Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Doctor Who 50 Years 50 Stories Project: #3 The Daleks' Master Plan

#3 The Daleks’ Master Plan
First Doctor, Steven, Katarina, Sara Kingdom

This story is one of my all-time favourites, and it makes me really happy that this story made it into the top 50 of all time, especially since three quarters of it doesn't even exist anymore. (For the uninitiated, the BBC destroyed most of their Doctor Who tapes in the 60s and early 70s. Lots of copies have been miraculously found from various sources; sadly, 97 episodes are still missing.) Only episodes 2, 5 and 10 remain out of the original 12. Yep, 12 episodes. This serial is long. I’ve watched this once before, and although it didn’t feel quite as endless as the first time around, it is still very, very long.

So, it’s difficult to talk about. Because a lot happens in 12 episodes. Hey, entire seasons of Doctor Who have been only a bit longer than this story. How hard is it to talk about an entire season as a whole?

And then there’s the fact that only three episodes of this story actually still exist, and we have to make do with bits of salvaged video and audio and telesnaps for the rest of it. I’m always a bit wary of judging recons too harshly, because just because something doesn’t make a good recon, doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t awesome on screen. I think you can see that in this story, a bit. The direction is pretty amazing. As are the things that Mavic Chen does with his fingers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Just look at how this guy holds a pencil.

So, I suppose plot-wise it’s fairly standard Dalek stuff. The Daleks are trying to get hold of McGuffin X in order to take over… the solar system, this time. I like the different representatives of different planets. It makes the whole thing seem big and impressive, which I guess is what they were going with in this story.

The gang.

Then there’s Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System. I kind of love him. Well, okay, he’s the villain of the piece, but I love how we get more time to see him and his path from ruler to traitor and then being betrayed by the Daleks themselves. I think he’s a prime reason this story shouldn’t have been shorter.

Love this guy. Especially his moustache.
This serial is quite famous for having the Brigadier before he was the Brigadier- Nicholas Courtney stars as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon, who helps the First Doctor for much of the story. I personally think this is enough for him to achieve companion status, but the internet seems to disagree with me. Oh well.

Nicholas Courtney: not yet the Brigadier, already a BAMF.

Then there's Sara Kingdom, who oddly people do seem to count as a companion. Not going to lie, I kind of have a wee bit of a crush on her. I wish she'd stuck around longer. 

How could I not though?

Phillip Sandifer makes a great point about how it’s wrong to treat this story as a twelve-parter and I totally get that, and really, it’s much easier to pretend that some of the episodes in the middle just aren’t part of the story. Because they’re really not. For the uninitiated, episode 7 is a random not-entirely-good Christmas special, and just when you think you’re getting back to normality in episode 8 you’ve got some strange business with a cricket pitch.

Episode 7, The Feast of Steven really is very strange. The start of it at least is kind of vaguely amusing. It’s pretty funny to see the TARDIS being taken for an actual police box, and Sara being asked if she’s going to a fancy dress party. Also, Steven’s Scouse accent. He’s a man of many talents, what can I say.

(Just as an aside, I kind of forgot how much I like Steven. Like, when he first showed up in the series I was kind of meh but he’s grown on me so much. I will never not be amused by how angry that boy always seems to sound.)

Steven giving off about something. As usual.

The whole business at the film set is a bit blegh though. And as for the infamous breaking the fourth wall, I sort of like it. Well, it was pretty normal for TV at the time, and I like having the Doctor wish me a happy Christmas. Okay? #sad

So here’s the other thing, which I guess is put even more into focus by the feeble attempts at humour in Feast of Steven- this story is so very, very bleak. It's full of character death, including between one and three companions depending on your definition of what a companion is. It is so very grim.

Let’s talk about Katarina. Okay, so Katarina was never going to be anyone’s favourite- she's only a companion for 5 episodes and spends most of it bewildered by the whole experience, thinking she's in the Underworld- but her death is just horrific. Let’s not forget that this is the first (and sadly not the last) time that someone who the Doctor counts as a companion dies under his care. Her death is such a waste. There's doubt that she even knows what's going on- and her innocence makes it all the worse.

As I've mentioned before, my first experience of William Hartnell's era was watching the entire thing right the way through. There’s a lot to be said for doing it that way, and after this little project of mine I plan to go back to The Power of the Daleks and watch the rest of the entire series that way. You pick up on certain things, and I feel like Katarina’s death is really made more significant by what comes before and after it. The story before this, The Myth Makers, is the one where Katarina joins the TARDIS gang, and just at the end, there’s this exchange that made my blood run so fucking cold:

Katarina: Oh, the priestess Cressida told me all would be well, and I knew what was to come.
Doctor: What was to come, my dear?
Katarina: That I was to die.

Seriously. Whether it’s deliberate foreshadowing or not doesn’t matter because it’s so unsettling.

And then there’s The Massacre which follows Master Plan, and is probably basically summed up as the most depressing story ever. It's set during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and basically, the Doctor can’t save anyone because he can’t meddle in history. Like in The Fires of Pompeii, except for real. And at the end Steven is so upset that he couldn’t save so much as one servant girl who he’d taken a shine to, that he storms out of the TARDIS, leaving the Doctor to contemplate how his travelling companions have all left him- which is so raw especially after the non-stop parade of character death that is Master Plan.

Back to the story: the last episode in particular is so tense. And then everything basically goes wrong. Sara’s death is so horrific and never fails to seriously tear me up. I’m almost glad we can’t see it because seeing her slowly age to death would probably traumatise me for life. Or maybe it’s even scarier because we can’t see it and our imaginations are so much worse than what 1960s TV technology can give us.

Overall, then. I really like this story; it’s one of my favourite Hartnells. It’s bleak and scary and the world building and supporting cast are excellent. It’s way up there on my list of missing stories that need to be found like, now. Except maybe episode 7.

Next time: More Daleks! Patrick Troughton! Six recons in a row! Yep, it’s The Power of the Daleks, coming soon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Doctor Who 50 Years 50 Stories Project: #2 The Dalek Invasion of Earth

The Dalek Invasion of Earth
First Doctor, Barbara, Ian, Susan

This is my second viewing of this story, and I have to say I didn’t much like it first time round. My opinion’s slightly improved this time round though.

It’s an odd one. In some ways it’s awesome. I love all the location filming. Doctor Who Magazine rightly points out that it must have took incredible courage, considering their only previous experience of location shooting were a few scenes featuring non-regular actors, and in this one they’re putting Daleks on Westminster Bridge. The real thing, not some model in a studio somewhere. Heck, I’d be impressed if they did that today. So that whole scene is glorious. Daleks taking over London, it didn’t just happen to David Tennant. It all feels like a movie and you’ve got the whole resistance movement which is kind of cool.

I forgot all about the random ‘VETOED’ signs on everything, including an elephant. I think it works, it’s just so weird.

Actually, the music (bongos!) didn’t annoy me as much as it did on my first viewing of this. I actually rather liked it this time around. It sort of seems to fit with the episode. Somehow.

It’s the plot and the pacing that lets the story down, which is a shame since the premise is awesome. Terry Nation is a funny one. Normally I quite like his ‘making it up as he goes along’ storytelling- where you’ve got bits cropping up out of nowhere and piling on top of each other. But sometimes… this story is a prime example. It’s just- “We need to command the robo-men to destroy the Daleks!” and then they do it and DONE. It’s just all so anti-climatic.

About the robo-men- I kind of like the idea, Daleks programming human slaves. It could be a proper scary thing if they did it today. And I think it’s kind of inevitable to look back at them and compare them to Cybermen- if just for the shape of their heads. I mean, obviously they’re not the same thing at all, but I wonder if the Cybermen idea came out of the robo-men.

The silhouette's similar. Ish.

This is also the story where Barbara reaches her peak of BAMF-ness and runs over some Daleks in lorry. Dear god, I love Barbara.

Can we talk about the Slyther for a second? I kind of love it, in an endearingly awful kind of way. It’s like it could have been a proper menace in the story and then it just… isn’t. Typical Terry Nation.

This is the only picture of the Slyther I could find. It's even worse in black and white.

Let’s talk about the other big thing in this story: Susan. I make no secret of the fact that I’m actually a big fan of Susan. I think a lot of her ‘screaming woman’ behaviour can really be put down to her being fifteen, quite sensitive and probably pretty sheltered. Granted, they take it a bit too far and I think in many ways waste what was potentially a great character, but weighing it all up… I like Susan.

Susan’s exit is interesting in a lot of ways. From the start of the show she’s treated like she’s much younger than she is, basically a child. This story starts with her grandfather telling her that what she needs is a smacked bottom, something you’d normally say to a much younger child… and yet, it ends with her getting engaged, and being told by the Doctor that she’s a woman. How do you reconcile these two sides?

Random thoughts on Susan’s age: I know lots of people favour the interpretation that Susan’s real age is much older than fifteen, and probably older than Barbara or Ian, but I’m not so sure. I think a lot of the reason that she’s treated like such a child by the Doctor (and by consequence, everyone around her) is because she really is, in the eyes of timelords, very very young- maybe even as young as actually fifteen. Compare her to Vicki, who is apparently also about sixteen at the oldest. And the Doctor does refer to a big age difference between him and Susan, after all- and it must be big for a timelord.

Also, how long have Susan and the Doctor been travelling together? Susan says in this story that she can’t remember a time when she felt like she had a place she belonged. So, it seems like she’s perhaps been with the Doctor since she was very young- possibly a baby. (That’s my headcanon, anyway. That goddamn cot in “A Good Man Goes to War”...) Also… Susan’s parents, do we…? But I’ll leave that to my own imagination.

So by the time she goes to Earth in the 22nd century, she’s say, sixteenish, or pretending to be at least, and while probably not a lot of sixteen year old humans from London get engaged (though in the 22nd century, who knows), it’s still a human thing to do. I think that’s why she does it. She’s always loved Earth, ever since we first met her with her radio in “An Unearthly Child”. It makes sense that she’d eventually choose it as her home.

One’s speech after he leaves Susan is rightfully famous. My god. Sometimes Hartnell really pulls out all the stops and delivers proper genius. I can't watch it without welling up; it's devastating. Here it is if you haven't seen it for some reason


I haven’t seen “The Five Doctors” but I understand Susan’s in it… so at least he does see her again, somehow, somewhere. That makes it a bit better I guess.

I just have this really heartbreaking image of some companion finding a shoe with a hole in it in the TARDIS one day and asking the Doctor why it’s there. Or maybe it’s the Doctor himself who finds it and it takes him just a second to remember whose it is. Or he keeps it, secret and safe, after all this years.

Right, I’m done making myself sad now.

So, yes. I think this is an averagey sort of story which is made much better by selected awesome parts. Maybe it’s one of those stories where the perception of it is better than its actual content. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all need myths.

Next time: More Daleks! And this time they have a master plan! Yes, it’s The Daleks’ Master Plan, all 12 episodes of it. There will be recons! And gratuitous character death! And a Christmas special we all like to pretend didn’t happen! So stay tuned!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Doctor Who 50 Years 50 Stories Project: #1 The Daleks

This is long, looooong overdue, but I plain forgot about this post until I was re-watching An Unearthly Child last weekend and remembered I have things to say about One, Susan, Ian, Barbara and a bunch of scary pepper pots. 

Link to masterpost

The Daleks
First Doctor, Barbara, Ian, Susan

So, I'm a bit all over the place when it comes to Doctor Who. There's a lot of 'must see' episodes that I'd never seen before I embarked on this project. I watched the series in a weird order that would probably make many fans cry (I didn't even see a single David Tennant episode for a really long time). But I have seen all 134 William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who, including reconstructions of the 44 that don't exist anymore. Long story short, I watched them last year, when I was miserable and sort-of homeless while living in France. I didn't have an internet connection, and I do strange things when I'm bored. But I'm glad I did, because no-one ever told me how good it was going to be, how I would laugh and cry just as much as with the new series, only with more rubbish special effects and "WTF" moments.

As a big fan of the old series, I'm frustrated sometimes by die-hard fans of New Who who don't even want to try any old stuff. I mean, I know everyone can watch what they want, there is no such thing as a 'real fan' blah blah blah, but, guys, seriously, you're missing out. And I think this goes double for the Hartnell era- even 'proper' old school Doctor Who fans often skip Hartnell or only watch a few famous stories. These episodes are very dear to me, coming to me as they did at a very difficult time in my life, and contributed just as much to my becoming a giant Doctor Who nerd as any Tom Baker or David Tennant episode. Maybe even more.

Anyway. End rant, start review!

As the title might suggest, this is the very first Dalek story, and it’s pretty amazing how little the Daleks have changed really since then- compared with something like the Cybermen. They look pretty much the same, talk pretty much the same- and even talk about exterminating, though they haven’t got a… particular fondness, shall we say, for that word just yet.

So, the plot: The Doctor is trying to return Barbara and Ian back to Earth when they land on a planet that appears to be eerily dead and empty of all life. The companions are all keen to move on, but the Doctor wants to explore the city in the distance and tricks them into thinking they need to get a part from the TARDIS in the city. When they get there, they’re caught by the Daleks, slowly start getting sick from radiation poisoning, meet the Thals, try to inspire some fighting spirit into them, and more than a few Thals get killed in the process.

The Doctor’s still pretty antagonistic in this story. His companions (even Susan) are desperate to leave the planet, but he tricks them into staying- something which backfires when it turns out that the allegedly broken piece of the TARDIS really is broken. He’s extremely curious and inquisitive, but he hasn’t yet developed the compassion for his companions that he will in later years. He really doesn’t have much of a moral compass yet- like when he remarks that the Daleks must have a lot of knowledge and intelligence.

Ian: But what form does that intelligence take? How do they use it?

One: Oh, as if that matters!

It’s kind of fascinating seeing him before he became the man he is today.

Still, I think some of that is coming in. While he’s quite happy to leave the Thals to fight the Daleks (and probably lose), he does show some compassion towards them. The line “That’s sheer murder!” when he learns about the Daleks’ plan to release another neutron bomb is probably the first sign he’s shown so far of actually realising and wanting to change the fate of the places he travels to.

There’s a really sweet scene between him and Susan when he’s gleefully smashing up the Dalek equipment- Susan is also adorable in this- and instead of getting the fuck out of there when he’s done, he’d much rather stand around and talk about how clever he is- resulting in his capture. Oh, One.

I like Susan’s characterisation in this story too. She’s not quite the hysterical screamer just yet. She’s still delightfully odd and alien and loving. She laughs at inappropriate moments- like when Barbara reveals her nightmarish feeling that there’s something inside the Daleks, and she even basically laughs in the face of the Daleks in one scene.

She’s brave, going through a mutant infested jungle at night in a thunderstorm while suffering from radiation sickness to save her friends, and flinging herself right in front of a Dalek to distract it and save the day. We get early signs that Susan feels misunderstood and out of place when no-one believes her about the Thal in the jungle, and all she wants to do is keep a flower in a glass case, but no-one will let her. I wish we had more of this Susan than the caricature we get later on.

Susan is my faaaave. In case you couldn't tell.

It’s interesting that Barbara hasn’t totally developed as a character yet either. She’s not quite as headstrong and level minded as she is later on- she’s still a young woman a long way from home and terrified out of her mind.

Barbara and Ian’s relationship- I’ve always wondered about them. I believe that while they weren’t a couple (though good friends with a bit of flirtatious banter) at the start of the show, they were by the time they left- those photographs at the end of “The Chase” are in no way platonic. At the start of this story, they seem pretty coupley- when Barbara remarks in despair that she’s a long way away from anything familiar Ian pretty much says ‘you’ve got me’, but they seem to have a bit of a falling out in the middle, as Barbara disagrees with him on how to deal with the Thals and is so totally flirting with Ganatus- and kisses him at the end. Which I really love, because how much longer is it before we see anyone kissing anyone again? The TV movie?! Anyway, Barbara and Ian are endgame as we all know, so no worries there.

Spoiler: They get together in the end. Please note Barbara's feet appear to be not actually touching the ground.

The Thals are interesting. I’m sure they reappear though I can’t think of any instances where they do- oh, except for Genesis of the Daleks of course. They’ve changed quite a lot between now and then, but we’ll get to that when I get to Genesis. It’s interesting and maybe slightly concerning the way it’s set up, in a way the message of the story is about rejecting pacifism- on the surface anyway. Being a big pacifist myself I’m a little concerned about that message, but the story I think actually takes it in a pretty complex way. For example, they make a big deal about whether the Thals are really just cowards or if they have a point. But then there’s Antodus, who wants to give up and turn back when they’re in the caves. Some might see him as a coward- though I think there’s nothing cowardly about facing up to the reality that the Daleks would most likely kill them anyway- but then after he and Ian fall into the chasm, he sacrifices himself to save Ian- a guy he’s just met, who keeps trying to make him do things he doesn’t want to do, I might add. Antodus was the real brave one in this story.

At the end, too, when they’ve defeated the Daleks (for now, but we’ll not get into that just now) all they can say is “If only there had been some other way.” They’re free, but only some have survived to enjoy that freedom.

The story gets pretty dark at points. Doctor Who Magazine made a point I really like about this serial and season 1 as a whole- things are a lot grittier and a lot more bleak. These days- and even in the 70s or so- if the gang are captured, no matter how bad things are, there always seems to be more hope, they’ll not have a hair out of place or look any the worse for wear. Season 1 has the gang constantly dirty, distressed, hopeless. Maybe it’s the Doctor’s ineffectualness- these days the Doctor can get them out of anything, but not back then.

Also, it’s really unsettling. I’m not good with the idea of being trapped somewhere, so the part in episode 1 where Barbara runs helplessly around while doors slide shut around her kind of scares me, like, a lot. The music too is delightfully creepy and atmospheric.

I have just a few qualms, though. The story drags a bit somewhere around the last two or three parts, and the fight scene at the end is such a let down. Still, this is an excellent story and a really fascinating example of very early Doctor Who getting so many things so very right.

Next time: The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The Daleks are back! And this time they’re invading Earth! Stay tuned for bongos and sad companion departures!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

This Week in Books

Hello! I've been pretty much absent since the readathons, as I've been slightly preoccupied with a little thing called finishing my degree. It's been a crazy couple of weeks getting essays finished and doing exams. But my final exam was on Thursday and I am officially done! Which is, weird? And terrifying? Mostly I'm still in a state of disbelief. It's so weird getting up in the morning and realising I have no uni work to do. In theory this should mean I'll be reading more!

So, to sort of ease my way back into the blog, I'm going to do a round up of the last week in books- what I finished, what I'm currently reading, and what I want to read next.


The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: I've had this on the go, on and off, for a few weeks and I finally finished it. It's such a fun read. It's just packed with Victorian tropes and family secrets and zany characters, which probably make it slightly ridiculous? But only ever in a good way. I think the ending is maybe a little anti-climatic though, only because of all the drama in the earlier parts of the book. But apart from that it's wonderful. It's also really great to reread a book you previously loved and realise that it's still kickass.

Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein. So, I'm basically taking advantage of the last few months of having a university library card, and reading some classics of gender/LGBTQ theory. Kate Bornstein was assigned male at birth, transitioned to female in hir thirties, and then came to realise ze didn't really feel like either gender. Basically the whole book is a take down of the gender as a concept, which is something I've been really interested in these days- what is gender really, except flakey science and a bunch of stereotypes? And trying to figure out how that fits into LGBTQ stuff- like, if gender is just a construct, why bother physically transitioning? And how do you identify as both 'lesbian' and 'not female'? I might write a full review of this; it was a really interesting read.

Currently reading

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown: This is a history of 19th Century USA from the Indian point of view. I'm interested in Native Americans/Indians and I know next to nothing about them, so this is my attempt to remedy that. Needless to say, it's not a cheerful read. Each chapter deals with a specific incident involving a tribe, and the end result for most of them seems to be Europeans try to take land - Indians resist - Indians are horribly killed. It's maybe not clicked with me quite as much as I'd hoped- I think I can possibly blame the writing style for that- but I'm finding it interesting, if completely emotionally exhausting.

Up next

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: This is one of those books that I've been meaning to read forever. I'm kind of lacking in the Margaret Atwood department. I read and loved The Handmaid's Tale a while back and enjoyed Stone Mattress which I read recently, so it's about time I read this. I know it involves a dystopia and genetic engineering, two things that make my ears prick up, but that's about it. Looking forward to starting this!

The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami: This is another university library find. Hall was a lesbian living in the early 20th century whose novel The Well of Loneliness caused serious scandal when it was published in the 1920s. It seems to be pretty much accepted today that The Well of Loneliness isn't actually very good, but I really enjoyed it when I read it a few years ago. From the little I know about her, Hall was an... interesting character, so I'm looking forward to learning a bit more about her. Also, this had a Jeanette Winterson blurb, and recommendations don't come higher than that.