Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Doctor Who – Episode 1 - a review

Doctor Who – Episode 1

An Unearthly Child

A Review by Adam Manning

Doctor Who begins with the TARDIS.  After a shot of a policeman glancing at a junk yard on Totters Lane, for the first time we see the enigmatic form of a police box.  A common sight then, an item from a time gone by now, the opening sequence for Doctor Who sets a tone of mystery and forebdoing.

The episode introduces Barbara and Ian, two teachers at a school near to Totters Lane. They are an immediately attractive couple with warmth, familiarity and an understated closeness.   The subject of their conversation is one of their pupils, Susan Foreman, and her peculiar behaviour. The sense of mystery from the first scene in the junkyard is given a particular shape by the girl and this expository sequence is intriguing.

I managed to watch the pilot episode as well as the original and the differences between the two are quite telling. In the original episode that was broadcast, Susan is more innocent and sweet and seems a much more likely school girl in her mid teens than the petulant, knowing older adolescent suggested by the equivalent performance in the unaired pilot.

This engaging trio of characters propels the story along to a new scene, set back in the junkyard.  Here at last, seemingly by accident, we encounter the extraordinary character of the Doctor for the first time.  Barbara and Ian, investigating the enigma of Susan, the Unearthly Child, follow her to her purported home at Totters Lane and enter the gates that we saw in the first scene.  Susan is nowhere to be seen and then, hiding behind what looks like the remains of an old staircase, they see the figure of the Doctor, looking somewhat dandy with a smart hat and cloak.

The teachers, Ian and Barbara, are throughout touchingly concerned about their pupil and the encounter with the Doctor heightens their alarm until eventually, hearing Susan’s voice, they burst through the doors of the TARDIS and enter the fantasy world of the console room inside.  The writing and structuring is admirable as the tension builds to the point of the reveal of the inexplicably larger interior.

Though in the episode broadcast on Saturday 23rd November 2013 the Doctor grins and smiles with more impish charm than the pilot, he continues to be arrogant, condescending and a bully who ultimately cannot stop himself from acting maliciously.    This is all rather different from how the Doctor eventually became to be written.

The row between the teachers and the Doctor continues inside. The Doctor implausibly tries to explain how the interior is larger than the exterior and Susan explains that the name TARDIS was her creation, something that never again seems to fit within what we know about the Doctor’s past.  Another point of illumination comes when the Doctor gently mentions that he and Susan, his granddaughter, have had to flee from their own people and are not from Earth.  These little touches fire the imagination and the rationing of the background only increases the hunger to learn more.

This scene in the console room gives us some very memorable lines which herald so much of the series that is to come. “A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?” This wonderful line, delivered so well by William Russell, effectively sums up the whole series for the audience in one sentence.

At another point William Hartnell, in his prime in the role that he loved, wistfully asks, “Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet - without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day....”  Again, this line helps sum up so much about the series and indeed very little background was added to the Doctor for many years beyond this point.  The whole series has been set out in a short conversation. Interestingly, it foreshadows one of Hartnell’s other most cherished performances when he says goodbye to Susan at the end of an adventure on 22nd Century Earth.

The performances are all splendid.  This scene conjures up in the imagination a wildly exciting premise for the series, breathlessly outlining that the whole universe of space and time, and perhaps even beyond, is within reach and ready to be adventurously explored.  An attractive quartet of characters already seems suitably etched in the understanding.

Given that the Doctor’s general practice now is taken to be kindly inviting his companion’s along for the ride, it is something of a shock that here the Doctor concludes the episode by kidnapping Susan’s teachers, with little justification and a certain amount of trickery.  Yet within the confines of just the episode, the Doctor has a touch of malign capriciousness.  In a way not seen really until the beginning of the new series some forty years later, the TARDIS’ passengers are thrown to the floor when it launches into whatever random journey awaits them. Barbara and Ian even pass out.

The mood of dark mystery concludes the episode as well with a final shot of the TARDIS towering over a broken wasteland while only the shadow of a new figure appears, the character himself off screen to the side, unseen.

An Unearthly Child is an impressively successful opening for Doctor Who. It’s pervading sense of mystery is applied to all of the elements of the series, with the exception of Barbara and Ian who act as a believable centre from which the rest of the imaginary world can be viewed.  The fantasy context is set out in a richly detailed manner that intrigues the audience and the sharp performances bring out the intelligence of the setting.  The setting of the old, dark junkyard, with its antiques and clutter, cleverly accentuates the brightly illuminated, futuristic minimalism of the TARDIS interior.  Perhaps reminding us where the TARDIS is standing, the interior has a few old antique chairs and what looks like a hat stand.  The console itself is a beautiful hexagonal design.

Such a stunning debut can only make the viewer wander what will come next.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Doctor Who Returns – recollections from a fan

Part 1 - Rose

Can it really be ten years since it has returned? How has the Doctor warped time so that ten years ago doesn’t seem much more than a fortnight ago? To a Time Lord of course such tricks are trivial but it astonishes this Earth bound fan that the new series (we still call it new, whether it be new Who, nuWho or other alternatives) has been with us now for so long. In classic terms, it’s the equivalent of 1973 and a trip with the Brigadier and UNIT chums to Cromer, or the anti-matter universe as the Doctor insists on calling it.
After so many years of Who’s absence, it was with stunned amazement that the first announcements of its return were received.  As breathless, insistent fans we were tantalised with somewhat cryptic photos of props and sets.  Christopher Eccleston’s casting was greeted with general praise and a certain puzzlement. The BBC were throwing their gauntlet down; they weren’t going to be playing to type with this new version of the Time Lord. This was perhaps the first real shock about the returning vision for Doctor Who.  As wonderful an actor as he is, it was difficult to see Chris as the Edwardian gentleman scholar we were expecting.

After the cancellation of the classic series in 1989, the audience had of course grown older. New fans appeared to be sure, and they are to be thanked and blessed, but in essence as with any show that comes to an end, enjoyment of the show turned more and more into nostalgia for what had been.  As this process continued, a residual concept of what Doctor Who was, it’s style and look, became more prominent.  With no more new episodes to rein in an already very imaginative audience in, an abstraction developed, based on all the years of the series coupled with fan’s desire for what the series should be.

The 1996 Television Movie had encapsulated this somewhat automatic conception of how Doctor Who ought to be revived.  He would be a rather dashing but slightly diffident dandy, dressed in a Victorian or Edwardian costume and the general setting, at least as far as the Time Lord and his TARDIS were concerned, would be a fabulous gothic with whiffs of steampunk.  The gothic meme weighed heavily on the Doctor, combining with the vistas of H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes.  The Eighth Doctor and his TARDIS in 1996 beautifully and perfectly portrayed this approach to the Doctor.

Doctor Who has always been, fundamentally, a family show principally aimed at children at junior school.  Yet after the cancellation and as the audience grew older, the needs of its audience changed and any revitalisation would, we as fans implicitly felt, be aimed at the much older audience that had grown up with the series.

And in a way, the first proper trailer for the new series appeared to pick up on the idea of an older, more adult series.  It’s a very powerful, effective trailer.  The first shot is a dank, crumbling tunnel seemingly deep underground with a sinister off yellow tint to it. This isn’t glamorous Victoriana. It’s a real looking location that has an almost dystopian feel to it.  There’s an explosion, but it’s not some weird outlandish science fiction blowing up. It’s a genuine, matter of fact looking blast and happening as it does down a tunnel it seems shockingly true to life and terrifying.

In quick succession there is then a double cut of Chris’ Doctor raising his face to look into the camera.  These are intercut with a shot of the Doctor’s booted feet as he runs down the tunnel.

Shooting feet like this is evocative stuff as the mind goes into overdrive trying to imagine the rest of the person, adding to the tension. We are teased with a glimpse around the wonderful new design of the TARDIS console, just enough to make us salivate for more. It’s not steampunk, it’s not gothic. It’s far more exciting. Something new.

A forced zoom down the tunnel adds to the real life quality of the footage. Chris’ Doctor then, in slow motion, climbs steps up to the new TARDIS console.  The distinctively assertive, confident nature of the Doctor’s movement is matched by his style of speaking, giving the striking impression of being in the presence of someone dynamic and powerful. Of course to many in the audience the fact that he speaks with a northern English accent put him immediately at odds with all our expectations of how the Doctor should talk.  Subverting stereotypes in this way broke the series into new territory.   This isn’t the audience’s party anymore; it is the Doctor’s and, as he suggests in the trailer, you are lucky to be invited.

This was a stunningly different way to present Doctor Who. The cumulative effect of the intercutting edit, Chris’ spell binding performance and the design and visuals all work to suggest a show that is very modern with a sophisticated, non-linear style.  The lonely figure of the ninth Doctor running down that exploding tunnel suggested more a sixties era character always on the edge of real world danger – a Danger Man or Steed from the Avengers – rather than Tom Baker offering a bag of jelly babies to an adversary.  It was a very exciting trailer and like many fans I watched it a lot in the build up to Rose.  I was full of admiration for the team working on the new series as they seemed to be aiming for something different and unexpected for Doctor Who.

Of course, trailers are always in danger of creating in the imagination of the intended audience a programme or series that is totally different from the final, full product and in retrospect there seemed to be something of that going on with the first episode of the new series, Rose.

I will never forget sitting down that Saturday evening with a gang of friends to watch it.  Obviously the over-expectation was enormous.  The ninth Doctor was as revelatory as expected but the episode as a whole left me somewhat deflated.  This was purely due to my implicit need as a viewer to have the show be for me, an adult.  Lots of episodes of the new series are more adult in content than others so I would go into be delighted with so many episodes.

Yet Rose was in retrospect a proper family friendly, child targeted episode and the wise people at the BBC, especially that national treasure Russell T. Davies, wanted it that way. The Autons are frightening. We see them killing people in a busy shopping street, with all its implications for domestic horror especially as by implication it is clear that children are in the danger zone.  But it’s family drama style frights, not 28 Days Later. The humour is funny and much of it at the proper level for children as well.  In hindsight, I admire and love the episode as much as any other. It is just that we were at the start of a fairly lengthy journey of rediscovering what family or mass audience fantasy and adventure programmes were like.

The scene on the street near the TARDIS where the Doctor describes to Rose how he can feel the cosmic interplay around them is breathtaking and wonderfully laid down markers for further explorations of the Doctor and his new history, particularly in the following episode End of the World.

So my expectations as a long term fan coupled with my over eager interpretation of the Trip of a Lifetime trailer had lead me to require Rose to be a certain thing and when it wasn’t, it felt like a bit of an anti-climax.  It has to be remembered that when the new Doctor Who started, the national habit of watching this sort of programme had been neglected for many years.  Doctor Who’s success prompted other fantasy shows such as the surprisingly good Primeval  and the BBC’s Merlin, Robin Hood and Atlantis.  Perhaps in a similar way to Harry Potter’s revival of children’s literature, the new Doctor Who has brought a lot of fantasy and imagination to a whole new generation of children.

It didn’t help of course that the broadcast of Rose was famously affected by a “leak” from the studio where Graham Norton was presumably engaged in some post-show banter with his audience.  This really irritated me as due to the very different style of the show I was finding it hard enough to engage with Rose.  Looking back, it just seems a rather funny anecdote for fans to mention when discussing their show.

This though, was only the beginning..



Sunday, 31 May 2015

Full length review of Tyranny of the Daleks

I was fascinated to read a full length review of Tyranny of the Daleks and flattered that the writer took the time to set out their thoughts on it.  I agree with a lot of the comments in it. As a fan film maker, one of the defences I've always employed is that when we made our film, the enjoyment and fun of making the film was at least as important as the finished article. At the same time though, it's fair to say that if we had the skill (and budget!) to cure it of its deficiencies we would have done so as we were keen to make it as good as we could.

Have a read here:  http://www.thedoctorwhoforum.com/uncategorized/fan-film-reviews-tyranny-of-the-daleks/

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Champion of Saturn - full length release!

At long last a full length edition of our science fiction mockumentary,Champion of Saturn is available for viewing!

It is the futuristic year 1950 A.D. Earth is under threat from the evil Emperor Zang, ruler of Saturn. Only Henry V, King of Earth, and his brave band of rocketship pilots can save Earth from devastation by atomic cannon attack!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Gallifrey Stands podcast - A very Gallifreyan Christmas!

Hello there and season's greetings. The latest edition of the Gallifrey Stands podcast includes a discussion of The Next Doctor and A Christmas Carol, two of the best Christmas specials. Please do have a listen!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Support our wonderful director in his Movember challenge!

Our fab director, Matthew McWilliams, is doing his bit for charity by taking part in the Movember challenge.. a challenge that is to grow a mustache in a month!

Its a great cause, raising money to help fight prostate and testicular cancer. So please drop by his Mo page and show your support!

To go to his page use this link: http://uk.movember.com/mospace/10292817

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Daleks Conquer and Destroy!

A review of Dalek from Series 1 of the New Series of Doctor Who

To kill, to wreck endless worlds on a genocidal rampage that will only end when all things are pure in one’s own image. To crack continents, shatter stars and make ghosts of a thousand future generations. To have every whisper of thought screaming for the death of all other beings.

There is an archaeology in Doctor Who; when tapes of long lost episodes are discovered often cherished theories have to be abandoned in the face of actual harsh evidence. There is also a mythology, a deification almost. Some elements have reached escape velocity and broken the gravity of just being part of a television show. They have taken their place in the constellation of the country’s popular imagination.

The Daleks are one of the BBC’s richest creations in popular fantasy. Creatures engineered to hate, bound in battle armour, an unstoppable, unending force. They are an irresistible mix of the terrifying invulnerability of the machine and the sinister viciousness of the alien creature.

This is the power of the myth – but its portrayal was often not quite up to this absolutism. Mud packs for the eye, revolving at over 78rpm, just being shoved hard in the back; their defeats often left the Daleks seeming a lot less than the overpoweringly intimidating.  The Doctor was always able to defeat them and often in ways that undercut any suggestion that this was a race that was in danger of overwhelming the universe. Any revision must, as its first objective, tackle this history of tawdry weakness for the Daleks to regain any credibility.

That is why Episode Six of the New Series’ first season, boldly entitled just “Dalek”, is such an enormous success. By using only the one creature and engaging it in an onslaught of chaos and death, the Daleks as a race have been revitalised within the space of forty-five minutes. Rose’s palm print is the laying on of hands on a previously moribund science fiction creation, a greater resurrection than anything Davros managed.

The first we see of the creature is of it dormant in an underground chamber, bound by chains that seem more symbolic than practical. The Doctor enters and, true to the core of his philosophy, offers to help, ignorant of what he nears. Immediately it senses the presence of its race’s greatest enemy, it comes to life. Enraged, its frustration only seems to mount as it impotently brandishes its gun.

What follows is, to my mind, one of the greatest confrontations the series has ever provided. Only rarely, and then generally only in the black and white era, have Daleks conversed in any other way than a computer might be imagined too, following some form of logical script pattern. It is a shock then for the Dalek to belittle our hero, to taunt him, to appear frightened and then to beg for mercy. It is masterful production; the scene shudders with tension. In parallel perhaps, rarely have we seen the Doctor stretched so taut. Christopher shows us much more of his Doctor than he had hereto. He is almost helplessly fearful, something the Doctor has virtually never been before. Then he is vengeful and pitiless, again in contradiction to what we know of him.

The focus is the Time War, hinted at in previous adventure. Finally the barest sketch of this obviously cosmic maelstrom are provided for a breathless and insatiable audience. The Daleks and the Time Lords have wiped each other out! In the new series, perhaps for the first time, the Doctor seems changed. For a character with previously no development (as we normally talk of such things) at long last something has happened to alter him. We recognize that he is different, that there is some fracture to him now from how he was when we last saw him in San Francisco and all his adventures to that point. For this life long follower of the Doctor it was an extraordinary revelation.

In an instant we can imagine the Time War. We see it all before us and then we see why this Doctor is so different in so many ways than his previous lives. It is Christopher’s performance that bring this to us and it is in this scene that all of this becomes crystallized.

Oddly, the Dalek is able to reconstitute itself after Rose touches it. Whilst we can accept that traveling through time may imbue one with magical powers, this seems to happen far too quickly to work successfully in storytelling terms.

The action sequences that follow are perhaps some of the most powerful seen in the entire series. The execution of these scenes is so professional that they are reminiscent of sections of typical Hollywood science fiction blockbusters. Their conciseness ratchets up the tension higher than most cinematic equivalents.  The Dalek cuts down American private soldiers with ease. Setting the story in America was an intriguing change – having a Dalek (sprung from a very British science fantasy story) destroying soldiers from the world’s greatest superpower adds a novel twist with a certain, perhaps only half meant, satirical flavour.

The machine’s middle sections swings about, independent of the head turret. A force field saves it from bullets. At last the Daleks are depicted with the comprehensive vigour a modern vision requires.  A choir sings a vaguely Germanic sounding piece and again we are reminded of the cinematic rules of construction that would have applied if this had been a full theatrical release. It levitates upstairs as if Daleks always had from the start all those years ago. Its unhurried pace in these scenes informs us of its power, its serene confidence. Victors in combat win by setting the agenda – clearly Sun Tzu is a best seller on Skaro.

Later the Doctor is told he would have made a good Dalek. He has been reduced to doing little more than watching Rose in continual peril and spits his frustration. Rose becomes trapped and faces extermination. Billie, who had by this stage in the new series made it clear she was not going to be outshone by Christopher, is wonderfully convincing in her portrayal of fear, sadness and desperation in soothing the Doctor. Presumably in conformity with the rules that apply to science fiction movies, she has been running around in a white vest and we are perhaps lucky that someone didn’t sling her a gun. Fortunately her performance is far superior to the average Hollywood production and whilst we never fear she may actually die it's still rather frightening seeing her cornered.

Another favourite scene is the Dalek and Rose in the lift. By this stage the Dalek is taking on the role of Hamlet.  It wobbles, physically and emotionally. Finally the Dalek confronts the Doctor and his former captor, the American multi-trillionaire. 

Once the Dalek releases the owner of the Internet, the story seems to wander off. The Dalek opens it’s casing to let the sun in and the tension out. In a similar vein to Rose’s magical palm print earlier, it is not difficult to understand what is happening. Somehow Rose’s genetic information has infected the Dalek. It questions its need to follow basic Dalek conditioning and slows its murderous rampage. King Kong has a similar theme: the monster humanized by a beautiful blonde.

But whereas Kong fell off the Empire State, here the monster falls from a state of Dalek grace. Choking with self-repugnance, it orders Rose to order it to commit holy seppuku. The Doctor, it being his turn to impotently brandish a gun, interprets for a mystified and somewhat anti-climaxing audience. The Dalek cannot abide being anything but perfect Dalek and the human element she has introduced is destroying this perfection. Tearful again, Rose so orders the machine and sadly it levitates one last time to implode by its own sensor globes (at least that’s what we were always told that’s what they were).

But again, like Rose’s palm print, this is perhaps one of the least successful parts of the episode. It just doesn’t work. It’s easy to feel sorry for the Dalek and indeed some people watching have apparently burst into tears at this point (sorry? Crying for a creature that wants to die because it doesn’t want to not kill you anymore?) but it is not quite the powerful and satisfying ending the rest of the story has been building up to.

Luckily, the relatively disappointing ending does not in anyway detract from the rest of the episode which was well received by both long term fans and people who aren’t intimate with details of Dalek history. It is easily one of the best episodes of Doctor Who in its entire fifty year history and its intensity and drama exemplify why the series has such long lasting appeal.