Memory Cheats: Spearhead From Space

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 03/03/2013 - 4:59pm in

In the previous story (the War Games), the Time Lords (so named for the first time) have finally caught up with the Doctor, and as punishment for meddling in the affairs of lesser species he's exiled to an insignificant little planet (Sol 3 in Mutter's Spiral, or "Earth" to it's inhabitants), had his TARDIS driver's licence revoked, and been forced to "change his appearance". (No mention of "regeneration" here; the term will be introduced in five years time.) From here on in, it's all change.

The first thing you'll notice about Spearhead From Space is that it's in colour. The second is that, compared to earlier (and unfortunately also later) stories, it looks like a million bucks.

Industrial action by studio staff at the BBC meant that the studios at Television Centre and Lime Grove were effectively closed, and the only way to shoot this story was 100% on location and therefore 100% on film. Until the mid-70s video cameras were too bulky to use on location, so what little location work there was on most television drama productions was done on film before being transferred to video tape. This was no bad thing, as video cameras were very bad at picking up lighting subtleties, resulting in a flat, plastic-looking finished product. Of course, you then get a rather jarring aesthetic jump when you cut from a location scene to a studio scene, but film was also horrendously expensive compared to video, so outside of exceptional circumstances, you just had to live with that.

Having said that, it's still not quite cinema standard, even for the time. There are quite a lot of rather clumsy edits, maybe because the ad-hoc, emergency nature of the production didn't leave a lot of time for planning for all the needed footage. The acoustics in some locations are pretty dreadful (mainly echo), which I quite like because it lends a kind of cinéma vérité quality, though I can imagine it drove the BBC engineers barmy: You may complain studio recordings look and sound unrealistic, but it's controlled, standardised, professional unrealism, dammit!

Not only was Spearhead in Space Jon Pertwee's first story but it was also coming after the longest break between consecutive series in the show's history to date. So it was particularly cheeky to keep the Doctor drifting in and out of consciousness in his pajamas for the first episode and a half, but I imagine it got the frustrated viewer coming back week after week for their first proper look at the new Doctor. I suspect it's not a coincidence that David Tennant spent his first episode in a similarly prone and stripey-flannelette-clad state.

If, with the benefit of already having seen him in action, you're not waiting for Pertwee's Doctor, you will barely miss him because the cast are almost without exception quite splendid. Returning character and new regular Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (the ever-lovable Nick Courtney) is wry, no-nonsense and smart as a whip - a far cry from the military buffoon he occasionally ended up as in the hands of writers who should have known better (looking at you, Terrance Dicks; "he can wear what face he likes" and "pretty sure that's Cromer", indeed!). I'm also in the minority that believes Caroline John as Liz Shaw can do no wrong. A more grown-up and educated female companion for the Doctor (a species not seen since Barbara left in series two) is a blessed relief, and as for her all-too-soon replacement by Jo Grant... well, we'll come to that in due course.

Pertwee is on record as bemoaning the fact that outgoing script editor / producer Derrick Sherwin (seen in a cameo as UNIT's carpark attendant) didn't let him play the part in this first story as straight as he would have liked, Pertwee being known exclusively as a comic actor up to that point. I think with one exception the comic moments are quite appropriate, and in fact have become part of a tradition of post-regeneration eccentricity that persists to this day (eg. fish fingers and custard). However no review of this story is complete without mention of that one exception.

It comes quite late in episode four, so to avoid spoilers I'll just say it's the bit involving big green tentacles. The fact that there are tentacles is not particularly crucial to the plot. Other kinds of appendages would have sufficed, dramatically speaking, so revealing the presence of tentacles is not strictly speaking a spoiler. Likewise their dimensions and hue are not the subject of conjecture or suspense elsewhere in the story. There are tentacles in the story; they are big and green; knowing these things in advance of watching the story will not diminish your enjoyment. Conversely, nor should their presence be your sole reason for deciding the watch this story. If big green tentacles are your thing, I feel obliged to warn you that you may be disappointed.

Now I can quite see how a director or producer, on arriving at the location and getting their first good look at said tentacles, might conclude "Look, there's only one thing for it. Jon, you're going to have to play this for laughs." I am not at all unsympathetic to that view; I just think it's wrong. As evidence, I present a very similar scene used as a cliffhanger in Genesis of the Daleks, where Tom Baker's Doctor is being strangled by a few small, gaily-coloured bits of wet plastic which are so deadly that Baker is having to hold them to his own throat to stop them falling to the ground with a plop. But because Baker treats the situation totally seriously (I know! Tom Baker! It was still his first year.) it works. If you edit tightly, cutting around the naff monster as much as possible, and focus on the actor's performance, some proportion of the audience - maybe most - will suspend their disbelief. I maintain the tentacles could have worked, or at least not failed so badly, if presented sparingly. Not just flopping about all over the place.

As I say, the acting throughout is exceptional, possibly because the extraordinary conditions made for more spontaneous (i.e. not rehearsed-to-death) performances. Nevertheless, consumate professional Nicholas Courtney seems able to memorise every word of a script by smell alone, and his unflappability in the face of other artists' improvisations by necessity, inspiration, or whimsy has been the subject of many an amusing anecdote. Pertwee is clearly departing from the script for all of the above reasons at one time or another, and watching Caroline Johns react while Courtney doesn't is delicious. They're such a great trio. The closest thing we get to a villian, Hugh Burden is memorably inhuman as Channing, and if only we'd had John Breslin's Captain Munro for the next five years instead of Captain Yates! It's amazing how many members of the supporting cast don't merit a Wikipedia page, as there's not a dud among them.

This was the third script Robert Holmes wrote for Doctor Who. I would say that it was his first proper Doctor Who script. He had by now got a handle on the series and would write a few more for Pertwee, all of which we'll cover here. This story alone is enough to earn him a place in television history. Manequins breaking through shop windows is almost as vital a cultural touchstone as the moon landings, for at least some proportion of the Anglophone world. In a few years Holmes would be trailing script editor Terrance Dicks on Pertwee's last series, where his presence can certainly be felt, before taking over as script editor for Tom Baker's first three series, in which capacity I would venture to say he did probably as much uncredited writing as the rest of his substantial credited contributions before or since.

If anybody can be credited as the creator of Doctor Who, I would say it was Robert Holmes. That he started to invent the programme seven years after it had begun is I think entirely appropriate for a story about a time traveller.

Hindsight About Getting Caught is Always 20/20

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 02/03/2013 - 4:19pm

Interviewed by CNN in 2005, after his three years as Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff, Wilkerson described his key role in preparing that speech as “the lowest point in my life.” Last week, in our debate, he called the U.N. presentation “the lowest point in my professional and personal life.”

As for Colin Powell, guess what? That U.N. speech was “a low point in my otherwise remarkable career,” he told AARP’s magazine in 2006. Yet the U.N. speech gave powerful propaganda support for the invasion that began the Iraq war -- a war that was also part of Powell’s “otherwise remarkable career.”

Norman Solomon

I've always thought the most remarkable thing about Powell's Iraq lies to the Security Council was the "I'm going to hell for this" expression on his face the whole way through. As we move back into "the express lane in the Möbius loop of history", this time with illegal-sanctions-battered Iran as the imminent existential threat, we should be demanding a higher standard of accountability than "I know you're lying, you know you're lying, but I can't prove you know you're lying, so carry on".

If, say, a Prime Minister makes a decision with predictably serious consequences based on false information, they should not be able to absolve themselves of all responsibility for those consequences by saying "I trusted the people who gave me this dossier of information. Yes, I paid them to give me the information, and it turned out to be pretty much exactly the kind of information I wanted to receive, but why should anybody find that suspicious? By the way, isn't 'dossier' a great word? Ooh! I should have said 'intelligence' instead of 'information'! Can you change that to read 'intelligence'? That sounds so much cooler."

I suppose this time round the highly sophisticated mobile chemical weapons factories will be highly sophisticated mobile nuclear weapons factories, and again the most ludicrous claims will be greeted with earnest concern rather than laughter, despite the fact that the grainy CIA photographs presented will be of a rickety wooden cart, with several chickens and a goat clearly visible inside.

Update: Oh! Oh! Juan Cole reminds us of the terrifying aluminium tubes!

Humility

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 28/02/2013 - 1:06am

The first step on the road to humility is being able to say "I don't know."

The second step on the road to humility is being able to politely tolerate the people who haven't made the first step.

Memory Cheats: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 23/02/2013 - 5:53pm in

Poor Pat Troughton, the Doctor to suffer most from the BBC's archive purge. When the ABC repeated all of the complete surviving Doctor Who stories in the mid-eighties, they could only get their hands on (I think) the Dominators, the Mind Robber, and the Krotons; not the most fondly-remembered stories from his era. When the extent of the tape destruction was revealed in the late 70's fans mourned the loss of such classics as the Ice Warriers, the Web of Fear, the Invasion, and - perhaps most of all - the Tomb of the Cybermen.

Miraculously, a copy of Tomb eventually emerged from the archives of a Hong Kong TV company in 1991, and was promptly released on VHS. A friend sent me a copy, which I recall sat unwatched for some time before I felt ready to commit to it. I was well aware of the high esteem in which this story was held, it's much-lauded memorable set-pieces, and in fact I thourougly enjoyed the novelisation by co-writer Gerry Davis through multiple readings. I think I had probably been persuaded by the rather ropey Troughton stories I had already seen that indeed "the memory cheats", and that the story as it was would be a terrible disappointment compared to the story as it should have been.

So, armed with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. There's a bit of location filming in episode one, in the ubiquitious alien-planet-quarry that was to become so familiar in 70's Doctor Who, putting me at ease right away. Overall, it's a rollicking tale of overweening hubris, intemperate curiosity, and good old Platonic lust for justly warranted philosopher-king power.

The sets are well-designed, making the tomb and it's ante-chambers look as if they really were built by and for soulless giants. On the downside the bloody great knobs and levers haven't aged so well, the creaky cyber-rejuvenator is a bit naff, and the less said about the realisation of the first-gen cybermats, the better.

The guest cast are generally very good. Villians Kleig and Kaftan (Of course they're villians; everyone in space who's not British is a villian, unless they're American, in which case they're gung-ho men of action) occasionally veer close to Boris and Natasha territory, but generally manage to keep the manic staring into the middle distance, hand-wringing, and sinister grins to a minimum. The character of Toberman, Kaftan's hulking monosyllabic black manservant, is a bit more of a worry to a modern viewer, but to be as charitable as possible, perhaps it's just a coincidence that Kaftan's hired muscle happens to be black, and frankly it's remarkable to even see a black actor on television in the 60's.

The archaelogists that form the core of the mission are quite well-rounded characters; special mention must go to the splendidly cowardly turn by Cyril Shaps, which he would reprise as similar characters in a number of later Doctor Who stories. The aforementioned gung-ho American crew of the mission's spaceship are tolerable plot widgets, and even the usually insufferable Clive Merrison (of whom more later) isn't given the opportunity to chew too much scenery, though he appears to have based his accent on somebody's bad impersonation of John Wayne.

The regular cast are splendid. Patrick Troughton is just brilliant. He was one of the first British actors to consciously decide to specialise in television, not being much inclined towards "all that shouting in the evening" that comes with stage work. Consequently his performance is tailored for the small screen and beautifully nuanced. Frazer Hines, who played Jamie for all but the first of Troughton's stories, is not quite in the same class, but the pair make a charming comic double act. Deborah Watling, in her second story as Victoria, proves herself to be more than just a good-looking screamer. She's capable of holding her own when the bullets (and the equivalent weird popping, flashing, burning, smoking cyber-things) are flying. And there's a lovely little scene between Victoria and the Doctor where they talk about memories of their families; his shrouded in ancient mystery, and hers just recently murdered by the Daleks. A nice reminder that the emotional content in Doctor Who wasn't an invention of Russell T. Davies in 2005.

Speaking of which, if there's one critical flaw in the story, it's the rather perfunctory denouement. To avoid spoilers, all I'll say is that a certain character redeems himself by doing a certain quite heroic thing, then a certain terribly heroic thing. If the same scene was done post-2005 there'd be tears and a generous helping of Murray Gold's thickest syrup laid on with a trowl for a good ten minutes (so I suppose you can over-do it). Instead it's all a bit "well, that's that, then". That aside, it's a little gem, with the third appearance of the Cybermen, and Troughton really hitting his stride in the first episodes of his second series in a classic story for "the monster Doctor".

Memory Cheats: An Unearthly Child

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/02/2013 - 7:27pm in

I admit it: I'm not really a 60's Doctor Who afficianado. Although the ABC repeated the series pretty relentlessly throughout my childhood, they were loathe to repeat any black and white shows, and by the time they did show some monochrome Who in the mid-eighties, there were very few complete stories from the 60's surviving. So my Doctor Who really started in 1970 with Jon Pertwee - on telly at least. The novelisations of the 60's stories are for the most part my only experience of them, and it's actually a very suitable medium. Most of these were produced either early in the Target Books run, when the writer of the screenplay was often the only person willing to novelise it (it wasn't a lucrative gig, by all accounts), or late in the series, when Target had a conscious policy of chasing down the original writers, so the novelisations generally turned out truer to the creators' vision than the TV show could manage.

You don't have to watch the whole of An Unearthly Child, as it's really two stories in one, and the second of these is frankly pretty tedious. Until 1966 (and from 2005) each Doctor Who episode had it's own title, and "An Unearthly Child" is the title of episode one of this set. All four episodes often used to be referred to collectively as "An Unearthly Child / The Tribe of Gum". The last three episodes, barring the interactions between the nascent TARDIS crew, are decidedly thin.

I suppose that, as with Rose in 2005, when you're introducing a new audience to a show, you don't want to doubly burden them with a particularly dense story. But as a consequence, I've had no particular desire to rewatch Rose, or the last three episodes on An Unearthly Child, since my first viewing. In fairness, two decades before home video, and when the idea of a broadcaster repeating a program for any reason other than desperation probably seemed ludicrous, lack of re-watchability probably wasn't something that the Doctor Who production team were worried about.

The first episode is not just good Doctor Who, it's good television, and still pretty compelling fifty years on. It's hard to believe it was a totally studio-bound production with a punishing schedule and a shoestring budget, at least until you hit the occasional pregnant pause while an actor finds the next line. No time for re-takes. From the start Doctor Who was recorded on video tape prior to broadcast, but in the early days pretty much as-live, with minimal editing.

William Hartnell is the Doctor, but not as we come to know him in later years. He is superbly sinister and brazenly ruthless in his determination to protect himself and his granddaughter in a hostile universe that he regards far from benignly in these early days of his flight from his as-yet unnamed home. It's hardly fair to judge the performance of Carole Ann Ford as Susan, who is given the most she'll ever get to work with in this story, and it's still not much. Nobody could blame her for handing in her notice within a year.

The real surprise to anybody who's only read the novelisations is William Russell and Jaqueline Hill as schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, who in this and in subsequent stories excel as quintessentially rational 20th-century humans (a science and a history teacher, no less) coming to terms with a universe suddenly much richer - if not larger - than they previously thought.  It's odd that in later years male companions were very much the exception to the rule; here the interplay between Thoroughly Decent Chap Ian and a selfish, scheming Doctor are a delight. The contrast between Russell's thoroughly modern, naturalistic performance and Harnell's shall we say more theatrical and mannered acting technique fortunately works to the story's advantage here.

The first episode is unmissable; the subsequent three episodes of running around with/from cavemen eminently missable.

Saturday, 16 February 2013 - 11:43am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 16/02/2013 - 11:43am in

Does this sneak peek include an artist's impression of the greatly enhanced ocean views from the balconies of the "key stakeholders" whose concern for their property values has after all been the principal driver of this coastal defoliation campaign? Will we see an artist's impression of the clear line of sight from the beach up to the apartments and McMansions of our social and economic betters?

Can we get a sneek peek at the conversations that took place in the houses of the key stakeholders of the Coffs propertied elite, and the offices of the Advocate and the Council? It shouldn't be too hard; the Advocate's editor will have attended most if not all of them, and he claims to be a journalist. Perhaps a sneak peek at which coastal area is next targeted for being rendered "more open and modern" by bulldozer? Will it be Beacon Hill, where key stakeholders started campaigning in July last year before being persuaded that a setting a precedent at the Jetty Foreshores would meet with less resistance? Will it be Sawtell, as favoured by key stakeholder Keith Rhodes? If anybody knows, it will be key stakeholder Graeme Singleton.

Taken with the recent report placing Coffs Harbour at equal 8th (with the Sunshine Coast) most unaffordable place to live in a survey of seven wealthy industrialised countries, as measured by disparity between median house price and median household income, this extraordinary demonstration over the past year of the process whereby "key stakeholders" - elected to key-stakeholder-hood by virtue of wealth and/or business klout - turn their financial interests into local government policy, demonstrates beyond all doubt that Coffs Harbour is a third-world enclave in a first-world country.

Memory Cheats: A Doctor Who Newbie's Digest

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 15/02/2013 - 11:03pm in

For quite a while now, I've been wanting to compile a list of essential Doctor Who stories from the series original 1963-1989 run, for the benefit of my friends who are only familiar with the series post-2005 and find that first 26-year trove a little intimidating.

For all those in this unhappy position here is a digest of the unmissable Doctor Who stories that will enable you to bluff your way through the next high-society gathering where ignorance of the Whoniverse is as disastrous as forgetting the second verse of that Venusian lullaby that may one day save your life. You no longer need to have lived through it; with my guidance you shall all become "the Memory Cheats". (You will get that joke as we proceed.)

This isn't a comprehensive list of the good, or even the great stories. It's the minimal set of inflection points that will give the uninitiated some sense of the general flow of this extraordinary programme that was simultaneously utterly unlike anything else on television, yet oddly representative of everything on television in it's time, yet again utterly timeless, yet... Oh, bollocks; just watch these. You'll thank me for it.

  • An Unearthly Child
  • The Tomb of the Cybermen
  • Spearhead from Space
  • Terror of the Autons
  • Carnival of Monsters
  • The Green Death
  • The Time Warrior
  • Planet of the Spiders
  • The Ark in Space
  • Genesis of the Daleks
  • The Seeds of Doom
  • The Masque of Mandragora
  • The Deadly Assassin
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang
  • City of Death
  • Warriors' Gate
  • Logopolis
  • Castrovalva
  • Kinda
  • The Caves of Androzani
  • Vengeance on Varos
  • Revelation of the Daleks
  • Paradise Towers
  • Ghost Light
  • Survival

Monday, 11 February 2013 - 5:26pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 11/02/2013 - 5:26pm

"You have arrived at your 30-day allowance of 5 free premium pages"

Oh, okay. Sorry, I thought this was a website. If you are investing time and money into a convoluted mechanism to stop me reading your material, why not just ask me not to read it up front? Or take it offline altogether? Much cheaper that way.

Update:

Wow. Defeats cookie deletion as well. They're really pouring money down that bottomless intellectual property protection pit, aren't they? I'm sure there's a browser extension, but I can't be arsed.

Hear that, intellectual property baron? You've won! Instead of a non-paying reader, you have a non-paying non-reader! (I have billions of those as well, come to think of it.) Next step: profit!!!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 - 9:54pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 29/01/2013 - 9:54pm

I don't understand why Cory Doctorow "can't stress how exciting a development this is". Google appears to be freely giving up metadata (eg. email headers, IP addresses, etc.) to US government agencies, but drawing the line at content. In an age of guilt by association, it's like ratting someone out to HUAC as a communist, but refusing to specify whether they're Leninist, Trotskyist, or Maoist.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 - 9:55am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 29/01/2013 - 9:55am

"Basically, the wind blew and trees fell down."

How did this guy ever get a management job? That's no way to describe an atmospheric-disturbance-related arboreal hazard scenario.

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