Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab

I commented last week that this series of Doctor Who was so far at its strongest when it journeyed into the past (only one episode to feed that theory, but Rosa served its characters exceptionally well). Demons of the Punjab, our second journey into history, bears this out – a moving episode that brings a personal element to a much vaster story, in a way that speaks to our society as it stands now.

The partition of India is an event only lightly touched upon in History lessons when I was in school, and although the episode could grandstand more on a subject rooted in colonialism and oppression, it doesn’t seek to. In avoiding that, it makes its chosen points more effectively. Passing references are made to the culpability of the British for ensuing catastrophes, but viewers are left to do their own reading on the situation. The episode’s real target is any voice of division, any voice that stirs radical opinion, or that answers difference with violence – regardless of those voices’ origins.

Vinay Patel’s first script for the programme shows the human cost of such rhetoric, whether espoused by Hindu or Muslim. Homes are abandoned, family ties severed, former alliances in conflict undone. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over proceedings, emphasised by the presence of the Thijarians, and it’s hard to think of an episode more appropriate for broadcast on Remembrance Day (further evidence of care and thoughtful planning going into this series’ running order).

Former assassins whose sole purpose is now to mourn those who die alone, the Thijarians are an alien presence whose service to the episode is thematic in the end. As with Rosa, we are shown the most frightening monster to be ordinary people who have ‘lost their minds’. Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) embodies this, a radicalised young man, whose blinkered view in the end helps claim his brother Prem’s (Shane Zaza) life. Two deeply compelling performances in a fantastic cast.

Through them, we feel the individual stakes amidst an enormous conflict, and personal unrest is threaded through the whole episode, developing our central characters further. As with Arachnids in the UK, we come to know Yaz better through seeing her within her family. Her relationship with her grandmother has shown us much more of who she is than the odd reference to her job as a police officer has. Confronted with the possibility of dishonesty on Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) part when seeing her youth first-hand, we see her face doubts about herself and her own standing in the world. It’s a fantastic challenge for the character, and a further engaging strand of the story.

There are pieces of wonderful writing also when it comes to Umbreen herself, as we see her in old age (Leena Dhingra) echoing her younger self’s dislike of her mother’s hand pattern design before her wedding. A fantastic little moment of character building. It also simultaneously counters and draws attention to the sense that she should recognise her adult granddaughter from one of the most important memories of her life. But honestly, when everything surrounding such niggles is so rich, it feels churlish to complain. Crucially, all the people in this episode feel like people. Vinay Patel is a very welcome addition to the writing team.

One issue that recurs here and elsewhere, though, is with the Doctor’s characterisation. Not necessarily a criticism, more a concern. Jodie Whittaker continues to impress, levity and gravitas coming in equal measure as her characterisation unfolds. It feels increasingly often this series that the Doctor makes a mistake and apologises – a refreshing change from the tiresome grandiosity of the previous ten years or so.

But the frequency of these moments, coupled with the, again welcome, more passive approach to historical adventures like this one, could begin to feed a perception of this Doctor as more a passenger, less a leader. As I say, refreshing for now, but if it persists without clearer moments of leadership along the way, is that the best look for the character?

That ongoing thought aside, this struck me on second viewing today as the strongest episode in the series so far. A moving, intelligent script with gripping performances and an awareness of history and context that reaches out to the viewer as much as it draws them in. And, once more, a special mention is warranted for Segun Akinola’s superb score. Music that engages without ever becoming pushy is a very welcome development this year.

I was also struck by the end credits, the usual theme tune rearranged to reflect this week’s delving into Asian history. As with Rosa’s use of Rise Up over the end credits, it reflects an overall creative approach that refuses to be reverent to the Doctor Who that has come before (only one episode before this year had gone without the traditional theme tune in over fifty years). Once again, as it always should be, Doctor Who is not being given special treatment for being Doctor Who, but is being treated by its makers with a sense of creativity that should go without saying for any drama. Thank goodness for that.

p06qv4fd

Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Well, you need to odd dud to appreciate the good weeks, don’t you?

To be fair to The Tsuranga Conundrum, it has a lot of good, fun, interesting elements bubbling away. The trouble is they seldom feel capitalised on, fail to gel into a coherent episode, and inhabit a rather cold sci-fi world that gives us very little to engage with in terms of either character or plot. As it is, the episode feels both dull and messy, which admittedly is an impressive achievement in Doctor Who, a show whose failures normally only manage to be one at a time.

Decent turns are given by the guest cast, and it isn’t their fault that their characters don’t manage to grip us. The blame has to lie with the script. We’re told what sort of roles these people fulfil in this mini-disaster movie. The brother and sister with unspoken vulnerabilities and insecurities, the newbie unsure of her abilities, a pregnant civilian in urgent need of care. We’re told these, we see these roles and relationships at work to a greater or lesser extent, yet in most cases we feel very little from them.

We’re told that Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) feels Eve (Suzanne Packer) doesn’t believe in him, but do we see enough to show why he feels this? That relationship would not be as clear were it not spelled out beforehand. Similarly, the self-doubt Mabli (Lois Chimimba) goes through is made clear by Astos (Brett Goldstein) before we see it evidenced. Time spent saying what people feel is time not spent demonstrating it, and it’s a frequent shortcoming.

Character is not fantastically served, then. The episode strives at the end to make this into Eve’s story – the last stand of a great figure in history. But again, we learn of her status through a couple of lines of dialogue when the Doctor meets her. That’s all we’re given to show off a titanic reputation.

Contrast with Lindsey Duncan’s Captain Adelaide Brooke in The Waters of Mars (2009), when a character’s status and history are built up through flashbacks, and the Doctor quietly idolises her throughout. Here, we have a fairly brief meeting and a few lines of dialogue (ending with a joke that puts the Doctor on even, if not greater, footing). We have precious little to feed the story of a great commander, battling the odds and illness, until she pilots the ship in the final sequence – too late for us to be convinced, and not helped by the sets, which are expansive and samey enough to feel rather empty, rather removed, rather safe.

We lack a sense of jeopardy. And in an episode like this, we need jeopardy as a source of momentum and as a catalyst for relationships to boil over. It doesn’t help that, with pretty much every room and corridor looking identical, and with so few shots of outside the ship, we don’t get a good grasp of physical movement or the geography within. Where is the threat? Is something coming to get us? How far away is it? We don’t feel any of these concerns.

And when it comes to the threat itself, the tone is uneven. I like the Pting. It’s an imaginative monster, and the idea that it’s disposed of by feeding it an exploding bomb, the thermal energy of which was all it ever wanted as a harmless food source in the first place, is fantastic. The sort of thing that Doctor Who does so well: other sci-fi series might shy away from it.

Because the Pting is funny. It looks funny; it sounds funny; it moves in a funny way; the sight of Yaz booting it down a corridor is a great moment of comedy in an episode that wants a few more laughs. It even has a funny name. Anyone watching the episode will surely think the Pting is funny. I’m just not convinced any of the characters do, and that’s an issue for us as viewers. It’s not as easy to connect with people if you don’t laugh at the same things.

I don’t think the Pting being funny necessarily removes the sense of danger – so long as you see a laugh deflated by a moment of savagery. Look at the Adipose from Partners in Crime (2008) – one of the most bizarre-looking monsters in the history of the show, and the episode knows it. But we still feel unnerved by the thought of them moving under their carriers’ skin, a rumble of the stomach becoming a death knell. The Pting could be funny and scary by turns, but the story doesn’t share our first reaction – so it doesn’t elicit the second from us.

Danger and pressure don’t stem enough from the Pting then, but there can be other sources – this is a space-age ambulance, after all, rushing its passengers to hospital. That could be a pressurised enough situation to bring out a character’s problems, and indeed it is – but only for Ryan. His experience having to become a doula for Yoss (Jack Shalloo), who is unsure whether he could ever be capable of being a father, gives him a way to vicariously right the wrongs of his own absent dad.

Doctor Who now is at its best when trips into other times illuminate something of a companion’s life in the present day. That’s what Rosa did so well a few weeks ago, and it’s what The Tsuranga Conundrum does so well for Ryan. It’s the most engaging element of the episode by far. But there’s so much less of this kind of insight awarded to Graham and Yaz, and it doesn’t need to be that way.

The episode is set in an ambulance (although the colour palette, uniform sets and generally static sense of the episode might make it feel more like a hospital). We all have memories, good and bad, of visits to hospital, of ambulance rides. Perhaps Yaz has had to sit in an ambulance with the victim of a violent crime. Graham certainly has previous experience, having suffered from cancer and met the love of his life while undergoing treatment. Little moments like that could help us feel closer to a world that instead feels removed from us. (It would help the plot too – why doesn’t it feel utterly obscene that an ambulance would be fitted with a remote-controlled self-destruct system? Perhaps because it doesn’t feel that much like an ambulance.)

As it stands, Graham does mention that his wife was a nurse, but mostly provides reliable comic relief with his references to Call the Midwife. Meanwhile Yaz displays that she paid attention in physics, and that she works as a police officer (in more on-the-nose dialogue of the kind that script editor Andrew Ellard picks up on much better than I do in his excellent Tweetnotes series). But that’s all. No moments of insight into their own stories as are offered for Ryan, when they could have easily had more.

Frustration, then, is the main thing I felt watching The Tsuranga Conundrum. It would be churlish, and wrong, to call it ‘bad’, because there are plenty of good things about it, including some I’ve mentioned above. All the pieces are there for a fantastic adventure. They just don’t quite come together when the moment arises, so the episode misses the mark. It hasn’t put me off by any means (I’d hope writing a blog about it each week would indicate a base level of investment) But so far it feels that we have adventures that serve character much better when the series goes into the past, which needn’t be the case. Hopefully that will adjust, but for now, I’m glad we have another trip into history in store tonight, as Yaz visits her grandmother, and we explore the Partition of India.

p06q8j87

Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK

With humour, thrills and images that haunt, Arachnids in the UK is a textbook Doctor Who adventure. It’s not a story that necessarily says much new, but it does introduce us to new characters in Yaz’s family, and crucially brings us to an endpoint where she, Graham and Ryan voluntarily join the Doctor to travel together. And it only took nearly half the series.

Primarily, the episode is here to serve character, and at long last we get to know Yaz a bit better. She’s been somewhat neglected so far, and now Chris Chibnall shows us more of who she is by showing us her family – a strategy it’s good to see return from the Russell T Davies era. One of the best ways to understand someone is to see where they have come from, and what they’re kicking against, as they opt to travel the universe.

We get similar developments of Graham and Ryan’s stories. Touching scenes of Graham feeling Grace’s presence in their lifeless house show us what pushes him towards the wonders of the TARDIS too. (I still maintain I’d rather see Grace alive and interacting with her family properly, but there we go.) Meanwhile, Ryan hears once again from his deadbeat father, in a letter suggesting that they live together again. That he tells Graham, very briefly, that he’s chosen not to indicates the underlying affection growing between the two of them – even though this itself isn’t vocalised.

Ryan’s development is more interesting, in this respect, than Yaz and Graham’s. What’s important is what goes unsaid, whereas the other two often explain to the Doctor (and us) just what they’re feeling. The last scene of the episode demonstrates this well, and it’s why we benefit from seeing more of Yaz and Graham’s home lives. In seeing how they function there, we’re shown more than we’re told for a change.

The other character we continue to see come into her own is the Doctor herself. It’s not to say we don’t have a good handle on her from the previous few weeks, but she sometimes feels as much a player in the wider ensemble than the star (in many ways, that’s a deliberate choice). But as we see her saying what could be a lasting goodbye to her friends, taking Yaz up on the offer of tea, interacting with her family, getting puzzled over Ed Sheeran, we see warmth, emotional honesty and humorous energy that haven’t been seen so clearly since the days of David Tennant. Couple this with the Doctor’s fundamental moral authority showing ever more confidently, and Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation continues to enthral.

All that makes up for some of the more run-of-the-mill aspects of the plot. The ending certainly felt a cop-out, a final showdown culminating in a monster simply being gunned down – by a man thoroughly deserving of a comeuppance, who simply gets to walk away. Chris Noth gives a fun performance as Robertson, but he feels far too casually let go by the story’s climax. It doesn’t feel a deliberate choice, like with Voyage of the Damned (2007) or The God Complex (2011), where a cruel, cowardly figure is rescued against the audience’s clear wishes. Here, there’s no point made of the lack of retribution – it’s just allowed to happen.

Nonetheless, the story is generally an engaging one, with mad science and industrial irresponsibility combining to echo the giant maggot-infested coal mine of The Green Death (1973). There are arresting images of horror amid the everyday, not least a cobwebbed flat in Sheffield housing the wrapped body of a victim in her bed. The sight of spiders creeping en masse out of the darkness lingers in the memory too, as does the sequence of them scuttling along to Stormzy later (albeit in a different way).

While we’re on the spiders, it’s worth dwelling once again on how good Doctor Who looks this series. The episode count has been reduced once again this year, but the resulting increase in money (I assume) per episode really shows. At last, Doctor Who has done giant spiders and they don’t look silly. When even a more standard storyline like this one can feel so well-done, with engaging characters at its heart, there’s every reason to continue feeling very impressed indeed by this year’s series.

p06pvlym

Doctor Who: Rosa

And so into history. Rosa Parks and the black civil rights movement in the US is a difficult subject for any programme to handle well, let alone a time-travelling sci-fi adventure series. So it’s a relief that, in Rosa, Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall deliver probably the best, most sensitive and intelligent handling of real history that Doctor Who has managed in about 52 years.

The episode feels a welcome change from encounters with historical figures over the last couple of eras of the show. Which isn’t to say that previous meetings with Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, the citizens of Pompeii, haven’t made for fantastic pieces of television. But these figures and events are distant enough to be larger than life, grand portrayals – the myth. That the history depicted here is more recent, and sadly still all too relevant, goes some way to explain why such an approach is absolutely not called for here.

Therefore, in a departure for 21st century Doctor Who’s ‘celebrity historical’ model, the Doctor and her friends are not felt to make any significant impact on Rosa’s life at all. Yes, they protect the circumstances that enable her to make her protest, but the action and the sentiments are entirely her own. She is unchanged by the encounter.

In fact, it is she who changes them, exclusively. Inspiring Yaz and giving new opportunities to Ryan, including meeting Martin Luther King (leasing to one of the episode’s best comic beats), she guides them, never the other way round. They are reverent observers – and nothing more. She is also not made into a towering figure, as previous historical ‘titans’ have been in the show – thanks not just to a sensitive script, but also a quietly indomitable performance by Vinette Robinson.

Such scenes mean that the episode also gives the companions a better chance to come into their own. Their first step into history presents a key issue for our cast to respond to, using it to define themselves, by way of their individual experiences. Yaz and Ryan’s discussion of their present day encounters with racism is an arresting moment, making clear the episode’s message that the battle is not over yet. (They, too, have had to learn, “Never give them the excuse”.)

Meanwhile, Graham’s visit to 1955 Montgomery summons up more memories of Grace and the lessons she taught him. More than Yaz and Ryan have been granted as yet, he has fantastic moments of comic relief with the Doctor. But he also finds himself in a heart-rending position at the episode’s climax, as the Doctor makes clear they need to stay on Rosa’s bus to keep the numbers up and ensure she will be asked to give up her seat. When the moment comes, it is Graham who is standing – forced into the unwanted position of privilege he has held throughout in the starkest way possible. Honouring and betraying Grace’s memory all at once.

Rosa provides a compelling demonstration of how history and its evils still resonate and can touch us today, with the TARDIS crew feeling it first-hand. After its broadcast, I saw discussion online as to whether this could have been taken further. Rather than have a malign figure in Krasko (Joshua Bowman) actively trying to disrupt history, what if our heroes accidentally create the problem themselves upon arrival, and have to spend the rest of the episode putting it right?

I had some sympathy with the idea until second viewing: Krasko is needed. The argument was that Ryan and Yaz’s discussion of modern day prejudice was enough to show the battle continues, but Krasko, a white supremacist from the far future, goes further, showing just how hard the fight must still be fought today. Even more crucially, while giving the story a useful singular villain, Krasko is incapable of violence due to an implant he received in prison – he may no longer be able to kill, but his plan teaches gives us a valuable reminder that evil doesn’t need to be murderous for us to identify it as such (even if, depressingly often, it is that too).

His physical impotence lies at the heart of why some viewers took Krasko to be a weak, underused villain.  And that conclusion is understandable because, for all his nastiness, Krasko is not the greatest menace in the episode. That comes from the world of Montgomery itself.

Whether in the form of bus driver James Blake (Trevor White) bellowing at Parks, the violent slap Ryan receives from the white husband (Richard Lothian) of a woman whose glove he returns, the silent stares the group attracts in a café, or the looming silhouette of a police officer (Gareth Marks), it is everyday bigotry, sanctioned, authorised, angry and powerful, that is most visceral and frightening.

How appropriate for 2018 that, in Rosa, ordinary, everyday people are the scariest monsters of all. And that it is ordinary, everyday people who have the greatest power to put things right.

16503888-high_res-doctor-who-series-11-crop-1540202216-1400x733

Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument

The Ghost Monument feels old-school in the best sense, and while I saw some comparisons to early eighties Doctor Who online immediately following its broadcast, for me it seemed closer to the sixties. At times episodic in feel, it’s a gradual exploration of a world that harks back to the quests that William Hartnell and his companions would embark upon in the earliest days of the programme (fifty-five years later, looking more breathtakingly cinematic than could ever have been imagined then).

In an echo of those days, the TARDIS crew are split up at the beginning, meeting characters in their pairs before being brought back together to face a bigger challenge, stronger as a group – a running theme this week. In more of a departure, the plot of the race they now find themselves part of is not the most compelling aspect of the story (in fact, it could be explored and developed much further than it is), but serves as a springboard for the characters and the moral lesson their journey teaches.

This is a story about companionship, and, as its title suggests, about the ghosts, impressions and past encounters that guide and shape us all. Pitted against the Doctor’s morality is Epzo’s (Shaun Dooley) mistrust and disdain for others, which stems from childhood abuse by his family. Armstrong’s (Susan Lynch) motivation comes from family as well – except she has lost hers, and knows not to takes one’s companions in life for granted.

Pretty much every character except Epzo is driven by the loss of something he has apparently never had. It continues to be seen with Graham and Ryan, as they try, or try to avoid, coming to terms with Grace’s death last week.  The exception is Yas, who still suffers from lack of development so far. Too often she remains the sounding board for those around her, and a fifth into this series, I still find myself unsure who she is – in a story about all our ghosts, it feels as though she needs some more of her own.

Even Desolation, the world of the episode, keeps in with the theme – barren, and haunted by the terrors that left it that way. Last week, we met the Stenza; now, we come to understand their lasting impact on those they visit. Armstrong reveals her world has been ‘cleansed’ by them, and every menace on this planet turns out to be a product of their own violence.  It’s hard not to expect them as recurring villains now, but their lingering presence in the lives of Graham, Ryan, Armstrong and Desolation serves this single episode’s theme perfectly in its own right.

Set against the malicious ghosts of this world though, is the ‘Ghost Monument’ itself, revealed early on to be the semi-materialised missing TARDIS, and its image provides all the hope the Doctor needs to pull her and her friends through to the end of the race. The promise of home lies at the heart of her optimism, and although the final scene gives her a rather arbitrary lapse in faith, this occurs to demonstrate that her hope has spread to her friends as well – and is rewarded in full when the TARDIS finally returns to her.

We are accordingly treated to the sight of a new interior. Crystalline, atmospheric, yet I found it hard to get a handle on. It felt partly obscured from full view by the columns around the console, but in keeping with this episode’s message, I will keep faith that it’ll grow on me – and the custard cream gets an instant thumbs up. I feel bound to dwell on the look of the thing purely because of how stunning the rest of the episode is – has Doctor Who ever looked so good? I feel not. The same goes for the beautifully eerie new opening titles, a perfect match for Segun Akinola’s theme tune arrangement – which has continued to impress me through the week as it echoed through my ears.

A winningly confident start to this series continues then, and I’m looking forward greatly to tonight’s visit to Montgomery 1955, and a meeting with one Rosa Parks.

BBCA_DRW_1102_DAI

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Nearly fifteen months after the announcement of her casting, it was indeed about time for Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as TV’s Doctor Who. Hers was also the start of a brand new era for the programme – new showrunner, writers, producers, composer. The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt to me the boldest relaunch of the show since its return in 2005, with a refreshing new approach to its cast of characters and some exciting, even unsettling, changes of style and tone. Exactly the shake-up it was due.

Though it’s hard to judge a Doctor from their first episode alone, but following a casting that prompted a min-revival of the historic debate amongst predominantly male fans as to whether or not women can act, this was a triumph for Jodie Whittaker. Her introduction isn’t fed to us in quite the show-stopping, blockbuster-y way that many other Doctors have enjoyed this century (looking at how we meet her companions, this is surely a deliberate choice). But the big moments are still there. Moments of heroic action, a big climactic speech, proudly asserting her identity and her morality. Fantastically inquisitive, often struggling to catch up with her own mind – and a lovely bit of childlike humour when she asks Yas (Mandip Gill) if they can have the lights and siren on in the police car.

Separated from the TARDIS for now, she is also forced into an Earthbound, practical mindset not properly seen since Jon Pertwee was having to make do with whatever technology our planet had to offer in the early 1970s. For me, the first time this Doctor felt like she was really discovering herself was the sequence where she makes her own sonic screwdriver (now with added Sheffield steel). Eight years on from another relaunch for the show, where Matt Smith gets given a new, ready-made one by the TARDIS (“Thanks, dear,” indeed), this was a brilliant distinction, and a welcome reminder after a long period of the Doctor seeming almost magical, that the character is a scientist – she’s hands-on, she builds, she is an inventor.

‘Down-to-Earth’ seems an apt phrase to describe this first episode, then, and it’s reflected in the companions too. This isn’t to say we didn’t believe Bill was real, or Donna, or Clara (sometimes), but over the years, we’ve been used to seeing characters who feel like big personalities to us from the off. There are broad brushstrokes, and we often meet them through the lens of their own perspective. Meeting three new friends at once, ours is much more of an outside eye, in spite of Ryan (Tosin Cole) communicating with us directly through a vlog, Our view of them seems more objective as we see multiple criss-crossing personal relationships slowly reveal themselves. We’re invested enough to continue, but I certainly feel after episode one that there’s much more to learn.

My biggest criticism of the episode is that one of those avenues is cut off before we have a chance to explore it. Grace’s (Sharon D Clarke) death felt to me a needless cruelty, inflicted on someone who brought the most sense of life and soul to proceedings (aside from maybe the Doctor herself). It’s her who really brings a love of adventure to a tense, often grim, story “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” she asks Graham (Bradley Walsh). “Yes!” he replies.

Others more knowledgeable than me have questioned the underlying (perhaps unconsidered) politics of a story of white female empowerment culminating in the death of a black woman, but for my part, I felt cheated of a character I was so keen to see return periodically. Grace is given a good send off by her loved ones, and I have no doubt her loss will continue to have ramifications for Graham and Ryan, but is a character’s death really necessary to catalyse other relationships? And come to that, what of the other relationships that will now go unexamined?

A shame in an otherwise fantastic relaunch, yet it does also serve the grimmer tone that is struck at points in the episode. After a trailer and publicity that unanimously screamed action, adventure and fun, this episode had some surprisingly dark turns. There was something deeply unsettling in the brutality of the amusingly misnamed Tim Shaw/T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oakley), and the implied violence of maimed corpses – to say nothing of the evidence of this that he wears so proudly. It’s made more affecting by the profound sense of the real world in this story. Mundane details like the flavourless salad and kebabs being eaten by one of his victims make his violence that bit more visceral – especially after the more fantastical violence since the programme’s return.

Segun Akinola’s music amplifies this, too. Gone are the sentimentalist comforts of Murray Gold, and in their place is much greater emphasis on atmospheric drones, tension and dread abound. The updated music casts us into this new world of Doctor Who just as surely as the sumptuous changes to the programme’s cinematography. This can also be said of his new theme tune arrangement (to be heard in its proper place for the first time in tonight’s episode). For the first time this century, it speaks less of action and adventure, and more of the ethereal and the unknown. The result is by turns exciting and just a little bit frightening – quite right too.

All in all, this was a brilliant first step down a new path. I have my misgivings on one aspect, true, but in general I couldn’t be more excited by the fresh directions the show’s taking – at just the right time. Jodie Whittaker looks set to be a fantastic Doctor, I’m looking forward to visiting strange new worlds with her and her friends, and I’m quietly thrilled at having no idea what to expect next.

p06n69wl

Peter Fleming on Barry Chuckle

Hi everyone. I‘ve decided to postpone this week’s post in light of the sad news today of Barry Chuckle’s death. He was someone I loved watching, and, as a comic underdog, perhaps the first person on TV that I ever identified with. As such, I have decided to let Peter Fleming, one of the architects of the golden age of British children’s TV, share some of his memories of Barry with us.

Hello there, my friends.

I woke to the very sad news this morning that dear Barry Chuckle (or Elliott to those who knew him best) is no longer with us. As well as his friends and family (most of all Paul), I of course pass my condolences on to the generations of viewers who have just lost a beloved figure from their childhood – as seems to be happening all too often these days.

My own brief memories of meeting and working with Barry are very happy ones. In spite of a long and varied career, I first met both Barry and Paul in 1992 whilst on a walking holiday (it later transpired I had officially gone missing, but let’s not quibble). Going past what appeared a very enchanting Romany caravan, I decided to step in and say hello. The elderly woman within was a fortune teller, and I thought I may as well cross her palm.

After many detailed hours of her telling my future, our conversation was interrupted when Barry burst through the door and told Paul to take off his disguise – I’d been hoodwinked! Though not widely known, it is a fact that Paul would always stay in character while filming, even during breaks, and often for quite some time after recording had wrapped. In this case, the episode had contained several brief scenes in which he posed as a fortune teller and told Barry a false future. (That said, I was stunned in later years by the eerie level of accuracy in Paul’s predictions, often regarding very intimate areas of my life.) Barry clearly sympathised with my plight, having acted out my predicament himself earlier in the day!

I was touched by the calm authority with which he came to my rescue – inherent in being the older brother in real life, no doubt, much as his height and higher voice would lend him better to an underdog persona in the double act. After we had all returned to London and I had been ‘found safe and well’, we stayed in touch, and indeed worked together on one occasion, thanks to a peculiar gift of Barry’s that kept him in gainful employment for many years.

I’d noticed it when we were walking away from the caravan that day, and Barry had tripped and fallen flat on his face. Out of nowhere, the sound of a slide whistle rang through the air, and a metallic clang resounded at the moment of impact. Contrary to the received wisdom that these sounds were added in by an editor for every slapstick fall throughout ChuckleVision’s 22 years, they in fact occurred of their own accord whenever Barry caused himself some piece of physical harm. Neither before nor since have I come across a man with such a natural comic aura.

As a result of this, he would do twice the falling Paul did – who for some reason didn’t emit the same sounds (given his clairvoyant abilities, he could hardly complain). Whenever he was also required to fall, either a shot would have to include both brothers falling in unison, or Barry would have to throw himself to the floor at the exact same moment off camera. It could prove painful, but Barry would always happily give himself over for the sake of the next laugh. I often reflect how odd it is that, for something so unique to the man, children would never imitate that sound as commonly as they would their other popular catchphrases from, “To me… to you”, to “’Ello!”, to “Oh dear, oh dear.”

Barry was often in demand for his remarkable talent, as I say, and I was very proud to hire him as Sound Operator for many moments of physical comedy during my brief stint overseeing Schoolz on Holz (1997-98), which I left in acrimonious circumstances a fortnight in, following a disagreement on the spelling of the title. It was Barry, in that instance, who encouraged me to stay true to my beliefs and take the high road, and I was grateful for his counsel (or ‘counzzel#£#’, as BBC Children’s executives probably spell it nowadays). He stayed on for the duration of the series, but I would never begrudge him that, of course. It was my quarrel, not his, and he had three hungry brothers to feed at home.

Besides his ongoing work with Paul, be it on ChuckleVision, on Channel 5’s recent Chuckle Time, in their regular stage shows or in their unlikely hit singles, Barry found a lot of lucrative opportunities to provide these sound effects for a number of programmes. Quite apart from the joy he brought to so many childhoods, I would hope that part of his legacy will be that anyone watching television in years to come who hears a slide whistle as someone falls down will think of him – it’s quite likely Barry making the noise! Most recently, he had provided voices for the dear departed Peter Firmin’s revived Clangers series, although I understand he had stopped last year under doctor’s orders, owing to the severe bruising voicing so many characters was causing.

As always, in spite of any brief moment of pain or embarrassment, he (and Paul too) was always willing regardless, for the sake of giving to a young audience. True to form, Barry never let the children at home down. I know they and I shall miss him and his presence terribly.

Rest in peace, Barry Chuckle.

Best wishes,

Peter

Chuckle Brothers

Where They Are Now

As someone nostalgic and fanciful by temperament, obsessed with cult TV aimed at children, particularly Doctor Who, it’s only natural that one of my pet projects is an ongoing quest to find out where people who featured in archive programmes have ended up now. Some of my most recent finds have been by turns delightful and tragic.

  • Caron, interviewed at her school with several classmates for the 1977 BBC Lively Arts documentary, Whose Doctor Who, started up her own small business in 1990, which closed 11 years later amid reports of financial irregularities.
  • Casper, the well-spoken, big-suited boy with bushy hair and a high-pitched voice who featured in the same programme, became a quantity surveyor in accordance with his father’s wishes, before suffering a nervous breakdown in the early nineties and taking up music instead. He worked as a session drummer for the next ten years, notably contributing to five tracks on the 1996 Supergrass album In It for the Money (production paperwork reveals that he most certainly wasn’t).
  • Phillip, who in the same documentary suggested Doctor Who would end with the TARDIS going through a time barrier and running out of petrol, designed the £2 coin.
  • Matthew, a small boy who was a guest in a 1973 edition of Pebble Mill at One when the BBC Visual Effects department demonstrated a number of their achievements, was shocked when a Cyberman singularly failed to break through a specially designed glass window. Endeavouring to make windows that leant themselves better to drama, he set to work developing newer, thinner, more fragile windows as soon as he was old enough to leave school. The products were highly successful, and set the cause of home security in this country back 15 years.
  • A further Matthew, interviewed by Peter Purves for Blue Peter as an eyewitness to the theft of two Daleks from BBC Television Centre in 1973, was jailed in 1988 after being found out as the mystery man of the South East who had been hurling dogs into the sea. By the time he was caught he had despatched an estimated 25,000 animals, refusing ever to disclose his reasons.
  • 1989’s seminal Look and Read series, Through the Dragon’s Eye, featured three young actors playing protagonists Scott, Jenny and Amanda. Marlaine Gordon (Amanda) went mountaineering in 1991 to try and find the fictionalised land of Pelamar that had so ignited her imagination during filming, and was mysteriously never found. Simon Fenton (Scott), similarly obsessed by the storyline, tragicallly flattened himself running at over 90mph into the mural used in the programme – his crazed mind telling him that he could somehow get back that way; Nicola Stewart (Jenny) still acts, and occasionally moonlights as an English teacher.

These children leave remarkable legacies, with many more to discover. Personally, I can’t wait to make further exciting finds.

300px-WhoseDoctorWhologo

Doctor Who: Shada (1979/2017)

Shada, Douglas Adams’ legendary, unfinished Doctor Who story, abandoned midway through production following industrial action, has finally been completed. Again. We’ve had 1992’s VHS release of the completed footage with linking narration by Tom Baker and accompanying scriptbook, 2003’s webcast and subsequent CD release starring Paul McGann, 2012’s novelisation and subsequent audiobook by Gareth Roberts, and years’ worth of fan-made versions and accompanying online arguments. In December, a new, likely definitive attempt at completion, was released by BBC Worldwide. This feature-length version combines the original 1979 material with new animation and dialogue recorded by the original cast (when available). Perhaps the quest to finish Shada has finally come to an end.

It’s not really disputed that the story enjoys a much higher status than it might have had if it had been finished at the time. Douglas Adams had said later that he didn’t rate his script highly, salvaging choice elements for his first Dirk Gently book, and there are some points where it’s clear that ideas were running low at the end of a highly stressful year of script-editing a troubled series. That’s especially true of Skagra, one of the least interesting villains ever written for the programme. One could excuse his lack of any real backstory and motivation as tongue-in-cheek, but that would, I fear, be immensely charitable.

So Shada’s misfortune has over the years turned into a blessing. We can see from the short completed scenes in Skagra’s spaceship and the Think Tank space station that much of the story would have looked a very typical low budget Doctor Who story of the period. Uninspiring sets and tedious lighting all over the shop. As it is, what was completed at the time mostly comprised the location filming in Douglas Adams’ beloved Cambridge, the relish of the production team palpable, and the scenes in Professor Chronontis’ (Denis Carey) college rooms. This set is a thing of beauty, evoking a sense of style that seemed such an anomaly in City of Death earlier in this season of Doctor Who. Not to mention the unadulterated joy of seeing Dennis Carey pottering about, a supposedly senile man who knows far more than he lets on. It’s no wonder the story gained such a reputation with just this as its foundation – now, decades on, a new production team is freer to make the best of what’s left of the script.

And they have done a fantastic job. The animation itself has a sense of character all its own, while staying sympathetic to the live footage around it and, obviously, capturing a good likeness of everyone populating the story. There’s a delicious level of intricacy and detail given to set and spaceship designs as well, living up to the excellent newly filmed model work that also crops up through this new edition. Special mention also to the first transition from live action to animation, the camera rising up to one blue sky and descending from quite another. A skilful, well-judged piece of work.

The animation never feels intrusive, helped by the decision to do away with the episodic format that would have been used for television. This introduces some drawbacks: the pacing of the scripted action for six half-hours, each broadcast a week apart, can feel a little plodding in one go, and we also lose, in episode three, what would have been one of the most imaginative cliffhangers of the 1970s.  But it’s a justifiable choice to help animation and live action feel more comfortable bedfellows.

I must also take a moment to acknowledge the excellent new turns by the original cast – a seamless blend between 1979’s performances and 2017’s. It’s a delight that we now have a version of the story that both Lalla Ward and Tom Baker have worked to complete. Just another aspect that lets this version take on a ‘definitive’ status, as well as preventing the mixed format from jarring.

Also invaluable is Mark Ayres’ brilliant score. Evoking the spirit of the late Dudley Simpson, it feels tailor-made to a Doctor Who story of this era, persistent echoes of City of Death in particular. There’s more music than might have been used at the time, and it risk overpowering on occasion in the first two episodes’ worth of material, but it’s a sterling achievement, and for my money the most effective element binding the whole undertaking together. And what a joy to hear real instruments being used. An extra expense, of time at the very least, that shows the level of care being given to this project. This is a team treating their task with genuine reverence.

But it’s pleasingly knowing too, as it stakes its claim to be seen as the ‘final’ version of Shada. There’s a very celebratory feel to the whole project, most of all in its final scene. I knew from the 1992 version what the final recorded scene from 1979 was, and I did experience just a little deflation to know the story was going to finish off with one last short animated scene. I should have stopped to think that, of course, there had been something much more special prepared. What better way to commemorate the end of such a long production, harking back to the best loved decade of the programme?

Each new version of Shada has been met with some level of enjoyment by Doctor Who fans, ever enticed by a seemingly irreversible gap in the archives. It’s been a fun journey to get to this definitive version in any case, but to see a full-length version put together so well and with such affection is a very satisfying watch. Well worth the wait.

shada-bbc

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (2017)

Well, here we go again.

It seems simultaneously an age and no time at all since Peter Capaldi blasted his way out of Matt Smith’s collar and cuffs at Christmas 2013, yet the time has come to see him off. Twice Upon a Time had a lot of expectations riding on it, the biggest of all perhaps for its final scene since July’s announcement of Jodie Whittaker’s arrival. But we still had Peter Capaldi’s departure, Bill’s return, the excellent David Bradley’s appearance as the First Doctor, and Steven Moffat’s final script as showrunner for Doctor Who to come first.

A lot to deliver, and the episode felt to me a qualified success, taking a little while to decide what it wanted to be with so many elements to balance, but ultimately giving us an engaging discussion of facing the end, a fitting farewell to the Twelfth Doctor, and a good mark of how the programme has developed in terms of its storytelling in seven years under Steven Moffat.

I found it very refreshing that, compared to 2013’s The Time of the Doctor, this was a much less busy episode to see off a Doctor. Where Matt Smith’s end felt rather noisy with the sound of loose ends being fussily tied up, here we take time to pause and reflect on coming departures. Or rather, we do once the episode has settled into itself. The early portion, taking in the Doctor’s meeting with ‘Testimony’ based on a misunderstanding, a flying visit to Rusty the Dalek (who I hadn’t much thought of since he first appeared three years ago), a grandstanding speech of the variety that has felt increasingly unearned in the programme as the years have gone on, and a smattering of disingenuous jokes at the expense of sexism in our culture that’s certainly now all gone and not simply become more insidious, all feels rather frenetic. There’s excitement, and a faster pace that perhaps the episode needed here, especially for more casual audiences who aren’t 100% comprised of geeks in their mid-twenties. But it felt to me that, while the episode felt it might need it, it wasn’t especially interested in it.

Rather, it’s through Mark Gatiss’ First World War Captain that the story’s heart is revealed, and the subject it’s more engaged in – old soldiers facing the end. In this episode we have three (well, two, but one’s doing it twice a few centuries apart), guided to what might seem to be death but is in fact a chance at redemption, by Bill (a welcome last return from Pearl Mackie – how lucky we’ve been to have her this year).

It’s surprising that Doctor Who hasn’t visited the Christmas Truce of the First World War before, but here it provides the perfect symbolic backdrop. The armistice is the chance our three leads need. The First and Twelfth Doctors, wearied by their long battles, have just enough respite to regain their spirits and return to their eternal fight. The same is done literally for Captain Lethbridge-Stewart, returned to what would’ve been the moment of his death ever so slightly later – free to recommence battle the next morning, but, we know from his name, to survive to the end. This is a much quieter, stiller emotional climax than we’ve been used to for much Doctor Who lately, let alone a Doctor’s final episode. But it’s where the episode wants to be, and it’s right to embrace it. The Twelfth Doctor’s real finale came at the end of last series, and this is soberer, more modest coda to the era.

And it feels just right – and a braver choice, as befits a period of the programme that has been partly defined by its bolder variety of storytelling. From its longer scenes and stories, to less showy episodes where often there’s been less in the way of a traditional threat, this era of Doctor Who has seen the programme feel more comfortable with the idea of occasionally stopping and letting itself take time. Twice Upon a Time is an appropriate end to it.

The strength of the approach is clear in the closing scenes, as the three leads from this year gather together for their goodbyes. Steven Moffat’s farewell episodes have often shown an interest in what we’re left as when we die, and there’s always been a concern about how to handle death in a story that wants to remain optimistic. One last time, we have a longer conversation about it. Limited to a few lines in Matt Smith’s farewell scene in 2013, four years on, with greater confidence, we now see our whole cast discussing what will remain of them, and us, all. Memories of each other, of ourselves, a story, an imprint – just enough. The attitude comes through when ‘Testimony’, taking form as Bill and Nardole, returns the Doctor’s lost memories of Clara. The Twelfth Doctor’s final speech can’t help but feel a sense of duty weighing upon it, and it’s this scene, in the build-up, where the real engagement with the subject comes, and the Doctor is shown the way forward by the memories of his friends.

We’re left excited for next year’s series and what’s to come, but these final scenes rightly show off so much of what Peter Capaldi brought to the role. His gravitas, his calm, a twinkle in his eyes. Every expressive line on his face. I’ll miss him a great deal, and also miss the stories that have come out all through his time as the Doctor of the comfort he has given to children, and older fans, in real life. There was time for just one more before he left, of course. Not just a wonderful Doctor, he’s been a wonderful ambassador for the programme. He’ll be missed, but now the Thirteenth Doctor is falling to Earth, ready to begin her new adventures in the New Year.

Personally, I can’t wait for those either.

BBCA_DW_xmas2017-ep