Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Serial 18: Galaxy 4

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Vicki, Steven

Written by: William Emms
Directed by: Derek Martinus & Mervyn Pinfield

Background & Significance: Season three of Doctor Who might be the most peculiar and experimental the show ever got. It featured a standalone, Doctor-less, companionless one part story, a twelve episode Dalek epic, a companion-centric, Doctor-lite story, a four-part story that jumps seven centuries into the future halfway through, and a western that's also kind of a musical. It's a weird ass season, full of experimentation for the show.

But season three started somewhat more auspiciously.

By the time "Galaxy 4" rolled around, Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert was on her way out the door. This story and "Mission to the Unknown" were produced in the same production block as season two, but held over for the start of season three as the show tended to do back in the day. We've already talked about "Mission to the Unknown" and how good that was, but this is the last time Lambert got to produce a fully actualized story in the traditional classic, Doctor Who mold. Unfortunately, because there's a transition aspect to each producer taking over the show (producers typically shadowed their predecessor before assuming the reins in full) Wiles was apparently partially responsible for the production of this episode. And apparently it was not all peaches and cream, Wiles going so far at one point that he was reportedly thinking about firing Hartnell (which set the tone for his producership more than anything, I'd say).

But yes. "Galaxy 4". Written by one-time Doctor Who writer William Emms (who had written for Z-Cars and other contemporaneous ilk) and directed by first-time Doctor Who director Derek Martinus (who directed this only because Mervyn Pinfield backed out at the last moment) who would go on to direct some terrific stories across the rest of the 60s, it really is the quiet end to the Lambert era on Doctor Who. That's not to say Lambert went out without some great hits, but honestly it feels like she was building to "The Chase" or "The Time Meddler" (take your pick) and this story becomes one of the real forgotten stories of Doctor Who. That's probably because it's shoved in an easily looked-over place in the Doctor Who canon. Or because it's got a rubbish title. Or because it's entirely missing. I mean, why talk about "Galaxy 4" being missing when you can talk about "Marco Polo" or "The Massacre" missing. Those are the bonified classics.

Now that'll change, I'm sure, once the recently recovered third episode hits mass distribution, but until then we're still relegated to a story that's largely forgotten and widely dismissed and I have to wonder if that's deserved or not. And of course, me and my wonderings is why I do this blog. Or something. I don't know. Maybe I'll figure that out some day.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Serial 31: The Highlanders

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben, and Polly

Written by: Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
Directed by: Hugh David

Background & Significance: In the Classic series there's always a crossfade across Doctors and production teams and it always takes a little bit for the production to steer the show into a new and interesting direction. This is perhaps most evident in "Robot," in which Tom Baker's first story is a Pertwee story produced by Barry Letts and written by Terrence Dicks. At its most lengthy, we have the transition from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.

"The Highlanders" is a big transition point, and not only because it's the first story to feature the 2nd Doctor's key companion: Jamie Robert McCrimmon.

Written by the developer of Z-Cars and one-time Doctor Who writer Elwyn Jones, "The Highlanders" finds itself as a bridge of sorts. That's not surprising. "The Highlanders" is a historical, and really the last true historical until "Black Orchid" some fifteen years later. And if you wanna go for something more attainable, like Doctor Who in a historical setting, you'd still have to jump all the way to "The Time Warrior", which was seven years after this. As a historical, it's clear it's on the way out. "The Time Meddler" as a thing pretty much cripples the pure historical by introducing science fiction elements (which makes for an admittedly cooler story) while "The Massacre" was a glorious swan song for John Lucarotti's brand of intense character drama.

"The Gunfighters" and "The Smugglers" are still fantastic.

But this is the last historical we'll talk about on this blog, and I feel it's a good time to look at the historical outside of a Hartnell context. Sure, the last time we did a historical was an unmitigated disaster (and possibly the worst entry I've written for this blog, hence the lack of link) but I think that maybe we can bring in some discussion or what have you as we dissect this moment of transition for both the Troughton era and the show in general. Historicals? What is it about them? And Troughton? How does early Troughton look as we slowly brush up closer and closer to his regeneration.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Serial 108.5: Shada

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor), Paul McGann (8th Doctor)
Companions: Romana II, K-9

Written by: Douglas Adams, Gary Russell (audio adaptation), Gareth Roberts (novelization)
Directed by: Pennant Roberts (and Gary Russell)

Background & Significance: As of the day I'm posting this, there are 106 episodes missing from the Doctor Who archives. The number would be 108, but two were returned to the archives last December and the number decreased accordingly. Unfortunately, those missing episodes were the first recoveries in eight years and it's doubtful many more will ever be recovered. To travel in the other direction, Doctor Who is going to outlast all of us because it's infinitely malleable and so long as stories exist, Doctor Who has the potential to exist. I'll be sad if there's Doctor Who stories still coming out after I die, but if there aren't I'll probably more disappointed than I ever would be sad.

As fans, this leaves us with the notion that Doctor Who has created a need that will never truly be satisfied. There are points where you might burn out on Doctor Who, but you'll always come back because you will always want your experience to be as complete as possible to make up for the fact that there's one in ten episodes that you will never see, and because there's stories that will air long after you die that you'll never see because you're, well, dead. We're obsessed with the gaping hole left simply by being Doctor Who fans, by the infinite wealth and treasure trove we alone are privy to and the wasted opportunities strikes us as inherently wasteful, because why waste a good story?

Which brings us to "Shada".

"Shada" is the only Doctor Who story that can never truly be "complete". Unlike those stories missing from the archives, (which hypothetically could be returned despite its unlikelihood) "Shada" was completely written, partially produced, and never completed, which is entirely different.

The serial was intended to be the last big hurrah of the Graham Williams era. Williams himself was really done with the program by this point, and between Tom Baker's increasing irritability and not being able to get a budget near what he wanted it to be (it's never near what you want it to be, which is, inevitably, "infinity dollars" (or "infinity pounds" as this case might be)) he decided to go out on an story penned by his script editor, Douglas Adams, one that would be funny and delightful and rompy and basically everything Williams ever wanted his era to be. He even planned for it to have a good budget, having been recently slammed his first two seasons by failing to account for a big, six-part season finale, which is why "The Invasion of Time" and "The Armageddon Factor" are so insanely, unbelievably cheap-looking. So he pinched his pennies and made "The Nightmare of Eden" and "Horns of Nimon" (and even "Creature From the Pit") on an unusually small and tight budget.

It was all looking to go awesome. There would be Time Lord intrigue (which Williams always worked into his season finales) and Douglas Adams's own particular brand of humor and lots of money so he could go out on a proper note.

And then this labour dispute happened in December and they targeted Doctor Who because Doctor Who was a really good target that would get their point across. Williams fought to get the whole thing done in time and did good on the location work and made some progress on the studio time, but the labour dispute turned even more sour, the BBC postponed all recording dates in December, and because Christmas programs were way more important to the BBC than Doctor Who, Williams found it impossible to schedule the five recording dates he needed to finish the story and get the whole thing done before the story would actually make it to air.

So Williams's planned swansong never aired and "Horns of Nimon" became his legacy.

The part that stings most about this is that Williams had half a complete serial, and that's the part that I think gets in most people's heads about this. The whole story is a big ol' question mark that's gotten Doctor Who fans since it first didn't air. (And who can blame them? Just hearing the titular "Shada" is a Time Lord prison is enough to kick your brain into overdrive. I know it was a story I became particularly enraptured with when I first became aware of it. Hell, I still am and I'm not even a Douglas Adams fan) The fact that we'll never see it as it "should have" existed is the biggest kick in the teeth and the one that pushes Doctor Who fans from "intense curiosity" to "obsessive need."

How obsessive a need, you might ask? Well, plenty of people have attempted to get a faithful retelling of Shada up and running for years and years. Ian Levine did one in the early 80s with script inserts in place of scenes that weren't filmed (and apparently now has a cut of the film that he personally financed with animation to fill in the gaps that weren't filmed). Nathan-Turner worked after the show's cancellation to secure Tom Baker to provide linking narration to the existing clips to piece the whole thing together in a way that would make it make sense, getting a home video release in 1992, which remains the best he could do. Big Finish got permission from Douglas Adams's estate to produce an audio adaptation of Shada with animatics to visualize the story as best as possible. Because they couldn't get Tom Baker to reprise his role they asked then-incumbent Doctor Paul McGann to be The Doctor for the story and adapter Gary Russell wrote around it in such a way that it made sense. This was released in May of 2003.

Fast forward to this year: for the first time, Adams's Doctor Who story has been novelized by Gareth Roberts based on Douglas Adams's script and notes. It's the first time an Adams Doctor Who story has been novelized.

It's been an unsurprising obsession, but my question becomes "so how is it?" We have three different source texts to work with: Nathan-Turner's Tom Baker narrated home video release in 1992, Gary Russell's 8th Doctor Big Finish audio/animatic adaptation in 2003, and Gareth Roberts's novelization. I think it'd be a good idea to talk about all three of these and see which one works best, which one doesn't, and how do they all add up to the larger picture of the swansong Williams (and Adams) never got? Not only that, but how do these two Doctors' interpretations compare? It was written for Tom Baker, but how does Paul McGann do?  Was Douglas Adams really a great Doctor Who writer? Can we as a mass collective of Doctor Who fans ever move on?

Strap in, kids. This is gonna be a long one.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Serial 150: Dragonfire

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companions: Mel, Ace

Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: After a whole season of Mel as The Doctor's companion, Bonnie Langford had decided that she did not want to be Mel anymore. She feared typecasting (which, as it turns out, was an entirely founded claim) and wanted to move on. It probably didn't help that Mel is [unfairly] hated by vast majorities of Doctor Who fandom despite Langford being actually quite good. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was never really given a fair shake until Big Finish went in and proved to everyone how utterly brilliant she could be.

So the decks were clear for a new companion.

To prep, Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel started the process off creating a new companion, sketching out a few ideas and characteristics they thought would be good for a new companion. Affectionately code-named "Alf", they planned for this character to take over as The Doctor's companion in the upcoming season should Bonnie Langford choose to actually depart as she was thinking. To see if their other writers could come up with anything better, they handed the rough sketch to "Delta and the Bannermen's" Malcolm Kohll and "Dragonfire's" Ian Briggs to see if they could do anything with the concept.  (This, by the way, explains why Ray in "Delta and the Bannermen" is a totally Ace-y character, but we'll talk about that in a few weeks.)

History, as we know, went with Ian Briggs's character: Ace.

Let's back up, though. Ian Briggs was a fresh new Doctor Who writer whose mission statement was to make something with a comedic bent. In response, he went and basically homaged all of his favorite movies, and when one homage didn't work out he simply went and changed the source of the homage. This, unfortunately, was mostly lost on the audience of "Dragonfire", who can't ever seem to see beyond the "that cliffhanger moment is stupid" and see that the whole thing as a big ol' Star Wars homage pulp adventure running through a bunch of ice-flavored BBC sets. While being camp. Utter utter camp. So like last week we have a story that is utterly and completely derided story that wound up in the bottom 10% of the Doctor Who Magazine Top 200 poll. And I really have to ask, is the hate deserved?

So let's get to it!