Doctor Who Story 032 – The Underwater Menace

Written by Geoffrey Orme
Directed by Julia Smith

The TARDIS arrives on an island and discover, in a series of underwater caves, the lost city of Atlantis.  But they also discover the lost scientist Zaroff, who has a plan for raising the city above sea-level that would have dire consequences for the planet Earth.

Nothing in the world can stop him now.

 “Perhaps your goddess Ando has indigestion.”

What a wonderful story!  Yes, I said it.  I rather enjoyed The Underwater Menace, in spite of general fan opinion.  I listened to episodes 1, 2, and 4, and watched episode 3 with my wife.  She only joined me for episode 3, preferring to watch stories that were written for the screen rather than listen to them.  She was quite taken by the sets, costumes, and the choreography of the fish-people, things that fandom generally dismiss as hokey.  In truth, they didn’t match what I saw in my head when I listened to the show, but early Doctor Who has always had this problem.  In truth, I think they did well with what they had, and it was watching the episode that made me truly appreciate the story.

There was so much imagination put into the script.  Forget whether you think the visuals were a failure or not.  The basic concept of the story is that the sinking of Atlantis didn’t completely destroy the civilization and that they continued to exist in underwater caverns.  The society continued.  Occasionally people would end up at Atlantis through shipwrecks or other accidents, and these outsiders would be made into slaves or genetically altered into fish-people.  Meanwhile, a brilliant scientist has helped Atlantean society develop and continue to survive.  He was proclaimed as the savior of Atlantis by the order of priests, and is thus venerated by the Atlanteans.  He has a plan for raising the island again, but it will shake apart the Earth if he does it.  This is a great idea for a story.  It is very imaginative and truly gives us something new and unique.  Based on that alone, I love this story.

It isn’t perfect, however.  Professor Zaroff is a mad scientist, and never has this term been more appropriate.  His plan for raising Atlantis would involve draining the oceans, so not technically raising the island but lowering the Earth’s water level.  To achieve this, he is drilling to the Earth’s core, into which he will drain the waters.  This would create large amounts of steam and, having no place to vent the gas, would cause violent earthquakes that would shake the Earth to pieces.  Thus, he “raises” Atlantis and completely destroys the world and Atlantis with it.  Zaroff knows this will happen and is fine with it because it is the ultimate expression of scientific power: the ability to destroy the world.  He is a madman on the level of Davros.  In truth, I have a lot of difficulty believing Zaroff.  I had trouble believing he would be so excited about the destruction of the world.  I could believe it if he didn’t recognize the consequences, or was in denial about them, but the very fact that he is insane makes him less believable as a character.   For me, Zaroff is the weak point of the story, not due to his accent or performance, but due to the character’s motivation.

I think the TARDIS is definitely crowded at this point.  We are still getting acquainted with the new Doctor, Jamie is now out of his normal time-period, and we still need things for Ben and Polly to do.  There are quite a few regulars, and only four episodes to tell the story and flesh out Zaroff and introduce supporting characters such as Ramo (a priest) and the escaped workers Sean and Jacko.  It often seems to me that the more companions you have, the more parts the story needs to give them each something to do.  Two companions needs a minimum of four parts.  Three companions seems to need six.  Of course, these are just personal rules of thumb developed from observation.  Obviously, there are exceptions.  The Underwater Menace, from a story perspective, doesn’t need more than it has, but I think the nuance of the characters get lost in the shuffle.  This story does pretty much zoom along, moving from scene to scene frantically, leaving little room for much character development.  Granted, part of the character convolution was due to the last-minute addition of Jamie as a companion.  The entire script had to be re-worked for this new character.  But these are the realities of television.  Sometimes it still amazes me that we get anything as good as this.

In the end, the imagination behind the story covers a multitude of sins in The Underwater Menace.  It is a lot of fun and it makes you imagine what else might be lurking below the ocean or below the surface of our planet. . . .

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Doctor Who 6.08 – Let’s Kill Hitler

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Richard Senior

After summoning The Doctor to find out how goes his search for Melody Pond, Amy, Rory, and The Doctor find themselves hijacked by Mels, childhood friend of Amy and Rory.  The destination: Germany 1939. 

"Ah, but I knew you would replace the gun with a banana so I went back in time and had the man who GREW the banana genetically engineer a banana gun..."

 “And the penny drops.”

Oh, where to begin.  Let’s start with the positives.  I really, really wanted to love this.  Is it truly a positive if I’m appealing to my own good intentions?  Probably not.  Regardless, I don’t want to spend my reviews of Moffatt-Who talking about how the show isn’t as good as it once was or how we are now watching spectacle rather than actual drama.  I’m afraid that if I complain about the show too much that I will be forced to decide whether or not to keep reviewing it.  I’d certainly hate for people who read this blog  to say “why do you even watch the show if you don’t like it?”  But after Let’s Kill Hitler, I feel more excited that this block of episodes has more non-Moffat stories.

Sorry, let’s start again.  I loved seeing Amelia Pond again and thought the flashbacks were quite fun.  The scene where Amy accuses Rory of being gay was amusing.  Sure, the scenes screamed retcon and you knew that Mels would be important in some way, but they were fun enough to make me dismiss the obvious.  I liked the robot.  I liked the idea of a group of time travelers feeling some sort of temporal obligation to bring judgement upon war criminals.  It is an interesting idea that, on its own, could have created a compelling story that gave rise to questions about justice or vengeance, and whether or not punishing “dead people” (as the Doctor accused them) is entirely ethical, and where does The Doctor come off criticizing them anyway?  Yes, good idea and good potential.

But instead, we have River Song.  Instead we have a type of conclusion to the long-running River Song arc.  The first reaction to this episode was that it was quite abrupt.  Sure, in real-time, we have been waiting all summer to discover how The Doctor’s search for Melody Pond went.  But imagine the future, when people sit down to watch series six on DVD.  In this future scenario, the amount of time that passes between episodes  is only as long as it takes to switch your DVD.  Thus, you find out that River is Melody, then about three minutes later you get Melody Pond, super weapon, killing The Doctor and running amuck in Nazi Germany.  As much as I’ve been concerned about the story-arc’s affect on the pacing of series six, I think that this episode kills all the dramatic tension of the search and what happened to Melody between her time in the space suit and her time in this episode.  It is possible that Moffatt is planning more “timey-wimey” storytelling, but I’m not sure he is and, quite frankly, I think it is becoming increasingly unnecessary.  More often than not his scripts are less about telling a good story than they are about being clever and having funny dialogue.  They are about keeping the audience on their toes and tricking us, confusing us, pulling the rug out from under us.  Moffatt is obviously having a lot of fun, and that is great, but I’m starting to wonder if he is telling good stories, or just showing us cool set-pieces and giving us clever dialogue.

Melody Pond is supposed to have been raised as a super-weapon.  She is supposed to kill The Doctor.  And yet, all it takes is one meeting between the two of them for The Doctor to break her programming?  She kills him then saves his life just because he is interesting?  I suppose it is possible that we will revisit this idea, that perhaps she really will “kill” The Doctor and that her conditioning hasn’t quiet been broken yet.  But on the topic of death . . . .

My second realization was that regeneration is becoming a magic wand, and that regeneration itself is being completely neutered as a concept.  Sure, The Doctor can’t really die because practically: the show would end, and he can regenerate into a new body and have a new personality.  But that new body and personality mean that regeneration is a type of death and an old friend is gone.  But over the course of Cymru Who’s existence, we have found that wounds incurred during the first few hours of regeneration will heal, Time Lord body parts can absorb regeneration energy and thus negate the need for regeneration, regeneration energy can give someone super-powers which allow them to fly and shoot lightening from his or her hands, and, finally, that another Time Lord (or Time Lord-Human hybrid) can channel regeneration energy to heal the wounds of another Time Lord, possibly burning out remaining regenerations in the process.  This was the explanation for why River Song didn’t regenerate in Forest of The Dead, and I understand that.  But it also means that death in Doctor Who is even more meaningless.  I’m sorry, but where I’m concerned, Melody using her remaining regenerations to save The Doctor is a cheat.  I was half-expecting the revelation that The Doctor was a Ganger and, frankly, I would have found that more interesting.  How many Doctors are running around out there?  Why did The Doctor send a Ganger instead of arriving himself?  But no.  Magic wand.

All this said, I’m glad that we seem to be filling in the gaps of the arcs that have been with us since Moffatt took over the show (well, since series four, technically).  While this episode failed to excite me to Doctor Who’s return, I am happy that Moffatt’s name will not be appearing on very many episodes in the next few weeks.  As The Doctor said near the end of Day of the Moon, I’m ready for adventures.  I’m ready for something not so arc-driven.  I’m ready to see something new and different, anywhere in time and space.  I want to see something imaginative.  I certainly hope I’m not asking too much.

Doctor Who Story 31 – The Highlanders

Written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis
Directed by Hugh David

The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arrive in Scotland just after the Battle of Culloden and find themselves caught up in the aftermath with captured Highlanders, disgruntled Redcoats, and a solicitor with less-than-honorable plans for the prisoners.

Jamie: You call yourself a doctor.  You’ve not even bled him yet.
Doctor: He’s never heard of germs.  They’re used by Germans.
Jamie: Ah, aye.  Germans . . . gerums.

And with this episode, we bid farewell to the Doctor Who historical for the foreseeable future.  I’m mentioned before that the early historicals were some of my favorite stories.  What I find most disheartening is that this particular style of Doctor Who goes out with a bit of a whimper.  I’m not a big fan of The Highlanders.  I will admit that this viewing (well, listening) sat better with me than previous ones, but I still don’t believe this particular story hits the high standard set by John Lucarotti and David Whitaker (in The Crusades).

As with many historicals that give me a bit of difficulty, I decided to do a bit of research on the times and characters.  Sometimes I feel that if I have some sort of context, the story will make more sense.  This helped immensely with The Massacre.  Unfortunately, with The Highlanders, while I did enjoy getting a very basic introduction to the Jacobites and Bonny Prince Charlie, I found that this information was rather incidental to the story as a whole.  Sure, the details of the rebellion (and primary causes) are not a part of the narrative of The Highlanders, but the essential details are there.  The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arrive just after a battle between British and Scottish forces, and the Scottish forces have been defeated.  Thus, our characters are in the chaos as soldiers are retreating and being imprisoned.  Now, on the one hand this is one more instance of Doctor Who giving us and epic scene of battle and warfare . . . just off-screen.  Yes, Ben and Polly, we have arrived just minutes after the Battle of Culloden.  Some writers would portray the events leading up to the battle.  Surely there was quite a bit of political intrigue that led to Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt to take the British throne.  But we’ll have none of that in this story.  Instead, we’ll tackle prisoners of war and slavery.

One of The Doctor's many disguises in this story.

I mentioned one hand earlier.  Here is the other: this isn’t necessarily a bad story.  Sure, there may have been more intriguing material in the events leading up to Culloden, but there is something interesting in exploring post-battle chaos.  There would be confusion and panic, and what better situation to try to round up treasonous rebels and offer them the choice of execution or working the plantations in Jamaica.  Again, this isn’t the obvious route for this period of history, which makes it rather interesting to me.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a story that couldn’t have been told any number of different ways and taking place in other periods of history.  We didn’t need to have the story set in 1746.  It could have easily taken place in another period of history, just after a battle, mind you.  There are plenty of examples of prisoners of war being taken as slaves.  This isn’t unique to Britain and the Jacobites.  It could have taken place in the future after two civilizations had gone to war.  As such, the details of the period merely serve to add flavor, but not really educate or inform.  This would be my primary criticism for the story.

His stiff-upper lip is trembling.

As for positives, first and foremost is the introduction of Jamie McCrimmon.  It is early in the character’s development, but we begin to see hints of what would make Jamie so wonderful.  He doesn’t wish to appear dumb in front of others.  He is quick to jump to conclusions.  It will be great to see when Frazier Hines and Patick Troughton begin to develop their double-act, which often served to make even the most repetitive story enjoyable.  It was also fun to hear Polly harass and charm Lieutenant Algernon Ffinch.  This harkens back to her characterization in The War Machines, and one gets the impression that Ffinch starts to enjoy her antagonism despite the fact that it keeps compromising his position.

After his somewhat stand-offish behavior in the previous story, The Doctor is here much more mischievous.  He dresses up as a German physician, a cleaning woman, and a redcoat throughout the course of the story.  If any trait seems to be dominant between this story and the previous, it is that this Doctor truly enjoys manipulating people and events.  In Power of the Daleks, he was trying to bring down his old enemies, and possibly the colony of Vulcan in the process.  Here, it is hard to tell if he knows the devious plans Solicitor Grey has for the Highland prisoners, but he certainly uses deception to foil them.  This is certainly an incarnation of The Doctor that plays the fool as he lays your plans to waste.  It would seem he is a “cosmic hobo” in appearance only.  He is more a trickster, a meddler.  With this in mind, he ending almost seems a foregone conclusion.

Thoughts on Torchwood – Miracle Day

American

Originally I had hoped to review each episode of Miracle Day, but my work schedule prohibited it.  There just wasn’t enough time in the week.  However, I have decided to put my thoughts out there up through episode seven because it would seem much of the opinion of the series is negative.  And while I think Miracle Day is far from perfect, I personally enjoy the story so far and am excited to see Miracle Day as part of the British science fiction tradition.

Not American

Now, I realize some people will take issue with that last sentiment.  One complaint about Miracle Day is that the show is “too American.”  I disagree.  This week I have been watching episodes of the Channel Four series Sci-Fi UK.  This show aired in the mid-90s and celebrated Britain’s contributions to the science fiction genre.  The show covered H.G. Wells, Frankenstein and its various incarnations, Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson, Nigel Kneale, and many more.  And I must say that if I take anything away from the British contribution to science fiction, it is that the British bring a lot of thought-provoking material to the mix.  Now let me be clear, I’m focusing mainly on television and film.  American science fiction is alive and well in book form, but our contributions to television and film are primarily CGI and spectacle.  America’s contribution to television and film science fiction has been forever altered by Star Wars, which was visual escapism.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy, but I enjoy it for world-building not for thought-provoking drama.  When it comes to science fiction, I want the thought-provoking drama, which is why I have gravitated toward British science fiction.  And I still classify Miracle Day as distinctly British, not because it has scenes in Wales, but because it is conceptual drama(1).  When Americans attempt conceptual drama, it tends to come off as preachy.  We Americans are not known for our subtlety.

Thought-provoking political drama

Conceptual drama was what I loved about Children of Earth.  Sure, CoE was bleak and depressing, but it held up a lens to British government (and I think, by extrapolation, governments in general), and really showed how the hallowed halls of legislation are filled with people who would work to save their own backsides in much the same way the unwashed masses would.  In fact, CoE went so far as to suggest that the unwashed masses would help one another more since they were in the act of living together rather than being separate from one another.  For me, CoE was Torchwood delivering on its promise of being “adult” Doctor Who(2).

On that thought, episode seven is the first to actively reference The Doctor in this new Torchwood story.  I didn’t expect the reference.  But what made me most intrigued by it is the suggestion that Captain Jack is forever trying to be The Doctor and failing.  Here is the wonderful irony in the Doctor Who / Torchwood conceit.  In Doctor Who we are told that The Doctor makes us better, that by following The Doctor’s example, we will become better people and usher in a better society.  Then Torchwood comes along and shows us a man who is actively attempting to be The Doctor, and continually getting people killed or setting up some great threat that will manifest decades later.  If anything, Torchwood seems to be suggesting that any attempt to be The Doctor means you will die a martyrs death.  Or perhaps it merely suggests that Captain Jack is too self-centered to be The Doctor for any real length of time.  I wonder if there is any commentary on fandom here.

"I blew it up so we can leave this plotline behind and move on to other stuff."

Back to Miracle Day, if I were to lay a major flaw at its feet, I would say it is too long and spread over too much time.  Children of Earth was tight and it had the feeling of a major event since it was aired over five consecutive nights.  Miracle Day, I believe, is suffering from stretching the story over ten weeks.  I think we are witnessing a bit of padding and the story would be enhanced by trimming it down to five or six episodes.  The current format may be dictated by the American market, but we are in the summer months, so I would think Starz could take the risk on consecutive nights.  BBC America did with some success.  Regardless, the story, as is, is it a bit too loose and rambling, sometimes repetitive.  It could use some tightening.

[The following section removed at request of the Edwardian Adventurer coherency council, citing Section 14b, Sub-Paragraph 7: “Any observations not meeting achieving a coherency rating of BB.4 are subject to revision or deletion.”]

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Jack learns the hard way why time travelers should never date their companions.

With the most-recent episode (seven), I feel like we have finished with the filler and are moving forward toward the conclusion.  Some major pieces were given shape, and indications are that the threat may not be as alien as originally theorized.  But at the heart of the miracle, would seem to lie the very human emotions of love and rejection.  Again, Jack, by attempting to play The Doctor, hurts those around him.  Jack, on some level, seems to enjoy playing the part of the mysterious traveler with no ties.  And yet, he is still human and longs for relationships.  Jack is like the obsessive fan who attempts to imitate his fictional idol.  Jack is constantly pretending to be something he isn’t, as strongly sign-posted in a conversation with Gwen, when both parties threaten to kill one another for their own ends.  Gwen mentions that she thinks she knows Jack better in this moment than she ever did.  And I think this is key.  Jack has never been more transparent than he was in this moment.  He admitted, with his threat, that he is not The Doctor, no matter how hard he pretends he is.

In conclusion, I think Miracle Day is a good trial-launch of the Starz-BBC Worldwide partnership.  I like that the show is still dealing with conceptual issues rather than monster-of-the-week.  I love the addition of Rex Matheson as a brash, arrogant, know-it-all.  Basically, an American.  I love the mystery and the humor.  In short, I think Miracle Day is a good relaunch of Torchwood.

(1)I am not, however, arguing that Cymru Who is falling into this same tradition. The current incarnation of Doctor Who has many British traits (eccentricity, British colloquialisms, etc.), but it is quite wrapped up in special effects and spectacle. The way Stephen Moffatt has plotted series six screams spectacle, it is style over substance. It may be fun, it may be entertaining, but it is hardly conceptual or thought-provoking. If anything, it continues to illustrate that Doctor Who is a microcosm of the history of television and, with its current incarnation, it illustrates that American television dominates the Western market. Cymru Who is British television putting its own spin on American style.

(2)I understand that fans of the first two series of Torchwood would loathe CoE and Miracle Day. The format is different and the sense of fun (read: silliness) is almost completely gone. I sympathize, I truly do. However, I would also posit that those early episodes of Torchwood were, despite being filmed in Cardiff, more influenced by American television than British, as has Doctor Who (at least where RTD was concerned). Genre television hasn’t seemed to escape the influence of Joss Whedon, especially when analyzing the effect of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I would say that Buffy is to sci-fi television what Star Wars was to sci-fi movies. It is the model to which many sci-fi producers turn. Just look at how RTD and others involved with Who and Torchwood refer to the shows, how they refer to the characters. We may as well recast the shows as Doctor The Alien Thwarter and Jack, which doesn’t sound as absurd but I was trying to make a reference to Angel and there wasn’t much to work with in the title. I could probably make a stronger case if I could be bothered to watch Buffy, but I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with the show and that obsession has left a very bitter taste in my mouth and sometimes I just wanted to tell him to turn off the bloody television so I could study my psychology homework or at the very least so I could concentrate as I tried to make my way through The English Patient because lord knows it was bad enough having to read it for class, but I certainly can’t retain any information with your Whedon-fest going on three hours a day. And when do you study, anyway, because all I ever see you do is watch television and play computer games?(3)

(3)The fact that I have only seen a few minutes of Buffy is not, in any way going to prevent me from speaking authoritatively on the subject.

Doctor Who Serial 030 – Power of the Daleks

Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Christopher Barry

The Doctor’s body has changed and, it would seem, so has his personality.  As Ben and Polly attempt to understand what has happened and what it could mean for them, The Doctor gets involved in the affairs of a colony on the planet Vulcan and learns that a discovery in the swamp could have disasterous effects on the human colonists.

“I’d like to see a butterfly fit into its chrysalis after it has spread its wings!”

With the passing of the First Doctor, we have a new era of storytelling.   The very dynamic of the show feels altered with the coming of Patrick Troughton, and he is much more aloof than Hartnell ever was.  One can almost sympathize with Ben and his suspicions about who this new man is.  And yet, who else could he be.  Ben and Polly watched the transformation.

Renewal, or as we know it now, regeneration.  But was it always thus?  It would seem not.  I think that David Whitaker may have been trying to get at something slightly different and infinitely more interesting.  Keeping in mind that this is before we have met The Doctor’s people, before we have heard the word “Gallifrey”.  This is a time when The Doctor was very much a mystery.  The Doctor says that he has received a “gift of the TARDIS”, that he has had a renewal.  On the one hand, the implication is that his years have been stripped away so that his body now looks younger.  On the other, the butterfly metaphor implies something more grand and magical.  It implies that The Doctor’s being has changed to such a degree that his old body could no longer contain him.  The implication is a type of evolution, taking him beyond what he once was, changing him into something similar, but new.  It is more than mere body and personality change, it is progress, it is development.  The Doctor, who was somewhat less moral (by human standards) when we met him, is now someone who is guided by a strong sense of morality.  This aspect will stay with the show for decades, but what I find so interesting about how the renewal is handled here in comparison to later regeneration is the idea that this is an implied improvement.  Is this the Second Doctor’s arrogance or was this meant to be a part of the show’s mythology?  Yes, many Doctors would agree that they are an improvement over previous models (Ten and Five aside) but I doubt that there would be much evidence that they were improvements.  Merely changes.

Your author for the serial.

David Whitaker has returned to the show for the first time since The Crusade.  I find this quite interesting as he was the first script editor and he had a strong influence over some of the basic tenants of the show.  He shaped the early mythology of Doctor Who, and now we have him writing the explanation of one of the biggest events to have happened on the show to this point.  Not only that, but Whitaker helped shape the character of The Doctor in the beginning, thus he was possibly the perfect person to write this transitional story.  He could keep the essence of The Doctor while still exploring the ideas of renewal and change.  And of course, should anyone have their doubts, we have the return of The Daleks.

Even The Daleks are in new territory.  They are weak, but they are not defeated.  This show shows them at what is most-likely their most conniving.  They manipulate the human colonists with ease, first Lesterson and his scientific curiosity (and blindness), then later Bragen and Janley as they dream of revolution.  The Daleks seem more effective than ever in their state of weakness.  The Doctor defeats them in the end, but this almost seems a mere afterthought where the story is concerned.  Almost as if Whitaker is acknowledging that no matter how powerful and popular The Daleks may be, The Doctor must win in the end.  Even if it is a last-minute victory.

“Lesterson, listen.  Lesterson, listen.  It exercise the tongue.”

There is an odd exchange as The Doctor, Ben, and Polly depart the planet Vulcan.  As Ben and Polly discuss the events they had witnessed and taken part in, they become uncertain as to how effective The Doctor’s arguments were against The Daleks.  They wonder if he had only half-heartedly tried to convince the human colonists that The Daleks were evil.  When asked out-right, The Doctor merely smiles and winks.  This may have looked good on screen, but the implications are enormous.  The Doctor seems to have moved from curious explorer to manipulative meddler.  Sure, he still seems aligned with what would be considered “good”, but to what ends would he go to achieve what he deems good?  How Machiavellian is this new Doctor?

I really like this story, in part because I think it is not just one of the best Dalek stories, but because it is a six-parter that seems to work.  I enjoy seen intelligent, conniving Daleks as opposed to arrogant Daleks who rely only upon their weaponry.  So often they seem to glide about yelling and shooting, whereas these Daleks add a significant degree of manipulation to their repitoir.  The Doctor’s situation seems completely hopeless, and it never really changes.  Perhaps that is why he doesn’t try too hard in Ben and Polly’s eyes.

There are so many plot threads in this story and it keeps things interesting.  You have The Doctor and his attempts to thwart The Daleks.  Then there is the manipulation of Lesterson by The Daleks.  We also have Bragen’s attempts to overthrow the governor.  There is the mystery of who sent for the Earth inspector and who killed the real inspector (allowing The Doctor to impersonate him).  So much going on, it makes this story crack along at a great pace.  On top of that, we are having to learn about the new Doctor, and I think he wins everyone over just fine.  It is a good start.

Doctor: The Crusades.  Saladin.  The Doctor was a great collector wasn’t he.
Polly: But you’re The Doctor.
Doctor: Oh, I don’t look like him.
Ben: Who are we?”
Doctor: Don’t you know?

A Review of Zardoz

This is a re-post of a review I originally wrote for the Popgun Chaos blog.  I have re-worked it a bit as I had written in response to a review of Zardoz which took the view that the movie was a bad movie. 

———-

ZARDOZ!!

Zardoz, when distilled to its most-basic concept, sounds absurd.  Sean Connery plays a man named Zed.  Zed lives in a post-apocalyptic society where an elite class called “Exterminators” worship a floating head named Zardoz, who gives them guns so they can hunt and kill those who breed.  One day Zed enters Zardoz and is taken to a society of immortals who are bored and want to die.  In the end, Zed brings about death.  Sean Connery wears a red speedo throughout the movie, and has a 70s Burt Reynolds mustache.  The film was directed by John Boorman, his first film after Deliverance, a movie which was a success.  Connery was fresh off the James Bond films, and still trying to get work.  Obviously Zardoz didn’t hurt his career.  It may not have helped it either.  Taking in this movie full of comatose youths, pyramids constructed from mirrors, a giant stone head, Connery’s speedos, images projected on nude bodies, a man with a Sharpie-drawn goatee, green bread, and bare-breasted women on horseback one is left to question just what everyone involved was thinking.  However, I think there is a sincerity that permeates the film.  Sean Connery plays the part straight, as if he were dressed in an Armani suit or, at the very least, something more conventional.  None of the actors give any indication that they think poorly of the material, nor do they seem to resent the parts.  In some episodes of Doctor Who, when a professional theatre actor appears on the show, it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand the part or the story, even if they give it their best shot.  This doesn’t happen in Zardoz.  If anyone didn’t get the story, it certainly doesn’t appear on screen.

The film, while not a cinematic masterpiece, is effectively shot.  With a budget of a measly one million dollars, Boorman chose to shoot in the Irish countryside, practically in his back yard.  Even the lake where The Vortex is located is at the home of one of Boorman‘s friends.  Much was done to save money, and I personally don’t think Zardoz looks cheap.  It doesn’t look slick or polished, but it could look much worse.  In fact, I rather think for the concepts in this film, it was very effectively, if not magnificently shot.  The main problem is that what we see is, much of the time, rather unusual.  As I said above, when you actually have to explain it, or when you distill what you are seeing into words, it starts to fall apart.

So what about those words?   What is the story in detail rather than summarized?  Bear with me here because even outlined it gets a bit convoluted.  At some point in the future, the Earth began dying, her resources becoming extremely limited.  A group of scientists create arks, called Vortices, where a selected group could cultivate and protect the remnants of human culture.  The scientists had enough foresight to know that one day the Earth would be completely unsuitable for all life, and thus they unlocked the key to immortality, where upon they and their offspring could continue caretaking, but also develop a way for the Vortices to leave the Earth.  It is hinted at one point in the film that this actually happened, but there was no place for the survivors to settle.  The Vortices and immortality itself are controlled by a device called The Tabernacle.  The location and operational nature of Tabernacle was then erased from the minds of The Immortals to dissuade anyone from undoing what had been done.  The Immortals were then sealed off from the rest of the world, with all other humanity ignored outside.  Over the centuries The Immortals developed telepathic links with one another through both biology and technology.  They also eliminated the need for sleep.  Boorman also speculated that an immortal society, one that was attempting to control its own resources, would have no need for children, thus all concepts of sexuality die out in all but an intellectual sense.  As Consuela says at one point while lecturing on the concept of erection, “we know the mechanism involved, but we don’t know [how it happens]”.  A concept of sexual stimulation no longer exists.  As the centuries pass, many Immortals grow bored with their existence.  Those who refuse to cope any longer become Apathetics and enter a trance state.  Those who turn to psychic or other crimes that buck the system become forcibly aged according to the severity of the crime.  Imagine being immortally trapped in a senile body.  These people are called Renegades and spend their eternity in what appears to be a community center poorly decorated as a dancehall.  Finally, one Immortal is given charge of monitoring the population outside The Vortex.  His name is Arthur Frayn, but he travels in a floating head called “Zardoz”.  Arthur has a flair for the theatrical, and sets Zardoz up as a god.  His activities are largely unchecked, so when he and another Immortal named Friend come up with a plan to undo The Immortal Society, no one is there to stop them.

 

Please get me out of this movie.

Zardoz travels the outside world and chooses men and women to be Exterminators.  He gives them guns and tells them who to kill, which is largely anyone who breeds.  Only the Exterminators are allowed to breed.  What no one realizes is that Arthur via Zardoz is conducting genetic manipulation.  He is selecting people who will produce certain offspring.  Once the right generation has been born, an Exterminator will be chosen to enter a Vortex and that Exterminator will have abilities that allows him to resist Immortal powers and find The Tabernacle.  That Exterminator is Zed, played by Sean Connery.  Arthur began Zed’s journey by catching his attention and leading him into a library, leaving him a book that taught Zed to read.  Eventually, Zed begins to doubt Zardoz when he reads The Wizard of Oz, a book about a man who hides behind a façade and commands the lesser people.  Zed and The Exterminators formulate a plan by which Zed will infiltrate a Vortex and try to discover the truth and maybe get some revenge as well.

I feel that most Hollywood films, especially in that much-maligned genre of science fiction, are formulaic and unimaginative.  In recent years we have had very few science fiction movies that did less than offer CGI explosions and space battles.  For me, good science fiction shines light on life and the human condition, even if there are no humans in it.  I could care less for special effects.  I am a fan of old Doctor Who, after all.  Science fiction seems to have had difficulty recovering from Star Wars.  Don’t misunderstand me, I love the original trilogy, but Star Wars really changed the way science fiction films were made.  Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odysseywere all pre-Star Wars.  While the pace of these films wouldn’t be considered rapid by today’s standards, these films provided their own forms of action and suspense and, most important, world-building.  A science fiction film probably has to succeed in the third most of all.  World-building helps immerse us into the rules of the film so we can understand the concepts it presents to us so we can care about what happens, no matter how “other” it might be.  Before Star Wars much of this had to be done in script as well as through sets and effects.  After Star Wars, science fiction becomes more focused on action, and the world-building is left to the visual effects.  Thus, the world-building engages our eyes, but not our minds.

Just look at the pretty pictures. You don't need to think.

The concepts and world-building involved really attract me to Zardoz.  Boorman put a lot of thought into Immortal Society, and some of this comes through in the movie, some through the commentary.  As mentioned earlier, there is a sincerity on all sides of the camera.  Of course, sincerity doesn’t make a movie good art.  If it did, Ed Wood really would be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Where Ed Wood fails and Zardoz succeeds is a level of technical competency and consistency.  Sure, some of the costumes in Zardoz range from unusual to ridiculous, but they are of a consistent vision.  On a technical level, Zardoz is a showcase of what one can do with visual effects with nothing more than cameras.  There are no computer enhanced shots in the entire film.  Everything was achieved on set.  From a technical standpoint, this film is impressive.  Sadly, in our current age of film, such technical achievements are not as easily appreciated because a computer could accomplish similar effects, yet do them “better“.  In many ways, Boorman praises his film for this achievement, and I agree with him that one day it would be possible to put “This film was made without computer effects” on a poster and it would be a remarkable thing.

Effects aside, how is the story itself handled?  This is a mixed bag.  While I feel that the information on the society is given out at a fair pace, some scenes are less clear than others.  First, Boorman is correct in his criticism of the scene where The Immortals connect psychically.  The problem is that he wasn’t entirely sure how to convey this on screen.  Thus we get hand motions or people mouthing what they are thinking.  In hindsight, this doesn’t work so well.  Second, some shots go on too long.  In particular, the sequence in The Tabernacle, which exhibits one of the failings of pre-Star Wars science fiction in that it is extremely trippy and not very clear from a narrative standpoint.  Another problem, or a positive depending on your view, is the nudity.  This is another trope that pre-Star Wars science fiction indulged in.  Granted, a society with no concept of sexuality would not think much of nudity, nor would it be erotic.  However, our society does consider nudity erotic, and Hollywood has often exploited this in order to attract more viewers.  How much of the nudity was necessary for the effect of the world-building, and how much was there to keep bored adolescents (or adults) entertained?

And now, for no reason, Sean Connery in a dress.

Sadly, the bottom line is that this movie doesn’t work.  It is a shame, really, as there was a genuine attempt, and not a half-hearted one.  My wife told me about a story she heard that covered The Museum of Bad Art.  In this instance, bad art is defined as art that doesn’t quite work.  Either a specific rule was ignored to the detriment of the piece, or the artist just doesn’t quite have the experience to convey the idea, but in this case bad art isn’t trash.  It is still art, just not good art.  Michael Frank, curator of the museum says, “We collect things made in earnest, where people attempted to make art and something went wrong, either in the execution or in the original premise.”  Based on this criteria, I would throw Zardoz into the pile of bad art.  It doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless.  It was too ambitious for the budget without a doubt.  In some places the narrative structure doesn’t quite work, and the directing occasionally fails to stand up to what it is trying to achieve.  But the world is striking and in many ways it sticks with you.  Zardoz should be hailed, not as a great film, not even as a good film, but as a work that truly tries to be original, and in many ways meets that goal.

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The quote from Michael Frank can be found here:

English, Bella. “Doing a Good Deed with Bad Art“. The Boston Globe, February 8, 2009

Hartnell in Review and Where Do We Go From Here

Mysterious planets appearing in the sky.  The Earth being destroyed by the expanding Sun.  Daleks being rendered motionless and being kicked by an exuberant companion.  I’m not talking about the Russell T. Davies era, I’m talking about the Hartnell era.  It took a little longer than I anticipated, but I made it!  I thought that now would be a good time to look back on the 134 episodes and reminisce, then I will discuss what I will be doing for the Troughton era because I feel the need to change the format a bit.

Willian Hartnell was a great Doctor.  I think he worked hard to craft a wonderful character who had a distinct arc throughout his first few years.  The Doctor believably moved from paranoid exile to the explorer/meddler in time and space that we know today.  And this was due in no small part to his interactions with Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright.  They were the first companions to stumble upon The Doctor and find themselves wrapped up in another life.  Forced into a life on the run together, spurred on primarily because The Doctor could not control The TARDIS, Ian, Barbara and The Doctor had to find a way to work together and get along.  Not only did they find a way, they grew to care for one another as a type of family.  It was a dynamic that I don’t think we have ever seen again.  I believe it is safe to say that Ian and Barbara softened The Doctor and helped him to find the spirit of adventure that has stuck with him to this day.  No wonder humans are his favorite species.

While not every story of the Hartnell era was great, every one of them did have something interesting, even if you have to dig a little.  I have mentioned before that the sheer unpredictability of this era is what I enjoy the most.  From episode to episode you truly don’t know what you are going to get.  The show hasn’t yet become formulaic.  This was even a time before every Doctor Who story had monsters (although I think an argument could be made for Tltoxl).  The Hartnell era was fresh, it was different, and it is truly a far cry from the show in its current incarnation.

Favorite Story.  There are so many great stories in this era.  It is hard to choose between The Massacre and Marco Polo.  I’ll probably go with The Massacre due to its brevity and the fact that I actually learned something from it.

Least Favorite Story.  The Celestial Toymaker without a doubt.  It is hindered from not being complete, I know, but I doubt that even the visuals would help the story be more interesting and engaging.  The Toymaker as a character is intriguing and there were concepts that were hinted at but never really explored.  As it is the story itself just feels like it didn’t come together and I found it all rather dull.

Favorite Companion.  Even though I am tempted to go with Ian, I think I’ll settle on Steven.  He was quite versatile and fun.  As for companion groupings, Steven and Vicki were a good team and they had a nice chemistry.  It seems odd that they were only in three whole stories together.  I would have swore they were together longer.

And you can download it for just $20!

Favorite Spin-off Hartnell Story.  I don’t even have to think about this.  Farewell Great Macedon is, to me, the best Hartnell story without Hartnell in it.  It faithfully reproduces the feel of the first season, Carol Ann Ford and William Russell do an excellent job with the script, and the story is quite compelling once you get in to it and can keep the characters straight.  It is worth the effort.

*****

I mentioned changes.  With the last few Hartnell episodes (well, since The Savages really) I have felt a struggle to find anything particularly compelling to write.  In part this is due to spending more time taking notes than watching and enjoying the episode.  But other times I feel as if Doctor Who has been written about and reviewed for decades and I am just one voice among many and there is no chance of coming up with anything that hasn’t already been said or noticed.  Not that I feel the need to be particularly innovative, but the quality of some of the posts recently has bothered me.  I need to enjoy the episodes if I can write about them properly.  Thus, I will not be reviewing individual episodes anymore.  Beginning with Power of the Daleks I will either do one or two posts per story, depending on the length of the story or the amount of material I am coming up with.  I still plan to watch one episode a day, I just won’t be posting a Doctor Who review every day.  I want to try this format for a bit and see what happens.  I don’t yet know if it will free me up to work on other projects, but if so, that would be great.  However, it is important for me to get through every episode, so I’m not abandoning the project yet.

When I say run . . . .