Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Crater of Needles

I honestly think this may be one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of 'Doctor Who'. I don't necessarily think it's good for all that, although it's not nearly as bad as its reputation, but it is genuinely something astonishingly out of the ordinary. And that's by the standards of a program that I consider to be one of the most innovative shows on television.

There's a manifestly improvisational quality about it. Obviously, everyone is aware of the transcendently strange credit, "Insect Movement by Roslyn de Winter", and it's clear that the actors took a hand in coming up with ways to bring the script's audacious concept of truly alien aliens to life. But it seems to extend all the way through the piece, from the direction to the script to even the way the regulars behave. It's as though they're playing a child's game of Let's Pretend, where anyone can come up with a new rule for the story and everyone has to follow along. "I put a golden tuning fork on you, that means you have to pretend you're hypnotized!" "Okay, but I used the astral map from the TARDIS to neutralize it, and we have the spider that the Zarbi is afraid of!" Everyone seems slightly surprised by everyone else's lines, as though the story is being created on the spot.

It's a bold decision, one that risks failure at just about every turn. When the Optera are introduced, there's a manifest sensation that the plot is teetering on the edge of a total collapse into absurdity--they're strange, hoarse, grunting, hopping little men that the story tries to present as a terrifying threat to Ian and Vrestin despite all the visual evidence to the contrary. Russell and de Winter instinctively realize that the only way to survive a scene like this is to play it absolutely straight--if at any point they treat it with less than total dignity, we're going to lose our conviction in it as well. Which very nearly happens anyway, because de Winter's way of playing it "absolutely straight" is to do her best butterfly dance and talk like a particularly fey elf from a local stage production of 'Lord of the Rings', but Russell doesn't flinch at the weirdness. He's being given the most thankless role he's ever done on the series, but none of that shows in his performance.

In the end, the whole thing coheres in a weird fever-dream sort of way; you can just about understand what's going on, if you watch it only one-quarter with your eyes and three-quarters with your mind, but you can't imagine quite how it wound its way through the creative process to make it to the screen as a piece of television. It's like watching an experimental, avant-garde play...very bold, very courageous, with a lot to applaud, without ever necessarily being any good. And yet it's so compelling that you can't really call it bad either. And to think, there's two more episodes of this...

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Doesn't the Valeyard Work?

(Cross-posted from Fraggmented.)

In 1986, during Season Twenty-Three's 'Trial of a Time Lord', Bob Holmes (with contributions from others including Philip Martin, Eric Saward and Pip and Jane Baker) introduced a character that instantly gripped the imagination of pretty much the entire fanbase at the time...the Valeyard. He began the story as the prosecutor in the titular trial of the Doctor, but by the end he was revealed as something far more shocking--a future incarnation of the Doctor, a distillation of all his worst impulses into living form. He instantly became a major, core element of the mythos of the series...

Well, no, actually he didn't. In fact, apart from a few audio stories (I think that Beep the Meep may actually have appeared more often than the Valeyard) and a mention in the Season Seven finale, the Valeyard has been rather conspicuously absent for a character who would seem to have so much storytelling potential. In point of fact, for the longest time he was not only absent but forbidden: The Virgin submission guidelines made it clear that any pitch featuring the Valeyard, explicitly stating that they felt he had no storytelling potential and was a crutch used by bad writers in order to make their stories seem more significant.

Is that true? Certainly, you could argue pretty persuasively that any story that features the Valeyard could be done just as easily with the Master; he's already the Doctor's "dark mirror", so in a lot of ways the part is already taken. (It's probably significant that the one major Valeyard story featured the Master helping the Doctor against the Valeyard.) But surely there has to be something that can be done specifically with the Valeyard that can't be done with a generic "evil Time Lord scientist", right? There has to be something particular and special about the idea of the Doctor's potential corrupted and debased into cruelty and sadism?

But the Valeyard we see on screen has nothing to him beyond cruelty and sadism. He's evil. Full stop. The Doctor's "dark mirror" is a murderous sociopath who does evil things for evil's sake, or at least that's how he's played in 'Trial'. He's a sneering, preening, gloating villain who wants to cause chaos for its own sake. If he's the Doctor's dark mirror, then the Doctor must be a humble, self-effacing sort who's interested in preserving order and..

Ah. Yes. There it is.

The Doctor has never been an unambiguously, uncomplicatedly "good" individual. He's a mercurial creature of chaos in his own right, toppling governments and dashing off into the night without ever caring what results he leaves behind. He's at times callous, at other times startlingly sympathetic over trivial details. He's refused to kill his enemies because he believes deeply in compassion...and he's steered whole fleets of alien conquerors into the sun with a casual "good riddance". He's burned whole planets, and sacrificed his life to save a single man. He is perhaps the most strikingly complex protagonist in television history...and yet his "dark mirror" is just a typical Man in the Black Hat who comes up with complicated-yet-rubbish schemes. (Am I talking about the Valeyard or the Master? Yes.)

For the Valeyard to work, he'd have to be far more like the Doctor than he is. He'd have to be a capricious monster, one just as willing to spare an entire world from his depredations simply because he liked the color of the sky as he was to crush a sparrow underfoot for singing out of tune. He'd have to be an agent of order as well as chaos, perfectly willing to spend decades on a trivial task because it was worth doing right and then dashing a whole civilization to dust with a few whispered words. In short, a dark and twisted incarnation of the Doctor would be very difficult to distinguish from...the Doctor. The difference between the Doctor's best self and his worst impulses is a matter of degree and emphasis, as he himself has admitted on occasion. ("Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.") Ultimately, the reason the Valeyard is so underused is because he's superfluous to requirements. The Doctor has all the darkness he needs without having to outsource it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Escape to Danger

The first thing I have to say about this episode is that it's astonishingly strange, seeing an actual episode really titled "Escape to Danger". My generation grew up with the Target novelizations, and Terrance Dicks was notorious for using this as a chapter title in approximately every third book because a) it was a vaguely clever-sounding catchphrase and Terrance loved to recycle anything that sounded good, and b) it was open-ended enough to apply to at least one chapter of every third Doctor Who story. Seeing it used as a real live episode name is like seeing a Star Trek episode called "Beam Me Up, Scotty", or a Buffy episode called "High School Is Hell".

I know it seems like I'm obsessing over a trivial detail, but honestly, there's not much else to talk about in "Escape to Danger" apart from the title. The plot barely moves a millimeter in the half-hour running time, and the Doctor is forced to deliver a lot of boring and meaningless technobabble that's exactly the kind of thing Hartnell does poorly--you can tell when he doesn't really have any idea what the script actually means, because his delivery suddenly becomes stilted and portentious like a parody of a college professor. He's better when he's bluffing the Animus, but there's not enough of the "clash of wills" angle to really give him something to grips with.

Meanwhile, Ian is underused in a way that makes it clear that nobody here is interested in him as a character--William Russell gets to run around a lot and shove men in ant costumes around, and he gets to do a massive (and yet underwritten) infodump scene with Vrestin, and he gets to stare manfully into the middle distance while discussing plans with the Doctor, but he's basically delivering the same generic lines that any square-jawed hero sort would deliver in the same situation. You could give all the same dialogue to Jamie, Steven, Mike Yates or probably Harry Sullivan and nobody would notice.

Oh, and Vicki just stands around looking worried. Any episode where all you give Maureen O'Brien to do is "stand around looking worried" is an episode you have critically failed at as a screenwriter. (Barbara's off this week. Presumably Ian will find her in the Crater of Needles next episode with a good tan.) In short, this is the kind of pedestrian stall that you find in any six-parter, the sort of thing that needs a talented director to rescue it and--oh. Richard Martin. Well, that explains the Zarbi running into the camera and at least two sequences shot so incoherently that you have to rely on secondary sources to figure out what the hell just happened on screen, then.

In short, whenever people complain about 'The Web Planet' being a dull, incoherent runaround with horrible direction and long stretches of tedium, this is probably the episode they're thinking of.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Big Bang Generation

Gary Russell's revenge is best served cold.

In 2001, he published the novel 'Instruments of Darkness', which brought Big Finish audio companion Evelyn Smythe into the BBC Books and established her, and by extension the Big Finish audios, as "canonical" (for those who take such things seriously). It received lackluster reviews, primarily from people who felt that it was an exercise in nostalgia, excessive continuity references, filling in plot holes from other Gary Russell novels, and hagiography for a companion that Russell had created and clearly loved, but couldn't show and had to therefore tell with several scenes where people just stood around explaining how great she was.

(Shortly afterward, Gary Russell declared his stated belief that the audios and the books were separate canons and that he didn't care about tying them together anyway. Not that I'm suggesting these things are related.)

It took fourteen long years for Russell's plan to come to its ultimate fruition. Fourteen years of patiently waiting for Doctor Who to once again become a global televised phenomenon, for the TV series to adapt Big Finish audios and Virgin New Adventures in a way that cast doubt on the canonicity of the books and the CDs from the Wilderness Years, for River Song (a clear and loving pastiche of Bernice Summerfield) to be taken into fans' hearts while the original Benny languished in spin-offs and the memories of a tiny subset of the new fandom, for the phenomenon known as "NAstalgia" (an unthinking adoration for the Virgin New Adventures based on rosy memories of their output) to develop. Fourteen years for Gary Russell's masterstroke.

'The Big Bang Generation' weaponizes NAstalgia. It's a wafer-thin run-around that only makes vague stabs at coherence, with dull and unconvincing villains and dozens of pointless digressions that only serve to hang continuity references on. It's utterly disposable, not awful but mainly the sort of thing that you'd maybe give to an eight-year-old in an effort to keep them quiet for a few hours. BUT IT'S GOT BERNICE SUMMERFIELD IN IT.

More specifically, it has Bernice Summerfield's first-ever appearance in the New Series canon in any form, her first meeting with the Capaldi Doctor, her first official meeting with the Doctor since 1997's 'The Dying Days', and the first canonical appearance of any characters created for her Big Finish spin-off series in official Doctor Who media. In short, this is a book pretty much designed to settle the argument, to the extent that it can reasonably be settled, of whether the Wilderness Years are canon. And it comes down hard on the triumphant, fist-pumping, it-even-mentions-Keri-the-Pakhar, "Yes!" side of the equation.

And so Gary Russell's revenge is complete. Because I have to admit, it was totally worth the aimless plot, the unconvincing villains, and even having to put up with lifeless Big Finish tagalongs Ruth and Jack in order to get Bernice Summerfield and the Doctor together once more. God help me, I enjoyed this book even as I cringed at how many scenes were really just one character or another reminiscing about how great Bernice Summerfield was, and how she was the Best Companion Ever, and how her touch could cure scrofula. Because I can't help it, I agree with that. 'Big Bang Generation' proved that the only difference between me and the target audience of 'Instruments of Darkness' was the choice of companion to get all misty-eyed over.

I actually liked 'Big Bang Generation'. From hell's heart, Gary Russell, I salute you.