Monday, January 30, 2012
So if you want to suggest that 2000 AD is one of the most important British science fiction publications ever, period, you're not exactly short on ammunition for your case. On the other hand, generally speaking, if you want to argue that it was one of the best... well, now you're in a bit of a harder situation. Because as vital as 2000 AD was and at times still is, it's not exactly... good.
First some background. In late 1975 an editor at IPC Magazines got an inkling that science fiction might hit it big soon and hired Pat Mills to develop it. Pat Mills had overseen two previous comics aimed at the same age group - Battle Picture Weekly and the infamous Action, which was sufficiently violent and blood-soaked to as to piss off Mary Whitehouse. 2000 AD was a stunning example in the same vein. There were five strips in its first issue - sorry, prog - Invasion, Dan Dare, Harlem Heroes, Flesh, and M.A.C.H. 1. Almost all of them are gloriously and tastelessly violent - only Dan Dare, reimagined as a more properly "futuristic" strip, displays even a glimmer of basic taste. Harlem Heroes is about a sport that combines "football, boxing, kung fu, and basketball," while M.A.C.H. 1 was an ultraviolent Six Million Dollar Man ripoff. Invasion was about working class British men violently resisting Soviet... sorry, Volgan occupation. And Flesh, perhaps the greatest of all of them, was about time traveling dinosaur farmers and a particularly murderous T-Rex.
That said, this basic aesthetic of 2000 AD is perhaps better summarized by the strip that replaced Flesh - a sixteen issue job that is rarely mentioned as one of the absolute classics of 2000 AD, despite being absolutely fantastic in every regard. I am speaking, of course, of Shako. Shako tells the story of a particularly homicidal polar bear who has swallowed some vital military hardware and is being chased by government agents. It is, in practice, nothing more than sixteen short strips of a polar bear violently slaughtering people in improbable and needlessly imaginative ways. Though really, little needs to be said about Shako beyond its tagline: Shako! The Only Bear on the CIA Death List! This, in a nutshell, is what 2000 AD was - a comics magazine of completely and utterly insane premises that was willing to execute those premises with a reckless and manic glee well captured by its fictional editor/overlord, Tharg - a futuristic galactic conquerer turned British comics editor who excitedly praised the comic's "thrill power" with a gusto that would make John Nathan-Turner blush if he wouldn't have been instantly vaporized by Tharg for entertainingly specious reasons.
All of which said, the real heart of 2000 AD is Judge Dredd. Originally intended to launch in prog one, Dredd was held back a prog due to not quite being ready in time. But he quickly and understandably became the magazine's signature feature. On a superficial level Judge Dredd is much like all of the other 2000 AD strips. He's a police officer in a futuristic city who is also authorized to dispense justice on the spot and who is a complete authoritarian hardass who thus solves every problem imaginable by shooting it, sometimes repeatedly. But what's interesting about Judge Dredd is that underneath the extravagant violence is a rather wicked bit of intelligent satire. The entire premise of Judge Dredd rapidly becomes that the audience is rooting for a character who is obviously a bad guy.
This move underlies much of what appeals about 2000 AD. In its earliest days what is compelling about it is its stark anti-authoritarian streak. A character like Bill Savage, the protagonist of Invasion, was a classic anti-authoritarian tough guy who defied the rules and saved the day. Even in a strip without such an overtly rebellious lead, though, there's an ostentatious brashness to 2000 AD. A strip like Shako is so needlessly violent and so cavalier with its plotting as to appear deliberate. There's the sense, in other words, that 2000 AD is just trying to piss off Mary Whitehouse so it can laugh in her face after. Tis, at least, is fun, and is what leads to the usual description of 2000 AD having a "punk" sensibility. And notably, thus far the most 2000 AD-style story Doctor Who has televised is probably The Sun Makers.
But as ever, punk's real apotheosis is its destruction and replacement with post-punk. We saw it in Doctor Who, and 2000 AD is no different. 2000 AD's pure punk phase lasted one prog. Prog 2, with the introduction of Judge Dredd, moved on immediately to the post-punk phase in which the anti-authoritarian streak was applied to the ultimate establishment figure. Judge Dredd was a punk who not only worked for the man, he was the living embodiment of the man's power. He's the punk antihero who hasn't so much sold out as existed from the first moment on the side of established power. And the tension implicit in this is simply allowed to stand. Dredd simultaneously embodies a punk sensibility and a biting critique of the impotent silliness of grown men in acting like angry children.
This is the essential genius of a lot of 2000 AD - its awareness of its own excessiveness and its tendency to undercut it. But Judge Dredd, with its absurdly over the top settings (Mega City One was explicitly cited by Russell T. Davies as the inspiration for New New York in Gridlock) and active willingness to play with the unsympathetic nature of its protagonist (one of its best-regarded story arcs is about Dredd violently putting down pro-democracy protesters), pushes this approach to a different level. The undercutting in Judge Dredd isn't just a matter of the comic being ostentatiously over the top but a matter of active self-critique. Judge Dredd is continually calling into question its own pleasurability. It defies the reader to enjoy it even as it wallows in its own over the top excess.
It's a good trick, and one that 2000 AD mirrored in a number of other classic strips - Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, and Sláine all follow the basic approach of juxtaposing excessive and over the top violence with a sort of aggressively materialist and cynical view of the world that subjects that view to active critique. But as I said, it's not quite good. 2000 AD is something that one respects more than one enjoys, if you will. Because its best moments go out of the way to be off-putting and alienating, it actively resists letting you just fall in love with it. And so as clever as this Judge Dredd sort of approach is, it's not a trick upon which you build an entire takeover of another country's comic book industry.
For that we need Alan Moore. To be fair, in my worldview we always need Alan Moore. I spent a while trying to figure out how many different Alan Moore entries to do over the course of this blog before realizing that the correct answer is "write a book on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as modern day magical warfare after I finish the Wonder Woman project and mostly leave it out of this blog." I mean, obviously the two projects intersect like mad, but yes. One of tentatively three entries in which Alan Moore will be substantively dealt with. (Though the third is a bit nebulous.)
Alan Moore is, at the end of the day, the most important of the British Invasion comics writers. Yes, Neil Gaiman surpasses him in raw popularity, but Gaiman broke in largely because he could imitate Alan Moore reasonably well. Sure, his style has improved since then, but he still started as an Alan Moore clone. Grant Morrison would desperately like to be the most important of the British Invasion comics writers, but the fact that Grant Morrison badmouths Alan Moore almost whenever he gets the chance while Moore has not, to my knowledge, ever spoken Grant Morrison's name out loud pretty much says what there is to say about the asymmetry in that rivalry. No, at the end of the day Alan Moore is the one with the most influence. He's the one who ultimately defines his era. You can tell, because he displays that trait that defines the truly influential - he has a host of imitations, and no two of them seem able to agree on what it is that defines his style. And while 2000 AD is not the start of Alan Moore's career, it's pretty darn early in that career. Which means that this is where we ought square away what makes Alan Moore so distinctive and influential.
The overwhelming majority of Alan Moore's 2000 AD work consists of short pieces that are only a few pages long. He has three longer pieces - the ET knockoff Skizz, the unfinished epic The Ballad of Halo Jones, and the D.R. and Quinch strips. And the latter of those are still fairly short - a series of humor pieces where no story lasted more than five installments or so. Everything else consisted of short four-page stories in the recurring series of Tharg's Future Shocks or Time Twisters.
Given the extent to which Moore is known for a sort of perverse verbosity (he's been cackling madly in several interviews lately about how his new novel is longer than the Bible and how he hopes people will call it the Really Good Book) this sort of ultra-short format is an interesting place to watch him work, particularly so early in his career before he'd really settled into a firm style or voice. One can see what really made Alan Moore stand out, even at the start of his career, from everyone else around him.
The first thing is the one that is most superficially obvious about Moore, which is that Alan Moore is an exceedingly intelligent man. His knowledge of and ability to pastiche genres is startlingly vast, and while it's not until the denser and more sprawling work of the 1990s that this tendency really starts to show, the Future Shocks give him plenty of opportunities to show off his broad mastery of genres. He's also deft at coming up with clever solutions and ideas - few of his stories lack at least one neat or surprising twist somewhere in the story.
He is also an arch-formalist. More than almost any other comics writer Moore has spent an astonishing amount of time thinking about the mechanics of the medium and how to use them to tell stories. This isn't as clear in his 2000 AD work where the constraints of the format naturally limit what he can do, but even in this early work, particularly in his Time Twisters stories, there's moments where you can see the beginnings of his later arch-formalism.
This sort of cleverness is always a sound approach, although of Moore's strengths it is also the one that most lends itself to cynical readings. I rarely end up linking to my more properly academic work from here, but this piece from a special issue of ImageTexT I edited a while back on Neil Gaiman's comic work forms a fairly succinct account of the ethical and aesthetic problems this sort of raw cleverness can form. And, if we're being fully open about it we should note that Steven Moffat, with his tendency to have the resolutions of episodes hinge on things like wordplay based on phone lock screens, suffers from/enjoys the same sort of popularity based on cleverness. In short, Moore, Gaiman, and Moffat are all popular for roughly the same reason - they're very clever in ways that make the audience feel clever for keeping up with or appreciating them. It works, but in and of itself it's not enough.
But there's a second trick Moore has up his sleeve, and it's both the one that really defines him as a comics writer and that is far, far less often imitated. And that's that Moore is unmatched in his ability to get at the emotional content of a fantastic scenario. Even in a relatively early and unremarkable story like 1980's "The Dating Game" he manages to take a drab old "the city's computer has gone mad and is doing terrible things to people" scenario and spin it into a kind of creepily poignant yarn about a computer that has fallen in love with a man and started to stalk him before going a bit Fatal Attraction on him.
But Moore's real strength was in pieces like "The Reversible Man," a four page version of the simple premise of narrating a human life completely backwards in which he wrings delightfully ironic pathos out of moments like coming back from a funeral to meet his mother in the hospital for the first time. (Her condition gradually improves and she moves in with him and his wife.) But even on a smaller level, Moore is meticulous about having emotional motivations for characters. Even in a humorous piece like "The Wages of Sin" he builds his parodic treatment of stereotypical intergalactic conquerer villains around a washed up repairman in the fading Veeblefetzer market.
For all that I adore the arcs of his philosophy and his inventiveness, this, in the end, is the real core of why Alan Moore was and is such a successful writer. He is phenomenally good at finding ways to use high concept science fiction and fantasy as a way into stories about everyday emotional experience. He is not the first or the only writer to do so, but he was very good at it, and his capacity to wed that to a sort of manic inventiveness and formal bravado propelled him to the top of his field.
And this, in turn, explains the other real revolution that took place within 2000 AD and its descendants. Even Judge Dredd benefited concretely from this approach, eventually and in Moore's wake telling stories in which the over the top antics of Mega City One got used as the backdrop for remarkably affecting stories about the city's inhabitants, often treating Dredd himself as a force of nature haunting the city instead of as a character. It wasn't just a new type of comics storytelling, it was in many ways a new type of popular science fiction storytelling - one whose later influence on people like Joss Whedon and, let's be honest here, Russell T. Davies was obvious.
And so while large swaths of 2000 AD are sophomoric and blood soaked odes to ludicrousness (and CIA Death Listed bears) it marked a major shift in what science fiction was and could be in the popular consciousness - one that quickly spread over to the US and became one the dominant paradigms of halfway decent science fiction.
And, of course, the 2000 AD crowd also ended up having a bit to do with Doctor Who, but that's another post.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Peter Murphy had to tone it down a bit before Bauhaus
really took off.
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...
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
But I want a television in my tummy!
In real news, six IRA prisoners in Maze prison begin a hunger strike that lasts through December. El Salvador and Honduras resolve to put a border dispute to the International Court of Justice to decide. The border dispute stemmed from the 1969 “Football War,” the first war to be directly caused by a football result. The Polish government reluctantly recognizes Solidarity, Jimmy Carter gets his ass kicked by Ronald Reagan, and Voyager I flies by Saturn.
While on television things begin to get interesting. Some people suggest that this is the true beginning of the John Nathan-Turner era. This claim, however, is based on the difficult to defend assertion that there is a unitary John Nathan-Turner era. Nathan-Turner oversaw four script editors, three of whom deserve to have eras named after them. And one of those - Eric Saward - oversaw the bulk of five seasons and two Doctors, stretching the notion of the era to something in the vicinity of its breaking point there alone.
No, the Nathan-Turner era, inasmuch as such a creature can be said to exist at all, firmly began with The Leisure Hive and the ostentatious drive for change that it entailed. Nevertheless, there’s clearly something that shifts here. The most superficial aspect of it is Adric, who I suppose I have to deal with. Like so much of the John Nathan-Turner era, however, it is difficult to deal with Adric in the correct order. His first moment on screen is haunted by what’s to come. A commenter way back in Planet of the Spiders observed that the story is far better when Jon Pertwee regenerates into a funny looking man with curly hair instead of into Tom Baker. A similar principle applies here. Knowing what becomes of Adric makes every moment he is on the screen resonate oddly and in a way it could not possibly have at the time.
Added to this is the difficulty of Matthew Waterhouse himself. It is difficult to find any creative figure associated with the show that fewer people have anything good to say about than Matthew Waterhouse. He is notable for being, one of only two living leading actors on Doctor Who to have never reprised their roles (the other being Jackie Lane). It is a challenge to find kind words from any of his co-stars about him. One ought be fair - he was eighteen when he took the role. That the work I did and the gossip of people who knew me when I was eighteen is not how I am primarily known to the world can only be called a blessing. But Waterhouse is difficult to like even now, and his autobiography about his time on the series is an... interesting document to say the least.
But we’re putting lipstick on a pig here. The root of the problem is that Matthew Waterhouse was godawful in the role of Adric. I mean, this is an era where even K-9 - a character expressly designed for younger children - was being used in more sophisticated and complex ways. In the next story the musical cues begin making metatextual jokes about K-9, whereas in this story his decapitated head is waved around by the Doctor as a fetishistic totem to ward off swamp creatures. It’s the most interesting and complex use of the concept the series has seen to date (admittedly a low bar to clear). So when that is contrasted with Matthew Waterhouse’s performance of Adric, an overly emotive mess consisting of no successfully communicated emotions other than petulance and vanity, it is very, very hard to come up with anything good to say about the character. He’s a trainwreck of the sort that the series hasn’t seen since Mike Yates.
It’s tempting to try to build this out into a larger critique of John Nathan-Turner’s casting, but the fact of the matter is that he’s no more offensive than the children in The Horns of Nimon or than any number of other unfortunate moments in Graham Williams’s casting of the series. Graham Williams avoided ever making this bad a casting decision in the leads, but given that Williams only cast leads twice (plus two K-9s, only one of whom can even be argued to be flawed) that’s hardly vicious. John Nathan-Turner oversaw the casting of nine more leads in his time on Doctor Who, and while one or two can be quibbled with he never botched another quite this badly. (Casting was never the problem with Colin Baker, and Bonnie Langford has her charm.) Yes, his guest actor policy occasionally led to some questionable decisions, but the fact of the matter is that Waterhouse was no worse than plenty of what came before and that the casting improved dramatically over time. The only thing that really hurts is that he’s a regular.
It’s easier to build a critique of Adric’s high-concept nature. But even there, companions have been in high concept mode since Leela. Sarah Jane was the last “generic female assistant” companion for nearly a decade. Leela and Romana were both high concept, and everyone else in the classic series save Peri is as well. But at least in this critique there’s a grain of truth. Certainly it’s unmistakable that Nathan-Turner oversaw a shift in the series where it became more high concept than it had ever been. Increasingly many stories had blockbuster taglines and single catchy concepts (often, in the problematic middle years, “the return of X,” usually regardless of whether or not X was something anyone gave a crap about).
The question is whether or not that’s a bad thing. “High concept” is an epithet among the highbrow, but given that we’ve spent the better part of a year here taking Doctor Who very, very seriously any claim we might have to highbrow values is probably shot to hell. So let’s take it for what it is. The tag “high concept,” when used derisively, just means that the work is easily summed up in a single sentence. This is not actually entirely appropriate for Full Circle. While its idea - a planet with three species that turn out to be different forms of one species, one of which delusionally believes that it’s actually a species of alien colonists - is relatively simple, it lacks the movie poster punch of something like Alien.
A better definition of high concept is one we’ve been using for a while without attaching it to that phrase, which is a mode of storytelling in which every aspect of technique is pointing in the same direction. A high concept film, in this definition, is not merely one that has a simple premise, but one where every creative decision is made to promote and advance a single aesthetic goal.
This is much harder to criticize. Superficially, and About Time hints at this objection, it seems to mark a rejection of the multiple simultaneous audiences that characterized the Williams era. But closer observation of Full Circle shows that this doesn’t hold. There are clear components of the story that are designed for different audience segments, with children expected to like the Outsiders, teens expected to enjoy the science bits, and adults given some human drama anchored by the unsurprisingly fabulous George Baker. What’s different is not the multiple modes of reception, but rather what they’re supposed to do. The Williams era often held to a model akin to that of the Adam West Batman series where a younger audience was expected to take it seriously while an older audience knew enough to laugh at it. But here even though the show is working for multiple simultaneous audiences, every part of the audience is expected to get more or less the same aesthetic result out of it. It’s using different approaches to get to the same end as opposed to working towards multiple different ends.
This gets us towards the other way in which Full Circle marks a concrete turning point in Doctor Who. It is, if nothing else, the beginning of the Bidmead era. But as with everything else about this story we’re forced to hedge and qualify a little. For one thing, the shuffled production order complicates this. The production order actually goes State of Decay-Meglos-Full Circle. And over those three stories you can see Bidmead successfully developing a distinct style and launching it in a very concrete and sensible way. But it’s worth observing exactly how he does this. With State of Decay he applies his style to what was, in most regards, a Hinchcliffe-era script. (More, obviously, on Friday.) With Meglos he applies it to a story fully in the Williams style (whereas with The Leisure Hive he flailed around desperately trying to “fix” a Williams script).
This script, then, is the culmination of that. Andrew Smith is in many ways the first modern Doctor Who writer. Tat Wood argues in the sixth volume of About Time that the writers of the Cartmel era were all working from a folk memory of what the series was, and credits this with the turnaround of the show in those years. What is significant about this is that it means the writers of that era were all on some level fans of the show - they were not just writing stories for Doctor Who but were writing from a concrete and lived experience of what Doctor Who stories were. Certainly that characterizes every script written for the new series, and it’s unimaginable that there will ever be many, if any at all, scripts in the future that are not written by people who are writing Doctor Who based in part on a memory of watching it.
But Andrew Smith is the first writer this is true of. And so we get something interesting. Again, Miles and Wood come close to observing this by noting how the script incorporates stock elements of Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, and Malcolm Hulke scripts. But what they don’t quite nail down precisely is the consequence of all of this. This is the first time that Doctor Who has done a story that is, at its core, the distilled essence of everything that had previously made Doctor Who good. Sure, it’s done ultra-traditional stories before - most obviously Planet of the Spiders, which is unrepentantly a greatest hits reel of the Pertwee era. But those are retrospectives of a single era. This is a retrospective of, in many ways, the entire show. It contains bits of everything that the show did frequently enough to become a trope.
But crucially, it doesn’t do them all out of a sense of nostalgia or cynicism. Smith is changing things around. The tropes aren’t used for their own sake but because Smith is so steeped in Doctor Who that its tropes are completely instinctive to him. So when you get the foolish and bureaucratic old men who are lying to the entire population - a vintage Dicks/Holmes concept - that’s immediately undercut when you find out that they’re only lying because they’ve lost the manual to their spaceship and can’t fly it. The conflict between the people and those in charge, which previously would have been the plot of an entire story - indeed, which next story is the plot of an entire story - is here just a shorthand to get at a different story entirely.
On top of this, there's a sense of seriousness and drama to it. With a script that's just got its head down and is doing its work there are opportunities for depth of acting that have been missing. Tom Baker, for all that is said about how miserable he was on the program and how unpleasant he was, is once again on form in a way he hasn't been since Season 14. When he gets angry here there's a palpable depth to his rage that is new. And the death of the Marsh Child is played so straight as to be devastatingly effective.
Unfortunately it’s a while before this sheer and easy comfort with the past of the show becomes standard issue. Smith, for whatever reason, never pens another script, and as I said it’s not really until the Cartmel era that writers working from an instinctive understanding of what Doctor Who is become the norm. But whatever other weaknesses the script has - and there certainly are a fair few - the fact that the script is so comfortable with being Doctor Who is a major advantage that lets Bidmead, in his edits of it, really shine and do what he’s trying to do.
Which brings us back to the strange paradox of Christopher Bidmead - the fact that despite being the most openly pro-science and anti-magic script editor Doctor Who has ever had he ends up overseeing some of the most magic-filled stories in Doctor Who. On the one hand this is ostensibly a story about evolution that’s meant to teach all the little boys and girls of the United Kingdom how that works. On the other it has next to no understanding of how it works, what timeframe it works over, and postulates a bizarre system in which spiders, humans, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon are all meaningfully the same species.
Miles and Wood indulge in a long and relatively fun essay entitled “How Does Evolution Work” on this point that suggests various scientific models that could rescue evolution in Doctor Who from its obvious scientific difficulties (most obviously the fact that virtually every intelligent lifeform in the universe visually resembles British character actors), but the essay is firmly a case of trying to find a diegetic solution to a non-diegetic problem. Any in-universe explanation for the phenomenon is really just window dressing for the obvious answer that every intelligent lifeform in the universe is being portrayed by British character actors.
But what’s key to understand is that the non-diegetic answer is, in most regards, the superior one. I mean, if you actually want to understand Doctor Who the fact of the matter is that what is going on is not primarily based on some elaborate in-universe explanation about the origins of life. It’s based on the fact that the show is being made in England. We’re back, in other words, to my old anti-realist argument about how art is generally better understood as a constructed aesthetic experience than it is as gossip about imaginary people.
But this is what is so interesting about Bidmead. For all of his pro-rationalist leanings, he is ruthless about subjecting science to the larger concerns of narrative. What we noticed in Meglos about the chronic hysteresis only becomes more extreme here. Alzarius is a planet where the laws of evolution serve the plot of the story in an unabashed manner. The three species we see are all differing forms of one another despite the improbability of that. The story is set in a moment where the evolutionary turmoil of the planet is coming to a head. Everything, in other words, is actively geared towards the matter of telling this specific story. The story may be, on one level, a primer on evolution, but it’s a primer where every aspect of evolution is subject to a larger narrative goal.
The State of Decay-Meglos-Full Circle trilogy, then, is where Bidmead shows what he can do. These are the three stories in which he shows how his vision of what Doctor Who can be improves existing models of Doctor Who. From a production standpoint, he moves through both previous versions of Doctor Who - the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras - and in each case attempts an improvement in which he shows how his approach expands on the potential of the previous models. And now, having completed those, he finishes with this, a script that takes the best of the entirety of Doctor Who. And over it he lays his scientific-minded approach, showing how the intersections of real scientific ideas with narrative structures can tell increasingly interesting stories.
Monday, January 23, 2012
By this point Baker's relationship with Ward had grown a
While in real news, it's announced that The Evening News will be closing and merging with The Evening Standard, James Callaghan announces that he will resign as leader of the Labour Party, the Metro is released by British Leyland, and Margaret Thatcher gives her "The lady's not for turning" speech in which she basically declares that she doesn't much care if her economic policies are disastrous, she's not going to change them. They are, and she doesn't.
And if none of that sounds terribly exciting, you should see what's on television, namely Meglos. To paraphrase an old joke, it's terribly boring, plus the episodes are too short. But all of this masks something approximating a sensible decision. Meglos is the second story of the John Nathan-Turner era to make it to screen, but it's actually the third story of the era to be made, coming after State of Decay in production. Notably, State of Decay features Adric, the new companion, meaning that Meglos marks an active decision to go back and create a fill-in story before Adric's introduction instead of transitioning straight into the E-Space stories.
On the one hand this means that the Nathan-Turner era began with the three stories least like how it meant to carry on. Two were by and large Graham Williams stories with the serial numbers filed off, and the third is basically a Philip Hinchcliffe story. But even given this there is a sense that a deliberate effort to make a steady transition away from the Williams era and towards a new model. The second, subtler John Nathan-Turner revolution is rumbling along here. It's just that this is an excruciatingly rocky step along the way. The Leisure Hive was rocky, but this is an out and out disaster.
First, then, why? Frankly, the answer here is writers again. It's almost entirely that simple. Certainly, and this doesn't get admitted enough, for all that the script is two steps backwards from the Williams era the production is at least one step forward. It's clear that the show is trying to do more than point cameras at Tom Baker and some other people and hope entertainment happens. That isn't anywhere near enough, but it's something. But my God, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch turn out an insipid script almost entirely lacking in characterization or depth. Bidmead focuses more on getting the science right than on improving it. The result is horribly flat and insipid.
Christopher H. Bidmead is an interesting figure. There are some writers who come across much better and saner in interviews than they do in their scripts. Bidmead, on the other hand, falls into the opposite and usually much more interesting category. His three scripts for the program are all phenomenally good, but reading him actually talk about what he was trying to do with Doctor Who makes him come off as a bewildering hack of a writer who believed that the problems with Doctor Who were an excess of comedy and that it was too "magical." You can generally count on zero hands how often removing comedy and magic from Doctor Who is going to be a recipe for success.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Bidmead's tenure is that he does such a wretched job of removing magic from the series. Even in this story the dodecahedron gives the sense of being powerful because it's a Platonic solid as opposed to because it works on anything resembling an actual scientific principle. And in future stories, most obviously his own scripts, the sense that there might be some magical thinking underlying them becomes even more unavoidable.
By any standards the underlying ideas here are bonkers. And not just the dodecahedron's reliance on Plato Power either. Meglos's shapechanging abilities do not seem to come from any logic or concept. He apparently needs to be merged with an Earthling to change shape, but why this is and why an Earthling instead of, for instance, a much nearer by species is wholly unclear. And then there's the chronic hysteresis.
In practice, the chronic hysteresis is simply a time loop. But as time loops go it's one of the strangest we've seen. The way that the Doctor and Romana are able to get out of it is by mimicing their own actions out of sync with the loop and thus throw the loop out of phase apparently by "tricking" it. As Miles and Wood point out at great length, this is completely insane from any rational perspective. It's one of the most non-sensical time loops ever in the series. And perhaps most interestingly, it's overtly magical. It makes sense only if the time loop - and thus the universe itself - is not only aware but understands itself through the manipulation of symbols and language. Saying the right words tricks it. It is the exact inverse of everything that Bidmead ostensibly believes about the program.
Except that it actually does make sense. Bidmead, apparently, was responsible for renaming the loop a "chronic hysteresis." And those words are significant. "Chronic" is sensible enough - ongoing, continual, that's all sensible language for "caught in something for all eternity." But "hysteresis" is an odder word. What it specifically means is that there is a bit of lag between cause and effect in a system. It's not, in and of itself, the right word for a time loop. It has nothing to do with recursion or reiteration. But it just about makes sense as a description of this particular type of loop. After the initial set of repeated actions the Doctor and Romana get a few seconds of awareness of what's happening before they have to go repeat it. There is, in other words, a point of lag in it. And a hysteresis would at least in some sense be meaningfully interacted with by throwing it "out of phase," which is the term the Doctor uses - i.e. altering the nature of the gap.
What we're faced with, in other words, is on the one hand something that overtly works like magic in the "manipulation of the universe through the manipulation of symbols" sense of the concept but that also clearly adheres to a set of fixed and consistent rules. Which is fair enough. Certainly "magic" isn't the most unreasonable shorthand ever for "when there are no rules governing what happens." And it appears that this is the sense that Bidmead means his "less magic" prescription for Doctor Who. That aspects of the story have to work according to fixed rules as opposed to arbitrarily. Thus if the time loop is going to be broken in that way the time loop has to be consistently conceptualized as something that can be broken in that way.
What's interesting about this is that it marks an explicit transition in the sorts of things that appear in Doctor Who stories. For much of Tom Baker's tenure he's solved problems by inventing spurious branches of science and applying them to things. So, for instance, in The Pirate Planet he creates "a hyperspatial forceshield around the shrunken planets" before "invert[ing] the gravity field" of it. This is not even remotely meaningful. It's just arbitrary technobabble. It makes sense because it fills a gap in the plot usefully and sounds like a vaguely credible way for how the Doctor might have solved the problem he was facing at that particular moment in time.
But the chronic hysteresis is different. Instead of being a solution that fills in a gap in the narrative it's an object with a defined set of rules that the Doctor interacts with. In this regard it's much more like a hard "SF" sort of concept - a scientific idea that must be solved like a puzzle. Except that instead of working like science it works symbolically, like language. It's important to stress that this isn't just a switch in the sorts of stories that are told. It's a distinct switch towards the unification of concept and event that we've been talking about for a while now. Instead of having dialogue that simply explains what happened Doctor Who, under Bidmead, is trying to have its ideas dictate the way in which they are interacted with. This makes it much easier to engage in more visual storytelling because the actions that the Doctor takes are ones that extend not from his cleverness but from the nature of the world he's in.
There are also some strong bits of the production. After a rather crass and overbearing score by Peter Howell in The Leisure Hive we get a score that is at times genuinely effective. Dudley Simpson's scores get more of a bad reputation than they perhaps deserve, amounting usually to "bland and occasionally irritating wallpaper" as opposed to "sins against man and God," but the music in Meglos at times actually starts to make it clear why replacing him wasn't just a case of shaking things up but a positive change. There are, in fact, moments where the music manages to make the Tigellan city actually seem mystical and wondrous. Which is impressive, because there's nothing else that contributes even remotely to that impression.
The other thing that's at least decent about Meglos is the acting, or at least, some of it. Much has been made by several people about Tom Baker's supposed lack of enthusiasm in this season. While it is true that over the course of the first few stories filmed he was apparently quite ill, and this does put a visible damper on his performance, as Tat Wood puts it in one of the best sentences in all of About Time, he "is having fun finding ways of suggesting he's a mad cactus." It's known that Baker did not get along entirely well with Nathan-Turner and his attempts to rein in Baker's more self-indulgent tendencies. But as with the cases where Pertwee was not entirely happy with things, Baker is in many ways improved by the curtailing. Far from being off his game he is, in this season, much closer to the character as he was at the height of the Hinchcliffe era.
Credit also has to go to the "cactus Baker" makeup, photos of which are one of the more popular and common images from this era. The reasons are straightforward enough - it's a fantastic and unnerving image that turns the popularity of the actor and his character on its ear. It's what Baker and Martin were trying to get with having the Doctor be possessed in The Invisible Enemy, but done this time with a simpler and yet more dramatic physical transformation that lands much more squarely in the realm of "creepy."
And finally some mention must go to Jacqueline Hill, returning to the program after far too many years as Lexa, the religious zealot/secondary antagonist of the story. Given next to nothing to work with as far as her character goes Hill, surprising absolutely no one who has ever seen her in anything, nails it and is one of the strongest parts of the episode by far. She's as wasted in it as she was in several parts of the Hartnell era, but carries off the same steady dignity that is so familiar from that era. She remains a direly under-appreciated actress who deserved a longer and more extravagantly prestigious career than she ever got. But it's marvelous to see her again.
Past that, however, there's not a lot to say about the story that's terribly interesting. It introduces another new piece of filming technology - a technique called Scene Sync that's basically CSO that allows camera movement. Its fourth episode may actually have fewer minutes of new footage than most of The Mind Robber. And it's over so we can move on to more interesting things. So there you go.
Friday, January 20, 2012
|Tom Baker increasingly gets the sense that he's stayed in|
this role a little too long.
Since Graham Crowden cracked up while dying and ignoring what we covered in the hypothetical during Shada, the Soviet Union has its first rock music festival, then kills fifty as a Volstok-2M rocket explodes on the launchpad. The US announces it will boycott the 1980 Olympics, and also does so. Riots break out in the St. Pauls area of Bristol. The origins of the riot are unclear, but the underlying racial tensions and anger over police racial profiling are searingly obvious. The US severs diplomatic relations with Iran and mounts a disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages held there.
Speaking of Iran, terrorists take over the Iranian embassy in London. the SAS retakes it five days later. Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, kills himself. A month later Joy Division has its first charting single with "Love Will Tear Us Apart. Both The Empire Strikes Back and Pac-Man come out, one the day after the other. CNN is launched and, eight days later, gets to cover Richard Pryor immolating himself while trying to freebase cocaine. 1700 people die in a heat wave in the US. And Ronald Reagan wins the Republican nomination for President at a convention where, bowing to pressure from the Religious Right, the party drops its support for the Equal Rights Amendment. By legend copies of JG Ballard's story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" are passed around at the convention by people mistaking them as a serious study of Reagan's strengths as a candidate.
While during this story Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope run to raise awareness of cancer comes to an end when it turns out that his cancer has spread to his lungs. There's a military coup in Turkey, the Solidarity union is founded in Poland after weeks of strikes in Gdansk, and, um… not a lot else, I'm afraid, so let's move on to The Leisure Hive.
As I've suggested in several entries, the drama of the gap between the Williams and Nathan-Turner eras is in many ways a product of Nathan-Turner's own invention. There are many ways to frame this fact. Certainly what I've referred to as the fan-industrial complex plays in. This is visible even in looking at artifacts from the time period. What is now Doctor Who Magazine started in the closing days of the Williams era as Doctor Who Weekly and consisted purely of comics and lashed together text pieces on the history of the program. But as Nathan-Turner took over two things happened. First, the magazine changed to Doctor Who Monthly. Second, and more importantly, it started to actively engage with the program that was actually on the air.
Let's say that again, because it's a fact about the magazine that is absolutely crucial to everything that's going to happen over the next decade that is nevertheless almost wholly unremarked on. Durng the Williams era, which the magazine overlapped for a good few months, the magazine did not actually directly refer to what was going on in Doctor Who itself at all save for in its letter pages. It was purely a Doctor Who comic book with some text pieces. Then John Nathan-Turner took over and began implementing the obvious practice of actually connecting to the TV series. This started with a location report of the Brighton filming for The Leisure Hive, then continued with photo previews of upcoming stories, interviews with Nathan-Turner, the magazine's first ever review of a televised story (Jeremy Bentham's exceedingly congratulatory take on The Leisure Hive, which went out of its way to credit John Nathan-Turner with immediately improving the show's quality), an end-of-season retrospective with John Nathan-Turner, etc.
In other words, as of this story Doctor Who began historicizing itself even as it was made. The paratext (a term in literary criticism and theory that basically means "all the stuff about a book that isn't the actual string of characters constituting the book" - i.e. the cover, the advertising, interviews with the author, etc) of Doctor Who is, as of now, part of Doctor Who. And this is not something that has ever or will ever stop. From The Leisure Hive on any competent reading of Doctor Who has to remain aware of the paratext because the paratext is genuinely part of the storytelling. Things happen on screen that have dramatic resonance provided to them by what happens off-screen.
Last entry I suggested that there were techniques that were unique to television. This is one of them - an expansion of the principle suggested by the cliffhanger that has been invoked by this blog for some time. If we take the cliffhanger not as a momentary event but as a week-long process of interaction with the narrative then Nathan-Turner's approach of having a continual story of Doctor Who's production running alongside the show is an expansion of this. Doctor Who, from this point on, begins actively telling its story not merely through what happens on screen but through what happens off the screen and during the moments the show is not transmitting. (Eventually a paratextual model of film arises - it's central to the way that the "summer blockbuster" now works, with the actual release of the movie merely being the climactic event of an often years-long paratextual piece of storytelling - but it starts with television and Doctor Who is an early adopter.)
If we wanted to be cheeky, and we kind of do because that's just how we are, we could suggest that this, more than anything, is the real revolution of the Nathan-Turner years. Certainly it is a real revolution, and one that eventually proves to have a nasty, nasty downside for the program. The fan-industrial complex and all of its problems are, in many ways, simply a disastrous execution of this idea of using the paratext of television as part of the storytelling. To some extent this problem can be summed up as "it eventually gets to where the only way to follow Doctor Who is to be an obsessive fan." And, correspondingly, one of the successes of the new series can be summed up as "it figured out how to make much of the paratext a value-added extra instead of a prerequisite." (Though notably, some paratext is necessary to understanding the show at all. The new series requires that the audience know what a season premiere or a season finale is in a way that the classic series never did.)
But it's not. Even if the biggest part of the John Nathan-Turner revolution was in fact the announcement of the John-Nathan Turner revolution, it's not the only part. The nature of paratextual storytelling is that it tends to rely on a fairly complex linkage of events. First the John Nathan-Turner revolution is announced in the pages of Doctor Who Monthly. Then when the series premieres there are a host of superficial but visible changes. A new title sequence, new theme music, a new costume for the Doctor, and a new style to the incidental music all create a strong sense of change. None of these are huge changes to the show, of course. Several are things that have happened before without major comment.
But again you can see Nathan-Turner constructing a complex meta-narrative of Doctor Who. Changing all of those things at once, including something as inviolate as the theme music, which had remained virtually unaltered in its iconic (and most brilliant) Delia Derbyshire arrangement since 1963, makes a powerful statement of reinvention even if you don't do anything else at all. Combined with the bits of heraldry in Doctor Who Monthly you get a very effective performance of a revolution.
I don't mean this to suggest that the John Nathan-Turner revolution was all hype. It wasn't. What I mean to suggest is that the John Nathan-Turner revolution was stage-managed. It was a carefully designed event. Considerable time and effort was made to have The Leisure Hive appear like a big change. And this is where Miles and Wood's competing reviews on this story fall flat. Wood stages a cute little experiment of showing people a clip of The Leisure Hive and a clip of The Nightmare of Eden and asking which one was the "slick, modern" production, and takes the fact that Nightmare of Eden was said to look better as evidence that there was no Nathan-Turner revolution. Miles, for his part, goes to great lengths to show how anyone who was paying attention would have noticed the difference.
But neither of them bother to think about the fact that even someone paying no attention at all would notice that one of the most iconic theme songs in television history had changed. What happens after the fade to the Brighton beach is almost immaterial to this. You don't need to be paying attention. The series is screaming at the top of its lungs "I have been reinvented." That constitutes a reinvention. Anyone watching would have an immediate and tangible sense that something was different. The question is whether they could have articulated what beyond the superficial.
But in some ways it's best if they couldn't. This story and the next are often read as "false starts" for an era that begins in proper with Full Circle. But this attitude misses the point. Nathan-Turner is engaging in a savvier sort of television making than that. There are in effect two Nathan-Turner revolutions that go on simultaneously but at different paces. The first is the visible revolution marked by the paratextual material. The second is a still visible but much subtler revolution, which is slower. Part of this second revolution is the emergence of the paratext as part of Doctor Who, but there are other components of it as well.
These other components also help explain why this was a slow revolution. For one thing, they're considerably more complex - indeed, Nathan-Turner has some genuine problems with some parts of them, which is why both The Leisure Hive and Meglos are kind of weak as stories. For another, large parts of them are simply a matter of accelerating the changes that were already happening in the late Williams era - most obviously in Destiny of the Daleks and The Nightmare of Eden.
Simply put, Nathan-Turner wanted to change the show from being about comedy to being about visual science fiction storytelling. But he made this change over several stories. In this regard, the change is much like previous changes. Hinchcliffe didn't just junk the UNIT format and run off cackling in another direction. He engaged in a two and a half year steady separation of the Doctor from Earth-centric storytelling. Lloyd didn't just abandon historicals in favor of bases under siege in one week. Letts worked within the inherited UNIT structure for six stories before doing Colony in Space.
And Nathan-Turner started with a comedy script from David Fisher that he tried to do a better job with. This had mixed results. His decision to cut out all of the jokes was misguided, not least because it required padding like the absurdly bad sequence in excess of a minute and a half pan across beach chairs on an abandoned Brighton beach. (This also gets at what will eventually prove the more problematic aspect of Nathan-Turner's use of the paratext. He defended it in an interview on the grounds that they had to reintroduce the series and introduce Baker's new costume. Left conspicuously unanswered [and courteously unasked] is why the heck the fact that Tom Baker is wearing new clothes would need to be actively introduced or how 90 seconds of beach chairs accomplished any of this.) The result is a story that feels confused, as if it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Which, to be fair, it doesn't.
But Nathan-Turner also takes a decisive step towards fixing another problem - one that is probably essential to the series surviving the season. Over the course of the Williams era Doctor Who very much became the Tom Baker Show. This is not inherently a bad thing. Tom Baker is a marvelous performer, his Doctor is understandably the most popular of the classic series Doctors, and the Tom Baker Show was reliably entertaining and often much better than anything else going on in an episode. But the Tom Baker Show has one major weakness that Doctor Who doesn't, which is that if Tom Baker leaves it's dead in the water.
Simply put, it's very difficult to imagine how Doctor Who could have survived under Graham Williams if Tom Baker had actually carried through on his frequent threats to quit. Not that Williams couldn't have done anything else - truth be told Williams probably would have made a better show with someone other than Baker starring in it. But that Baker was irreplaceable within the context of what the show was. And The Leisure Hive goes to considerable lengths to decentralize Baker. Sure, the opening - a 90 second boring shot that finally gives us Baker - is as flagrant an instance of "let's all cherish the leading man" as the show has ever engaged in, but by the end of the first episode Baker is being rent from limb to limb as he screams. And the end of the second episode dramatically hyper-ages the Doctor into a decrepit old man. It's a small thing, but it flags that the Doctor is vulnerable. He's not the narrative center of the universe. And misguided as it is, the reduction in the number of jokes plays at that as well. By removing the means by which Baker dominates the story and making him vulnerable, Nathan-Turner, from the first episode of his tenure, is working to make it so that the show can handle Baker's eventual departure.
And then there's the visuals. Which are markedly different. But for that it's probably necessary to have examples. So, since it's been a few months, let's do a video blog, shall we?
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 24 (Quatermass, Day of the Triffids, Blake's 7, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Alien, Sapphire and Steel)
Or, as I've been thinking of it all week, "the entry from hell." Normally it's fairly easy to pick what goes into a Pop Between Realities entry. I mean, I tend to put them in whenever the series goes on any sort of break, and I just grab two, sometimes three pieces of relevant media or history from the time period. They've all been very natural.
And then we come to this infuriating gap. Part of it is that the next two Pop Between Realities are no-brainer single-item entries for me, and as a result anything science fiction television from now to the start of 1982 or so is booked. I mean, the end-of-Doctor chaos of side entries is already worse than usual for the Baker/Davison transition. But also, good LORD there are a lot of sci-fi things going around on television in here that require coverage. And this isn't even all of it! I'm not redoing Hitchhiker's as a television series and I'm punting The Adventure Game down until Janet Fielding appears on it.
Still, in some ways this is also the perfect entry here. John Nathan-Turner and Christopher Bidmead are about to determinately reshape what Doctor Who is in order to make it work better as proper science fiction television. In which case the obvious question is… what does science fiction look like around this point in time?
Well, it looks like…
In late 1979 ITV ran a four part Quatermass serial produced by Verity Lambert simply called Quatermass. The film version for the export market went instead with the title The Quatermass Conclusion. The production was the very definition of problematic. Kneale wrote his scripts in 1973 for a BBC production that got abandoned. Following the success of Star Wars and everyone becoming re-obsessed with science fiction, however, Euston Films snapped up the rights to the scripts, having them rewritten to work both as a 200 minute serial and as a 100 minute film.
The results were frankly unfortunate. Lambert's production values were impeccable, and the film (which is the version I got my hands on) looks quite solid. The problem here really is one of an unfixable underlying concept. Verity Lambert's defense of the project - that there are problems inherent in any effort to update an old concept like this - isn't entirely fair. After all, plenty of other science fiction revivals have worked. But on the other hand it's not as though there were a long line of successful television revivals to begin with. This is probably about as good a version of Quatermass as could have been made in 1979.
The problem is just that Quatermass didn't fit 1979 at all. And the blame here really goes to Nigel Kneale. That Kneale is a conservative writer is hardly a revelation. But by 1979 that had tipped into an unfortunate overdrive. Quatermass is so appallingly reactionary as to occasionally tip over into comedy. Its central premise involves mind-controlling aliens whose mind control doesn't affect old people. It largely concerns itself with the dangers of hippies and how they contribute to urban decay. The other part of its premise is that there's a cult called the Planet People, who believe that aliens are nicely transporting them to a utopia on another world when in fact they're just being incinerated.
Kneale has said that he feels the Planet People should have been portrayed as punks instead of hippies, which makes sense, as not only are punks more intuitively connected with gang violence and urban decay, but they're also well known for their tendency to gather in stone circles to await their alien saviors. Which is to say that the real problem here isn't just that the script is hopelessly reactionary but that it's carelessly and unthinkingly reactionary. Dystopian science fiction in which there is a sense of imminent danger based on existing trends is one thing, but doing "five minutes into the future" stuff in which those damn kids have ruined society and only the smart old people can save it is just bewildering. To do it with no understanding of the idea that the punk damn kids and the hippie damn kids are even remotely different is just stupid. It was vile when Hainsman and Lincoln did it in 1969 with The Dominators. A decade letter it's just sad.
But there's a larger conservatism to this. Kneale is still writing with the idea which government-funded elites can fix everything if only the chattering masses would shut up and leave them alone. It's not just the loathsome politics of the piece that kills it, it's the fact that the entire piece acts as though no valid or interesting question has been raised about the nature of authority since the 1950s that might possibly justify altering its approach to science fiction. The result is, essentially, 100 minutes of Nigel Kneale yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.
Day of the Triffids (1981)
It is perhaps tempting to treat Quatermass as if it somehow implicates the more classic tradition of British science fiction and shows that it doesn't have legs in the early 1980s. After Star Wars, when science fiction was just another flavor of action-adventure, the serious-minded science fiction of the 1950s was a relic, for better or for worse. Tempting as it may be, however, it would also be demonstrably wrong given that Day of the Triffids is visibly one of the best piece of science fiction of the 1980s.
Based on John Wyndham's 1951 novel, Day of the Triffids can roughly be described as Survivors done right, although to be fair, it's more accurate to say that Survivors is Day of the Triffids done wrong. Both are post-apocalyptic survivor stories in the genre that OH BUGGER LOOK THIS UP.
Day of the Triffids is another textbook example of the correct lesson from Star Wars - that the public is comfortable enough with science fiction that you can just do drama with science fiction in it and be confident about it. Day of the Triffids is, at its heart, a story about being alone in a crowd that uses a world with giant man-eating plants to tell itself. This contrasts it immediately with Survivors and Quatermass, both of which are at their core fables. Survivors is a moral parable about the virtues of good middle class English folk, and Quatermass is a moral parable about how Nigel Kneale is a cranky old man.
Whereas Day of the Triffids is first and foremost a story about people. Survivors, at least, spends some time being that at the beginning before it wanders off into stupidity, but Day of the Triffids also has the good sense to be a miniseries, to show how the big disaster affects the characters, and then to end. Its characters aren't various versions of "the _____ one" or bland archetypes. They're not epically deep portraits of humanity either, but they're characters for us to think about and get to know. The first episode consists of the main character in his hospital bed waiting for a doctor that never comes to take the bandages off his eye. He narrates his story in flashback, and we spend the whole time getting to know him and his world before the post-apocalyptic stuff kicks up. It's a gorgeous bit of structure, and one that grounds the story in people.
A glance at the production credits quickly shows what's up. This is produced by David Maloney, better known to us as the director of Genesis of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The War Games, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and a few other stories. He's an old pro at science fiction and one with the confidence to do what this story requires: calmly and without fuss make serious drama with man-eating plants in it. And, equally crucially, recognize that there's a difference between serious drama with man-eating plants in it and serious drama about man-eating plants.
Blake's 7 (1978-1981)
Sadly Maloney was not so lucky in his other major contribution to British sci-fi television of the era. Blake's 7, and the apostrophe is strictly a lexical courtesy, is a classic example of an almost great show. It's tempting to suggest that its key problem is that it's created by Terry Nation - and certainly the fact that he wrote all of the scripts in the first season despite not actually having a season's worth of ideas doesn't help the series. But with a production team including both Chris Boucher and David Maloney that shouldn't be that massive a barrier.
The problem is that it's too often a BBC-budgeted Star Trek where everybody hates each other. Only one of these ideas is an inherent flaw, but to their credit the days of the BBC trying to do Star Trek are basically at an end as of here. The larger problem is that they don't quite hit the characterization right for what they're trying to do. The characters are all just a bit too programmatic for their conflicts and arguments to be compelling.
It is, actually, helpful to compare it to Day of the Triffids. There the characters also aren't massively brilliant (though they're mostly better than Blake's 7), but in Day of the Triffids the drama isn't centered around the fact that everybody is constantly at each other's throats. When your drama is based primarily on everyone being furious at one another and constantly betraying each other then the bar is a bit higher.
Or maybe it's just that after Firefly it's tough to swallow the same basic show being done by Terry Nation. But the criticism here is merely "this isn't a mind-blowing classic of science fiction" and not "this isn't good." Blake's 7 is, in fact, extremely good. It does some things very well. Certainly it shows that people are putting a real effort into trying to do new things with the standard space formula. And the final episode bears some real mention.
Really. It does have one of the great final episodes in all of science fiction. They bring Blake (who left the series after the second season) back, have Avon (his replacement as main character) kill him with a fantastically large explosion of blood (on the request of Gareth Thomas, who wanted to make sure that nobody would think his character could ever come back. Apparently even he was surprised quite how much blood there was.) Then the entire cast save for Avon is shot down over the course of about few minutes, Avon is surrounded by men with guns, he smiles, and the screen cuts to black as the sound of gunfire rings out. It's a stunning, stunning finish, and for that alone deserves some real credit.
Of course, Paul Darrow, who plays Avon, has several times pushed for a theory that suggests that Avon ducks as the screen cuts out, the dozen or so guards all shoot each other, and he escapes to create a sequel series. And fans of the series have taken this seriously. And that, I think, tells you everything you need to know about Blake's 7 and its fans.
Buck Rogers and the 25th Century (1979/1980)
A fairly often discussed point regarding the "new look" John Nathan-Turner era that we'll finally start talking about on Friday is that its ratings early on were abominable. So bad, in fact, that ITV's attempted counter-programming of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was winning the timeslot. And it's true, the ratings were very, very bad - bad enough that during Full Circle they fell to 3.7 million. The lowest point of the Sylvester McCoy era, for comparison, was 3.1m, and that was still better-ranked in the week than Full Circle's nadir. Its second episode, at 170th place for the week, appears at a brief glance to be the worst chart placing Doctor Who ever attained.
Many words have been spilled to attempt to explain what the hell happened. And it's genuinely difficult to explain. It cannot be said to be a straightforward result of Nathan-Turner's producership because the drop happened with his first episode. Horns of Nimon 4 pulled 10.4 million and was 26th for the week. The Leisuire Hive 1 pulled 5.9 million and was 77th. And look, as bad as Horns of Nimon was, it wasn't that bad because its ratings grew episode over episode. Then, to make it stranger, Doctor Who took a Christmas Break on December 13th 1980 with a 5.4m episode of State of Decay that was 125th for the week. It came back at 7.1m and 88th for the week and stayed in that general ballpark for the rest of the season.
But setting aside the "why" - a topic that there's never going to be a clearcut answer for anyway - the fact remains that in 1980, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was immediately and directly more popular than Doctor Who. This fact, it must be noted, is downright depressing. Because Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is not even remotely a good show. WIth Gil Gerrard playing Buck Rogers as a sort of cross between William Shatner and Adam West except without the self-awareness that makes both of them good, some astonishingly gaudy and generic space sets, and a sense of plotting is an incompetent execution of cliches.
A fairly standard example from the episode Planet of the Amazon Women. The plot centers on a planet that is kidnapping men and selling them as husbands because its male population has been decimated. Half the scenes in the first half are based around Buck Rogers and other candidates not knowing what's going on and figuring things out. One scene is based around characters panicking with the belief that they're about to head off towards human sacrifice or gladiatorial games as Rogers remains calm. And it's a perfectly good hero moment - one in which the hero knows more than the audience and thus impresses the audience.
Except that the other half of the scenes have already given away the overwhelming majority of the plot so that there's not actually a mystery here. The entire episode, in fact, plays out as though nobody has thought even a little bit about when information is being revealed to the audience or how. Large swaths of the scenes are clearly there to tick off boxes. An entire subplot exists not because anything happens in it but to give the comedy robot, who is easily the worst comedy robot I have ever seen, an appropriate number of jokes. The show is cynical and uninterested in doing anything but stringing together action sequences with a plot basic enough that nobody will fail to follow it.
As with its creator's previous Star Wars ripoff, Battlestar Galactica, the series enjoyed some brief popularity before getting canned. It was in no way what audiences wanted, but rather an attempt to give them something supposedly just like what they had previously enjoyed but, in practice, nothing more than warmed over and cynical attempts at capturing what Blake's 7 can't manage even with some top notch creators on it. For those who want to argue that Star Wars killed science fiction there is little better ammunition.
Far from showing that the older style of science fiction was dead on arrival, the legacy of Star Wars increasingly shows that the generic "space adventurer" model was dead. The "SF" or "hard" model of science fiction was already dead when Star Wars hit the scene. Star Wars, however, took the space swashbuckler approach to its limit as well. Simply put, nobody was going to top Star Wars in the Buck Rogers clone department. Not even, as we've seen, Buck Rogers. As I've been yammering on about for a month now, what Star Wars did was show that science fiction could be taken for granted.
But that's far from the death of science fiction. It's just the death of a pair of exceedingly programmatic models of science fiction - the science logic puzzles that characterize much of the so-called "golden age" and the pulp adventure… in space! In many ways, then, it's the birth of science fiction in a general sense - using imaginary forms of knowledge to tell stories that couldn't be told with entirely real things and the substantial liberation of the form from its two most popular niches.
Which brings us around to Alien. If Star Wars is the film that opened the door to the possibility that science fiction doesn't have to be an end in itself then Alien is the film that decisively walked through that door. There is nothing particularly original about Alien in its conception. It is a derivative enough piece of science fiction that despite being a near exact copy of The Ark in Space there's no reason whatsoever to think the two have any direct connection. What Alien illustrates is not a particularly clever or novel idea but rather the sorts of things that can be done with science fiction in 1979 that, culturally speaking, couldn't be in 1975.
Back in the Nightmare of Eden entry we talked about a style of storytelling in which concept and event are indistinguishable. Alien is a prime example, especially when contrasted with The Ark in Space. The Ark in Space is a teleplay. Its events are people acting on a set. It's a very nice set with some real care taken in it, and the people act very well, but what happens is still people acting on a set to tell a story. That story is about aliens for whom humans are meat.
Alien, on the other hand, is a film in which every single part of the design is created to generate a coherent experience. It is a film about being chased through dark and cramped corridors by a monster. It is a film about human spaces that are violated by the horrifically other. So the spaceship is made to be effectively chased through. The alien is made to be visually horrifying and visceral and to work well in shadows and fragments. The editing is done so that the calm sterility of the beginning of the film gives way to fast editing and camera movements as characters are hunted. Everything is about being trapped and hunted. the story of Alien cannot meaningfully be separated from its experience. (Indeed, the film is thoroughly unimpressive as described, which is why it took me nearly 30 years to ever get around to seeing it. It is, of course, as good as everyone says, but its plot - a crew is hunted one by one by what is at this point a familiar movie monster - does nothing to recommend it.)
It is, unfortunately, miles beyond what Doctor Who can do in 1980. But the underlying approach works even if the specific techniques are beyond the show. With the technology that is shifting in the BBC - the introduction of steadicam back in Destiny of the Daleks, the introduction of Quantel Paintbox in the next story, and other more sophisticated techniques - the show is rapidly gaining ways to make what happens on screen and the idea behind the story into a single thing. This isn't to say that the language of television is just a primitive form of film - it's not, and there are techniques that Doctor Who is going to pick up that could not work in film, though most of those start in during the Peter Davison era. But Alien shows how it could be done.
But notably, a television version of this sort of storytelling also existed in 1979.
Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982)
Occasionally, in the course of doing the Pop Between Realities entries, I get absolutely blown away. It's rare. Children of the Stones genuinely impressed me. Doomwatch was considerably better than I thought it would be. And, I mean, there are other things I've covered that I really liked, but they were ones I knew how much I'd like going in. But Sapphire & Steel knocked my socks off. It was stunning. One of the best pieces of science fiction television I've ever seen, in fact.
Part of it is simply surprise on my part. It's an impressive little Trojan Horse of a show. An odd and inverted mirror of what it initially appears to be. On the surface it's a straightforward show that feels almost like a light ripoff of Doctor Who. Steel and his assistant Sapphire, who appear human but aren't, show up where odd things are going wrong with time and fix them. But beneath the surface the whole thing exists at a slight angle to expectations.
First of all, who Sapphire and Steel are and how what they do works is left unexplained - not merely unexplained in the sense of pre-War Games Doctor Who, but in a more fundamental sense. There's an odd incoherence to the entire premise. Even the opening narration doesn't quite make sense. "All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned." The explanation of what happens - that creatures roam along the corridor of time and break in at weak points where an anachronism, including something as innocuous as a nursery rhyme, exists.
It's also phenomenally well-made. David McCallum's performance of Steel is so obviously an inspiration for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor that I'm astonished the two aren't mentioned in the same breath with great frequency. Joanna Lumley isn't quite as phenomenal as Sapphire, but is still raw class in the role. But what's really amazing is the way in which it makes deft use of its studio sets. It was an inexpensive program that has one location shoot in its entire run. What is usually said is that this was used to create a sense of claustrophobia, but it's more complex than that. What the show does is look like a fairly straightforward piece of children's television made on cheap video. It feels as though it fits seamlessly and smoothly into that genre.
But as with its basic narrative premise, it is continually not quite right. It's far creepier and more unsettling than it has any right to be. Its narratives hold together not on science fiction logic but on associative and emotional logic. The monsters overtly feed on emotions, and though everyone involve acts as though the stories are science fiction their logic never actually follows that course. The result is a show that is deeply unsettling because the unknown is always immediately present. It's not just a world full of lurking horrors and creepy music, but one that feels as though it is beyond understanding even as it threatens. It's familiar enough to follow what's going on but never familiar enough to let you feel comfortable.
And equally crucially, this is, in a very real sense, the television version of what Alien is doing. Sapphire and Steel is a show about the frisson between the familiar world and the lurking uncanny. It's shot as an uncanny version of a familiar type of television. Its premise is enough like familiar television to be followable but not quite right or sensible. It stars familiar television actors but keeps them cold and distant and denies them showboating "hero" moments. Everything about it is made with the same slight gap between familiar and strange. It's got a real claim to being the first piece of science fiction television to pull off the Alien technique of having every part of the production be inseparable from the act of storytelling.
Plus it's just really well written. Its most famous moment is justly in its second storyline, with its glorious climax as Steel callously sacrifices an innocent man's life, arguing and bargaining with the unseen monster who has possessed Sapphire and given her an impressively creepy facial prosthesis of a maggoty face. It's a jaw-dropping piece of drama.
It's also, of the things we've discussed, the one closest to the realm of what Doctor Who can take as a direct model. (Indeed, it basically is the model for the McCoy years, as I said. Ghost Light may as well be a Sapphire and Steel story.) This isn't entirely surprising. It's a direct heir to the Hinchcliffe era, so it makes sense that the two would be rejoined. (And, of course, PJ Hammond, who wrote the bulk of Sapphire and Steel, got picked up by Russell T Davies to do Torchwood) But there's a more fundamental connection underlying the two. On a basic level, it's attitude towards storytelling and genre is very compatible with Doctor Who. At their best, both shows are ones where the premise is not the point of the show but a tool to do unusual and compelling things. But what Sapphire and Steel shows - really what all of the successful things covered in this entry show - is that what can be done with a premise is rapidly expanding. And that, more than anything, is the challenge facing Doctor Who at the start of 1980: discover how to use the premise of the TARDIS in a new era of television.
Oh, and fuck SOPA.