Saturday, 26 June 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.12/13 - The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

Spoilers will fall!

(Apologies for any typos but this was written at high speed after the credits rolled! And I'll probably revise this after I've had some more time to reflect on it...)

Well it’s been a glorious three and a bit months, but all good things must come to an end. This series of Doctor Who has had many mountains to climb; a new production team and, more importantly, a new Doctor have all had to win viewers’ hearts. And for my money, Moffat and Smith have largely succeeded; we’ve had a season that has been the most solid yet – true not every story is a gold plated classic, but across the board the stories have been stronger, the writing tighter and the budget better spent. However the final test remains – can this series deliver a truly satisfying grand finale?

Previously the pattern generally has been a great set up followed by an irritating conclusion. And largely this has been due to Russell T Davies being on script duties; while he has many strengths as a writer, delivering proper conclusion that make sense has always been something of a weak spot for him. Even before he landed the job of bring back Doctor Who, his previous work showed this; indeed my main reservations on hearing he was going to take the wheel of the good ship Who was that I’d found the endings to Queer As Folk and The Second Coming deeply unsatisfying affairs that didn’t do justice to the exemplary scripting of the rest of the shows. And unfortunately his Who finales have been more of the same, hammering the reset button with a huge deus ex machine and serving up sentiment and spectacle in lieu of any proper narrative sense.

However Steven Moffat is a very different kettle of Saturnyians, and this can be clearly seen from the way in he has approached not just the finale but the plotting of the series’ on-going storyline. While the Cracks appearing in most episodes (and in the real universe too it would seem) has been similar to the old RTD method – i.e. drop in a reference (e.g. ‘bad wolf’, ‘torchwood’) and call it an story arc – there has been a lot more going on to that ties all the episodes together and to brings us to the finale. To begin there have been other recurring motifs; the talk of perception filters and the appearance of the First Doctor, but more importantly there has been a greater sense of continuity between the stories, with the consequences of the previous adventure visible in the next.

All in all, rather than the anthology of adventures that have a few hints of the series end we have previously received, this series actually possesses a proper over arching plot. The extended opening sequence of The Pandorica Opens makes this clear – and I’m sure that like myself, many of you readers took the hint and have been rewatching the previous episodes this week. And what a rewarding experience that has proved to be – there are lots of clues and thematic goodies to pick up on; we have numerous references to fairy tales, the Doctor and boxes, how time may be rewritten and a running thread that there is something very wrong with Amy Pond’s life.

Now, true to form, the opening part of the finale was a cracker, full of surprises and building up to a massive three pronged cliff hanger. When the credits rolled we have the Doctor imprisoned, Amy dying and all the stars in the universe going nova. Better still though, there was no ‘Next Time’ trailer and the teasers that surfaced later in the week consisted solely of shots from what we had already seen. Fan speculation on the interwebs went crazy with all manner of bizarre theories being debated – is River Song a future incarnation of the Doctor? Or is she the Doctor’s daughter now grown up? Or does Amy grow up to be River Song? Plus everybody has been wondering about the mysterious voice heard in the TARDIS – is it Davros, Omega, The Beast, Sutekh or some other big bad from Who history or just an echo of Prisoner Zero?

But although it’s been fun to explore such speculations, another running theme of this series has been misdirection and so when the credits for The Pandorica Opens rolled, the only firm prediction I was willing to make would be that The Big Bang is going to deliver surprises that few will have seen coming… However having rewatched several episodes, I was fairly sure that we would be revisiting some scenes for a second time and I was praying that the issue of the returning jacket in Flesh and Stone wouldn’t just turn out to be a continuity error…

Right then so how did everything pan out in the end? Well for me, The Big Bang nicely resolved the situation that The Pandorica Opens had set up. While some may say the concept of rebooting the universe from the restoration field is a little on the rabbit from the hat side of plotting, but really we knew he was going to do it somehow and it would have to involve a plot device that verges on the magical. But the arcane properties of the Pandorica technology are neither here nor there, the key thing is how it was utilised in the tale itself. And on that front, this finale gets a pass, for rather than a quick reset button at the end that undoes everything that has gone before - Last of the Time Lords I AM looking at you - as this particular restoration is carefully worked up to throughout the episode. Everything that has happened, stays happened, and it comes at the cost of the Doctor’s place in history.

Of course he doesn’t get erased, and the solution to this other dilemma had been seeded throughout the preceding dozen episodes. And this is why this finale was so satisfying - it wasn’t just a last big, high octane adventure to end on, it was the conclusion of the entire series, of all the hints and motifs that had been built up over the last three months.

As I’ve said before this has been a very solid series in terms of quality, but as it turns out this run of episodes actually fits together beautifully into one huge narrative. It has been so dexterously plotting that I’m really looking forward to watching it all in sequence now, as there will be lots we missed or didn’t realise were as relevant as they’ve turned out to be. For example, I’m seeing the end of Victory of the Daleks - namely the power of Bracewell’s memories - in a whole new light now.

Alright we didn’t the answers to the questions of who River Song actually is or the enigmatic Voice and Silence, nor was there anything about perception filters or the First Doctor. But I half expected that some things would be left unsolved - the level of detail in the plotting of this series led me to believe that some of the hints in this series would be Moffat laying down the beginnings of future plot lines. After all, in many ways the plot arc of this series actually begins in Tennant’s last series with his Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead episodes.

But this series has been more than just a story arc, for as well as the plot points, there has been character development and an almost literary approach to the themes in the stories - Moffat hasn’t just been telling stories but reflecting on their importance, on the value of fairy tales and fables, of imagination and on the stories we chose to tell ourselves.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

THE REGENERATION GAME (Round 3) - Bohemian Cricket! (Part 2)

The Fifth Doctor marks something of a turning point in classic Doctor Who history with the new Jon Nathan-Turner broom sweeping aside the certainties of the past. No longer was the show part of the BBC’s Saturday night killer line up, the now classic format of the Doctor travelling with a single glamorous assistant was gone, and it was clear that the old theme and titles weren’t coming back. And in the popular consciousness, all these changes are remembered as the point when the show started to go downhill. The era of the much maligned Doctors is upon us.

As we saw while tracing the evolution of the role in the Tom Baker years, the character and the tone of the show was in need of a shake-up. And the Fifth Doctor was to be a marked contrast to the Fourth; Baker’s alien bohemian was replaced a much more vulnerable cricket lover. Davison was a kinder, softer Doctor; less sure of himself and more thoughtful, haughty Time Lord arrogance giving way to sympathetic understanding. Far less authoritarian than any of his previous incarnations and more reserved about wading into a situation, the Fifth Doctor is the most indecisive, always looking to find an accord rather than take the lead.

After the long reign of the Fourth Doctor and Tom Baker’s huge popularity, Peter Davison had a very steep hill to climb. And the change in the character’s attitude and reactions has not always played well with viewers – even among fans the Fifth Doctor is often dismissed as the ‘wet vet’ - an allusion to Davison’s previous well know role as Tristan in All Creatures Great And Small. Now the concept of a Doctor who is more fallible and takes his decisions very seriously is an interesting one. While Baker strode about the cosmos with a “I’m the bloody Doctor, so watch it cock!” gleam in his mad eyes, Davison was a quieter presence, and although he could take the hard line when necessary, the Fifth Doctor was always more sensitive to the costs and consequences.

As the show had scaled back the sillier humour and was still cautious of venturing too far into horror territory, the emphasis was much more on scientific accuracy, and this shifting of weight from the fantasy of the Williams/Adams period to greater realism would lead to all manner of moral dilemmas for the Fifth Doctor to agonise over. The days of the Doctor lashing up some gizmo from super convenient tat in his pockets and manifesting unexpected new abilities were over. Thinking things through and weighing up the right decisions were to be the order of the day now. And this new approach was exemplified in the Davison’s fourth outing The Visitation which saw the sonic screwdriver not only destroyed, but not replaced. From now on, there will be no magic wand in the Doctor’s capacious pockets, and the screw driver will not return until the Eighth Doctor takes the TARDIS controls (apparently he finds a spare in the depths of the TARDIS according to the BBC novels).

And Davison’s performances as this more down to earth Doctor are full of interesting subtlety. While he appears even younger than ever before, his portrayal is full of nods to the fact that he is actually a very old man in a youthful body, with shades of the First Doctor’s crotchetiness on show. However for some, he was just too young for the role – while there had been much muttering about Baker’s age, this was compared to the debates about Davison’s casting. However his boyish good looks aside, many felt he was lacking the necessary gravitas to play the role. Therefore the new direction the show was taking the Doctor in did seem to some like a watering down of the character.

And although this is more than a little unfair to Davison, who acted his cricket pads off in the role, it has to be said there are problems here. While there is nothing wrong with the revised conception of the Doctor himself, or the casting of Davison for that matter, the trouble is the show itself didn’t always deliver a decent showcase for the new Doctor.

The first problem is that for much of the Fifth Doctor’s time, he was operating in a very crowded TARDIS. With Adric stowing aboard in the Tom Baker’s final season, we saw the Nathan-Turner production team taking the cast numbers back to the Hartnell days. It was a deliberate break from the Doctor and sexy assistant set up which at the dawning of the 1980s and political correctness, was looking somewhat chauvinist and sexist.

Now at the time, I welcomed the change. Having absorbed the lore about the early days contained in the pages of the Radio Times 10th Anniversary special, for a good while I’d wanted to see the Doctor gain a few more members for the TARDIS crew - I wanted another Jamie, Ben or Harry in the show. However what we got was Adric and very soon I and many other viewers were wishing the Doctor would boot him back to E-Space pronto.

Now the Adric character underlines a recurring misconception about child characters in stories with adult heroes – namely that audiences will like them. But the truth is generally we don’t - such characters are only second to funny robots and cute animals in the annoying side kicks that “ruin it” stakes. Indeed, characters like Adric constitute the only time most people would condone the disembowelment of children with a rusty meat hook.

While it is true that children like to watch children having adventures, it only really appeals when said adventures are completely enclosed in a child’s world; where a gang of kids are at the centre of the action and the only grown-ups are adversaries and well meaning but stupid parents. Classic children’s fiction from The Famous Five to all operate on these principles. However, stick a child character next one of their grown-up heroes and the reaction is very different: the only child the average younger viewer wants to see by their hero’s side is themselves. This is why audiences may love Jonathan Le Kwan in The Goonies but loathe him as Short Round in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. And for adult viewers, the introduction of a juvenile sidekick smacks too much of infantilising the property and leads to feelings that perhaps they shouldn’t be watching.

But aside from this basic misunderstanding of the dynamics governing child characters in adventure fiction, Adric is not helped by the fact that he is an insufferable smart arse. Originally he was conceived as a kind of Artful Dodger in space, but what we actually got was the school swot – having a badge for doing sums didn’t exactly endear him to the audience. Evidently this was a move to making him a worthy addition to the TARDIS crew, but while they built up his intellect they still tried to portray the character as acting his age. And the result? The unappealing combination of whining and precociousness, the perfect recipe to annoy viewers of all ages. Interestingly, Star Trek made exactly the same mistakes when conceiving Wesley Crusher, another very ill regarded character, which just goes to show that this misconception about youthful sidekicks is a widespread one.

And so, when they decided to take the very bold move and actually kill a companion - in Earthshock, Adric got smashed into the prehistoric earth along with a freighter load of Cybermen, wiping out the dinosaurs and probably many Silurians - rather than the gutters overflowing with tears, round our way the sky was black with hats. Not quite the intended result I’m sure.

But Adric annoyances aside, the main problem in Davison’s first season is that he’s sharing the TARDIS with three companions. With Tegan, Nyssa and Adric all vying for screen time, and this new Doctor’s tendency to discuss and debate a plan of action rather than assume leadership of the team, he often appeared sidelined in his own show. And script-wise, the stories too often struggled to find enough for all four characters to do.

In the Fifth Doctor’s second season, with Adric now sleeping with the ichthyosaurs, wisely JNT didn’t introduce another third companion. However as a common solution to the four leads problem had been to leave Nyssa in the TARDIS, her character was underdeveloped and so she still didn’t get a lot to do. Understandable actress Sarah Sutton was not at all happy with being treated like K9 and despite Davison gallantly arguing with the production team to see that the scripts served her character better, things did not improve and Sutton decided to leave.

However some lessons had been learnt, and replacement Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson) came complete with not only a properly developed character but a story arc. This played out as the fondly remembered Black Guardian trilogy, which had the daring concept of a companion working as a mole for a returning arch villain. However after this plot thread’s conclusion, frequently Strickson wasn’t being given an awful lot to do – for example, he spends much of Resurrection of the Daleks skulking in corridors. Although Turlough had a clear back-story and a fleshed out persona, I think the problem really was Tegan.

Now I have nothing against this character played by Janet Fielding, or her performances. Tegan was an interesting companion – an Australian airhostess who was forthright, strident and very quick to challenge the Doctor if she didn’t think things were right. But the trouble seems to be that Tegan was such a strong character, and such fun to write for, that the script writers automatically gravitated to her and tended to leave little for other TARDIS crew members to do.

But there is also another problem with the crew dynamics in this era. Throughout the Davison years, we had three companions who all will frequently argue the toss with our Time Lord hero. Looking back over it now, it seems that in the Fifth Doctor’s time, the TARDIS was a very fractious place to be, with Tegan, Turlough and Adric all bending his ears while he was trying to get one with saving the day. And while I can appreciate that the move to a larger cast was a logical move away from the perceived sexism of sharing the TARDIS with a sexy damsel, putting to bed the idea of any hanky panky in the TARDIS, the creation of a team with an almost family atmosphere perhaps tipped too far the other way. Maybe it was part of the keeping-it-real ethos of the show at the time, but this family squabbled a lot and showed little cohesion as a team of adventurers. All of which didn’t exactly give either the Fifth Doctor or his companions a setting in which to sparkle.

In addition to the crowded TARDIS syndrome, there are also cosmetic and tonal problems surfacing. While Doctor Who had moved with the times, becoming more sci-fi in sync with the Star Wars boom, the Davison years saw the show moving more in tune with a different strain of science fiction. Whereas Star Wars popularised a return to Golden Age space fantasy, Who was mining the deeper seams of speculative fiction; all the playing with big science concepts and exploring moral quandaries was more in keeping with the SF of the New Wave than the antics of Lensman or Flash Gordon. But visually, this is what Doctor Who at the time was showing us.

For example, the Silurian/Sea Devils story Warriors of the Deep was supposed to look dirty and dark; Sea Base 4 was meant to be a lived in and broken environment like the Nostromo in Alien. And consequently, the sets in were designed to be seen in low light. However when it was actually shot, the sets were drenched in light giving it the gleaming white control panels looks of classic SF. And this mismatching of the story’s tone and the visual aesthetic is a recurring factor in the Davison years. Often it seemed that the sets, lighting and wardrobe were pulling one way and the scripts in another.

While the stories, particularly under Eric Saward’s tenure as script editor, were often gritty affairs, under JNT’s instructions the main cast were bundled into costumes that were almost uniforms. The idea here was that each character was to have an iconic stylised look. Now while many sci-fi properties do feature eye catching uniforms for their casts, Doctor Who is not one of those kind of shows. It’s quite the opposite, the Doctor is not part of an organised team like the Tracey family in Thunderbirds, nor part of a government sanctioned body like the various Star Trek crews; he’s a free spirit and the point of the companions is taking ordinary people on adventures in space and time. So putting the TARDIS crew into what were effectively uniforms made no sense to the viewers at home - it just looked like the characters just couldn’t be arsed to change their clothes.

And aside from inspiring cracks about personal hygiene, this overt branding of the characters’ wardrobes poses a more serious threat to the show. When you place the Fifth Doctor in a bleak bloodbath of a story like Resurrection of the Daleks or Warriors of the Deep, his wardrobe just screams “costume!” rather than blending in with the realism the story is attempting to build. And it’s hard to be a credible hero when you are strolling about in what looks like fancy dress.

The Fifth Doctor’s apparel raises also other issues. His new found love for cricket is apparently so great that he adopts the looks of an old school umpire. Now previous Doctors had picked up some odd affectations in their regenerations – for example, the Second liked to play the recorder and the Fourth had a love for jelly babies – but this fondness of cricket is somewhat perplexing. Now I have nothing against this most English of sports, and as the most English of aliens, an appreciation of this summer pass time is not out of keeping for the Doctor in the slightest. Rather what bothers me is the manner in which it was done, and in particular the ensuing costume decision – it just felt too heavy handed. When they unveiled the new Doctor to the public, it was like this was the only selling point they could think of - here’s the new guy, and like 10CC, he doesn’t like cricket, he loooooves it!

Now thankfully the actual stories revealed a greater depth to his character, and they didn’t resort him making references to Dr W.G. Grace every other episode. But visually it was a small aspect of the character becoming the defining template, and in my book a step in the wrong direction; The Fourth Doctor may have loved jelly babies but he didn’t feel the need to dress as Bertie Basset to underline the new quirk. This heavy focus on the cricket took the magic out of the regeneration process, almost downgrading it to a mere change of hobbies.

Similar the Fifth Doctor wore a stick of celery on his lapel. Apparently this was because this particular incarnation, for reasons that were never elucidated, was vulnerable to gases in the Praxis range (whatever they are - don’t ask me, I’m not Walter White). In the presence of these personal toxins, the celery would react by changing colour, and then the Doctor would eat the celery which now presumably contained a cure. All well and good, but these reasons for wearing salad on his coat weren’t actually revealed until his final story. So then for three years, we had a visual quirk that served no other purpose other than to be a quirk; a means of giving the Doctor the style but not the substance of an eccentric character.

And as alluded to earlier, the costume itself was simply too stylised. I think the look may have worked better if he had been wearing some more authentic Edwardian cricketing garb; togs that actually looked old and vintage. Instead we got an overly designed ensemble based on antique sports gear but filtered through the lens of ‘80s fashion. Where previous Doctors looked like they dressed eccentrically, the Fifth Doctor looked artificially theatrical. And Nathan-Turner’s idea to try to give the Doctor his own superhero style symbol, with the addition of question marks to the outfit didn’t help either. The Doctor maybe an iconic hero, but he’s nothing like your usual super hero; he’s a man of mystery and as such doesn’t really need a special sign or a set costume to tell us what he’s about. Fortunately the question marks never really caught on, although JNT still persisted with them until the very end, with the rogue punctuation marks turning up in both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors’ wardrobes. Again this is showing a clash between the house style the production team was bringing in and the actual content of the show.

However although it is easy with the benefits of hindsight, which is always 20/20, to decry the stylistic decisions JNT made back then, you have to consider the context of the times. He was attempting to keep the show up to date and his design choices were very in keeping with the tropes of the new decade – clean lines, bright colours and highly stylised. And rather than just keep everything as was, he knew that Doctor Who had to change with times. He showed a willingness to experiment with the format, but at the same time, a reverence for the show’s past. For all the new elements he brought to the show, he also resurrected classic villains like the Master, the Cybermen and the Black Guardian. And all the while he was hampered by tight budgets and struggled against the post Star Wars shift in the public’s expectations of what special effects could achieve.

The Fifth Doctor’s era may have been beset with such difficulties and some of the experiments may not have paid off, but you have to give credit to the cast and crew for trying to create original adventures and taking risks. But it should be noted that not all the experiments failed – when everything pulled together we got memorable and complex stories like Kinda and The Caves of Androzani. And in spite of all the constraints, Davison still made a worthy Doctor, and is still winning fans to this day – he’s proving very popular with the ranks of younger viewers who have go into Who through the new series and are now going back to view the old school Doctors.

So finally then, we must address the questions this series began with to. The first thing we should note here is an interesting reveal in The Five Doctors. This was another anniversary bash, and just as The Three Doctors was a special team-up adventure to celebrate a decade of Doctor Who, The Five Doctors was a feature length episode to mark the show’s twentieth birthday. In this adventure, we journeyed to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, where the tomb of Rassilion lies. And we learn that in his role as founder of Time Lord society, it was Rassilion who decreed that their regenerations were to be limited to twelve.

Now this clears up the long standing question of whether their ability to regenerate was a natural biological ability or achieved by technological means. And this point is reinforced by the fact that the High Council of Time Lords are prepared to offer the Master a new regenerative cycle if he will help the Doctor in the current crisis. So then, there is a way for the Doctor to carry on when he runs out of regenerations – remember with Matt Smith we are up to Doctor Eleven so this crisis is looming now. Of course, how he could get a new cycle with both the Time Lords and Gallifrey gone is another matter entirely…

But the possibility that the Time Lords award a second cycle of incarnations in exceptional circumstance could explain the Morbius Doctors. Perhaps they were his first cycle of regenerations and the fact that he was somehow earned a second cycle was stricken from the record. After all, technically this is breaking the revered rules as laid down by Rassilion, and considering how hidebound the Time Lords are as a society, it’s highly likely that such a deed would indeed be covered up and hence in the The Three Doctors they believe Hartnell to be the first.

Alternatively, it should be also be noted that in The Caves of Androzani while the Doctor is dying of Spectrox Toxaemia, he remarks that he doesn’t know if he will regenerate or not, and as the process starts claims “it feels different this time”. Could it be possible that the Morbius Doctors were his previous incarnations, and so he is actually the Thirteenth Doctor and has run out of proper regenerations? Well it’s possible, but there is a rather large fly in this ointment as we shall see when we examine the Sixth Doctor’s career.

However we do have another regeneration anomaly to resolve here. Throughout the Fourth Doctor’s swansong Logopolis there’s a mysterious fellow following the Doctor about, dressed all in white with vague, almost unformed features and swathed in what appear to be cobwebs.

Known only as the Watcher, this enigmatic being can fly the TARDIS, rescues Nyssa, speaks with Adric and imparts some information to the Doctor himself eventually. And when the Fourth falls to his death and begins to regenerate, the Watcher approaches and merges with him. The Doctor appears to transform into the Watcher, and then the white features slough away revealing the new Fifth Doctor.

Now the story itself gives no real explanation for these events, but I’d add in a good way. It’s clear that the Watcher is part of the magic of regeneration; as he is dying and the mysterious figure draws close, the Doctor beckons and say ‘the moment has been prepared for’. Essentially it’s enough for us to know that the Doctor knows exactly what is doing on even if we don’t. However as ever there is a fan theory about the riddle of the Watcher, and in this case, one that does bear up to close scrutiny.

Rewind to Planet of the Spiders. In this story, the Third Doctor’s finale, we are introduced to a powerful Time Lord, K’anpo Rimpoche, formerly the Doctor’s mentor and who helps him in his regeneration. We also see this Time Lord regenerate too but there is a twist to the usual process. Rimpoche’s new incarnation has been running about the place independently as another monk Cho Je BEFORE he regenerates. Now he explains that Cho Je was actually a psychic projection; the exact details are vague but it would seem that Rimpoche has prepared the shape of his future incarnation ahead of time.

So then, it has been suggested that the Watcher is the Doctor’s attempt at the same procedure. And this makes a lot of sense in the context. The Doctor does not posses the same degree of power as Rimpoche, who is powerful he can apparently travel time and space sans TARDIS, and additionally he does not have the same amount of time to prepare for his death. Hence the Watcher is a vague and only semi-formed figure which the Doctor transforms into before regenerating fully into Peter Davison.

Now although some have counted the Watcher as an apocryphal Doctor, if we take the above explanation to be true – and it does fit the facts nicely, so I suggest we do – then clearly he doesn’t count as an incarnation proper - the Watcher is just a kind of psychic cocoon for his next self.

So let’s have a look at the scores on the doors!

Right then we have nine actors in the roles of the Doctor now – five are the ones everybody knows: Davison, Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell, plus Richard Hurndall playing the First in The Five Doctors and John Culshaw playing the Fourth in The Kingmaker, and finally two alternative Apocryphal Doctors with Peter Cushing and Trevor Martin as alternate versions of the First and Fourth respectively.

The total for the number of incarnations is a trickier beast. We definitely have two alternate continuum Doctors, and either five or thirteen incarnations depending on whether you count the Morbius Doctors or not…

- Should I lose the coat?
- No, I think you should burn it! If you just lose it you might find it again!

Didn’t he do well!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

THE REGENERATION GAME (Round 3) - Bohemian Cricket!

Nice to see Who, to see Who nice!

This round of the Regeneration Game is going to split into two parts – mainly due to the fact that the Tom Baker era covers a lot of ground. Fans of the Fifth Doctor don’t despair! Part II will be along in the next couple of days…


In December 1974, the public were introduced to a brand new Doctor, Tom Baker. And Baker would stay the role until 1980; by far the longest serving Time Lord in the TARDIS, and for many the Fourth Doctor is the incarnation that first springs to mind when Doctor Who is mentioned. The Fourth Doctor has proved to be enduringly popular, with the Baker Man still regularly topping fan polls for favourite Doctor, and it is only recently he had any serious competition thanks to the immense appeal of David Tennant.

However, back in ’74, the general reaction wasn’t one of instant love. As I recalled in my review of The Eleventh Hour, a common response to the new Doctor was that he was too young. And additionally, initially many felt that his behaviour was far too silly and the costume, in particular the long scarf and floppy hat, that are now so iconic, made our Time Lord hero look a berk.

Now to contextualise this reaction, you have to remember that in the previous year, The Three Doctors had been broadcast and for many younger viewers this was their first exposure to the fact that there had been other Doctors before the white haired chap in the smoking jacket we enjoyed so much on a Saturday tea-time between Basil Brush and The Generation Game.

And we were hungry to learn more. Fortunately for us, a few months later the Radio Times published a Doctor Who special to celebrate tenth anniversary of the show. This magazine format tome was the first fandom bible, containing interviews with key cast and crew members from down the years, a Terry Nation short story, and even blueprints for building your very own Dalek. But the bulk of the page count was an episode guide, detailing every serial of all ten seasons to date. Now we had the full history of our hero’s adventures and very quickly playgrounds across the land were full of self-styled experts.

Now if we look at the marvellous stills from the Three Doctors and this hallowed volume which show all three incarnations together (here's one), you can begin to understand the mixed reception the Fourth Doctor received. Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee are all of a comparable age and share a similarly Edwardian look; Hartnell may appear staid and stolid in his dress sense, Troughton scruffy and Pertwee dandified but their wardrobe is rooted in the same basic style. Hence Baker’s age and his outfit, inspired by a Toulouse Lautrec poster incidentally, seemed a very radical break with tradition at the time. Equally after the dashing but patriarchal scientist of Pertwee, Baker’s anarchic antics and clowning was something of a shock to the system.

However his first season saw the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Sontarans, introduced an iconic new villain Davros, and delved into proto Alien sci-fi body horror territory with the Wirrn in The Ark in Space; a feast of horrors to test the mettle of any Doctor, and Baker quickly proved his worth. With Phillip Hinchcliffe in the producer’s chair and Robert Holmes in charge of scripts, this new series of Doctor Who was almost another soft reboot. In the wake of the energy crisis, British government teetering close to collapse, and Watergate and Vietnam across the pond, it no longer seemed appropriate for a television hero to be in the pocket of the powers that be and working for the military. And so the cosy UNIT set up was quickly phased out. After Baker's debut story Robot, the show returned to travelling in time and among the stars; no more would England be invaded by any passing intergalactic chancers every other month; the days of tea and biscuits with the Brig and Benton were over.

With Hinchcliffe and Holmes at the reins, the new stories were pitched at an older audience. Although the Pertwee days had delivered many frightening moments and memorable monsters, the Holmes/Hinchcliffe union brought harder story lines, packed with darkness and violence. In contrast the pop art psychedelic action sci-fi backdrop of the Third Doctor’s adventures, the first three seasons of Baker’s run saw the Fourth Doctor roaming a gothic universe, with stories like The Brain of Morbius and The Pyramids of Mars riffing on horror classics. And in this milieu, the anarchic quips and general Tom-foolery fitted in perfectly; the monsters and villains may have had us behind the sofa but you knew the Fourth Doctor would be offering them jelly babies in the next scene.

But there was more to Tom Baker’s Doctor than just tripping over his own scarf; the Fourth incarnation of our favourite Time Lord also showed himself to possess the same scientific brilliance and moral vigour of his predecessors. He may have used his wit to prick the pomposity of his adversaries (sample quote - “That’s the empty rhetoric of a defeated dictator… And I don’t like your face either!”), but he was also given to fiercely debating with the villains, poetically musing aloud and delivering stirring speeches.

Looking at the Doctor’s various regenerations, it is tempting to speculate that the transformative process does not just randomly assemble a new personality and physique but at some level, possibly only subconsciously, each new incarnation is shaped by the circumstance of the previous one. Hence when the First morphed into the Second, Troughton was younger and better suited to the adventuring life, with a greater capacity for enjoying his travels. When the Time Lords forcible regenerate him at the close of The War Games, they choose the look of his new incarnation – and being a staid and steady ancient race they naturally pick a distinguished elder statesman appearance with a matching conservative attitude for his exile to earth. However when the Doctor has earned his freedom and regenerates into the Fourth, it is almost as if the metamorphosis has deliberately gone for a younger model complete with a bohemian attitude that borders on the Byronic. This Doctor loves his freedom to travel, loves liberty, and espouses a Romantic philosophy of experiencing knowledge rather dusty book learning.

However he is also the most alien of the Doctors so far: unpredictable in his reactions and showing a far greater range of emotions, moods, and responses than his preceding incarnations. And while he may have jettisoned the slightly patronising airs of the Third, he retains the same openly Time Lord attitude, capable of being as very bit the stern authoritarian as Pertwee when the circumstances dictate. It is very telling that his major competitor for the title of most beloved Doctor, Tennant’s Tenth, has a similar personality spectrum – shifting quickly and easily from joviality and playful humour to portentous rhetoric and righteous ire. And that’s not the only parallel with the Tenth Doctor as we shall see later on.

While the return to wandering the cosmos is the show returning to its original set-up, the Doctor himself is significantly different. Now we know he is a Time Lord, and he acts accordingly. Although Pertwee pioneered the portrayal of the Doctor as a Time Lord rather than a mysterious old chap, it was Tom Baker’s performance that defined him as an alien, with his quirks and eccentricities being part of his otherness. And from now on, strange personality traits will be de rigueur for every following Doctor.

It was also in the Tom Baker era that the format of the Doctor travelling with a female companion became firmly cemented in the public consciousness. While it is true that this trope first appeared in the days of the Third Doctor with Jo Grant, there was usually the Brigadier, Sgt. Benton, Captain Yates and all the soldier boys from Pippin Fort, sorry UNIT HQ, were part of the regular supporting cast. Indeed in the Fourth Doctor’s first series, he has Harry Sullivan (played by Ian Marter) in tow as well as Sarah Jane.

Now the role of Harry was created before they had cast the Fourth Doctor; the reasoning being that the series might need a young actor like Ian Marter for the physical action scenes if an older thespian inherited the TARDIS. However at the same time, having multiple and mixed sex companions was just as much a return to the show’s original format as travelling all space and time. The first Doctor regularly had three assistants with him, and by the time Patrick Troughton took control of the TARDIS, the production team had found that having a dashing chap and a pretty girl was the optimum number of characters for scripts.

But with the casting of a younger Doctor, sadly Harry was deemed surplus to requirements as Baker was more than capable of wrestling Dalek embryos and the occasional bit of fisticuffs. Hence we have a string of single white females in the TARDIS – Sarah Jane, Leela and two Romanas. And no, K9 doesn’t count – he was essentially talking prop rather than a dramatic foil and often left behind in the TARDIS due to the behind the scenes nightmares getting him to work properly caused (particularly in stories heavy on location shooting, far away from smooth studio floors). As for Adric who turns up in Tom Baker’s final season, we will carp about, sorry, explore in more detail when we get to the Fifth Doctor.

But back to the tin dog. The inclusion of K9 is a fitting symbol of the changing taking place in the production office at the time. Although the Holmes and Hinchcliffe era is now regarded as a run of classic stories, and the show saw record audience figures, the darker material did cause problems for the mandarins at Broadcasting House. BBC bosses came under increasing fire from self appointed TV watchdog Mary Whitehouse, who frequently had cause to complain over the levels of violence, gore and general horrific tone of serials such as Genesis of the Daleks and The Seeds of Doom.

Now Mrs Whitehouse was something of a constant thorn in the side of the BBC; frequently complaining about sex, violence and swearing on the small screen (and I’d recommend interested readers to Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, a quality drama starring Julie Walters which documents her tussles with Auntie Beeb). However while often the BBC respectfully shrugged off most of her criticisms, her complaints over the cliff-hanger of Episode 3 of The Deadly Assassin were picked up by several national newspapers and the question of whether Doctor Who was now going too far for a Saturday evening show could not be ignored.

And so despite receiving massive ratings not seen since the early days of the show when Dalekmania was in full swing and not seen again until the modern reincarnation, Hinchcliffe was quietly moved on. Graham Williams stepped in as producer and Robert Holmes was replaced as script editor soon after. And Williams came to the wheel with strict orders from on high to lighten the show. And although the fourth series in the reign of the Baker Man saw Image of the Fendahl and The Horror of Fang Rock still playing with the classic horror styles – stories developed under Hinchcliffe – the series was moving a new direction.

William’s second serial The Invisible Enemy which introduces K9, encapsulates this shift. This adventure begins with astronauts in the far future becoming infected and possessed by a mysterious alien force, but the Nigel Kneale style Quatermass sci-fi horror the story starts out with soon gives way to outright science fantasy. Hence in teh second half, we have a robot dog and miniaturised clones of the Doctor and Leela beginning injected into the infected Doctor’s brain Fantastic Voyage style.

And perhaps it was a timely change; switching the emphasis to space ships and alien planets, adding more mythological touches to the stories, and including a robot character that the little ‘uns loved all proved very fortuitous. As Williams was taking over in 1977 – the year of Star Wars; Lucas’ space opera changed the way the public perceived sci-fi and the retooled Doctor Who almost by accident had moved in sync with the change in trends. And the Doctor was changing too.

After Bob Holmes has stepped down, Anthony Read took over as script editor for the second half of that series. However the other two Williams produced seasons saw Douglas Adams taking over the role. And naturally with the man who would later bring us The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” in charge of scripts, as well as more fantasy-orientated adventures, we got a Doctor who was a lot more given to pithy quips and comedy asides.

However as well an increased propensity for witty banter and a tendency to talk to himself that verges on breaking the fourth wall (“Not even the sonic screwdriver can get me out of this one!” in The Invasion of Time), the Fourth Doctor under Williams and Adams becomes much more of superman than previous incarnations. Like the Tennant’s Tenth, this later Fourth Doctor is prone to pulling unmentioned special abilities out of the hat, but more importantly he now knows it all. Pertwee may have been ready to patronise at the drop of a ruffled shirt, but Baker’s becomes positively arrogant after Hinchcliffe and Holmes leave.

And while the Doctor should be intellectually brilliant, he really shouldn’t become nearly all knowing, as this instantly diminishes the level of threat in any situation he finds himself in. And while it’s fun to see the Fourth Doctor blithely opposing ultra powerful beings such as the Black Guardian, the knowledge and intelligence he displays in this part of his career come dangerously close to making him as invulnerable as Superman. And this problem was compounded by the introduction of both K9 and Romana. With a Time Lady companion and a mobile super computer, we now had three geniuses in the TARDIS with enough combined intellect to easily stitch up any monsters and villains the scripts could muster. And combined with the directive not to upset Mrs Whitehouse, his adversaries don’t even provide the fright factor for the audience.

Needless to say, things had to change, and change they would when Jon Nathan-Turner took the producer’s seat for Tom Baker’s final season. And as he would hold the position until the show’s cancellation in 1989, we’ll be hearing a lot more about him and his influence on the show in the Fifth Doctor section and future instalments of these articles.

The last Fourth Doctor series felt like a huge shake-up. For a start there was a new titles sequence – a gleaming star field rather than the familiar Time Vortex tunnel – and horror of horrors, a new arrangement of the theme. The iconic Delia Derbyshire version was scrapped and replaced with a very ‘80s synth rendition from Peter Howell. And the show’s scheduling changed as well, it was moved from its traditional Saturday evening slot to weekday nights. But the stories too reflected a radical change in styles, and the first outing The Leisure Hive is a good example of things to come, showing a shift from science fantasy to a much more nuts-and-bolts hard sci-fi. New script editor Christopher Bidmead was very keen to get the science in the fiction accurate and now cutting edge physics - like the concept of tachyons in this outing - were the inspirations for the plotting.

The Doctor’s character, as ever, moves with the changing times. There’s less reliance on convenient new abilities, markedly less comedy and he is vulnerable again – seeing the previously breezy in the face of danger Doctor aged into his dotage in The Leisure Hive was something of a shock. However by this point, the Doctor is becoming more distant and something of a colder character than previously. Partly this was due to the tonal shift – stories brimming with hard science like Warriors Gate didn’t leave the character much room for either fun or moral crusading. But equally after seven series Tom Baker was growing tired and bored of the role, and the increasing friction with directors and the new producer are clearly colouring his performance. In short, it was time to go…

During the Fourth Doctor’s reign, the show’s mythos was significantly expanded in many ways. Aside from the occasional titbits about the Doctor himself, such as he scored poorly in his Time Lord exams, and that his nickname in those days was Theta Sigma, we also learn a lot more about the Time Lords. We hear of Rassilion, the founder of Time Lord society, and that despite putting the Doctor on trial for interfering in other races affairs, the Time Lords do surreptitiously meddle with the fabric of history to suit their own ends. Several times they deliberately have the Doctor intervene on their behalf, and the first shot in The Last Great Time War is the mission they give him in Genesis of the Daleks - to stop the creation of the race that eventually make exterminate the rest of creation.

We also discover in The Deadly Assassin that Time Lords may only regenerate twelve times. This means that there can be only ever be thirteen incarnations of the Doctor, and brings us conveniently to totting up how this era has affected our running totals of how many incarnations of the Doctor are there, and how many actors have essayed the role. Now the causal reader may well be thinking this is just a simple case of adding one to both scores on the doors… Oh if only it were that simple!

For a start, there is an alternative Fourth Doctor. In December 1974, two weeks before Baker donned the scarf, Seven Keys To Doomsday opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London. This stage play was originally written by veteran Who scribe Terrance Dicks for Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, but due to various scheduling problems the part of everybody’s favourite Time Lord went to one Trevor Martin. Hence the production’s opening shows Pertwee regenerating into Martin.

Now although other actors have portrayed the Doctor in various stage plays over the years, I’m counting Trevor Martin in our tally on the grounds that many years later Big Finish adapted the this theatre production into an audio adventure. So as he has appeared as the Doctor in officially licensed and BBC rubber stamped broadcast media, he has earned a place next to Peter Cushing in the ranks of apocryphal Doctors.

And speaking of Big Finish, in The Kingmaker the voice of the fourth Doctor appears. However the distinctive tones we are do not belong to Tom Baker! Although recently his Bakerness has relented and returned to the role in the audio medium, at the time The Kingmaker was recorded he was still rebuffing all advances from the Big Finish folk. But he did give permission for his Doctor to appear and recommended they hire impressionist John Culshaw, whose impersonations of the Fourth Doctor were a regular feature odf the Dead Ringers comedy show. Now does this count? Well, it's a BBC licensed production and Culshaw has the approval of the Baker Man himself, so clearly we have a third thespian in the role of the Fourth Doctor.

However, where things get REALLY complicated is The Brain of Morbius. In this Holmes & Hinchcliffe outing, a classic slice of their patent space gothic which riffs on both Donovan’s Brain and Frankenstein, the Doctor find himself going toe to toe with Time Lord criminal Morbius. The story culminates with our hero challenging Morbius to the Gallifreyan equivalent of a duel – the dangerous mind bending contest, a species of mental combat where the opponents try and overpower each others minds.

Now this psychic duel as we see it in Episode 4, has the Doctor and Morbius hooked up to some technological gizmo and on its view screen we see faces of their incarnations appearing. And here lies the controversy – at first the screen switches from showing Morbius to the Doctor, but the villain gains the upper hand. “How far Doctor? How long have you lived?” gloats Morbius as we see previous incarnations of the Doctor appearing; Pertwee, then Troughton and right back to Hartnell. And then … WHO THE HELL IS THAT!

Eight, repeat eight, other faces appear after what we thought was the ‘First’ Doctor…

Now this strange cavalcade of strangers (see here for pictures and details of who they actually were) surely can’t be hitherto unknown incarnations of the Doctor, can they? In The Three Doctors the Time Lords clearly state there are but three version of him running about in history at that point. So then are these odd fellows previous incarnations of Morbius?

Now this is the easy explanation that banishes the continuity demons back to the Howling Halls once more. But for some, including myself, this simply won’t do, as it just doesn’t tally with what we actually see. The Doctor is clearly losing; indeed he only wins because Morbius’ brain case overheats. More importantly, as the mystery faces are appearing, Morbius is gloating “Your puny mind is powerless against the strength of Morbius! Back…back to your beginnings!”

Another theory which has been mooted is that these faces represent future incarnations of the Doctor. However it makes no logical sense for incarnations that have yet to occurred to appear prior to Hartnell. Plus we have no indications that Time Lords know in advance what form their future regenerations will take. And again the above quotes from Morbius fairly definitely rule this theory out.

Now it is possible the Time Lords’ records aren’t perhaps as complete as they assume. In The Deadly Assassin we find that they have no records of the Master despite the fact that previously an emissary from Gallifrey had warned the Third Doctor of his escape from prison in Terror of the Autons. However it is later revealed that since then the Master had tampered with their data banks, expunging all mentions of himself in order to execute his schemes in this adventure. Therefore you could assume that their files on the Doctor have also been meddled with.

But the problem with this is that in Mawdryn Undead the current Doctor clearly states he is the fifth, and in The Five Doctors the First Doctor (Hurndall model) is very emphatic that he is “the original”. And subsequent Doctors and the show itself has referenced their number of regenerations, in Time And The Rani Sylvester McCoy proclaims himself as the seventh incarnation and both The Next Doctor and The Eleventh Hour show us a complete run of Doctors with no strange chaps with beards appearing. And most recently in The Lodger Matt Smith states he is the eleventh version of the Doctor.

So with the evidence to hand, another explanation could be that the Doctor was faking an endless stream of previous incarnations in order to fry Morbius’ brain. Now although this is an appealingly neat solution to the problem of the Morbius Doctors, producer Philip Hinchcliffe has stated for the record that the faces on the screen ARE meant to be earlier versions of the Doctor.

Additionally during Hinchcliffe's tenure as producer, the familiar white control room disappeared when the Doctor decided to use the secondary control room for a while. As well as being more suitably in tune with the gothic sensibilities of the show at the time, all wooden panels and HG Wells steampunk controls, there is also a old costume lying around that clearly didn’t belong to Hartnell, Troughton or Pertwee, which supports the idea that Hartnell wasn’t the first.

Is there an answer to all of these mysteries? Well possibly, but you’ll have to wait until we get the Seventh Doctor to find out more…

Coming very soon…

Monday, 14 June 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.11 - The Lodger

Now remember what we were saying last week about putting aside prejudices… Well if anything the ability to separate an individual’s past from the episode's content seems more relevant than ever this week. James Corden has developed into a Marmite figure – you either love him with a passion or hate him with a vengeance. Certainly the early near universal goodwill he reaped from Gavin & Stacy has been somewhat tempered by a poor sketch show (Corden & Horne), a frequently reviled movie outing (Lesbian Vampire Killers), and a string of irritating personal appearances which culminated last week in a nasty spat with Sir Patrick Stewart (see here for the entire cringe inducing debacle). Hence The Lodger turns up on our doorsteps with an entire entourage of porters in tow to deliver the baggage, and a good third of the assorted trunks and cases being freshly packed additions to the freight post-Stewart.

Now personally, I have no real love for Corden. I’ve found him annoyingly hyper in his guest appearances in other shows, and been largely indifferent to the charms of Gavin & Stacy.I watched the first couple when they aired on BBC 3, thought they were ok but didn’t grab me enough to ensure further viewing. And hence I was somewhat surprised when some time later the nation seemed to take the show to its heart – in the words of the late great Bill Hicks – “Did I miss a meeting?”

However, no good deed goes unpunished in this parish, and while I personally didn’t fall in love with the show, I can appreciate the quality of the series, with Corden doing a sterling job on the writing and performing well, hitting the right notes between comedy and drama. And thankfully it was this incarnation of Corden that turned up for duty on this week’s Doctor Who, and consequently I had no problems with either his performance or ignoring my high personal bugbears with the man himself. His Craig played very well against both Matt Smith’s Doctor and Daisy Haggard’s Sophie.

Also returning to Who this week was another guaranteed fan divider, Gareth Roberts. Now Roberts writes fun Doctor Who; the likes of The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp he’s not going for heavy sci-fi or child traumatising scares but just to romp around pressing the button marked fun. While he might not be serving up the most weighty adventures, his stories have been entertaining. And The Lodger is no different, but I would say it is the most polished of his episodes so far. The romance in the story line may well have been quite predictable, but the characters were handled with warmth and charm, and the way he wove together the parallel plot threads of the mystery of upstairs and the Craig/Sophie relationship showed a greater degree of sophistication than his previous outings.

So far, so good, but I did have a major niggle with this episode – the psychic head butting. Yes, it was funny and I don’t have a problem with that in itself. What bothered me was that this was another instance of a writer suddenly inventing a new power for the Doctor. Yes, the show is within its rights to add and reveal new facets of the Doctor, but really the script editors should come down hard to on a writer that produces a new ability like a rabbit from a hat to plug a hole in the plot. Especially when these abilities are going to be a one shot deal – seen once and then never used again and leaving unnecessary clutter in the character’s continuity. And often these novelty super powers, like the ability to mentally transfer information as seen in the The Lodger, makes the viewer wonder why the Doctor hasn’t used them before in his myriad previous travels.

Now the RTD era was very bad for this, inventing powers left, right and centre. And Gareth Roberts has previous form in this field; in The Unicorn and the Wasp, he informs us that Time Lords can synthesise antidotes to toxins given the ingestion of the right ingredients. Like the head butting in The Lodger the scene was written to raise a few laughs but unlike this week’s episode, having an inbuilt toxicologist as part of your digestive system isn’t an ability that comes to the fore often. However being able to explain and impart masses of information with a quick Glasgow kiss would have been very bloody usefully in many of the Doctor’s previous adventures.

Now it has previously been well established that the Time Lords do possess psychic powers that mere mortals do not. Back on Gallifrey, all Time Lords share a mental link, and the TARDIS itself possesses telepathic circuits which allow it to meld to a certain degree with its pilot and crew, allowing the handy instant translation service as well as protecting its occupants from the physical stresses of time travel as mentioned in this episode.

So my issue here is that rather than inventing a new hitherto unbelievably handy ability, one so useful as to make the viewer question its authenticity, surely some technical lash-up involving the ear piece the Doctor uses to communicate with Amy would have better served the logic of the on-going narrative of the series. You could have still had the comedy but you wouldn’t have rankled fools like myself who probably give too much of a toss about the continuity.

That said though, it wasn’t a deal breaker for this episode. And although my inner fanboy was growling, the flashes of the previous old school Doctors did help balance the internal geek scales. I must say I do like the fact that this series is acknowledging the show’s long history a lot more and far more explicitly than its predecessors. And I do wonder whether the repeated cameos of the likes of Hartnell and Troughton are something more than just a subtle way of alerting younger viewers to the show’s illustrious past.

However while still on matters of plot logic and exposition, some reviewers have been a little irritated that there wasn’t more explanation of the origins of the time ship. However personally, I thought it was a refreshing change not to have the Doctor instantly recognise it; it’s good to have a mystery now and again that isn’t just explained away in a causal ‘oh it’s a MacGuffin class warp vessel from the Basil Nebula in the Exposition galaxy’ fashion. And while this rogue time craft offers all possibilities for future stories to reveal its ancestry, I can happily live with it remaining an enigma, with the questions of why it appears so TARDIS-like in appearance hanging tantalizingly up in the air. Of course, the two part finale may shed some further light on the matter… but I wouldn’t bet on it. And if the television series never alludes to the mystery craft again, eventually some book, comic or audio will come along and explain a little more.

In the meantime though, many long-time Who fans have remarked on the ship’s similarity to the Jagaroth vessel seen in the Tom Baker outing City of Death. And if you have a look at the picture reproduced below, they are not a million miles away design wise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for those of you who haven’t seen this story, or can only remember Lalla Ward dressed up as a school girl, the relevant facts are as follows…

The Jagaroth although familiar with the concepts, were not a time travelling species. However during a civil war in the distant past when the Earth was still young, their ship (as seen above) exploded due to a warp engine failure. This resulted in the engines operator Scaroth, being thrust into the Time Vortex and splintered into twelve different sub selves that were scattered throughout Earth’s history. Now as these events took place some 4 billion years ago, it is not unlikely to assume that in later ages, that having noted the effects of this warp malfunction, the Jagaroth have come closer to mastering time travel technology. And hence the ship seen in The Lodger could be an early lost prototype.

It’s not much of an explanation and ultimately will probably proved wrong, but if you really need one it’s as good as you’re going to get for now! So back to the episode in hand…

The Lodger started life as a comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine #368. This was a one-off story centred on the Tenth Doctor staying with Mickey Smith and naturally changed a great deal when it evolved into the current episode. The basic concept, exploring the Doctor flat sharing with an ordinary bloke remained the same, but the dynamics changed considerably with a different Doctor. Now some commentators have questioned why living normally among humans was such as challenge for the Eleventh Doctor, pointing out that previous Doctors – most notably the Third who was exiled to Earth – had no such problems. But the key thing here is that different Doctors have different personalities – and some are better tuned to playing along with our social mores than others. While the Pertwee Doctor was quite assured in human company, the Fourth would struggle to play along if forced into a domestic situation; and Matt Smith’s Doctor is very much in the same eccentric alien mould as the Fourth. But also he demonstrates a Troughton-like twist of calculatedly acting the clown to mask his real activities and nature in this episode, as well as Seventh Doctor secret eye of the bigger picture – all of which suggests to me that he wasn’t struggling as much as it may first appear.

However what I would perhaps question is the placement of this story in the series. As it was such a showcase for Matt Smith to explore his Doctor’s personality maybe it would have made more sense to schedule this story earlier in the season. However you could see this story as just a palate cleanser before the big two part ending; certainly that would fit with this episode’s light tone - making it a sorbet story if you will.

But that said, we’ve not seen the finale yet. This series has had a far greater sense of continuity than previous seasons and while it may seem that The Lodger, bar its coda, is not advancing the Cracks story arc, there is still a lot of thematic threads been added to here. For example, we have perceptions filters name checked again, and the theme of how we see things featuring heavily once more. Plus we have more references to early Doctors and a story that underlines how well the Doctor really actually does understand human relationships. And this last point is perhaps more crucial than it first appears, especially considering how the episode ends with Amy discovering Rory’s ring. Hence while it may not be adding to the details of the plot arc, it would seem that The Lodger is establishing character points that will make more sense once we see the finale - which would explain why its placement here.

But sorbet or not, and niggles aside, I enjoyed this episode; its sense of delight was quite infectious and the performances from our main trio was spot on. It was nice to see Matt Smith get a chance to really revel in the role, Corden was genuinely likeable here, and Daisy Haggard (daughter of Blood On Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard fact fans) was wonderful as ever. This comic actress has always impressed me, she has great range and it’s high time she got a star vehicle of her own.

While The Lodger may be froth, it was a romp done right. So far this series has been an incredible run of stories, and while not all have been definite classics, equally there have no real dogs either. On the whole, with Moffat at the reins standards have been raised across the board and now all we need to make it the best series so far of new Who is a satisfying finale that ties up all the threads…

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.10 - Vincent & The Doctor

Back in 1963, when Doctor Who first started, head honcho Sydney Newman was very keen that there were to be no BEMs – Bug Eyed Monsters - and believed that the time travel elements should be used to explore history for the entertainment and enlightenment of the viewers at home. All of which was well and good until the show’s second serial hit the screens and Dalekmania swept the nation. However despite the massive success the show enjoyed as a result of serving up monsters, the First Doctor still got to meet all manner of illustrious folk from the past and turn up for great moments in history, all without any BEMs sneaking into the storylines.

However in the days of Patrick Troughton, these more educational historical stories were soon phased out, and it was in the Second Doctor’s era that the show cemented its reputation for being scary. This period in the Doctor’s travels established a host of iconic creatures such as the Cybermen, the Ice Warriors and the Yeti: the monsters had well and truly won the day. Later still, the pseudo-historical story was born; adventures in the past that revealed the involvement of all manner of monsters and aliens in the fabric of our history.

When the show was regenerated in 2005, Mark Gatiss’ The Unquiet Dead, a gaslight tale which saw the Doctor rubbing shoulders with Charles Dickens, re-established the pseudo-historical as a firm staple of the new series. And not only would the Doctor be revisiting the past on a regular basis but he would be also hobnobbing with great historical figures, and since then we’ve seen the TARDIS crew meet Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie, Madame Pompadour and Winston Churchill.

And while these adventures with historical celebrities have been great fun, with the show in full-on romp mode usually, few capture any real biography between the monster chasing. The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp focus more on playfully referencing the works of Christie and Shakespeare, while Tooth and Claw, The Girl in The Fireplace and Victory of the Daleks feature Churchill, Madame Pompadour and Queen Victoria in a famous guest star character capacity. Of them all, only The Unquiet Dead really comes close to getting under the skin of its historical celebrity with Mark Gatiss’ script providing an interesting snapshot of Dickens: near the end of his life, exhausted and riddled with doubts.

Hence when I heard that this series would feature a tale where the Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh, I was a little worried for several reasons. Firstly as a devotee of the great man’s paintings and being very familiar with the details of his troubled life, I was wondering how appropriate it was to insert a large sci-fi monster into his biography. While I revere the Bard of Avon as equally highly, we actually know very little about Shakespeare’s life – indeed scholars are still debating whether he really penned the plays that bear his name* . And due to this biographical vacuum, Shakespeare’s works aren’t bound up in his life story and there aren’t many historical toes to avoid treading upon. Similarly, Agatha Christie’s many books and stories aren’t interpreted through the lens of her life. But Van Gogh’s paintings are inextricably linked in his personal history; his struggles with creative innovation, madness and the attitudes and reactions of society past and present to both.

Secondly I was also concerned that Richard Curtis was on script duties. Now, like many of you, I have a somewhat mixed response to Mr Curtis’ oeuvre. While I grew up on his comedy work, Blackadder, Not the Nine O’clock News, Spitting Image, I’ve never really clicked with most of his film work. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is as lively and polished as ever, but in the main, rom coms just don’t really do it for me I‘m afraid – such is the price of cynicism…

But my own misanthropy aside, I couldn’t really see how Curtis writing in either mode would fit with introducing the Doctor to Van Gogh in a respectful manner. And reading that the initial title of the episode was ‘Lend Me Your Ear’ didn’t exactly help either. However after Simon Nye, another writer best known for his comedy work, surprised us all with the excellent Amy’s Choice, I decided to put aside my preconceptions and not automatically assume it was going to be awful.

And as it turned out, by the time the credits rolled I was convinced I’d just watched an extraordinary episode of Doctor Who and a unique piece of television. Not only did it deliver the most biographical pseudo-historical we’ve seen to date, but it was truly genre-bending and surprisingly, actually genuinely moving. In fact, I was quite, quite stunned by what Curtis and co delivered. However my first proper critical thought was – this one is going to be very divisive.

And indeed Vincent and the Doctor has provoked a very mixed reaction. Now obviously if you don’t rate Van Gogh as an artist, this episode is probably going to leave you very cold. And although I wouldn’t agree with your assessment of his works, I do understand that Vincent’s paintings aren’t to everybody’s taste, and therefore this episode of Doctor Who which is a paean to the man and his art just isn’t going to appeal. Equally this episode is not going win around anyone who hasn’t took to Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in the lead roles. And those reactions are fine; you can play the personal taste card with pride.

But I can’t help feeling that some of the negative reactions stem from reviewers not shelving their expectations and prejudices as I did. To begin with, a certain proportion seems to take issue with this episode because it didn’t deliver the comedy that they expected from the writer of Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley. And this reaction just doesn’t make sense to me - after all when Simon Nye delivered Amy’s Choice no one was clamouring for Doctor Behaving Badly.

Doctor Who has always had a touch of comedy. When it’s done right, it is limited to a touch of wit in the dialogue and the Doctor’s bumbling, but when it’s done badly, the comedy is broad and we get farting Slitheen, which pleases no one. And in Vincent and the Doctor, Curtis sagely kept his comedy chops in check, and deployed just the right amount of wit and clowning in a manner appropriate for Doctor Who. So to use Curtis’ past CV as stick to beat him with seems a trifle odd; after all he was paid to write an episode of Doctor Who not a sitcom, and so to criticise the episode for not being funnier, is like complaining an apple isn’t a banana.

Reading between the lines, I think this ‘not funny’ critique is tied up with the mixed feelings people have about the trajectory of his career. Many of us spent years quoting Blackadder at each other and so when he switched sarcasm for sentiment in his rom coms, some see it as a sign that Curtis has lost the old magic. And certainly the sentiment in Vincent and the Doctor is also a problem for some.

Now as stated above, Curtis’ romantic comedies have left me cold; I’m far too much of a marble hearted fiend to enjoy light and syrupy tales of love’s triumphs. But in fairness, that’s more a reflection on my tastes and attitudes than on Curtis’ abilities as a writer. And while I can appreciate that non-fans of his more recent work will see Vincent and the Doctor as Curtis pouring forth the schmaltz again, I really think that there is a big difference here.

To begin with new Who isn’t exactly a stranger to tugging on the old heart strings these days and I think the problem is not that Vincent and the Doctor aims to stir the emotions and touch the heart but the fact that it is Richard Curtis doing it. But more importantly, piling on the emotion in a romantic piece of fluff in which an empty headed girl gets it together with a lank haired fop is poles apart from building up to the ultimate tragedy of Van Gogh’s life.

To often these days, we will happily lap up works that heavily lay down hard emotional negatives – bleak, grim and depressing are almost always instantly critically credible - but anything that is heart warming or tear jerking is swiftly dismissed as manipulative pap. Now Vincent’s paintings are all about passion and feeling, and his life story is a very poignant one, and so I really don’t think that Curtis was doing anything wrong in going for a moving finale that reflects the intensity of feeling in his art. Indeed, to properly communicate the essence of the man and his work, such a story should be emotionally moving.

And this was an episode firmly focused on Vincent, illuminating his life and work with a depth we haven’t seen in Doctor Who since the Hartnell days. Despite a rampaging alien beastie, in Vincent and the Doctor, Curtis managed to paint a well rounded portrait of the troubled artist; choosing to depict the harsh realities of his illness and his failure to be recognised as an artist, yet at the same time showing us his great passion and enthusiasm for painting and for life.

And Curtis’ finely nuanced script was brilliantly brought to life. Tony Curran was simply astounding in the role, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that in the wake of this appearance, he will be asked to reprise the role for a straight biographical drama. Curran gave a powerful yet balanced performance, capturing Vincent’s humanity as well as his troubles. With a tragic figure like Van Gogh, all too often fictional renditions of their lives present just the madness and pain, and hence it was very refreshing to see Vincent portrayed as more than just a tortured soul; as a human being, possessing humour and joy as well as sorrow and depression.

Equally impressive was the manner in which some of Van Gogh’s paintings were brought to life in this episode, with loving creations of the real world scenes that inspired Café Terrace at Night, Wheatfield with Crows, and Bedroom in Arles. But most wonderfully of all, was seeing Starry Night forming in the heavens before our eyes, illuminating the links between reality and his paintings, showing us how Vincent’s unique vision interpreted the world around him.

Vincent and the Doctor provides both a perfect introduction to Van Gogh, neatly outlining his biography, his influences and his ultimate impact on the world of art. I’m quite certain that this episode will open the door to his work, making great art accessible for countless viewers. It really was a return to the Reithian values that Doctor Who started with back in 1963.

However both Who and television itself have changed considerably since back then, and so despite the strength of the biographical drama, we also had an invisible alien running amuck. And despite the fact a good few of us would have gladly seen the monsters being given a week off, alien threats are now so heavily embedded in the public consciousness as an integral part of what Doctor Who does, the Krafayis was a necessary addition.

And indeed another faction of the negative reviews has focused on the fact that the usual sci-fi monster business was pushed to the background, damning the episode as being not very Doctor Who as a consequence. But in that case, many Hartnell stories, historicals that don’t feature any monsters, aliens or robots, are invalid too. Doctor Who should be more than a monster of the week type of show, and I for one applaud the decision to run with this story that uses the flexibility of the format to great effect.

But at the same time, I do think that Curtis found a way to include a monster that was both suitably Doctor Who and fits neatly with the themes of the episode. And while I must question the design decision to have the Krafayis appear as a monstrous chicken - surely a crow would have been a more appropriate template considering the context – as it was invisible for most of the time I can let this niggle pass. However the fact that only Vincent can see it, moves the beast from the usual sci-fi threat to the level of metaphor, with the Krafayis becoming a symbol for Vincent’s mental illness.

And I also would applaud the portrayal of mental ill health in this episode too. Depression and other mental health conditions, although common, are still poorly understood by the general populace – when people think of mental ill health the first images that spring to mind are of the extremes, raving madmen in padded jackets and people who think they are Napoleon. And thankfully, rather than take the lazy ‘crazy artist’ route, depicting a man whose genius makes him act a bit weird, Vincent and the Doctor vividly illustrated the truth of depressive ailments; that sufferers are not gibbering loons but ordinary people who are subject to the disabling mood swings that can appear with frightening speed.

All too often depression is not taken seriously by those who have not experienced it and the concept that mental ill health is just the extremes of schizophrenia or psychosis is so ingrained that even sufferers may not consider that what they are experiencing is a form of illness. I sincere hope that the treatment of the subject in Vincent and the Doctor will open a few eyes to the realities of the condition.

However it is a telling measure of the ignorance and the stigma of mental illness that some people have complained about the inclusion of a help line message at the end of this episode. Now speaking as some one who has struggled with bouts of depression throughout my adult life, and have seen several friends go through it too, I can say that in my experience, depression is at its most dangerous when it is unacknowledged and unidentified. Now the scenes depicting Vincent’s mental troubles rang very true for me, and I firmly believe that there will be people out there who will have recognised themselves, just as I did, and having made this identification, rang the help line and hopefully now be on the road to forward towards better mental health. It may sound overly dramatic but the inclusion of that help line number may well have saved a few lives.

One of great things about Doctor Who everyone agrees upon is that it is a unique format where the characters can go anywhere at all and many different types of stories may be told. And while some may not have liked Vincent and the Doctor, feeling that Curtis’ experiments in biography may not have come off, surely credit must be given for attempting such a thing in the first place. For even if you judge this episode to have fallen where it should have soared, or even wished it had took flight in a completely different direction, the intentions to bring both an appreciation of Van Gogh and his work and foster an understanding of depression in a highly popular Saturday teatime show is still a distinguished and noble endeavour. If nothing else it shows the potential inherent in the Doctor Who format, opening the way for future stories that may be more widely appreciated across the board.

Personally speaking, I thought it was a triumph, achieving its lofty aims and delivering a solid Doctor Who story that can be appreciated on a variety of different levels. For me, this was the kind of important and profound television that positively affects and enriches the viewers who could get on board. And on a more trivial note, any episode that can have an old cynic like myself, who sat stonily faced through Love Actually and yawned through Notting Hill, misty eyed and on the verge of blubbing into my beard must be doing some thing not just right, but very remarkable.

Mr Curtis, thank you. You not only did Vincent and the Doctor proud but also many of us at home too.

- So, art thou saying Bacon wrote all of Shakespeare’ plays?
- Yes!
- Which bit of bacon?
- His hands!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

HITTING THE WALL - Various Nightmares on Elm Street

One, two, spoilers coming for you...

The world of dreams is an enigmatic place, which despite our ever increasing knowledge remains a sanctuary of mysteries. And there is one particular puzzle that has always interested me – considering literally anything can happen in a dream, from my researches it would seem that meeting characters from fiction is surprisingly rare. Monsters and fantastic beasts occur frequently, but encountering fictional characters is more uncommon than you’d expect, and generally when a dreamer bumps into a well known figure from the movies or TV, they are meeting the actor rather than the fiction made dream flesh.

However there is one notable exception - Mr Frederick Krueger. Certainly for my generation, who were present for the start of the Elm Street franchise, whenever the subject of really scary movies or just nightmares in general surfaced, it seemed that everybody had a tale to tell of having a Freddy dream not long after seeing Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. This was mine…

During the usual dream shenanigans, I happened to notice a door in my home that wasn’t usually there. And obeying one of those strange compulsions so common in the dream world, I felt drawn to open it and discovered a decrepit staircase leading down into the bowels of the earth. This stairwell led down into an impossibly huge room, dimly lit with orange light and wreathed with smoke. Well, I say ‘room’ but ‘space’ might be a better term, for its dimensions were so vast that I couldn’t actually see its bounding walls and the whole expanse was completely featureless. It was completely empty except for a dark square in the centre, radiating a magnetic call to investigate further. As I drew closer, the ominous shape resolved itself into a large cage wrought from thick black iron. Inside the cage was a familiar figure, chuckling and scrapping his metal talons against the pitted bars. With that strange instant background knowledge we possess in dreams, I suddenly knew that this was the real deal - not just the movie’s creation come to life, but the the ‘real’ Freddy, an evil entity that had somehow inspired Craven in order to increase its powers and influence. Time began to slow down, the seconds sludging along as he turned his gaze in my direction, and with a malefic twinkle in his eye, rasped “Hey kid, let me through… C’mon let me out!”

Needless to say, it was at that point, I turned and ran, pelting back up the crooked stairs and all the way back to the waking world. I vividly remember sitting up in bed and being somewhat weirded out; not just from having met Mr Krueger himself but from the nightmare’s unsettling postmodern spin that implied that Craven’s character was in fact a real being. And years later, this dream span my head a second time when I saw New Nightmare in which Craven presents us with the exact same scenario.

What all which neatly illustrates how well Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare On Elm Street taps into something powerful that resonated with a generation. It’s a real testament to the power of what he created in that first film that was Freddy to made guest appearances in so many viewers’ dreams. Equally it’s a fairly damning reflection of the trajectory of the series that with each sequel Freddy became less likely to inspire a bad night’s sleep. The embodiment of all our bad dreams quickly lost the fright factor, becoming an unlikely horror hero, cracking jokes rather breaking the walls of reality, spawning toys galore and even rapping with Will Smith.

However despite his huge fanbase and metamorphosis into a pop culture icon, fans of the first film have consistently clamoured for another film in which he was as twisted and frightening as he is Craven’s original. The afore-mentioned New Nightmare in 1994 was an interesting but flawed attempt to put the fright back into Freddy. But this exercise in post modern horror largely fell flat; confusing audiences who couldn’t tell whether it was a reboot or another sequel in the franchise, and coming so soon after the abomination that was Freddy’s Dead – The Final Nightmare (1991) didn’t exactly help either.

Of course this wasn’t the last time we would see Mr Krueger, for 2003 brought us Ronnie Yu’s highly entertaining Freddy Vs Jason. Though in development hell for years and years, this epic clash of the slashers actually turned out better than anyone could have hoped, and provided a very fitting close to both franchises. The Freddy presented in this swansong was a neat synthesis of all his incarnations; managing to be threatening and funny. But he was still far from the nightmare personified of the original.

Now when Platinum Dunes announced they were green-lighting a remake, the initial reaction wasn’t exactly rapturous as their previous forays into remaking the recent classics of horror can only be described as a mixed bag at best. However with the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, who’d impressed all and sundry Little Children and winning fanboy hearts with his rendering of Rorschach in Watchmen, hopes began to rise. Would we see Freddy reborn as the disturbing master of nightmares once more?

The short answer – apparently not! Long and bitter have been the howls of protest and the rivers of bile have run thick and deep. Indeed the one thing the new A Nightmare On Elm Street has convincing demonstrated is that if you want to clean up in these financial hard times, then before the new remake of a classic comes out set up a dummy retrieval and toy recovery service!

This reaction wasn’t exactly a surprise to me, as for many movie geeks the very concept of remakes is anathema and the involvement of Michael Bay on any project is about as welcome as a leper in a swimming pool. But while Samuel Bayer’s film is far from a triumph, and my own problems with it are legion, I can’t help feeling that it doesn’t deserve the level of vitriol it has received…

Now for those of you whose blood pressure is now rising, take a deep breathe and relax, for I am not going to try and convince you that this is a modern masterpiece. Believe me, I feel your pain and I have a fair bit of vitriol of my own to dish up…

So what’s wrong with this flick? My initial reaction to the movie was to wonder how long the original cut Bayer turned in was, as the pacing of the script is just ridiculously fast. While a swift pace is exactly what you want from a popcorn movie, the narrative itself had been edited down to a foolishly anorexic degree. The characters seem to be leaping to conclusions very quickly, discovering too much by convenient coincidence and often I felt we were only seeing snippets of what was actually filmed. The result is that the plot now is playing second fiddle to the action, which is not ideal for a movie that is trying to construct an atmospheric mystery for the characters to unravel.

And a lot of people have flagged up the acting as being fairly ropey. But in all honesty, we shouldn’t be expecting Royal Shakespeare Company level performances in a pop horror movie. And although the horror genre is often criticised from the low quality acting, in fairness the performances in most popcorn movies across the board aren’t much better. The source of this inequality is that in order to delivers the scares, the horror film needs the audience to suspend their disbelief far more than other genres and hence weak or lacklustre performances become all the more noticeable.

Now the performances in the new Nightmare On Elm Street are variable to say the least. However I’m inclined to blame the presentation over the performances. With so many scenes being seemingly truncated and slimmed down in the edit, a lot of the time we are getting reactions with no dramatic build up. But on top of this, Bayer is forever going in for close ups and lingering shots when the actor isn’t actually doing much. Hence the cast is left see-sawing between shouting and looking blank. And all of this is exactly helped by the casting choices which draw heavily from the CW’s roster, so you spend a good deal of time distracted playing the ‘isn’t that so-and-so off of…’ game.

However aside from the disservice the pace does the film’s characters, the story itself is somewhat problematic. Although the general thrust of the new storyline is fine but its intriguing twist on the Krueger mythos is botched at best. While it is an interesting idea that Freddy may be an innocent man in theory, it just doesn’t really float as by the time they wheel out this concept, as they’ve already shown him to be thoroughly evil. The pre-twist Krueger is clearly a sadist so it’s difficult to buy his actions as the revenge of an innocent man.

Secondly the decision to make him explicitly a child molester was somewhat ill judged. In the original film and sequels, although there were hints that there was a sexual element to his crimes, he was more clearly labelled as a child killer but the Haley version is a typical molester. Now while this is the realisation of what Craven originally intended for his villain and it plays well for the twist that he may be innocent, it doesn’t really feel right that he only becomes a murderer after his death. And while the molestation gives the new Freddy a far more repulsive streak, it comes across as somewhat distasteful as the film just doesn’t have the narrative depth to fully justify the inclusion of this sensitive and complex subject.

More baffling though, is Platinum Dunes obviously aren’t just remaking the original; they want to kick-start a new franchise and Haley has been signed for a three picture deal. But in making Freddy the most reviled form of criminal, I can’t exactly see people being keen to embrace Freddy as an anti hero – as the guys at the Now Playing podcast remarked in their review, this is a Freddy you probably won’t want to dress up as at Halloween. More to the point, it’s hard to see where the sequels are going to come from; in this movie, his motivations are to get revenge on the kids who shopped him and he succeeds in wiping them all out bar Nancy. While this works fine for a stand alone film, you’d think that if they were planning a new franchise they would introduce more room to expand the mythos in sequels.

And I have further problems with the new Freddy – basically I just didn’t really like the new make-up. Yes it was arguably a more realistic burn victim look and the quality of the physical make up effects with a little CGI was decent enough, but the overall result was that it robbed Haley’s distinctive face of all its character. Now the great strength of the original Freddy was Robert Englund’s face; with the various appliances and latex exaggerating his features, his Freddy had a pleasing echo of the story book wicked witch, all furrowed brows, hooked nose and gnarled cheekbones. The new Freddy’s look however, while perhaps medically accurate, loses this archetypal flourish.

And speaking of effects… Oh Christ the wall scene! This was what post Wolf Man I term a ‘bear’, and boy was this a bear of colossal proportions, and a veritable gift to CGI haters to boot. On the whole the movie’s special effects work was decently rendered, but this amazing wall paper patterned Play-Doh Freddy really lets the side down. However it does highlight my final problem with this remake – namely that when they redo scenes from the original, the new version fails to equal them, let alone better them. More to the point, it actually badly fluffs most of them.

To use the wall scene as an example, even ignoring the quality of the CGI – it was awful shite, let it go and move on – this scene is still a massive fumble. In the original, this early incursion by Freddy is presaged by a crucifix falling from the wall. A small detail perhaps, and evidently one that was considered unnecessary by Bayer and co, but this little touch adds so much. It’s a concise but potent symbol, a harbinger of evil invading our safe, everyday world. Similarly the aftermath is also omitted in the remake, where Nancy having sensed Freddy looming over her sleepily checks the wall is in fact still solid and hangs the cross back in place. And in missing these bookends, the remake’s version fails to convey the same sense of reality bending and approaching menace – instead all we have is a badly rendered Freddy composed of chintz, and instead of peering down like some hellish spider ready to drop, he oozes out and waves hello. Thanks guys, thanks for nothing…

However this does neatly bring me to the crossroads of this review, where at midnight I’ll be making a deal with the Devil’s Advocate. The smoking light is now on and you all may start fuming… though the Captain points out there may be further turbulence ahead.

You see as ham-fisted as the wall scene is, and indeed it was the low point of the entire film as well as the nadir of the effects work, the remake did do other things rather well. No, don’t run off! Think about it – the whole film could have been like this! A lot of people were of the opinion that the advances in digital effects could really benefit the Elm Street franchise and subsequently complained there wasn’t more of the surreal dream world action. But on the strength of this scene I’m really glad they stuck to Freddy slashing with his glove. If they had gone in for the high strangeness dram transformation deaths of the later films, just imagine how awful it could have been… Cruddy CGI slurping all over the shop in a silly fashion coupled with the corny comedian version of Krueger. It could have easily been the bastard child of Freddy’s Dead and Transformers 2 in other words.

And imagining that hideous scenario makes you quite relieved we got what we did. While it may make a pig’s ear of the scenes it replays from the original, it’s only really guilty of dropping the ball. As remakes go, it is at least is trying to hit the same marks as the original, unlike the twin Nicolas Cage atrocities The Wicker Man and City of Angels that not only miss the magic and charm of the originals but all the main themes, and indeed the entire point of the first movies. The film may have its failings but at least it’s failing in the right areas.

As I said earlier, it does do some things right, and very tellingly, its best material comes when it isn’t cribbing from Craven’s original. For me, it was very much a film of two halves. After the halfway mark, the movie’s break-neck pacing ceases to be such a problem; now it is logical for the story to be galloping along and pounding the action beats. And by that point I was actually getting used to the new look Freddy. But most importantly, while in the opening half, I was constantly comparing it to the original around the mid point we actually entered fresh territory story-wise.

Although the ‘is he innocent?’ twist is somewhat illogical Captain (sorry, Pavlovian response there), the introduction of micro naps is a neat touch. Being something of an insomniac, I can vouch for the existence of micro sleep (to give it its proper title) and the rules of sleep deprivation are handled far more realistically than in the old series. In fact, I’m actually amazed no other screen writer hit on this phenomenon before as it does make for a great plot gimmick. And the reveal of Freddy’s ultimate aims to drive his victims into permanent comas, while being the point at which the scientific facts in the film depart from reality, is a superbly nasty twist.

In short, the second half is a great improvement on the first and consequently by the time the credits rolled I was firmly of the opinion that despite its faults this remake is really does not deserve the level of hatred it has provoked. Yes, it has flaws, and overall I’m inclined to judge it ‘competent’ rather than ‘good’. But it nowhere near as bad as many are making out – certainly I was expecting far, far worse - and while it isn’t the Elm Street remake I was hoping for, there is a major factor that has made me think long and hard about my judgements on the movie…

I saw this at a packed Friday night screening with the theatre filled to the rafters with the target audience for this flick i.e. people several decades my junior. And they loved it, delightedly screaming at the jump scares and trooped out buzzing about the movie - a reaction that made me think and reconsider my problems with the film.

And my first thought was that aren’t all the cautiously voiced hopes for the remake very revealing. For those of us who didn’t don their pointy hater hats the instant we heard there was going to be a remake, when we talked of possibility of the remake actually turning out good, aren’t we hoping for a film that will top the original? And in doing so are we not implicitly and/or unconsciously acknowledging that the Wes Craven original despite its classic status is actually flawed?

Hence, after leaving a good few days in between for the sake of fairness, I rescreened the original. So in this light, let’s reassess the remake’s flaws…

Right then, the acting – as stated earlier I do think it’s a case of poor framing and editing that make the characters not work me. Certainly there are no performances as bad as, say, Mark Walberg in the Planet of the Apes remake, who could have been replaced with a balloon on a stick. And it has to be said there are some far rougher performances in the original. And pound for pound both films are equally slim in the character development stakes - there’s been a lot of moaning that the kids in the remark are boring and too emo, well in fairness the kids in the original aren’t exactly brimming with depth and are cookie cutter ‘80s twonks. In terms of realism both sets of teens bear little resemblance to the real thing and the only thing the original has over the remake is that they look a little more like the ages they are supposed to playing – but twenty somethings playing teens is a common problem in movies and TV. Hence I’m awarding a draw here.

On a related point, a big difference between the two films, and a major source of griping, is that the Nancy character in the remake is far mousier than in Craven’s film. Now in both films, Nancy is meant to be mousy as Bayer follows in Craven’s footsteps in doing the Psycho switch - introducing a pretty blonde who we are meant to assume is the heroine and then kicking her. The complaining about the new Nancy are mainly due I think to the omission of her fight back sequence. Now I did feel that Bayer’s flick was not only missing a trick but binning a key sequence in not having her booby trap her home turf before pulling Krueger out of the dream world. But thinking further on the matter and bearing in mind the age of the target market, if they had recreated these scenes would have been rolling their eyes thinking it was a lame Home Alone rip-off.

Moving swiftly on, the script and pacing issues. In the early minutes of the remake, I was thinking the kids were working out that Freddy was hunting them in their dreams way too quickly but the original does do the same. However I would say that the original does it more smoothly, but crucially there are the same leaps in logic. Similarly we have no explanation why Freddy has suddenly returned all these years later or where he got his powers from. And while in the remake you might be wondering how none of kids remember the events of their shared childhood, this plot hole is nothing compared to making sense of the climax of the original. Not only is Nancy’s defeating Freddy by turning her back on him likely to push the WTF button for some viewers but the twist ending leaves you wondering what actually happened in all the preceding scenes.

Next then – the effects work. Ok the remake’s amazing wibbly-wobbly shite-whitey wall is awful and there’ll be no U-turning on that. But in the original Freddy’s stretchy-wetchy arms and the slurpy-wurpy tongue phone aren’t exactly stellar either. And while you could say that it’s just because they are the products of an earlier age of special effects, I’d have to counter that they didn’t look great back in the day. So on a technical level, both films have rough spots in the effects wizards’ work.

However that damn wall yet again raises a key point – I’m seriously considering this review ‘It’s All About The Wall’ - as we saw earlier, the remake’s rendition of this scene is lousy compared to the masterful way Craven handled it. And this is true of everything the remake redoes from the original – Bayer just doesn’t craft the scenes as well as Craven did. But, and here’s the thing, this is only a problem if you know the original. And I’m guessing that the majority of the audience at my screening hadn’t seen the first film once, let alone the countless times I’ve seen it since blagging my way into a showing at the local fleapit under age way back in the 1980s.

Now despite picking at the Craven original in the last few paragraphs, I love this movie to bits and for me it will always be the better film hands down. But trying to be objective, I’d have to say that on a technical level both are equally flawed. But also both deliver a strong villain, who is disgusting and scary and a stream of effective horror sequences that gloss over their faults. I’d like to think that anyone who’s seen the remake and then checks out the very first film will conclude that Craven does it better but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The concepts and premises of A Nightmare on Elm Street work so well because you don’t know what’s going on. And I think the general tendency may well be to prefer whichever you saw first, while the uncertainty has novelty. Originally Craven intended his film to stand alone and was opposed to the idea of sequels, and I’m guessing is that he understood that once you know how Freddy operates, you lose all the intrigue and the fear that come from not knowing what is doing on. Now a word that keeps cropping up time and time again in the negative reviews of the remake is ‘boring’, but honestly it’s only boring for so many because they’ve seen the original. But if you’re coming to this completely fresh, it’s a different movie - as evidenced by the positive audience reaction at my screening.

Now I stick with my overall assessment that Bayer’s film is competent and nothing more; for me it fails to equal the original let alone better it. But they weren’t making this flick for old gits like me; this is a Freddy for a new generation who are new to the whole Elm Street mythos. And I even wonder that left-over gripes that aren’t rooted in a familiarity with the original, such as the high speed pacing are just the carping of an old fool – for better or worse movies these days are far faster than they used to be.

As Kim Newman points out in the introduction of Nightmare Movies there tends to be generational divides in horror criticism. Early commentators like Dennis Gifford and William K. Everson, held that the 1920s and 1930s produced the classics and later films from Hammer and Amicus were inferior retreads. Later younger writers such as Alan Frank extended the classic period to include the ‘50s and ‘60s but were dismissive of ‘70s and ‘80s shockers for being too full of breasts and blood. And now it seems we have a generation weaned on ‘80s horror bitching about the new films being too fast and flashy.

Hence as much as I think the new Nightmare on Elm Street charges ahead too swiftly and is sacrificing atmosphere and character for pace, is it really doing anything that wrong? I mean if you want to see a flick where action and pace totally make a nonsense of anything approaching sense, let alone a story, go no further than Transformers 2. Bayer’s film might come across as hasty but it’s nowhere near the colossal awfulness of Bay’s last paean to hyperactivity. And I do suspect there is a longer version that’s better paced – my gut instinct is that what we have got is a truncated cut to fit what Platinum Dunes’ demographics think is the optimum length for the target audience – which would make the pacing issues their fault not Bayer’s. I’ll be very interested to see if a director’s cut emerges…

But the pacing aside, considering he’s a former video director, some credit must go to Bayer for not delivering a movie that was comprised of jump cuts and crash zooms every five seconds and filling the score with bad emo/metal. Instead he tries to make a proper horror movie in the classic mould rather pander to the teen market with a load of hip visuals set to ‘edgy’ rock music that will go out of date faster than a loaf of bread. But instead he get’s slated for being conventional. Admittedly there are far more innovative directors out there and Bayer lacks real vision but it’s evident he studied the form. While his imagination may be lacking, he knew enough to avoid some of the worst clichés.

And he’s also got tons of flack for using jump scares. Yes, they are a cheap scare and he relies on them a lot but they are by no means the lowest trick in the book - that would be just shovelling out the gore and going for the gross out. And in all fairness, there are more than a few jump scares in the original. More to the point, when did jump scares become such a bad thing? Just as it is very fashionable among mainstream critics to write off blockbusters or genre films for using CGI, in the horror world now it’s a case of use a jump scare and you’re a talentless bastard.

But the original Halloween is built on them – and no one slates that movie for it. Actually I suspect Bayer studied that classic very closely, as he plays with light and shadows and tries to misdirect the audience in a Carpenter-esque fashion. And in the chase sequence at the finale, he has Nancy hiding in a cupboard with a white slatted door which struck me as a tip of the fedora to Halloween. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the Carpenter classic is Bayer’s idea of the perfect horror movie. He might not have Carpenter’s directing chops but I will give him credit for doing his homework.

At the end of the day, I would far rather have film makers try and make you jump out of your seat than just chuck up into your pop corn, and fill the runtime with the kind of gratuitous nastiness that gives the genre a bad name. And here where the remake could have been a lot worse too – with the Saw series being the franchise to top, we easily could have got Freddy Opens a Hostel.

What seasoned film buffs and horror heads alike forget is that ghost train jump scares or a ton of gore are what a general audience expects from a horror movie. Average movie goers aren’t going to flock to see intelligent carnage like Martyrs and purer fright films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have a good proportion of the popcorn munching crowd decrying as rubbish because “you didn’t see anything”. Now the new Nightmare on Elm Street treads a decent line between gore and fear, and while Bayer plays the jump card too often when he should be building dread, it is still hitting the both important marks for the general audience.

And that’s exactly who Platinum Dunes are made this flick for. Yes, it’s not the remake I wanted but really when a studio sets out to do a remake – putting the rights and wrongs of that aside for moment - they are not making the movie for lovers of the original. They aren’t really interested in putting a fresh spin on material that worked perfectly well the first time just for the old guard; they just want to retell the story for a new generation.

And for all the faults I can find with the remake, I have to concede that Bayer’s film does do that. It’s flawed but it delivers enough to work. With most of the retread material being in the first half I can totally understand why it loses the interest of so many reviewers who are familiar with the original, and I’m guessing the wall scene (damn it! there it is again) is where many lock into in hate mode. But if you don’t know the original inside out, you’re not sat playing compare and contrast and the wall is just a brief moment of sub par CGI.

Even if the remake isn’t improving on the original and suffers from a hasty pace, it at least honours the intentions of the original film, serving up some memorable dream weirdness and it does get Freddy right. Jackie Earle Haley makes a fantastic Krueger, menacing, vicious and actually scary. I might think he looks more like Niki Lauda than Fred Krueger, you can’t fault the performance. And while some, including myself, have lamented that the script didn’t give Haley more material to get his teeth into, but really the role of Freddy doesn’t offer that much scope for dramatics. Of course a different script could have included more material that builds the character and his back-story, but really Freddy should stay in the shadows - after all, look how well Rob Zombie’s attempt to give Michael Myers more depth went down…

Personally I’m just glad they went back to basics and made Krueger a scary monster again, rather than bring him back as the jokester of the later films. Admittedly they did toss in a few quips, mainly in the second half, that I could have lived without but they did keep the bad gags to a bare minimum and I’m guessing included them as a sop to the fans that prefer the comedy incarnation. But it was Haley’s excellent rendering of the character that got me through the weaker first half when I was mainly rummaging through the baggage I brought to the theatre. So I’ll happily take the Haley Krueger, new make up and all, over the Freddies from Elm Street 2, 4, 5 and 6 any day of the week.

And despite its faults the remake is a far better film than any of the sequels listed above. Now as I promised at the beginning of this epic dissection, I’m not trying to persuade all of you who disliked it that Bayer’s film is a great movie. But to all those who are proclaiming it’s the worst thing ever and an insult to Freddy, really, get a grip. If you hated it, fine – I didn’t exactly love it myself - but in some cases the level of bile has been way over the top. Essentially I’m arguing for some clemency here – there are far worse horror films out there and much poorer remakes. And like it or not, there going be young movie goers who will love this flick as much as I love the original. And perhaps that is what is most important here.

In my similarly lengthy article on last year's Friday 13th, I spent a good deal of time identifying different species of remake and Freddy is one of those characters who can come back again and again. Like his cinematic rivals Jason and Michael Meyers, his film series consisted of sequels that were more remakes than additional instalments of his story. So really retelling the story was not the key issue - the big question was could another actor convincingly fill his shoes?

Whereas Jason or Michael Myers can be played by any big ‘n’ burly guy, Freddy is very closely tied to Englund’s performance. We all accept that Freddy is one of the Famous Horror Characters like Dracula and Frankenstein but could the glove be passed on in the same way the cloak and fangs went from Lugosi to Lee? Or would it be another case of Pink Panther syndrome, where Steve Martin has proved that it’s not the character of Clouseau we love but Peter Sellers’ performances.

Some die hard haters may not accept Haley as Freddy, however if we’d had the internet back in 1958, I’d bet we’d see similar torrents of bile from Lugosi fans. But a decent proportion of the negative reviewers do concede that Jackie Earle Haley makes a good Freddy. And regardless of your feelings about the rest of the film, this remake has proved that some one other than Robert Englund can play Krueger. But this is the Bayer film’s real achievement – it shows it can be done, and hence now the field is wide open for him to return again and again, with a new actor bringing the character to fresh generations. Freddy now can truly join the pantheon of Immortal Monsters, and I have no doubt that he’ll be haunting the dreams of many generations to come. Many may not love this first resurrection, but it has been a success, and the door is now firmly open for a future version that might top Craven’s original…