Friday, January 27, 2012

Fish From Space (State of Decay)

Peter Murphy had to tone it down a bit before Bauhaus
really took off.
It’s November 22nd, 1980.  Blondie remains at number one with “The Tide is High.” A week later ABBA take over the spot with “Super Trouper,” their last number one hit on the UK charts. It remains at number one for the remainder of the story. The Police, The Boomtown Rats, Kool and the Gang, UB40, and John Lennon also chart. Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, and Devo lurk about in the lower portions of the charts, the latter with “Whip It,” which peaks in the 50s, which is probably considerably lower than people would guess if pressed.

In real news, we should probably start with the murder of John Lennon, which, a week later, causes his then declining single “(Just Like) Starting Over” to suddenly jump from 22nd to number one and prompting a hurried rerelease of “Imagine.” Because for an anti-capitalist pacifist legend John Lennon and Yoko Ono were nothing if not shrewd businesspeople. A massive earthquake kills nearly 5000 in southern Italy. And Jean Donovan, and American missionary, is murdered in El Salvador along with three Catholic nuns. Her singles, of which there are none, do not chart as a result.

While on television, it’s 1977. Those who enjoy the ways in which the musical charts and Doctor Who oddly parallel will be bemused that 1977 was by most standards the peak of ABBA’s popularity, and that the last time ABBA was at number one was during The Invasion of Time, the last story of the season that was meant to begin with The Vampire Mutations by Terrance Dicks. Unfortunately the BBC was busy doing a high-profile adaptation of Dracula at the time and Head of Serials Graeme MacDonald commenced the first of a long series of butting heads with Graham Williams and ordered the script spiked for fear that Doctor Who would be seen as “sending up” the BBC’s more serious adaptation. It was replaced by Horror of Fang Rock.

Then came Bidmead, who as we’ve seen had a distinctly different take on what the program should be than his predecssor. Bidmead viewed Doctor Who as a more or less straight drama, whereas Adams, though not the cavalier jokester his detractors portray him as being, clearly preferred a mixture of comedy and drama. Beyond that, Bidmead preferred structures where real scientific concepts were transformed and expanded into the fantastic where Adams preferred to work with stock sci-fi ideas that didn’t need explanation. The result was that Bidmead saw little value in anything Adams had commissioned save for Christopher Priest’s “Sealed Orders,” which didn’t quite work out  due in part to Romana needing to be removed from it. (Bidmead did commission another script from Priest, but that one fell afoul of Eric Saward, creating one of the great “what might have beens” of Doctor Who’s history) The best option he could find, then, was to go way back into the program’s archives and dust off The Vampire Mutations.

As a result we have a script that was made for 1977 and the aesthetic of the Hinchcliffe era being made in 1980. This turns into a study of contrasts. The nearest equivalent story in the program’s history is The Brain of Morbius - another Terrance Dicks effort adapting a classic British horror story, although Holmes’s script for The Pyramids of Mars is also an obvious antecedent, as is The Talons of Weng-Chiang. We are, in other words, back in the model of the literary homage, where the Doctor is unleashed inside of someone else’s story to jockey for supremacy.

But in the old model - even in the “serious” days of the Hinchcliffe era - this was done in part with a bit of humor. But Bidmead’s drive towards drama has stripped much of that away. Even still, the Doctor is funnier in this story than he has been all season (or, if you want to think about it in terms of production order, his humor wasn’t done being stripped away). But this is something that can’t simply be wound back. The three years of Graham Williams focusing primarily on the Doctor and his charismatic charm make it impossible to go back to the lower key humor of the Hinchcliffe era. It’s dialed back here, but in an odd way - his clowning is still broad and excessive, just considerably rarer. The result is a script in which the Doctor is mostly serious save for a quick bit of physical comedy with Romana and a deliberately parodic bit rousing the villagers into an opposition army against the vampires.

But this really does pose a problem for the Hinchcliffe approach. With the exception of the extremely serious Pyramids of Mars, the Hinchcliffe era’s horror pastiches were mostly quite funny. The Brain of Morbius, after all, had a suicidal vegetable envier as its great galactic conquerer. And the seriousness of Pyramids of Mars is hard to read as a virtue - when looked at alongside the rest of its era it, like The Seeds of Doom, comes across as fast-paced and brutal because of a lack of other ideas as opposed to out of a commitment to gripping action-packed drama. So by stripping the impish and mercurial qualities out of the approach Bidmead sets himself up with a real problem - how do you make the story work?

Further complicating things is the fact that Bidmead’s usual approach faces a real challenge here. At his best Bidmead creates the fantastic out of the real, through playful expansions upon existing concepts. In Full Circle he took the basic idea of evolution and created a world out of literary uses of it. In time, when he starts contributing his own scripts, he’ll build worlds and universes out of mathematical and computer science concepts. But there’s no real way to make hard scientific concepts out of vampires. You’re pretty much up a creek when it comes to making vampires stem from science. Fundamentally, they stem from literature and stories. And that’s not a direction Bidmead is eager to go in.

Under normal circumstances this would be a recipe for disaster. I mean, occasionally you get gold when the scriptwriter and script editor are pulling in different directions, but more normally you get a muddled trainwreck of conflicting ideas and men in very bad lizard costumes. But this is Terrance Dicks. That’s not a knock on David Fisher, who’s a fine scriptwriter, but Terrance Dicks is, god bless him, the most magnificently efficient hack on the planet. And I use “hack” here not in a pejorative sense at all. This has always been the gift of Terrance Dicks - he can write well even when he has no desire to be writing what he’s writing. I mean, nobody seriously believes he enjoyed every Target novelization he wrote, do they? No. Dicks is the ultimate “lock himself in his flat for a weekend and bang the fucking thing out” writer, and there’s not a set of circumstances on the planet that is going to get him to turn out half-assed work. Or, rather, his half-assed work is barely distinguishable from his top notch work. Even if his heights of genius are lower than those of Robert Holmes - or even of Christopher Bidmead - Terrance Dicks’s worst case scenario is still leagues above most people’s best day at the office.

But in this case there’s an assist from an odd direction. Because what ends up happening is that the vampires are explained in terms of ancient Time Lord legend. And this, in turn, hits upon an odd transition in the nature of the Time Lords. There are, in the classic series, essentially three visions of the Time Lords. Two have shown up so far - Terrance Dicks’s and Robert Holmes’s. (The third, of course, is Andrew Cartmel’s) The Dicks version is the one we see starting in The War Games and extending through the Pertwee era. The Holmes version begins with Genesis of the Daleks and lasts until The Deadly Assassin. But then comes the odd decade or so between The Deadly Assassin and Remembrance of the Daleks in which both Dicks and Holmes weigh in on the Time Lords with no real coherence or mutual plan.

For the most part Terrance Dicks “wins” this debate by outliving Holmes, writing most of the novelizations featuring the Time Lords and then writing several books in the 90s and early 00s with Time Lords such that he basically got to spin out his vision at great length. Whereas Holmes’s vision lurks around under the surface of Dicks’s, never quite becoming clear. (A prime example is Dicks’s obsession with the CIA) The usual statement of this - coming in part from Jan Rudzki’s legendary screed about The Deadly Assassin - is that Dicks’s Time Lords are powerful technocrats whereas Holmes’s are petty squabblers. But this is wrong. Dicks’s Time Lords are just as prone to factional squabbling as Holmes’s - The Three Doctors is full of the stuff.

No, the difference is rather one of attitude. Dicks’s Time Lords are detached and above the fray whereas Holmes’s Time Lords are historically bound. I am not going to rehash the argument made in The Deadly Assassin, in no small part because it was 15,000 words long, but the end point was that Holmes’s Time Lords functioned as creatures who still interacted with the universe through memory and imagination whereas Dicks’s Time Lords were austere technocrats who looked down on the universe from a position of superiority. (Another way of putting this is that Dicks’s Time Lords were what Williams did with the Guardians.) Holmes’s Time Lords, in other words, are mysterious even to themselves, lords of something they do not fully understand. (It is, as ever, a gorgeous bit of cynicism on Holmes’s part - after all, what lord ever understands those who are ruled over.)

This marks the first time since The Deadly Assassin that Dicks has gotten to return to his creations in a meaningful sense. While none but Romana and the Doctor appear, the nature of Time Lords is central to the story. The plot hinges on the existence of an ancient war between the Time Lords and the vampires, and speculates that vampire legends on all planets come from some ancient memory of this conflict. On one level this is just your usual von Danikenism - oh look, human legends of vampires are really just legends of aliens. But there’s something underpinning it that is new. Past stories have usually contented themselves to explain aspects of human mythology in terms of aliens. But here the script asserts that vampire legends exist across species. I have not exhaustively checked this next claim, and so may turn out to be wrong, but I believe this is the first time that the von Daniken trick has been applied on a universe-wide level instead of on a planet-wide level. (The closest I can think of is the end of Underworld, which suggests that the Greek myth was in fact a prophecy of future) And because we’re so familiar with the von Daniken trick it’s easy to miss the radical element of this, which is that it means that narrative principles are quietly revealed to be a fundamental principle of the universe. There is such a thing as a universal narrative.

Once again we have that characteristically odd double gesture of the Bidmead era - and Miles and Wood pick up on this at length with their essay on this story, in which they use it to argue that Doctor Who could well be fantasy and not science fiction. On the one hand vampires turn out to be ancient aliens with scientific explanations and they are only able to maintain their power by keeping the people from reading or learning - knowledge is forbidden and the chief vampire is actually a scientist. But there are two things that undercut this. First, of course, is that vampires are real at all. Even if they’re “really just” aliens, they are real and work like we expect them to.

But second and more significantly, everything about the vampires is still grounded in a sense of the ancient and the unknown. Look at the Record of Rassilon itself - an obscure directive buried in an ancient museum piece of technology that is old and obsolete even by the standards of the TARDIS. It’s not a fancy record in the databanks but a set of weathered punchcards the Doctor feeds into the TARDIS. That there was some logic and sense to the Time Lord/Vampire war when it happened it’s clear that the very sense of it is lost and that it has been forgotten.

The result is on one level a swipe at the Holmesian Time Lords - a suggestion that they’re just fallen Dicksian Time Lords who have forgotten too much and are now bumbling around in a universe they’d understand if they only stopped and read up on it. But this misunderstands how the ancient and unknown function in this story. They’re not merely mysteries to clear up. Defeating the vampires overtly requires relics and the ancient. The Record of Rassilon, old and arcane as it is, is essential to defeating the vampires. The power of the ancient, in other words, is not merely that it’s scary because we’ve forgotten how to understand it. There is real power to ancient artifacts in this story.

And so the austere autocracy of Dicks’s Time Lords is preserved even within the memory and imagination-bounded vision of Holmes’s Time Lords. Dicks makes mastery over myth and legend a part of the Time Lord’s technocratic superiority. But in the course of doing so he also solves Bidmead’s problem for him. The vampires are simultaneously able to be literary creatures and scientific creatures because they are based on the lost science of the ancient Time Lords. This science flickers between rationalism and a literary approach, with the gap between Holmes and Dicks’s conceptions of Time Lords serving also as the point of ambiguity that allows for an ambiguous relationship between science and fantasy.

And so Bidmead is able to demonstrate how his approach can subsume the Hinchcliffe-era approach of this story. Dracula can fuse with the Doctor because Bidmead’s conception of the scientific is based on the odd fusion of the scientific with the literary. What happens when Dracula is merged with Doctor Who isn’t just some highbrow literary jokes or some recycled thrills from popular movies (though the script has a couple of each) but the move of Dracula out of the familiar conceptual space of a cliche and into a strangely ambiguous conceptual space that bridges reality and imagination.

There are, of course, downsides. Simply put, the production team is not a production team that does these stories with the instinctive skill that the Hinchcliffe era could. An ailing Baker feuding with both of his co-stars and the production team is still phenomenal in the part, but the combination doesn’t lend itself instinctively to a seamless execution. Peter Moffatt begins a lengthy career of idiosyncratic Doctor Who directing with things like the questionable decision to have Aukon, Camilla, and Zargo deliver large swaths of dialogue standing in a tableau and staring at the camera, and it is very, very hard not to laugh when Zargo begins pulling evil vampire faces in the backgrounds of these shots. The result is either a full-throated embrace of overacted lunacy that outdoes the Graham Williams era in its skill at this sort of joke or just bewilderingly ill-advised. (The former is a real possibility, though - look at the joke musical cue K-9 gets when exiting the TARDIS in episode four, as if to comment that he’s woefully unimpressive. This is not the last time we will be left to stare incredulously at the screen trying to figure out if Moffatt is just messing with us. Nor, for that matter, the last person with that name we’ll be doing that with.)

This begins a frustrating tendency of the John Nathan-Turner era, which is that it frequently reaches for doing things the series did in the past and falls short of their past executions in some key ways. Nathan-Turner’s usual defense of this was the catchphrase “the memory cheats,” and there’s at least some truth to it. For all that is wrong with this story - and there are a fair number of things wrong with this story - there’s quite a bit that’s better done, and it still holds to the general truism that the quality of television improves constantly. The costumes and sets for the tower are fabulous and the sorts of things that The Brain of Morbius would have killed for in places. The action sequences are tighter than they’ve been in ages. Though there are some appalling effects the use of fades and video overlays is adding new types of storytelling to the show’s repertoire. And the music is an improvement on Dudley Simpson.

Which is what makes it so infuriating that Aukon, Zargo, and Camilla are only occasionally even tolerable, the peasants look like they came out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and nobody can be bothered to cut together a decent horror sequence in a story about vampires. Yes, the memory cheats in thinking that you could just run Pyramids of Mars as-is on BBC1 in 1980 and have it look good, but the fact of the matter is that if you watch the stories back to back there are obviously some basic technical things that Pyramids of Mars is solid on that State of Decay isn’t. And this keeps being true of the Nathan-Turner era. With maddening frequency it soars on advanced topics in television production while crashing and burning on the basics.

But past that, we still have something interesting here. For three stories now Bidmead has been showing off a new approach for Doctor Who in terms of what came before and showing how it can genuinely improve what Doctor Who is. Now it’s time for what we might call the pure Bidmead era. The first half of the Bidmead era is Bidmead sketching out a vision of the show in terms of things we’ve seen before. Now come four stories that are unlike anything we have ever seen before or since. For sixteen episodes, Doctor Who is going to become one of the most distinctive pieces of science fiction in Great Britain at the time. In fact, I’d say the most distinctive piece if it weren’t for the fact that in another medium entirely an even bigger revolution was already well underway...

35 comments:

  1. I am convinced that the hyper-stagey performances are deliberate; and they work really well for me in setting up a particular atmosphere for this story, so naturally I'm going to say it's "a full-throated embrace of overacted lunacy" rather than just "bewilderingly ill-advised". Whatever Terrance Dicks may have intended, I don't believe Peter Moffatt (note the double-T: this is one thing that distinguishes the 1980s director from our current beloved-of-some showrunner) was even trying to do a horror story, as such; so it doesn't seem a failure for it not to come out like that. There are certainly problems with the production, not least the reveal of the Great Vampire, but (as you pointed out when discussing the memory cheating) this isn't the Holmes era, and Moffatt shouldn't be pilloried for trying to do something different with a script which is effectively of that time.

    [The obvious retort is, "so what was he aiming for? If it's not a horror story, what is it?" - and here I'll have to think more before answering.]

    I'm going from dim memory here, but wasn't this the story where Moffatt took a look at the changes CHB had made to the script, said "sod it - this isn't what I signed up to direct" and restored a lot of Dicks's original?

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  2. I always felt that this was the most thematically-consistent "regeneration" season, running with a theme of entropy/decay and rebirth that culminates in the death of Doctor 4 and his rebirth as Doctor 5 (rather than most seasons where the Doctor just has a bunch of adventures and finishes with one episode in which he just happens to regenerate).

    THE LEISURE HIVE has a race of sterile aliens on the verge of extinction being reborn through their scientific accomplishments. MEGLOS has the actions of the last survivor of a destroyed world leading to the Tigellans reclaiming the surface of their own world. FULL CIRCLE has a race that has lost (or thinks it lost) the knowledge of space travel, retreating into fear of a natural process before understanding what it really is and advancing off to the stars. STATE OF DECAY has a similar theme (hey, it's even in the title!), with the science that brought the crew to the planet being lost and all learning being suppressed until the superstitions are defeated, and so on, to LOGOPOLIS where entropy itself becomes the threat to everything.

    Whether it was intentional or not, it always felt to me like everything was echoing the coming end of Tom Baker's reign, including his more toned-down performance, the music, etc.

    Regarding the scientific side of this episode, much like MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA, we have a creature of purported mythology appearing that threatens to (or actually does in this case) hold back a society by suppressing science/learning. And as in that episode, it is knowledge/science that is used to defeat the creature. Even when the monsters are portrayed with powers that would be generally considered magical, they are explained as being subject to scientific principles (even if the show gets the science horribly wrong). Yet again, we have the triumph of science over superstition. This is something that has always endeared the show to me.

    "...armoured, immune to hypnotism and a dead shot with a nose laser."
    I don't see the K-9 cue as "bewilderingly ill-advised"; I see it more as underscoring the contrast (and the resulting moment of levity) between how the Doctor DESCRIBES K-9 (eliciting the rebels' excitement - they even cheer the "nose laser" comment, despite the fact that they have no way of knowing what a laser is) with how unassuming K-9 appears. It's not saying, "Look how lame K-9 looks!", so much as eliciting a humourous response resulting from comparing the mental image of some killer, armour-plated robot that shooting lasers from its head with his actual appearance. Granted, K-9 actually IS rather unimpressive to the viewer, but I don't get the impression that the show is actively commenting on this in this particular case. It certainly isn't SCHOOL REUNION!

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  3. I have not exhaustively checked this next claim, and so may turn out to be wrong, but I believe this is the first time that the Von Danniken trick has been applied on a universe-wide level instead of on a planet-wide level.
    Though it's not really part of Doctor Who, the nearest thing I can think of is how in Adams' Life, the Universe and Everything (which of course started out as Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen) Earth cricket is one of several similar games throughout the universe, which are all based on racial memories of the great galactic war with the people of the planet Krikkit. Now that I think of it, the whole Krikkitmen idea seems more like a parody of the Von Danniken gimmick, by having something as mundane as cricket conceal secret extraterrestrial origins, rather than the pyramids or mythology or the human race itself.

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    1. Now that I think of it, there's also the idea in Pyramids of Mars that Sutekh is the inspiration for evil mythological figures not just on Earth but elsewhere in the universe.

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    2. One minor nit: IIRC, I believe the joke was that every civilization had racial memories of the Kricket War, but only humans were so unbelievably crass and tasteless to have turned it into a silly and extremely boring game (Adams' words, not mine:)).

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    3. Wasn't there also a drink called "Gin and Tonic" on every planet?

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    4. Yep; that was in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe -- always loved that bit. :-)

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  4. Or, rather, his half-assed work is barely distinguishable from his top notch work. Even if his heights of genius are lower than those of Robert Holmes - or even of Christopher Bidmead - Terrance Dicks’s worst case scenario is still leagues above most people’s best day at the office.

    I take it that you've never read Warmonger, then?

    And this keeps being true of the Nathan-Turner era. With maddening frequency it soars on advanced topics in television production while crashing and burning on the basics.

    A comment which reminds me of Jim Shooter's blog: in which the former editor-in-chief of Marvel comics not only shares his anecdotes, but also analyses how American comics have - for the most part - forgotten the basics of storytelling.

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  5. While we're correcting Moffat(t)s: it's von Daniken, with an umlaut above the "a", no capital "v" and no extra "n".

    Anyone else see plot similarities between The Krotons and State of Decay?

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    1. Both von Danken and Moffatt are now corrected.

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  6. You’re pretty much up a creek when it comes to making vampires stem from science. Fundamentally, they stem from literature and stories.

    Matheson managed to pull it off. But then the whole point of Matheson's take is that it's not the vampires but the lone human protagonist who is the creature of literature and stories.

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  7. To add to the confusion, the Doctor's daughter/wife spells her last name Moffett.

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    1. As does her father Peter -- well, he did, but potential confusion with the director made him change it.

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  8. If you want to get difficult, try not confusing Georgia Moffett and Georgina Moffat.

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    1. I just googled "Georgina Moffat".

      The first hit was the Wikipedia page for Georgina Moffat.

      The second hit was the Wikipedia page for Georgia Moffett.

      It's not just humans who get confused.

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  9. Meanwhile, back at our regularly schedule storyline...

    I think that the problem is is that Moffatt didn't come in to direct a Hinchcliffe horror pastiche, he came in to direct a horror stage play, and sits the camera down as the audience and starts to direct the actors to move about as theatre. It goes back to the I, Claudius metaphor in earlier posts. The one thing that he does not do is use what would be considered normal televsion camera work, the throne room scenes for instance, and follow the actors with their lines.

    It certainly is a step back in terms of storytelling in places. It is odd how much of the basics of storytelling have been lost along hte way in our hyper technological ability to put most anything on the screen. Watching "Castle" last night i was struck by some of the most hyper compressed storytelling in a few sequences that I'd ever seen... but it was all so that there was more time to get to the meat of the plot, or to have screen time to linger on the character moments. The compressed storytelling, and the audience's ability to absorb it have given the directors much greater leeway... and made things much harder to pace properly. (and in compressed storytelling I'm putting hte psychic paper; i no longer need 15 minutes of each story with the Doctor trying to convince the people he's trying to help to trust him. It gets clumsy for the most part when you have to watch it week after week)

    This year's Christmas Special was a disaster of pacing, and so was The Next Doctor. Awful, awful pacing. With the ability to smash what would have been three minutes of screen drama that we've seen a hundred times (the cops confront a suspect and bring him or her in, the Doctor arrives in someplace and has to talk the authorities into not locking him up and ending the story prematurely) into 15 or 20 seconds, it does allow for more actual plot and acting... or to sometimes reveal that the the author is severely lacking plot and has no idea who the hell his characters are. Yikes.

    Its a stage play. With vampires. and a more menacing and interesting Tom Baker. Oh yes.

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    1. I'm confused; what was so disastrous about "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe", again?

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  10. I have refrained from rewatching "State of Decay" since it was one of my favorite classic stories from my childhood and I'm afraid it won't hold up to my memories (they can deceive after all).

    I've never understood the argument about "science fiction vs. fantasy," because as Clarke's Law tells us, any sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic. I mean honestly, do any of us know how to reattach barbed wire with sound waves? Does anyone think Star Trek transporter technology could possibly ever work? Or that some type of genetic abnormality explains why Cyclops can shot force beams out of his eyes that defy Newtonian physics? Or that anyone would ever decide, seemingly just for the coolness factor, to forgo laser blasters in favor of a weapon that's apparently a ball of plasma magnetically shaped into a sword (aka light-sabers)? The "science" of nearly all contemporary science fiction is there to handwave away whatever changes the author wants to introduce to explain why his setting is fundamentally different from present day earth.

    With that in mind, the point of "State of Decay," IMO, is that long ago, in a time most Time Lords have forgotten, possibly because it was deliberately erased from their own history records, the Time Lords fought and defeated several existential threats to all universal life. One was the Fendahl (and the parallels between this story and that one are interesting to me). Another was the Vampires, a race of almost Lovecraftian design with the power to leech away the life force of entire planets. And you know what? Once you accept that the Vampires are a Lovecraftian species, you don't need to explain how vampirism works any more than you need to wonder about how regeneration works. It just does, because the aliens in question are "sufficiently advanced."

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    1. Yes - most science fiction is just fantasy but with aliens replacing folklore and spurious technology replacing unabashed magic. The difference between, say, Orcs and your average Doctor Who monster is that one comes from a pretend version of Medieval England and the other comes from a pretend planet... the only real practical difference being that some form of technology is needed to allow humans to meet these creatures.

      But even then, it's often the slenderest of differences - not even the technology of travel, but technobabble vs. folklore-babble. If a creature has lain dormant in the tomb of some ancient kings, it's fantasy; if it has lain dormant in a computer, it's science fiction.

      There's very little un-science fiction about vampires essentially - they live a long time, are be destroyed by sunlight and drink blood to survive... so could any number of alien species. It's only the minor trappings which makes them fantasy - the dislike of crucifixes and garlic, etc.

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  11. SK,

    If you want to get difficult, try not confusing Georgia Moffett and Georgina Moffat.

    I did confuse them once. I read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit aloud to them.

    Alan,

    I've never understood the argument about "science fiction vs. fantasy," because as Clarke's Law tells us, any sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic.

    I think there's an aesthetic difference. A lightsabre and a magic flaming sword differ in virtue of the different (albeit overlapping) bodies of tropes and narratives they invoke. One invites us to see it as a fairy tale come to life, the other invites us to see it as an extrapolation of present-day science, albeit with a fairy-tale-come-to-life flavouring.

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  12. A light sabre and a magic flaming sword are exactly the same in terms of plot use, plausible uses and limitations, and story function. They differ only in connotative aspects.

    In other words they are absolutely identical in every respect except the only ones that matter.

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    1. To me, the difference between science and magic is that magic works according to arcane rules that only someone versed in magic can understand whereas futuristic super-science works (or at least should work) as an extrapolation of existing science that we understand today. I can imagine that it will someday be technically feasible to restrain plasma within a carefully shaped magnetic field that functions as a "light-saber." I just don't understand why you would. What do you get out of a light-saber that you can't get out of other, more efficient tools and weapons. Similarly, Star Trek annoys me because I don't understand why they need a ship with rooms and furniture and whatnot. Given how the holodecks are presented, why don't you just make a ship that's one big holodeck with a warp engine attached and then reconfigure the rooms as needed?

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    2. @Alan

      Probably because holodecks have a habit of malfunctioning and trying to kill people. The real mystery is why people keep going into them at all!

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    3. Actually the real mystery is why people deliberately designed the damned thing with safety protocols that could be taken offline with a vocal command and which frequently needed to be taken offline to perform routine repair work on the ship -- which is the source of probably 50% of all "holodeck gone wrong" stories. The other 50% either involve the characters making a particularly stupid wish of what is essentially a technomagical genie ("make Professor Moriarty into an antagonist character who is smarter than Data") or deliberate sabotage by the villain of the week.

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    4. I can imagine that it will someday be technically feasible to restrain plasma within a carefully shaped magnetic field that functions as a "light-saber." I just don't understand why you would.

      Because it's cool?

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  13. To add to the issue of names, 'Jan Rudzki' is 'Jan Vincent-Rudzki' - it's a double-barrelled surname. As for job titles Graeme MacDonald was Head of Serials rather than Head of Drama - the latter job was still held by Shaun Sutton in 1980.

    I don't think Christopher H. Bidmead and Douglas Adams are as different as you argue, or at least not in the same way. Gary Gillatt once made the valid point that Bidmead was reacting against what he thought were scripts or storylines on his desk commissioned by Adams, but which all seem to have been rejected or sidelined. (From the Pixley DWM Complete Fourth Doctor vol. 2, it seems that Adams's last commission might have been Xeraphin, which was gradually developed into Time-Flight.) Adams is profoundly interested in giving his stories a scientific basis, but he benefits from a more highly-tuned sense of the absurd, and suffers from working with an exhausted and frustrated producer. Bidmead is interested in science, but his horizons are lower than Adams's -he's interested in contemporary technology and interprets the universe of Doctor Who in those terms, while Adams is more interested in basic principles applied to what had become a fantastical Doctor Who universe.

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    1. Is it hyphenated? The copy of that piece I use is the one in Paul Cornell's License Denied, which does not hyphenate. If that's an error I'll revise, but I'd like more information.

      MacDonald will be fixed within a few minutes of my posting this comment.

      That said, I think you're badly underselling Bidmead's sense of wonder. But more on that on Wednesday.

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    2. Bidmead is interested in the process of discovery and in information as a concept. Yes, it manifests itself as an obsession with the graphics you could get on a BBC micro, but that's because computers are the concrete manifestation of how you access information.
      More importantly, he's interested in how people interact with the process of discovery, where Adams is more interested in how people react to revelations. I think Bidmead benefits, relative to Adams, through his focus on the concrete grounding of the philosophical ideas that interest him. I wouldn't categorize it at all as having lower horizons: it's a different emphasis, and I think one that allows for great richness of detail.

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  14. May I suggest "It hasn't got an automatic!" as a title for the next entry?

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  15. Philip Sandifer:
    "this keeps being true of the Nathan-Turner era. With maddening frequency it soars on advanced topics in television production while crashing and burning on the basics."

    True-- TRUE!! (Vincent Price said that once.) The first one that came to mind was having the music too damn loud, except, it wasn't in this story. But it sure was in every one of the McCoy's, covering up the fact that 66% of them were better-written than anything Davison or Colin got in the writing dept. what's good's dialogue if you can't hear what they're saying?


    "Even if his heights of genius are lower than those of Robert Holmes - or even of Christopher Bidmead - Terrance Dicks’s worst case scenario is still leagues above most people’s best day at the office."

    Left-handed compliment, but okay. I love Dicks' work on the show. It's difficult to convince some people that "clear storytelling" is extrememly under-rated these days, amid all the writers trying too damn hard to be too damn clever. By the way, the very 1st WHO convention I went to, the 2 guests were John Leeson-- and Terrence Dicks! (What an accent on that guy.) If only I could have met him with all I've learned about him in the years since. I barely knew who he was back then.


    Keith:
    "I always felt that this was the most thematically-consistent "regeneration" season, running with a theme of entropy/decay and rebirth that culminates in the death of Doctor 4 and his rebirth as Doctor 5 (rather than most seasons where the Doctor just has a bunch of adventures and finishes with one episode in which he just happens to regenerate)."

    I agree. Which makes it all the more bizarre, considering, as far as I know, Tom Baker had no thought or intention of leaving until he was in the middle of shooting "THE KEEPER OF TRAKEN". And then, suddenly "LOGOPOLIS" became a "regeneration" story, and JNT never even had time for a proper "search". he just hired a guy he was already working with on another show at the same time. Nepotism.


    Stephen:
    "A comment which reminds me of Jim Shooter's blog: in which the former editor-in-chief of Marvel comics not only shares his anecdotes, but also analyses how American comics have - for the most part - forgotten the basics of storytelling."

    A walking paradox. Shooter is so brilliant in certain areas, yet in others, he's totally lost. Simply, the last job in the world he should ever have is one where he has to deal with creative people. If he were just a writer, or, a publisher, no problem. But an editor? Disaster in capital letters.

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  16. Dougie:
    "Anyone else see plot similarities between The Krotons and State of Decay?"

    Now that you mention it... the best and the brightest are "chosen", only to be destroyed in one fashion or another. And everyone just accepts that it's the way things are.


    Inkdestroyedmybrush:
    "It certainly is a step back in terms of storytelling in places."

    I dunno. Seemed to fir the story. I was remarking the other day how vastly, infinitely superior the storytelling in "MEGLOS" was to "THE LEISURE HIVE". Who'd a thunk it? Not that both scripts ddn't need work, but "MEGLOS" only appears to need work after you've realy, really thought about it, while "HIVE" it's clear as you're watching that's something's dreadfully wrong.


    BerserkRL:
    "A lightsabre and a magic flaming sword differ in virtue of the different (albeit overlapping) bodies of tropes and narratives they invoke. One invites us to see it as a fairy tale come to life, the other invites us to see it as an extrapolation of present-day science, albeit with a fairy-tale-come-to-life flavouring."

    So where does that put THUNDARR's sun-sword?

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  17. Alan:
    "Star Trek annoys me because I don't understand why they need a ship with rooms and furniture and whatnot. Given how the holodecks are presented, why don't you just make a ship that's one big holodeck with a warp engine attached and then reconfigure the rooms as needed?"

    Hey-- that's how the TARDIS works!


    My late best friend once said he thought "STATE OF DECAY" was the single best vampire story he'd ever seen. (Not sure how many he'd seen, but I'll guess he'd at least seen some clunkers.)

    Aukon reminds me of 3 different characters here-- Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) during one of his "evil" phases; Oliver Reed in almost anything (including "THE BIG SLEEP"); and (when he's telling the guard to die) Count Federico (from "MANDRAGORA").

    But, why, why did anyone ever think a character like Adric could ever be a good idea?


    I do love how the scene of The Doctor and Romana in the cell, where he mentions Kam-Po (if not by name) mirrors the one with Jo in "THE TIME MONSTER". Then, when he's hit in the face with the door, I was reminded of how the exact same thing happened to Colin in "REVELATION".

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  18. It's probably far too late to comment on this entry, but I just rewatched this last night, and enjoyed it more than I ever have before, even when I was massively into vampires (almost exactly 20 years ago). It's terrifically atmospheric, the vampires' acting doesn't get REALLY over-the-top until the episode 3 cliffhanger and beyond, and Lalla and Tom are fantastic. Even Matthew is mostly watchable, especially since he gets a chance to doff the yellow pajamas briefly. Shame he didn't keep the velvet togs.

    I'm surprised you didn't comment more on the class element here, though it's a little thin on the ground, so maybe that's why. I'm not sure I follow your reasoning on the "universal narrative" piece, though. Maybe I don't know what those words specifically mean to you and your intellectual tradition.

    I'm also not sure that the Great Vampire was defeated by "ancient artifacts." Ancient lore, yes, but the actual instrument of destruction was an Earth-built scoutship. I suppose it's reasonably ancient by this point in the story, but it's not a magic Gallifreyan sword so much as a piece of technology fallen into disuse and forgotten by the vampires (with whose original human selves it was contemporaneous). It seemed a little contrived that K9 didn't have enough of a search engine to find the particular emergency instruction they needed, but I suppose part of it was the dramatic need to have Tom Baker recite the legend rather than John Leeson. However, I also think it's significant that these aren't actual books the Doctor fishes out of some storeroom on the TARDIS -- it's not as if it doesn't have printed manuals or records -- but punch cards. The knowledge is still bound up with technology (just as the crew manifest from the Hydrax is in episode 1), tying in with the overall notion that knowledge is knowledge, whether scientific or literary. The ancient is valuable here not because it's mystical and not merely because it's old, but because it's a time when knowledge and technology were still permitted -- a time before the decay.

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