Wednesday, March 21, 2007

 

Doctor Who – New Beginnings: Logopolis

It makes me feel old to realise that the final episode of this story was first broadcast twenty-six years ago today, but unlike Tom Baker’s Doctor, I’m not about to transform into a younger man. The best-remembered of the trilogy of stories in this DVD box set, Logopolis is driven by extraordinary ideas and a funereal atmosphere, with Tom giving one of his finest performances. The whole Universe is threatened, but it’s the inescapable sense that the Doctor’s future is catching up with him that gives the story its heart, building to what’s still the most moving change between Doctors.
“It’s the end… But the moment has been prepared for.”
You’ve probably seen some of the trailers that have started up in the last week for the new series of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Martha appear as two halves of the same face, living their own lives that gradually bring them together in the TARDIS. It looks great, and I still know very little about any of it all – hopefully I’ll be able to stay in that happy state of surprise and delight until at least a week on Saturday, when the new series begins. One thing I do know is that the Doctor will somehow befriend a new companion, Martha Jones, whose face you’ll now already know from the ads. After recreating itself as a big hit with Christopher Eccleston in 2005, last year it had to establish a new Doctor, and now find a way of following Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The series has always changed and evolved, and the original series had more than its share of change in the twenty-six years it ran. One of the biggest challenges of all was a full and rather scary twenty-six years ago today, when the man with the scarf, the longest-serving, most popular and iconic Doctor of the lot finally left. What could be a fitting exit? And how could you possibly follow Tom?

By accident or design, Tom Baker left Doctor Who not in a single scene, or even a single story, but as the climax of themes that had built up over an entire season of the show, its eighteenth. He’d played the part through seven years, but not in the same way throughout: moody, playful or doomy, Tom’s performance is as varied as his stories and almost as delightful, but when he’s really blazing with charm or blazing with passion as he stands up to some cosmic bully, ah, that still feels like you could watch him forever. His stories start off with scary horror, evolve into carefree fun and fantasy, then end up as sombre scientific fairy tales, and I love each approach (and that none of them stayed around too long). Again whether through chance or careful planning, perhaps just because it was the time of ‘concept albums’, all Tom’s seasons have strong themes that link the stories within them. There’s ‘body horror’, ‘dark religion’, ‘Time Lords’, ‘The Key to Time’ and even ‘the power of words’, but for me the two years with the most distinctive flavours are his first and his last, each dealing with new beginnings, one pitching a fresh new Doctor into humanity’s different missions to survive through cold science, the other building up to the ‘death’ of a tired, wise old Doctor in stories of ‘decay and change’, each one showing how things fall apart and then offering hope of new life. This final season for Tom’s Fourth Doctor is less playful than before, but still wittily quotable; scary again, with vivid images, great music, every penny seeming well-spent and an enthralling feeling of doom that gets deeper with every story… Even if you weren’t following the scripted themes and didn’t know that new producer John Nathan-Turner had determined to make his mark, you couldn’t miss the mood of it all, the way the musical and visual style had suddenly changed, or that new companions were suddenly surrounding the Doctor, now almost the last thing about the show that hadn’t changed. Fortunately, after all this build-up the end-of-season finale pays off – and though it has a remarkable visual and musical style, its strength lies not in spectacle but in its ideas and its leading man. Sitting in the middle of the trilogy between The Keeper of Traken and Castrovalva, Logopolis is not just the literal centrepiece of the Doctor Who New Beginnings DVD set but its emotional heart.

The TARDIS Inside-Out

With so much in the series changing or about to change by the time Logopolis was broadcast, nothing seemed entirely secure. With the main creative force driving this season being script editor Christopher H Bidmead – script editor being, at the time, almost as significant a position as Russell T Davies’ ‘lead writer / show runner’ status on the new series – it’s a good job he ended up writing the final story that brought it all together, or rather showed how everything could fall apart. It’s a fascinating script, brimming with ideas, whether immense scientific concepts (including a wild excitement about these new-fangled things called computers), compelling myths or a mixture of the two, with dialogue running from the sharply witty to the impenetrably technological, for me only really falling down in the way it draws some of its characters, or fails to. One of the cleverest things Mr Bidmead’s script does, however, is take things we think we know and make them suddenly strange and disturbing – almost the series’ job description, but applied to familiar elements of the series itself, most strikingly the TARDIS and the Master.

Logopolis begins by making the TARDIS unsettling. Viewers had had eighteen years to get used to it as a place of safety and familiarity, with the fact that its battered old police box exterior concealed a space and time ship that was bigger on the inside than the outside long past being a surprise. An Unearthly Child, the very first episode back in 1963, opened with a policeman finding a police box with two oddities: what was it doing hidden in a junkyard rather than out on the street, and why did it give off a strange hum of power? Logopolis opens with a police officer going up to what was by then a rarity, one of the outmoded old police boxes, and opening the front panel to make a call. As they’d largely vanished from the streets since the ’60s, the audience first think he’s approaching the TARDIS, then realise it’s one of the last ‘real’ ones. Then, just as we’re settling down to that adjusted perception, the police box bucks and shimmers disturbingly, the ’phone stops working and the policeman is dragged inside, to sinister music and a sinister chuckle. With the viewer no longer sure what to make of the TARDIS, we’re then introduced to the Doctor striding along dusty, ivied cloisters that make the TARDIS’ inside, too, seem strange and ancient, then hear that he too is worried about his ship and that a ‘Cloister Bell’ warning of doom is sounding to confirm his fears. The TARDIS is old and unreliable, and one of its many disadvantages is that, though in theory it should change its shape to hide more effectively, it’s been stuck for many years as the same instantly recognisable blue box. The Doctor decides to measure up a real police box, then take the results to a planet of computational geniuses he knows so they can spot the difference. Or something. Anyway, the Doctor plans to fix it, but though you’ll know even from the 2007 trailers that he doesn’t quite succeed in transforming his ship into a different shape, he ends the story in a new shape himself, while Mr Bidmead’s sly pun is that though the TARDIS’ exterior stays the same in our eyes, the script succeeds brilliantly in transforming the idea of the TARDIS in our heads.

The whole first episode is concerned with making the TARDIS suddenly an unknown and uncanny place, as the Doctor lands his ship around the same ‘strange’ police box that we saw earlier only to apparently release a spectral figure that goes on to haunt him, and to find that, rather than the tiny cupboard-like space he was expecting, for once he’s the one who’s surprised that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. He and Adric go deeper and deeper inside the ‘other’ TARDIS, each time finding yet another police box within, each time finding it darker, dimly orange-lit as if they’re flies trapped in amber. It helps that, with so many scenes within the TARDIS, they’ve obviously spent quite a bit of money to build the cloisters and panelled corridors, as well as a new and much larger control room (though the control console itself remains a little battered). It makes the ship look properly enormous and is well-shot, often from very high angles, to emphasise that. A number of ’80s Doctor Who stories spend altogether too much time inside the TARDIS instead of getting out and exploring the strange place in which it’s landed. That isn’t the case here. In this story, the TARDIS itself has become a strange and dangerous place, and with the Doctor and Adric exploring the cancer at the heart of it, two people wander inside looking for help, one to her death – disturbingly from the TARDIS’-eye view – and the other seeing it as a terrifying labyrinth (with her then effectively stalked in the second part of the story). Unlike the ‘usual’ Doctor Who model of a scary story, where perhaps we’d come to expect and so be less affected by scary monsters, this becomes more unsettling by subverting the show’s safest place in these doomily compelling sequences, a horror story inside the TARDIS, a nightmare of infinite rooms. After starting with a reminder of the very first Doctor Who story, there’s another effect here, too, for long-term viewers; Logopolis takes elements of several stories from Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor and weaves them into something more dark and serious (a ‘ghost’ of a Time Lord’s future from Planet of the Spiders, TARDISes within TARDISes from The Time Monster, and a great deal from of the iconography from Terror of the Autons turned less playful and more deadly). The most obvious of these is the confirmation – a fear realised for the Doctor, but no surprise to anyone witnessing the sting in the tail that closed The Keeper of Traken – that the cause of the darkness in the TARDIS is the Master.

A New Baddie At Last
“One mistake now could ruin everything.”
The return of the Master in a new body, suave and bearded as he’d been in the early ’70s, is what pushes the story along, though the success of the changes to this character is rather more mixed than the story’s remarkable ability to transform the TARDIS. One of the Doctor’s people, another travelling exile but with a taste for power rather than a wide-eyed enjoyment in exploring the Universe, John Nathan-Turner decided that the Master should be brought back, and Christopher H Bidmead decided that he had to be more nasty and less charming. Originally devised as a Moriarty-like recurring arch-enemy for the Doctor (and yes, I know, that means he isn’t like Moriarty, though Logopolis does consciously end with a deadly reversal of the Reichenbach Falls), that version was played rather well by Roger Delgado, but was often rather more likeable than the Doctor at the time and not exactly a brilliant opponent: there are only so many times you can ally yourself with a dubious race of alien conquerors, then realise at the last minute that once you’ve done your side of the bargain they’re going to turn on you – and he often realised this after they’d turned on him – before a critical observer starts saying, ‘It isn’t them, it’s you’. He worked superbly as a burned-out, hate-filled ghoul in The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken, but Anthony Ainley’s portrayal of him in the ’80s sees a return to the ludicrous plans, and repetitive plots based on ‘I need a new body / TARDIS / microwave’ or ‘I must devise a complicated way to get my revenge on the Doctor rather than have a plan to do anything to advance my own position’, each of which motivations was a fresh take on the character in The Deadly Assassin but each of which get very stale. The other problem with the character is that he’s often used as a general-purpose cackling bad guy who, well, just cackles and is bad, and with that little to work on, in several (though not all) stories Mr Ainley cackles rather too much and adds extra meanings to ‘bad’ acting, often justifying his comedy sketch dismissal as ‘the camp one’.

Logopolis builds up the threat of the Master very well, with him an unseen but palpable presence for the first half of the story, his sinister chuckles stalking several characters and poisoning the TARDIS, and the Doctor gaunt and bleak at the first cliffhanger as he finds dead, grotesquely shrunken bodies and knows from this calling card that the Master must have escaped from Traken. Well, all right, they’re Action Men, but it’s still an effective moment. It’s once he makes a full appearance that things occasionally go awry. He is sadistic and unpleasant, and has a terrific moment when, having approached Nyssa and – as he now ghoulishly possesses her dead father – used her as an unwitting spy in the Doctor’s camp, she learns who and what he is. Challenged that he killed her father, his dismissive retort is “But his body remains useful,” which gets across how vile he is more than any amount of panto devilry. Next to old Tom, he looks young, lean and lithe, the coming man, and that’s obviously how he thinks of himself. In 1981, there’s a definite air of selfish Thatcherite on the rise, and towards the end of the story he teases the Doctor for his age and comfortable ways, able to patronise his wistful appreciation of the Master’s fully functional TARDIS with:
“Excellent, Doctor. Envy is the beginning of all true greatness.”
Other impressive moments of characterisation include his horror at the appalling results of his mistake sliding into an eye for the main chance, or the way he loses his nerve like a typical bully and bolts, even when his best interests lie in working with the Doctor to salvage the horrific mess he’s accidentally created. His ambitious impatience sparks this catastrophe, but it also makes him seem more stupid and as a result less dangerous; when his slightly silly schemes are totally outmatched by what actually happens, it’s like a B-Movie being thrashed by hard science fiction. Of course, the villain shouldn’t have the foresight or wisdom of the hero, but when he rapidly teeters over into such clichéd plotting and then gloats about it so that the Doctor is already exclaiming, “You’re utterly mad!” Well, that just makes him less sinister than a bit silly.

Though the focus of the story is on his arch-enemy, the Doctor is accompanied by a number of friendlier but equally newly cast regular characters. Well, I say ‘characters’, but like the Master, they’re less character parts than walking plot functions, and though Adric, Nyssa and Tegan also each work pretty well in this story, just like the Master they later get stuck in plots in which they function rather less well and have little in the way of well-rounded characterisation to help them out. Adric’s function here is to be the Doctor’s apprentice and old friend (even though he’s only been about for a handful of stories), and he performs it quite adequately – particularly when his dialogue with the Doctor sparks off some of the funnier moments, such as his over-literal misunderstanding of idiom (“Standing on their heads is an expression,” mutters the Doctor), or when the Doctor, on edge, snaps at him to provide some reassurance to his mentor for a change. And he gets to perch on top of a TARDIS, which isn’t an image you see every day. Nyssa’s function is even simpler: having lost her father and soon rather more, she’s there to suffer nobly, and the astonishingly vast canvas on which this story turns out to be painted needs someone to show the impact it has on people. As a result, she gets one of the most achingly affecting scenes in the story, which I’ll come to in the next and more spoilery section. Tegan, on the other hand, is supposed to be the ordinary person who asks questions and who the audience identifies with. She joins the series here when she tries to make a call from the TARDIS after her car gets a flat – she merely gets lost and taken to another planet, while her doomed Aunt Vanessa isn’t so lucky – and she’s an Australian air hostess. You can tell this, because she’s brash, shouts a lot, and talks about aircraft all the time, while aircraft are subtly heard going overhead. Despite all this, I’ve always rather warmed to her, particularly with her little faults; I can recognise that sometimes she blusters about things that she’s not actually very practical on to cover her nervousness and recklessness. I can empathise with that. As effectively the first ‘audience viewpoint character’ of the ’80s, she also provides a huge contrast with Rose, the first of the new series’ companions. Tegan spends most of her time shouting at the Doctor; Rose gets cross with him on occasion with reason, but mostly enjoys herself. Even more importantly, Tegan – like Adric and Nyssa – blatantly goes through what used to be almost a companion’s rite of passage in their first story: one of her family gets killed, she gets over it pretty quickly, and (even though Tegan is the only TARDIS traveller other than Rose who we ever see visit other family members) so, symbolically, we know no-one’s going to miss her. Rose’s family were a strong thread throughout her stories and panicked when she disappeared, yet here the Doctor is a surrogate father to three young people, all of whom have just lost an older family figure in violent circumstances. And in this story they’re going to lose their Doctor, too…

But I’m Telling You the Plot…

Not quite yet, I’m not. But soon…

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Comments:
Wow, Alex. You make Logopolis sound like a great story. :-)

Thanks.

--
Chris
 
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