Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Crusade

The Crusades 1:

Perhaps the episode from the series I've watched the least - I'm pretty certain I've only watched it once at the time of its release five or whatever years ago, whereas everything else is at least twice.It's still rather cool to watch this, so long after its finding. There's still a faint air of novelty. As a bit of an odd thought - I'm pretty certain the DWM Time Team only started roughly around the time of its recovery. I start my own chronological journey - and another episode turns up. Can we make certain everyone on these boards starts to watch the series this way, and reports on it, soon. Maybe we'll get the set that way!As for the episode itself - well this has to be the quickest start to an episode so far. No sooner have the TARDIS crew stepped from the ship than they're under attack and Barbara's captured. After the time it took for anything of any real import to happen in the Web Planet this is rather jolting. The rest of the episode doesn't take the story a vast distance beyond this point - but it doesn't need to. It's all about establishing the world and the relationships between the characters.The guest cast are all nicely drawn, coming over as human and real. Nice to see that the Saracen's are not portrayed as barking psychos, with Bernard Kay's Saladin being underplayed rather charmingly. Shame they're all so obviously white men blacked up (how is it that people are so willing to ignore this, but can't ignore the odd sfx of the Web Planet - surely one takes you out of the story as much as the other?)The first major major guest star turns up in the form of Julian Glover and he dominates his scenes.It does make you realise how uninspiring or average a lot of performances in the show to date have been when someone like Glover comes in and plays with heart and conviction. No wonder this really does feel like a king.The Doctor is again showing his massive mood swings. From barking old loon to elegant refinement in Web Planet, and now to cheeky thief. He's emminently likeable and loveable now, the genuine grandfather figure, fun and naughty, but intelligent and serious when he needs to be. And he still likes getting involved in fights, getting his share of the action. Shows the Doctor was quite a violent figure at the start, not averse to some fisticuffs. Vicki doesn't make much of an impression (after a good start, she seems to have quietened down - how she can have had the brilliant moment of initiative of using the altered gold controller in Web, then the stupidity to hide the Isoptope, and now doing or saying practically nothing - like in most of the rest of the Web Planet - shows that the character seems to be being left behind). Ian has a good fights, getting to show his bravery, and is cool enough to take on a King at the end of the episode. And Barbara has some good scenes of similar bravery, risking her life for no more reason than solidarity - though she does get lumbered with another awkward continuity speech. We seem to get far too many of these, for little point. Every couple of stories there's yet another list of where the crew have just been. It's utterly pointless.A good dramatic episode then, full of rich characterisation and performance. Suprisingly low-key for all that, but it does make you want to see what happens next.

The Crusade 2:
Wouldn't you be getting bored out of your mind if you were Vicki? Heck, if you were the Doctor too. This marks the third story in a row where these two have been dumped in the background whilst Ian and Barbara have the plot. Still, I'm sort of getting ahead of myself with that as the Doctor is quite the focus of this episode, scheming and manipulating the situation throughout. However, the speedy resolution of the clothing difficulties is thrown away swiftly without much fuss - indicating that DW is more interested in the Barbara/Ian plot; the Doctor scene is filling time, giving him something to do whilst he hangs around - no consequences, no direction. Still, it's beautifully written and clever though. Despite the fact that Ian is the title character of this episode, he doesn't really seem to get much done. Very much in the background until he arrives at the palace.Anyone else get the feeling that Whitaker found himself written into a corner? The start of this episode reminds me of the 2nd and 3rd series of Reggie Perrin - where the previous series' had ended with great climaxes - but David Nobbs had to backpedal furiously and undermine these endings when writing a new story as it left him with nowhere to go (the crossover of Subtle Knife/Amber Spyglass is an alternative example). Richard's captiulation seems unconvincing and speedy to me and the throwing away of Babs' storytelling subplot seems rushed too - as if DW suddenly decided the story wasn't interesting enough and changed it, bringing in a new villain from outside.One of the things I like about this story is the sense that the story itself takes place within history - rather than about it. It lives inside the history we know, adding detail and nuance to iconic historic figures, but without being entirely about the history we know - it's about the regulars. It doesn't contradict but it adds to the truth - I don't think I've explained it very well, have I. Ah, well, I know what I mean. This isn't supposed to be a review as such, more an illustration of my vague thoughts and feelings...It is still a time marking episode though, lacking any clear sense of what this story is going to be about - the Barbara/El Akir plot clearly has the most dramatic potential, but it does seem weird that this is the only one that really seems heading somewhere... Odd also that the Richard/Saladin scenes don't really go anywhere - beautifully written and played, but not exactly progressing the plot - but this is part of the thing I was saying about it being 'inside' history - we know what these people did so the story has to go around them, rather than work through them.So still good, well written and performed, if slightly lacking in drive. But I'm looking forward to the next part.

The Crusade Episode 3:
Does this story actually have a plot? Maybe I've missed it. None of the characters, bar perhaps Barbara, have actually connected into the historic events at all. The Doctor and Vicki in particular. At first glance they seem to be involved, but it's only on a superficial level. The scenes in the court connect with them in that they talk about them - but they don't influence or change the scenes to any real degree. We watch history happen with them - rather than watch them interact with history. It is telling that the central emotional and dramatic scene of the episode does, for the first time I can remember, have no direct relation to any of the TARDIS crew. Richard and Joanna's argument is breathtakingly written and acted (it so easily could have been just two people shouting at each other, but there is plenty of nuance and varying rhythms). But the Doctor and Vicki are as much spectators as we are. The court scenes, both here and in the court of Saladin, are brilliantly played and scripted, but always feel like subplots, not realy going anywhere, as if the story can't quite focus on what it wants to be about. This does begin to make me see why the four hand regular cast didn't last too much longer. There just isn't enough to give them in stories like this without diffusing the plot. There's a lack of decision about what this story is actually about - is it the evil Emir, or the court intrigue. Fewer regulars would mean that the script could focus on one rather than splitting itself between two.Ian's brief, non-speaking holiday film insert is so abrupt it doesn't entirely work. It just serves to remind us we haven't seen him for the rest of the episode, taking us out of the reality. And it also shows quite how little he's had to do this story - he's three quarters of the way through, and bar the knighthood and a couple of fights he has little to show. Where did he learn all his fighting skills, incidentally - expert at unarmed combat and swordfighting, he must have liked his extra-curricular work.Barbara gets the best deal, though her segment does feel circular. She escapes and gets captured again - however, the intervening scenes with Haroun and his daughter add depth and colour. El Akir does come across as an extremely nasty piece of work for the show, with his determination to punish Barbara for her mild insult to him showing him as a remarkably petty villain - the season two theme of utter bastards coming to the fore again. I always rather liked the banality of evil thing in fiction: people acting abominably for the tiniest of reasons is real evil (Another favourite for the same reason is Gaston in Beauty and the Beast).Barbara's decision to sacrifice herself if need be - but first to attack the strangley craply acted guard - does remind you that this is a strong, brave, resourceful woman, and probably the most interesting of the companions. Ian is a slightly unreal figure, as I've suggested above, and Vicki has gone from being an interesting character to start to hanging around in the background getting excitable. Hartnell is a good enough actor for you to forgive the fact that the characterisation veers all over the place - from barking mad to straight seriousness and conviction - and makes it all into one believable whole.Now don't get me wrong - the story is beautifully done. The acting, direction and dialogue are sublime, and I love it. I just can't love it wholehearedly as I feel that's all it is - it's great writing, but it's great writing for the sake of great writing, not because it has an equally great story to tell.

Crusade 4:
Yep, it's still a classily made/shot/acted/written/designed story that goes nowhere whatsoever. Very weird.Watch how quickly this episode's cliffhangers are resolved - Richard immediately forgives the Doctor without any obvious reason to, and Barbara escapes again instantly. The story, for what it's worth, is a series of disconnected bubbles. The Doctor gets in trouble about his clothes. He gets out. That's it. He gets in trouble about Joanna. And gets out. That's it. Ian gets captured by a bandit. He escapes. That's it. Likewise Barbara. None of the individual bubbles connect on build on each other in any real way. One of the more noticeable effects of this is that the story doesn't really end - it just stops. There's a noticeable abscence of key characters - Saladin, Saphadin and Joanna - and both El Akir and Richard have practically nothing to do here, before exiting the story rather abruptly. El Akir's death, in particular, has no real weight at all, coming out of nowhere and without impact. Richard does fare a little better, but the lack of any proper end to his story is annoying. Yes we get a potted history lesson from Hartnell, but it's a swift glossing over of the details rather than any definite closure. In addition, the exit of the Doctor from the story seems a little pointless - it's as if he knows this story's only due four episodes and he has to get off, rather tha him having any reason to go.And indeed, what have the travellers actually changed in the story? Nothing that I can see. The only real variation in the status quo over the four episodes is the death of El Akir - but he is historically irrelevant, really, and his death isn't really caused by any of the TARDIS crew anyway - it would seem Haroun could probably have killed him anyway. Richard/Saladin/etc are all in roughly the same place they were at the start. It seems that the regulars have hung around the fringes of a non-who straight play about the Crusades, never really getting actively involved or interacting to any real import. It is often said that removing the Doctor and companions from any story is impossible (think of the Romans and see how much their involvement and background influences the story), whereas in this you could take them out with ease.In many ways this story is the anti-Web Planet. It has everything to recommend it in terms of acting/writing/directing, etc. as I said, but the story itself is aimless and unfocused. Web Planet loses out on most of those points, but at least has a clearly defined objective. What is the Crusade actually about? Barbara getting caught and escaping and hiding several times. It has a different plot each week, forgotten the next. I'm tempted to say it's style over substance Who.But of course, anything acted and scripted this well has to be enjoyable on some levels, and it certainly manages this well. Just wish there was more to it, frankly.A few little points - I love the way that at the end, upon realising that they've been tricked, Leicester completely fails to realise that Ian was in on it too. Very funny, a lovely touch.And I really wish we could see the cliffhanger. It'd seem so strange and unusual and unnerving, I think. On sound alone, it's rather obviously just underwhelming.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Web Planet

  • The Web Planet 1:
  • We all know what we think about the Web Planet. Overlong, cheap looking, and over-ambitious. I dunno. As I've said several times before our whole conception of the series is usually wrong. For several years now, I've never watched more than one episode at a time, usually no more than two a day. It's just how the series was designed to be watched (well, with week long breaks in the middle in stead of days, but that's by the by). A six part serial wasn't designed to be watched over two and a half hours, but a month and a half - so complaining that it seems a bit boring when watched consecutively seems to miss the point. In deed, I think it was an early watch of the Web Planet that drove this home to me. I started to get bored round about episode four. There aren't a vast amount of stories that can sustain that amount of time, so no wonder.Seen episodically - well, it'll be interesting. This is one of the stories I've been looking forward to. It's never been a major favourite of mine, but I haven't seen it for years, and I think, having liked the scale of DIOE I might find this rather good.Certainly the first episode is excellent. It's more than a little disturbing and strange, especially after the joyful exuberance of the Romans. After having had a story so lightweight and jolly, the sudden shift to something psychologically disturbing jars wonderfully. There's a real sense of oddness, or alieness if you like. The lack of any real music bar that with the title cards is unusual, and the bizarre chirping, whistling noises are sufficiently unusual and oppresive to be really rather creepy.In fact, the whole episode is reminiscent of the Edge of Destruction. There's a real sense of the crew being threatened and attacked by something powerful, unseen, and incomprehensible. In deed, the seemingly meaningless barrage of threat (webs, sounds, Barbara's levitating arm, the acid, etc.) disturb greatly as they seem supernatural and disconnected (like, say, the original film version of the Haunting - the terrors that torment in that: loud thuds, etc. are completely meaningless. There's no obvious explanation of what it could possibly be, or what it means. It doesn't seem to be logical for ghosts to do. This is precisely why it's terrifying. We cannot figure out what it is or what it does. Its a barrage of oppression and intimidation). This is the scariest, oddest episode in some time.Out of nowhere, the sense of a linked series of journeys is back, with Vicki still in the process of being introduced, detailing her world in a lovely scene with Barbara; and Barbara's gift from Nero playing a vital part in the plot. Strange that the Doctor has turned into a bit of a loon this week (I've just been watching the DIOE commentary, and can see him in the background - the severe intellectual therein isn't exactly present after a mere three stories). And strange that the TARDIS has suddenly picked up an equipment area we ain't seen before.The Zarbi aren't as bad as I remember - sure the legs are a bit offputting, and the arms could do more, but it is a nice design. And it really feels like an alien world for the first time. No sign of anything remotely human, the clear uniqueness of the planet really singles the TARDIS crew out, increasing the sense of oppression - they don't belong here, this place works by different rules.A genuinely creepy and unnerving episode then. The cliffhanger is one of the best so far, with each of the regular's getting their own distinct cliffhanger. Symptomatic of the ambition that the received view suggests hampers the serial, I suppose, especially since Ian's capture in web is a bit awkwardly realised. But you've got to admire the effort - especially seeing that criticising a Who episode for poor effects seems a particularly pointless thing to do. I have a sneaking feeling I'm going to like this one.

    Web Planet 2:The main thing that's struck me over the past eight episodes or so is this: sod any talk about a 'Beginning box set'. We've had digitally remastered versions of them for some time now. This is where we need the money spent. The Rescue, The Romans and the Web Planet. This episode in particular is in atrocious quality, some detail impossible to see, and a clearly scratchy print. If anyone doubts the wonders the RT do, show them this and show them the remastered Unearthly Child - just to demonstrate how far it goes on video alone!Besides that, what about the episode itself? It's a bit of a letdown after yesterday's frankly. The incomprehensible oddness of the story is getting more clearly defined, so it loses it's mystery and creepiness. Suddenly the disturbing controlling force of the first episode becomes a bunch of ants. Who can't talk. Whilst ok as a concept in itself, combined with the pacing of the episode, this is what lets it down. The whole episode is terribly slow, with the entire contents - for three of the crew at least - being describable as: the Zarbi capture them and take them to there base. Vicki quite literally does nothing (I think 'Ian!' is practically her only line), whereas the Doctor and Ian faff around for a bit before being captured themselves. It's hard to take their capture by the Zarbi terribly seriously, as they seem to be rather feckless, vague creatures, lacking in inelligence - exactly like ants, I suppose. There doesn't seem to be a specific plan, or logic to what's going on and the incomprehesibility of the Zarbi themselves doesn't help. It's a nice idea having the crew unable to communicate, but it does make the monsters rather hard to respond to from a viewers perspective. With no obvious intelligence, or threat, it's had to see why we should worry for the Doctor and his crew - and they are quite frankly tedious to watch. One really does dread the concept of further episodes of them shoving the regulars into corners and twittering at them with no particular aim or purpose. Of course, the very last moment of the episode, the fantastic cliffhanger, belies this somewhat. The strange, ethereal voice does imply some organization to the Zarbi, some focus and direction to the plot that had not previously been apparent. But this turnaround late in the day should not be used to justify the aimlessness of the first twenty four minutes or so.Barbara does get the only interesting bit of the plot - meeting the Menoptera (incidentally, I can't give a toss about how their names are properly spelt according to what scrap of paper from the production office turned up this week). If you can forgive the time wasting rambling padding of the episode, the continued attempts to make something truly alien are worthy of much praise. The Menoptera do not move, or talk like us. Their communications devices do not remotely resemble ours. There is something slightly half hearted about some of it though - it's all very well flapping your arms about, and rocking like your on a boat, but the lower halfs of the bodies are usually very much human, as if the legs have forgotten that they are supposed to be from a different planet. With the time and the resources, it would have been hard to do any different I suppose, good movement work takes time, but it's a shame. The costume and makeup are superb, however.The stuff with the Menoptera does slightly counteract the problems of the other threads - their defeat by the Zarbi is admirably brutal (one of the Zarbi walks over a Menoptera wing tearing it with his feet as if it isn't there). And the 'hobbling' of another at the end is nasty. Shame that the design of the Zarbi, and the Venom Grub makes it difficult to pull off a good fight scene, and it does seem rather inexpertly done and messy.So all in all, a grave disappointment after a terrific first part. But a very creepy voice in the dying seconds makes me feel there's still hope yet.

    Ultimate Foe
    I love the cliffhanger to Part's very spooky, as you watch the tube lower over the Doctor's head. The Menoptera get such awful things happening to them throughout the story (the worst is yet to come I think), and it does help add a lot of threat to the Zarbi.I love the planet, even if it is all polystyrene rocks and painted back drops. The effect on the camera to show the heat is excellent as well.I only saw this for the first time last year (the first time I brought an NTSC Who video),a nd was very impressed by it... a tad slow, but lots of ideas and a great plot. I hope you like the rest.

    odoru tardis
    I had been waiting for your reviews of Web Planet. Still thoroughly enjoying your efforts, Dorney. Your reviews have become nice andsubstantial, and I have to say I like the way they focus on the storyand don't go too much into acting, sets, etc.Quote:
    The main thing that's struck me over the past eight episodes or so is this: sod any talkabout a 'Beginning box set'. We've had digitally remastered versions of them for sometime now. This is where we need the money spent. The Rescue, The Romans and theWeb Planet.
    Well, I've suggested a Rescue/Romans/Web Planet boxset (but the ideadidn't seem to catch on.) As I don't have remastered versions of the firstthree stories, I still want the Beginning more (by a hair.) I get giddy at thethought of any of the B&W's coming out in their restored glory, though.So more, please. Sooner and faster.

  • Dorney
    Seeing as I write plays, story is always what interests me most. I like a well told story. Now you mention it, I haven't really covered the acting that much, which suprises me as I also act. Maybe it's just cos I've found it all fairly good to acceptable so far. Hartnell is charismatic, has vast rage and can sure work a camera, the rest of the regulars are fine (CAF doesn't get a good character to play, but she gives it her best shot).If there is a truly atrocious or excellent performance, I'm going to mention it.The sets, costumes, etc. usually don't bother me - and it does help that they can be roundly split into two types, good, if a little stagey; unconvincing; usually going respectively with the historicals and the sci-fi. But neither are terribly effective by today's standards, so judging them on that basis seems to me a waste of time.Indeed, my standard defence for the lame sfx and wobbly set quips are that we have to suspend our disbelief. We know they're not on an alien planet and these aren't real spaceships. Just because a CGI X-Wing looks more realistic than the Dalek spacecraft doesn't make this less fundamentally true. If, however, you need all the photo-realistic detail before you are prepared to make the imaginitive leap into pretending it is real, doesn't that suggest a paucity of imagination? That you need more help before you can surrended to the story? Likewise the sets. Do they have to look 100% real before you are prepared to buy what the programme makers are selling?So, generally, assume all acting is adequate or good unless otherwise stated. Likewise on the sets.On a further note, my friend, mentioned many moons above, who borrowed the first season, has now watched An Unearthly Child. I'm trying to get some more detailed thoughts from him, but so far his main opinion is that 1) He is amazed how unlikeable the Doctor is and 2) as an Asian male, he is thoroughly chuffed that the first director was too.Anyway, enough waffle. I'll be back tomorrow.

  • SHELEN London England
    Dorney, do you have any normal friends or a life at all?

    I enjoyed Web Planet, when I went through all the Vicki stories for research last year. I think it's main crime in fandom's eyes is not being quite as convincing as the drawings and descriptions in Bill Strutton's novelisation! Oh and the hoppity Optera!
  • Dorney
    Dorney, do you have any normal friends or a life at all?
    None at all.I'm an actor and writer so I have a lot of free time on my hands. However, I do usually combine my episode watching with my breakfast, to save on time.I've been stuck in a bit today, with the weather though...So most of my friends are actors, so not what you'd consider normal. And my life varies from moment to moment - I've had a quiet patch for the last month or so...

  • Dorney
    Web Planet 3:Substantially better than the last episode, but the Zarbi still seem to be the major problem. They're just not terribly imposing. They're awkward and ungainly, and they come across as just a bunch of dumb animals, frankly. Not very threatening at all. As a result it's hard to tell how they managed to dominate the planet - Ian can knock one over without too much struggle and it can't get up again. You get the sense that all the Menoptra need is a giant kettle and they'd be fine.The Animus is intriguing and creepy, but it's very intangible nature hardly helps. The story is quite interesting, but we need a genuine threat! Not a bunch of ants who don't seem to know a damn thing, and run away scared at a dead spider! It really needs some incidental music to give it some weight.If we ignore all that - how's the story itself going. Well, Vicki still hasn't had anything to do, and the Dr's left to have dramatic duologues into, as he says, a hairdryer. Barbara is, of course, not here. I think that this is the best use of a regular's holiday period. None of the pretence that she's actually there, just hidden away, or apart (like the clumsy film inserts of Reign, or the contrivance of Sensorites). Her non-appearance is used as a motivating factor for the plot. Ian fares better, but the awkwardness of the Zarbi still negates any dramatic weight.You see, I'm trying to like this story, I really am, I think it's conceptually intriguing. It's just very difficult to ignore how little weight it is being given by the production values. I don't mind the Zarbi costumes, or the sets, or any of that - it's more how they impinge on the storytelling. We begin to get a sense of what's going on on this planet. There's a potentially interesting idea that it's hard to tell who is good and who is bad, but this is negated by the script with the Doctor immediately going against the Animus (surely it would have been more interesting if he didn't realise the Animus was the true invader and worked with him?)It's all a bit slow so far, but it's important to remember that this still hasn't become the action adventure show yet. It's about exploration now, and the story's attempts to create a disconcertingly alien world are very effective. Shame it's not terribly dramatic yet, but it is interesting.

  • Dorney
    Web Planet 4:You know, it's a real shame that the production of this one really lets it down - not so much the costumes, or the design as such, just the way this all impinges on the storytelling. The awkwardness of the Zarbi means they can't be used effectively in the fights and chases; the balletic grace of the Menoptera means they can't move terribly quickly - as a result, set piece battles like those at the end of this episode feels terribly undramatic, slow stagey and not particularly thrilling. Likewise the lack of incidental music doesn't really add anything, just takes away drama.It's a shame really because the story proper is getting quite interesting. The Animus has gone from being mildy creepy to out and out menacing with threats to kill Vicki. And we begin to really appreciate how powerful this unseen creature is - drawing in energy through acid lakes. As the adventure takes place over three different areas, dealing with several different races, it's hard not to admire the scope. Like DIOE this is a story that takes advantage of the six part length to really explore its world, rather than just pad out the story (though both are guilty of that at points, here much more so). Both are epics in the truest sense. It is however a shame that the Doctor and Vicki have remained trapped in pretty much the same spot for two and a half episodes, but you takes what you can.In fact, and this is going to sound like the most fatuous comparison ever, this sort of reminds me of a really really really low budget Lord of the Rings. The Menoptera are the Fellowship, the Animus is Sauron. I would go on, but the comparison isn't actually all that great. The relation is that we have a growing evil, largely unseen, trying to extend its Talons over the world, sending out its armies. OK, it is rather a daft comparison, but it goes some way to explaining the appeal of the story. It's a simple tale of war - where DIOE gains for placing this in a recognizable context, we have no such luck here. In deed, my one main gripe about LOTR is its ignoring of its villain (I never really got a sense of who this guy was beyond a stereotyped one word character note of: evil - he was just the bad guy, and we never even really saw him). Amazingly, for me at least, the Web Planet, by giving an identity to the Animus, even if not a particularly complex one, scores higher for me. In this field if nothing else.The story is beginning to gain focus with the invading Menoptera, but Ian, the Dr and Vicki are still slightly treading water. The Doctor and Vicki are merely trying to stay alive from one moment to the next without a real aim; and Ian is rather sidelined in this episode by being sent of with the bizarre Optera. There's a lack of a strong narrative drive in these threads - Ian meets the Optera by chance, for example. There's no direction in the non-Barbara threads (though Ian is at least doing something - it isn't clear yet if this is mere window-dressing or if it has a plot function).Having said all that, I'm not bored yet. It's relatively enjoyable, and I find it hard to define why. I'm going to have to have a bit of a think about this...

  • Dorney:
  • Well, I had a bit of time off over the weekend - went to see a superb play called the Pillowman on Saturday much recommended - and have to be fairly swift today.
  • Web Planet 5:Couple of oddities: why do the Menoptra need codewords? What do they think Hilio is, a Zarbi in disguise? Also considering these temples are so mysterious and hard to find that everyone thinks they've been lost isn't it a bit strange that the Doctor can find one just by going for a quick stroll?To be honest, I don't have much to add about this episode. It's all amiable enough - again, hugely padded, with none of the threads really going terribly far. The Ian thread is perhaps most interesting as it does at least seem like his part of the adventure is arduous, and has some cost - Nemini's death is very unpleasant. It is all faintly reminiscent of the Daleks 5-7 though (admittedly, cut a bit tighter). However, we do need to feel that the Animus is a dangerous enemy and difficult to overthrow and this sort of helps.Having said all that, it's a very quiet episode without any real sense of threat - outside of the reprise and the cliffhanger we hear nothing from the Animus and only meet the tame Zarbi. Therefore it is a little hard to get too excited about it.If I like the story, which I still sort of do, it must be because of its scope, its determination to be epic. It does feel like an entire new world, with layers and depth. These aren't aliens as metaphors for us. I suppose it's because at this moment the series is less about adventure than exploration.Ironically, I'm reading 20,000 leagues under the sea at the moment, and rather liking it. I wonder if it draws from the same well - the book is rather episodic and frankly lacking in plot, but its chief joy is in the detailing of an unknown world and exploration.So I like the Web Planet because it has an adequate plot to keep me interested, grand scale (everything is given weight here, the story is important) and because of a sense of wonder. Perhaps. I really don't know.Not much help am I?
  • Web Planet 6:Isn't it fab? Ian's trekked underground for nearly two episodes, and arrives just in time to do nothing. It does neatly demonstrate that the guy's been trapped in a storyline cul de sac. One question that no-one ever asks though - precisely what is he planning to do when he reaches the Animus? Is he going to wrestle with it or something?Once again, one character is killed and Richard Martin chooses to stay with the corpse rather than cut away (he does the same with Nemini in episode five). It's scenes like this that prevent this story from being the flop of its reputation - the determination that this is a story with weight and consequences. It is not an adventure, it is a journey. The fight has a cost. It's nice to see that the show isn't shying away from this, like modern kids shows would do. People fight and people die. The lack of a recognizable threat, or context perhaps prevents this story from working as well as DIOE did, but shots like this show that it has similar concerns. It is not a fantasy show, if you like.Are the final episodes underrunning or what? This is the third story in four that has a rather long epilogue sequence. Admittedly, DIOE really needed it, but not sure what it adds here. It does really point out that there's not a great deal of distance for this episode to go - we know how the Animus is going to be defeated half way through part five, this episode is all about putting that into action - and it would be much simpler but for a barking and out of character bit of stupidity from Vicki. So it doesn't come as a suprise that that defeat doesn't exactly take long. The final victory is terribly disappointing and rushed - especially seeing that the Animus prop is rather appealing, and combined with the excellent voice work is rather a fetching villainess. Maybe it should have arrived in episode five, and a twist or two added in its defeat. As it is, defeat by technobabble is not terribly great. It's a bit odd that Barbara gets to defeat the Animus - in the series context it's usually Ian or the Doctor. But this seems only fair, as she's the most proactive regular in the story - despite being on holiday one week.The final sequence, bar the waffling to get the episode to length, is rather sweet. I may be mad, but I like the Optera, their odd voices and hopping. They're fun. Yes, you can't take them seriously, but I very much doubt you're really supposed to. To see them joyfulling gallavanting around and the Menoptera playing with the docile Zarbi and grubs is really great. It shows how much the world has changed already; a real example of vanquished evil. So all in all, strangely enjoyable. Cheap as hell and weirdly designed, padded beyond belief; but nonetheless entertaining and epic - there's nothing wrong with the plot particularly, and the attempts to show truly alien races and cultures cannot fail to impress, even if it all looks cheap now. There's a conviction to the storytelling and production that makes this story good, solid Who. Not a classic by any means, but enjoyable, smart and serious, and better than its rep. Honest.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Romans

The Romans 1: After the grimness of the Daleks, and the slightness of the Rescue, this is rather a change. It's fab to see an episode that allows the audience to breath - if not throughout, for the majority of its length. The scenes with the TARDIS crew just relaxing are witty and fun, showing the bond between all of them. It's easy to see why people think the Ian/Babs scene is post-coital (considering how desperate every bloke seems to be diddle Barbara, he really seems reserved and not terribly bothered - I'm beginning to wonder if he's her gay best mate...). Generally again they showcase the Doctor and how loveable he's become, becoming a slightly absent minded dotty rogue. He's actively interested in investigating the mystery now, rather than just prevented from escaping.There's some nice slapstick in the Ian and Barbara scenes, lots of playful fun. No-one ever really references how clever the first shot post-reprise is. It seems to be an unconcious Ian, looking injured from the fall. Then he starts to eat grapes, the camera pulls back and we realise we've leapt some distance. It's jarring, but in a good way. The revelation that it's a month later is likewise - its nice to get a sense that the crew have a life outside the adventures.Vicki has become part of the team instantly as a result of this. Her distrust of Barbara is forgotten instantly, for example. This is perhaps the only element that doesn't quite work about the leap forward. The crew clearly know her much better than we do.Not much to add beyond that really, as this is very much a warm up episode - you know the plot's turning up round the corner, it's just a question of waiting. Most of the incidental characters seem to be relatively stock, though one of the slave traders has a ludicrous beard that must have come from a warehouse, and the man who buys Ian has one of the best diabolical laughs I've heard.Generally however, I love it. I've always been for the use of wit in drama. For all the talk of this being out and out comedy, it isn't really. It's witty, and that's more important.

The Romans episode 2:Recently I finished watching the greatest tv serial of all time, I Clavdivs. It's a history of the Roman emperors, ish, fro Augustus to Claudius, and ends as Nero takes over. So I can't resist viewing this as a sequel. It's a suprisingly neat segue...Thoughts on the episode itself - the only real weakness is the Ian plot. The whole galley slave subplot is so short and pointless that it might as well have not been there at all. OK, so Ian meets his slave mate, but he could just as easily have done that in his cell (though that could be too similar to Reign of Terror). His plan to escape is wonderfully half-hearted, and executed badly that it does just feel like an attempt to look like something's actually happening in his thread.It's still a bit better than, as was mentioned above, the capture escapes of Reign as it much more clearly aimed and directed - Ian has a clear and definite objective. The whole James Stirling plot didn't really seem to bother him much, whereas here he has a desperate need to escape. And the tone livens it up. All the struggles and his bravado, and he walks straight into a patrol.Barbara/Dr/Vicki fare much better. Admittedly, Babs' thread is fairly basic. Just getting sold. The near misses she has with the Doctor are fun, feeling like a satire on the plot of, say, DIOE, where they can travel half way across England and still just bump into each other.The Doctor and Vicki stuff is fab too. He's living on his wits, and veering wildly between slightly dotty (his inabilty to remember his new name), sly as hell (his outwitting of Nero really nails the character we come to know - living on his wits, outhinking the baddies) and investigating wrongdoings. It's testament to Hartnell that he makes these diverse figures coexist brilliantly.He is getting a bit violent, though. This is his third story in a row with a fight, and it's suprisingly action packed here. Vicki doesn't have much to do but act as the Doctor's foil, but she is proving herself brave and resourceful, and very smart. Immediately more appealing than Susan.All in all, it's not hard to pin down why I like this story. It's the series letting it's hair down, being unafraid to have fun. There's a dull humourlessness to a lot of the first series, and in stories like say Marinus with little else to offer this adds a problem. The Romans is inconsequential, but it delights in that. It's a show that wants to be fun, rather than dramatic or educational. This is something the show has lacked, for the most part. A heart. The warmth that humour brings. It's around the Rescue and here that joy enters the show, the Doctor becoming the essentially humourous central character that defines him from here on in, a sense that one of the primary aims of the series is to entertain. It's been enjoyable so far, but up to now it's been an intellectual enjoyment, a dramatic appreciation. It's mainly worked by stimulating the brain, not the heart. It's the slide to combining the two, the sense of intelligent fun that defines the show for me, and explains it's enduring popularity and accesibility. As the characters lighten up we start to love them, rather than like them, or just enjoy their adventures.It's one of the truths of proper drama that humour is important - one assumes that the word drama implies seriousness, but humour is vital part of that. It accentuates the sadder moments, it gives them something to play against, it allows us to warm to the characters and care for them (anyone who's ever seen Chekov played with humour versus without will attest that the former is much better, the second veers towards tediousness). I Claudius is a good example as it is very comic for such a dark piece. It is this lack of narcissism, and self-importance, but lightness of touch that defines why I love Dr Who rather than just like it. This is a show for your heart and your head, for your soul.And that starts with the Romans.

The Romans 3:Watched this one yesterday, but circumstances forced me away from the computer til now.Well, it really is terrific stuff. The Ian plot is still just there to make up the numbers, but it does provide a terrific cliffhanger. (Admittedly, it does mean that the last cliffhanger is a total cheat, with no eventual plot relevance for even one second more than it was on screen).The main comic centre points of this episode focus around the Doctor, Nero and Barbara. And they're terrific. Nero is a hugely entertaining character, probably the best in the guest cast so far (his mid performance critique of 'Maximus' made me laugh out loud, and the death of Tigilinus is rightly praised). It's played for real, and as a result is hysterical. Hartnell easily matches him, mainly in fabulous comic business (there's a beautifully underplayed bit in the spa where Nero keeps switching sides and Hartnell has to shift a sword he's holding - a lovely subtle bit of detail). The interaction he has with Vicki is superb, almost better than his rather cross relationship with his proper granddaughter. They seem like a pair of naughty schoolchildren trying to make their way out of trouble and delighting in the success of their schemes (even as those schemes backfire). Vicki too is still terrific - her terribly casual announcement to the Doctor that she thinks she poisoned Nero is brilliant, and belies the oft-made accusation that she is little more than a Susan clone. She's ballsier, and smarter than that. This is a girl who takes the travelling in her stride and isn't really put out by anything. Still like a teenager, but not in such a self-conscious way. She can't take the universe seriously, and you have to like that.The Barbara subplot is again, a little slight, but the near misses with the Dr and Vicki are beautifully done, and the stuff of high farce. Interesting that she doesn't seem too bothered by Nero fancying her, even rather likes it (she only starts to get riled when he starts to chase her, but she's clearly smiling when he checks her out at their first meeting). Mind you, the girl's been a lust object for someone practically every week, so she might have developed a high opinion of herself.One of the more suprising things about the serial, is its sheer bloodthirstiness. It's not often mentioned in the wake of the comedy - but it's just as bloodthirsty as Reign, for example. Just look, the first episode features the death of an old man, the second has the murder of the centurion, and the Doctor possibly accidentally kills Ascaris (it isn't entirely clear). And in this episode we have the court poisoner (who's a dark enough element without her being dragged off to the circus as a result of Vicki's whim to change the glasses), and the death of Tigillinus. In deed, typing that up it is noticeable that the last three are caused, indirectly, by the TARDIS crew. And they say they're not changing anything.The violence works, and is ignored, because it helps to focus the comedy. Comedy is at its funniest when there's something at stake (see how many great sitcoms are rooted in personal tragedy or dark times). It offsets it. So the story is funnier because it isn't inconsequential. Life is cheap in the palace, where you can be poisoned for being mildly annoying. It makes the Doctor's ploys and the various events mean so much more.Incidentally, he does say that he gave Anderson the idea for the Emperor's New Clothes. I do believe that's our first name drop.

Andy Noax
"Incidentally, he does say that he gave Anderson the idea for the Emperor's New Clothes. I do believe that's our first name drop. "
Surely not - hasn't he already mentioned Henry VIII and Beau Brummel in previous stories?

Certainly Gilbert and Sullivan at the end of the Edge...

You got me bang to rights, I'd forgotten that. (What the Gilbert and Sullivan one?) It is however the first instance of him claiming to have directly influenced history - in the style of him writing out Hamlet for Shakespeare - so that's probably where I made the mistake.

One day behind, but I'm back...The Romans 4:Again absolutely lovely stuff. OK, it's become more than a little clear that there isn't really a plot as such - the Maximus Petullian assassin subplot comes to nothing. It's just to provide mystery and keep the viewer hooked, but ultimately it doesn't go anywhere, and does seem faintly barking (that old man in episode 1 hardly seems to be the best choice for an assassin does he?). Likewise the Ian plot is mainly in captivity, and a few badly staged fights. The Babs plot is just running around. Ultimately, it's a series of disconnected and fairly unrelated romps for the TARDIS crew. However, the whole thing is so joyfully done, and pacey (leaping out a mile in this era, as everything up to this - barring the Aztecs maybe - has tended to be drawn out) that this barely seems to matter (and I suppose, considering the 'holiday' framing, it's rather appropriate). It's just damn good fun. The only true moment of significance in the whole thing is a shot I'd never seen before - the lingering shot of the crucifix that indicates precisely who Petullian was working for, and why the bald bloke's been so helpful.The Doctor is playful and dotty in this episode. The Lion puns are delightful, and are an instance of the Doctor playing with someone who wants to kill him. He's on the death list of the Emperor from Rome, and he's cool enough to make fun of it! (Likewise, his joy at having set in motion the fire is interesting - and seems to mark a sea change for the character. He now knows he can influence history).Incidentally, it's great the way that Barbara inadvertantly saves his life in this episode, rather like Vicki saved hers in part three. The not-quite meeting plotlines (everyone else meets the whole set, they just don't realise themselves) is the main conceit, and it's done fabulously. Odd to think how close this is to the regular structure of Who (DIOE and Reign immediately leap to mind as employing a similar split em up technique), but by refusing to have them meet til the end it takes on a whole new dimension.There seems to be a Star Wars style wipe cut at one point in this episode - I suspect it's a trick of the light really, just a straight cut, as I doubt the technology to do that would have existed at the time (and seeing as it's so out of the directorial tone of the rest of the story).The darkness is still there. Delios burns a guy in the face (possibly the slave master, it's hard to tell in the way it's shot), and Nero has gone from being an entertaining comic figure to dangerously mad. As life gets cheaper he becomes steadily less funny, and one cannot help but admire Derek Francis for combining so many levels into one person, demonstrable versatility.There's another DIOE like long epilogue, with the last ten minutes or so all dealing with the travellers return. Ian and Barbara are really flirtatious with their chasing each other and gentle mocking (and Spooner almost seems to be writing for the video age: would anyone have realised in 1965 that Ian references one of Barbara's lines from the first episode?). The whole scene, and indeed their confrontation with the Doctor and Vicki, is delightful, witty and charming. OK, so it's all a bit superficial, but its one of the great joys of the series - its versatility. We've just had an ecodrama; an epic, nihilistic tragedy; a chamber piece thriller; and a comedy romp. Name me another series that could experiment like that. People talk about BF's playing with the form last year. Season 2 was there before all that. And we haven't even got to the madness of the Web Planet yet! All in all, a terrific little piece. A relax and have a good time romp. Superb.