Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Original - Mission to the Unknown

Courtesy: TARDISwiki
Suspense.  Unknown sets up Masterplan beautifully ... from the stranded spacecraft to the Intergalactic council and ultimately a believable security operative Marc Cory.  Upon listening, it has a wonderful suspenseful atmosphere that was the very nature of the early Hartnells but was minimised as Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis opted for the base-under-siege stories seemingly lit with spotlights left over from the war.  Doom stalks the rocket's crew - but not too quickly which only increases the audience's expectancy.  The pacing is just wonderful.

All this actually leads me to believe this serial is perhaps Terry Nation's best work.  OK, so he did The Daleks and The Daleks' Invasion of Earth isn't bad, but the best parts of Masterplan are unquestionably Dennis Spooner's work, while the same might be said of Genesis and Robert Holmes.  The dialogue here, so amped up and florid, denotes this as Nation's work just as effectively as the prefix space (as in space garbage, space medicine, space saving ad infinitum).  That said - and against all odds - the melodramatic script meshes perfectly with the inherent tension.

Evil.  In Life, the Universe and Everything, one-time Who script editor describes a the Krikkitmen's xenophobia as "cold, implacable ... not like ice is cold, but like a wall is cold ... And it was deadly - again, not like a bullet or a knife is deadly, but like a brick wall across a motorway is deadly."  And that's the perfect description of the Daleks in both Unknown and Masterplan.  And it's the how the Daleks are best portrayed: in their debut, this episode and it's big brother, Power, Evil, Genesis and, more recently, Dalek.

Courtesy: wikimedia commons
Prequel.  Mission to the Unknown was the prequel for a series solely centred on the Daleks; it obviously never happened.  Such a series would have had to focus on new human characters like Jason Cory and Sara Kingdom as basing an entire series on stilted shouting crosses into pure, naive idiocy - as it turned out, TV execs thought as I do.  As it happens, much of the mythology built up by Nation for this cutaway has been adopted as gospel by the expanded Whoniverse - the Special/Space Security Service and Varga plants chief among them.

The Daleks are kept in the background here - c.f. Evil/Revelation of the Daleks - and are perfectly capable of delivering extended dialogue; their presence ramps up the tension with the happy result that Unknown doesn't miss Hartnell, Purves and the female companion of the month at all.

In three words: Hartnell era's best?

Rating: 5.

Monday, August 13, 2012

PDA: Instruments of Darkness - Gary Russell

Gary Russell made me think!  No, really, he did a good thing!  279 pages weren't wasted!  It's a miracle!

During his time writing Past Doctor Adventures, Russell made it a personal crusade to redeem the then-pilloried Sixth incarnation of the Time Lord, fleshing out the lurid continuity of the Colin Baker era.  First came Mel's official introductory story, Business Unusual - which I enjoyed - and eventually a real regeneration for Doc 6 in the form of the immortal Spiral Scratch.

It's campaigns like these that, despite the best of intentions, have earned Russell his reputation as a purveyor of the highest order of fanwank.

That said, however, despite myriad failings, Instruments of Darkness is a reasonable sequel to Business Unusual.

Irritations include a marginalised and relatively-poorly-characterised Doctor, reliance on continuity (although it's much better than some of the author's previous work), stylistic inconsistencies, dialogue peeled straight from the Star Wars prequels and Russell indulging his  Bond fetish.  Naming a pair of female assassins Ms de Menour and Ms (Mal) Feasance?  Inserting a piece about the Doctor introducing Fleming to the ornithologist on whom Bond was based?  The cult-series mix is simply too much for an admittedly-pulpy premise to bear.

But in spite of these elements, Russell deftly portrays a series of interconnected characters whose reliance upon each other is notable.  Throughout the text, couplets emerge where each member is completely dependent on the other - for existence, validation, love.  Even the Doctor is not immune as he encounters the companion that wasn't, Evelyn Smythe; and in fact only Mel appears immune.

This symbiosis is woven unobtrusively throughout and only it hits the reader with real force when it becomes apparent at the novel's conclusion.  It's sweetly juxtaposed with the climactic fireworks brought about by some old-school Doctor trickery reminiscent of Pyramids of Mars.

In two words: Mixed bag.

Rating: 3

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Original: The Visitation

Disco android.  Draw your own conclusions, but you can argue that Saward's best writing for Doctor Who was based around androids; certainly they feature heavily in his first three scripts.  The plot here, of Earthshock as well as Resurrection of the Daleks relies upon them but arguably only here is the android treated as a character: at the end of Episode 1, it strokes the key as it locks the crew in the house.  The Earthshock androids are brilliant as simple mechanical killers.  In contrast, Stien (Resurrection) is supposed to have much more depth but ends up being nothing more than a plot device.

The Brigadier would love the Terileptils.  Despite a hit/miss design based around early animatronics, the Terileptils are a reasonably well-conceived race but poorly characterised.  The concept of a warlike race treasuring art is interesting but this is mentioned only in one passage and on the whole they comes across as shouty and stereotypically evil despite a worthy back story.  Doctor Who's original run featured 17 attempted Earth invasions; only the Terileptils, the Aliens from The Faceless Ones, the Kraals and the Zygons aren't immune to bullets.  Combine this with a reliance on Soliton gas (what happens when their stores run out?) and suddenly they're rather lightweight.  However, our last view of one suggests an era three years in the future as a Terileptil's head melts while it groans in pain.

Budget.  Obviously Mace's hideout is a set taped with VT rather than a filmed stable.  How in holy hell is this cheaper than just finding an appropriate stable?

Adric's hairstyle.  That's all.

Actually, that's not all.  It has more personality than he does, leading to...

Companion woes.  There really isn't enough for all three to do, so Saward falls into the standard "out" of simply having one of them brainwashed or captured.  Adric serves no plot purpose whatsoever.  Due to their interplay, her seeming lack of angst, and her independent nature, you absolutely identify with Davison's assertion that he felt Nyssa fit him best as a companion.  Which in turn leads to...

Eric Saward obviously had some issues.  Adric's all about the teen angst.  The Terileptil leader is the shoutiest villain this side of Terry Molloy.  Tegan was devised as a mouthy character but just sounds bitchy.  Given that this script apparently won Saward the job as script editor, you have to wonder if Jon Nathan-Turner saw this conflict and said "There's my idea for my next Doctor and companion combination", or if Saward simply specialised in bitchiness and this manifested in his work.  The script drips with repressed anger; at times you can justify it and at others it's just irritating.

Davison's the best thing in this.  The story says that Peter Davison took the role as The Doctor because he wanted to "mature" into a leading man - as evidenced here, it takes him about two stories.  Despite some occasional delivery issues (he sometimes raises the pitch of his voice at the end of sentences, creating the implication of doubt - most notably in the Episode 3 cliffhanger) he quite compelling despite a script which sees his best lines shouted at by his opponent.  He also has remarkably little to do.

This makes it a typically Saward ending.  Eric Saward was notorious for thinking the Doctor's destinations as more interesting than his actions.  The serial ends with a scuffle in which the bakery is accidentally set alight - The Doctor does nothing to really inspire a conclusion.  The same can be said in later Saward stories like Earthshock, Attack of the Cybermen and Revelation of the Daleks.

Rating: 3.

In four words: Sets the Saward standard.