck exploring.
“Oh, there was this – thing, this repulsive thing with a – hideous face.”The Doctor gives him a quick glance up and down and tells him no bones broken, but somehow Ian doesn’t seem to mean it on thanking him for “The most thoroughgoing medical I’ve ever had.”
“With hands and feet like claws?”
“Yes, that’s it. How do you know?”
“Well, this is the planet Dido. I’ve been here before. I know them very well.”
“They’re very friendly people.”
“Oh! It wasn’t friendly to us.”
“…This thing. Was it armed?”
“No, no, it wasn’t. Wait a minute… It was carrying – some sort of – jewelled club. About so long.”
“With a big head? Resembling a spanner?”
“I don’t know why you bother to ask.”
Though the Doctor gets an exasperated moment of his own later, as the two of them clamber across a narrow rock face in the dark and then, as if that wasn’t enough to put up with, hear a roar from ahead of them. Ian sticks the torch right in the Doctor’s face.
“What was that?”
“Well, it’s not me, is it? Shine the torch down there!”
7 – Making you think about time travel (and tact) for yourself. Charmed by the Doctor, Vicki has started to bond with Ian and Barbara, so they start to exchange confidences: Vicki about her loneliness, and the two teachers about their travels. Ian tells Vicki that their spaceship travels through time as well. Barbara tells her that they left in 1963, instantly regretting it.
“1963! But that means you’re about – five hundred and fifty years old!”The camera lingers first on Vicki calculating, then Barbara trying not to look monstrously offended – in the fragile moment of still feeling very in the wrong just after Vicki’s forgiven her – while Ian covers his mouth and chokes with laughter in the background. And all neatly reintroducing the series’ concepts, and letting the viewer go, ‘Hang on – no – that’s not right – let me work it out…’ while Babs is writhing in embarrassment and elbowing her long-term companion in the ribs, before Vicki drops another clanger on the audience, too:
“Well, yes, I – I suppose I am. Yes, it’s a way of looking at it, but I’ll try not to look at it too often.”
“They didn’t have time machines in 1963. They didn’t know anything then.”The same conversation gets one of my favourite moments in the book, similarly making us think:
“‘Oh, come on, you’re imagining things, Barbara Wright,’ Ian laughed. ‘You’re as bad as that awful little Tracey Pollock in 3B!’
‘Tracey Pollock . . .’ Barbara murmured. Coal Hill School suddenly seemed a million miles away. In fact it was a great deal further and long since buried beneath the Metropolitan Disposal Plant.”
8 – The double (or single) entendre. Ian Chesterton at one point calls the villain “Cocky-lickin’”. I suspect it’s only that William Russell seems so sober and respectable and that Ian is written as the most reassuringly ‘straight’ of all the Doctor’s companions that he ever got away with it. It’s almost as bare-faced as one of the stories in the first ever Dr Who Annual, published the same year, being titled The Fishmen of Kandalinga. In later years, The Rescue was described by one infamous guidebook as being set on the planet “Dildo”, which I knew people were finding funny some time before I understood why. But it’s Ian Marter’s novelisation that’s mostly likely to make you blink. It was the book he was writing just before his untimely death, and I can’t help but wonder if he inserted some passages as a gag, expecting his editor to take them out, and then the editor didn’t want to change any of his last book. Right on the first page, a character sniggers at the script’s time-reading of “sixty-nine” flying hours until they reach Dido, which was so blatant that I spotted it even as a surprisingly innocent teenager, while in Chapter 5 there’s so much manipulating of oily, lubed rings that when I re-read the novel later in life I read it back again to be sure those were really the words.
9 – A very Doctor Who moral: don’t judge by appearances. The Doctor and Ian struggle to avoid a howling Sand Beast at the cliffhanger (both episodes end with pretty much literal cliffhangers). We see a Sand Beast staring at Vicki with its big shining eyes on stalks as she innocently goes about finding shrubs to eat, then lumbering forward. And Barbara sees that too. So she seizes the crashed ship’s flare gun and runs out of the wreck to blast it in the head (which Ian Marter’s novelisation describes tastefully as a “smouldering toffee-like blob”, after cheating rather in the build-up). Its keening death wail is rather distressing for the viewer, but worse for Vicki: “Sandy” was herbivorous and her only comfort as a pet, and now this becardiganed murderer has killed him! Alien-looking doesn’t mean nasty, human-looking doesn’t mean nice, Barbara and Vicki between them have to learn both lessons, then poor Vicki is slowly brought to understand and forgive her by the Doctor listening to and trusting the orphan.
10 – The two-faced guardian. And finally, the big twist. The Rescue is sometimes described as a whodunit, but of course the point is that it only becomes that once you know who’s done it. You don’t even think of it like that when you can see the monster Koquillion played, as always, by a man in a monster suit all the way through. The glowering Victorian authority figure, the only other survivor after the wicked alien natives killed all the crew at a feast of welcome – but somehow managed to kill all their own people in the explosion too – had murdered a crew member on the voyage and everything else was his attempt to rescue himself. Vicki was ill in her cabin and didn’t know, so he dressed in Didoi robes made from local animal skulls to menace her as Koquillion, personification and maligner of the beastly natives, setting her up as witness to Dido’s cruel, murderous and conveniently unable to answer back inhabitants for when a ship arrives from Earth to rescue them both. It’s an entertaining dual performance from Ray Barrett – double-credited behind a portmanteau pseudonym of Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, two of Doctor Who’s co-creators – though outshone by William Hartnell. The Doctor’s been enchanting right through the story – but now he sits like a marble statue in the Hall of Judgment of a slaughtered people to wait for the killer. And while the murderer made me think of Dickens throughout, the Doctor’s intellect and the plot he unmasks reminds me of Conan Doyle’s The Norwood Builder.
There are few scenes in Doctor Who that make me sit up and pay attention so keenly as when the Doctor, eyes racing but not turning as Koquillion enters the Hall, calls for him to come in. The atmosphere’s already electric, and then – casually, conversationally, because both of them know, so there’s no need to announce it, and because that way the audience is all the more likely to go ‘What? What did he say?’ – the Doctor informs him by his real name that such robes are only for absolutely ceremonial occasions. And from then on everything about the scene is relentless.
The Doctor doesn’t shrink from the ‘alien’, but he backs away as something far more sinister – an evil man – closes in on him. A betrayer, a cruel tormenter, a genocidal mass murderer, a rotten heart of darkness. Though ironically the man in a monster suit looks far more effective than the monster of the week, fans have often speculated why, in a later story, the Doctor’s visions of past monsters as part of his inner fears should include an image of Koquillion, because he wasn’t even a monster. I wonder if they’ve ever watched it.
What Else Should I Tell You About The Rescue?
I’ve always thought The Rescue a lovely little story, not one I’d put in my ‘best of’ countdowns but played, written and directed so neatly that I can’t help enjoying myself. It was only the second William Hartnell story I ever saw – brought along by an older friend to a bootleg showing by some university club in Manchester – and it opened my eyes to how endearing a character he was. I still remember falling in love with his comedy scenes at the start, and his shy delight on overhearing Vicki talking about him. There are a couple of moments that don’t work – a monster that tries to break up the human form and really doesn’t succeed, and the Didoi being defined as another ‘Planet of the Hats’ people who all think the same way – but it’s a neatly-formed story, well-told, and gently relaunches the Doctor and the series while handling its first big change, all at the length of a modern Doctor Who episode, a rarity in the Sixties. You can buy it in a double-DVD set with the more comedy-toned The Romans which I’ve heard called, but which you sadly won’t find labelled as, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vicki’.
Ian Marter’s novelisation has a very different flavour to the TV version – where 1965’s The Rescue is a small-scale story with an innocence that’s marred by one terrible betrayal, 1987’s reworking takes place in a much more cynical universe and expands the action considerably. The rescue ship is very of its time, going from an occasional voice on the radio to scenes on an explicitly American spacecraft – a “heap of Reaganium” – whose crew are shaken by the TARDIS and snap, “Don’t press my button!” It all makes the subtext of the damage done by ‘settlers’ to Native Americans much more the text, linking it to gung-ho ’80s US military clichés and, with the author seizing on the original serial’s New Year broadcast dates, giving a bitter festive commentary on the show’s hopeful ending. Not all the humour is so black – the Tracey Pollock moment always makes me smile, and the Doctor gets several new entertaining lines, particularly an incisively bitchy comment on the villain’s story and at the TARDIS’ next destination – while Dido is given a feel of ruined grandeur and horror at the end of a civilisation well beyond the TV’s budget. The science is rather dodgy, but the main flaw for me is that the structure falls down badly in the second half; as with the innuendos, I suspect Target Books’ editor didn’t want to alter the text of Ian Marter’s final book, but when the story comes to a head and the climax is then deferred for forty pages of sub-sub-Tolkien ruins and giant beasties, it could have done with another draft. You can buy it on audiobook, read by Maureen O’Brien in a warm, intimate style, with a vulnerable Vicki and an endearingly querulous Doctor.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like The Rescue, Why Not Try…
The Evil of the Daleks, utterly marvellous, another script from David Whitaker, introducing the exemplar of the companion as Victorian orphan innocent of her sinister sort-of-guardian (though sadly mostly burned by the BBC). Voyage of the Damned, another Christmas hangover with an ill-fated ship and a blatant companion audition piece, with a twist. The Ambassadors of Death, another tale of aliens who aren’t really hostile being used as cover by scheming humans. Dragonfire, a refreshing change to the timid Victorian orphan companion trope and another fearsome monster concealing something unexpected. But I’m in the mood for another short one…
The Sontaran Experiment. Another brisk two-part story set on a rocky wasteland of a world where the population’s extinct – or is it? – and we meet the survivors of a destroyed spaceship, one of whom is not what they seem, all of which is later greatly extended by an Ian Marter novelisation.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side…
Richard is watching… Black Orchid. A carefree social whirl until the murders start popping out of the woodwork. Then it’s all secrets and masks and betraying guardians.
Through illness and other impediments I’ve fallen so far behind now that it depends on which angle I next attempt to climb the mountain. But next time in the original plan, whenever in the future this particular story might emerge, features another new companion who is caught up in a whodunit that’s not really a whodunit and finds both that humans can be more alienating than the aliens and that stepping on board the TARDIS and leaving it all behind was only the start of her problems.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Five Reasons to Listen To Home Truths – Doctor Who 52 Extra: E
Introducing Doctor Who – Home Truths…
A ghost story for Christmas featuring one of Doctor Who’s shortest-lived companions as the heartbeat of one of its most intimate and personal tales. Jean Marsh recreates Sara Kingdom for this creepy Big Finish audio two-hander (3.05 in their Companion Chronicles series) where she poses a challenge to church, state and listener simply by being there. For all that she and the visiting Night Constable scoff at fairy tales, she embodies perhaps the oldest fairytale lesson of all…
“There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story.”
Five Reasons To Listen To Home Truths (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Sara Kingdom. Back in 1965-66, Jean Marsh – possibly the Doctor Who star with the most glittering career – played Sara Kingdom. A Space Security Agent from the year 4000, Sara reluctantly teamed up with William Hartnell’s Doctor and his friend Steven Taylor, after first being sent to kill them – and in a sort of shocking sort of The Apprentice twist, killing another of the Doctor’s companions to get there, who haunts her still. In many ways she seems a New Adventures companion long before her time: hard as nails; personal tragedy and betrayal; always the shadow of the Daleks and death hanging over her; but some part of her always remains, because she travelled with the Doctor. Sara died an old woman, but there’s still no time after her travels for the Doctor for more adventures. So the most obvious way to bring her back is to give her an exciting Space Security Agent adventure before she ever met the Doctor (see “Lost Story” The Destroyers, also from Big Finish). Home Truths is not the obvious way to bring Sara back…
2 – Is she or isn’t she?
“Hear the old woman’s story. Then decide her fate.”Fans argue. And one of the oldest fan debates in Doctor Who is whether or not Sara Kingdom counts as a ‘real’ companion. She travelled in the TARDIS. But only for one story. But it was a very long one. But not even for all of that. But she deserves it. And so on. Or in later years, are the Doctor Who stories that begin as books or, here, CDs ‘real’ stories? To ask the question is to miss something about stories, for me, and while I make lists and write about esoteric story points too, those two questions aren’t ones that engage me, so perhaps I’m predisposed to take one side within this story. Because Home Truths itself takes such questions and ambiguities and weaves a story out of the very criticisms that people are bound to come up with before they’ve even heard it.
So the story starts with Robert the Night Constable, the sceptical listener. Home Truths has much in common with Ghost Light, though with a very different feel in its sparse settings, adrift from any one time: the stories are confined within a house; there’s a hint of M R James, with a religious scientist investigating the unknown; and like the ultimate villain in Ghost Light and like the fans this story is challenging, Robert has a list of categories that count and, because she doesn’t fit into them, he can’t accept her. It’s not real if you can’t see it. Can he, and the sort of fans who police the list, give her a chance by listening? And so their frame story, and the mystery found by the Doctor, Steven and Sara, and the meta-story of the listeners interweave as he questions what to him are her unreliable narrative devices, and says that he won’t allow the bits that contradict his continuity of facts, without being aware of the gaps in any of his own assumptions, the ghosts of his own superstitions. He’s putting her on trial as a danger to church and state while not really believing in the church side of his role and believing his known science as dogma of its own, so her real threat is more to his own worldview than to his world.
“Well? What’s it going to be?”
3 – Asking questions about human nature. The discussion between Miss Kingdom and Robert isn’t just about the people in the stories she’s telling, but about how we’re all wired – and tangentially between the two of them, both night constables of a sort, the conflict between orders and individuality, duty and empathy, and how all choices have consequences for which we must take responsibility. You have to ask questions, even if it’s hard: Sara’s original sin and Robert’s choice can’t be passed off as just obeying orders, and perfection doesn’t suit humanity. These are ideas that go to my wider political fear that utopias never have room for people who complicate things and that if you don’t count, you can’t exist, just as the story within the story speaks to inner fears of thoughtlessness (or of thoughts). And, ultimately, throughout this poignant tale, Miss Kingdom has reason to empathise with murderers who don’t really wish to be murderers, and in reaching out to them, might save herself.
4 – Opening up more stories. Sara Kingdom’s original story, The Daleks’ Master Plan, was Doctor Who’s longest TV adventure (subject, naturally, to debate). So it’s a cheeky ambition for Home Truths to put another story into the middle of it and open it out to be even longer, with a promise of more in there still. Author Simon Guerrier’s Doctor Who writing keeps coming back to William Hartnell’s Doctor, captured here in many facets – loving to explore, treating his companions as children but like a mischievous child himself, irritable when made to look foolish but almost serene at the end – and for Big Finish he’s created several rather marvellous Big Finish adventures for the Doctor and neglected companions Sara and Steven (Peter Purves). Home Truths itself has two sequels (though not necessarily in that order), The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System.
While the events of Home Truths are resolved as far as the Doctor, Steven and Sara’s travels go, not only is the story of Sara and Robert left unresolved, but the hints of the world they inhabit fire the imagination. It’s far in the future, but after war, flood and disasters we can only guess at. What might have caused the downfall of the civilisation after next? And how did another rise, seeing A Canticle for Leibowitz through a crooked glass, in the stern dogma of strictly defined church and science, though tantalisingly neither defined for the listener? Is this strangely past-future even Earth, or have names been carried over the stars like Robert across the fens? And why is he a Night Constable? Does this world ever see the light? Miss Kingdom herself tells Robert that she has a hundred stories to tell about the people who have stayed with her – though he’s deliberately asked to hear one he doesn’t believe. It’s no wonder that her conversation with him has more than a hint of Scheherazade, and that the whole thing feels like The Twilight Zone (a series in which Jean Marsh herself starred in another lonely two-handed psychological horror story / psychological character study).
5 – This creeps me out more personally than any other Doctor Who story.
“The corridor in which the woman lay led to a wide staircase, littered with flowers and paper-wrapped gifts. The Doctor examined the labels: they were wedding presents for Richard and Alex.”Home Truths author Simon Guerrier is a friend of ours and gave us a wedding present. Nothing of Home Truths, though, which is perhaps for the best (his lines that we weaved into our wedding reading weren’t from here, either). My husband is a careful driver, and the only time I can remember him swerving the car in shock was on a dark and stormy night coming up to Christmas 2008 and driving up to see our parents. The story is quite creepy enough, with the mysteriously, suddenly dead bodies of two newlyweds in their dream home. We were already feeling for them, and then Sara Kingdom told us their names in track seven. Thanks, Simon. Of course, they’re not a perfect match: Simon’s been to our place and knows it is not in all honesty uncannily pristine; Alex has been gender-swapped (though imagine the fuss if he’d killed the gays. And thinking about it, the story could have a trans character, from a certain point of view).
What Else Should I Tell You About Home Truths?
You can buy it on CD or download from Big Finish Productions here.
This is where I often mention things other fans don’t like about a story, but I’m not as familiar with reviews for extra-televisual Doctor Who. So my contrary view on Home Truths is that the opening mystery and the aftermath are both brilliant, but some of what would ordinarily be the climax (to the ‘old’ story, at least) doesn’t engage me as much, though it captures the Doctor well and I can see how it’s a necessary bridge. Perhaps it’s just because in some ways it’s an extended ‘action’ sequence, which despite being a harrowing moment for Sara, those are always less effective on the radio, and though she has to ‘earn’ the resolution, I can see it coming and am impatient to get there once I think I know the answer (one of them, anyway).
Simon Guerrier was also the author this year (with Dr Marek Kukula) of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, and so was a guest on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special last week. Whatever you think of their scientific views, at least they don’t wield them with the authority to unperson you if you disagree.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Home Truths, Why Not Try…
More Sara Kingdom: naturally, The Daleks’ Master Plan, a fantastic epic from 1965-66, including in the middle Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special episode (which isn’t very M R James at all). The BBC burnt most of it, of course, but you can buy the whole soundtrack on CD, and see the three complete surviving episodes on the Lost In Time DVD set. And I’d recommend Simon Guerrier’s sequels to Home Truths, too. For more Jean Marsh, there’s the 1965 historical adventure The Crusade (for which most of the same limitations apply), and 1989’s Battlefield (all of which, thankfully, you can see on DVD). Jean Marsh plays different characters in all three stories, though all three have complicated relationships with their brothers – see especially her soliloquy at the end of Battlefield, her coldness in the middle of The Daleks’ Master Plan and a terrific The Crusade scene in which she tears strips off Julian Glover.
Monday, December 28, 2015
Doctor Who 52: 04 – Ten Reasons to Watch Ghost Light
Introducing Doctor Who – Ghost Light…
The Doctor takes Ace to her worst nightmare: a Victorian ghost story for Christmas. Lush BBC costume drama is only the start of one of the most bizarre, macabre and intelligently designed pieces of television you’ll ever see. At a stage in Doctor Who’s life-cycle when the series looked to be facing extinction, it evolves by taking risks and challenging the audience rather than ever playing it safe – though it’s got the vicar from Downton Abbey, here he’s at a much more satisfying posh dinner party, where everyone’s shockingly talking science and religion.
I’m celebrating Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary with one story every week (so my catalogue says) for a year – and my husband Richard is joining in with his own eclectic choices if you want different recommendations. You can read more of what this Doctor Who 52 is all about here. But if I were you I’d just read on, then press Play on the DVD.
It’s hard to think of another Doctor Who story so exuberantly packed with brilliant ideas and witty lines, so I was tempted to suggest as one of my ten reasons to watch (like using your last wish to wish for more wishes) that you should explore it to discover how many more reasons than ten there really are.
Ten Reasons To Watch Ghost Light (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Doctor and Ace. By Ghost Light, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his friend Ace (Sophie Aldred) have been together for quite a while. Under lead writer Andrew Cartmel they’ve both become more complex than in the previous season, him less judgmental, her less the troubled teenager, but both still seem to delight in blowing things up – here the Doctor even worries that he’s lit the blue touch paper and left nowhere to retire to, but it’s really Ace’s fuse that he’s playing with.
I love Sylvester’s Doctor in this story, as much an initiative test for the viewer as it is for Ace. He’s powerful, inquisitive, caring, cruel, funny, melancholy and more, but he always leaves me with more questions than answers here: how much does he know what’s going on, and why does he come to Gabriel Chase in the first place? His thinking aloud that even he can’t play this many games at once and the not-a-reassurance that he always leaves things to the last minute suggest he may have seen all sorts of fascinating threads along the way and couldn’t help tugging at them, but that this is really all about his getting Ace to confront her demons before the house’s angels, and that saving Earth is just a by-product.
Is the Doctor Professor Higgins, forcing Ace / Eliza to evolve into his own idea of a Lady (Pygmalion)? Is he Merlin, pushing Ace / Wart through one form after another to learn from the inside out (The Sword In the Stone)? Or is he just prodding her to find out what she’ll turn into for herself? At least, whatever he’s doing to his companion without asking permission, he’s out to expand her mind rather than wiping it. Whether he learns a lesson in the end from seeing other people being treated as he treats Ace and just how badly that works out is open to question, but at least it’s not just Ace who adapts herself to what’s happening in the house; the Doctor has always been able to rise to whatever situation he finds himself in. When Victorian vicar Reverend Matthews takes him for their host, the Doctor fits himself into the niche and responds to the immediate stimuli of “condescend” by how he acts up to him. Or he may just be having enormous fun. It takes Ace rather longer to enjoy it.
The climax of Part One – though Part Two has the more thrilling cliffhanger – comes in possibly their best scene together, when Ace realises that the Doctor’s taken her to her worst nightmare and demands he face her. Sophie Aldred is terrific confronting her mentor / tormentor, looking suddenly grown up in a dinner suit, grasping the trophy room table like a lectern to rain brimstone on the Doctor as he comes in behind her, dark, quiet, stealthy, prodding.
“Don’t you have things you hate?”And her terms aren’t to do with what the Doctor prompts her to realise about what terrified her five years earlier for her, a century in the house’s future, much closer to home. When she starts to open up about the greatest horror in her past, the haunted house just a symptom, Doctor’s quietly supportive, it puts the hairs up on my neck. And you realise that this isn’t about strange upper-class manners in 1883 London at all, and that Doctor Who is now confronting other demons.
“I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.”
“I told you I never wanted to come back here again.”
“Then there’s unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty.”
“We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.”
“I face mine on my own terms!”
2 – That’s the Way to the Zoo. Mark Ayres’ score is lush, sinister, sometimes intimate and probably his best for the show. He does wonders to produce an orchestral feel without an orchestra. I often listen to the soundtrack (itself released in three different versions). The captivating chords building as Ace confronts the Doctor and her past, the swirling frenzy as they break apart and the African pipes as Redvers stalks them through his own private world make an enormous contribution to Part One. But even here, he’s upstaged by the genuine and disturbingly appropriate Victorian parlour song he found for Katharine Schlesinger’s Gwendoline to sing.
For the climax of the first episode, the music has been rising and getting more claustrophobic as things come to a head; there’s a magnificent flurry as Ace runs up the stairs; it spellbindingly underscores Ace’s harrowing revelations; it spirals dizzyingly as she flees into the red darkness deep below. But hurled through the middle of Mark Ayres’ own magnificent compositions is a novelty song about zoos, monkeys and nuts that the daughter of the house sings with deranged fervour, counterpointing the terrible memories upstairs and the terrible deeds in the drawing room while foreshadowing worse to come, the camera swooping round the piano and Gwendoline’s unnaturally bright eyes with unforgettable passion. Sorry, Mark. She’s the bit that everyone remembers.
The story only gives one verse, but I’ve just discovered a more complete version by fan podcasters The Splendid Chaps, who tracked down the original music for their hellish cabaret. Click here: That’s the Way To the Zoo.
3 – Bringing the Haunted House story to life. The whole story takes place within Gabriel Chase, a spooky old Victorian house. Except… It’s not haunted yet. It’s much weirder than that. It’s not an old house in 1883. And it’s teeming with life, more and more vividly as the story forges on. But terrible things have been happening, as a study of life corrupts into death after death, and the Doctor’s brought Ace here to find out what haunts her from a hundred years later – and it’s not just the house. While all the people caught inside try to work out how to cope with their environment – more an experience than a plot, and for some people life is more difficult to handle than what’s written in stone – the story’s major haunting is by the future, as Ace’s past comes to life around her as if the house knows what she’s going to do. And once the life of the house goes out, it remembers and broods for a hundred years…
4 – Sylvia Syms’ Mrs Pritchard. Ghost Light has a terrific cast all round. Michael Cochrane steals a dozen scenes in an endearingly bewildered role far from the vicar at Downton Abbey; I remembered John Hallam as a hard soldier in Dragonslayer, and of course he drove his car over a cliff into a quarry (twice in one night? That is suspicious), but here his dangerously fey force of nature foreshadows Peter Capaldi’s Angel Islington in both performance and heralding that angels down below are rarely a good sign; John Nettleton is marvellous and seemed the biggest name to me because he’d been at the top of the tree in Yes Minister; Frank Windsor was far enough from Z Cars now that he could play another policeman; and Sharon Duce was a big deal too.
But out of all the bestiary, one actor always grabs your attention – because you don’t dare to look away from her. One of Britain’s major movie stars from the ’50s, playing demure but determined women in films such as Ice Cold In Alex and Victim, here Sylvia Syms plays terrifying housekeeper Mrs Pritchard in spidery black lace that goes beyond Queen Victoria and into half-Skeksis and with a face as hard as her tongue. Her scenes with awkward house guest Reverend Matthews are scarier than any of the aliens: she feels like a stalking cobra as she glides across the floor towards him, and she clearly struck author Marc Platt with the same force, if you read that passage in his novelisation. Who’s been shedding their skin? And her harsh reprimands to young Gwendoline are savage, horribly telling and hilarious all in one (I can never help joining in the whiplash of “Sitting there dressed like a music hall trollop!”). She seems to be a perfect fit for the household. But there’s other significance to dressing in Victoria’s widow’s weeds, and Utopia’s not the only time a real self is hidden within a locket (the novel fills another character’s head with the sound of drums), and her final moment will freeze your heart…
5 – How Not to Bribe the Doctor. Marc Platt’s fantastic script is packed to the brim with brilliant lines, many of them his own. You can’t count all the puns on light and change that reinforce the themes – from “Thank you, Nimrod. We would be delighted” to the butler right through to weaponised puns at the climax – and it completely changes your reaction to the word “Java” from something to wake you up. There’s a lot of it I join in on, appropriately for a gorgeously designed affair that at times looks just like Rocky Horror. But today, my favourite exchange is when self-made man – and if he isn’t, who made him? – Josiah Samuel Smith appraises the Doctor’s abilities if not his origins or morals and tries to employ him for a murder. “I’m afflicted with an enemy,” he claims, in a lovely turn of phrase evoking the man of property’s fear of the underclass despite them being the same underneath (depraved or deprived?), still satirically topical in 1989, and proffers a handful of such massive banknotes that the Doctor whistles.
“I’m not interested in money. How much?”The novelisation adds an extra punchline from the Doctor:
“Five thousand pounds to rid me of the evil brute.”
“Now that’s what I call Victorian value. But I’m still not interested in money.”
“Five thousand pounds! he thought. A gentleman only ever pays in guineas!”
6 – The Victorian Age. Ghost Light is the most deeply Victorian Doctor Who story of all. It doesn’t just glory in the literature and the stereotypes, but embodies the society, family, science, religion and philosophy too, and everything that comes crawling out when you scratch the veneer, everything the ’80s veneration of “Victorian Values” pretended to ignore. And the heart of what makes Ghost Light so much fun and so disturbing is that it revels in doing to the Victorians what they did to everyone else.
“You have no shred of decency.”To the otherworldly survey agent, the house is unexplored and primitive territory, so naturally it’s his to claim and he sticks a flag in it as his property, whatever that does to the natives. And he doesn’t quite understand the customs, applying his perfectly sensible theory in entirely the wrong context… So if you think Josiah’s plan doesn’t make sense, this proto-Thatcherite assuming Darwinism and Social Darwinism are just the same as each other might just be the point. The religious and scientific establishment’s sermons are satirised over dinner, in the horrible comeuppance of Homo Victorianus Ineptus, and eventually on a grand scale when we find out just how appalling it would be if God were a proper Victorian deity. Josiah, the coming man, has become both the Victorian Age’s biggest fan and its harshest critic (so often the way). Just as Thatcherites in 1989 complained that there’s no discipline these days and call for a return to the standards of a century earlier, he condemns the Empire as a mess with no discipline or direction. Every layer of the character is more complex: even as Josiah appears to have evolved into the ruthless, self-centred Victorian capitalist, the same survey observations that identified Victorian Man as the pinnacle of nature makes him a naturalist with a realisation that there’s no such thing, in an unconventional challenge to every established hierarchy. Where Josiah seems to wind up appalled fundamentalist Reverend Matthews even more than in his theories on evolution is in the application he gives them, criticising industrial pollution and arguing that Man is merely another part of nature and just as in danger of becoming extinct.
The opposite inversion to Josiah is Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the finest explorer in the Empire but who’s lost himself. The explorer brings the madness back with him in some of the most heart-poundingly weird scenes for the Doctor, Ace and the viewer (making it a much cleverer take on Kinda, and with far greater semiotic thickness to it to boot). Seemingly the biggest threat at first, he should be the most objectionable character in the whole thing – but his ‘heroic’ Victorian stereotype turns inside-out instead. Rather than espousing the Inspector’s casual racism he sees London and its inhabitants as no different to the jungle, from the strange totems of Gabriel Chase – brilliantly captured in the novelisation as he escapes among them by some unimaginable feat of cunning – to his determination to hunt the crowned Saxe-Coburg. For me, Redvers is the most endearing character in the whole story, marvellously played by Michael Cochrane and adorable even if he raves, screams and introduces himself by wresting a Zulu assegai from where it hung on a tree beside a barometer…
“Burning bright in the heart of the Interior. It burnt through my eyes, into my mind. It had blazing – radiant – wings!”
7 – The Video Age. Talking about video now seems almost Victorian too, but since the moment it was broadcast, people have talked about this as a story for the videotape era – meaning just that you have to record it and watch it several times to pick up how all the details work and understand it. And enjoying it and unlocking its puzzles in all those ways is a good part of what makes Ghost Light marvellous. But you can take videotape as metaphor, too. The story’s Recording Angel is a video archivist, who thinks the point is to log all the master tapes and never watch them. Or, like the BBC, burn them to prevent anyone watching them – play the tapes, and things happen, time moves forward… Evolution. Like a videotape, you can play it backwards, but just as that used to knacker your tapes, keeping evolution on pause or winding it back are bad news in this story. Ace regresses to her thirteen-year-old traumas, Matthews to an ape, Josiah back under control, and others in their own terrible ways. Going forwards, change, is life, and the only way to see your story unfold.
8 – The Scientific Method.
“My theories appal you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don’t like my tie.”And of course this story is all about evolution, not just the science but the catastrophic shock it posed to an entire worldview. The story boasts a menagerie of scientists, naturalists and explorers, and only the open-minded can cope. And for all that it challenges fixed religious orthodoxy, there is a creator here, and he’s not happy. It’s not your ordinary Frankenstein pastiche, either. Here the ‘mad scientist’ and creature are one, as well as two, and he’s actually published his papers for scrutiny, with his workings-out left on show in the cellar and a proper control (and if she’s not proper to start with, she evolves). Not that the peer review is favourable, but for the viewer just as for Ace, finding your own truth here is more rewarding than being told all the answers.
Science and religion are threaded through each other in Ghost Light – it’s not as simple as saying that one should defeat the other. For several of the characters, the two are the same, and an absolute, fixed canon of either or of anything is going to end up breaking under the strain. The story is on the side of irrepressible, unpredictable life and – very Doctor Who – against domination, control and telling people where they fit. Do you label the two most intertwined characters the Control and the Survey in an experiment started by the ultimate naturalist, telling the scientific method by metaphor? Or as Innocence and Experience, presided over by a Blakean angel? So when Light finally emerges, it doesn’t matter what you call him. Except to him, which is the essence of the problem. Obsessive cataloguer or oppressive deity, if it’s not written in the book, it’s got no right to be real! But that’s life. And even travelling at the speed of thought isn’t much use if you lack an imagination.
9 – Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!
“You got stuffed and it wasn’t even Christmas.”In a house so teeming with life, there’s a lot of catering. The day staff and the Night Maid are kept busy – there’s a dinner party on both evenings, Ace eats a hearty breakfast (perhaps brupper) but still wants a curry, even the Doctor talks about hamburgers, and Control has a crunchy nibble, though it’s Inspector Mackenzie who provides the most work for the kitchens. Well, he did sleep through a meal or two. The dinner in Part One is satisfying, serving up witty lines and gathering tension, but it pales beside the feast the following night which forms the climax to Part Three and the story. Although it’s probably not Christmas, the banquet begins with appropriately seasonal elements: estranged siblings seething at each other; mother running out in distress; squabbling over whether to cut off the Queen’s speech. And it all ends up with a couple of big fights breaking out, the Doctor’s idiosyncratic version of grace and a bomb surprise for afters.
I think this is the only time the Doctor defeats both major and minor villains over dinner. Polishing off Josiah is the hors d’oeuvre for him, but the richest confection for the viewer, with everyone bringing something to the table. Josiah objects to Redvers’ dinner guest so it’s hardly surprisingly when she makes his plans go up in smoke, but it’s not all jollity round the fire – Ace has a last revelation about the police. And after the mounting sense that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, the Doctor’s after-dinner speech is an utter triumph. In between, the guest of honour finally turns up to tell everyone the party’s over. Light has already shown himself a dab hand at carving, but is at his finger-licking worst leering over the soup tureen. Ace realises why the Doctor told her not to touch it; the Doctor confirms it; Josiah revels in it. And that wasn’t the last revelation about the police after all.
“There’s only one solution to Earth. I was going to reduce it to this…”Terrance Dicks’ characters often experienced “a thrill of horror” in the Target books. This was the first time I was consciously aware of one. The horribly macabre joke still does it for me.
[Light raises a ladle full of soup, the medallion of a Victorian police inspector dangling from it.]
“So you started with Inspector Mackenzie.”
“The cream of Scotland Yard.”
10 – The Stone Spaceshippers. The story ends – no, the story continues – with power used not for domination or destruction but to evolve into Doctor Who, showing show the series can still rush off into the sheer joy of new adventures. The pioneer-not-user gang that goes off to explore strange new worlds and be new life have been inspired by the Doctor and Ace, and I’m always surprised that with all the books and CDs since no-one’s ever brought them back to see their continuing travels, or even a spin-off. Someone should remind Steven Moffat of an idea he might like to pick up. Here’s the gang: in control, the Victorian ladylike who’s actually been around for millions of years. Her other half. Plus the dim but enthusiastic militarist and the one who looks a bit strange but gets away with it in his butler’s outfit. And a bit of sex. If you were to make them all a regular team, of course, you’d probably cut costs by amalgamating the last two into one comic relief character, then bring them back to Earth to explore the curious world of Victorian London through their outsiders’ eyes. Sounds like they could be popular!
What Else Should I Tell You About Ghost Light?
If you watch Ghost Light on DVD, it’s especially rewarding to look at the extended and deleted scenes for this one. There are a lot of them, and several of those add quite a bit (I particularly like the escape from Newgate). The off-cuts are unfortunately imprinted with time-codes and so couldn’t be assembled into a Special Edition, but Marc Platt’s rather marvellous novelisation is able to reintegrate them seamlessly. It also has possibly Alister Pearson’s most striking cover.
Ghost Light is at the heart of one of Doctor Who’s most mesmerising years, 1989’s Season Twenty-six, and you can see in it many of the season’s running themes, from confronting gods and strange magic to survival of the fittest not meaning what the ’80s took it to mean. In a year that centres on Ace, many of the themes are hers in particular: fire; female empowerment; lesbian subtexts; living your life in the wrong order; and the moral that you should always remember to send a Mother’s Day card, because you have no idea how much your life might get out of hand if you lose track of your Mum. This was the final story actually made for the original series. The last one shown was Survival, Ghost Light’s mirror-twin, which is also set around Ace’s old home of Perivale to show her facing her past, present and future, and this all-studio story even shares a location shoot with it (but it’s not Perivale). But more on those stories later.
I loved Ghost Light from its first night. My husband Richard loves it too, and the first thing I saw in his flat on my first visit, twenty-one years ago, was a print of Alister Pearson painting for the book cover hanging opposite the door. It’s still hanging in our flat today. Although many other fans agree that this is one of the very best Doctor Who stories – and one of the few at the time to get enthusiastic press reviews – many others don’t. Some seem to have their masculinity threatened by Light being played by a usually very butch actor here wearing a pre-Raphaelite frock and a fey voice (though rarely seem to complain about the women wrestling in tuxedos). Others complain that the multi-layered script is incomprehensible to them. I don’t find myself threatened by a lack of macho, by making my brain work, or by daring to be different. But if you can’t quite see the scientific method in the madness together here, the Doctor and Ace sum up how it’s supposed to work a couple of minutes into Part Three.
Richard got our current car three years ago. With the number plate beginning “RV”, we inevitably named it for the stylish, slightly old-fashioned but inspiring explorer from one of our favourite stories. I met Michael Cochrane a few months later and, while he signed our Ghost Light DVD, I confided that we’d named our car after his character. “Oh, really? …What sort of car is it?” he asked, evidently fearing an old banger. “It’s a Jaguar.” “That’ll do!” he exclaimed delightedly.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Ghost Light, Why Not Try…
Well, goodness. This isn’t just probably the Doctor Who story with the most ideas packed into it, but the greatest density of references too. So what isn’t there to try? Obviously it goes down the rabbit hole into so much Victorian literature that it makes Dickensian look like a lightweight, so I’ll pick just out a favourite Victorian short story which supplies a detail turned inside-out and into both a gag and a plot thread and recommend you read The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. It references the two other outstandingly brilliant Doctor Who stories set in the Victorian era, The Talons of Weng-Chiang (explicitly) and The Evil of the Daleks (esoterically). The Night Maid always make me think of an evil Bagpuss, the end makes me want to listen to Talking Heads, and I rarely need an excuse to revisit The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another cautionary tale of religion and evolution (with a moment in the TV version of the Earth made anew which never fails to make me tear up).
But back to Doctor Who. Marc Platt has written many other (Merry Otherstide!) fabulous stories through novels and audio dramas, and as Ghost Light helped inspire so much of the New Adventures, from Ace to owls, today I might recommend you pick up some of the best of those with a yuletide flavour – Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade, Lawrence Miles’ Christmas on a Rational Planet – or of course Marc’s own Lungbarrow, the Seventh Doctor’s finale and itself a multiple reflection of Ghost Light (complete with its own Victorian evolution debate in-joke, with Omphalos metamorphosed into a mystery about the Doctor’s creation or, for his family, a rude nick-name). To continue the festive theme, Big Finish published several Christmas collections in their Short Trips anthologies. I’d particularly recommend The History of Christmas (edited by Simon Guerrier, of whom more later) and A Christmas Treasury (edited by Paul Cornell, similarly), which brims with stocking-filler games and recipes, where Terrance Dicks offers us a grumpy Doctor and shows you can’t trust a beard, even at Christmas, and Marc himself gives us a Christmas Special with Eric and Ernie and a scary ’80s monster. Or, on DVD…
Ghost Light is the first Doctor Who from a brilliant new author working with one of the show’s most brilliant script editors, shown in one of its most brilliant seasons, and excoriates ossified religion while doing remarkable things with evolution. The same is true for both of these.
The Face of Evil. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange if not entirely convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want her on board at first, but she becomes a great favourite with the viewers.
The Face of Evil is the only story from my favourite season of Doctor Who which isn’t shown on the Horror Channel. Boo. But it’s being repeated on BBC4 this very evening and tomorrow night. Hurrah! Watch it and revel in the festive knowledge that it was nearly called The Day God Went Mad (but the producer decided Mary Whitehouse was up to quota on pronouncing fatwas already).Full Circle. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange and vividly convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want him on board at first, but he becomes… Well, some people liked him.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side…
Richard is watching… Blink. A creepy old house, a life in the wrong order, and angels still as statues.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”The next tale I have planned is a heart-warming nativity story… Though as I’m rather behind, to do the next few may involve some travelling back in time. And there’s still no such thing as a final evolutionary form, but who’s going to tell them that?
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion – Doctor Who 52 Extra: D
Introducing Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion…
Shop window dummies that come to life, the Doctor given a new ‘family’ on Earth and a touch of bitchy soap opera… No wonder this was such an influence on Russell T Davies that he wrote the introduction for the new edition. Terrance Dicks’ first book novelises the thrilling TV story Spearhead From Space, making it more thrilling still from the title on through – one of the best Doctor Who novels ever written, and creating an irresistible monster that never quite made it to TV: “something between spider, crab and octopus…”
Robert Holmes’ 1970 adventure Spearhead From Space is one of the best-known Doctor Who stories – it introduced Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the Autons and even colour to the series, was among the first to be released in video, DVD and book form, and with its mixture of action, horror, comedy and really aggressive department store sales windows, inspired Rose, 2005’s even more radical relaunch. It was first broadcast before I was born, so I grew up loving the Third Doctor’s adventures in their Target Books adaptations, and only caught up with the TV versions on VHS about two decades after transmission. The Pertwee books are arguably Target’s golden age; the TV originals rarely matched the pictures the novels had conjured in my head. I still think of this a the ‘Pertwee gap’ where this Doctor’s novelisations far outstripped his TV stories, and Spearhead From Space, too, gains a great deal by becoming The Auton Invasion… But in this case, it doesn’t mean that Spearhead From Space is a disappointment. It’s one of my favourite TV Doctor Who stories. The first two books Target commissioned were for me the two best Third Doctor stories, and they made them better still. The Pertwee gap here means that The Auton Invasion is simply fantastic.
Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Nightmarish Nestene. If you see this story on TV, you remember the Autons. If you read the book, you imagine the Nestene. You might say this is a spoiler to start with, save for it being on the cover and difficult to miss (and not just on Chris Achilleos’ original 1974 cover, either)…
“Standing towering over them was the most nightmarish creature Liz had ever seen. A huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus. The nutrient fluids from the tank were still streaming down its sides. At the front of its glistening body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and hatred.”Much of Terrance Dicks’ book description simplifies: the not-meteorite energy units are green spheres rather than complex polyhedrons; the factory receptionist expressionlessly doll-like; the walking dummy Autons much more blank. It’s effective. The repeated emphasis on Autons looking like half-finished waxworks, or having an enormous but peculiarly horrible hand – “It was completely smooth and white, and there were no fingernails” – that drops away to fire sizzling bolts of energy from the empty wrist instantly conjure mental images without complicated detail. The exception is deep within the factory that builds the Autons, where a body is growing to house the controlling majority of the Nestene Consciousness, the group mind animating all the living plastic for the invasion. The book teases this repeatedly to build anticipation, most effectively at the close of Chapter 6, where the Autons become more threatening yet and a series of short, understated sentences at the end give closure to an earlier attack. The audiobook version has much less in the way of music and sound effects than later Target CDs, but both steady narration by Caroline John (scientist Dr Liz Shaw on TV) and a strange alien glugging sound build up particularly eerily there too.
The book climaxes with the Doctor and Liz Shaw reaching the heart of the factory, where something enormous heaves, seethes and bubbles in a great tank (which the fascinated Doctor walks round “as if contemplating a swim in it”). On TV, a few limp tentacles emerge – then, in the sequel a year later, just a fuzzy video effect – without being entirely convincing. In the book, there’s no disappointment when the whole side of the tank shatters open and the “huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus” rears unforgettably into our imaginations.
Where the cover paintings of most Doctor Who novelisations take pictures from the TV show as their model, Terrance Dicks’ Nestene created not just a nightmare but a challenge impossible for many artists to resist. Chris Achilleos paints one lurking on the cover, then gives it much more detail in a starring eruption as the finale to his internal illustrations, followed by other artists competing with further editions. The first sequel, Terror of the Autons, took similarly vivid descriptions from Terrance and let Peter Brookes’ imagination soar into a comic-book Cthulhoid horror that wraps its way around the front of the book, with Alan Willow having a go of his own inside the pages – then the second edition boasted Alun Hood’s horribly photo-realistic glaring eye, writhing tentacle and ickily teeth-like suckers. Even the back cover excitedly talks up
“a malignant, squid-like monster of cosmic proportions and indescribably hideous appearance.”And yet Terrance’s description provides what’s still the most unforgettable mental image of all the Target books, inspiring artist after artist and proving that however powerful the design in front of your eyes, the most memorable horrors remain the ones you imagine.
2 – All Doctors Are Gits. The Doctor and the Autons both look human, but the book goes to even greater lengths than the TV version to emphasise that they aren’t – from the very first, poacher Sam Seeley sees both the ‘meteorites’ and the Doctor landing, and it’s the Doctor that frightens him more. But that’s not my favourite parallel for the Doctor here. The comatose Doctor is brought in to the local cottage hospital, and you can tell Terrance had written soap opera, on top of tea and bullying bosses as signatures of normality. The original script had plenty of hospital scenes, but the book expands them with full-on soap gossip, rivalries, and everybody on the make (just like Sam, a doomed businessman and even an army corporal later in the book).
A nurse gets the worst of it to start with, trembling at Dr Henderson’s sharp tongue when he shrieks with anger over the two hearts on the Doctor’s X-ray, then when Henderson’s “old enemy” Dr Lomax in Pathology rings to complain too, she “almost dropped the ’phone from pure terror”. In just a few pages, Terrance sketches in a history of bullying medical horrors, with Caroline John’s reading on CD making it all even more entertaining. But that’s nothing to when the hospital’s senior Surgical Consultant Mr Beavis shows up with his “high-handed, lordly manner” that terrifies even the doctors – not least our own favourite one, when he overhears that Beavis regards him as “some kind of interesting freak. Probably plans to open him up and sort out his innards for him.” Which rather reminds me of some of the more careless consultants when I was hospitalised last year, so it serves him right when the Doctor nicks his car to get away.
I always wonder, though – are we being lulled into liking the new Doctor because every other doctor in this is a total git or a complete monster? Or are we being warned by implication that this Doctor’s imprinted on them just after rebirth and thinks doctors ought to be arrogant workplace bullies?
3 – Terrance Dicks. One of Doctor Who’s most significant writers, Terrance Dicks wrote several TV stories and was the show’s script editor (similar to today’s lead writer) for five years, but it’s with Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion that his even greater role began: he went on to write nearly half the Target novelisations, amid hundreds of books altogether.
Terrance’s first novel is still for me his best. He puts in enormous creativity, and you can see immediately that he’s a natural prose as well as script writer – people often talk about his deceptively easy style, but I’ve read an awful lot of Doctor Who authors and few of the others manage Terrance’s ‘effortless’ flow even when they’re trying. His style’s all the more effective for having plenty of action and humour, but understating both. Crisp, dry and with deft touches of horror and sketched-in one-line character backgrounds to help us empathise (often immediately before they’re blasted down), he’s aware that he’s writing in part for children but is never patronising, though occasionally simplifying, such as calling the more advanced doppelgänger Autons “Replicas” rather than “facsimiles” (it would be another decade before the term facsimile would be in common use, but even then associated with sinisterly smooth businessmen who want to take over the world). He’s responsible for generations finding how exciting reading can be.
One of Terrance’s best-known devices is his use of simple, memorable descriptions – and reusing them. Chapter 6 contrasts a comedy car sequence and a very different action-based one, and here we get the first but not the last outing in one of Terrance’s books of a soldier emptying a full clip of bullets into a monster, plainly seeing a line of holes appearing across its chest – but there’s no blood, and the thing just keeps on coming (Terrance considerately also has the man recognise that it’s not human, to reassure us that the army don’t just fill you full of lead when spooked). The Doctor’s driving, by contrast, is already ridiculously accomplished and appalling for the passengers. But it’s not just set pieces like those that recur: fanatical alien villains are already “exultant”; doomed characters already stare “in horrified fascination” or react “with unbelieving horror”; multiple ‘Doctor who?’ puns even come with in-character laugh-tracks. All these will become very familiar, though he’s not yet settled into a pattern of short, punchy chapters each ending in their own mini-cliffhanger: compared the rest, the final chapter is enormous and would make at least three in one of his later books. But his most famous description is here, when the TARDIS materialises right back in Chapter 1:
“…a strange wheezing and groaning filled the air.”
4 – The Auton Invasion. You can probably tell from the title where the book’s heading, and it’s a stunning tour-de-force. Like the similarly outstanding Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation, it makes even the series’ most thrilling action sequences seem broader, bigger-budget, and more compelling. Auton dummies coming to life behind high street windows is such a vivid image that it relaunched Doctor Who twice on TV – as well as being remade in multiple pop videos and even Pringles ads – but for me the one that still most enthralls me is on the page.
The Doctor and Liz have worked through the night on a device that could disrupt the Nestenes, but in the London dawn the city is coming to life in more than the ordinary way:
“Soon a normal, bustling London day would be in full swing. But this day, in London, and in cities all over the country, was to be like no other. This was the morning of the Auton invasion.One street and one copper draw us in, but the action telescopes swiftly out to the whole country. Autons blast people down in the streets of every major city; the police are overwhelmed by thousands of calls; it’s so serious that Terrance even mentions ITV as well as the BBC issuing urgent warnings to stay inside and barricade your home, before Autons destroy transmitters along with phone exchanges and fire stations. But the really effective part is when he widens the scope to full-on fifth columnist paranoia, with every response going wrong as ministers and senior officers give confusing or deliberately damaging orders – before their hands drop away to reveal Auton guns. It’s leavened by a few scattered examples of ‘hope in the ordinary people’s pluck and bravery’, but for the most part the invasion is pages of grim despair:
“In the shop windows and in the department stores the mannequins stood waiting. A policeman patrolling along Oxford Street cast a casual eye at the window display in one of the big stores. A group of window dummies, dressed in bright, casual sports clothes, sat under a beach umbrella in a cheerful seaside setting. The policeman thought longingly of his own holidays. Only another two weeks… As he passed on his way the mannequins posing round the table stirred and came to life. Jerkily at first, they rose from their beach chairs and rugs. The tallest raised its hand in a pointing gesture. The hand dropped away on its hinge to reveal a gun nozzle.”
“Chaos… panic… confusion… Then, one by one, the outside ’phones went dead.”
5 – Where Do Autons Come From? …Actually, I wish you’d not told me.
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”The book’s main villain is “Channing”, the new partner at a plastics factory. On TV the guest star makes him eerie and detached, perfectly alien. Here he’s an unnaturally smooth businessman, immaculately dressed, with regular, handsome features, utterly bland until he looks at you with those blazing eyes – as if he’s empty but for an animating will inside him. Like a waxwork come to life, the book suggests, or like Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher’s eyes. He spends the novel dominating factory manager Hibbert with his alien will and revering the thing in the tank that is to come after him. And however terrific the Auton Invasion itself, for me the most gripping moment in the book is the revelation when Hibbert finally manages to free his mind enough to ask him a question…
“‘But what’s going to happen to us—to Man?’ The full horror of it suddenly came over Hibbert. ‘You’ll destroy us.’That always gave me a thrill of horror when I was a boy – and others, too. Russell T Davies’ lovely Introduction to the 2011 edition not only talks about meeting his first fan through Target books (though his “doomed to never marry” shows how far we’ve come already since), confesses to childhood theft and praises Sir Terrance, as he should be, but picks that same line as the one that gave him chills and thrills. Can you spot the lines in Rose that came directly from this book, rather than the TV version? A young Alan Moore uses the same terror at the heart of his Auton tale Business As Usual (pairing him with Alan Davis before V For Vendetta). And the Terrance turns of phrase that I’m willing to bet stuck in a young JK Rowling’s head aren’t just stock descriptions like Professor Flitwick’s “shock of white hair”; at the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort, too, smiles a terrible smile…
“Channing’s voice was soothing. ‘Not you, Hibbert. You are our ally. You have helped us.’
Hibbert said dully: ‘And you… you’re not human.’
“‘I am part of the whole, Hibbert. Nestenes have no individual existence. This body is merely a container, Hibbert. You should know that. You made me.’
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”
What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion?
I’m still late, aren’t I? If I’m not careful it’ll soon be time to run screaming from the January sales. You can probably tell that I’d put this in my two or three favourite Target novels, and often still my favourite of the lot. But it isn’t entirely perfect. It can’t help missing something that the actors gave it on TV, and while Dr Liz Shaw comes out of it fairly well – lacking Caroline John’s sarky brilliance, but neatly emphasising her scientific ability and curiosity as the outsider finding her way into this weird set-up, the proof of the pudding being that I went to primary school with two Elizabeth Shaws, but I still thought this one was fantastic – Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s characterisation is more confused.
On TV, this is possibly Nicholas Courtney’s best performance and probably his best part as the leader of the army UNIT tasked with investigating uncanny happenings – for the first half of the story, he’s the lead, and he’s an intelligent young officer, an urbane, incisive, highly efficient professional, briskly in charge and pedeconferencing decades before it was fashionable. Terrance Dicks wrote this four years later, by which time the Brig was more a comforting fixture and never threatening to steal the show from a domineering Doctor who’d often treat him as the comic relief (though with Nick always retaining some dignity). And in the novel the Brigadier keeps switching between these two poles. He’s never quite a buffoon, but we get internal monologues about what a cushy job he’d been expecting, or his moustache bristling with military fervour when he thinks he’ll get the chance to bomb something, and he loses his own sardonic jokes as he becomes the butt of the narrator’s instead. Crucially, you can see why ambitious, modern TV Brigadier would pick Liz as a scientific adviser, but not how fuddy-duddy stereotype book Brigadier would. But then his best television scene, surrounded by journalists, comes off nearly as well with a very different treatment here, while he has stone-cold serious moments silently spotting the villain or even calmly awaiting death after running out of the machine-gun bullets he’s been blazing away with to cut Autons in two. And for a character that Terrance instinctively thinks of as cosy, it’s noticeable that four chapters out of ten begin with him tearing a strip off his captain (no wonder that one doesn’t come back). The book has a similarly contradictory attitude to the army in general, even more than the script does: on the one hand they turn out to be the Doctor’s friends and shoot up Johnny Alien; on the other, a tired, jumpy sentry shoots up Doctor Alien, too, and they’re not just problematic by human frailty – an Auton Replica hijacking the chain of command implicitly suggests soldiers are brave but too easily misused by abrogating moral responsibility to the group.
Even the most establishment Doctor here gets several anti-establishment moments, starting with a Mr Benn joke, so despite Terrance Dicks overseeing most of the Doctor’s time as UNIT’s scientific adviser, you can credit him with still pointing out that it should never be an easy fit.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, Why Not Try…
More Terrance Dicks, obviously. He’s gone down an astonishing long path with Doctor Who, with scripts from 1969’s The War Games to 1994’s Shakedown – Return of the Sontarans, probably the most successful of the straight-to-video while-it’s-off-the-air spin-offs. Mainly, though, it’s other books, his own ‘original’ novels – which usually have fun with elements from his own TV scripts, though World Game playfully rewrites the Prologue of The Auton Invasion – and the legion of Target adaptations. So I’m going to pick…
Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons. Terrance’s 1975 Auton sequel novelisation established them as Big Monsters for a generation of readers who, like me, hadn’t been born when they were on TV. This too is from a script by Robert Holmes, who Terrance has often said inspired his best books because he was simply Doctor Who’s best writer, and has nastier jokes, the Master and a much greater improvement on the TV version. I’ve previously written about it in considerable detail (and with a picture of me as a little boy, as it was something like the second book I ever bought).
Doctor Who – Made of Steel. This one’s from 2007, with David Tennant’s Doctor and the Cybermen. It’s one of Terrance’s most recent books, and the best of his original novels in about the last twenty years. Short and crisp, this “Quick Read” is hugely entertaining: Terrance does a brilliant job writing a punchy new series adventure, with a London landmark in trouble, absolutely nailing Mr Tennant’s speech and persona, borrowing its opening from the first Doctor Who story I ever saw – by Terrance – and, if you read with the right eye, giving simple but elegant put-downs along the way to both Primeval and Torchwood.
Though also see if you can find Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Business As Usual, a 1980 Doctor Who comic strip of the nastily ironic final “The End, dot dot dot question mark” kind (think Saki, or Tharg’s Future Shocks), that does a very similar little Auton plot as some kind of macabre joke.