Tuesday, 30 March 2010

PODCAST: Episode 0 - a.k.a. The Zero Room

Finally, it's Episode 0 of EH? in which Joe and Chris go a bit spaffy and spoilery about the upcoming series. We will not be a spoiler podcast in future episodes, so if you're "spoiler-free", you may have to give this one a miss and we'll catch up with you on Episode 1 Proper.

The rest of you, pop it on, lay back and relax. Preferably in a room cut off from the influences of the rest of the universe.


Friday, 26 March 2010

Regeneration X

So the actual airing of The Eleventh Hour is tantalisingly, annoyingly close: close enough, indeed, for the press release, which means we now have mostly spoiler-free reviews of the first episode. The closeness of the airdate, and my increasing, and difficult to contain, excitement has got me thinking about other regeneration stories, and what the tenth regeneration can learn from them. The BBC review, for one, said the actual story of The Eleventh Hour itself is not particularly strong, but this is hardly to be expected. The episode has a lot of stuff to fit in: introducing both a new Doctor and a new companion, and fitting in the usual alien threat/saving the world plot from a normal episode. So it hardly seems suprising that The Eleventh Hour itself will run to an amusingly contrary 65 minutes.

In terms of the other nine times that the Doctor has changed his appearance there are a couple that I can't talk about here - sadly Patrick Troughton's first adventure 'The Power of the Daleks' is missing, as are many serials from that time (incidentally, Troughton is the first Doctor so far to have faced the Daleks on his first adventure). However, the actual regeneration (even if it isn't actually referred to as such till Pertwee carks it) in 'The Tenth Planet' looks pretty darned good. I also can't comment on the fate of the short-lived (on screen anyway) Eighth Doctor, as the Ninth Doctor appears in 'Rose' fully regenerated: a pretty sensible decision, especially given the problems with the TV Movie, which I'll get onto... right now.

Paul McGann's sole visual outing as the Doctor, the 1996 part-American funded TV Movie, is certainly a regeneration story that can be learnt from. Sylvester McCoy, though he does a good job, gets what feels like the cheapest death in the series' entire run and, in a film that's just under an hour and a half, it's a full 23 minutes before the new Doctor appears. Rob Shearman, in a documentary about regeneration, says that they never even considered starting the new run with Eccleston regenerating, probably for this exact reason, and it now seems obvious that the film should have started with the new Doctor all ready to go and, if the regeneration had to be shown, have it explored through flashbacks.

There are, of course, two other regeneration stories with exceedingly poor reputations: 'The Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani', the first appearances of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, respectively. The former, indeed, has the poorest reputation of any Doctor Who serial ever, coming last in both of Doctor Who Magazine's fan-rankings of all the adventures and the latter has McCoy in a blonde wig, pretending to be Colin Baker. Now I, dear fans, have watched the first episode of both of these in an effort to get a sense of whether they deserve their poor reputations. And let me just say that unless they both have a dramatic turnaround after the first episode, they do both kinda suck. In terms of what TEH can learn 'The Twin Dilemma' suggests that having your new Doctor act like a dick and attempt to strangle his companion is probably not the best way to have the audience warm to him, whereas 'Time and the Rani' makes the same mistake as the TV Movie only worse - there was no reason why McCoy couldn't have started the serial already functional, especially as Baker understandably didn't want to return to the role he'd been fired from just so he could turn into a short Scotsman.

As I've just briefly touched on, a theme of regeneration stories is the various ill-effects that the often traumatic process of regeneration has on the Doctor. The violence of Colin in 'The Twin Dilemma' is unusual, as usually the effect goes the other way - both 'Castrovalva' (5th) and 'The Christmas Invasion' (10th) feature the Doctor in an extreme state of torpor for much of the running time. Apparently 'The Twin Dilemma' was an attempt to get away from Davison's inactivity in his first adventure. So it's successful in that respect at least.

Anyway I feel the two aforementioned stories do illustrate the differences between the old and new incarnations pretty well (though I promise not to get all partisan here). 'Castrovalva' is a pretty leisurely-paced adventure, with a typically Christopher Bidmead-esque confusion of a plot (loosely based around the theme of recursion). 'The Christmas Invasion', though the Doctor is pretty bedridden, is somewhat more lively and straightforward and is reliant on the well-established supporting cast carrying along the action for the most part. This is obviously not a luxury the new series can afford to take, so don't expect to be seeing Matt Smith sleeping on the job anytime soon. I have to admit I watched 'The Christmas Invasion' again recently and didn't enjoy it as much as the first time, but it is pretty good fun all round.

So attentive readers will have noticed that there are two regeneration stories that I haven't mentioned yet, and they are the two I'd regard as the best. Jon Pertwee's virgin outing 'Spearhead From Space' has a great story, written by the masterful Robert Holmes, a brilliantly threatening alien menace, and a great central performance from Pertwee. It also avoids the problems of 'Time and the Rani' by having the Third Doctor fall out of the TARDIS fully-regenerated, rather than sticking a Patrick Troughton wig on him for some bizarre need for completeness.

Similarly 'Robot', in which Tom Baker began his historic tenure is a great bit of fun, involving some charmingly outdated special effects and a slightly slapstick central performance. It's obviously a bit silly, and the regeneration angst doesn't really last very long at all, but it's a good central idea, executed well. Oddly enough it feels like a Third Doctor adventure starring the Fourth, as it is an earthbound UNIT story with Tom Baker driving Bessie! I suppose it shows that whoever the actor is, the Doctor is still the Doctor, and a good story goes a long way.

Bring on number eleven!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

News From The Zero Room

It has been hinted at on Twitter that our first podcast would be an Episode 0, where we'd mostly gush over the new trailers, and make wild, ambitious predictions about the upcoming series. We're still up for doing it - we've just been trying to find a mutually agreeable evening to do this for a while - I (Horatio) have bought a headset and we've done a test recording, which has established that we can talk bollocks for a very long time.

Basically what I'm trying to say is: hold tight, followers and potential-followers, the first episode proper of The Eleventh Hour Podcast arrives soon, and there's plenty of exciting stuff we can talk about.

Trust me, I can't wait either.


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Review: Jubilee

Okay, I'm not going to carry on reviewing every single Big Finish audio drama I listen to because, frankly, I can't see anyone enjoying that. But I felt that 'Jubilee' was worthy of an exception (and I'm not saying that I will stop the reviews completely from now on. I've already potentially earmarked Marc Platt's 'Spare Parts' for a possible write-up, once I've listened to it obviously).

Anyway 'Jubilee' deserves a review for two important reasons: 1) it's really bloody good and 2) it was later adapted by writer Rob Shearman into the equally excellent series 1 episode 'Dalek'. Now I'm going to assume that all of you have seen 'Dalek' otherwise my spoiler containment will get Just Plain Ridiculous.

So 'Jubilee' shares a fair few similarities with 'Dalek' - most obviously the (apparently) last Dalek in the universe being kept imprisoned for a nefarious purpose and a pretty amazing scene where the Doctor meets said Dalek, not to mention some of the most inventive exploration of the motivations of the Daleks. However, pretty much everything else is different. I don't want to spoil too much, as it really is a great story, but the basic premise involves a mysteriously anachronistic English Empire planning to execute the last remaining Dalek for the benefit of its 100th jubilee celebrations.

From here on it's a pretty complex ride. I read a review somewhere that claimed there was so much going on in 'Jubilee' that it was difficult to keep track of everything on first listen. While I wasn't confused as such, this is definitely a drama that would be equally rewarding on subsequent listens. As well as the complex philosophical examinations on the nature of Daleks, there's also some top quality Doctor Who style time confusion (which I'm always fond of), serious points about the nature of humanity and history and possibly one of the best cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. Seriously, it points you in a certain direction and then completely blindsides you with an amazing revelation. It stunned the hell out of me when I first heard it. And, as usual, the performances are great all round (Martin Jarvis is particularly impressive).

All in all, Jubilee is an impressive piece of work - rich, densely layered, and thought-provoking. It's probably the grimmest and darkest audio drama I've listened to, but not overwhelmingly so - there's some nice levity scattered throughout, including an almost self-rerencing joke about Dalek merchandising, that stops it being too depressing. Ultimately 'Jubilee' is a great example of what Big Finish, indeed what Doctor Who itself, does best.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

In praise of 'Ghost Light'

It's hardly an understatement to say that the 1980s were a troubled time for Doctor Who. The viewing figures were vastly down from the its heyday in the 1970s and by the show's termination in 1989 the seasons were roughly half the length they had been then. In this period we also had a forced 18-month hiatus and the only actor ever to have been sacked from the role of the Doctor. John Nathan-Turner's tenure as the show's producer during the time has been widely criticised for these problems, with a lot of his innovations (stunt casting, silly costumes, Adric) being seen as turning the show into a campy 80s monstrosity which no longer captured the imagination of the British public.

Whilst not the most unpopular Doctor it seems, as least to me, that Sylvester McCoy's time in the role has been somewhat overlooked in the discussion of the show's history. While, by all accounts, his first series did slip into the kind of tacky nonsense discussed above his second series was much improved. New companion Ace (who really was) brought a massive breath of fresh air, and the season started with the absolute corker of a return-to-form 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

'Ghost Light' comes from the show's 26th, and final season, and McCoy's third in the role. It has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the last story of the original series ever filmed (although 'Survivial' was shown last, it was filmed earlier). It forms part a loose trilogy in the last series where Ace's backstory is explored - quite the rarity in the old series! Oh yes, and it's really, really good.

One of the first things anyone says about Ghost Light is that the plot makes no sense and it's certainly true that the plot is complicated and not all aspects of it are fully explained - including the exact roles that two major characters play. It doesn't help that a lot of the explanatory scenes were cut, first in rehearsals and then from the filmed scenes. It's rare that a serial from the original series feels too short, as opposed to the many that feel overlong, but Ghost Light is definitely an adventure that would have benefited from being a four-parter.

However the mysterious nature of the plot is actually one of the things I regard as a strength of Ghost Light. Doctor Who, as a rule, tends to like having every element of the plot explained, often in great detail and I found it rather refreshing to have a story where, even after the end credits roll, one is left not quite fully understanding exactly what has gone on. I think the production team rarely appreciate that a bit of mystery is a good thing, or at least it's not an idea that they explore very often.

And by God does Ghost Light ever throw a lot of mysteries at you - a character evolving into a Victorian gentleman, a crazed hunter, a neanderthal butler (no, really, he's an actual neanderthal) and a policeman preserved in a drawer being among the weird and wonderful characters the script throws at you. Theis brings me on to what I believe is the biggest success of Ghost Light - it's incredible atmosphere. The story is filmed in the studio and uses the BBC's skill at making period dramas to conduct an incredibly dark and mysterious gothic horror tale. You may not quite understand everything that happens but the mood of the story is something that very few other Doctor Who stories can match in terms of its creepiness and beauty.

Ace is also at her very best here. The gradual reveal of her backstory, and the significance the mysterious house has for her in 1983 is wonderfully handled, and, as the production team point out, she's unusually on the ball for a companion - making observations and guesses about the strange situation that she and the Doctor find themselves in, rather than asking questions and screaming. This was a deliberate move to bring in a companion who was more proactive but script editor Andrew Cartmel does admit that this doesn't help with the complicated nature of the plot, as the Doctor never has to explain it to Ace!

All in all this is a story I'd definitely recommend owning, especially as an introduction to the beauty of the later McCoy stories, and for a glimpse at the direction the show might have gone had it not been cancelled shortly afterwards. Owning it on DVD means that the main problems with the story can be overcome, as the extra features go a long way towards explaining the strange plot. Another problem, the fact that the sound mix is a bit dodgy, meaning that the music often drowns out the dialogue; can be solved by turning on subtitles (in fact I'd recommend it for first viewing). Overall Ghost Light is a hauntingly beautiful tale, from a much underappreciared era of Doctor Who.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Review: Circular Time

My adventures into the Big Finish range of Doctor Who audios continues with a very different production. 'Circular Time', written by Paul Cornell (Father's Day, Human Nature/The Family of Blood) and Mike Maddox, consists of four standalone Fifth Doctor and Nyssa adventures that nevertheless, to me at least, seems to have subtle themes running throughout concerning Nyssa's traumatic past and the Doctor's role in time.

More interestingly each story is set in a different season, which gives them all something of a different feel. Spring features the Doctor and Nyssa chasing down a rogue Time Lord in a society of bird-people. It's possibly the weakest of the four stories, but does feature some pretty interesting discussions on Time Lord interference and regeneration. Plus it has a TARDIS disguised as a lake. Summer features a brilliant performance by David Warner as an unstable Isaac Newton, suspicious of a captive Doctor and Nyssa. There's a scene in which he deduces the nature of the Doctor using only some coins and his genius, and it is both sublimely written and acted.

Autumn is an interesting story. Fans of 'Black Orchid' will have plenty to enjoy, as the Doctor pretty much plays cricket for the entire episode. Obviously, this is not all that happens asn the subplot involving Nyssa's romance is beautifully played and her eventual facing of her past is both touching and understated. For me, as well, this story does the best at evoking the season in which it is set, as one can really picture the drawing in of the days and almost feel the beating of the low autumn sun. Finally comes Winter, for my money the best of the four stories here. It's based on a brilliant premise, which I couldn't possibly spoil here, and is again very touching in place.

Overall, this is a great collection of individual stories, well written and acted all round, and packed with great ideas. However I might suggest that it might be more enjoyed by those with good knowledge of the classic series (there is a hilarious reference to the very first episode during the Summer episode). The winter section, in particular, requires familiarity with a particular Fifth Doctor story to get the most out of it. But to someone who is an avid fan of Whos new and old, I can highly recommend this collection.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Review: The Nightmare Fair

'The Nightmare Fair' is my first experience of Big Finish audio stories. It is also the first in their adaptations of Colin Baker's "Lost Stories" for audio. The original season 23 was shelved when Michael Grade put Doctor Who on an 18-month hiatus and when it returned to screens, it was in the form of 1986's season-long story arc 'The Trial of a Time Lord', and the original scripts were never filmed. Thus, in 2009 Big Finish took the very sensible decision to dramatise these lost scripts. 'The Nightmare Fair', written by former Doctor Who producer Graham Williams, was fairly advanced at the time of the series' hiatus, with a director even been assigned to the story. Williams even went on to novelise the story in 1989.

'The Nightmare Fair' sees the return of The Celestial Toymaker, a mysterious character first seen in the 1966 William Hartnell story... 'The Celestial Toymaker'. In that serial he was played by Michael Gough (who, I believe, would have been approached to play him again if this story was ever filmed) but for this adaptation he is played, very well in my opinion, by David Bailie, best known to Doctor Who fans as Dask in 'The Robots of Death'. Here he adds something of a childlike sort of impetuous glee to the Toymaker, which makes a nice change for a Who villain.

Overall it's a pretty good story, well told and it's fairly clear that all the actors involved are having a good time. Chris has suggested that the story might actually have looked pretty cheap onscreen and I'm inclined to agree with him: given the BBC's budget and special effects capabilities in the mid-80s I can't help but think that Blackpool might have ended up looking a bit cheap and tawdry. Similarly the focus on arcade machines may seem a little dated now, but I did very much enjoy learning a little more about the motivations of the Toymaker. 'The Nightmare Fair' is not too bad a place to start with Big Finish and there's a nice kind of justice in allowing Colin Baker to rewrite a little bit of his tragic history as the Doctor.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Alright, what have you got for me this time?

Hello, future fans (at the moment we don't have any officially but that's because we've not really started this thing up - I know you'll all just flock in once we do).

'The Eleventh Hour Podcast', my future-sense detects that you may well say, 'that sounds fabulous! What, pray is this thing of assured wonderment?'

Well, hypothetical future person, I shall explain. Myself and Mr. JC are two pretty big Doctor Who fans living in London, and we thought it'd be just swell to do a podcast about the upcoming series. New series, new podcast. It all seemed to fit together. The idea might just have initially sprung from m'colleague listening to 'Release The Beast' by Breakwater, but we will probably get round to that in due course.

In the meantime, because April 3rd feels so very far away I will no doubt contribute some of my many, if possibly dull and/or controversial, feelings about the world's longest running sci-fi series on this very blog. Or I may wait a bit. It will depend largely on how deeply I feel the need to rank the different versions of the theme music or talk about how great Ghost Light is.

All of time and space, every week. Hope you'll be along for the ride.