Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Audio Review 12: Omega, written by Nev Fountain (2003)

Released: August 2003
Cast:
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Omega – Ian Collier
Daland – Hugo Myatt
Sentia – Caroline Munro
Professor Ertikus – Patrick Duggan
Glinda – Anita Elias
Maven – Faith Kent
Tarpov – Conrad Westmaas
Zagreus Robot – Jim Sangster

Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Nev Fountain
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Russell Stone
Recording – Lee Bowman
Sound Design, Post-Production and CD mastering – Gareth Jenkins @ ERS
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Peter Howell and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Remastered by David Darlington)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Jacqueline Rayner


Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The Doctor takes an intergalactic tour to a space heritage centre that celebrates the legend of Omega, whose scientific achievements gave the Time Lords their power over time. However, not long after he arrives, an actor called Tarpov goes mad due to the local dimensional instability, and people start being murdered one by one in mysteriously theatrical circumstances, including Tarpov. The Doctor’s chief suspect is Omega, who having survived their most recent encounter in Amsterdam, wants to return home to his anti-matter universe, and marry Sentia, one of the tour staff whom he has fallen in love with. However, Omega seems to be an insubstantial ghostly entity and cannot possibly have committed the killings. For a long time the Doctor is baffled by the mystery...that is, until the real Doctor turns up.

As both Omega and Sentia become mentally unstable, the Doctor rescues Daland and the heritage centre tourists. However he is forced to leave Omega and Sentia behind on Omega’s ship the Eurydice, as it descends into the nearby black hole, but not before he explains to Omega that not all his memories are his own. As a result of Omega’s split-personality, he now feels deeply guilty over a memory that he gained from the Doctor, who admits that in the past he accidentally committed genocide against the Scintillans, while trying to save another alien species from death and destruction. As the Eurydice disappears into the black hole, the Doctor quietly mourns Omega, while regretting unfairly wronging him.

Story Placement
Between Arc of Infinity (TV Serial) and The Elite (BIG Finish audio).


Favourite Lines

Sentia – “Well the past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You can’t touch anything, it’s very dirty, frequently boring, and in almost all cases they’re no proper toilet facilities”.

The Doctor – “If I didn’t know better, this stuff sounds a lot like conjecture, professor?”
Professor Ertikus – “Oh yes, but completely different from old Shezion’s guesswork”.
The Doctor – “Oh yes”.
Professor Ertikus – “Oh yes. This is my guesswork”.

Professor Ertikus – “The public can’t cope with history, unless it’s on the telly with lots of actors dressed in silly costumes. Philistines”.

Daland – “The public can’t cope with history unless it’s in some dusty little book. Cretins”.

Sentia – “A lot of people find the story of Vandekyrian’s betrayal the most powerful”.
Glinda – “Oh no, that bit was rubbish. We liked the bit when Vandekyrian chased Omega down the corridor. That was very funny”.

Professor Ertikus – “This is very alarming...”
The Doctor – “I agree”.
Professor Ertikus – “I have that passage on page 212. You’re quoting my own rival’s book at me!”

The Doctor – “I always thought it would spoil things, knowing all there was to know about him. I think it’s best to have some element of mystery about the character”.
Professor Ertikus – “Oh no, I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing annoyed me more when fans of Omega concocted these convoluted theories to explain away discrepancies in the the legends”.

Omega – “He is babbling into a machine, speaking half-truths and nonsense”.
The Doctor – “He works in Television. I’m told they do that”.

The Doctor – “It’s not a bad old cosmos. Flowers, cups of tea, trees, mugs of tea, sunsets, pots of tea... As you can see, I don’t expect too much from this universe”.

Daland – “I’m not used to chatting up inanimate objects”.

Sentia – “Can I interest you in a souvenir of your stay? How about our ‘Talking Omega’? Says four simple phrases”.
The Doctor – “That many. Sounds like the Omega I used to know”.

Daland – “Hold! I am the great Doctor! Champion of Time! Defeater of the dreaded Omega! Can I wear a cloak?”


Review:

In 2003, BIG Finish led Doctor Who’s 40th Anniversary celebrations rather appropriately with a mini-series of stories that explored three of the show’s most popular villains – Omega, Davros and Master. Omega, the first audio release is a fascinating exploration of the titular character in question, the pioneering Time Lord that first gave Gallifrey the power of Time Travel, but turned rogue, when he was abandoned by his fellow people to die in a Black hole. Omega has been one of Doctor Who’s most neglected villains, presented to us as a bellowing megalomaniac in The Three Doctors, and in Arc of Infinity, a less-bellowing, but equally theatrical and power-crazed maniac. Thankfully, Omega rectifies some of this by examining not only his past, but also his feelings, emotions and motivations, adding important dimensions to his character, and showing us that he wasn’t always so bad after all.

The story that Nev Fountain conjures up to frame this examination in, is a simple, but good one never-the-less. Abandoned and lonely in this Universe, Omega decides he wants to return back to his own Universe of Anti-Matter where he can be master of his own destiny and ruler of his own kingdom again. This may not sound like riveting stuff on the surface, but Nev Fountain cleverly tells the story within a murder mystery, adding an important layer of intrigue to the proceedings, and brilliantly tops it all off with one of the best cliff-hanger twists that Doctor Who has ever written (even if it’s one you could only get away with on audio). There are other layers to the script too, such as the examination of the ‘legend of Omega’ and his all-important first experiments into Time-travel; the audio’s ongoing theme about the importance of legends and stories in general; and a philosophical exploration (and part moral parable) by the writer into how easy it is for people and society to unjustly attach blame and demonise others, particularly the unpopular, and unfairly judge people on their superficial qualities. There are also multiple satires and parodies of period dramas, the Television industry, coach tours, and history tourists. The good side of these multiple layers of meaning, jokes and plot is that there’s a lot that the audience can take away from the experience, and the script sparkles with some well-observed dialogue and several cracking jokes and one-liners. However, the negative side of all this trifle of elements are that some of them seem to be purely thrown in for effect; short-term entertainment to help take the listener’s mind off the fact that the underlying story is developing so slowly, however, this is only really a problem in part two, which is filled with a large amount of padding.

Another part of the story which didn’t really work that well for me was the Scintillans sub-plot. The revelation that the Doctor accidentally committed genocide on the Scintillans is a brilliant twist, but its dramatic impact is spoilt by the sub-plot being dragged out too long in the story. Omega is strongly hinted to be the murderer of the Scintillans in part one and yet the narrative acts if this is one big powerful secret that will surprise us all when all is revealed. However, given Omega’s past record, this is hardly news to the audience, and we have to wait for the script to acknowledge this in part three before the story really goes anywhere. Combined with Omega’s ghostly psychic manifestations that haunt the Eurydice and aren’t really of much relevance to the continuing story, it makes part two drag significantly, filled with the padding of a near-redundant sub-plot that plods on for three episodes before it has something interesting to tell us. However, so much is done right with this script and production that you can’t hold much against it for long. One of the best things about Omega is Nev Fountain’s great characterisation.
Being the main subject of the story, it’s no surprise that Omega also gets the best character development. We find out that Omega used to be a time plumber called Peylix, and gained his infamous title after receiving the fail grade of Omega in an exam about Time while studying at Gallifrey’s Academy. We also see an earlier Omega with strong, brave and honourable convictions in the years before his personality was twisted by obsession, paranoia and murder. For the first time, we see and understand that Omega used to a good man and shared many of the ideals later gained by the Doctor, and that events have conspired against him, and are mainly responsible for turning him into a monster. This tragic depiction of Omega is emphasised by the fact that he is inflicted with the Doctor’s guilt over the deaths of the Scintillans. Importantly though, Omega is still a mad, and thoroughly psychotic monster; obsessed with his own legend, and paranoid to the last, murdering anyone in his way. Although this does make the murder mystery rather obvious, Nev Fountain tries his best to muddy the waters as much as possible.
Daland is by far the strongest of the supporting characters. An out-of-work Television actor who now has to make a living performing role-plays as Omega for an outer space heritage centre. Despite being shallow and a habitual adulterer, Daland is actually the most likeable and fun character in the whole story, and probably the most normal that anyone can relate to. His light vanity is quite sweet really, as he comes across as a harmless loveable old fool. Daland also has an ever-present and hilarious dry wit that often gives him most of the best lines. I also love how Nev Fountain gently pokes fun at actors through Daland too, and has possibly the best use of the word “ham” in a Doctor Who story than I’ve heard for some time.
Professor Ertikus is also a great supporting character; a walking, talking symbol of everything we love and ridicule about history professors. There’s the breathless enthusiasm, the jealously of his fellow rivals, the obstinate and vain persona, and the determination to be the first to discover the truth. You could say he’s similar to the Doctor too in most ways, and the fact that he’s also a Time Lord and loves being chased down corridors extends the similarity further. I suppose you could also say that Ertikus is a metaphor for Doctor Who fans too, given many of the same qualities apply, and I’m sure it’s a comparison that Nev Fountain intended and much more subtle than Russell T. Davies attempted in Love & Monsters.
The Doctor is decently written for with some great lines and of course that great twist about his accidental genocide of the Scintillans, but apart from being given an extra serving of dry wit to amuse us, the Fifth Doctor is pretty much his typical self; eternally kind, humble, considerate and selfless. Then again its Omega’s turn to take centre stage, so that’s to be expected. Though I do love the fact that the Doctor continues to sympathise and defend Omega, even to others; staying true to character by always seeing the best in people.
I also love the characters of Glinda and Maven. They’re both adorable, a joy to listen to, and a loving satire of eccentric old ladies the world over. Hard to please, except by the catering and comfort facilities; gassy and eccentric; often excited by the little things in life; and are so absorbed in own lives, that they often fail to notice what’s going on around them. Surely everybody knows someone just like them; such is the sheer believability and realistic portrayal of these brilliant characters. The fact that they turn out to be a human-shaped TARDIS and Time Lord from the future is another beautiful and rewarding twist from Nev Fountain that is part of the icing on the cake of this audio.
The other characterisation in Omega though, is somewhat patchy. Sentia starts off being a very believable overworked and underpaid heritage staff worker, made doubly tired and bitter after being used and let-down by men in the past, who she once cared for, including Daland. There’s something a bit odd about her love for Omega, but it seems that she is more taken in by his weakened vulnerability after the events of Arc of Infinity (1983 TV Serial). However, it’s hard to see exactly why Sentia is so much in love with Omega that she will literally do and forgive him anything it seems. He murders others, albeit in acts of madness, and yet despite her initial distress and sorrow for the victims, she still seems to forgive him and carry on with him, even despite the risk of getting killed herself. None of these questions in her character are really ever examined, and instead she has a mental breakdown throughout the last episode, due to being vulnerable to the dimensional instability in that area of space.
The character of Tarpov gets the worst deal though. A simple, seemingly amateur, but humble actor who very quickly turns into an insane, shouting, panicking and quivering wreck, also as a result of the local dimensional instability, only Tarpov is affected early into part one and remains so for the rest of the audio. He’s given most of the worst dialogue in the story too, and his near endlessly theatrical ravings are thoroughly tiresome and grating in the extreme. Sentia’s ravings are too, but as they only happen for the last ten minutes of the story they’re easily overlooked.

Another one of Omega’s strong points is its fantastic cast. Peter Davison snaps up the good material with much enthusiasm, and really has fun with it, clearly enjoying not just the range of emotions he has to play, but also the witty dialogue. Ian Collier is also very good, brilliantly underplaying most of his performance to help Omega a much more sympathetic side, even if the script demands him to return to the theatrical villain of old from time-to-time. Hugo Myatt though, just like his character Daland, steals the show. He puts in a loveable bumbling performance which helps make the character infinitely likeable, relatable and very funny. Who would have thought it, given his slightly hammy persona as presenter of the Knightmare children’s TV game show back in the 1980s? Not me certainly, but that as Daland would say, “is what we call acting”. Caroline Munro also impresses, fleshing out Sentia very well, before Omega’s appearance pushes Sentia more into the background. I confess that I haven’t really seen any of Caroline’s film work beyond her small role in The Spy Who Loved Me, but on the strength of her performance in Omega, I’m certainly tempted to seek out her more prominent cinema appearances. Conrad Westmaas sadly draws the short straw, having to play a relatively thankless character. He also rather irritatingly overplays a lot of his later lines, and is always very theatrical, but it’s hard to tell if this might also be down to Gary Russell’s direction which also seems to be slipping slightly to the theatrical side.
The rest of the audio’s production is also reasonably polished too. The sound design is more minimal, but still very effective. My favourite sound was all the ‘Talking Omega’ toys being knocked over by Omega and going off with loads of tinny, but gloriously camp quotes voiced by Hugo Myatt (Daland performed as Omega for the Heritage Centre). I almost want to buy one, just thinking about it (Come on Character Options; let’s have a Talking Omega for Christmas 2012). Russell Stone also creates a relatively understated and effective music soundtrack, which although maybe not one of his best, underlines and supports the dramatic moments in the story very well.

However, the best thing about Omega definitely has to be that outstanding cliff-hanger twist at the end of part three. As a Doctor Who fan of nearly 20 years, it feels like it was something I should have seen coming, particularly for anyone who has seen Arc of Infinity, but on my first listen in 2003 it blew me away. Although the whole story really hangs upon it, the twist that the Doctor we have been listening to for the first three episodes was really Omega with a split-personality is pure genius, made more effective when the real Doctor turns up a moment later. The power of the twist is naturally diminished on repeated listening (this being my fifth I think), but it remains a fantastic dramatic moment, and one of Doctor Who strongest cliff-hangers, up there with Earthshock part one, and Remembrance of the Daleks part one.

Whether you enjoy moral parables, philosophy, well observed dry humour, or just wanted to know more about Omega, this audio offers something for most listeners and Doctor Who fans to enjoy. Omega may not quite be a classic, but its clever script work, superlative characterisation and great cast make it stand out from most of BIG Finish’s other audios as a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable, and underrated gem.

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

TV Review 2: The Daleks, written by Terry Nation (1963/4)

Broadcast: 21st December 1963 – 1st February 1964

Cast:

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Alydon – John Lee
Ganatus – Philip Bond
Dyoni – Virginia Wetherell
Antodus – Marcus Hammond
Temmosus – Alan Wheatley
Kristas – Jonathan Crane
Elyon – Gerald Curtis
Dalek Voices – Peter Hawkins and David Graham
Dalek Operators – Robert Jewell, Kevin Manser, Michael Summerton, Gerald Taylor, Peter Murphy
Other Thals – Chris Browning, Katie Cashfield, Vez Delahunt, Kevin Glenny, Ruth Harrison, Lesley Hill, Steve Pokol


Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Terry Nation
Directors – Christopher Barry (Episodes 1, 2, 4 and 5) & Richard Martin (Episodes 3, 6 and 7)
Designer – Raymond Cusick and Jeremy Davies
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Incidental Music – Tristram Cary
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The Doctor, Susan, and their reluctant companions Ian and Barbara arrive on a desolate alien world, where everything is dead and petrified. ...everything that is, except for a large metal city, where metal horrors lurk within the shadows...

After tricking his fellow travelling companions with a staged fault within the TARDIS, a fault that can only be rectified by discovering an outside source of mercury; the Doctor discovers that his greed for knowledge about the city has turned into folly when they are all captured by its menacing inhabitants – the Daleks! However, to their further horror, they also realise they are dying from fatal exposure to deadly levels of outside radiation.

From the Daleks, the Time travellers learn that they are on the planet Skaro, a World that was devastated centuries ago by a war between its two races, the Daleks and the Thals. Like the Daleks, the Thals too have survived, and over the generations have become pacifists, weary of war, in part a reaction to their difficult struggle to survive off the land of their dead planet.

The Daleks however, only see their survival with the total extermination of the Thals (and all other sentient life), and an artificial raise in the planet’s radiation level. After the Thals cure the Doctor and his friends of radiation sickness, they return the favour by warning them of a Dalek ambush to wipe them out during their escape from the metal city. Upon arrival back at the TARDIS though, they realise that the Daleks still hold the fluid link, the vital piece of the TARDIS systems that the Doctor used to trick his companions to go into the city in the first place.

Ian eventually convinces the Thals to fight the Daleks as a necessity for their own survival. After many fatalities and obstacles, the Thals and the Time Travellers foil the Daleks’ attempts to release deadly radiation into the planet’s atmosphere, and succeed in putting them out of action. As the Time Travellers leave, the Thals nurse their wounds, hoping that a new and better future awaits them.


Story Placement

Between An Unearthly Child (TV Episode) and The Edge of Destruction (TV Episode)


Favourite Lines

Barbara Wright – “I counted so much on just going back, to things I recognise and trust. But here there’s nothing to rely on. Nothing”
Ian Chesterton – “Well, there’s me. Barbara, all I ask you to do is believe. Really believe we’ll go back. We will you know”.

Alydon – “If they call us mutations, what must they be like?”

The Daleks – “We have the message now”.

Ian – “So there is something you’ll fight for”.

The Daleks – “We do not have to adapt to the environment. We will change the environment to suit us”.

The Doctor – “Always search for truth. My truth is in the stars, and yours is here”.

Review:
There’s good reason why The Daleks left such an impact on its audience, and it was because of a lot more than just the strength and success of the concept of the Dalek creatures themselves. In fact I’d say that The Daleks is one of the most tightly and best scripted Doctor Who stories ever, and it pays immeasurably, particularly in terms of creating kudos for the programme itself, at a time when it was needed the most, in those difficult early months of Doctor Who’s creation and production.

The first and perhaps most obvious person to credit for this is Terry Nation, the writer and creator of the story, plot and ideas for The Daleks, including the concept and central idea behind the Daleks themselves. The story itself is a fantastic thriller, and remains one of Doctor Who’s best tales. Terry Nation clearly thought so too, as he went on to rehash and reuse various elements of it in most of his subsequent Doctor Who scripts, including one instance when he rehashed the whole story itself a decade later in Planet of the Daleks.

I also love the idea of the TARDIS food machine. The Daleks was only the second Doctor Who serial, and already the production team were thinking of important questions like how time travellers can believably survive in a time machine over time, something which many future writers and producers for the show neglected. The idea of any food, being possible to replicate into a somewhat mundane-looking food ‘bar’, is not only remarkable, it’s also quite prescient. Although ‘space food’ made for astronauts had already been in development for a good few years before 1963, we were still decades before processed food bars would be an everyday reality for food shoppers.

The idea of a dead and desolate world full of petrified forests and mutated creatures is itself a fantastically imaginative idea that even outside of the filmed serial creates a vivid and visceral image that is unforgettable. The visual effects and set design do it great justice too, despite the low budget, and even the bigger budgeted Dr Who and the Daleks 1965 film adaption fails to recreate it as well later on. This is Doctor Who’s first alien world, and Skaro is by far one of the best, feeling truly alien in every way, from sound and lighting to the props and set design. Even the video technicians create a wonderfully subtle slight negative inversion of the black and white colours during the first moments of the TARDIS team exploring the planet, making it feel even more unusual, and even as a modern viewer it makes me forget for a while that I’m actually watching the interior of a studio set. There’s also a nice artistic contrast between the dark and dead forests and the sterile, shiny, brightly lit metal city that houses the Daleks.

Speaking of the famous pepper pots, the Daleks are undoubtedly a work of genius in almost every respect. Of course, from a modern perspective, it’s obvious that the Daleks are both a symbol and metaphor for the Nazis, and a warning about the dangers of leaving fascism and racism unopposed and free to corrupt and destroy both society and freewill. The Thals represent the civilised, peaceful, kind and altruistic in society, but also the oppressed and prejudiced who want to survive without betraying their principles and savour the best of what remains of their world. You could even argue that the Thals’ suffering at the mercy of the Daleks partly symbolises the Holocaust atrocity, and that the Daleks’ city/trap resembles a concentration camp of sorts. The story of The Daleks also has very strong cold war themes and overtones. Aside from the obvious nuclear war and fallout metaphor in the Neutronic war backstory, there’s also the common 1960s warning about the effects of nuclear warfare, not just in terms of the radiation fallout, but also the highly destructive and negative impact it has on society, politics, culture and most importantly of all, civilisation. The two small opposed groups of Thals and Daleks (or Kaleds, if you will) are clearly small pockets of survivors in a global population that has been all but decimated. The attitude of the Daleks to continue destroying all is another implication that engaging in nuclear warfare, particularly on one’s own kind in the manner of previous wars, in one way or another, causes total annihilation for all life on Earth, not just the ‘enemy’.

Another fascinating point to note about the Daleks in their first serial is that on this particular occasion, their motive seems largely to be self-preservation, rather than the later established and more commonly-accepted motive of universal domination. Their infinite hatred for the Thals is obvious, but the desperation to act for their own survival adds an extra dimension to their hysteria and hate-filled character that is often lacking in most subsequent Dalek stories. However, the explanation of the Daleks’ supremely racist nature (“dislike for the unlike”, as offered by Ian in the story) seems rather simplistic and off-hand, lacking in enough substantial detail to convince us of why they believe so strongly in acting this way in the first place. Thankfully, Genesis of the Daleks (1975 serial) clears up this particular mystery (along with many others) while examining their creation by Skaro scientist Davros, but that discussion will have to wait until another day.

Terry Nation wasn’t the only person responsible for making the Dalek creatures such a success. The monsters would be nowhere near as iconic, memorable or exciting without their impressive appearance or their thrilling vocal tones. These were brought us by talented set designer Raymond Cusick and Radiophonic Workshop sound designer Brian Hodgson respectively, both pioneers in their time who had to work magic with very little resources and money at their disposal. Sadly Ray Cusick has only been recognised for his sizeable contribution to TV history relatively recently. He wonderfully picked up upon the obvious shape of a pepper pot, and turned it into a thin and man-sized metal Tank, which today still looks like the image of the ultimate weapon and artillery vehicle that its imagery implies – threatening, impenetrable, unstoppable, and all-pervasive. I also love the Dalek’s eyestalk. The use of a camera lens and iris to not just represent the Dalek’s eye, but also to make it appear alive by squinting and opening up is pure genius. It really helps to bring the creatures to life and help us suspend our disbelief and think of them as characters. I can never understand why in the 1970s they ditched the lens-eye design and replaced it with a much less interesting static, black and white (or two-colour) target-shaped eye sensor that remained until the 2005 series gladly brought back the lens-eye design. The other great thing about Cusick’s creation is that it still stands up today, nearly fifty years on, and looks just as coldly alien, as I’m sure it did upon its Television entrance. As for the weapons, I honestly don’t mind about the much-ridiculed sink plunger. The 1960s Peter Cushing Doctor Who films proved that the claw adaptation was only slightly more practical and still a bit cumbersome, so I think the Dalek manages to successfully get away with the sink plunger, which has also become part of their iconic image now. The ‘egg whisk’-like Dalek gun is quite sleek and classy too, and above all rather flexible, so it’s actually really good as a weapon design.

The Dalek voice effect is also absolute genius. Although today sound modulation is considered a simple audio effect, back in the 1960s, sound design was still very much in its infancy, with much of what is produced with ease by sound software today, waiting to be invented or used creatively by talented sound engineers, sound designers and early electronic musicians. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one such group of pioneers, who although had a small budget, were at the forefront of progress in sound design and electronic music during it’s time (1958-1998), and created a lot of innovative advances, both in sound and music, which today we take for granted. Now, the use of voice modulation, along with a directed monotone performance, is synonymous with the fictional Dalek creations and equally part of their much-loved iconography and appeal. The Dalek voice artists, Peter Hawkins and David Graham also help bring the Dalek characters to life with a perfectly-judged and directed intense performance that brilliantly gets across their paranoid, ruthless, callous and xenophobic natures. One of the great things about the Daleks here too, is that outside of the humanised-Daleks of The Evil of the Daleks, this serial is one of the few times when nearly each individual Dalek actually appears to have an individual character, whether by movement or by the expression in each Dalek’s voice. Later Dalek stories would try to do this by introducing ranks and hierarchies, but it wouldn’t feel quite the same as it does here, where Daleks sometimes have conversations rather than just be barked orders. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Daleks though is how the production team got everything about them perfectly right from day one. Sure, the outward design may have had some slight improvements over the next few years, but for all intents and purposes the Daleks are a creation that through a team of talented professionals, has remained the same since 1963, and has never really needed to be changed despite the whims of various Doctor Who producers over the last 30 years.

Terry Nation also wasn’t solely responsible for making The Daleks such a great story and script. In fact I’m certain that the brilliance of the script is largely down to Doctor Who’s story/script editor David Whitaker, who was mainly responsible for maintaining the continuity of the regular characters, in their behaviour as well as their expanding story and character profiles. However, I feel this simple description doesn’t do justice to the amount of work David Whitaker did for Doctor Who, particularly for The Daleks. It’s clear, both from production diaries (as can be found in Doctor Who - The Handbook: The First Doctor (1994), by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker), interviews and other non-fiction books on the programme’s early years that Terry Nation was mainly an ideas writer and didn’t really have much understanding of writing character or creative description, or at least in 1963 anyway. David Whitaker greatly fleshed out the characters and also gave most of them brilliant character development, even to non-regulars, like some of the Thals who went through as much of an emotional journey as the Doctor and his companions. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Whitaker was also the author of many of the story’s political overtones. However, most importantly of all he helps keep the audience involved in the adventure through some amazing dialogue and numerous dramatic twists and turns which stop us from taking anything for granted in the story, such as the radiation revelation in episode 2, and when Ian realises that the Daleks still have the fluid link at the end of episode 4. Whitaker also expertly writes a slowly build up of tension in the final episode so that the victorious climax gives us a memorable, thrilling and satisfying ending to this magnificent epic adventure. The only thing that spoils the story is the unfortunate padding that makes up significant parts of episodes 5 and 6, as both writers struggle to keep the Thals’ jungle trek to the Mountain caves interesting, but on the whole Whitaker always tries to keep the story dynamic, thrilling and on-the-move, and overall succeeds.

The characterisation that David Whitaker writes in The Daleks is truly masterful. I don’t think the original TARDIS team has been written any better than here. The Doctor is still very much the anti-hero that was introduced to viewers in An Unearthly Child, albeit slightly more trusting and respectful of his reluctant companions than before. At the beginning of the story we can clearly see that he is still rather ruthless, and operates from a position of self-interest. This is also where see that the Doctor has a scientific lust for knowledge and can’t abide a mystery. This selfish greed to uncover the truth about the metal city, regardless of the personal cost and consequences to his travelling companions, causes him to ruthlessly sabotage his own Time Ship, just so he can trick his companions into letting him go there. The Doctor’s devious behaviour rather parabolically leads him into a deadly folly as all the time travellers are exposed to a fatal amount of radiation that for a long while seems incurable.  I must say that this development was an electrifying twist, and even after watching this serial several times over the years, it still puts me on the edge of my seat every time (in fact most of episode two does, it’s that good!). This near fatal mistake, combined with his personal encounter with the Daleks seem to noticeably soften the Doctor slightly as a character, because he never seems to be quite as selfish as this again. Although the circumstances surrounding the fluid link forces the Doctor to aid the Thals in defeating and overthrowing the Daleks, his concern over the Daleks’ plans in episode 7 seem to be more than just self-preservation, even if at first he coldly didn’t seem to care about the potential genocide of the Thals. It’s interesting that it took a force as totally abhorrent, callous, evil and destructive as the Daleks to convince the Doctor of the morals of the sanctity of life, the need to fight evil and injustice in the Universe (where it didn’t affect the timelines of course), and the need to protect the innocent from it. Although it’s important to note that the Doctor is still a long way from being the hero we know and love at this point, this is where he first starts to get his lighter shades of grey in his character. Non-intervention may still be an option for him, but it’s no longer the only option. At least he now knows that what’s right and what’s best for him are not always the same thing. Though I do love the moments when we get to see the gentler side of the Doctor, like when he encourages the others to think about how to put a Dalek out of operation; exclaims admiration for Barbara when she shares his point of view; gives departing words of wisdom to the Thals; or just joyously gets caught out by the Daleks while bragging about his ingenuity to Susan.

The Daleks is a particularly good showing for Susan, who is a lot more brave and proactive here than in most of her other appearances. Even when surrounded by a dead planet, she still tries to hold onto everything that is good and beautiful (like the alien flowers), while everyone else seems to fall into despair. Susan’s kind-hearted nature means that she rarely thinks the worst of people, and quickly warms to Alydon and the Thals, and only really distrusts the Daleks because of the way they’ve kept her friends prisoner. Her courage in venturing back to the TARDIS alone is really admirable, and her eagerness to help and come up with ideas makes Susan a rather charming character to watch. For the first time, Susan feels like a key part of the TARDIS team, and it’s great that all the regular characters have good material for once, as sadly it wouldn’t always remain so in future serials.

Barbara Wright is still a very reluctant time traveller, but this time, her most recent experiences have made her much more able to put on a brave face throughout the various difficult situations she goes through in the story. Her strong convictions continue to make her a commanding voice amongst the time travellers and a compelling character, but for The Daleks Barbara seems to play a smaller, more background role than usual. Fortunately this doesn’t do any damage to Barbara’s character, as she gets a maternal moment with Susan when she gets slightly upset about her grandfather’s refusal to believe her word; and also has a wonderfully subtle romantic chemistry with Ganatus. Barbara even interestingly sides with the Doctor against Ian, when her life is under threat. However, for the most part, Barbara is still developing as a character, perhaps to a greater extent than the other regulars, and like the Doctor, her individual character story arc would be resolved in the next serial, The Edge of Destruction.

Ian Chesterton is also growing as a character. He smoothly develops into the protagonist of the series, taking charge and making a stand when needed, even if it means railing against the Doctor, the only person who can take him and Barbara back to their home time. He is also the time traveller with the greatest moral compass and conviction, always thinking of others whether protecting his fellow travellers, or feeling guilty for having to forcefully coerce the Thals into understanding that they need to make a stand against the Daleks, mainly for the time travellers’ self-benefit. Ian is also a very astute and reasonably quick-thinking person, whose resourcefulness surpasses even that of the Doctor on several occasions, as evidenced by him pretending to take Dyoni away to the Daleks, in order to prove to Thal leader Alydon the importance of fighting to protect ‘your own’, knowing that he would probably receive a strong blow in the process. He’s also understandably shaken and angry at the Doctor’s trickery and deceit when he comes clean, as he clearly found it difficult to imagine how ruthlessly selfish he could be considering what they went through back in the Stone Age on Earth. It’s clear that Ian always tries to think the best of people, but he’s no fool, even if he doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. If this sounds like a traditional ‘hero’ stereotype, then you’re partly right. Ian was clearly meant to be the leading protagonist of the regular characters, the ‘hero’ of the group, but the character developed into something far more three-dimensional and human than that. He’s down-to-earth and humble, intelligent, but not all-knowing, brave and selfless, focused and decisive, while still importantly being fallible. Also on those rare occasions when danger and dire situations are not present, Ian tries to keep up his companions spirits with a light joke, and never takes himself too seriously. Ian Chesterton is perhaps the most believable and well-rounded male companion ever written for Doctor Who, even by today’s high standards, and as I said in my review for An Unearthly Child is one of my all-time favourite Who characters.

Some of the Thals are also interesting characters. Alydon, while more closely fitting the traditional hero stereotype than Ian, has fascinating moments of self-conflict and doubt which make him quite a wise and thoughtful person. Ganatus also has depths to his character, appearing vain, wry and self-assured on the surface, but in reality is fiercely loyal, sensitive and affectionate, partly shown by Ganatus gradually falling in love with Barbara. The old Thal leader Temmosus on the other hand appears wise and learned, when in truth his old age as made him too trusting, naive and at times foolish too. Antodus is probably the only character I sadly don’t like, clearly created purely to set up the (literal) cliff-hanger to episode six, a dramatic twist made rather too obvious by Antodus’ continuous complaints and worries over the two proceeding episodes, that the Thals’ attack on the Daleks will fail and they’ll all die, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In short, Antodus is mainly a coward and a cynic, who’s every line, is a moan of some kind, with no effort in the script to help make him likeable at all. His death is a mercy to the audience, although fortunately the cast try their upmost to redeem this scene.

In fact The Daleks is blessed with an equally strong cast as well as brilliant characterisation. William Hartnell continues to make the Doctor a fascinating and multi-dimensional character with a multi-faceted performance. Hartnell may seem to still play the curmudgeonly and arrogant old man of before, but now he has had more time to work out how to develop his performance. Of course the character is still aloof, but Hartnell rightly focuses his acting on emphasising the evolving change in the Doctor’s ways and reveals more about him through subtle performance than would ever be worthwhile, or even possible with exposition. He wonderfully softens off the character’s hard edges with whimsical bluster and an almost child-like enthusiasm. Just see the look on his face during a close-up in episode six when he knows that he’s one step ahead of the Daleks as he jests to camera about teaching them “a thing or two”. Pure TV gold! Most importantly though William Hartnell is astute enough to keep the Doctor a vulnerable character, partly because it’s essential to the plot of the story, but also because the audience needs to take note of the character’s fallibility and flaws that will be a key plot and narrative point of the next serial, The Edge of Destruction.

Carole Ann Ford continues to wonderfully convey Susan’s innocence and infectious enthusiasm in her continuing travels, particularly in her ability to play younger than her age, appearing especially shy when she first talks with Alydon, and initially being too trusting of the Daleks’ intentions when they offer to help the Thals. Jacqueline Hill also continues to deliver a consummate performance, maintaining Barbara’s healthy nervous distrust of her ever-changing surroundings, and believably plays to the character’s horror at just how alien this new world is, particularly in her terror-stricken performance when she first encounters a Dalek at the end of episode one, and powerfully sells that moment to the audience completely. Hill also brilliantly conveys Barbara’s vulnerability in this story, throughout the many shocks and trials the character has to go through, especially in the moments when she is in the Dalek cell, suffering from radiation sickness. On the other side of the spectrum, Jacqueline Hill also impresses with a beautifully subtle romantic chemistry with Philip Bond, who plays Ganatus and plays the chemistry equally well. The chemistry never feels forced, and I can totally believe that this romance could develop into a fictional relationship had Barbara chosen to stay. Of course, Barbara still wants to return to Earth, and Hill equally subtly shows Barbara pained that she has to leave Ganatus, knowing that she can’t leave any opportunity to return home. It’s so beautifully done that it’s certainly one of my favourite moments of the whole story.

The star of the show on this occasion though, has to be William Russell. He as an actor makes a lot of The Daleks utterly compelling to watch. Russell has the instinct, like Jacqueline Hill, to not overplay characteristics, and only put in a dramatic performance at the right climatic moments. He makes Ian a warm, charming and very likeable character, while trying to keep Ian’s bravery and courage muted and humble. Quite often though, it’s up to William Russell to shoulder a lot of the story’s drama and keep the audience caring about it, and he succeeds immensely. He’s also wise to the needs of a television audience in particular, performing and reacting with an impressive pace, and always with total conviction. There are three scenes that highlight this the most, firstly when the time travellers are dying of radiation poisoning and imprisoned by the Daleks. While William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill have to play near unconscious, William Russell has to almost single-handedly sell the dire nature of the situation to the audience, and voice the Ian’s anguish and despair at being paralysed and unable to help his companions. Secondly the moment when Ian desperately tries to trick Alydon into realising he that he will fight to protect some things. The other scene is during the cave sequences when Antodus commits suicide to stop him from pulling Ian into the ravine with him. Just look at William Russell’s immediate reaction after the event to see what I mean, as he silently trembles with shock when he pulls up the end of the rope cut by the late-Antodus. It’s this attention to detail which makes you forget you’re watching a fictional TV drama.

The other key element that helps to make The Daleks compelling viewing is the high quality of direction. Film fanatics and film theorists may scoff at that last sentence, but for Television, some of the serial’s visual effects are really quite innovative and imaginative, especially considering the small budget, such as the movement of the Dalek lift, or the visual interpretation of a Dalek going mad by multiplying an image of a Dalek and the rotating the multiple images in a circle like a kaleidoscope, and the use of negative light inversion effect to represent the Daleks’ death ray. Then there’s the high quality of the general direction such as directed performance, cinematography and editing. Again the cinematography may not be as impressive as it is for film, but it is still quite impressive, including nice touches like taking some shots from a Daleks’ viewpoint. Christopher Barry and Richard Martin both do some great work here. Episodes 2-4 are the best directed, filled with a brilliant mix of drama, suspense and action with a pace that never lets up until the second half of episode 5. The time travellers helplessly trapped and dying from radiation sickness, the lift escape sequence, the tense slow build-up to the Daleks’ Thal ambush, and the equally thrilling build-up to the Daleks’ defeat, all these are some of Doctor Who’s best and most memorable moments, and it would never have worked as well had it not been for both Barry and Martin’s creative instincts.

I still maintain that An Unearthly Child is a much underrated classic, but The Daleks is an even greater one. A imaginatively and brilliantly written, acted and directed science fiction thriller, with multiple layers and twists that are not just exciting, but tense, occasionally touching and philosophical, that make for fantastic storytelling, and a wonderful adventure that became a successful template for many others, as well as believable characters and dialogue that make it easy for viewers to invest in, even 50 years later. The Daleks is a classic and key part of Television history that is simply unforgettable, it’s success having made its imaginative creations an immortal and iconic character that has spanned the generations, and that I’m sure will continue to do so.

Score: 10/10

(P.S. I should also thank Ian Levine for saving The Daleks and many other 1960s serials from destruction at the hands of unimaginative 1970s BBC bureaucrats.)

Monday, 21 November 2011

Audio Review 11: Hornets' Nest - 5. Hive of Horror, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: December 2009

Cast:
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin
Mrs Wibbsey – Susan Jameson
Queen of the Swarm – Rula Lenska


Main Production Credits

Producer and Director – Kate Thomas
Writer – Paul Magrs
Script Editor & Executive Producer – Michael Stevens
Incidental Music – Simon Power
Audio Editor – Neil Gardner
Production Assistant – Lyndsey Melling
Studio Engineers – Simon Willey & Wolfgang Deinst


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor, Mike Yates and Mrs Wibbsey, with the help of the Hornets’ ballet shoes, and the TARDIS’ dimensional stabiliser, miniaturise themselves so they can penetrate the nest of the Hornet hive mind. Upon discovering it inside the head of a stuffed Zebra, they confront the Queen of the Hornet Swarm. The Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey are incarcerated, while the Hornet Queen brainwashes Mike Yates, and poisons his mind against the Doctor.

The Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey escape their paper prison by starting a fire. In the panic, they restore Mike Yates to his normal self and use his acquired knowledge of the Hive to set a trap for the Hornet Queen, using the royal jelly of the Hornets as bait. The Queen is successfully tricked into the trap, the Doctor using the latent power in the Hornets’ ballet shoes to miniaturise the Queen to a microscopic size, wiping out the influence of her mind control of the other Hornets’, who are now reduced to being normal insects. The Doctor, Mike Yates and Mrs Wibbsey escape the burning Hive in the nick of time, and restore themselves back to normal size. The surviving Hornets are dropped off in a distant galaxy, away from harm.


Story Placement

Between Hornets’ Nest: A Sting in the Tale (BBC Audio) and the Demon Quest audio series (BBC audio).


Review:
After four enjoyable tales in the past and some very intriguing build up, Hive of Horror feels like something of an anti-climax in the Hornet’s Nest audio series. As concluding instalments go, it does its job, resolving the overall story arc and showing the Doctor defeating the alien Hornet creatures, but it fails to deliver the meaty, substantial and satisfying narrative that the Hornets’ Nest series needed in order to make it all feel worthwhile.

To Paul Magrs’ credit though, he does create some new and original material to keep loyal listeners interested in the general proceedings. Setting the adventure inside the Hornets’ nest itself, for instance, is inspired, giving a real sense of the Doctor confronting the enemy inside the ‘lion’s den’. Although, in a way, the nest was the only place left where the stakes would feel considerably higher, considering the various times and places this series has taken listeners. Even on audio, thanks to Magrs’ superlative descriptions in the narration, the hive is a fascinating, and very alien labyrinth that feels both claustrophobic and unsettling in equal measure. The fact that the Hornets are much bigger in size than the Doctor and co, relatively speaking, makes their threat much more convincing than in their previous audio appearances. Experiencing the Doctor confront the Hornet Queen in her “throne room” also has distinct echoes of The Parting of the Ways and Planet of the Spiders about it, as the Doctor faces down his powerful, and more imposing foe.

Paul Magrs also takes time in the script to give Mike Yates some well deserved character development. Although the last series of Jon Pertwee’s era in Doctor Who gave Captain Yates substantial character development, sadly more than was ever given to the Brigadier during the TV series, the character of Mike Yates during Hornets’ Nest is significantly older, so it’s only right that the series takes the time to explore that. The Hornet Queen uncovers Yates’ resentment at being a has-been, who has never received any credit for his loyal service, while the Doctor seems to take all the credit, and is free to be care free, and nearly forever young. At this point, it’s interesting to note that the Doctor’s companion for Hornet’s Nest was originally meant to be Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, but was only changed when Nicholas Courtney was too ill to take part. However, its point of interest in my view is how well Yates’ character development could also be equally applicable to the Brigadier. In fact we can already hear a bitter and resentful version of the Brigadier in BIG Finish’s Doctor Who Unbound audio, Sympathy for the Devil, so the idea isn’t hard to imagine. In fact, I can’t help thinking it would’ve been better had the Brigadier been in Hornets’ Nest instead of Mike Yates, but I shouldn’t dwell on the ‘what if’, particularly as it’s not fair on Richard Franklin and the character of Yates, who have both been some of the highlights of this audio series.

Mike Yates aside, the rest of the characters suffer from little development, which is a shame, considering the smaller cast gives them all a better chance to breathe and take a bigger part of centre stage. The Doctor is probably the only exception, not needing further development at this stage, remaining the fun and enjoyable eccentric that we always love, and has a humbling unstinting faith in his old friend Mike Yates, which makes a nice change to the slight cold indifference the 4th Doctor seemed to feel for some of his companions on television. Mrs Wibbsey, on the other hand, is sadly, in my opinion, one of the most annoying companions in the history of Doctor Who (well she’s practically one now, and she certainly will be in the two subsequent two audio series, Demon Quest and Serpent Crest). I was unsure how I felt about her during The Stuff of Nightmares as there wasn’t much to go on. Throughout the earlier instalments, I withheld any judgement as I wanted to see if the character genuinely amounted to anything by the end of the audio series, but sadly she remained a fairly one-dimensional character to the end. Mrs Wibbsey seems to just endlessly grumble, complain and exclaim at various points throughout the story, like an old-age British pensioner version of Tegan, only without any real character development apart from being whisked away by the Doctor at the end of The Dead Shoes. When she’s not moaning, Mrs Wibbsey occupies the role of a stereotypical housekeeper, often quite stern and proper, but also quietly proud and attentive. This of course, isn’t irritating, but it remains just as inconsequential and irrelevant as her more prevalent complaining aspect, as her character has no impact or effect on either the narrative or the plot. Furthermore, the distinct lack of originality and development in Mrs Wibbsey makes it hard to care about or take interest in the character.

One of the real disappointments in Hive of Horror though, is the poor characterisation of the Hornet Queen. After the short contact between the Doctor and the Hornets in A Sting in the Tale, the finale of the Hornets’ Nest series needed a memorable face-off and a memorable villain to help develop, expand and round off an enemy that had previously been rather circumspect and thin on character. To start off with, the Queen cautiously pokes at her humanoid foes in order to learn about them, and tries to hypnotically seduce Yates with sweet nothings, but sadly when any real character is called for, the Queen of the Hornets is just as pantomime as the Hornets’ previous human orators.

Hive of Horror’s main failing though, is having too small a story, not in scale, but in duration. There’s only enough plot for half the story’s running time, and the resolution itself is so basic, that there’s no real tension or build-up to keep the audience interested. After having got over the image of the Hornets’ maze-like hive, the only real interesting aspect of the story is when it seems as if Mike Yates might have been successfully turned by the Hornet Queen. Any other moment or sense of danger is quickly swept away in a couple of sentences spoken in the narration. There’s also a large amount of padding in the script. Although Paul Magrs seems to slightly overdo the amount of description in his brilliant narration, a lot of time is simply taken up by the Doctor wandering or hanging around inside the nest without doing very much in particular. There’s also a lot of dialogue passages (not narration) where one of the characters rather irritatingly explains or debates at length what they think will happen next, before we actually hear it happen for ourselves, thus taking away any sense of tension or enjoyment that could have been gained from those events, making the story thoroughly predictable to the listener. The resolution is probably the worst affected by this, as its simplicity feels somewhat mundane, and possibly a slight cop-out too as a resolution to the whole Hornets’ Nest series.

Fortunately, we again have a strong cast to help entertain the loyal listener. Tom Baker is now perfectly settled back into his role as the 4th Doctor, and his wonderfully eccentric performance makes his every line of dialogue an audible delight. Thankfully Mike Yates has at last been allowed to play a more central part in this story than in previous audios, and Richard Franklin delivers in spades, happy to have more substantial material to get his teeth into. Susan Jameson tries her best, but struggles to shine with such a tiresome character. Rula Lenska, also has some overly theatrical and tiresome dialogue to cope with, but manages to give the Hornet Queen a brilliantly silky malevolence in her more subdued and quieter scenes.

Overall, the Hive of Horror is an entertaining finale to an entertaining series, but its faults are also symptomatic of those that can be found in the rest of the Hornets’ Nest audio series. One or two-dimensional characters, theatrical dialogue, padding, and simplistic insubstantial conclusions have blighted most of the audios in the series, balanced out by gloriously beautiful narrative descriptions by Paul Magrs, great cast performances and some quite imaginative ideas, sometimes creepy, sometimes wacky and outlandish. Tom Baker is undoubtedly the star of the series, successfully bringing back a character performance that made him the universally loved and revered actor he is to this day. It took a while for him to gradually feel his way back into the character, but it was more than worth the wait.

If BBC Audio can work up wonders with Tom Baker on decent audio efforts, just imagine the audio gold BIG Finish could achieve with this great man!

Hive of Horror Score: 6/10
Overall Hornets’ Nest Score: 7/10

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book Review 5: The Eight Doctors, written by Terrance Dicks (1997)

Released: June 1997

Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The recently-regenerated 8th Doctor is taken unawares by a trap laid by the recently-deceased Master, which results in him completely losing his memory and identity. Encouraged by the mysterious voice of long-dead Time Lord ruler, Lord Rassilon, the Doctor pilots the TARDIS to visit each of his previous selves in the hope that he can reclaim his memory and return to normal. On the way he gives words of wisdom to his earlier selves, helps them defeat old foes, saves some of them from danger, meets some old friends, and even helps to save Gallifrey from a political crisis of its own making.
The Doctor also accidentally arrives back at Coal Hill, only in 1997, where he meets young student Sam Jones, who is in danger from a particularly vicious bully and drug dealer called Baz. Once the Doctor recovers all his memory, he returns to save Sam from trouble before he moves on. Sam decides to join the newly restored Doctor in his travels, and depart to experience new adventures in space and time.


Story Placement

Between The TV Movie (TV Serial) and Vampire Science (BBC Book).
(1st Doctor: During An Unearthly Child; 2nd Doctor: During The War Games; 3rd Doctor: Immediately after The Sea Devils; 4th Doctor: Immediately after State of Decay; 5th Doctor: Immediately after The Five Doctors; 6th Doctor: During Parts 13-14 of The Trial of a Time Lord; 7th Doctor: Probably concurrent to The Room with No Doors (Virgin New Adventures book), and after Bullet Time (BBC Book PDA) as this has to take place before Lungbarrow (Virgin New Adventures book) during which the TARDIS interior is altered.)


Review:

It was a new Doctor, and the beginning of the BBC’s first official Doctor Who book range, and yet at times The Eight Doctors just beggars belief. Now, it goes without saying that Terrance Dicks has written some fantastic Doctor Who, both in print as well as more obviously for the Television show itself, but sadly this book isn’t one of them.

Perhaps what is most striking about it is how bizarre Terrance Dicks’ logic is in writing such a story. His invented storyline for The Eight Doctors, isn’t odd in itself, in fact it recalls his own story The Five Doctors, and his celebrated writing style from his Target novelisations. However, the idea that you introduce new people to Doctor Who by writing a novel filled with enough TV episode-specific continuity to fill a mini-encyclopaedia, and then try to introduce a new Doctor in print by instead introducing all the previous (and probably better-known) Doctors and their respective characters is surely bordering on madness. Terrance Dicks enables this multi-Doctor extravaganza by contriving a rather trite trap laid by the recently deceased Master, after somewhat openly (and hypocritically) criticising some of the TV Movie’s contrived events. Furthermore, as this story has to serve as an introduction for a new companion, Sam Jones, Dicks also reluctantly contrives an accidental visit by the 8th Doctor to Totter’s Lane and London’s fictional Coal Hill region (maybe in Shoreditch possibly) in 1997 as first seen in the first TV episode, An Unearthly Child.
Even if we ignore the story’s crazy and frankly, messy development though, Terrance Dicks shoots himself in the foot by writing rather poor characterisation for the majority of the book. The new and ‘current’ 8th Doctor suffers the most, becoming amnesic yet again, and rather too soon in light of his immediately preceding regeneration and opening story, the TV Movie. Far more criminal though is the fact that Terrance Dicks writes him as the blandest and most generic Doctor ever, not even offering hints of possible character development. The brief character aspects he is given are one-dimensional, often gimmicky attributes which are only there to help him through the plot at convenient moments, like regaining his talent at Venusian Aikido, being able to drink several tankards of beer, or effortlessly taking up the role of a diplomatic politician. In fact Terrance Dicks seems to have tried to extrapolate a character for the 8th Doctor, purely from the fact that he’s somewhat dashing – the main cliché of the 8th Doctor taken from the TV Movie. Thankfully future books in the series would repair the damage done here and do a much better take on the 8th Doctor, taking him into various interesting areas.
Another big failure is in the characterisation of the past Doctors as well, which is also rather odd, considering that Terrance Dicks has had more experience writing most of them, than most other writers at this point. Only the 1st, 3rd and 5th Doctors actually resemble their TV personas, and even then, there seem to be discrepancies. The 3rd Doctor, rather incongruously threatens to kill his future self in order to escape back into Time and Space, and he really means it, which feels so out of character, you have to wonder if Terrance has done any research or is just falling back on the distorted memory of when he used to write the character for television. The 2nd Doctor is rather grumpy, the 4th is also quite generic, and the 7th is just a manic depressive (yes he did have bouts of depression now and again, but there’s a very lot more to him than that!). The worst past-Doctor characterisation though has to be the 6th Doctor, who is written by Terrance as always egotistical, gets angry a lot, and mainly wants to eat a lot. As characterisations go it’s scandalous. Outside the use of season 22 clichés, the fact that Terrance Dicks uses his portrayal of the sixth Doctor as a mean slur against Colin Baker just for being a bit overweight, is not only in bad taste, but also cruel (and hypocritical again – has Terrance looked in the mirror recently). The rest of the characters are very simplistic, occasionally bland, and usually full of clichés abound, including sadly, the new companion Sam Jones. From these weak beginnings, her character would struggle to have much impact on the BBC Book range, aside from Lawrence Miles’ Time-twisting tales, but that’s still to come.
As the 8th Doctor has lost his memory, the plot mainly consists of revisiting the Doctor’s past incarnations, so he can regain his memory bit-by-bit from each one of his past selves. Instead of 7 new and original short stories, Terrance Dicks overall decides to return back to old Doctor Who TV serials, three of which he originally wrote (The War Games, State of Decay and The Five Doctors), and one of which he wrote up as a novelisation (An Unearthly Child). Unfortunately, this method works more against him than for him. The 1st and 2nd Doctor segments are a shameless revision of some of the best script work in the programme. Here the 8th Doctor talks the 1st into being more kind, compassionate and selfless, and talks the 2nd into giving himself up to the Time Lords, which I feel cheapens some of the great writing in An Unearthly Child and The War Games, as well as the journeys those Doctors have to go through as characters. Thankfully Terrance Dicks chooses a much better tack for later stories that act as codas to the TV serials they relate to rather than direct intervention in them. The 3rd Doctor segment sees the Master on the run to his TARDIS immediately after The Sea Devils; the next shows the 4th Doctor and Romana encountering another hidden nest of Vampires after State of Decay; and in the 5th Doctor segment, the 8th Doctor visits his previous self back in the Eye of Orion, trying a second attempt at relaxation after the resolution of The Five Doctors, and being ambushed by some past monsters.
The sixth mini adventure is the best of these, where the 8th Doctor goes back to Gallifrey at the time of the last episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord, to help reveal the truth and scandal of it to his fellow Time Lords, expose the corrupted Time Lords at its heart and help restore Gallifreyan society and politics to a more democratic, organised and morally virtuous position. This is probably the first time in the book where the 8th Doctor has a real positive impact on story events, and stops being a walking, talking plot device, even if it doesn’t last for long. Terrance also gets the opportunity to correct a couple of small problems and fill in and elaborate on a few plot developments from The Trial of a Time Lord that went unexplained previously. In fact it’s probably the first and only time Terrance’s continuity feast does anything useful in the book. The 7th story segment is by comparison the weakest, showing the 7th Doctor revisiting Metebelis III on a whim and getting caught off-guard by a giant spider that survived the events of Planet of the Spiders. The 8th Doctor turns up in the nick to save his former self with a flash of the Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator, which he conveniently picked up during the third mini adventure.
Terrance Dicks also brings back a host of old Time Lord characters for a couple of Gallifrey subplots. The first involves President Flavia monitoring the 8th Doctor’s odd revisits to his past incarnations from a far, aided by Castellan Spandrell, and the activities of disgruntled and ruthless Time Lord Ryoth, who tries to kill the 8th Doctor by sending a Raston Warrior Robot, Sontarans and a Drashig to the 5th Doctor in the Eye of Orion. The second involves the corrupt President Niroc, who oversaw the Ravalox/Earth atrocity as seen in The Trial of a Time Lord, and deposed Flavia after the events of The Five Doctors, being exposed by the 8th Doctor, who with the help of a temporarily revived Borusa, deposes him to elect a new High Council and correct the events of the Ravalox affair. Even Rassilon seems to play a large part in the story, conveniently aiding the Doctor to pilot the TARDIS back to see his former selves while still in his amnesic state, and seemly manipulating his meeting with Sam Jones. All this wallowing in Doctor Who’s past does produce a nice cosy blanket of nostalgia, but even by Terrance Dick’s past efforts, this feels particularly excessive. Digging up Flavia for the 6th Doctor’s segment is fair enough (although bringing back Borusa is dubious), but using her to represent Gallifrey in the ‘present’, shows up Terrance’s reluctance to do anything other than just be stuck in the past, completely ignoring the imaginative, legitimate and genuine developments in the story of the Time Lords as written in the Missing and New Adventures book ranges published by Virgin throughout the 1990s. Terrance Dicks even brings back the cheetah-infected Master to help explain the Master’s remains at the beginning of the TV Movie, which also completely ignores a lot of what the New Adventures did with the character.
And yet despite all these faults, The Eight Doctors is very readable. It may not challenge the grey cells very much, if at all, but it’s certainly a fun and pleasant read if nothing else. Like I mentioned at the start of the review, the book puts you in mind of the Target novelisations Terrance Dicks used to write so well. The Eight Doctors may sadly not be up to the same standards as most of those novelisations, with a contrived story, made up of short stories that are tacked on to the end of old narratives, often written rather generically and lacking character, feeling like padding, and with convenient plot devices at every turn. However, most of the stories are decent and entertaining tales that are far from being dull and empty passages of no consequence. The third, fifth and sixth Doctor segments in particular, are very entertaining tales that perfectly put the reader in mind of the period of Doctor Who that inspired them. Although, it’s hard to tell if Terrance Dicks is just lazily sticking to what he knows, because he doesn’t really want to write the novel, or is merely taking up a chance to once again relieve the glory days and pass comment on the general production history of Doctor Who up to this point. And there lies my main issue with the book. The Eight Doctors is a nice warm slice of cosy Doctor Who nostalgia, but it could have been so much more.
Score: 6/10