Sunday, 23 April 2017

Smile - The Review

First of all, let's get the look of last night's episode out of the way. Traveling to Valencia to film really paid off. The cityscape, and the sweeping vistas of wheat fields were beautiful to look at. It was such a pity that the plot then moved into the spaceship interior, which was plainly yet another factory location.
Apart from a brief appearance by Nardole at the beginning, plus the two colonist women, the first half hour was pretty much just the Doctor and Bill. Knowing that Ralf Little was appearing, I kept looking at the clock and wondering if it would be worth his while ever turning up. (It wasn't - a real waste of a good guest actor. Same with Mina Anwar, who was so good as Rani's mum Gita in The Sarah Jane Adventures).
So, for much of the running time it is just the Doctor and Bill. He deduces what is going on, whilst she is still in educating-new-viewers mode by asking all of those questions which have already been asked and answered for longer term fans. Had there been any aliens this week, she would no doubt have asked the one about how she could understand them.
Watching the Doctor work out what was going on in this seemingly deserted colony was interesting, as we already knew what was afoot.

The robots - both the tiny flying Vardies and the cute little Emojibots - were killing people who weren't happy. Helen A could have done with some of these on her colony world in The Happiness Patrol. Once again, we have technology designed to help humans acting against them due to over-literal programming. Just like last week. The Doctor works out that this was all caused by them encountering grief, which spread through the human community following the death of a much loved elder. The robots have been programmed to make sure everyone is happy, so they eliminate sadness by killing people and turning them into fertiliser for the gardens. As a threat, they didn't quite work. The Doctor and Bill simply ran out of the city. While they were back at the TARDIS, why didn't they remove their emoji badges, by the way?

The Doctor decides he's going to blow up the city - only to later discover that the colonists have already arrived. They're in cryosleep in the spaceship at the heart of the complex, which is where Ralf Little comes in. The Doctor makes reference to having encountered a number of craft which have fled a dying Earth - something which has caused a few continuity headaches for fans. Little announcing he is a Medtech obviously reminds us of The Ark In Space, where Medtech Vira was the first of the crew to be reawakened. The Doctor states that Gliese is one of the first Earth colonies, but that can't be the case if these people have come from the dying Earth. The history of Doctor Who is littered with much earlier colonies. Then again, the Doctor does get things wrong. He says so here, when he admits to not having recognised a nascent AI lifeform.
The name of the spaceship is significant - The Erewhon. This derives from the book by Samuel Butler, published in 1872. This features a Utopian place (the name taken from "Nowhere" backwards, with the W and H transposed). This place does not allow machines, as they are thought to present a threat to humanity, which is exactly what the robots here pose.
This season's story arc gets a mention, but not in any way that moves the mystery forward. We already know that he has promised to guard the Vault. Who he promised this to, and why, are still for a later episode.
Overall, it was a good episode, but certainly not a great one. If it was intended to further introduce us to Bill and some of the series' core tenets, then it succeeded. It just needed a bit more oomph.

Friday, 21 April 2017

April Figurines

Three figurines this month - the two regular releases plus the latest larger sized special edition.
The former comprise the Destroyer, from Battlefield, and the Veil, from Heaven Sent.
The Destroyer is bound with a flexible chain. He's a little more silvery than he looked on TV, though he was shot mostly in the gloom.
If you want to know what the Veil looks like under its shroud, forget it. The face is just a black blank. The oddest thing about this figurine is its misshapen feet, because these were never really noticeable in the programme. No wonder the poor thing walked so slowly.

The larger special edition figurine is King Hydroflax, from The Husbands of River Song. I wouldn't say this is a great likeness of Greg Davies. The head also looks far too big. Most of the time, the actor playing the robot body was looking out of a panel in the chest. This is a remodel of the robots that appeared in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, so you can see the scale is all wrong.
Next month, we get the Cyber-Controller from Attack of the Cybermen and, if the preview photo is to be believed, they've got rid of the paunch. Joining him will be the Black Dalek from Dalek Invasion of Earth. In June we hit issue 100, and that will be the Roger Delgado Master (Hooray!). He'll be joined by a Tetrap (Boo!). The next special edition will be the Daemon, Azal.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Totally Sonic-ed

You might be pleased to learn that as of June this year, "Sonic Screwdriver" joins "Dalek", "Cyberman" and "Tardis" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Not entirely sure how often people use "Cyberman" out of context, but visiting Glasgow as often as I do, where there are a number of Police Boxes, I hear everyone refer to them as a Tardis. People refer to any deceptively small space as being like a Tardis. I've heard dustbins referred to as Daleks, and some people have been called that - e.g. playwright Dennis Potter calling BBC chief John Birt one. Satirical magazine Private Eye used to depict him in cartoons as Davros. Some UK politicians have used the name to refer to their opposition colleagues. The entry in the OED will mention the fictional screwdriver's history - such as its introduction in Fury from the Deep, and apparent destruction in The Visitation, but it also mentions real life attempts to create one - such as at Dundee University.

Inspirations - Planet of Giants

The first story of Doctor Who's second season, though it was made before the short summer break. It owes its origins to the programme's prehistory, for a story in which the Doctor and his friends were shrunk to diminutive proportions was almost the show's opening adventure.
The three types of story which the programme could show were to have been backwards into the past, forwards into the future (or to alien worlds - held to be always in the future), or "sideways". The latter meant subverting the ordinary, and could be set in the present day. An idea for the very first story - commonly referred to as "The Miniscules" - had the TARDIS take the Doctor, the two teachers and their pupil to Ian's (Or Cliff's, as he was then) science lab at Coal Hill School. The travellers would find they were only one inch tall, and would have to navigate the classroom to get back to the safety of the ship. They could drown in a sink, be burned by Bunsen-burners, or be trapped in a matchbox by one of the pupils.
As the debut broadcast date approached, it was realised that the effects needed to pull this off successfully required more planning to develop. The idea was shelved, to be revisited later. The original storyline was devised by C E "Bunny" Webber, one of the series' forgotten heroes. It was then given to writer Robert Gould to develop, but that also fell through. Sydney Newman had reservations about the giant insects that would plague the travellers - fearing they would be too close to 1950's giant insect B-movie monsters - his detested BEMs. In the end the idea went to Louis Marks, and he came up with the four episodes that comprised Planet of Giants. Marks had written for soaps and one-off drama series, but his real interests lay in Renaissance history. He had written an academic piece about the economy of late medieval Florence. He'll later be asked to stick Daleks in a temporal paradox story, rewrite Forbidden Planet / The Tempest / Jekyll and Hyde, before finally getting some of his real interests on screen.

In September 1962 Rachel Carson produced a book called "The Silent Spring". This science tome dealt with the detrimental effects of pesticides, which she felt were being widely used without proper study of their long-term effects. She argued that the big chemical companies were unduly influencing governments - putting people at risk for the sake of profit. In particular, Carson was concerned that pesticides were killing those insects essential for plant propagation, as well as the pests. This would have a knock-on effect up the food chain, affecting birds and other animals. If left unchecked, one day there would be a silent spring, when no insect chirruped or bird sang. Naturally, the chemical giants complained, but the US public had their eyes opened, and the common pesticide DDT was banned. The book helped towards the creation of the US Environmental Agency - that body which the current POTUS seems determined to undermine. Marks obviously read the book, and had the same concerns, and hence the creation of the scientist Smithers and his business partner Forester.
Unusually, Marks structures his story in such a way that the TARDIS crew and the full sized human characters never once interact, though the actions of each influences the other. Smithers and Forester only inadvertently threaten the miniaturised time travellers, and the Doctor's party decide to fight against them without knowing anything about them, personally. They are primarily battling the new chemical - DN6 - in order to make sure it doesn't kill all the useful insect life. They know that they are in the grounds of a house that is occupied by a murderer, but have no idea that the creator of DN6 is present, save for finding its chemical formula scribbled on a notepad. They make quite a leap in assuming that the two things are connected.

Jeopardy is added as Barbara rather foolishly picks up a seed that has been coated with DN6 - even though there is enough evidence to show that it is toxic. This provides an element of "race against time". They can't spend forever trying to work out how to warn against DN6. The obvious thing would have been to let Smithers know that his chemical is killing the useful insects, but that avenue is blocked by Forester's murder of the civil servant Farrow, who had planned to prevent its production.
There is some argument as to when the Doctor starts to become the character that we know today - the crusader who will fight injustice wherever, or whenever, he encounters it. Some have seen it in his decision to venture into the aqueducts of the planet Sense-Sphere. He could simply have let the Sensorites sort this out for themselves. All other stories so far have seen the Doctor act purely to regain his TARDIS, or free his companions - primarily his grand-daughter.
Here in this story, the TARDIS crew have the chance to get back to the ship, and need to do it quickly as Barbara could die otherwise, and yet the Doctor decides that a stand must be made. This is helped by Barbara herself urging her friends to do so, despite the risks to herself.

The Smithers / Forester / Farrow half of the plot is lifted straight from a police show, like Z-Cars or Dixon of Dock Green. Had the story not been cut down from four to three episodes, there would have been a lot more of Smithers and Forester becoming increasingly suspicious of each other (mainly due to the acts of sabotage by the TARDIS crew), and the roles of local switchboard operator Hilda Rowse and her policeman husband Bert would have been enhanced. More would have been made of how Hilda worked out that Forester was impersonating Farrow. As it was broadcast, Hilda seems to make some incredible intuitive leaps.
Setting a fantastical element against a common crime caper puts one in mind of shows like The Avengers, which will later have a miniaturisation plot-line, guest starring Nicholas Courtney and Kevin Stoney.
Other influences to look for must obviously include the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was based on a Richard Matheson story. The main character in this, his shrinking caused by exposure to a radioactive cloud, also has trouble with a domestic cat, though it's the fight with the spider that most folks remember. Planet of Giants has some oversize insects, but they never actually threaten the TARDIS crew. Gould's scripts would have featured a spider.
It is significant that the story spends only one episode in the wilds of the garden, and the next two (should have been three) hanging around a sink.
The two cliffhangers are actually amongst the strangest in the show's history - threatened with being eaten by a cat, or being washed down a plug-hole. Who would have thought that the image of a man washing his hands with a bit of carbolic would lead into that famous music, and it would work.
Before parts three and four were edited together, it would have been shown that the cat would have also been killed by DN6. This caused alarm amongst the production team. Thals can be exterminated willy-nilly, but god forbid the children of Britain should be confronted with a dead Tiddles.

It is interesting to note that when Susan and the Doctor start to talk about being caught up in an air raid, there is a long enough pause for the viewers at the time to automatically think they are referring to the WWII Blitz. Bombs had been falling less than two decades before. The Doctor then mentions how terrible those Zeppelins were - pushing their adventure back to the war a generation before.
In the first episode, Ian speculates that they may have arrived in some sort of World's Fair. These huge events did often feature special displays wherein visitors might have been expected to walk through an area where they saw oversize props, making them feel tiny.
A special mention for designer Ray Cusick for being able to realise this story on screen. Some of the insects had been created for another show, and there is a lot of use of characters being shown against photographs, but he achieves a lot of good effects in this. The photo technique involved the actors standing in front of a black drape in one part of the studio, and this camera image being superimposed over the photographic image. This tended to make the characters somewhat transparent, and it is the reason why the Doctor wears a white hat on Vortis instead of his black one.
Cusick claimed that the Bunsen-burner finale was partly due to him - being asked what was feasible to realise in studio. Others claim that it was always in the scripts.
Another special mention - Douglas Camfield has arrived. He directed the final of the four original episodes, and was allowed to get sole credit for the edited one broadcast.
Next time, THEY are back, the Unearthly Child leaves, and Terry Nation gets to exorcise more of his childhood wartime experiences...

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Pilot - The Review

Series 10 kicks off with a slow-burner of an episode, that takes its time setting up the new companion, Bill, and setting the scene for what looks to be this year's story arc - that mysterious vault under the university where the Doctor and Nardole have based themselves for decades. We finally learn how the latter returned from the dead - he's got a robotic body.
The story title was for a long time "A Star In Her Eye", until someone pointed out the similarity to the well known "impersonate a celebrity singer" light entertainment show. The new title - The Pilot - was well chosen.
Apart from Christmas Specials and the opening episode of Class, we haven't seen much of the Doctor for quite some time. New viewers could easily jump on with this episode. The TARDIS is reintroduced, as it is seen travelling through both Space and Time, and Bill gets to do the "bigger on the inside" bit. The Doctor is in the middle of a mission, which we don't need to know all about quite yet. He has Nardole as his assistant, and now a new companion arrives. The Doctor looks at the photo of grand-daughter Susan on his desk as he invites Bill to become his special project. She is the new unearthly child, though thankfully Bill seems to be really ordinary. Nothing impossible about her, and she isn't going to turn out to be the Master's granny or anything like that - I hope.

My biggest worry going into this episode was Bill's quirkiness. I wasn't impressed by the introductory piece shown last Spring. She just seemed too stupid - annoyingly so. Apart from the "kitchen" comment about the TARDIS interior, she turned out to be quite endearing. I think I'm going to like her after all. Not at all sure about the appropriateness of the "perversion" dialogue for a family show. Says more about the writer than the character.
As for the plot, well it was a bit of a greatest hits package. I was reminded of a number of other stories as I watched. First of all, we have The Lodger - with a mysterious spaceship needing a pilot in someone who wants to travel. Heather's watery appearances reminded me of the Siren, from Curse of the Black Spot, as well as the transformed humans in The Waters of Mars. Like the Siren, Heather's motivation turned out to be the fault of over-literal programming. Bill had promised to go with her, and she was holding her to this vow. The Doctor's university life obviously puts one in mind of Prof. Chronotis in Shada as well.

Whilst accessible to new viewers, The Pilot also had lots of little references for the more established fans. As well as the photo of Susan on his desk, there was also one of River Song. He has a brace of older sonic screwdrivers on his desk as well. The Daleks made what may be their only appearance this year, in what was little more than a cameo, and they were seen in mid-skirmish with the Movellans. These were clearly Movellans from an earlier era than the ones seen in Destiny of the Daleks, from a time before they became totally robotic, judging from the shouts and screams they were making. The Doctor's attempt to mind wipe Bill was halted by her asking him how he would feel if it happened to him - and we heard a snatch of Clara's theme.
Overall, a strong start to the new series. Next week, Bill goes on her first proper TARDIS voyage as companion, and we get the Emojibots. The preview for this episode did kind of seem to give the game away as to the plot - even showing us the colony city being blown up.
We were also treated to a preview of the rest of the series - the highlight being our first glimpse of John Simm's Master - and hooray, he's got a little beard.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

B is for... Blue, Colonel Morgan

Commander of the troops stationed on the former medical ship Aristotle. He was part of a resistance alliance who were waging a war against the Daleks. His team captured a badly damaged Dalek which appeared to oppose its own kind. When the Doctor rescued his niece and brought her aboard the spaceship, Colonel Blue was still prepared to summarily execute him, as it was known that the Daleks used human duplicates as spies. On hearing that he was a doctor, he introduced him to the Dalek patient and tasked him with helping it. He permitted the Doctor to leave to fetch Clara to assist him, trusting him to return. When the miniaturised Doctor and his friends repaired the Dalek from within, it broke free and began to exterminate Blue's troops. The ship then came under attack from more Daleks, who had been alerted to the Aristotle's location hidden in an asteroid field. Clara was able to reboot the memories that had caused the damaged Dalek to turn against its own kind. It stopped killing the Colonel's men, and fired upon the Dalek attackers, destroying them all. The Dalek then agreed to transmit a signal to the fleet claiming that the Aristotle had been destroyed, so that the Colonel and his troops could escape.

Played by: Michael Smiley. Appearances: Inside The Dalek (2014).

  • This episode was directed by Ben Wheatley, who employs Michael Smiley on a regular basis. He is probably best known for his regular appearances as the manic bike courier Tyres O'Flaherty in the Simon Pegg / Jessica Hynes comedy series Spaced. He once shared a flat with Pegg.

B is for... Blowfish

An obscure alien species, they are bipedal but have bright red piscine features, with prominent crests. They can survive in water or on land. They have a reputation for criminality and general trouble-making, fond of thrill-seeking. They visited Earth a number of times via the Space / Time Rift that ran through Cardiff.
Captain Jack Harkness encountered one on the day he was forced to join the Torchwood organisation, in 1899. Unable to send it back home, Torchwood operative Alice Guppy shot it dead. This prompted Jack to insist that in future all alien creatures should be incarcerated rather than killed.
Whilst Jack was away travelling with the Doctor and Martha Jones, Torchwood had to chase a Blowfish who was high on drugs and who had stolen a sports car. It paused to allow an old lady to cross the road, however. It ran into a house and took the family hostage. Jack reappeared, shooting the creature through the head before it could harm the humans. It later transpired that the creature was in league with Captain John Hart. In its pocket was a small pyramidal object that he thought would lead him to a fabulously wealthy gemstone.

In 102 AD, the Blowfish were members of the Pandorica Alliance. In the far future, a Blowfish was to be found among the patrons of the Maldovarium when Colony Sarff arrived in search of the Doctor. The head of a Blowfish, or a replica of one, could be seen in "Hedgewick's World of Wonders", in the collection presided over by Mr Webley.

Played by: Paul Kasey. Appearances: Torchwood 2.1 Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2008); TW 2.12 Fragments (2008); The Pandorica Opens (2010); Nightmare in Silver (2013); The Magician's Apprentice (2015).

  • Just watched the Blu-Ray of Rogue One last night, the day of its UK release. Nice to see that a number of Doctor Who monster performers are involved in the new Star Wars movies. Paul Kasey is the Rebel General Raddus. Jimmy Vee has taken over R2-D2 duties from the late Kenny Baker, and Ice Warrior / Minotaur performer Spencer Wilding is Darth Vader. The latter has a nice symmetry with Doctor Who, Dave Prowse having played the Minotaur in The Time Monster before donning the iconic black armour.