Dicky Entrails' Tardis

Dr Who, Doctor Who, Tardis

Monday, May 01, 2006

Who’s The Doctor

As I watched Dr Who from the very first episode the earlier Doctors have two quite distinct versions: how I saw them contemporaneously, and how I see them now, through much older, and I hope slightly more discerning eyes.

Part One: How They Looked Then.


William Hartnell was scary. Having just watched the ‘Beginning’ box set I can fully understand why I was frightened of him. Harnell’s character was meant to be scary, especially in those early episodes, and I always remained wary of him. As time went on it became clear that he was kindly underneath, but there was always the possibility that he might do something dangerous.
Even in the later episodes, where the writers were clearly to make him a loveable, if slightly cantankerous old man, I still never felt quite safe around him. Clearly the first impression of those very early stories stuck with me. And I loved it. Yes, he was an authority figure, and yes, I knew he’d solve things in the end, but I never knew how he would react at any particular time, which made the programme delightfully terrifying for me.

Fans talk about having ‘their’ Doctor: I’m not sure if I really have one, but when Hartnell was the Doctor he was THE Doctor as far as I was concerned.
Which is why Peter Cushing never had a chance with me. I loved Dr Who. I knew about Dr Who. Dr Who isn’t from Earth. Susan is his granddaughter. And Barbara’s supposed to be her teacher. And that’s not right, Daleks don’t have fire extinguisher foam shooting from their guns. And I don’t like Roy Castle falling about. It’s not right, it’s not like it’s supposed to be, Dr Who’s supposed to be the same as I remember.

The fact this was in big screen Technicolour as opposed to watching a minute B&W TV didn’t matter a whit. If anything was different it was wrong!
In fact when I was seven I watched the movie in precisely the way some over at Outpost Gallifrey are watching the new TV series in 2006. There was one true, right Doctor, and I wanted to know everything about him
.
So, when I got the 1966 Dr Who Annual I leapt straight to the pages entitled ‘Who Is Dr Who?’ I wanted to know everything, his date and planet of birth, his family tree, qualifications…

Inclined to be absent-minded and forgetful, he is also very much subject to fits of impatience whenever his will is thwarted and whenever his ideas are doubted. He likes his own way all the time and can sulk like any baby when he doesn't get it…He is mostly very gentle and kind-hearted and he has the utmost respect for life of any kind, small and feeble or monstrous and mighty. He has seen more specimens of living creatures than any other person in the history of all the worlds and his heart is big enough to respect every one of the countless forms life has taken in all the ages and all the worlds.
Yes but who is he? What’s his name? The best the Annual came up with was, in ‘The Equations of Doctor Who’ Are we not all a little possessed of the spirit of Dr Who?
At the time, and my opinions on how much backstory the character needs have changed considerably, I wanted something like this, which must be seen in it’s original formatting. (And more of that another time.)
I was also, at the age of a eight, a fervent little continuity freak. The Annual was wrong, the Tardis personnel was wrong. They even sometimes referred to Doctor Who in the Annual, when Who wasn’t his name, it was Doctor…Who?
So when the Doctor started acting funny in the ‘Tenth Planet’ (and by the way, I found the Cybermen in their first, weird incarnation very scary) and lay down, and something very odd started to happen to his face… I know it’s difficult to believe now, but that looked to me at the time a really convincing effect, the two faces blurring together. And then a completely different man got up. Well, I was going to be toughie to convince. But I wasn’t.

Pat Troughton very quickly had me hooked. Just like the Tardis itself, it was never really explained, it just happened that way and I believed it. I think the writing for and acting by the companions must also have been done at just the right level for me. I was completely convinced by what had happened. For a very short time I remember thinking “it’s not quite as good,” and, occasionally, “that’s silly!” But I was quickly won over, and realised that the Doctor was sometimes silly on purpose, to confuse the baddies, and quite taken in by Troughton’s charm.
I also remember thinking, from time to time during the second Doctor’s tenure that it wasn’t quite as scary. Though only just, I remember plenty of scares too, especially the first episode of ‘The Mind Robber’.

And I think the reason why it wasn’t quite as scary was because of how lovable the Second Doctor was. Somehow, I was always sure that he’d work it out in the end and save the day. Whereas, with the First Doctor there was, in my mind, just the tiniest suspicion that’d he’d work out that the best thing for him personally would be to bugger off, and you’d be left at the mercy of the Daleks.

I can’t remember how I felt about Troughton leaving, but by the time Pertwee was confirmed in the role I was aware enough to notice the hype, and to be slightly worried, I knew him from radio comedy, and half-expected his tenure to be a series of silly voices.

At the start of the years of velvet and frills I was satisfied: Pertwee wasn’t silly, as I’d dreaded.

But the show slowly lost its magic to me. Being set on Earth took away part of the point of the programme, it could go anywhere, so why was it always in the same place? I wasn’t too chuffed with the Doctor being tied up with the army, either. He’s always been an outsider, and I didn’t like him being part of the Establishment.
And I started noticing faults, the CSO halos, the nonsensical science, the fact that the monsters always looked like men in rubber suits. In my mind it just, “wasn’t as good as it used to be."

So, by the time Tom came along… I’d actually thought I’d stopped watching it altogether, until I got the DVD of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and remembered how I’d felt cheated by a couple of the cliffhangers, that the ‘Mutos’ were once more, just ordinary blokes in rags. So I was still watching it at least some of the time, but enjoying it much less.

I do recall discussing the programme with some friends at university, and being surprised that some preferred Tom Baker to William Hartnell. One of them even said that Hartnell was “always forgetting his lines.” I’d loved it far too much to notice that at the time.
By the time I was at university I didn’t watch TV, though I do recall seeing the odd episode and thinking, “Ooh, there’s a touch of political satire going on here (possibly the ‘Sun Makers’) but by that time I really wasn’t interested.
I saw Peter Davison in the role, but again, wasn’t too interested. Perfectly nice chap and all that, but just not for me.

Colin Baker on the other hand, well, I sort of looked and went No, NO NO NO! Probably more the costume than the characterisation, but I just hated it. Then they brought in Bonnie Langford, who, talented trooper that she undoubtedly is, brings me out in some sort of allergic reaction, involving gagging and struggling to find the OFF switch with my eyes closed.

Once Bonnie had safely gone I remember thinking I’d see what the show was like now. Wee Scots chap with horrid sweater and an assistant, well, Sophie Aldred is a very attractive woman, but the costume they put her into would make anyone look podgy, and it did her absolutely no favours. She just wasn’t the sixteen year old lifted from a social worker’s report that was in the script. They didn’t get me back into the show.

Didn’t watch the TVM, which says how interested I was at that time.

Eccles time. Yes! As soon as he introduced himself in Rose, “I’m the Doctor, now run for your life,” he convinced me. There was a worrying moment when he picked up a pack of cards in the Tyler flat - wasn’t magic tricks one of the scots Doc’s things - but he sprayed them around and made me laugh.

Now Eccles has a sort of image as a serious, intense, bordering on miserable bloke. And I suspect that the reason people think of him in that way is because, frankly, he’s like that. I’m sure it’s a caricature, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. But I loved the way he too the role totally seriously, not a hint of camp, and played it for dramatic truth.

He played the Doctor as if he believed it, and he convinced me of the reality of it too. Having said he strikes me as a very serious man, he has wonderful comic timing, his delivery of the one liners was spot on, and I could believe him as tortured by survivor’s guilt, loved the crazed grin.
He was fantastic.

And Tennant? Well, as I write this, I’m really not sure. So far he hasn’t convinced me quite as much the previous incarnation, but it’s very, very early days…

Who’s The Doctor: Part 2


Assessing the Actors From An Adult Perspective.

Which is one place where it really helps not to have looked at Dr Who for thirty years before comparing them all last year.

The one faculty which every actor has to dread losing above all others is the memory. William Hartnell was offered his defining role late in life, just as he was beginning to lose his, and the role turned out to be a forgetful old man with amnesia. Talk about luck.

Looking at Hartnell’s performances today it’s impossible not to be struck by the amount of pauses, hesitations, outright fluffs. But he’s playing a bumbling old man, some of them are characterisation. And some of them are an elderly actor struggling to remember what comes next.

It was all a long time ago, when scenes were virtually never re-shot. Fluffs happened in those days, and were accepted, and the character was a forgetful old man, so let’s not make to much of it. Most of the time he got away with it.

I said above that Hartnell’s Doctor had a menacing edge to it, unsurprisingly for an actor who had lately specialised in tough guy roles, and he didn’t seem to tone it down for the kids: he was playing it for real. And he didn’t, to my eyes, try to hard to be lovable, just played the role straight, and left the viewer make up their mind if they liked the character or not. Not only that, he was prepared to be dislikeable when the script required it.

Hartnell was exceptional in close up. When you consider the cameras of those days were about the size of a JCB it’s quite remarkable how comfortable he is with them in as tight as could be.. And, of course he always gave the director the option of a close up, by keeping his gestures all up around his face.

He could even, when the script called for it, carry off a long, emotional and demanding speech, such as the farewell to Susan in ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’. He absolutely made the role his own.

Which makes it all the easier to slip past the Peter Cushing interregnum. Cushing always gave value for money, and produced a decent performance, even when the film was a rushed, slipshod, ill-considered inferior cash in, like the Doctor Who films in which he starred. Really not worth the while unless you’re an absolute completist.

Then Troughton, probably the most enjoyable discovery of my year of catching up with ‘Dr Who’. Looking at them afresh, having never seen his performance since it was current was an absolute delight.

Stars twinkle, and it was Troughton’s twinkle (and sparkle) which made him such a star. Listening to the commentaries and documentaries it’s clear that most people who worked with Troughton adored him, and the sense of fun he brought to the role makes it fun to watch. His rapport with his supporting cast shine through the screen.

A wonderfully expressive face, a real talent for physical comedy - a great asset in a role which involved a huge amount of running down corridors - the ability to make even the most mundane creation of rubber and cardboard seem frightening, and he needed it considering some of the monsters he had to fight: really Troughton had it all.

The most difficult task which any Doctor has ever had was to sell the idea of regeneration, and he did it magnificently. It would have been so easy for the second Doctor to kill the role, but it was the second, more than any other who proved the potential for the series to go on and on

The only problem I have with Patrick Troughton’s performances is one he can’t be blamed for: that there aren’t enough of them extant.

Pertwee didn’t do what I dreaded, start using the part to show off the silly voices which he’d used on radio. He took the role very seriously indeed, and played it exactly how the production team wanted it at the time even if sometimes it was the external, the costumes, the cars, the gadgets, which did the characterisation.

He wasn’t the greatest actor ever to play the role, but he gave it as much gravitas as he could. He used his imposing height, striking looks and voice to great effect. The direction in which the character went during his tenure wasn’t my favourite interpretation, but he did it very well, and it was a success.

And here is, of course, a chance to compare the second and third Doctors directly in ‘The Three Doctors’ (yes I know Hartnell was in it too, but he wasn’t well, and his part was limited). For me, it’s Troughton who steals the show in their scenes, but it’s no disgrace to be slightly less good than perfection.

Pertwee was the doctor for a long time, everyone was very comfortable with him, and a great many people enjoy his portrayal to this day, but everything changes…

Suddenly it was the curls, the grin, the eyes, the scarf - Tom Baker burst in, as dramatic an entrance as if he’d walked in through the walls. There’s presence and charisma personified. Pertwee had been an imposing presence, but here was a bigger one.

If any actor was born to play an alien it’s Tom Baker. Portraying someone not quite human is absolutely his forte. A wonderfully eccentric and entertaining character, and for many fans the perfect Doctor.

But, at the risk of outraging his fans, there are faults. A typical three shot with Tom Baker in it consists of his face in the middle taking up two thirds of the screen and the others trying desperately trying to squeeze into the minute space he left.

The best bits of Tom Baker are undoubtedly among the best bits of Dr Who ever, but, as Terrance Dicks says on the commentary of ‘Horror At Fang Rock’ Tom Baker needed to be kept under control. In that serial we see him throw in his own line, “also known as lycanthropy” into the cliff hanger.

When, as happens in some of his shows, he’s not kept under control his flippancy could undermine the reality of the whole enterprise, and it’s easy to see why, as he says, when he offered his resignation it was accepted with some alacrity. But let’s not allow some of his patchy later performances when he was becoming bored undermine the fact that for most of the time he played the role he did it in such a commanding fashion that many regard him as the definitive Doctor.

Which left Peter Davison in an unenviable position, taking over from an actor with such a striking image, who’d given a performance which many had regarded as definitive, and was certainly large, even if it had sometimes veered over the edge into (I’ll whisper this lest a devotee strangle me with an extra long scarf) hammy.

Peter Davison is in luvviespeak a generous actor: whereas Tom Baker instinctively pushes himself forward, Davison is a natural team player, quite willing to take a backseat in a scene to enhance the whole production. Instead of a flamboyant star we have a subtle actor, so it’s no surprise that some viewers found “the wet vet” a let down.

It’s worth noting that Peter Davison has had one of the most successful and varied careers of any Doctor post-Who. If anyone doubts his credentials as an actor they need only look at ‘A Very Peculiar Practice’ to see him give an outstanding performance in a sophisticated, adult drama.

But it’s not a great idea being a team player and allowing your companions space to shine if they’re really not up to it, no names needed, surely? Or being a subtle actor when the production team think that putting a couple of question marks on your collar and a stick of celery on the lapel helps characterisation, and are moving towards a comic book style by keeping the companions in the same outfit every week.

Davison is the actor who has changed most in my estimation in the process of discovering ‘Doctor Who’ anew. When he was playing the role I thought, like quite a lot of people, that he wasn’t quite a big enough an actor to fill Tom Baker’s shoes.

Whereas now I see him struggling manfully to keep the show afloat despite failing scripts and production values, and I have the benefit of his DVD commentaries, which prove what an engaging and intelligent man he is. Without him things could have been much, much worse…

Let’s be clear, I don’t think the faults of the era can be laid entirely at Colin Baker’s multicoloured feet. It’s clear that a lot of things were going wrong with the show, in many departments.

And I can see the reason for going for someone a little more flamboyant as a contrast to Peter Davison. The most glaring mistake, obviously, being the costume: anyone would struggle not to look ridiculous in THAT outfit.

It’s not big and clever to get cheap laughs from slagging off work that a lot of people have put a great deal of effort into, so I’ll just say that Colin Baker’s performance is not at all to my taste, and in my opinion, the weakest of any actor to play the role on TV. I’m sure he’s a lovely chap and all that but his performance is not for me. Stagey, overstated, I’ll leave it there.

So on to wee Sylvester. Plastered with those question marks which I so loathe. No difficulty being eccentric for him: it’s as natural for him as it is for Tom Baker. And there’s something I do find intensely engaging about him, I could easily imagine him presenting a TV show about an obscure interest and making it quite fascinating purely because of his enthusiasm.

His first season contained some truly awful scripts, and the decision to lighten the tone made for some excruciating stories. It is also the clearest example of what Verity Lambert talks about as the surest way to ruin ‘Who’. People thinking they’re cleverer than what they’re doing, and approaching it in an “I’m superior to this” frame of mind. I’m not thinking of Sylvester here, I’m thinking sets and costumes having a quiet snigger about what they’ve got away with.

So we have one series where McCoy’s clowning skills are to the fore, then Poof! “The Cartmel Master Plan” and he’s playing a deity.

Now, I said before that I noticed very strongly that Sylvester McCoy is a small man. Nothing wrong with that, I’ve been fulsome in my praise for Troughton, who was also a small with a flair for comedy. A quirky man, certainly, hidden depths, probably, but a demi-God, no that’s a step too far. That’s miscasting.

By the end of his tenure, no matter what happened, Sylvester was given the same response, “this is happening a little earlier/later than I expected.” Everything. Surprises were impossible because it was all part of the plan which he’d set up off-screen years beforehand.

The character of the Doctor was supposed to know what was going on, it was just a shame it never got conveyed to the rest of us. I think McCoy could have been a good Doctor, if he hadn’t been lumbered with an impossible weight of backstory and supernatural power to carry. If he’d only had to have adventures and be entertaining he’d have been fine, but I can’t believe in Sylvester McCoy as a deity.

I only watched the Paul McGann movie for the first time last year, and despite not liking the whole, his performance impressed me enormously, he fitted the part wonderfully, and could, had things happened differently, have been a great Doctor, but at the moment all I can say is that he would have been good had he had the chance to have a proper run at it.

There’s barely enough time for hindsight with Christopher Eccleston, but as time goes by I’m more convinced than ever that it was a great idea to pick a heavyweight dramatic actor to reintroduce the character to as new generation, and I’m pretty sure that in the future I’ll be able to watch his performances with pleasure for years to come.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Figuring Out the Gallifreyan Grumps

Last night I had a "Eureka" moment.

I was assembling a piece on my reactions to the differing actors to play the Doctor, and I realised that my reaction to the spin off films with Peter Cushing was precisely the same as the one which had baffled me by fans of the old series reacting to the new.

"It's not the same!" therefore it's WRONG!

The technical improvements of Technicolour Cinemascope meant nothing to me, I knew what I expected 'Doctor Who' to be, the film was different, so it was wrong.

The diehard fans think that the old series was the best thing ever made, so any deviation is a fault. They want it to drag on for three hours with half a dozen sets, 25% of the entire screen time devoted to running up and down corridors! It doesn't matter if the effects are incomaparably better: they're different, and different is wrong.

Kung Fu monks before the credits, so what, they didn't have that in Tom Baker's day. But if start of the werewolf transformation had been the cliff hanger at the end of Part 2, and he'd finished up as a man in a suit! Wow, that's like the old days!

I wish that rather than comparing the new 'Doctor Who' adversely with a non-existant, perfect ideal 'Who' those who criticise it would compile a checklist of important components of a show: performances of principal actors, guest cast, direction, lighting, sets, FX, costumes, plotting, etc. Mark any old show out of ten, or twenty on each count, then do the same for a modern show.

Silly me, honestly, thinking that someone might try to be objective when it's so much mor efun to simply say, "It's not as good as it used to be!"

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

OUTPOST GALLIFREY

Well, I suppose the name does imply that it’s another planet, so I shouldn’t be surprised if the inhabitants have a rather different outlook, but…
Without duplicating things I’ve said elsewhere, I used to watch Dr who as a kid, stopped for a long time, then started again last year. And, when I started catching up one thing I loved was that it was possible to enjoy it, even be a fan, and yet admit that, frankly, quite a lot of what you enjoyed wasn’t terribly good. Not, not terribly good, to be honest: absolutely crap would be much better.
It wasn’t that the monsters weren’t great, they were absolutely terrible: the man wrapped in green-painted bubble wrap in the ‘Ark In Space’, polystyrene man-eating clams in ‘Genesis’ the Myrka (a sort of misshapen pantomime horse) which “threatened” (after a fashion) Peter Davison.
Most of the Time Lord’s enemies looked as if they’d been cobbled together by enthusiastic but not particularly talented fourth formers for their end of term play. The fact that the show’s budget was ¾ of a shoestring per episode (they’d had to use the other quarter to tie the cybermen’s helmets on in an earlier show) didn’t matter because Who was imaginative, creative and fun. Sometimes the hilariously unconvincing effects were the best bit.
Watching some of the documentaries which hyped up the new series in 2005, and the ‘Dr Who Confidential’ series which ran alongside, I loved the way in which people like Stephen Moffatt, Mark Gatiss, Russell T. Davies (RTD) himself (and Peter Davison in his marvellous audio commentaries on the series in which he starred) were able to have fun with the technical deficiencies of the old material while clearly loving it and appreciating what was good. That was the attitude which made me think, “Dr Who fans aren’t too bad: they can’t blindly love everything, they have to have some critical faculties too.
And then came ‘Rose’. By the time Christopher Eccleston introduced himself with, “I’m the Doctor, now run for your life.” I was punching the air as if I’d scored a goal. It worked. And it wasn’t the old Dr Who, running up and down crummy corridors, away from a lumbering man in a rubber suit.
The new series raced along, it was a flash motorbike to the old show’s moped. There were location shots, big location shots, with the London Eye in the background instead of the old quarry, it wasn’t wading through a visual quagmire. Fantastic! A spaceship crashing into Big Ben, Rose flying through night time London in the Blitz in a show where a man in bacofoil used to qualify as a thrilling cliff hanger.
New Dr Who has pace, zip, style, gloss. It’s not a cheap kid’s show, cobbled together with leftovers, but a flagship, prestige drama where people at the top of their various technical disciplines go to show off their skills, rather than a backwater to which they dread being assigned.
RTD had taken a football team which used to play in the Vauxhall Conference into the Champions League..
As part of my enjoyment of the series I joined up to Outpost Gallifrey, intending to share my pleasure with those of a similar disposition. (For me, New Earth was a touch disappointing, had I been expecting too much? No episode two was great! How’s that for you?)
What I was astonished to find was the amount of self-appointed critics who write about RTD as if he’s a slightly recalcitrant schoolboy, “after the disappointments of the first season I was hoping to RTD might prove able to write a satisfactory plot for once, but he has clearly forgotten whatever improvement he made…”
They’ll say, without irony, “clearly a long way short of classics like ‘Genesis of the Daleks,’”
Er, excuse me, that is the one with the polystyrene clam, isn’t it?
“The Kung Fu monks were unnecessary and not particularly well done.”
Do these people honestly want to go back to ‘Horror of Fang Rock’? The Rutan? Do they sincerely think many others do?
There’s great fun to be had debating with like-minded folk as to what’s the best. Is Federer or Nadal the best tennis player of the present, how would either of them fared against Sampras or MacEnroe?
But comparing today’s Who with the old isn’t that: it’s comparing a racing car of today with a thirty year old saloon car.If you prefer your ancient Morris Marina fine, but it wouldn’t win a race with Schumacher’s Ferrari
You’d think someone with an interest in time travel would be able to compare eras, wouldn’t you?
I know that no-one ever became a Dr Who fan because of the production values, but I’m amazed how so many of the fans seem utterly oblivious to the many, many areas in which the new show is immeasurably superior to the old.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In the beginning

It was around a year ago, February 2005. The 'Times' newspaper was running a promotion of cut-price DVDs in collaboration with W.H.Smith, the newsagents. I was feeling pretty rough, I'd just started a six month course of serious drug treatment for a major illness, but I didn't give up when the first couple of branches didn't have the DVD. Eventually I tracked it down to Kilburn and grabbed the peniultimate copy. There was another man in front of me, holding the antipeniultimate copy, and I told him that I'd had a bit of struggle getting hold of it, but somehow I'd felt I just had to have it. He'd had much the same experience.For years I'd not thought of Dr Who, but I'd seen the offer and felt compelled. As I travelled home I remember wondering how it would compare, having loved it as a child but not seen it for so long.
As soon as I got in the DVD went in. Those titles and the theme music were now wonderfully familiar, but rediscovering them reminded me how alien, other-worldly and truly unique they had seemed at the time, years before psychedelia had brought similar stimuli.
Then the programme, 'Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth' opening with one of the worst model shots in the entire history of broadcasting ever, then the regular cast shuffle sideways onto a tiny set, group awkwardly for camera with a flurry of late cues and semi-fluffed lines. I was utterly enthralled. But, by the magic of Time Travel...

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