Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Doctor Who: The Scripts - The Masters of Luxor

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how to review 'The Masters of Luxor'. I mean, this is basically a discussion of a historical curiosity, a first draft of a script that wasn't deemed good enough to warrant a second draft, made for a production whose style of drama is now sitting comfortably at fifty-one years out of date. Is it even worth it to discuss the quality here? Does it even make sense to try?

In case the answer is "yes", I can say that 'The Masters of Luxor' as published isn't very good. There's a lot of random conjecture that turns out to be absolutely right for no reason beyond the writer having no real mechanism to deliver exposition about the dead, silent city and its robotic inhabitants. There's not much action over the six episodes, there's a lot of discussion about religion that seems weird and out of place as well as slow and talky, and the Perfect One is simply not very exciting as an adversary. There's some nice atmosphere at points, but it's really nothing that the city in 'The Daleks' didn't do better. Oh, and although the dialogue would certainly have been rewritten further in later drafts (and was rewritten for the script book already, according to the afterword) it still sounds clunky and not particularly like any of the regulars. Basically, it's not hard to see how they went a different direction after this.

But again, the quality isn't necessarily what we look at with this one. It's interesting to read it not because it's good, but because it demonstrates the thought processes of the people working on the series at the time. They knew they wanted to contrast the first "science fiction" episode of the series with the "historical" they'd already done, and their mental focus was obviously on the potential for sterility and inhumanity inherent in science. The unseen Masters of Luxor had gone down a path of eugenics, which wasn't (yet) a component of the Daleks' evil, but both of them shared the notion of a world where science gone mad had led to a world on the brink of death, and a city that was a scientific paradise with nobody left to live in it.

The discarded humanity is personified in both stories; in 'The Daleks', it's the Thals who skulk outside of the abandoned city, scarred by memories of a century-old war. In 'The Masters of Luxor', it's Tabon, who abandoned himself to exile and suspended animation rather than face the consequences of his experimentation. The Thals, of course, are just as responsible for the Daleks (in the original story, at least) as Tabon was for the Perfect One, but their ancestors' aggression and violence is downplayed to the point where the act of resuming the war against their old enemies is seen as a positive act and not a resumption of a campaign of genocide. Perhaps the production team weren't quite ready for Tabon's guilt, or perhaps they simply wanted more sympathetic characters? It's hard to sympathize with anyone outside of the regular cast in 'The Masters of Luxor', and Tabon's self-sacrifice seems more to be his just desserts than a tragic comeuppance.

Or honestly, it could have just been practical concerns. There are a lot of freaking robot costumes in this one, far more than the number of Daleks that appear on-screen. The TARDIS flies, something it did rarely in the Classic Series, and of course the story ends with the entire city exploding. It might very well have been judged unworkable in light of their budgetary concerns. (At the very least, 'The Daleks' stretched out the sets and costumes over an extra episode.)

Ultimately, we may never know exactly what caused this script to be rejected in favor of Nation's story, but I think we can answer one question. In the introduction, John McElroy asks, "In a universe of infinite possibilities, there are of course worlds in which [Masters] was the second story--I wonder if Doctor Who is still running there?" Based on this script, I'm guessing not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: 12 Stories, 12 Doctors

I finally managed to get hold of a copy of the 50th anniversary novella collection, '12 Stories, 12 Doctors' (yes, I got what I'm calling the "Fuck You, Everyone Who Bought a Previous Edition" Edition) and I have to say, on the whole I was immensely satisfied. There were a few flaws--I'll get into them more as they crop up in specific stories, but they all seem to stem from a problem I'll call "Famous Writer, First-Time Who Writer Syndrome". It's what happens when someone who is an extremely talented writer decides to jump into the Doctor Who pool with what they think is a fantastically clever and original idea, all without being aware that it's already been done six times in five decades from every conceivable angle. The result doesn't feel as innovative as they no doubt hope for.

Nonetheless, this is an incredibly impressive collection of talent turning their collective hand to Doctor Who, and I think the results speak for themselves. Even so, I'm going to add my two cents. As follows...

1) "A Big Hand for the Doctor" by Eoin Colfer. This is a story that, depending on how you look at it, either "gets everything wrong" or "takes advantage of the wider scope available to a story that isn't written in 1963 for production in Lime Grove Studios with William Hartnell to do exciting and interesting things that simply weren't possible at the time, but that expand the conceptual space of the First Doctor". (Guess which side I'm on.) This is a fun story, albeit one that isn't attempting to slavishly recreate the Hartnell era, and it has an impish charm to the way it reinterprets canon without ever actually rewriting it. The coda is a bit twee--Colfer's FWFTWWS manifests here by having a Famous Author witness the events of the story and turn them into fiction, just like Wells and Dickens and Christie and and and...but the coda is short enough that the story doesn't suffer for it.

2) "The Nameless City" by Michael Scott. The Second Doctor and Jamie are manipulated into battle against vaguely Lovecraftian monsters by a thinly-disguised Delgado Master. So basically, here the FWFTWWS is Michael Scott not realizing that he's pastiching every third New or Missing Adventure. (Or maybe he does, and it's all done on purpose. Can't rule that out.) Nonetheless, it's well handled and spooky, with some interesting details that make the Doctor and his TARDIS seem strange and creepy all over again, and a resolution that's fun and clever.

3) "The Spear of Destiny" by Marcus Sedgwick. It wouldn't be a Third Doctor story without the Master showing up to provide the second-act twist, and I certainly won't fault Sedgwick for not being made aware that the previous story also involved the Master. (Especially since as originally published, there was a month-long gap between the two stories.) It certainly doesn't dampen what comes off as a letter-perfect pastiche of the Pertwee era, from the "UNIT family" to the cod-'In Search Of' fixation on weird and spooky legendary pseudo-archaeological artifacts (in this case, the titular Spear) and the sheer confounding Pertwee-ness of Pertwee. He gets that wonderfully frustrating paternalism dead on, and it's charming to watch him work in what feels like a slightly shortened version of a missing episode.

4) "The Roots of Evil" by Philip Reeve. This is definitely one of the highlights of the anthology. The Doctor and Leela get involved in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans involving a future incarnation (the Doctor is justly horrified to find out he will be wearing a bow-tie someday) that has set a lost human colony on a path of undying hatred against him. (One of the characters, "Ven", turns out to have a full name of "Vengeance-Against-The-Doctor-Shall-Someday-Be-Ours". The Doctor responds by admitting that would be a bit of a mouthful, and offering him a jelly baby.) Needless to say, there are horrific secrets at the heart of the colony, gruesome monsters, and witty bon mots dropped casually into the barking mad villain's monologues. It's not just a pastiche, it's a charming and clever story in its own right.

5) "Tip of the Tongue" by Patrick Ness. This is one of the ones that feels most like an actual children's story, perhaps because it focuses mainly on actual children. There's a certain sly understanding of the way that children deal with things that remain unspoken, yet are understood perfectly by all concerned; Nellie, one of the two main characters, is constantly dealing with emotions and realities too big to be spoken out loud. The thematic depth gives a lot of weight and realism to a story that might otherwise feel surreal or silly. The Doctor's barely in it, but I didn't mind that at all, given how well the prose flowed.

6) "Something Borrowed" by Richelle Mead. This was another favorite--telling the story from Peri's perspective gives some dramatic heft to a character that got stuck in the peril monkey role all too often in the series, and the Rani is a good choice of villain for an anniversary celebration. There's some material that's a little bit telegraphed, which is more a factor of the short space the author has to work with, but the whole thing is well-written and fun. (Although I did come away wondering what's going to stop the Rani from going ten miles down the road and doing the same thing all over again...)

7) "The Ripple Effect" by Malorie Blackman. This one, unfortunately, suffered from FWFTWWS big-time. The idea of the Doctor encountering Daleks that don't act like Daleks, and being unable to set aside his fear and hatred of them, is something that's already been done in stories like "Dalek", "Victory of the Daleks", and "Dalek Generation". The idea of the Doctor having to erase a parallel universe that's actually better than ours because of Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Reasons has already been done in "Genocide" and "The Girl Who Waited". And without the space to really develop either idea, it's hard to make this seem like anything other than a retread of things other authors have already done. If she'd had a chance to expand it to novel length, and had to do more than just reiterate these tropes, it might have turned out very special...but as it was, it kind of overstayed its welcome.

8) "Spore" by Alex Scarrow. Weirdly, it's the Eighth Doctor story that goes for the purely Hinchcliffian horror tale...but it does a reasonably effective job, with a space fungus that liquifies everything it touches and converts it into monsters. Perhaps a little too short to be effective--at novella length, the story barely has time to convey the threat before the Doctor resolves it--but it does a good job of what it sets out to achieve. And the pseudo-companion is a soldier who appears to be Asian-American, which is a nice change from the typical white dude/screamy white woman.

9) "The Beast of Babylon" by Charlie Higson. At first, this one seems like it might be going down a road that's a bit too kiddie--the Ninth Doctor teams up with a teenage girl named Ali for an adventure in Ancient Babylon! But just when you start expecting Ali to learn valuable lessons about Olden Times before coming back home, Higson makes clever use of the prose format to reveal a few details about Ali that weren't quite what was expected, turning the story into something of a shocking twist on the pseudo-companion tropes that are common to solo Doctor stories. Far from being FWFTWWS, this one feels like someone cleverly subverting the structure of a Who story in a unique and inventive way.

10) "The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage" by Derek Landy. This author and this Doctor seem made for each other. Landy has his finger perfectly on Tennant's lightning-fast patter, his gift of gab and his brilliant command of every situation (there's a wonderful sequence where the Doctor is challenged to a chess match, and announces that his opponent is so over-matched that there's no need to even play the game). Combine that with some hilarious jokes about children's literature and books in general (as they struggle to escape a world composed of Martha's literary tastes, they pass a scene from 'Twilight' and Martha simply hisses out, "Don't judge me") and you've got a story that brought a huge smile to my face.

11) "Nothing O'Clock" by Neil Gaiman. I don't wish to diminish any of the other authors in this anthology, all of whom are luminaries in their field and are immensely talented. But this is just a quantum leap beyond everything else in the book in terms of quality. It captures the Eleventh Doctor and Amy's voice perfectly. It expands on tiny details of their depictions on television in ways that really make me wish for more Past Doctor Adventures just to get this kind of contextualization on a more regular basis. It has one of the all-time great and creepy monsters in the Kin, which are not only great and creepy but perfectly encapsulate the fairy-tale ethos of the Moffat era without simply pastiching it. It has one of perhaps the best ever "Doctor fucks over the bad guy" moments, which I went back to read about five times (including one time reading the entire story out loud to my wife because it was just that much fun to revel in the prose). And oh by the way it's just awesome. Again, I don't want to suggest that the other stories in this book weren't great, but this is just a level of great that's above other levels of great, because Neil Gaiman is a one-in-a-billion talent and one of the best authors of our time. It is a pastiche, which is something that caused me a moment's pause because I would be interested in a take on Doctor Who that is solely Neil Gaiman's--a producer's take, if you will, instead of a writer's take. But that's merely a quibble that shouldn't stop anyone from picking up a must-read story.

12) "Lights Out" by Holly Black. This was probably a tricky brief, taking the Doctor with the fewest stories and trying to capture his voice. Black does a good job, though, capturing the spiky exterior of the Twelfth Doctor and the depth of feeling it conceals. The story is also in keeping with this Doctor, as well; it's a murder mystery, a character study and a moral dilemma all at once. You can easily see it fitting between 'Deep Breath' and 'Into the Dalek', and not just because that's where the author clearly sets it. A solid conclusion to the anthology, although I can understand being frustrated that Puffin seems to think it's worth sixteen bucks all by itself.

So there you have it. Plenty of good ones, very few weak ones, and one that's an absolute must-read. That's a pretty good record for a Who anthology, and it shows that in good hands, there's still a lot of interesting life to every Doctor. I look forward to another fifty years.