Saturday, 14 January 2012

TV Review 3: The Edge of Destruction, written by David Whitaker (1964)

Broadcast: 8th – 15th February 1964

Cast:
The Doctor – William Hartnell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill


Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – David Whitaker
Directors – Richard Martin (Episode 1) & Frank Cox (Episode 2)
Designer – Raymond Cusick
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The TARDIS crew are all knocked out and made temporarily amnesic after a mysterious blowout and malfunction in the TARDIS itself. But even when they recover, the Time ship’s occupants are affected and perplexed by a number of strange, bizarre and unexplained events. No one can figure out how or why, except that it isn’t them, and their growing individual suspicions lead the Doctor to turn upon his human passengers, Ian and Barbara.

However, the TARDIS fortunately intervenes, raising the alarm as to the immediate danger that afflicts them. Barbara correctly works out, despite the Doctor’s opposition, that the TARDIS has been responsible for the strange events, trying to contact them through clues both symbolically and telepathically. The Fast Return Switch on the TARDIS Console was stuck down due to the result of a faulty spring, and is now in danger of travelling back into the Big Bang. The fault repaired, the Doctor, sorry of his own injustices against Ian and Barbara, apologises and makes peace with them, renewing their friendship as the TARDIS takes them elsewhere.


Story Placement

Between The Daleks (TV Serial) and Marco Polo (TV Serial)


Favourite Lines

Barbara Wright – “Accuse us! You ought to go down on your knees and thank us!”

The Doctor – “As we learn about each other so we learn about ourselves”.


Review:
As The Edge of Destruction proves, good characterisation and character development can go a long way in making a successful TV Drama, even if the story appears to be somewhat basic. The Edge of Destruction is in my view, yet another underrated hit in a trio of relatively underrated hit Doctor Who serials. The fact that the first production team got Doctor Who so right and spot on in those first six months, not just as a TV programme, but also as a work and series of fiction in its own right, never ceases to amaze me.

The sad thing is, due to the decline (or dumbing down if you prefer) in quality of many Doctor Who scripts and serials throughout the late 1960s, most casual Doctor Who followers overlook the programme’s early years in favour of the more popular mid-late 1970s, or for younger viewers the recent modern resurrection of Doctor Who from 2005 onwards. They forget just how imaginative, magical and well-written it was back then, especially while the original companions William Russell and Jacqueline Hill were still part of the cast. Of course I’m not trying to pretend it was all TV gold, but the level of detail and characterisation were frequently on a level with all the adult drama shows of the time, and commanded your attention just like other later successful drama TV series like Inspector Morse, Cracker, Prime Suspect and Life on Mars. From late 1966 onwards Doctor Who descended into clich├ęd one-note sidekicks that either screamed, frequently needed rescuing, fulfilled the action requirements, or sometimes all of the above; casual sci-fi run-arounds with a monster-of-the-week; and often without much character development or complex detail to be found. This was thankfully rectified from 1970 onwards, but not in the same way, and ironically it was during 1988 and 1989, the final continuous years of Doctor Who series before the programme was axed, that we finally got the same (and better) level of detail and development seen in characters over two decades previously.

I’m talking about characterisation in particular, because The Edge of Destruction is a tour de force of character development that is so daring, brave, exciting and compelling that I was glued to the screen, especially during episode two. David Whitaker takes the four characters he has moulded, grown and developed during An Unearthly Child and The Daleks, and takes their current loose relationship and pushes them both to the limit. With hindsight of course, we can see that this was only logical place their early reluctant companionship could be taken, with the numerous resentments in the various characters having festered over the last nine episodes just waiting to boil over and come to the fore. The Edge of Destruction creates the opportunity for such a fall out to happen, and as a result it produces some of the best drama ever seen in Doctor Who. Of course, the other brilliant aspect to the break up in their joint relationship is that at the end of the serial it allows them to genuinely make peace with other for the very first time and become much closer friends than they had ever been before; and also in the case of the Doctor in particular, have an epiphany that helps him to become a better person in general. David Whitaker’s complex and multi-layered character development is so beautifully written, constructed and executed that it genuinely feels that you are watching something special.

The basic nature of the story does admittedly let it down slightly though. David Whitaker contrives a simple mechanical fault in the TARDIS that it interprets as ‘human’ error (or Time Lord, if we’re being technical) and on the basis of this, it sets in motion a range of extraordinary events in order to make its crew aware of this before it is too late. These mysterious events are intended to be clues made by the TARDIS to help the crew work out the approaching danger as it travels towards the Big Bang, however, some of these supposed clues are somewhat bizarre. The TARDIS scanner picture sequence and the telepathic shocks sent to crew members who try to touch the sides of the console that don’t contain the problem are really well done, but the melting of various time pieces, interpreted as a symbolic taking away of time is a bit more dubious and less well conveyed; meanwhile the erroneous food machine is so vague as a clue that it only serves as a metaphor to remind us that something important in the TARDIS isn’t working, without ever hinting at what it could be. The most bizarre effect though, is when Susan is turned into a tense paranoid psychotic, who is suspicious of everyone and violently strikes out on at least one occasion with a sharp pair of scissors. It’s certainly a very surreal and fascinating turn of events, but the narrative reason for it totally eludes me. However, these contrivances aren’t too hard to forgive, as David Whitaker writes a well-paced plot and script that not only doesn’t drag, but positively sparkles due to some cracking dialogue, and of course the aforementioned fantastic character development.

The Doctor is the character that certainly seems to go on the biggest journey. He starts off fairly helpless and amicable, confounded by both the inoperative TARDIS, as well as the odd events, but he soon rather narrow-mindedly concludes that Ian and Barbara can be the only logical culprits, given that he cannot find fault with the TARDIS. I suppose you could argue a case for paranoia, but I think it’s more likely a case of hubris. The Doctor’s reliance on pure scientific logic means that he’s unwilling to consider or believe in anything illogical, out of left field, or beyond the plain obvious. Ian and Barbara are the only intelligent beings who would and could affect his ship, so therefore he thinks it must be them. The Doctor’s ferociously stubborn and arrogant belief, both in himself and his mental abilities, means that he finds it difficult to believe that he’s ever wrong. So when events reach a climax in episode two and the TARDIS indicates to him that he was wrong all the time, it comes as a very visible shock to him, so much so, that it takes a great effort for him to accept just how wrong and unjust he was, and apologise. Importantly for the first time he realises that he can be just as fallible as his travelling companions, even if it’s not in the same ways, and begins to finally appreciate their true characters and values. Although the Doctor will remain an occasionally irascible old man with a mysterious unknowable past, at the end of The Edge of Destruction his hard demeanour begins to slowly melt away, and for the first time we get a glimpse of the hero we’ve come to know and love. This is the climax and resolution of the Doctor’s personal character story arc that started back in An Unearthly Child. It’s not an instant transformation, by any means, as the First Doctor gradually warms and lightens up over the course of the next two years (1964-1965). That’s what I call good character development, good characterisation that continues to naturally evolve over years, not just over a few serials, and rewards loyal viewers.

However, any viewers of The Edge of Destruction can’t be in any doubt that this is really Barbara’s big moment too. Barbara’s character story arc has been more about a journey of self-discovery than enlightenment. As a character, Barbara has grown enormously. The unfolding crisis and mystery in the TARDIS, and the desperate need to solve it as well as the erratic nature of her fellow companions, forces her to try and make sense of the situation, and eventually take control of it when everyone else fails to. Furthermore, the Doctor’s rude and outrageous accusations spur her on to finally believe in both herself, and her own convictions properly for the first time on screen. In short, Barbara becomes a hero, saving the lives of the time travellers from certain death, and courageously defending her own pious beliefs and convictions against a narrow-minded old fool. The character has changed so much over the last eleven episodes that she is barely recognisable compared to her past unsure and more timid self back in An Unearthly Child. Now Barbara is a strong character of resolve, courage and conviction that is more than a match for the rest of the TARDIS crew, as well as the numerous horrors that she will have to face in upcoming stories. More importantly though, Barbara is by far the strongest female character ever written in Doctor Who till Ace came along during Dragonfire in 1987; and like Ian, is one of my all-time favourite companions.

Ian on the other hand, takes more of a back seat on this occasion, while Barbara gets her first chance to lead. He has play the diplomat for most of the story, preventing the TARDIS crew from breaking up completely during the Doctor’s rude behaviour, and also tries to lighten up the mood in places when he can. I also love that Ian is beginning to build up a sort of camaraderie with the Doctor, getting used to his flaws and foibles, and quickly learning that he doesn’t always mean everything that he says, or just not feel quite as strongly, despite the acidic words that come from his sharp tongue. Ian actually has quite a good measure of the Doctor, and as the Doctor realises this more and more in future, their relationship begins to positively shine.

Susan as a character gets a lot to do in The Edge of Destruction, but when the strange effects disappear, she’s pretty much back to her previous self, while her friends have changed around her for the better. After the initial explosion, Susan is bewildered and incoherent, but she quickly turns into a tense paranoid with moments of psychosis, ever suspicious of Ian and Barbara, and lurks and scowls with equal measure. In fact, Susan feels even more wildly alien and unnatural here than during her titular introduction in An Unearthly Child. It’s very creepy and atmospheric, but in The Edge of Destruction it ends up being rather disappointingly irrelevant to the ongoing mystery and plot of the story, and is left unexplained by the serial’s end.

I suppose the TARDIS is almost a character too in some respects. It thinks for itself, and isn’t always particularly logical either. I really love that fact that the TARDIS isn’t just another non-descript machine like every other fictional space (and time) ship, but then again that was also partly hinted at by An Unearthly Child too with its imaginative concept. The TARDIS can independently think for itself, make proactive decisions, operate itself automatically should it need to, has a consciousness of sorts (in other words, self-aware), and even has a very small semblance of personality too, practically shouting at the Doctor through alarms when it’s had enough of him arguing with the humans and misunderstanding (well that’s what it felt like to me anyway).

Despite this story only featuring the regular cast, they rise to the challenge with great gusto and all deliver amazing performances. Jacqueline Hill in particular is astounding, revelling in her character’s chance to take centre stage as well as the great material she’s given, and absolutely steals the show. William Russell and William Hartnell are still consistently brilliant too. William Russell maintains Ian as the ever affable, considerate and likeable character that’s always a joy to watch. Hartnell on the other hand, has to deliver some quite nasty dialogue, and manages it with conviction without pushing away the audience. He also rather miraculously calms the Doctor down at the end of the story so well, that he becomes genuinely quite warm and likeable, with a wonderfully subtle performance that emphasises the character’s big positive change. There’s also that brilliant soliloquy that the Doctor has to give, and I love how dramatically and enthusiastically Hartnell delivers it. It is a truly magical moment to behold. Carole Ann Ford also gets to have a lot of fun in The Edge of Destruction, due to the larger range of emotions she gets to play. She relishes playing those scenes as a darkly disturbed lunatic, and is really quite eerie, almost having the appearance of a villain at times.

The direction in The Edge of Destruction is quite effective too, maybe not quite as innovative as during The Daleks, but with some great flashes of brilliance nevertheless. I love how a lot of the music and sound effects have been deliberately left out or held back so there is very little non-diegetic sound, or even little diegetic sound effects either, making the drama very theatrical, but this time in a very good way. The lack of sound makes the TARDIS feel a much smaller and tighter place, and as a result the dramatic tension just builds and builds till it is positively palpable and you’re glued to the screen (well I was anyway). We feel how the characters feel, and the drama is open, honest, raw and utterly compelling because of it. A lot of the story also seemingly takes place in real time, lending the drama a certain immediacy. Throughout the first episode, the lightening is massively toned down, helping to create a very atmospheric mood in the visuals and helps to highlight that all is not well in the TARDIS. This is mostly left out of episode two, until the TARDIS is within minutes of destruction. This helps to make the reprieve all the more powerful, as the reintroduction of surround lighting as well as the TARDIS sound effects help it to appear as if the ship is returning to life, as it were, and emphasises that all is safe and well in the TARDIS once more.

Speaking of sound effects, I must say that the direction and use of the TARDIS sound effects, helps us to appreciate just how brilliant Brian Hodgson and the Radiophonic Workshop’s work has been in Doctor Who, and how brilliant it will continue to be. When the TARDIS is restored in episode two, the rising pitch of the ship’s background hum is so beautifully done, it feels glorious, and makes you want to cheer inside. The chosen stock music is somewhat patchy in quality and effectiveness, though. For every amazing moody piece created by the Radiophonic Workshop there’s a clunky non-descript music piece, which really jars during viewing and rather unintentionally encourages you to welcome the returning background silence. Still that’s stock music for you, I guess.

Despite on the surface appearing to be an inconsequential two-episode filler story sandwiched in-between two narrative epics, The Edge of Destruction for me is actually a fantastic atmospheric drama, and a master class in character writing. The premise of the story as well as some of the reasoning behind its events may be a bit dubious, but the powerful journeys in character that both Barbara and the Doctor go through, along with both the enthusiasm of the regular cast, and some creative direction work wonders and make for gripping television. The Edge of Destruction is an important early landmark adventure in a trio of landmark adventures, the only important difference being that this story marks the moment when the Doctor turns from an anti-hero into the benevolent and avuncular time traveller we have all grown to love over the years. The end of the beginning of the fictional hero’s long story.

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Audio Review 13: The Land of the Dead, written by Stephen Cole (2000)

Released: January 2000

Cast:
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Monica Lewis – Lucy Campbell
Shaun Brett – Christopher Scott
Tulung – Neil Roberts
Gaborik – Andrew Fettes
Supplier – Alistair Lock


Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Stephen Cole
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Nicholas Briggs
Recording and Editing – Alistair Lock
Sound Design and Post-Production – Nicholas Briggs
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Remastered by Mark Ayres)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Stephen Cole


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive at Alaska in 1994, where a primal force seems to be stirring. Shaun Brett, an American millionaire, is half-way through constructing a house entirely made up of natural materials, and it is meant to stand as a monument to the local region as well as his late father, whom Brett constantly obsesses about. However, the construction has disturbed an ancient creature from hundreds of millions of years ago, a creature formed entirely from bone and capable of killing and assimilating its prey via a deadly psychic energy field that leaves all life in its wake...
Nyssa discovers that the creatures originate from the Permian era, while the Doctor unsuccessfully tries to keep them trapped in the house. Brett and Tulung, a local native whom Brett has employed, turn mentally unstable as a result of the Permian creatures, kidnapping Nyssa in the process and turning on each other. After Brett and Tulung stop arguing over their differences at the sight of an old archaeological dig, the Doctor discover that the Permians can be killed by fire. The remaining survivors lure the Permians back to the house, and trap them inside, while they torch the house to the ground.


Story Placement

Between Empire of Death (BBC Book) and Winter for the Adept (BIG Finish audio).

Review:

It’s usually down to pure luck, or the instincts of the writer as to whether rushed scripts are successful. The Invasion of Time (1978) was something of a muted hit. Although it is saddled with some relatively poor adversaries and padding, the strength of the plot, story ideas, main characterisation and brilliant cast helped it to rise above the mess that was the sum of its parts to become a really enjoyable romp. By comparison there are the works of Pip and Jane Baker, who in the space of one year produced the excellent and fun (although contrived) resolution to The Trial of a Time Lord (1986), and the awful, but equally fun Time and the Rani (1987), both of which were thrown together in a short space of time. The Land of the Dead though, is not one of the lucky ones, and like many troubled productions, falls by the wayside.
However, there is a fair amount to like, especially in the first two episodes. The setting of the story in Alaska feels quite exotic for Doctor Who, even on audio, so for a while it feels quite special. The sound design also works well to sell the setting to us, with strong and bitterly cold winds and the sound of walking on snow. Then there’s the great promise of the story’s premise itself.
The idea of the Permians, an ancient dinosaur species, is breathtakingly imaginative. Partly similar to insects, they exist as creatures with an exoskeleton, albeit one that appears to be made entirely from bone, and in the form of a skeleton itself, with flesh and blood of sorts within the bone rather than around it. They resemble the skeleton of a raptor-like theropod dinosaur, but have evolved to kill their prey using a psychic energy that strips the meat of their bodies. The Permians also seem to be able to affect their prey mentally too. A couple of the characters have periods of mental instability, and in Brett’s case in particular, sometimes goes insane too. Of course there is nothing in real science and archaeology (yet) to make any part of this creature conceivably possible, despite how little we know of the Permian era of the Earth’s long history, but Stephen Cole’s efforts to make the Permians at least plausible does both him and his creations credit, with a substantial and believable new monster that poses a real threat to human life. The other good thing is the gradual rising intrigue about these creatures that flavour the first two episodes. It’s nice that we (the audience) don’t know everything at once and have to wait to some of the answers.

Unfortunately there’s a limit to just how much waiting the audience can put up with, and I certainly lost interest before the story’s conclusion, purely due to the sheer amount of padding and wasted subplots there are. Parts two and three are the worst offenders. Nyssa spends the whole of part two trying to find out the age and origin of the Permians, which although interesting, doesn’t really do much for the ongoing story. Meanwhile, the Doctor spends the whole of part two merely observing the escaping Permian with Monica. At least in part two though, the intrigue about the nature of the Permians still tides the listener over the slow patches. As part three continues the slow pace though, the story begins to drag significantly, with Nyssa being kidnapped by Brett and Tulung, and the Doctor and Monica using their efforts to prevent the Permian creatures from escaping out into the World, which turns out to be a waste of time anyway. The Land of the Dead is clearly a story that doesn’t have the mileage to fill out four episodes, and it would definitely have benefitted from having one episode taking away from it.

Another one of the ineffectual story elements are the ‘Hybrid’ creatures; sea animals that have unnaturally bonded together as a result of the psychic energies of the Permians. They seem quite an interesting and creepy idea at first, but it doesn’t take long to realise that they are merely a script device that are only used when a scene (usually outside) needs an injection of dramatic tension to help maintain the feeling of the characters being constantly under threat.

The other wasted subplot, other than a big part of the Doctor and Nyssa’s role in the story itself, is the big rivalry between Shaun Brett and Tulung. Initially the rivalry between the two characters added an interesting dimension to them, but the ‘mystery’ as to which of their two fathers was the most courageous during a disaster on a past archaeological dig is given far too much script time. After a while it becomes clear that this rivalry is sadly the central part of Brett’s and Tulung’s character, and due to the added mental instability brought on by the Permians, this bitter dispute gradually turns into a large row. This particular row comes across as an awkward domestic falling out, which immensely grated with me, as you don’t want to be there listening to it, and feels like you’re in the middle of a bad soap opera at times. This verbal sparring spans the last half of part three and the first half of part four, and yet all the time it has very little impact on the story, beyond the first two minutes of part one, which occurred thirty years previously. Part four does reveal that the 1960s dig catastrophe was brought on by some awakened Permians, but that doesn’t really excuse the past 60 minutes of bickering the listener has had to endure throughout the story. If that wasn’t enough padding there are also quite a few scenes where characters are discussing (or arguing sometimes) about the same character or plot points that they discussed only ten minutes or so previously. It really makes it hard to enjoy listening to the audio, as the listener is given comparatively little new information, story or character development to experience over relatively long time periods, and sometimes it feels as if the script is purely going through the motions.

The characterisation in the script also continues this feeling. The Land of the Dead features a solid and typical offering of the Fifth Doctor that feels all the more authentic due some dialogue quoted from his television episodes, but seems to have a more laid back role in the story than usual, spending a lot of time merely observing and offering explanations, although he does come up with the solution to the Permian problem, and puts his life on the line at the end to defeat them. Nyssa’s first outing on audio is also a decent appearance, although you do get the impression that the story (or Stephen Cole, rather) is deliberately trying to find ways of keeping her out of the way, as Nyssa too doesn’t get an awful lot to do. Monica Lewis meanwhile is, as other commentators and reviews have observed a near clone of the companion character of Tegan (who is currently left to her job as an Air Stewardess at Heathrow Airport in the UK, after being left by the Doctor during Time-Flight). I’m sure this was unintentional of Stephen Cole, but it’s not hard to see the parallels. Monica is also probably the only likeable supporting character, starting out as a put-upon interior designer with an essential sense of humour, given the hard work as well as deadly situation. However, she gradually becomes very irritating from part two onwards, seemingly losing her character and turning into a walking-talking script device for sarcastic and ironic jokes, to the point where Monica seems to vainly care more about herself than the deaths and life-threatening dangers taking place around her. Tulung also starts off very likeable, but his acidic relationship with Brett probably stops the listener caring much about him, even if we still take his side. Shaun Brett, on the other hand, is a slimy narcissistic individual, obsessed with both his father and himself, and above all likes to show off, always making others aware of his superior position in the household. In a way Brett is the character you love to hate, only this time mostly for the right reasons, and sure enough Brett doesn’t disappoint in that department as an insular and cowardly villain. Although the rivalry subplot between him and Tulung makes you glad that he gets killed by the Permians by the time we get to part four. Gaborik though, is sadly quite a weak character. I much appreciate Stephen Cole’s effort to try and add some depth, background, culture and local colour to the Alaskan setting, utilising a well-researched background on the Inuit, who are the native tribal peoples in the Arctic regions of the World. However, this brilliant research is partly wasted by having Gaborik speak it out bluntly like a talking encyclopaedia, and without a hint of subtlety. Still, I’m sure had there been redrafts of this, it wouldn’t sound so much like an information dump. Gaborik also suffers from seemingly having little character outside of his traditionalist paranoia, so on one level is practically highlighting his status as cannon fodder in part two.

It also doesn’t help the characters much that they have to say some very melodramatic and hammy dialogue. The worst affected by this is probably Nyssa, who has to manage the atrocious cliff-hanger at the end of part one; panicking at the sight of the hybrid creatures, and half-delirious in a ‘sea room’ which has conveniently locked itself on cue, and also spouting vague and enigmatic warnings about what’s to come. Actually there’s quite a few convenient coincidences, such as in part four when the Doctor and Monica follow an ice tunnel that conveniently leads to the pit where Nyssa, Brett and Tulung are.

Fortunately the great cast go some way to redeeming some of the banalities in the characterisation. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are on good form, and help to transport us into the drama convincingly, until the material begins to dry up. Christopher Scott gives the best overall performance, helping to give Brett several layers of vanity and malevolence, as well as making sure he doesn’t turn into a theatrical one-note villain. Lucy Campbell and Neil Roberts are also quite assured in their performance, but they are hampered slightly by the problems with their respective characters. Andrew Fettes though, seems to struggle with Gaborik. It’s hardly a great character anyway, but sadly Fettes fails to redeem him.

The production is fairly smooth and polished as usual, with Nicholas Briggs doing the honours with some very realistic design that instantly draws us into the audio. His music soundtrack though is reasonably basic, and though not bad, unfortunately comes across as rather functional and plain in most places.

So overall, The Land of the Dead is generally quite a forgettable and disappointing adventure for the Fifth Doctor. There are some brilliant ideas, a well-imagined monster and a wonderful setting to enjoy, but the production is drowning under the weight of an extremely padded and melodramatic script that promises much and delivers comparatively very little. Still, you can’t really blame Stephen Cole too hard considering the time constraints he had to work under. I think almost anyone, would struggle to make something good in so short a time. Although, next time I get to re-listen Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios, I’ll probably overlook The Land of the Dead in favour of something more enjoyable.

Score: 5/10