Friday, 22 July 2016


'Why do you want to build a sensory deprivation tank?' 'Fun?'

A mash up of Spielberg, King, Carpenter and Repo Man (1984).
(Image copyright: Netflix)

I love it when a TV series seems to come out of nowhere and captures everyone’s imagination. This month that’s been the case with Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by the unlikely sounding partnership of The Duffer Brothers.

Rather charmingly, it’s a mash up of Steven Spielberg’s movies ET – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, cute misfit kids racing about on bikes, involved with a strange outsider), John Carpenter’s 1980s film oeuvre, the horror novelist Stephen King – a character is seen reading one of his books in one scene – with a dash of Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985, a misfit kids’ gang again) and Repo Man (1984): disaffected teenagers mixed up with sinister government types trying to suppress the leak of a paranormal conspiracy.

Appropriately, at the heart of the series are two iconic 1980s actors. Matthew Modine (Married to the Mob, Birdy, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) is glacially cool, amoral scientist Dr. Martin Brenner, complete with white hair and sharp three-piece suit, looking like Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill (1985 – C.W. was the best thing in that film, incidentally). Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers, Great Balls of Fire!), as neurotic mum Joyce Byers, is clearly going for an Emmy and deservedly so.

There’s also brilliant newbie on the scene (new to me, anyway). David Harbour’s Lee Marvin-voiced Sheriff Hopper, simmering with a troubled history and on medication, is not above beating up suspects to get information.

Give him his own series.

As for the angelic Millie Bobby Brown playing the abused ‘Eleven’… the range of emotion she projects through minimal facial expressions is extraordinary.

Stranger Things is ‘1980s’ in a lot less shouty way than Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), a relatively recent series also set at the beginning of the decade. For instance, part of solving the mystery is based around photographs that have to be manually developed, instead of using a conspicuously ‘80s angle like, say, the technology on the Space Shuttle or referencing a programme on the new Disney channel. Elsewhere, the musical tastes of Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) include The Clash and Joy Division – well researched, very early ‘80s indie – that are selectively and dramatically used, rather than plastered all over the soundtrack.

The storytelling is clear and unpretentious; accordingly, the cinematography is lit in a very ‘80s way, alternatively washed out, garish or murky. The use of three generations – kids, teens and adults – to tell the story is a simple idea that works fantastically well, often to great comic effect. This is particularly true of the gang of Mike (Finn Wolfhard - really), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), as they compare the strange happenings to Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars. Pleasingly, the outsiders in every generation emerge as the heroes, another Spielbergian theme.

Stranger Things runs to eight episodes, so you could devour it one binge sitting. All the threads of the story are satisfyingly tied up, but like all good script writers the Duffers have left the way open for more. I almost hope the series’ production team resists the temptation, as these eight episodes are almost perfect.

Still, I’d be more than happy be happy to enjoy the company of Hopper, Mike, Joyce and co. second time around.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

DOCTOR WHO - SEASON 18 revisited

An epic ramble through Tom Baker's final year. It's been well worth it.

'Nothing like this has ever happened before.'

Tom Baker’s final series over 1980-81 was a personally significant one for me. I hadn’t missed an episode since 1972, which was quite a feat in the days before home video recorders. The fourth episode of ‘Meglos’, on Saturday 18 October 1980, was the turning point.

That was the night Scottish glam punkers The Skids, my second favourite band – The Stranglers were first, and still are – played the University of East Anglia in nearby Norwich. I’d organised a minibus full of Sixth Formers, of which I was one, to go and see them, leaving an anxious Mum in charge of audio recording ‘Meglos’ Part 4. In short, to paraphrase Tom, that summer I’d discovered the pubs, women and music.

Building up all Tom’s stories on DVD again and the recent, mammoth interview with the lad himself in Doctor Who Magazine have put me in a nostalgic mood. Despite the lure of what used to be called ‘going out’, I remained very active in Doctor Who fandom in the early ‘80s. In any case, the PanoptiCons, the annual conventions the Doctor Who Appreciation Society organised, were basically excuses for everyone to get drunk, if you were lucky get laid, and talk all night about television and films.

In 1980, we fans were throwing welcoming garlands of praise at the feet of incoming producer John Nathan-Turner and 1981’s PanoptiCon felt like his canonisation. The stories looked great (translation: expensive), Tom’s Eric-Morecambe-in-space capering had been toned down and THE CHARACTERS MENTIONED OLD STORIES! Can you imagine how impossibly exciting that was in the days before commercial VHS and DVD collections going back to 1963? There was an air of intellectualism and visual inventiveness about the series, the Master was back and, the crowning glory, there was a dynamic new Doctor waiting in the wings.

Reflecting fifty plus years on from all that, Season 18 initially feels as if it was designed to appeal to young men uncomfortable in their adolescence (exhibit A: the first new companion, Adric) and uncomfortable in their love for Doctor Who, which had been through a rough time in the media since the arrival of Star Wars. Rightly or wrongly, those same serious young male fans had considered the series progressively ‘silly’, so JNT – as he soon became known – and his new script editor, computer journalist Christopher H. Bidmead, had done something about it.

With a decent budget, more stories and what we now have to call a ‘story arc’ about the Heat Death of the universe, Season 18 may have been great at the time, but how does it stand up today? After all, Graham Williams’ three series were almost universally maligned by fandom at the time and look at their reputation – rightfully rehabilitated, in my opinion – today. Roll VT...

The Leisure Hive
The startling, filmic direction of ‘The Leisure Hive’ builds an environment rather than navigates the viewer around an atmospheric BBC TV studio. For instance, you initially wonder why the camera is dwelling on the silent Klout, who doesn’t seem at all important. The reasoning becomes clear later on, a technique common in movies. It might not have been the first time this had been done in Doctor Who, but it fits with director Lovett Bickford’s novel, (mostly) carefully considered vocabulary of tracking shots, low angles that show the sets have ceilings, tight close ups, fast cuts and crash zooms. The cliffhanger to Part 1 is still fantastic, as the decapitated Doctor swallows the screen and the closing titles’ star field appears to be taking the viewer down his throat.

As you’d expect from David Fisher, there’s a credibly realised alien society. Following a trend in Season 17, there’s also a clever plot about the subversion of commerce, as well as allusions to Greece and Rome, together with a discreet inter-species love story – Mina (Adrienne Cori, above right) and Hardin (Nigel Lambert). There’s a nice touch of dramatic irony, too: Pangol (David Haig, above left), the only child of a civilization ruined by war, making amends through a community that promotes inter-racial understanding, is a xenophobic war monger. The nicely underplayed point, that the lessons of history can be forgotten or distorted, for me sadly resonates even more today.

It’s also the only story where you’ll see the Doctor knock out a guard using mathematics. Watch it now and you can easily see Bidmead punching the air and shouting ‘Yes!’

Parts of ‘Meglos’ are the worst Doctor Who story written up to this point in the series’ history. It’s become fashionable to affectionately dismiss the serial as a Doctor Who Annual story that somehow got on to television, but that really isn’t good enough. If the script editor had been doing his job properly, the clunky expository dialogue between the inhabitants of Tigella, where they explain their own society to each other, would never have made it past the first draft. You can’t believe it’s from the typewriter of the same guy who edited ‘The Leisure Hive’.

Then again, writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch are more interested in having fun with the malevolent, shape shifting cactus of the title and the marauding Gaztak mercenaries of General Grugger (Bill Fraser, above left). This is where the story comes to life, and Tom is clearly having a ball playing a power mad egomaniac.

The unexplored potential here – a parasitic race that can manipulate time and build super weapons that become worshipped – makes you realise why JNT considered bringing Meglos back.

Full Circle
There’s no doubt about it, Matthew Waterhouse (far left) was the wrong choice to play Adric. Either Richard Willis (Varsh) or Bernard Padden (Tylos), playing the other young rebels, would have been preferable. I’ll go further – Waterhouse was the worst choice of actor ever for a leading role in Doctor Who. He just didn’t have enough acting experience. The casting was a seriously questionable decision, but, from what I can remember, fandom at the time was largely in denial about it because they’d got everything else they wanted.

Anticipating the 21st century stories, ‘Full Circle’ is notable for having no villain, but if there is one it’s the concept of the Starliner ruling elite’s blind adherence to propaganda and meaningless procedure – ironically, falsehoods that hold their society together. The character journey of Login (George Baker) follows this rather beautifully, as the most respected man in the community joins the government, slowly has his belief in it destroyed and then finds his own path. Who says Andrew Smith was an inexperienced writer?  The brilliant scene where the Doctor demolishes Starliner society in one confrontation confirms otherwise.

Notably, the opening scene between the Doctor and Romana in the TARDIS may be inspired by continuity, but the economy of the closing dialogue speaks volumes about the characters: ‘You can’t fight Time Lords, Romana.’ ‘You did – once.’ ‘Yes – and lost.’ I bet Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat wish they’d written that. I wish I’d written that.

State of Decay
The investigate/get locked up/get rescued structure of ‘State of Decay’ is really noticeable after the first three stories went so far away from the old formula.

What makes the story work are the performances. Tom and Lalla Ward (Romana) are at the top of their respective games, two chummy intellectuals who don’t seem too worried about being lost in another universe. In his first recorded story even Matthew Waterhouse isn’t too bad – he doesn’t do much – and I much prefer the original conception of the character as an amoral chancer, which they’d perfect a couple of years later with Turlough (Mark Strickson). Aukon (Emrys James), Camilla (an unrecognisable Rachel Davies) and Zargo (the brilliant William Lindsay – whatever happened to him?) as the vampires (above) are notable for being so deliberately and enjoyably theatrical, though modern viewers might find the baroque acting style a bit hard to take.

For the record, this is the first ‘classic’ Doctor Who young Poppy watched all the way through with us. She loved K9 and Tom Baker but declared the flight of the Hydrax scout ship ‘really fake.’ Don’t worry, love, it’s OK – we thought that at the time.

Warriors’ Gate
Stephen Gallagher’s script is the definitive example of how mature the writing is this year. Throughout, Romana does all the Doctoring, confronting the crew of Captain Rorvik (the peerless Clifford Rose), empathising with the Tharils and rescuing her companions, so that by the end of the story it’s logical that she leaves to effectively become the Doctor, with K9 and her own embryonic TARDIS (above). Significantly, the same idea’s not spelt out with a flashing neon sign and the sledgehammer subtlety the way it would be 34 years later in ‘Hell Bent’.

This time around, ‘Warriors’ Gate’ is my favourite story of 1980-81. It’s a fantastic combination of an articulate, esoteric script and a director pushing for a truly innovative form of visual storytelling.

Paul Joyce isn’t attempting to direct the story either just as a movie or just as a piece of atmospheric, videoed theatre: his approach uses the best elements of both, at the same time ignoring the naturalistic conventions of TV drama. The white void is a blank canvas and the monochrome gardens of the Tharils’ stately home clearly aren’t meant to be ‘real’. The only reality here is the slack workforce of the Privateer, a wonderful, underplayed satire on British industry circa 1979. It’s been said before, but it was a huge loss to Doctor Who that the iconoclastic Joyce was never used again.

The Keeper of Traken
Pleasingly it looks, and in places sounds, like a particularly stylish National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I guess is the point, what with the lyrical metaphor of weeds in the garden representing evil. Here we have a liberal, humane culture that, almost imperceptibly, becomes authoritarian, violent and xenophobic. The more things change, eh?

What’s lovely about these stories is that supporting characters have complete narratives of their own: Mina and Hardin’s love story, Grugger and Brotadac’s alliance of convenience with Meglos, Login’s discovery of the sham of Starliner society, Ivo’s feud with Habris in ‘State of Decay’, Aldo and Royce’s fatalistic malingering in ‘Warriors’ Gate’ and, in ‘The Keeper of Traken’, the rise of the corrupt Proctor Neman (Roland Oliver, above) which can only end badly for him. This isn’t unique in Doctor Who by any means, but the care with which it’s done in Season 18 is quite striking. With that in mind, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa stands out a mile in a strong cast, so it’s not surprising she was asked to stay on.

Barry Letts was Executive Producer on Season 18 and I do wonder how much influence he had on Tom’s final story. In looking forward, ‘Logopolis’ casts more than a backward glance at Letts’ tenure: the TARDIS inside a TARDIS, a Master who resembles Roger Delgado, a future regeneration of a Time Lord, the Doctor’s last-minute alliance with his nemesis, a death plunge from a radio telescope… you can also detect his hand in the creation of Tegan (Janet Fielding), a young career woman who stows away aboard the TARDIS. It’s a continuity fest that, with hindsight, was an ominous sign of things to come. That said, it’s a shame they didn’t keep enough money back for a stunt fall like the remarkable one at the end of ‘Terror of the Autons’.

Everything’s stripped back for 'the universe isn't big enough for the two of them' show down between the Doctor and the Master and, this time, Anthony Ainley’s darkly camp take on the character is both refreshing and genuinely sinister.

‘Logopolis’ is a combination of funereal gravitas and threadbare production values, which is somehow appropriate for the epitaph of a Doctor who saw out the 1970s. A whole generation of children hadn’t known any Doctor before Tom, which the story treats very seriously, so much so that his famous grin is barely seen until the regeneration, fittingly enough. He was a bit Woodstock, a bit New Wave and defined Doctor Who like no other actor before or since.

In conclusion…

If you want to look at Season 18 within the wider folklore of the series, the End of the Universe in ‘Logopolis’ might be the ‘eternal chaos’ predicted by the White Guardian in 1978’s ‘The Ribos Operation’, the prevention of which never happened because the Doctor dispersed the Key to Time. As the Black Guardian (left) appears at the end of the clips of Fourth Doctor enemies bellowing ‘DOCTOR, YOU SHALL DIE FOR THIS!’ just before he falls to his death, the idea fits. Perhaps the ‘galactic hobo with ideas above his station’ casually dismissed in ‘The Leisure Hive’ wins after all.

Cosmetically, the star field titles haven’t dated as much as I thought they would, probably because they had such an influence on the title designers of the BBC Wales series. The completely radiophonic music is a breath of fresh air – considered, atmospheric, unusual and evocative, far from the generic synth pap it would become when budgets were cut. It’s only in the Gothic stylings of ‘State of Decay’ that the new music doesn’t really work. Long-time traditional composer Dudley Simpson’s marimba is sorely missed.

Summing up, I can’t think of any other series in Doctor Who’s long history where the non-Terran civilizations are so well thought out and diverse. The TARDIS only touches Earth at the beginning and the end of the series and, for once, it’s the least interesting location the Doctor’s ship visits. He only encounters humans or human descendants four times (and that’s assuming the crew of the Privateer are human). The production team should rightly take a bow for such a concerted effort to stay away from Earth. After this, it was a quick slip back into human-featuring or Earth-set stories; by the 21st century, the TARDIS was returning there with monotonous regularity and the buggers had overrun the galaxy.

Behind all the accurate but dull scientific terminology – which, despite what Chris Bidmead might protest, might as well be made up – it’s the conceptual cleverness of Season 18 that impress and inspires today. The Argolins’ Experiential Grid, Meglos’s time loop, the Mistfall evolutionary cycle, the Great Vampire’s planetary bolt hole, the Privateer, the Gateway, the Keepership of Traken, Logopolis… every story has at least one brilliant science fiction idea. ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Full Circle’ and ‘Warriors’ Gate’ are packed with them.

This series is a thrilling collision of ‘serious’ science fiction concepts and artistic experimentation. One thing that’s particularly noticeable, watching the stories back, is Bidmead’s fascination with the lies and anarchy lurking beneath the thin skin of civilised society, a theme he’d return to in both ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Frontios’.

If Season 18 proved anything, though, it was that JNT was only as good as his script editors. It’s very significant that Bidmead asked for a 30% pay rise and when he was turned down, he left.

Phew! That was fun.

And in case you were still wondering, The Skids were fantastic. And still are.

All images: copyright BBC