Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos - A Review

This was a perfectly fine episode of Doctor Who - but as a season finale it was rather weak. It would not have looked out of place mid-season. Chris Chibnall decided to dispense with a story arc this season, only to spring one half-heartedly at this late stage, with direct references to the first and second episodes. The Ghost Monument had simply mentioned the Stenza and introduced the Sniper-bots, who are as inept here as they were in their first outing. They hardly make the Stenza look like any kind of serious threat if this is the best they can manage. After The Ghost Monument, the Stenza were never mentioned again. Perhaps if they had been threaded through the rest of the season then their reappearance here might have worked better. As it is, we did not get to see them in their massed ranks. All we got was the one from the opening episode - "Tim Shaw". He's been hanging around a planet for 3407 years, building a weapon with which he plans to take his revenge on the Doctor. He's aided in this by a pair of humanoid aliens called the Ux, who are basically Earthbenders from Avatar: The Last Airbender. They think Tim is their god, or creator.
One thing which really did not work for me in this episode was the way in which the Ux simply stopped believing in Tim after a few minutes chat with the Doctor. Half a dozen planets have already been destroyed by the weapon, and yet they only now suddenly realise Tim might be up to no good?
What made them think he was their creator in the first place, considering he was just a weak individual from a relatively minor species?
The idea of planets being removed and shrunk is hardly a new one for the series. Davros and the Daleks were stealing planets back in Series 4, and the Captain and Queen Xanxia were doing it as far back as Season 16's The Pirate Planet.

The episode was rather slow to get started, which meant that the ending was a little rushed. As I said, the Ux are suddenly turned against Tim and begin collaborating with the Doctor. The TARDIS is then used to send the planets back to their rightful places before they can destroy Ranskoor Av Kolos.
As usual Bradley Walsh was one of the best things in the episode. Finding out that Tim Shaw is here, he decides that if he gets the chance he will kill him - as he was responsible for Grace's death. He's prepared to stand up to the Doctor over this. In the end, he does get the chance to kill him but elects not to, and Tim ends up imprisoned in one of his own stasis chambers - leaving the door open for him to make a return appearance. Another disappointing thing this week was the title. The battle is over before we join the action. There isn't even any flashback to it as Mark Addy's character regains his memories. All in all, the title is a bit of a cheat.
At least this week we actually got some scenes set in the TARDIS and, as mentioned, the ship was used to help resolve the threat.
The BBC decided not to provide any preview screenings for the finale, prompting many fans to speculate that there would be something on screen that was worth keeping secret. I have absolutely no idea why they did this. If it was to keep us guessing if all of the Doctor's companions would make it out alive, then they should not have published that photo of all of them from the New Year's Day special (the title of which has been announced as Resolution). Rumours have been flying around that there will be Daleks at New Year, which might have featured in the throw-forward teaser. The "deadliest being in the universe" does get a mention - but then the Doctor claimed that title for the P'ting not that long ago.
We can now stand back and look at the season as a whole. For me, it has been a disappointing one. We've had a couple of good episodes, but have also had to sit through a lot of very weak ones - mostly courtesy of the new show-runner. We've had promising potential story arcs introduced then promptly forgotten about - the Timeless Child, for instance. Dispensing with old monsters, in favour of ineffectual new ones, was a mistake in my view. As I have said before, the Doctor is defined by how they respond to the monsters, and Jodie Whittaker simply wasn't given anything substantial to stand up to this year.
Then today it was announced that there would not be another series until at least January 2020. The complexities of making the series have been cited. That's the same complexities which Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat faced, and they managed to give us at least a season of specials or half a season every year, bar 2016. Hopefully Chibnall will use the downtime to take some script-writing classes...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Inspirations - Terror of the Zygons

Terror of the Zygons is one of only two stories written by Robert Banks Stewart. (A third commission was never completed, but did form the basis for Robert Holmes' The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Producer Philip Hinchcliffe was an admirer of his work and sought him out for the show. Stewart asked to do an Earth-based story, having little interest in outer space type tales. As a Scot, he was naturally inspired by his homeland's most famous mystery - that of "Nessie", the Loch Ness Monster.
Doctor Who had touched on the subject of Cryptozoology on a couple of occasions in the past, with Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, and sea serpents in Carnival of Monsters.  Cryptozoologists study animals which are as yet unknown to normal zoology - either because they are thought not to exist at all, are believed to be extinct, or simply haven't been discovered yet. Every year new species of animals and birds are discovered. Just recently a monkey was spotted in South America which was thought to have become extinct over 50 years ago. DNA research has allowed zoologists to discover that a number of animals thought to be of the same family are actually quite distinct species. The most famous cryptids are the ones for which there has never been any proven physical evidence. Sea serpents and lake monsters, Yeti and Bigfoot are the most famous examples.

The earliest mention of a water-based monster in the Loch Ness region, in the North East of Scotland, comes from the 7th Century, when a man named Adamnan wrote a history of Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to the area. In August 565 AD Columba came across a burial party, and was told that the man had just been killed by a monster in Loch Ness. Needing to cross the body of water, Columba asked one of his acolytes to swim out and fetch the dead man's boat which was floating adrift. As he did so, the monster reappeared. Columba called upon the power of God to repel it and so saved his follower. The local people were so impressed that they converted. The problem with this account is that it was written a century after the event described, and the text refers to the River Ness, rather than the loch itself.
Loch monsters are popular in Scotland, the most well known being the Kelpie or Water Horse. These malevolent creatures appear on land as ordinary horses, but when someone climbs on their backs they leap into the water and their victim is drowned. It is thought that the Kelpie myth was created as a means to deter children from playing by the water.
In modern times, interest in the monster gained momentum in the late 1920's, when a new road was built along the length of the loch, opening up almost uninterrupted views. A couple out on a drive one day described seeing a large, humped animal crossing the road. Soon after, the infamous "Surgeon's Photograph" appeared. This has since been exposed as a fake - it was a model dinosaur head stuck on a toy submarine. Many other photographs began to appear, however, which were harder to debunk. Eye-witness statements began circulating from tourists as well as locals. During World War II, the Italians even claimed to have bombed the loch and killed the monster - such was the fame that Nessie had acquired globally.
Sightings continued sporadically throughout the 1950's and 1960's, but there was a sudden upsurge in interest in the 1970's. In 1975 Robert Rynes and naturalist Sir Peter Scott stunned the world with some colour photographs which appeared to show a large diamond-shaped fin, and a long necked creature. It was later shown that these images had been heavily "cleaned up", and the original pictures were inconclusive, to say the least.
This was the backdrop to Stewart's story.

What was also topical in Scotland in the 1970's was the North Sea Oil boom. Gas reserves had been found in and around the North Sea from the 1850's, and gas was being drilled for in the 1960's. In 1969 oil was found off the coast of Norway, and further explorations discovered other oil fields over the next few years, including some off the coast of Scotland. Following the 1973 oil crisis, the oil companies increased their explorations and soon a number of significant fields had been identified. Two fields (Ardmore and Forties) began producing oil in 1975, with more planned.
In developing his story Stewart added this topical issue to his Loch Ness Monster tale. Being Doctor Who, aliens had to be behind the monster, and so Stewart came up with the Zygons, the name inspired by zygote - the union of a sperm cell and an egg cell. The monster was alien as well, a pet of the Zygons. The name, plus a script mention of the Zygons feeding on the Skarasen's lactic fluid (milk), prompted costume designer James Acheson to come up with a design based on embryos. Unfortunately there wasn't much consultation with the set designer, and the Zygons could barely fit through the doors of their spaceship.
The director chosen for this story was Douglas Camfield, making his return to the programme after an absence of 5 years. His last story had been Inferno, during the making of which he had fallen seriously ill with heart problems. His wife had forbidden him from doing any more Doctor Who's, as they were so stressful to produce. Camfield had earlier fallen out with the series' regular composer Dudley Simpson (the result of a misunderstanding over income), and so he used a new composer for Terror of the Zygons - Geoffrey Burgon.
Camfield has the TARDIS arrive in Scotland and turn invisible - a nod to his earlier story The Invasion, in which the ship had also become invisible. The reason for its arrival here is that the Doctor has received a message from the Brigadier, summoning him back to Earth. This was seen at the conclusion of the previous story - Revenge of the Cybermen.

It is clear that this story was always supposed to end the 12th Season of the show, with its direct link to that previous story and the departure of Harry Sullivan at the conclusion. The BBC had decided that the programme would do better to start the next season in the autumn, rather than the New Year, and so Terror of the Zygons was held back. After years of ITV trying and failing to come up with a series to rival Doctor Who, the BBC had also got wind of a lavishly produced new series from Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade's ITC, which might finally prove to offer real competition. An earlier start to Season 13 would steal a march on this new series - Space: 1999. They need not have worried. The Anderson vehicle turned out to be a little too sterile for British viewers, and the first season was distinctly lacking in monsters (there's only one, albeit a very good one, in the episode Dragon's Domain), so after a couple of weeks Doctor Who regained many of those who had decided to give it a try.
Harry's departure was due to the fact that it had been intended that the Fourth Doctor would have been played by a much older actor, and a younger man was needed for the action sequences. The casting of Tom Baker made Harry's function redundant. Robert Holmes argued for him to be kept, and Philip Hinchcliffe has since said he regrets having dispensed with the character when he did.
Ian Marter will be back later in the season, but it is farewell (for now) to Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier. He and John Levene had both felt during the making of Robot that their time on the show was coming to an end when Hinchcliffe arrived - intending to get the Doctor back out into Space and Time again. It was never intended that this story would see the last of the Brigadier as a regular character. A couple of later stories were to have involved Courtney, but he had taken on stage work and his availability was reduced. He simply couldn't pass up longer term work when he was being offered less to do on Doctor Who.

When the Doctor Who production team had decided to do a story set in the Welsh valleys - The Green Death - it had come under fire for its stereotypical view of Wales and the Welsh. Despite having a Scottish author, Terror of the Zygons unfortunately does the same thing with Scotland and the Scots. The story opens with a radio operator on an oil rig bemoaning the fact that their chef can't make haggis very well. Realising where they have landed, the Doctor discards his usual scarf and hat and opts for tartan alternatives. We then see the Brigadier in a kilt, explaining to Sarah that he is a member of the Clan Stewart after all. (You'll recall that he appears to have been a member of a Scottish regiment when we first saw him back in The Web of Fear, when he sported a Glengarry.
The laird has a gamekeeper nicknamed "Caber", as in the tree trunk tossed by participants in Highland Games. Hotel landlord Angus (as Scottish a name as you can get) plays the bagpipes, and has the second sight. At the conclusion, the myth of the mean Scotsman is perpetuated as the Duke of Forgill talks about saving money on the Doctor and Sarah's return train tickets. (Scots themselves often brand the Aberdonians mean. The whole meanness thing is a myth, as demonstrated by the fact that when it comes to TV telethons like Comic Relief and Children In Need, Scots donate more per capita than people from the more affluent South East of England). It should be noted that the 1970's saw a massive resurgence in Scottish Nationalism, resulting in a devolution referendum in 1979. This was mainly down to the prospect of North Sea Oil revenues and a series of weak Westminster governments, rather than a reaction to Terror of the Zygons, but you never know...
Next time: the Doctor and Sarah land on a Jekyll and Hyde planet, in a story based on a classic 1950's Sci-Fi movie, which was in turn inspired by Shakespeare...

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

There ARE such things as Macra...

I thought that the next "lost" story to be animated and released on DVD might be The Wheel In Space, as a 10 minute clip from the first episode of this was screened (is to be screened? I can't recall when it's on) at the "Missing, Believed Wiped" event at the BFI.
However, according to the Digital Spy website today, the next one will actually be earlier Troughton tale The Macra Terror. Only a handful of very brief clips exist for this four part story, courtesy of the Australian censors.
It is to be released on March 25th 2019 on all formats (DVD, Blu-ray, digital download) in both B&W and a colourised version. You can pre-order it on-line from tomorrow.
Four weeks earlier, we will be getting Tom Baker's final season as a Blu-ray box-set. Extras will include new CGI effects for Logopolis, as well as the Sarah Jane Smith / K9 spin-off K9 & Company: A Girl's Best Friend. Expect the release date for this to change, as the last two box-sets were each shifted back twice.

Monday, 3 December 2018

It Takes You Away - A Review

Now this one I really liked. Even the talking frog.
Only a couple of minor niggles with this episode, so I'll get them out of the way quickly. First of all, if that is the north of Norway in winter then I am the brother of the parent of an arboreal Simiiforme. Then we had the Doctor describe the house as "deserted", despite having just seen someone at the window and with the door heavily bolted from the inside. Also, maybe I missed it, but was it ever explained why Erik hadn't simply taken Hanne to where her mother was still alive, instead of leaving her for four days to fend for herself, believing there was a monster on the loose. Pretty dire parenting, as was pointed out in the dialogue. One other gripe - a bigger one - was that neither the Doctor nor Yaz was confronted by a dead loved one when they entered the alternate dimension. Only Graham saw his wife, Grace. It would have made far more sense if the Solitract looked and sounded like a loved one of the Doctor's, as it was she who was staying behind. Instead, it sounded like Grace and looked like one of her favourite things (the frog), despite Graham already having been expelled back to the Anti-zone.
I went into this story with low expectations. Knowing that one of the principal characters was going to be kid, I expected the worst. As it was, Eleanor Wallwork was superb as Hanne.
I also suspected that this story might be a little more fairy tale (something like In The Forest of the Night) and, in a way it was, but nowhere near as twee.
What we had was a portal to another dimension within the house which young Hanne shared with her father, Erik. Her mother had died some time ago. The portal was in a mirror, and the dimension was accessed via an intermediate domain known as an Anti-zone. Here we met Mr Ribbons - Ribbons of the 7 Stomachs - as played by Kevin Eldon. He was great, and it was shame that we did not get to see more of him. He was a very well realised character, defining everything he did through barter for food. The Fleshmoths (which eventually devoured him) were such a simple yet effective threat. Apart from the brutality of witch duckings last week, and the shocking racism of Episode 3, this series has generally shied away from overt horrific images (going out at 6.30pm on a Sunday, after all) but here we saw one of the moths crawling out of Ribbons' flesh-stripped skull. The series has sorely missed this kind of thing lately.

The alternate dimension beyond the Anti-zone is the domain of the Solitract - a force from the beginning of the universe which is a sort of disorganising principle, incompatible with the rest of the universe. In order for the universe to exist, it had to be exiled away into this place, where it is feeling rather lonely - hence its luring of Erik away with a reunion with his dead wife, and creating a false Grace to make Graham stay. We've had fake loved ones in the programme before, but it was all well handled here.
The monster in the woods which the title alludes to turned out to have been faked by Erik to stop Hanne following him. Monsters that have proven not to be so has been a sore point with me all season, but this time it fitted the plot - though you could argue that it was a rather convoluted and downright sick thing for Erik to have done. Couldn't he have just told Hanne he was going to be away for a few days and she shouldn't answer the door to strangers?
Once again Graham was brilliant. From the early humour (carrying a sandwich as he has noticed they keep missing meals) to his apparent reunion with his dead spouse, Bradley Walsh proves yet again to be the most watchable of the companions. Yaz was a lot stronger this week, and for once Ryan did not bleat too much about his terrible life. I've been waiting in vain for a punch-the-air moment this series, expecting it to come from the Doctor, but the closest we've come was Ryan finally calling Graham "granddad".
All in all, I'd be happy to see writer Ed Hime brought back for future stories.
By this stage in the proceedings I am usually very excited about the season finale. This is not the case this year. Next week is just another episode as far as I'm concerned. If Chibnall is going to finally go all story-arc on us then he has left it very late indeed. I strongly suspect that the lacklustre Stenza will be the villains, with references back to those earlier, disappointing, episodes which he wrote. Are we really expected to get excited about something which hasn't been mentioned since Episode Two? We know that all the companions survive, as we've seen them all in a photo from the New Year Special.
Hopefully the finale will see some proper TARDIS interior scenes - otherwise you have to ask yourself why they bothered redesigning it at all.

The Witchfinders - A Review

The second half of the series is still proving to be superior to the opening half, and the writers whose names aren't Chris Chibnall are still proving to be far better than the one who is called Chris Chibnall. He has finally taken a back seat and let others come up with a clutch of more interesting storylines.
I quite liked The Witchfinders, by Joy Wilkinson, though it was far from perfect.
This was a darker episode which dwelt on horrific themes - both historical and fictional. I wasn't at all happy that they actually pointed out that women had a hard time in the 17th Century. Talk about stating the obvious. I'm sure even those viewers who have little interest in history in general, or of the witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, were aware of this. This lecturing was made rather redundant when they had the local landowner, most powerful person in the district, a woman.
The real history derives from the fact that hundreds of people - most of whom (but by no means not all) were women - were branded as witches and subsequently jailed and executed. Female victims were generally older, unmarried women, in a time when the norm was that women were supposed to have a husband. Many had acted as midwives and herbalists, and knew how to prepare potions for the curing of various maladies. As soon as a neighbour turned against them and made an accusation - often simply because they wanted their property or had a simple falling out with them over something - these things which had benefited the local community could be twisted and used against them.
King James I (VIth of Scotland) certainly had an obsession about witches and wrote a book about them - prompted by his belief that a group of Berwickshire witches had attempted to kill him by summoning a storm to wreck a ship he was travelling on. This, however, was not enough to justify his presence in the storyline. If you are going to come up with a Celebrity Historical, then the celebrity has to have a reason for being present. If you know anything about James, then you'll know that he was extremely paranoid, following a number of abduction and assassination attempts going back to when he was a baby. The idea of him running around the wilds of Lancashire in the middle of a witch infestation, with minimal protection, was simply ludicrous.
The fictional horror derived from a couple of movies - 1968's cult classic Witchfinder General (starring Vincent Price as a fictionalised Matthew Hopkins), and its unofficial follow-up Blood on Satan's Claw (1971).
With the dead witches rising from the grave I was also reminded of the Hammer film Plague of the Zombies (1966).

The two guest artists were fine in their own ways. Siobhan Finneran played Becka Savage totally straight. At first glance she seems an outright monster, but we then see how she wants to save her community and will do anything it takes to protect the villagers from Satan. Alan Cumming, on the other hand, has a lot of fun with a foppish King James. Some might think his performance a tad pantomime-ish, but personally I thought that such a bleak subject matter needed a little lightening, and he did have a great scene with the Doctor when she had been captured and accused herself by Savage of being a witch.
In the same way that I thought it highly unlikely that the King would be traipsing around the countryside, so I thought that it was nonsense that a powerful landowner would go round cutting down their own trees. A job for the servants, surely.
The witch outbreak turns out to have alien origins - the work of the Morax. At last we get an alien species in the programme who are actually evil. All the aliens this season, just about, have been a huge let down as they have turned out to pose little or no threat, and been superfluous to the plot. This has been one of the problems with Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. Doctors are defined by the threats they face, and how they deal with them, and she has had nothing to play against. We've still to see any sort of defining moment for this particular incarnation.
When Becka began to mutate into a Morax I half expected her to shout "Pyrovile!". As I said, the revenant witches reminded me of a classic horror movie, and they were genuinely creepy as they stalked through the mist-shrouded forest. Sadly, this took place quite late in the proceedings, and we were treated to a rather rushed ending.
Not a bad episode, but well short of being a great one. Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts had far more fun with witches a decade ago.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Holiday Break

I am disappearing off on holiday to the Eternal City for the next week or so. There won't be any updates until I get back, so my reviews of The Witchfinders and It Takes You Away will be late - but hopefully worth waiting for. They will both appear on my return - which should be Monday 3rd December.
Caio for now.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

G is for... Gavrok

Gavrok was the sadistic leader of the Bannermen, who were hunting the Chimeron people to extinction. The Chimeron queen Delta was the last survivor of the race, but she had in her safekeeping the egg of a new princess, from whom a new generation could spring. Delta fled to a space-port but Gavrok gave chase, issuing a bounty on her head. When Delta transferred to a tourist craft which was heading for Earth, Gavrok killed the Toll-Keeper after learning of her destination. The Doctor's companion Mel was on the same tour craft, with the Doctor following on in the TARDIS. A collision with a satellite caused the craft to crashland elsewhere on the planet - just outside a holiday camp in South Wales. Unfortunately, also on the tour craft was a bounty hunter who knew of Gavrok's reward, and he gave away Delta's location. Never intending to pay the monies, Gavrok beamed a destructive signal to the bounty hunter's communicator, hoping that the blast would kill Delta as well. This attempt failed. The Bannermen ship then landed near the camp and Gavrok led his men on a hunt for the Chimeron. The Doctor tried to negotiate with him, but to no avail. A trap led to Gavrok and his men being covered in honey and attacked by a swarm of bees. They then launched an assault on the camp, after Gavrok had placed a sonic mine on the roof of the TARDIS. The Chimeron egg had hatched, and the child rapidly grew into a young girl. She could generate a high pitched sound which the Bannermen could not stand. Her voice was amplified to attack Gavrok and his men. Stunned by the sound, Gavrok stumbled into the detonation zone of the sonic grenade and he was destroyed, whilst his men were all captured.

Played by: Don Henderson. Appearances: Delta and the Bannermen (1987).
  • Henderson had come to fame as the rather seedy but philosophical D.S. George Bulman, in the spy series The XYY Man. This ran for 13 episodes between 1976 - 77. His character was then given another series, called Strangers, which ran between 1978 - 82, where Bulman was promoted to Detective Chief Inspector. Bulman then got a third series - called Bulman - in which he was no longer a police officer but investigated on his own. It ran from 1985 - 87.
  • He's probably best known for his appearance as an Imperial Officer - General Taggi - in the first Star Wars movie.