Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Serial 149: Delta and the Bannermen

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

Written by: Malcolm Kohll
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: As the first season of Sylvester McCoy was in full swing, a number of changes swept across the behind-the-scenes production of Doctor Who. First, John Nathan-Turner needed to rectify the fact that he had an "uneven" number of episodes to spread across and indeterminate amount of stories. There was the option to do a six parter, but that wasn't particularly attractive. The last time he had tried something that length it had cobbled the story before it had even begun and a four part story and a two part story felt like it was giving short shrift to the two part story. To compromise, they devised the notion of coming up with two three-part stories, one shot on location (in this season, "Delta and the Bannermen") and the other shot entirely in the studio (in this season, "Dragonfire").

Oh. And Bonnie Langford wanted to leave. So The Doctor was gonna need a new companion. And fast.

This left the show with a noticeable hole they needed to fill. The continuity Langford brought to the show as it  transitioned from Baker to McCoy cannot possibly be overstated, but now the 7th Doctor was going to need to move on and with his own companion. Cartmel, as script editor, set about devising a new companion almost immediately, sketching out the broad designs for a hip teenagery character who'd be more... shall we say "realistic" than the companions as of late. Peri was something of a socialite when it came down to it and Mel was never actually given a proper introduction story NOR was her history ever intimated as anything other than a bubblegum-chewing, aerobics-obsessed, bright, bubbly teenager. Cartmel wanted something different, something that would be a bit more realistic to the world of the 80s. Someone that wouldn't be focused so much on the jazzercise as the more punk and anti-establishment leanings that were present at the time.

So he came up with this character (whom he dubbed "Alf") with plans to introduce her after Mel's departure, but he also asked that the two scripts that were meant to cap the season ("Delta" and the previously discussed "Dragonfire") introduce a version of his "Alf" character, hoping that they would come up with something good that they could use instead of having to come up with a character on the fly later on. And applause to the delgation of that. I mean, even Robert Holmes did something similar when it came to Leela's introduction (handing off the responsibility to Chris Boucher). As we all know Ian Briggs's "Dragonfire" ended up giving us Ace while Malcolm Kohll's script ended up giving us a character known as "Ray" about whom I'll have much to say later.

Why Ray didn't work and was never mentioned again will certainly be point of discussion for this entry.

Kohll, it's worth mentioning, was not really ever brought back to write more Doctor Who. Cartmel, it seems, did have him in mind moving forward, but where Stephen "Paradise Towers" Wyatt and Ian "Dragonfire" Briggs were both brought back for "Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and "Curse of Fenric" respectively, it's interesting that Kohll never made it back for another story. Director Chris Clough, on the other hand, was invited back for another round of stories in the next season. Take that for what that's worth.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

This story is one of the few stories that I discussed over at “The Doctor’s Companion” before covering here on the blog, and as a result, much of that discussion has colored the glasses with which I look back on it. And if you go back and listen to the episode, it was basically a nonstop giggle fest between Scott and I because the story was really batshit crazy. Since then (and we covered it just under a year ago at this point) a few moments have stuck out to me as quintessentially this story with regards to its insanity.  The podcast really covered it well, if you ask me (and that’s our job, I guess? And batshit crazy works great when doing a recap) so go listen to that if you want a breakdown of all the madness that is just saturating every pore of this story. I’m planning to break this entry down a little differently and going for my typical-er approach or what have you.

That said? This story is fucking batshit crazy. And like… I forgot how fucking batshit it is.

What I love about it is how much this feels like “Doctor Who home” to me. My introduction to Doctor Who was the Russell T. Davies era and it really went a long, long way to shape the way I view The Doctor and the show as a whole. What Davies brought to the show was, for lack of better terminology, crazy and a bizarre sense of fun. It’s the kinda fun you get when you just throw things together and see what happens. That, to me, is Doctor Who. It’s the fabric of the show and one of the things that really hammers the show home. It’s an ordinary police box. But oh wait it travels through time and space. It’s an ordinary mannequin. But oh wait no it’s an Auton. It’s an ordinary rubbish bin. But oh wait no it’s Autons again.

And this story really brings that out. It’s just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

It’s odd really, and jarring. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s weirdo aliens who walk through a magic arch and turn into humans. It’s a tour bus but it also travels in space. Those two guys are dressed like Colonel Sanders and “Felix” from The Odd Couple and they bicker like a married couple but OH WAIT THEY’RE AMERICAN SPIES IN WALES. And there’s this girl who looks like a normal blonde youth except she has the CREEPIEST FUCKING BABY YOU’VE EVER SEEN IN YOUR LIFE HOLY CRAP. And these disparate elements don’t really go together. Sanders and Felix (that’s what I’m calling them; old habits die hard) don’t even intersect with the main plotline of this episode at all. And even the stuff with Delta at the top of the episode with the Bannermen being hunted by the Chimerons is just a setup for something that will come later.

Hell, even the Bannermen don’t seem to do a whole hell of a lot in this episode. They just wander aimlessly and discover the whereabouts of Delta and everyone else as the episode closes.

So the main plot is put off until the next episode. And that’s fine. It allows this episode the room and license to explore the setting and characters of the story. What’s interesting is the way it straddles the line of what it seems to be and not to be aware of. In the first five minutes Mel and The Doctor win a “Nostalgia Trip” to 1959 Disneyland. And anyone who knows Doctor Who knows for damn sure that there’s no way in fuck that the show can afford going abroad, much less to Disneyland, MUCH less to make it look like Disneyland in 1959 (Mad Men didn’t even try to attempt that one). We know that. And Doctor Who sure as hell knows that. So it goes for something much more attainable: a weekend getaway camp called “Shangri-la”. See? It’s like Disneyland. And the BBC can pull off 1959 well enough and go about throwing in every single bloody 1950s thing it can possibly think to throw in.

And yet it tempers this self-awareness with some “good” character work, especially with regards to Ray. I say “good” because while it’s tremendously camp and unbelievable, it does indicate thought as to creating a fully fleshed out character.

Now let’s not mince words. It is rubbish and it’s clear from the get-go why Cartmel et. al outright rejected Ray in favor of Ace. Ace (as we now know) was much more rigidly defined and much more interesting. She was a character in her own right and not defined by any other sort of notion society might throw at her. Ray is cobbled right from the get go. She’s wearing a leather jacket but later she’s shown all dolled up with a cute 50s dress and a bow in her hair. The dichotomy is just too removed from Cartmel’s vision of a street smart teenager. She’s just too… foofy and not enough departure from Mel.

It also doesn’t help that this story saddles her with a silly romance plot where she pines after a clueless Billy who doesn’t seem to ever notice her. And yeah, it’s been done before, but her character is so tied to it that it really cripples her before she’s even really begun. She has no aspirations except Billy and a life tied to one character (much less a character that is so possibly kinda douchey and who she, quite frankly, is better than) really strikes an irreversible blow that you can’t quite come back from. Though it’s a worthy effort on the part of Kohll to give her some real character with some real wants and desires (something noticeably lacking from both Peri and Mel).

Of course, I have to admit that it is a worthy effort and one I applaud more than I jeer at. It’s just a flawed execution of a mostly-fine concept. Worse has happened.

But really, this episode is just one magnificent clusterfuck of throwing everything you have at the wall and seeing what happens regardless of whether it makes sense. This is the episode in which Billy talks about how great these new speakers he makes are and how great they are for playing rock and roll and then IMMEDIATELY takes the stage to sing a smooth, slow number that opens with the lyric “Well I never felt more like singing the blues” (and yeah sure rock and roll was born out of the blues BUT GOD DAMMIT HE’S SINGING THE BLUES). It’s also the episode where you have a random assassin who enjoys killing simply because he enjoys killing.

And there’s darkness, like the horrific birthing scene Mel experiences just before the end of the episode with the freaky ass green slime ball baby or the scene in which Gavrok and his Bannermen execute the tour coordinator for no reason other than they really, really wanna kick the puppy. And fine. Puppy kicking, yay. But it definitely reinforces that this story (while having a LOT of fun and games) definitely did start with the wholesale slaughter of numerous Chimerons. The juxtaposition of the batshit wacky and the stakesful dark really heightens both, each element highlighting the starkness of the others. And really, it’s this mixup mashup of tones that this story excels at.

And it’s this mixup mashup at every step of the way that makes it fundamentally excellent Doctor Who.

Part 2:

Halfway through this episode, Gavrok and his Bannermen land on a field not far from where Felix and Colonel Sanders are eating lunch.

What’s interesting about this as a structural choice is the way in which it holds the suspense for as long as possible. At the top of the episode we KNOW that they’re coming and plans are set in motion to protect everyone nearby in the hopes that The Doctor and co. can get it all done with minimal casualties. So the first half is all build up while the second half is a nonstop fast-pace of Gavrok and The Bannermen showing up and kicking all kinds of ass that we knew would come because, well, they kicked all the puppies. It’s because of this that the destruction of the Nostalgia Tours bus is shocking. As Mel so rightly puts it, they kinda just wholesale slaughtered a tour bus full of innocent, harmless aliens for no reason other than they could.

I gotta give Kohll credit for that. Gavrok is a man on a mission and nothing gets in his way. He means business. He’ll kill you without thinking.

Because of that, the final beat in which the camp director manages to convince Gavrok that Mel is worth keeping as a hostage rings impossibly false. Hostage taking is about the dumbest thing anyone can ever do in a situation like this. When has it ever worked? The answer is never because the villain of the piece never seems to win, and yet tactically how does he benefit by leaving Mel alive? Even if he did take her as a hostage, what then? What in the world would come next? You hold her in exchange for the last Chimeron? You do know that that’s like trading a mouse for a dodo right? There’s only the one Chimeron left. Mel (while special and important to The Doctor) is still just a human. One of many. To make the trade is to be an agent of genocide.

Know what, though? That’s harping on a minor quibble, relatively speaking. There’s plenty of other things in this episode that make it just as crazy as the last one, if not crazier.

For one thing, there’s the entire thing with Delta’s weird and creepy alien Chimeron baby. And—actually you know what? When I said “entire thing”, I actually meant every single damn thing that’s even directly involving this baby. I mean, in the beginning it’s a sticky gooey newborn and (as Delta promises) it grows fast. Now… fast is one thing, but this thing AGES. Assuming that the baby hatches around midnight, by around noon it’s already a six year old. And by six year old I mean actual six year old. Every time they cut back to Delta and her child they’ve replaced it with a slightly bigger child. Only it doesn’t work as subtle ever at all. it’s just… crazy.

And that’s weird enough (especially because it goes from animatronic/puppet baby to actual toddler in a dinosaur costume and green facepaint) but then we have to deal with the way Billy and Mel deal with this shit.

Mel first because it’s easier: at the end of the last episode, Mel screamed bloody murder (as she’s wont to do)  at the sight of this alien baby thing. And to be fair, I would too. Like, I’ll be up front about that. But what’s weird is the way that we come into this episode with Billy entering Delta’s room only to find Delta cradling her demon spawn with Mel nowhere to be seen. She invites him in and he’s totally down with this. And Mel’s nowhere to be seen. And then all of a sudden she steps around the bed and sits on hers opposite Delta. AND SHE DOES IT LIKE NOTHING’S WRONG. JUST A SECOND AGO SHE WAS SCREAMING AND PROBABLY WOKE UP HALF THE CAMP. AND NOW SHE’S NORMAL? WHAT.

Yep. Apparently that’s it. Did Delta put some weird curse on her? No. She’s just.. there. That whole scared thing? She got over it. What?

To add to the madness, Billy is in. All in. He is all about this girl and has eyes for no one but her. It’s honestly a little disconcerting because he’s not perturbed that she’s an alien OR a mother OR an alien mother. I mean, honestly? Guys run at that, but this is true love (or is it FUCKING TERRIFYING? Stay tuned for the answer to that question) and Billy DGAF because Delta looks about 30 and he goes for older chicks and Ray who? So he’s gonna go for it with Delta because it’s fucking real. And power to him. I mean, I don’t want that fucking terrifying green baby but I’m glad someone does.

So where does it go? Billy starts COURTING Delta. He puts her in his motorcycle and goes off to have a picnic! A PICNIC. Delta is being HUNTED (she knows it) and she’s happy to go on a picnic with this James Dean looking douche nozzle who doesn’t know the difference between rock and roll and the blues? Seems like a losing proposition, Delta. I mean, I know he’s in for the child support or raising the kid like it’s his own, but god dammit, what are you doing? I mean, for fuck’s sake she doesn’t even seem that interested in him. She just loves a good picnic and a ride in the side car of some greaser’s motorcycle. Does she even care about anything? She really doesn’t. Even her relationship with her kid comes with an emotional detachment that doesn’t make a lick of sense given that she’s holding to it tightly.

No really, trust me on that one.

And then there’s Ray, who is really fun in this. It’s funny because I really don’t hate the actress, I just think her interpretation is a little waify for me. Shouldn’t she be a little more badass or something? I mean, they take her from 50s skirt and a cat-ear headband to leather and a white headband between two scenes (when did she have time to change?!?!), it doesn’t change the fact that they don’t give her anything to do except drive The Doctor around on her little scooter thing. And fine. Scooter thing. It’s a bit small for leather if you ask me. But Billy (who’s kinda arrogant and douche, remember) also wears leather and not only has a MOTORCYCLE but a SIDECAR to the motorcycle. And you know what? Sidecar way outtrumps scooter any day.

That’s Ray, I guess. She’s living in the shadow of a vastly superior character. How impossibly unfortunate. And they thought she’d make a good Ace? Come on.

Part 3:

Well at least I know what the first line in the final thoughts is going to be…

As predicted, delaying the Bannermen’s arrival until the last possible moment means that the majority of this episode is a nonstop action runaround with tons of things happening and a bunch of crazy shit going down. Because of that, it also means that a lot of the things the story might, say, explain now that we’re in the last episode are completely glossed over in favor of wrapping everything up. Other elements are rushed through the storyline and given nowhere near the amount of closure they probably deserve. So while this might not really work and it really just leaves the audience holding on for dear life as the story fucking RACES along, it ends up working because of sheer… well… balls.

What I quite love is The Doctor’s plan. It doesn’t really make a whole hell of a lot of sense does it? He basically tricks the Bannermen into a decoy trap over at the beekeeper’s house while they enact the real plan at Shangri-la. This plan also involves the Bannermen getting stung by bees. And by this point, why not? It’s clearly one of the most sane things in  this episode, but it doesn’t do much to them. They’re not too messed up by the time they return to Shangri-la for the final showdown. In fact, they’re just a little scratched up and a little pissed off. The Doctor knew this wouldn’t take them out for the count. Hell, it’s not even like there’s less Bannermen showing up for said final showdown hurt the Bannermen and it’s not like The Doctor even needed to whittle down their numbers a bit to even the odds. There’s no way the Bannermen would survive the aural assault by Delta’s daughter.

There’s also the crazy random of the fact that Colonel Sanders and Felix don’t contribute a lick of anything to the script. No really. They contribute nothing. And it’s like Kohll is lampshading this. I mean, in the beginning of the episode the Bannermen who have captured them place them in a yoke that means they have to stay together. And fine. Cool. Awesome. We have them attached at the neck and never able to escape each other so we’re in for twenty minutes of nonstop bickering! Hell yes. Let’s do this. I am so in. EXCEPT! The second the Bannermen are called away, thinking their yoke is sufficient, Ray runs up with a small wrench and fucking unlocks them and now they’re free. I mean SERIOUSLY? Why do it if you’re not even going to do anything with it? You had them sit down together. Once. And that’s it. Are you serious right now? Like, for reals are you? What is that? At that point why even bother?

But the craziest fucking thing in this episode and the thing that puts it into the “it’s safe to say” territory when it comes to dubbing this “the craziest episode of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen". And that’s Billy. Hands fucking down.

Okay. So Billy. Billy, Billy, Billy. When we last checked in on Billy he was madly in love with Delta. He had no problem that she was visibly thirty years older than him, nor did he seem to have a problem with the fact that she had a fucking terrifying squish baby she liked to cradle in her arms. Nor did he really have a problem at all with the fact that this crazy demon baby grows like mad. Nope. He just wants to get on his motorcycle and go to the beach and have a picnic with his beloved or whatever. And really? It’s just creepy. This guy just goes for it.

Oh. But that was last episode. HERE he goes further. Way further. No. Here he steals (STEALS) growth hormone jelly that Delta has FOR HER BABY so her baby will grow up healthy and strong like a true Chimeron.

So he steals it. Okay. BUT THEN he starts drinking the damn things. Like… injecting them into his mouth and swallowing them. Why does he do this? Because he wants to be a fucking Chimeron. And no that’s not completely batshit fucking crazy. Right. What’s the science on this? I’m going to drink her love secretion/lactations and use those to TRANSGENE INTO AN ALIEN BECAUSE I’M SO IN LOVE. This is Twilight shit. For reals. And when Delta finds out her response is not “HOLY FUCK WHY ARE YOU DRINKING MY CHIMERON GEL AND STEALING IT FROM MY CHILD WHO DESPERATELY NEEDS IT IF MY SPECIES IS TO SURVIVE.” No. It’s “God I love you.” WHAT. I MEAN WHAT. Are we fucking serious with this? Like really?

And the story ends with Billy joining his queen(?!?!?!) on her spaceship with their love child THAT ISN’T EVEN HIS BUT HE’S SEEN GROW UP IN THE SPAN OF A FEW HOURS with Billy dressed like Delta in that stark white space uniform. THAT’S HOW THIS STORYLINE ENDS.

No really. I can’t even get over that. He gets on a spaceship so he can help repopulate the Chimeron race. Isn’t that a little presumptuous? He met this chick yesterday and he’s already saying “let’s populate an entire new species” which goes WAY beyond someone on the internet making a post about David Tennant that says “I wanna have your babies.” I mean, he said that to her but goes WAY beyond that. No. He’s saying “Let’s have ALL of the babies. ALL OF THEM.” Oh and he forgot the part where he drank her weird space ooze in the hope that it would slowly take away his hair, give his skin some sheen, AND THEN TURN HIM INTO A FUCKING ALIEN. Can you imagine? That’s like if Picard was dating some Vulcan and he drank some of her breast milk in the hopes that it would turn him into a Vulcan AND IT BLOODY WORKED.

“This entry of Classical Gallifrey is brought to you by Chimeron milk. Yeeeeees Chimeron milk. For all your wanting-to-hook-up-with-random-alien-queens-so-you-can-become-her-Eve-and-save-her-species-by-having-lots-of-babies needs. Order now.”

There’s also the question of like… what the hell does Billy even leave behind? Fine. I guess he doesn’t have a family. He’s a rebel without a cause what with his leather jacket and stunning lack of parents. But what about his rock and roll band? Who is going to sing about the blues? And yeah he gave Ray his bicycle but honestly? He treated her like dirt and never even acknowledged her in the story at all except to give her his bike at the end. And why? Given the way she drives away Ray clearly has no idea how to ride a fucking motorcycle. Like Jesus Christ who does she think she’s kidding?

AND! AND! What the HELL is up with Felix? I mean really? He’s in this story so he can tie up the Bannermen after The Doctor etc. save the day? THAT’S his role? Felix and Colonel Sanders didn’t do shit in this story. Literally. Didn’t do shit. It’s amazing. All he does is tie knots and he even ties up the Bannermen at the end and says “Yeah these should hold until you get to where you’re going.” HOW DOES HE KNOW? And really? We’re just gonna trust him on it? He’s a Yankees fan for fuck’s sake. And it’s probably not a short trip. Interstellar space travel does actually take a long time you know and god knows these Bannermen blokes are pretty serious or what have you. And he’s really good? Come on. LIKE COME ON. That’s his role? He’s been running around for three episodes so he can tie up the loose ends? Is this story for real?

And yet...

Final Thoughts?: This has got to be the craziest Doctor Who story I've ever watched. And you know what? I could honeslty care less.

What makes this story so wonderful is how completely insane it is. Malcolm Kohll is clearly not someone who feels the need to mess around. He gets the notion for some Doctor Who and just goes for it. He fucking goes for it and churns out a story that's completely insane. And you know what? It all works on paper. I'll freely admit that right here right now. Two American spies run around getting into wacky antic shenanigans and not really spying on anything. The companion who is a victim of deep, deep unrequited love but moonlights as a pseudo-biker chick. A rock and roll fan who decides his time is better spent by spending it with some random alien.

And yet the tone makes the kitchen sink storytelling flow fantastic. The secret to that tone (as much as it might maybe pain me to say) is camp. Real, authentic, fantastic camp.

Camp, like all things, can be good when it's done extremely well. And that's hard. No, the secret in camp is to not give a shit. The secret is to go out there and have a good time and damn the naysayers because who needs them anyways. 1960s Batman didn't give a shit. Its job was to go out there and have a mad cap fucking time every week. And it did that. And it owned it. And it was great. "Delta and the Bannermen" relishes in its madness and fucking owns it for real. You can either admire the madness and the gumption and jump in, OR you can walk away because it's "too silly". Whatever. To hate it "because it's stupid" is to miss the point. It knows it's stupid. It doesn't care. Roll with it.

Because of this, just about everything in this gets a pass under a camp clause. Serious, heartfelt moments? Forget it. The only way to make it all stick is to go balls out and make the story a million percent all camp all the time.

And you know what? It really really works and this ends up being one of my favorite McCoy stories simply because it's so out there. It out-camps just about every other Doctor Who story (no mean feat I assure you) in such a way that it becomes truly legendary. it doesn't even matter that Ray is a waste of a character and she clearly had no idea how to ride that motorcycle off the lawn at all. And yet I still lover her as I do all these characters: because they all fit into the batshit crazy world of a summer camp in 1959. All of its elements explore all the various aspects of the plot and thematic something or other of the story.

As far as I'm concerned, you couldn't possibly ask for better than that.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Sarah Jane! The Loch Ness monster! Shapeshifters! Badassitude! Come Tuesday we'll be alking about the legendary "Terror of the Zygons"! Coming next week!


  1. The reason the Chimeron stuff turns Billy into one is does make sense, because Goronwy talks about how bees drink the royal jelly and change to become the queen, and that's where Billy gets the idea.

  2. When referring to the two American spies, I think you mean "Oscar" from the odd couple--the slob sportswriter played by the late Jack Klugman--and not "Felix"--the clean, uptight guy played by Tony Randall.

    But excellent blog entry, nonetheless!