50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 1)

We’re back! At a glance, it might look like I skipped a month. But that’s both true and not, as you’ll see below…

The 7th Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy, who came on board during an extremely troubled time for the show behind the scenes. It had already been cancelled then un-cancelled while Colin Baker was starring as the 6th Doctor, and while the show survived, Baker was fired in-between seasons. While Baker was eventually offered the opportunity to come back for one more story to bring his time to a close, he turned it down and we ended up with no real transition from one to the next (save for a pre-credits sequence involving new actor McCoy wearing Baker’s outfit and a big curly blond wig, only seen from behind).

More importantly, not only was Baker gone, but script editor Eric Saward had also left the series. In the earlier days of Doctor Who, it was the script editor (rather than the producer) who did the bulk of commissioning the scripts for the show, and by the time new script editor Andrew Cartmel was hired he ended up inheriting the first two scripts because everything was so far behind schedule. The end result was McCoy’s first season consisting of four stories where one had been written for Baker, and the remaining three for a “generic Doctor” because no one at the time knew what this new Doctor’s personality would be like.

McCoy had the role for three years, with a total of twelve stories, before the show was cancelled once more. This time it stuck. McCoy did return seven years later, though, to appear in the Doctor Who television movie starring Paul McGann. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to merge McCoy and McGann’s months into a big two-month-long viewing extravaganza (especially since McGann only had that one outing), and to watch all thirteen stories.

What I didn’t count on was work getting even busier, plus losing a lot of free time due to starting graduate school. So with still two stories waiting to be watched, I’m going to use this entry to tackle the first four stories (or first season) starring McCoy; a second and possibly third post will hopefully come soon with McCoy’s remaining stories as well as McGann’s solo outing. And with that in mind…

Dr Who - Time and the Rani
#148: Time and the Rani

Ask a Doctor Who fan which of McCoy’s episodes was the worst, and three out of four will tell you that it’s “Time and the Rani.” Sometimes fan lore leads you down a path of opinions that are based on hearsay rather than actual viewing. This is not one of those times.

“Time and the Rani” admittedly has a huge disadvantage; it wasn’t written for McCoy’s Doctor at all, and while writers Pip and Jane Baker and script editor Andrew Cartmel clearly tried to file off the edges of the previous Doctor once Colin Baker’s return was officially nixed, but it’s still trying to push a square peg into a round hole. The Doctor here is often snappish and rude, only to then veer off into pratfalls and slapstick. It’s a bungled mess right from the start.

Then you add in a nonsensical plot (one that relies far too heavily on sheer laziness of the main villain), some truly awful acting, and another rock quarry that’s standing in for an alien planet. At the end of the previous season, new companion Melanie had been introduced as played by Bonnie Langford, but aside from being energetic she was a complete non-entity, and that unfortunately carries through into this season where it’s quickly clear that no one is interested in writing for Mel. Langford gets a lot of flack for her time on Doctor Who, but I feel that’s not fair. She’s clearly very professional and does whatever the scripts and director tell her to do, but at the same time she’s also been placed into a show where no one is interested in her sticking around.

There are two great things about “Time and the Rani,” to be fair. The first is whenever returning guest actress Kate O’Mara’s character of the Rani disguises herself as Mel. Her fake chirpy-sweet voice mixed with genuine disdain and loathing for the Doctor is nothing short of hysterical, and her ever-building annoyance with everyone around her is a real treat in those first two episodes. Sadly once she pulls off the wig and stops pretending to be Mel, she’s straight out of an episode of Dynasty, complete with shoulder pads, lipstick, and a big glamorous hairdo. So much for the hard-working scientist who doesn’t want to take over the world; in “Time and the Rani” her goal is ultimately to take over the universe and rework it as she sees fit.

The other great thing is how director Andrew Morgan has the Lakyrtians run. This may sound strange, but you need to take my word on this. They’re supposed to be slightly lizard-like, and when they run, Morgan has them hold their arms back at an angle. It actually makes them look like a species of small lizard, and while some do it better than others (Karen Clegg as Sarn in particular) it’s at least an attempt to make them a little difference.

Otherwise? I have nothing good to say about this, perhaps save that if you drink a lot it gets funnier and funnier. But it’s bad. It’s really bad. Shockingly, appallingly bad. (Not as bad as “The Twin Dilemma,” which still edges this story out as “worst first story for a new Doctor,” but this is the nadir of the McCoy era, right out of the gate.)

Continue reading 50 Years of Doctor Who: Sylvester McCoy (part 1)

Welcome to Grad School, Greg! Hope You Survive the Experience!

welcome1I was accepted a couple of months ago, but on August 23, I began my first day as a graduate student in Wayne State’s School of Information and Library Science (SLIS). Specifically, I flew up to Detroit for a one-day mandatory orientation.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from a grad school orientation, especially since the bulk of students (myself included) are taking the classes via online/distance learning. But that Friday morning, I woke up super-early, ran 6 miles on the always-dreaded treadmill (but on the bright side I got to watch the sun rise over Detroit thanks to the gym being on the 40th floor), and drove over to campus to get there just in time for check-in. That’s when I discovered that on my nametag it said I lived in Michigan rather than Washington, DC. A sign of things to come?

Actually, no. What happened next was a day-long extravaganza of introductions, meetings, and discussions. A lot of people got up and talked to the assembled group of new grad students. We started to get a better idea of the sort of projects that we have in store. The professors performed a round-robin rotation through rooms where they introduced themselves to us and explained their specialties. (That part was especially interesting because of the wide range of disciplines within what might seem like a narrowly-focused department.) We were given a couple of group collaboration assignments. It was, without a doubt, a full day’s worth of work and then some.

I could go on and on about everything that happened, but I suspect it would bore most people. (How many other people would be tickled about a professor who looks like Mo from Dykes to Watch Out For besides me, though?) There were a couple of things that stood out as particularly good:

  • welcome2Meeting my faculty advisor was a huge plus. Professor Schroeder was one of the faculty who talked to the assembled masses early on, before we broke out into smaller groups, because she has a strong focus on digital librarianship. If you didn’t know already, that’s something that I’m extremely interested in, so right from the get-go it potentially seemed like a good match. But the second she got up to speak, I was entranced. She’s not just a good public speaker, she’s engaging, she’s smart, she’s energetic, she’s interesting. Even better, when I got to meet with her later, I felt like there was a genuine interest from her in my career path and as we chatted, I found myself thinking, “So this is what it’s like to actually have an advisor.” I was assigned one as an undergraduate but I think we only spoke once on a student-to-advisor basis, and that was a mandatory session before graduation. That advisor had no interest in me, and vice versa. By way of contrast, Schroeder mentioned that she’s in DC several times a year, and that she could let me know if I’d like to meet some different organizations and the like that are interested in digital librarianship. Not only did I say yes (of course), but I feel like it really could happen. This was easily the best part of the orientation.
  • I also found out that I might be able to waive out of one of the core classes, Information Technology. Not only is this a good thing because right now it looks like I know about 95% of the material already (and have no problem taking some of my own time this fall to learn the other 5%), but it would also free up a space in my schedule for me to take another class I’m more interested in, instead. I’ve already sent the faculty member who makes those decisions my credentials, and with any luck I’ll hear back in the next couple of days that I don’t have to take the class. Fingers crossed!

Of course, there were one or two things for which I raised my eyebrow:

  • We were given a “how to work in groups” series of exercises in the afternoon, right after lunch. The first one involved the entire group having to decide which one of seven different pizzas we could all agree upon to order for the table. Except, of course, it wasn’t a real pizza. (And even if it was, we were all full from lunch.) This may sound silly, but I was a little disappointed in this activity. It was a very juvenile sort of group exercise, and one that needed a bit of a boost. (Make it instead into types of cookies and offer the real thing and it might have perked everyone up.) The other half of the company that I work for comes up with these sorts of exercises all the time and I felt like they could have had a much better one instead. Not bad, but just didn’t feel like it was going after the right target audience.
  • There was one professor whose classes I was thinking about taking (and was in fact originally signed up for, early on), until I was warned away from them by multiple people. One of those clashes of style/approach where I could tell that the professor and I would not be a good match for one another. Well, at lunch, this professor decided to sit at the table I was at. And just in those five minutes, all I could think was, “They weren’t kidding about this teacher.” All of their complaints suddenly felt very plausible, alas, and it became very clear that if possible I should go with a different professor in the future. Oh dear. Well, it’s nice to have confirmation, right?

welcome3When everything finally ended, we had a mixer sponsored by a student organization, and while I wasn’t entirely sure at first on if I would go or not, I’m glad I did. A lot of super-nice people, and when in the space of five minutes you get both a Cards Against Humanity game reference, and  someone relating a story with the sentence, “You can’t make me give my books away, they’re my friends!” I knew I had found my people.

On the flight back this morning, though, I had a momentary spike of panic as I started to think through all of the different projects and activities I have in store for myself over the next two years while still juggling a full-time job. What was I thinking? Could I really do this? Should I just pack it in and work at a butcher shop in Eastern Market instead? (I’ll blame that last one on the new issue of Lucky Peach that I was reading.) But the more I thought about it, the more I reminded myself that this really is what I’m interested in learning about, and this was the only way to truly do it. And after all, Wayne State sees a lot of applications. They must have thought I could do it or that slot would have gone to someone else, right?

So to twist around that old familiar phrase on the various X-Men covers of the past… I think I will survive the experience. It’s going to be a little tough in spots, but right now it’s full steam ahead. And heck, I’ve already started one of the first week’s assignments. So far so good, right?

Algorithm gone wild, or…?

Amazon’s “Gold Box Deals” offer up a bunch of specially priced items to everyone; if you scroll down the page, they often have additional deals that are supposedly tailored to you. Today I was greeted with the following:

Trapped Like Mice... Rats!

My first reaction was to laugh and say, “Amazon’s selection software is misfiring a bit today.”

My second reaction was to think of those reports of parents receiving coupons for those newly pregnant and getting livid, only to discover later that in fact their daughter really is pregnant.

…I hope this is just an algorithm gone wild. *gulp*

Things They Don’t Tell You About Graduate School (part 1)

I remember signing up for my classes at James Madison University, back in the summer of 1991. With 120 credits needed for graduation, all I really had to worry about was, “Will this class be full, yet?” With a paper booklet listing all the courses in very small type, I made a dozen sample schedules for a 15-credit fall semester. Happily my second choice actually coincided with what was still available, and I went on my way. Aside from having to once beg for an override for a class from a professor so I could add in an extra class (to make up for one I’d dropped earlier, so that I would still graduate on time), and having two classes that had to wait until senior year because they always filled up so fast, that was the most of my worries.

Graduate school, at least for me, seems to be a very different sort of game. Wayne State University’s MLIS program requires me to take 36 credits (or 12 classes), six of which are core classes for the degree and must be taken. Of those six core classes, two of them are locked into the positions of first and second classes taken, while a third class is strongly recommended to get slot #3. (Two of the remaining three core classes “should be taken as part of the first 18 credit hours” while the third “should be taken as part of the last 9 credit hours.”)

This still seems pretty simple, until you start to look at the other courses you want to take for the second half of your degree. (And lest you think I am jumping the gun a bit, by the time I’ve finished 9 credits I have to submit a plan of all my remaining courses with my advisor and get them to sign off on it. So that’s not too far away.) And that’s when you realize that unlike the majority of undergraduate classes, many of the offerings are only offered once a year. And of those offerings, most are either in the (main) fall or winter semesters, with only a handful in the spring/summer session.

The end result has been a surprisingly fun logic puzzle, almost a game. “Database Concepts and Applications for Librarians is offered both fall and winter, so it can be almost a wild card, while Metadata in Theory and Practice is only a fall semester class… and what spring/summer class do I want for one of my electives? Maybe Advanced Classification and Cataloging?”

MLS-Spreadsheet

So now I have a spreadsheet built, which has two different timelines (one for if I take a single class in the fall, one for if I end up with two classes) and everything locked in save for a single “to be determined” option. It’s incredibly geeky and ridiculous. It is also, quite possibly, another indicator that this is the sort of graduate degree that’s meant for me.

At any rate, though, it’s definitely been an eye-opening experience. Certainly one of the first major differences between undergraduate and graduate classes! (More to come, I’m sure.)

50 Years of Doctor Who: Colin Baker

After Peter Davison left, a relatively unknown actor by the name of Colin Baker was cast in the lead role of Doctor Who. He’d actually appeared in the show itself once before (as a Time Lord guard named Maxil in “Arc of Infinity”), but it was safe to say he wasn’t a household name. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward decided that they needed a contrast between the mild-mannered 5th Doctor played by Davison, and so the new 6th Doctor was almost a polar opposite. Loud, brash, arrogant, and at times verbally abusive to his relatively new companion Peri.

It was, to put it mildly, an unmitigated disaster.

Baker appeared in the final story of Season 21 (Davison’s contract actually expired one story short of completing that run of stories) in a story titled “The Twin Dilemma” (more on that below), which like the series up until that point consisted of 25-minute episodes. However, there had been one story earlier in the year where due to scheduling against the Winter Olympics, a 4-part story had been edited into a 2-part story where each episode was 45 minutes long. That was the format that Season 22 took; this fact will become important later. Baker and actress Nicola Bryant appeared in all of Season 22… and then Doctor Who was cancelled.

After a great deal of outcry, the show was un-cancelled, but it was clear that everyone involved with Doctor Who was on rocky ground. Nathan-Turner and Saward were given a Season 23 order, but it was greatly reduced; instead of 13 45-minute episodes, they were given 14 25-minute episodes. That season was one massive story titled “The Trial of a Time Lord” (although it’s often broken up into four sub-stories), and after it aired, Baker was soon fired from Doctor Who. While he was eventually offered the chance to come back to film one final story to write the 6th Doctor out of the series, he declined the offer. And so, after coming on board in an extremely rocky time period, his departure was almost like slipping out the back door when no one was looking. It was an ignoble end to an actor’s time on the show that’s still controversial to this day. The three stories I selected from his extremely limited run, in many ways, typify some of the problems with that brief era.

The Twin Dilemma
#137: The Twin Dilemma

As mentioned up above, “The Twin Dilemma” closed out Season 21, which meant that viewers got a full story of Colin Baker as the Doctor before the show closed up shop until the next year. Stacking the deck against Baker, that glimpse was nothing short of crap. “The Twin Dilemma” has a lot of problems, to put it mildly. The story doesn’t really make sense, written by a newcomer to the show (Anthony Steven) who clearly had no idea of any of the series’ basic concepts. Everything involving time travel defies logic (and there’s a lot of it), to say nothing of how Doctor Who treated it in every other story but this one. The titular twins’ abilities with math are never really explained (one can only guess that Steven was given the linked stories “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva” as a primer and he thought that anyone good at math could somehow warp the laws of physics by writing down equations), and the lisping actors who play them are shockingly bad actors to boot. Dialogue disasters like, “Listen… the sound of giant slugs!” run rampant. Characters adopt fake names and identities for no reason whatsoever. But all of that could probably be ignored if the new Doctor was good.

He wasn’t. “The Twin Dilemma” is probably most notable for a scene early on where the Doctor, still reeling from his regeneration, suddenly goes insane at which point he stalks and strangles his companion Peri. It’s a jaw-dropping moment, one that’s clearly meant to shock. What script editor Saward didn’t seem to understand is that more importantly, it was a huge turn-off. And for the rest of the story, the new Doctor is an awful arrogant ass. He’s downright cruel to Peri, along with everyone else around him. The earliest Hartnell stories don’t have him as much of a hero (that doesn’t change until the fourth story), but that Doctor is positively cuddly compared to the one presented in “The Twin Dilemma.” The story concludes with the Doctor snapping, “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not!” at Peri. Considering she’d joined just two stories earlier, there really should have been one extra line where her response is, “Great, now take me home, because I’m out of here.” This story is appalling in every way. I hadn’t seen it since it first aired in the Washington DC area in the mid-80s and it was somehow even worse than I remembered. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

 

The Mark of the Rani
#140: The Mark of the Rani

A funny little story for you; when I first saw “The Mark of the Rani” ages ago, I missed the first 15 minutes or so. Seeing that section now for the first time, it struck me that I didn’t miss a single thing. Most of the Season 22 stories suffered from a bad pacing decision from script editor Saward. Even though episode 1 of the stories was now twice as long as before, he decided that the Doctor shouldn’t encounter the main action until near the end of that episode. It’s at its worse in a story called “Revelation of the Daleks” where the Doctor and Peri literally wander in the wilderness for 45 minutes, completely divorced from the rest of the story. “The Mark of the Rani” is actually one of the better stories this season in terms of when the Doctor and Peri get things moving, but even then it’s a little surprising how unessential that first chunk of time is.

The story itself was one that wasn’t as good as I remembered. Writers Pip and Jane Baker introduce the Rani in this story, a female Time Lord scientist who was supposed to be a cold, calculating, ruthless foe for the Doctor. Unfortunately, “The Mark of the Rani” also brings back the Master, and that’s where “The Mark of the Rani” completely derails. The Master continually gets one over the Rani, stealing her tools and foiling her plans. The end result is a story introducing a character that’s forever made to look incompetent. Not the brightest of ideas. It’s a little frustrating because the idea of the Rani is great, but the execution is lousy.

On the bright side, the Doctor is only a dick to Peri about half of the time (instead of all of the time), the scene of Peri chasing the Doctor’s runaway cart is unintentionally hysterically funny, and one extra’s pants are so tight you can clearly make out the shape of his genitals. “The Mark of the Rani” could have been so good, but instead it’s just limp. The memory cheated here, too, it seems. Perhaps it just felt better when comparing it to other stories in the season like “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Timelash” (the latter of which is one of the five worst stories in the series’ history; there’s a reason why so many people hate the Colin Baker era). Ah well.

 

The Two Doctors
#141: The Two Doctors

Not including script editor Saward’s own contributions, the only returning writer from the show’s past for Season 22 was Robert Holmes, who wrote “The Two Doctors.” Bringing back Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as the 2nd Doctor and Jamie, “The Two Doctors” is probably the best story of the season. And it’s just all right.

There are things that Holmes gets better than anyone else, here. By having another Doctor and companion to play with, we get the 2nd Doctor and Jamie immediately in the mix of things, which is a nice change. (Of course, once they’re captured, the 6th Doctor and Peri then take forever to catch up; the 6th Doctor doesn’t actually encounter the main villains until 20 minutes from the end of this 3-part story.) The Doctor’s jerk-factor is lowered to him being rude and nasty only on a handful of occasions, a pleasant change. And while the story isn’t great, there are some nice twists and turns, even if the location work in Seville feels utterly tacked on.

But still, when the dust settles, “The Two Doctors” underuses the admittedly-older Troughton (who wasn’t up to the rigors of a massive role), it still stalls far too much, and the less said about the alien Androgum appearances the better. And in a season peppered with increasing violence, the Doctor’s one-liners about the death of a villain feel out of place in a story that hasn’t otherwise reveled in the carnage that ones like “Vengeance on Varos” or “Revelation of the Daleks” will. It’s pleasant enough, though, and Holmes clearly tries to actually give all the characters something to do. It’s got its faults, but it also has Blake’s 7 villain Jacqueline Pearce as a wonderfully nasty foe (in many ways, she’s what the Rani should have been), and perhaps one of the gayest men ever in the form of failed thespian Oscar (who seems far more interested in catching moths than in hottie Anita who all but throws herself at him and is completely ignored). It’s not perfect, but once it finally gets going, “The Two Doctors” still makes me smile.

 

Sorry this is a little later than normal, but I actually didn’t finish watching June’s stories until… July 2nd. (June 32nd?) I blame the first story of the three for sapping my will to watch more. That and being really, really busy at work. Fortunately with August  only having one story to watch starring the 8th Doctor, I already had tentative plans that allowed for some slippage to occur, so we’ll be back on track (sort of) shortly. You’ll see.

Next up is Sylvester McCoy, who appeared in the show’s final three seasons before getting cancelled for real in 1989. But of course, that’s not the end of the story at all…

50 Years of Doctor Who: Peter Davison

When I first started regularly watching Doctor Who (versus encountering the occasional episode here or there), it was near the end of Peter Davison’s run. Even though it was only a few stories before his hand-off to successor Colin Baker (more on him next month), I’ve always had a fondness for Davison as a result. Davison had a tough challenge ahead of him; after all, he was replacing someone who’d been on the show for seven seasons, a record still unsurpassed to this day.

Davison was also, for many years, the youngest actor cast as the Doctor, just 29 years old when his first story was broadcast. (Matt Smith eventually beat that.) The fresh-faced Davison also had a brand new script editor coming on board during his run (Eric Saward) whom, it could be argued, hated the show that he was working on. The end result is a run that’s a bit all over the place and problematic in places, although the biggest problems with Saward being in charge were yet to come.

Anyway, for this month’s selections, I picked three stories where I love the scripts. The production of some of these is better than others, but I feel that if you’re talking about the writing of the Davison era, all three of these need to be flagged in a positive manner.

Kinda
#119: Kinda

The genesis of “Kinda” is a long one; new writer Christopher Bailey originally wrote it for the previous season, with (presumably) the 4th Doctor and Romana, but since had to rewrite it for a new cast with the 5th Doctor, Adric, and Tegan. By the time the scripts were completely rewritten, though, the decision had been made from on high to add in one more companion, Nyssa. The end result? Nyssa takes a medically-needed nap in the first few minutes of episode 1, and isn’t seen again until the last minutes of episode 4. So for that alone, this story stands out.

But more importantly, “Kinda” has a just wonderful script. It’s influenced by Buddhism, has a series of villains that aren’t really villains at all, and also tackles the ideas like colonialism and gender-assumptions. It is, in a word, marvelous. There was nothing quite like “Kinda” and I don’t think there ever will be again. This is a story where Tegan gets trapped in her own mind with a creature that lurks in the dark spaces of humanity, where a major adversary is depicted as having been abused and whose real problem is teetering on the edge of a (quite realistic) nervous breakdown, and where the native species is quite uninterested in any of the “idiot” men.

There are a couple of production triumphs in this story, too. The possessed Tegan works surprisingly well (especially considering it’s not as long as you might remember) because of Janet Fielding’s acting; she speaks in a deeper, more languid voice, and her body language is so different from the character of Tegan that she normally plays that they didn’t even need the heavy eyeshadow or extra button undone on her shirt to flag what was going wrong. I was also impressed with some of the other little moments, like when the Kinda fight the Total Survival Suit and director Peter Grimwade keeps the angles just right so that you can’t see who’s inside it (but not in an obvious way), or how Grimwade really did his best to disguise that they’re in a studio and not a real forest. And sure, everyone always points to the big rubber snake at the end of the story, but honestly? It’s not that bad. (If you really hate it, the DVD has an option to have it swapped out with a more realistic and modern effect.) “Kinda” is my favorite Davison story, and every time I watch it I find more to love. This was a story well ahead of its time.

 

Enlightenment
#128: Enlightenment

The first Doctor Who story to be written by a woman, Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” always saddens me that she never contributed again. (There’s one earlier that has a co-writing credit that so far as all production documentation shows, she didn’t actually contribute to in any way shape or form, so I’m not counting it.) It’s a beautifully inventive story, one involving a race of eternal beings that need mortals to fill their empty minds, sailing ships that fly through outer space, and one of the creepiest “wait, this isn’t romantic at all” characters in the show’s history.

My one caveat about recommending “Enlightenment” to friends is that it’s the end of a loose trilogy of stories, where new companion Turlough has made a deal with the devil (in this case, the evil Black Guardian) to kill the Doctor, and this wraps that storyline up. That said, I think most people can twig what’s happening on that front, and there’s so much more going on too. An unapologetically lusty female pirate captain (whom, shockingly, does not have cleavage completely falling out of her dress) named Captain Wrack steals every scene she’s in, and Mariner the Eternal’s need to be around Tegan will progressively unsettle you the more the story progresses.

Even the overall mood of “Enlightenment” is grand; there’s something wonderful about a story where the big prize everyone’s fighting for isn’t quite what it seems, but never in a blatant, in-your-face manner. There’s a level of elegance present that keeps this story a real charmer, and it’s quite re-watchable. There’s also a “special edition” re-edit (with the director involved, no less) that cuts the time down a few minutes, updates the effects, and removes whenever possible the dreadful actor Leee John (no, that’s not a typo, and trust me, he’s awful). I didn’t think this story needed a re-edit, but having watched it for this, I was impressed with how it feels like any dead weight has been sliced out entirely. Good stuff.

 

Photo May 28, 5 36 11 PM
#133: Frontios

“Frontios” is a story that I could actually see being made by the modern, 21st century Doctor Who series. There’s a lot going for it: the last dregs of humanity at the far end of time trying desperately to survive, the idea of something under the earth dragging them to their doom, the colony forever teetering on the edge of insurrection. It’s a surprisingly bleak script in places, and while there are a few quibbles I have with bits of the script (this was the era when apparently everyone knew who the Time Lords and the Doctor were), on the whole it’s a great example of how to take dark subject material and still make it all-ages appropriate without watering it down, either.

While some of the long shots are cringe-worthy, on the whole I was surprised at how good the colony on the planet Frontios is depicted. It really feels like a run down, ramshackle place that is one generation away from utter destruction. The director even understands how to use dim lighting, something that I wish the previous season’s story “Terminus” had as well. (It may sound like a strange thing to praise, but trust me, a brightly lit set that’s supposed to be dingy and dark is a real disaster.) And Tegan’s inappropriate-for-adventuring outfit aside (a leather skirt, really?), I was pleased at how much Tegan and Turlough are given to do in this story. They’re not forgotten or sidelined (a big problem in much of Davison’s stories), and I like that they get central roles without pulling things away from the Doctor.

While I’m at it, I love the depiction of the Doctor here. Like in (former script editor) Christopher H. Bidmead’s other story “Castrovalva,” the Doctor gets to wear his half-moon glasses and there’s a real contrast between the youthful body and the older mind that wears it. (A depiction I wish they’d gone for, but which went away when Bidmead didn’t stick around after shepherding the departure of Tom Baker.) He gets to give us some gravitas, some real sorrow… it’s more than just technobabble and running. I can’t help but think if he’d had some more scripts like this one during the middle portion of his time on the show, he might’ve stuck around for another year.

 

Next up: the Colin Baker era, which I think it safe to say is probably the most problematic time in the show’s history. Brace yourself.

Operation: Parker Posey

Back in April, I posted an update on Facebook that I’ll quickly replicate here:

I’ve been trying to come up with a fake name for a project I’m working on that (for reasons that will hopefully become clear) I don’t want to name in public just yet. Today while driving from the gym to the office, NPR played a clip from the hysterical movie Best in Show. So in honor of that, I hereby name it Operation: Parker Posey.

That was about 90% true. The name did come to me when they played that audio clip from Best in Show. But what I didn’t mention at the time was that it made me think of another film starring Posey; namely, the film Party Girl in which Parker Posey’s character shifts from a young woman throwing illegal raves to make a living, to someone who wants to enter library school.

Party GirlWhich is a roundabout way of saying that ever since the start of the year, I’ve been working on applying to graduate school. (Researching schools, studying for the GRE, taking practice GRE tests as well as the real thing, lining up recommendation letters, filling out forms, writing essays, figuring out financing, that sort of thing.) And while I’m still waiting on hearing from a couple of other schools, barring a surprise scholarship materializing for a different college, I’ll take my first class from Wayne State University this fall as I work on a Master of Library and Information Science degree.

And now, the answers to the questions that I know I will otherwise get:

  • I’m not quitting my job, so this will be part time.
  • I’m not moving to Detroit; I’m taking classes via distance learning.
  • I’ve developed distance learning classes for the Federal Government for the past 15 years, so I’m not afraid of the idea.
  • If all goes well and in the spring I can start taking two classes at a time while still working, I’ll graduate in December 2015.
  • No, this is not a midlife crisis. But it probably will cost more than a sports car would by the time it’s all done.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to beginning graduate school in a few months, and I’m especially excited by taking some classes in digital content management. So, anyway, while there’s still a chance that the school itself might change, the fact that I’ll be starting grad school won’t be. Ta da!

50 Years of Doctor Who: Tom Baker

What happened to April? I’m still not sure, so let me just be brief: it was probably one of the busiest/craziest months I can remember for me, and I’d love for any future months to take that as a warning that I shouldn’t ever have quite so much going on ever again.

Anyway, April meant this month’s Doctor Who episodes were the Tom Baker era, and in doing so I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Tom Baker was on the show for a record-holding seven years, and went through multiple producers and script editors. He’s also for the original series, the face of the show in the United States. While I was extremely lucky to grow up in an area that had two PBS stations that showed all eras of the show, for many areas all they got were Baker’s stories.

With so many stories to pick from—including some favorites near and dear to my heart—I ended up deciding to start with three stories that most consider “classics” but which I’d never actually seen. (I know, I know. For two of them I read the novelizations growing up and the third… well… I’d seen lots of bits and pieces but never sat down and watched it all the way through.) The end result? Not what I expected.

Dr Who Ark in Space
#076: The Ark in Space

Baker’s second story, “The Ark in Space” for me locks in the overall tone of producer Peter Hinchcliffe’s era. It’s the first hints we get of the gothic, dark tinged stories that he (and script editor Robert Holmes) dreamed up. Fans of the films Alien and Aliens will see some certain similarities; people in suspended animation in the future, an alien that infects other species to reproduce, a confined area with no easy escape. “The Ark in Space” is a remarkably effective story, one that uses its run-time almost perfectly. This is a story which lets the Doctor and his two companions (Sarah Jane and Harry) interact with just each other and not worry about a supporting cast for the entire first episode and gets away with it wonderfully, after all. With so many “it’ll eat you from the inside” type stories now, I suspect “The Ark in Space” is a bit old hat but at the time I can only imagine how freaked out audiences must have been.

Sarah Jane had been introduced the previous year (and is probably to this day one of the original series’ all-time favorite companions; considering they brought her back for the new series and then gave her a multiple-season spin-off of her own, that’s a reasonable assumption to make) but poor Harry gets an outing here. Harry is a character whom, if I remember correctly, was supposed to be the muscle opposite a much older actor playing the Doctor. Then they hired Baker and oops, Harry was no longer needed. As a result he ends up a bit bumbling to give him something to do, but here’s the thing: he’s got charm thanks to actor Ian Marter. It’s a real shame the character didn’t get to stick around, because I love him.

Some of the effects have been redone for the DVD as an optional extra. Halfway through I switched over to them just to see what the new version of the outer space shots looked like. Are they better? Yes, a thousand times so. Were the old ones bad? Well, no… dated, yes, but not bad. Honestly I’m surprised they didn’t go whole hog and replace the “oh no, he’s got green bubble wrap on his hand” special effect while they were at it. Ultimately unnecessary but inoffensive in terms of a change. But anyway, “The Ark in Space” was a real joy to watch; I’m sorry it took this long.
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