Wednesday 18 February 2015

Doctor Who - The Krotons (1968)

The Krotons was the fourth serial in season six of Doctor Who and originally aired in late 1968 and early 1969. This four-parter is one of the few Second Doctor serials to survive in its entirety. It illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of the series at that time.

This was the first Doctor Who story penned by Robert Holmes who would go on to write much better stories for the series.

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive in an unnamed planet inhabited by a humanoid race called the Gonds. The Gonds are not however the rulers of the planet. They are held in absolute subjection by the Krotons although no-one has ever seen a Kroton. The Krotons are assumed to live inside “the machine” and issue their instructions via a disembodied electronic voice or in writing. The Gonds are only allowed to learn what the Krotons teach them through their “teaching machines” in the Hall of Learning. Periodically the two most promising Gond students are selected to serve as companions to the Krotons. They disappear through a door and are never seen again. As we will later learn they are drained of their mental energies and then destroyed.

The arrival of the Doctor and his party precipitates a crisis. The Doctor and Zoe have much greater mental capacities than any of the Gonds and the Krotons intend to use their mental energies to achieve something they have been trying to achieve for a thousand years, but the Krotons are about to face a serious challenge to their rule.

It’s not a great story but it’s perfectly adequate. It’s the execution that is the problem. The sets are uninteresting and the costumes are dull although Zoe’s costume (apparently made from plastic-coated paper) is quite startling and rather appealing.

The Krotons must be among the most embarrassingly silly monsters in the whole history of Doctor Who. In the audio commentary Bobi Bartlett, who was responsible for the costumes, makes the valid point that the design of the Krotons should have been treated as a special effect rather than being left to the costume department. I’m sure she did her best on the pitiful BBC budget but the Krotons just don’t work at all. Even a small child would be more likely to react to them with laughter than with terror. Doctor Who was never given anywhere near the budget a science fiction series required. Most of the time the budgetary constraints are overcome by the sheer imagination and ingenuity of the technical staff but there were serials that did suffer very badly from the inadequate funding and this is one of them.

The acting is fine. Philip Madoc, who would go on to feature in many Doctor Who adventures, is the standout as the ambitious and unscrupulous Eelek. Madoc steals every scene he’s in, as he always did.

I have mixed feelings about Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. I appreciate the fact that he was trying to make his interpretation of the role as different as possible from William Hartnell’s and I think that was a sound idea. Hartnell’s First Doctor was crotchety and rather arrogant so Troughton makes his Doctor whimsical, amiable and at times not entirely sure of himself. That’s all fine and good but for my tastes he overdoes the whimsicality just a little. I also feel the the Second Doctor is not quite alien enough compared to the First Doctor. The Doctor is not human and while he’s generally well disposed towards humans he is not one of us and he has his own agendas. This aspect of the Doctor’s character seems to me to be under-emphasised by Troughton.

Jamie (Frazer Hines) is always fun and he gets a pretty reasonable fight scene in the opening episode of The Krotons. While the Doctor generally prefers to avoid violence, and in particular avoids engaging in violence himself, he was never a pacifist and Jamie’s fight is a good example of the Doctor’s philosophy towards violence. He is quite prepared to let others resort to violence when its necessary. In this serial the Doctor is also quite prepared to encourage the Gonds in violent resistance to the Krotons. 

Brian Hodgson's sound design (which takes the place of conventional incidental music) is a highlight.

As usual the BBC’s DVD presentation is excellent with a worthwhile audio commentary and some good documentary features.

The Krotons is by no means a complete failure and it’s better than its dubious reputation might suggest. All it needed was a bit more money to make the Krotons convincing and a bit more inspiration from the set designer. There are some amusing dialogue exchanges between the Doctor and Zoe, some reasonable ideas and there’s Philip Madoc in fine form, all of which are enough to make it worth a look.

Monday 9 February 2015

Stingray (1964)

The last thing Gerry Anderson wanted to do was to work with puppets. However, having set up his own production company (AP Films), he was facing financial ruin. His company had no work at all until a woman approached him and commissioned him to make a series called The Adventures of Twizzle. To Anderson’s shock and dismay this series was to a children’s puppet series. He was in no position to refuse the offer but the experience confirmed his intense dislike of puppet series. His misery was complete when his company was commissioned to make another series - yet another puppet series.

Anderson’s distaste for puppets was in fact to be the driving force behind the immense success of his puppet series. He hated puppet series because they were crude and looked absurdly and embarrassingly unrealistic. His solution was to make a puppet series that would not suffer from these egregious faults. Puppet series made up to that time had been so awful that he was sure he could do better. The first puppet series originated by APF would be a western adventure called Four Feather Falls. It was a success but the experience convinced Anderson that he could do even better. Since the biggest problem was in trying to get the puppets to walk he would create a series in which the puppets would not have to walk - they would go everywhere in a high-tech futuristic super car. Thus was Supercar born. And Gerry Anderson, who had had as little interest in science fiction as in puppets, found himself a very successful maker of science fiction puppet TV shows.

The enormous potential of science fiction and its obvious advantages for a puppet series soon kindled his enthusiasm. Supercar was a hit but it was still a little crude. Fireball XL-5 would be much more ambitious and much more polished technically.

By 1964 Anderson could rely on the enthusiastic backing of ITC chief Lew Grade and he was able to be even more ambitious. Colour television in Britain was still some years off but it was obviously the future in the US. If you wanted to sell a series to the US it was obvious to Anderson that it would have to be in colour. This would be much more expensive but Lew Grade could see Anderson’s point and this next series would be in colour. The series was Stingray and it would turn Gerry Anderson into a pop culture phenomenon.

If there was one thing Gerry Anderson hated it was the idea of repeating himself. He’d already done flying cars and spaceships so he needed to do something different. The adventures of the crew of a high-tech submarine seemed like the perfect solution.

Stingray would also introduce a recurring motif in Anderson’s TV series - the headquarters that was either ingeniously hidden or that could be made to vanish. Marineville was a city that could disappear beneath the Earth when under attack. A major innovation with this series was the use of multiple heads for each puppet, each head having a slightly different expression.

The Anderson hero was already well-established - handsome, square-jawed but sensitive and with a sense of humour. Stingray’s Troy Tempest was a logical development of Supercar’s Mike Mercury and Fireball XL-5’s Steve Zodiac. With Fireball XL-5 Anderson, no doubt at the prompting of his wife and collaborator Sylvia, had introduced another innovation, giving his spaceship a beautiful female crew member. Stingray would go one better, with not just one but two leading female characters. This would allow for the introduction of more dramatic tension and even the possibility of a romantic triangle. Sylvia’s instinct proved to be correct - not only did leading female characters give the series more appeal to female viewers it also made the characters far more human and realistic, with genuine human emotions. For a children’s TV adventure series this was a fairly revolutionary idea, and a very successful one.

In the 1960s British television makers became obsessed with the idea of making programs with a transatlantic feel. With the United States being the world’s largest television market it seemed like a sensible strategy. So second-string American stars, or American stars whose careers were fading, were imported to play leading roles in British TV series. Gerry Anderson felt that this was rather silly - why would you for instance have an American cop in a British TV series? Anderson accepted the need to appeal to the US market but his strategy was to go all the way - to make the whole series seem American. Whether this really had the desired effect or not is an open question - to many people Thunderbirds seems like the quintessence of British pop culture. But there’s no questioning Anderson’s ability to capture the imagination of American audiences (as well as audiences everywhere else). 

If Gerry Anderson had a genius, it was a genius for never being satisfied. He always felt that things could be done better, that the look of his programs could be improved. And he communicated this sense of dissatisfaction to the people who worked for him so that they were always trying to find ways to make the shows look more realistic and more exciting.

A good example of the imaginative and innovative approach taken by Anderson’s team was their solution to the problem of filming the submarine underwater. Anderson was initially intending to film the sub in a tank of water but a better way was found. A very thin tank filmed with small fish was placed in the foreground with Stingray suspended on wires behind, rather than in, the tank.

The episodes vary quite widely, with some being very whimsical and clearly aimed at the children’s audience while others deal with more serious science fictional themes and even with interesting interpersonal conflicts (the episode The Man from the Navy being a good example with inter-service jealousies and rivalries and with Troy Tempest having to make a very tough decision).

The gradual move towards more grown-up themes in Anderson’s series would culminate in the astonishingly dark Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in 1967.

Stingray stands up pretty well. The miniatures work is excellent and the series is consistently entertaining. 

Sunday 1 February 2015

Doctor Who - The Ark (1966)

The Ark was the sixth serial in season three of Doctor Who and was originally transmitted in March 1966. The script was by Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott. It’s a rather ambitious story although it has its problems.

The Doctor along with his companions Steven and Dodo arrive on what they believe to be the Earth. They are in a jungle and while the animals are clearly Earth animals they come from all parts of the globe. This leads Dodo to assume they have landed in Whipsnade Zoo. But if they are in a zoo, why does the ground vibrate? They soon find out that they are of course in a spaceship.

Equally importantly, they appear to have travelled a very long way into the future. The Sun is about to explode and destroy the Earth. The entire human population (and apparently the whole animal population as well) are on board the ship, reduced to micro-cells. There are however quite a number of living humans, known as the Guardians. Also on board the ship are the members of a race known as the Monoids. The Monoids seem to function as servants although they also appear to be treated well.

The arrival of the Doctor and his companions has potentially disastrous and tragic consequences. Dodo has a cold. Pretty soon several of the Guardians have caught her cold. This is a problem since these future humans have no resistance to ancient diseases and their medical knowledge is rather rudimentary given the fact that most diseases were eliminated millions of years earlier. The Guardians are frightened and dismayed by this strange malady and react in a rather unfortunate manner, putting the Doctor, Steven and Dodo on trial. This is not the wisest course of action since the Doctor is the only person who might possibly be able to treat the disease. 

This serial changes course dramatically at the end of the second episode (with a very clever and very effective end-of-episode cliffhanger). This is one of the rare occasions on which Doctor Who writers really took full advantage of the Doctor’s ability to travel in time. To say anything more would involve spoilers and it’s a clever enough idea that it would be a great pity to spoil it.

The relationship between the humans and the Monoids turns out to be not quite as it originally seemed. And the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

This serial features two alien races. The Monoids are not a bad concept and the idea of a single eye where you would expect to see a mouth is not a bad one. On the whole though the Monoids are not really very effectively rendered. The shaggy wigs are very unfortunate and the shambling gait also tends to make them dangerously close to being comical. The Refusians are much more unconventional and they work fairly well.

The sets are quite impressive and the jungle looks rather good - it’s inhabited by a number of real animals including an elephant! The costumes of the Guardians are a bit iffy - apart from looking a bit silly they’re also rather revealing.

This is an example of Doctor Who’s ambitions outrunning its budget but generally speaking it works reasonably well. And you have to admire the production team’s willingness to be so ambitious.

This is the first serial I’ve seen featuring Steven and Dodo and as companions go they manage to be fairly personable and not actively irritating. 

The years were starting to catch up with William Hartnell and he was starting to display a worrying propensity for fluffing his lines but he was a fine actor and he doesn’t allow this to have an adverse effect on his performance. Hartnell made a huge contribution to the early success of the series by taking the role seriously and by avoiding the temptation to make the Doctor simply a loveable dotty old man. His First Doctor is prickly and has quite an ego but he is also keenly aware that his ability to travel through space and time involves heavy responsibilities. If he makes a mistake, such as bringing a deadly virus to an isolated population as he unwittingly does in this serial, the consequences can be catastrophic. So it’s not surprising that he’s sometimes rather cantankerous.

The extras accompanying the BBC’s DVD presentation include a mini-documentary arguing for the influence of H.G. Wells on The Ark. Certainly the relationship between the humans and the Monoids is rather Wellsian, Wells being fond of inserting his somewhat half-baked political ideas into his fiction. 

The Ark has some good ideas, an ambitious story and a willingness to use the time travel angle boldly. The uneven quality of the makeup and the effects are minor quibbles. 

This is a First Doctor serial that has not only survived in its entirety but in fairly good condition as well.

On the whole this is a pretty satisfying Doctor Who adventure. Recommended.