It’s the twentieth anniversary of Terry Nation’s death today. I remember reading about it in my college computer room, where I think the news was broken over rec.arts.drwho (by veteran Doctor Who fan and writer John Peel) before I heard or read it on any more conventional source.
A few years later I was a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, primarily commissioning, editing and writing articles in the eighteenth-century area, and I persuaded my colleagues in the general literature area to give me the article on Terry Nation to write. It was published in 2004 (content available for subscribers and members of most United Kingdom public libraries) and has survived online with only minor changes ever since. It was edited down heavily for publication, so there’s no mention of his Associated-Rediffusion play Uncle Selwyn which I’d wanted to include. It’s difficult in a small space to give a rounded picture of a career particularly when the Daleks threaten to overwhelm their historical context. A peer reviewer had said (if I recall correctly) ‘It’s not as if there is going to be a monograph on him, is there?’ To which I want now to point to the work of Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, and Alwyn W. Turner. There’s definitely room to revise the entry and I hope to make time for that shortly.
Obverse Books have announced today that they will be publishing my examination of the Doctor Who story The Time Warrior as the twenty-fourth book in their series The Black Archive. The Time Warrior was a four-part story broadcast between 15 December 1973 and 5 January 1974, written by Robert Holmes and directed by Alan Bromly. It was the first story of the eleventh season (Jon Pertwee’s fifth and last as the Doctor) and the first to feature Sarah Jane Smith, played of course by Elisabeth Sladen, and also introduced the Sontarans, with Kevin Lindsay as their solitary representative, Linx. The full announcement can be found below, via Facebook.
I’ve reviewed The Return of Doctor Mysterio as the additional reviewer for the Doctor Who News Page, and you can find the review here. Look at Matt Hills’s lead review for the site too – it makes lots of excellent points, including recognising the breakthrough in Bill’s line about using the toilet on the TARDIS.
Time has been limited the past few weeks, so I’m behind on Class reviews. However, John Connors asked me to review The Power of the Daleks, animated version, for his site Timelines, and my look at that story was published a few hours ago. However, reading the review back, I’ve realised that apart from having committed some very cumbersome phraseology indeed at times, I have managed to write a review of Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, without mentioning Troughton himself.
Troughton’s performance in The Power of the Daleks remains enigmatic even after the valiant and effective reconstruction by the animation team led by Charles Norton. There’s a sense from the telesnaps and from recollections by those who worked on or watched the serial that there was a lot of physical comedy of which we see very little – only the leapfrog in episode one, I think, is achieved, the point of which is to subvert the viewers’ expectations of the Doctor, as it appears that he isn’t measuring the rock for the purposes of geological, petrological or mineralogical study, but as a precursor to testing his new body’s physical capabilities. There’s a great diffidence about this Doctor, which often makes him irritating rather than charming, his recorder-playing a puzzle as it leaves so few cues for Ben, Polly and the viewer to draw conclusions. Even his destruction of the Daleks is left ambiguous by the script, as it’s not clear what the Doctor had anticipated from his attack on the power supply.
As for Troughton’s playing of the Doctor, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the evidence we have. I remember, many years ago, going through one particularly frantic scene on the first VHS release of The Seeds of Death, where it appeared that Troughton changed his facial expression completely on each frame. With such flexibility and control, the animators can’t be expected to keep up with Troughton within the parameters of this project, though they have a good try. The New Doctor Who of 1966 is still a mystery to the 2016 audience, but we can at least now see with more definition the space the acted performance would fill.
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Last week, I thought that Class might be having trouble finding where it stood in the multichannel age. On the basis of Nightvisiting this was unwarranted caution. On the basis of this episode, Class is purposeful, assured and effective in exploring the unavoidable horrors of emotional life. Nightvisiting takes Class’s urban setting and injects it with a mystic folk tradition, as a green entity breaks through from another world claiming to represent a communion of souls which can bring comfort and release to the grieving, if only they will choose to believe the manifestations of the dead which flower at the end of their tendrils.
Nightvisiting is a story of the night and how it challenges our experience, with arresting visuals as Coal Hill and its environs are entwined by glistening, sometimes pulsing, green tendrils, some displaying a concerning knotted girth, as if advertising a well-fed gut. The alien entity, Lankin, sets out to define itself in ethereal terms, but its methods and presence are viscerally organic. As Tanya defends herself by working out patiently what she knows and why, through dialogue with a devil in the shape of her father, Charlie and Mateusz confirm their relationship and by claiming control of their present from the past immunize themselves against assault, while April and Ram discover their previously unsuspected mutual attraction in the midst of apocalypse. There’s a precise balance to the two love affairs; at different stages and with different dramatic and social heritages to draw upon, contrasting textures but here of equal force for discovery and self-discovery and strengthening against the force in the dark.
For all the attention received by the lovemaking of Charlie and Mateusz, this is an episode built on the female leads and their inner conflicts. Tanya we knew about, and Vivian Oparah’s two-handers opposite the embodiment of Tanya’s father Jasper (a disarmingly natural and then unnatural Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) confirm how much of a cornerstone to the programme her performance is. Sophie Hopkins continues to shine further – how many young people convinced they are just ‘nice’ need to hear April say that being kind and polite and concerned isn’t about mere pleasantness but about not giving in to the assaults of the world? Katherine Kelly demonstrates a determination somewhere on the far side of resignation; Miss Quill’s exchange with Lankin’s impression of her sister Orla’ath (a well-matched Anastasia Hille) is a verbal dance with words as surgical blades, the only knives (as dialogue reminds us) that Miss Quill is able to use. There’s an added picquancy to Quill, too: she’s not just an embittered enslaved terrorist reduced to sniping at her situation, but a person of experience who runs alongside but can’t share the formative experiences being enjoyed by her young charges.
After a resolutely beat-heavy urban soundtrack in the first two episodes, it was good to hear a folk-influenced one on this, including Jim Moray with a new recording of his own ‘Nightvisiting’. Class has shown it can shift tone and structure of storytelling and that despite its title it’s not tied to school and classroom. It also draws from the imagery and lore of Doctor Who without being trapped by it; as the Shadow Kin recalled to some the Pyroviles of The Fires of Pompeii, Lankin’s victims and projections, enveloped by vegetable matter and in some cases with green flesh, echoed in image the Krynoids of The Seeds of Doom, while telling an unrelated story, something Class must be free to do. Next week, a story of new heads and shared hearts, it appears.
The Avengers (ABC Television, 1961-1969, starring Patrick Macnee and many others, and nothing to do with Marvel Comics) and Doctor Who had significant overlap of personnel over the years. At one of my other blogs, The St James’s Evening Post, I review three episodes from the final (1968-1969) season, starring Macnee as John Steed and Linda Thorson as Tara King. Namechecked in direct relation to the episodes concerned (The Rotters, The Interrogators and The Morning After) are Terry Nation, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, as well as actors with Doctor Who experience including Jerome Willis, Peter Barkworth, Patrick Newell and Brian Blessed.
The schools in Sheffield were very different.
Certainly – and this school in the displaced location of Shoreditch-on-Taff is very different from anywhere else. Coal Hill has been translated from its late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century redbrick incarnation in the Moffatverse into the gleaming antiseptic of an early twenty-first century academy, creaming off its brightest and the best while under the pressure to improve its results in science. The greenish hue of the walls suggests somewhere which needs to be wiped clean. There’s a lot of gore at Coal Hill Academy – people explode, Shadow Kin ooze across walls, members of staff are skinned alive and consumed. It’s not just the walls which are wiped clean, but memories too; the only way for students and staff to function is to block out the body count. At Coal Hill, we are told by a certain passing Time Lord, time has worn thin, and various unpleasant visitors are being drawn to its as to a beacon in space-time.
So far, so Sunnydale, and so Torchwood too. However, Class is its own entity. It has no Buffy nor a Captain Jack figure to act as the leader of action and centre of mystery. Greg Austin’s Charlie is carefully positioned to be neither surrogate-Doctor nor quasi-Buffy; he’s neither knowledgeable enough nor sufficiently open to fill either role. The other youthful leads are flawed too: Sophie Hopkins’s isolated, fragile-seeming but steely April knows she is seen as ‘nice’, her mother thinks she is ‘kind’, and she thinks she needs to be overtly ambitious. The mismatch between her and decorating (organising?) the Prom is evident to all – as she lets slip, it’s going to look great on her university application. One of the highlights of the first episode was April’s visualization of the home planet of Charlie and Miss Quill – this imagined kind and well-ordered world showed Charlie’s people dressed in old-style Coal Hill School uniforms, both a symbol of reassuring certainty for April but also a suggestion that, like school, this society was full of arbitrary self-justifying cruelties and that Miss Quill’s description of Rodea injustice and her resentment at her own ‘slavery’ is well-grounded.
Writer Patrick Ness and director Ed Bazalgette enjoy combining trauma with gags without diminishing the tragedy. The playing and filming of the murder of the cleaner in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, complete with synchronized cigarette-falling, teases the idea that Ram will get covered in blood every single episode, but this isn’t South Park and Ram isn’t wearing an orange cagoule. A dominant theme in Class is dealing with grief – Ram (a braggartish and vulnerable performance by turns from Fady Elsayed) sees his girlfriend murdered and is only allowed to say that she has ‘disappeared’, at the same time as he mourns the death of his own confident social- and sporting-player self; Tanya’s father is dead; all of Charlie’s and Miss Quill’s people have been slaughtered. April’s mother, who has adjusted to a life beyond a point when she was expected to have died, directs us to the need to adjust in a world of dislocation. Finding meaning in a world of change is the message of Class from the theme song onwards – Coal Hill’s autumn prom is recognised in the script as something transposed from and trying to imitate American custom, April wondering aloud what ‘prom’ actually means as she prepares decorations for the hall. These are teenagers searching for identity in an environment with no deep-fixed cultural anchors and which deliberately deprioritizes kindness.
Thematically, Class involves, but there are problems with exposition. I wasn’t quite sure, though could infer, why Miss Quill’s gun seems to have killed Kevin and (it’s implied) almost killed April. Likewise, in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t quite sure who or what was doing the cleaning up after the flaying so quickly and easily. Presumably the dragons were very good at rapidly absorbing almost all a victim’s blood. The moral of the episode was laid on with too heavy a trowel too, with dialogue heavy in self-realization from Ram, though in part redeemed by canny juxtaposition with April playing the violin and ignoring the phone call from her absent, not-yet-discussed father.
After only two episodes, and aimed at a teleliterate audience, Class is playing with expectations. Mention of the governors by Mr Armitage and then in a different context by Miss Quill reminded me of the introduction of the Mayor through dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poor Mr Armitage has gone the way of Buffy‘s original school principal in an even shorter space of time. There are worlds beyond Coal Hill Academy yet to explore – how great a role will the Cabinet of Souls play in the ongoing narrative? What is Mateusz’s fate – included in the Doctor’s injunction but ‘grounded’ by his religious and presumably homophobic father, is he to be the Suzi Costello or Jesse of the series, and his inevitable disposal is merely delayed?
Doctor Who fans, of course, were propitiated by the appearance of legendary costume designer June Hudson as a glamorous elderly woman in a shop complaining about the behaviour of her husband on the stairs… (I knew I should know who she was, but had to question the cast list…) and by the materialisation of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during For Tonight We Must Die. Capaldi gave a less abrasive Doctor here than he has done so far in his own series, more at home with contemporary references (this is I think the first time the Doctor has shown he is aware of IKEA – does the sonic screwdriver dispense with the need for Allen keys?) and warmer towards other people without needing to hide behind dark glasses. This might augur well for the 2017 series of Doctor Who for those of us who appreciate Capaldi as an actor but think his version of the Doctor has been either too much of a Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS (series 8) or archly working out his mid-life or new life crisis (series 9).
Class, though, is its own entity – and the third episode promises to develop the already self-possessed presence of Vivian Oparah’s Tanya as something gets its tentacles into the material and remembered worlds. For the moment, though, Class shows promise but still needs to find a stronger sense of its own place in the displaced world of streaming television.
John Connors has continued to publish my articles on Doctor Who, the Doctor and British identities at his Time Lines blog. Looking at them now, I’d give myself some notes. There are a lot of ideas there which I might get round to untangling at some point, and others where my thoughts ran ahead of my writing. One sentence in part three cries out for a mention of Love for Lydia (LWT for ITV, 1977; in which Peter Davison appeared) and how its content anticipates in a middle-class register the upper-class concerns of the more lavish literary adaptation that was Brideshead Revisited (Granada for ITV, 1981; which did not feature Peter Davison). The Pallisers (BBC, 1974), though predating both, offers a connection through the cricketing obsession grafted by screenwriter Simon Raven onto Anthony Andrews’s Lord Silverbridge, arguably a forebear both of Andrews’s Sebastian Flyte and Peter Davison’s Doctor. The Pallisers was a formative influence on 1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, who was given a field promotion to production unit manager during its dispute-stricken production and played a significant role in ensuring it reached screens.
Don’t Shoot – He’s British! part two looks at the tensions in the layering of identities which shaped the personas of the third and fourth Doctors. Don’t Shoot – He’s British! part three moves on to examine the development of the fifth and sixth Doctors and their universe, as represented by decisions on story, casting and costume and the channelling of long-current but overplayed cultural anxieties. There will be more.
Doctor Who commentator, editor and blogger John Connors has begun to reissue a series of articles which I originally wrote for the fanzine Plaything of Sutekh, which John co-edited with Richard Farrell. The series concerns the Doctor’s ‘British’ identity as defined and explored by Doctor Who since 1963. The first article looks at the first ten years of the programme.
S0me of the material in this series has not been published before and we intend to follow this ‘archive’ unpublished commentary with more. Please find the first of these articles here.
Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition number 44, On Location, is still on sale for £4.99. If you want to read me writing about quarries in Doctor Who, and about the use of locations in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Curse of Fenric and Planet of the Dead, this is the publication to buy. If that’s not your thing, there is much more, including Simon Guerrier’s location visit to The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, Tim Worthington’s look at locations in the 1996 TV Movie, Paul Hayes’s interview with Dalek Invasion of Earth designer Spencer Chapman, and John J Johnston’s look at London locations in Doctor Who, plus lots more work from other great Whoish folk. Marcus Hearn has edited this one between toils on The Essential Doctor Who (issues of which are also worth picking up) for Panini Magazines.