Doctor Who – Dragonfire

Doctor Who Story 151 – Dragonfire

Written by

Ian Briggs

What’s It About?

On the planet Svartos the Doctor and Mel reunite with Sabalom Glitz and embark on a quest to find the treasure of a mythical dragon.

Ace!

Ace, The Doctor, Sabalom, and MelMy semester has begun so, as with the previous post, expect me to make occasional connections between what I am studying and what I am watching. And as it happens, I am currently studying Marshall McLuhan in my Religion in Media class, which is relevant to Dragonfire because McLuhan is namedropped. Specifically, one character is named after him. As it turns out, quite a few characters are named after film and media theorists, and I am tempted to find what Briggs was trying to say by referencing them. Here is a quick overview:

  • Béla Balázs, Hungarian-Jewish film critic
  • Siegfried Kracauer, German theorist who studied the effect of technology on memory
  • Marshall McLuhan, Canadian theorist who coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” meaning that medium dictates more to our understanding and cognition than the message communicated
  • André Bazin, French film theorist/critic who argued for films portraying “objective reality” rather than the manipulation of reality
  • Rudolf Arnheim, German film theorist and psychologist who believed meaning could be perceived through patterns, shapes, and colors and that art, then, was not merely aesthetic but a perception of meaning and the world
  • Vsevolod Pudovkin, Russian director

Of these theorists, McLuhan is the one I am most familiar with.

With these pieces in play, it is tempting to find a connection between them, a pattern which links them, in an attempt to discern a larger idea in Dragonfire. Unfortunately, such a connection eludes me. Perhaps Kracauer is a reference to the fleeting memory of what constitutes a Doctor Who story, much as JNT said that the memory cheats. Perhaps McLuhan’s ideas of hot and cold media relate somehow to the dual nature of Svartos with its dark, polar region and hot, sunny region. Or maybe it is all a suggestion to not look too deeply since this is light entertainment, which I doubt because Briggs makes frequent references to film theory, philosophy, and Doctor Who studies. I’m inclined to think that the pieces never quite come together from a critical standpoint.

On the other hand, the story is a fun adventure with references to fantasy epics and adventure. Ace’s introduction has quite a few references to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps another clue to decoding the story. So, even if there is no greater message here, or even if the message fails to manifest, there is plenty to engage with. In all, a fine ending to an enjoyable season. Season 24 is a promising start to a re-working of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

Doctor Who Story 150 – Delta and the Bannermen

Written by

Malcolm Kohll

What’s It About?

The last-surviving Chimeron is pursued by the Bannermen. Stowing away on a time-travelling nostalgia tour, she ends up at a holiday camp in South Wales in 1959. But the Bannermen are pursuing Delta, and they do not care who they kill to find her.

I can’t condone this foolishness.

The Doctor holds a guitar.The opening lecture of my “Religions of China and Asia” class included a distillation that seemed obvious once stated but, like all brilliant statements, could not be recognized until stated: “History is not the same thing as the past.”

History is the study of what happened in the past, but inherent in the study of the past is the interpretation of the past. The present always shapes how we view the past; the present influences how we study the past. Historians strive to hold their own biases in check, but a completely objective analysis of history is not possible. Historians studies trends, movements, and events, emphasizing some over others, in an attempt to discern the patters that gave birth to the present. The past is not objectively observable. We cannot walk into the past and see it and understand it as those living in it would see it and understand it.

And in “Delta and the Bannermen,” we have nostalgia tours, the past as a profitable market. The past has become the focus of commerce and tourism. It becomes a facsimile that just happens to take place in the past. Rather than a construct of artificial space in which tourists walk (such as a theme park), the tourists go into the past itself. But make no mistake, the past is dangerous. People live and die. This is perhaps why the nostalgia tour sets its sights on Disney Land, a safe space in a bubble of past events. Going back in time to visiting Disney Land, then, is an experience of history—it has the interpretive framework of tourism, but it may not qualify as experiencing the past because the tourist is not fully present in the moment but in his or her perception of events, a perception which is defined by leisure, marketing, the present reality of the era travelled from.

How interesting, then, that the tourists in “Delta and the Bannermen” die. The people who survive are those who do not operate from the tourism interpretive framework, but are those who live fully present in the present (which happens to be, in this case, the past). The Doctor, Mel, Delta, the Bannermen, and even the named workers at the Shangri-La resort (because a recurring theme in Doctor Who is missing the target, whether in the TARDIS, a time-travelling tourist bus, or visual effects) survive because they recognize the artifice of tourism in the context of the present dangers of unfolding events. And if the past is composed of events as they unfold and history is study and analysis of the past, then “Delta and the Bannermen” makes the critique that the past is more authoritative than history. What happened shaped us and can destroy our interpretations. While history as a field can influence the present, it does not influence the past, and rediscovering events can challenge our work as historians.

And Doctor Who is now a niche field of study in the realm of media history. It is open to a variety of interpretations about perspectives, developing and evolving media, and social commentary. And it reinterprets itself. JNT let that genie out of the bottle and it can never be put back in. Even in its current form under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who is about the Doctor, which indirectly makes the show about itself as deconstructing and reinterpreting the Doctor as a character requires deconstructing and reinterpreting the show. Moffat just does this with more panache and JNT and Saward did in the 80s.

And in “Delta” we see the continuing reinterpretation of Doctor Who at the hands of Andrew Cartmel. Already the show has adopted a striking and effective visual style. Sylvester McCoy has largely emerged as the Doctor, though without some of the nuance he will soon develop. The occasional three-episode format is a nice change of pace. And in this story it is never quite clear what will happen next. Yes, we know the good guys will win (we have emerged from the Saward vision of the show), but it is not quite evident how they will win or even how all the pieces fit together. In some ways, they don’t fit together terribly well, but the tone of the story is the essence of a shrug and a wink, not in a dismissive and patronizing way but in a “yeah, we’re working on it” way.

The show is optimistic again. Yes, it is silly, but it is silly intentionally not through accident. It shows that, if nothing else, the people now running the show are in control of what they are doing from a storytelling standpoint but also from a production standpoint. “Delta and the Bannermen,” like all of this season, is an event; it is Doctor Who being reborn before our eyes. The danger is that we will miss it due our interpretations of Doctor Who. The modern era of Doctor Who is being born.

At least, that’s my interpretation.

Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Doctor Who Story 149 – Paradise Towers

Written by

Stephen Wyatt

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Mel arrive at Paradise Towers, a high rise building which has fallen into disrepair. They are captured by the Red Kangs, a group of youths fighting for their survival against the Caretakers. As the Doctor and Mel explore more fully, they discover a dystopian society enclosed within the high rise, the vision of a mysterious figure known as the Great Architect.

Well, you never can tell.

The High Caretaker and a cleaning machine.“Paradise Towers” was inspired, according to a cursory internet search, by J.G. Ballard’s novel Highrise. I admit that I want to read this book and do a comparison, analyzing the similarities and differences, but my desire to charge on toward the completion of this project is stronger. The basic premise of Ballard’s novel is a high rise as a battleground. Check.

In this second story of the Seventh Doctor/Andrew Cartmel era we begin to see interesting things take shape. We move in to new territory (no returning villain or monsters). We have the barest hint of social commentary. And it is here where “Paradise Towers” both succeeds and fails. Good sci-fi blends imaginative world-building with social commentary. “Towers” attempts this but doesn’t fully embrace it. The first two episodes are intriguing and engaging, but things start to fall apart in episode three as revelations come, performances break down, and the commentary loses its poignancy. It is as if the story realized, halfway through, that it had silly designs and monsters, so why take any of it too seriously. The 1984 meets Clockwork Orange subtext breaks down and we no longer know if we should be thoughtful or if we should laugh. It’s a shame, really, as the greatest crime against this story is not living up to its own potential.

But the success is that it does, on some level, try. Doctor Who is once more trying to say something about society, if ineffectually, not merely celebrate itself or pat itself on the back. You could make the argument that Cartmel is trying to rebuild the show but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. But the indications are there: social commentary, manipulation, the Doctor being mistaken for a god-like being. It is only a matter of time before he puts all the pieces together.

For my part, I enjoyed the story. It was engaging and fun, which I needed after the struggle I had with Saward’s vision of Doctor Who. To watch in sequence, “Paradise Towers” was satisfying enough. It wasn’t great, but it genuinely tried, which gave it no small amount of charm.

My Rating

3/5

 

Doctor Who – Time and the Rani

Doctor Who Story 148 – Time and the Rani

Written by

Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The TARDIS is attacked by the Rani, and the Doctor regenerates due to physical damages sustained in the assault. As he tries to remember who he is, the Rani manipulates the Doctor in to helping her with an experiment which would give the Rani control over time itself.

The more I know me, the less I like me.

Promo picture with the Rani, the Doctor, and MelBefore I started this project I had only seen clips from “Time and the Rani.” I was horrified. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor behaved like a buffoon. It lacked the darker, nuanced performance I had seen in “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “The Curse of Fenric.” As a result, I have been dreading “Time and the Rani” for quite some time. But . . . I enjoyed it.

This doesn’t mean I think “Time and the Rani” is a mal-treated classic. But I think the loathing heaped on this story is disproportionate to what it is. Throughout the story I felt like I was watching a story by Terry Nation, only with a quicker pace and less leg injuries. Watched in context, “Time and the Rani” is a decent story and one that is almost a refreshing tone after the previous two seasons. There is no hint of Eric Saward in this story, and I think that is one of “Time’s” greatest strengths.

That said, “Time and the Rani” falls into the same trap that many introduce-the-new-Doctor stories from the classic era fall in to—no one quite knows what to do with the new paradigm. In fact, the new paradigm hasn’t even been established yet. This story sees a new Doctor, a new script editor, and a new mandate for the show from the BBC (make it lighter in tone). There doesn’t seem to be a strong direction of vision here. They are still trying to forge a path.

But, as the new story after an era that I wasn’t completely enthusiastic for, this story satisfies as a palette-cleanser. It is a decent starting point but not an overly impressive one.

My Rating

3/5

My Favorite and Least Favorite Televised Sixth Doctor Stories

The Sixth Doctor sitting on a bridgeAfter completing a Doctor’s era I like to go back and review my thoughts and compile a list of favorites and least favorites. In the case of some long-running Doctors, it is hard to remember or even parse nuances between what makes two great stories (or horrible stories) just a little better or a little worse. Oddly, I have a new problem with the Sixth Doctor stories, namely that there are so few of them. A typical top five and bottom five list would encompass the entire era (depending on how you counted Trial of a Time Lord. So I have limited myself to standouts on either side of the favorite/least favorite divide.

For the era as a whole, it was a disappointment. There are some instances in art where antagonism sparked creativity. One such example is the band The Police. The members of this band were in a constant struggle for artistic dominance. This led to an amazing alchemy of post-punk energy and angst. Unfortunately, Doctor Who did not capitalize on its own alchemical antagonism. The conflict between BBC oversight, Jonathan Nathan-Turner (producer), and Eric Saward (script editor) did not lead to great art; it led to inconsistency and lack of vision. This almost served to enhance Saward’s bleak vision of science fiction, causing a tone of hopelessness and oppression to flow subtly through the Sixth Doctor era.

The Sixth Doctor era was also the closest complete vision of a Sawardian interpretation of Doctor Who. (I say “closest” because, again, there was a LOT of creative conflict during this era.) Where the Fifth Doctor years were a struggle between a Bidmeadian re-creation of Doctor Who and a Sawardian reproduction of Holmesian Doctor Who, the Sixth Doctor years was firmly Sawardian. Every script was filtered through his lens, and given his singular vision for the show (and his assertion that JNT hired inexperienced writers as much as possible), his fingerprints are on every episode, his voice in every scene. If a viewer appreciates Saward’s vision, this can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I have no particular dislike of Colin Baker’s Doctor or of Peri or Mel; I have enjoyed many of the Sixth Doctor audios from Big Finish. But I do not care for Saward’s vision of Doctor Who . . . or at the very least, the vision he crafted under intense artistic conflict.

For me, the Sixth Doctor era has a few gems, but far more mediocre or outright dull stories. As a result, I find far more satisfaction reading the era as a text about Doctor Who rather than a series of entertaining stories. That said, from a pure entertainment standpoint, here are my lists of favorites and least favorites.

Favorite

  • Revelation of the Daleks. Despite being critical of Saward, I think Revelation is wonderful as his ultimate expression of Doctor Who, which is ironic since the Doctor is largely ineffective in it. The story is dark and bleak but it also manages to be funny and downright interesting. It has so many elements that should not work, and yet it does.
  • Vengeance on Varos. In addition to being a thought-provoking story on entertainment, Varos also signposts one of the recurring motifs of the Sixth Doctor era: Doctor Who as television. This is the first of many stories which show characters watching the Doctor on television screens and commenting on his actions. Thus, it provides many interesting meta moments.
  • The Two Doctors. My personal theory is that The Two Doctors is the most-complete Robert Holmes script under Saward’s script editorship. Caves of Androzani had Holmesian moments, but it felt more like a Saward script in tone. The Two Doctors is far more indicative of Robert Holmes’s style and voice. It is funny, vicious in its social commentary, and it reunites us with the Second Doctor and Jamie.

Least Favorite

  • Timelash. Perhaps the main crime of this story is that it is so bland and by-the-numbers as to be uninteresting. In another era, under another script editor, Timelash would not have stood out as bad. Here, it is glaring.
  • The Twin Dilemma. Another story that could have been something more than it was (the pieces are there), but I can’t overlook the implicit undertones of domestic violence in this story.

What do you think? What are your favorites of the era?

The Doctor and Peri

Doctor Who – Trial of a Time Lord

Doctor Who Story 144, 145, 146, 147 – Trial of a Time Lord

Written by

Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The Doctor is pulled out of time and space by a jury of Time Lords. A Time Lord called The Valeyard is acting as prosecutor trying the Doctor for transgressing the First Law of Time: non-interference. At stake: the Doctor’s life. Citing evidence from the Doctor’s past, present, and future, the Doctor must prove his innocence, all the while determining who the Valeyard is and why he has targeted the Doctor.

Great Cosmic Protector of Grifters and Dissemblers, save me!

The courtroom as the Doctor faces the ValyardAs a story, I do not enjoy Trial of a Time Lord. As a historical document, I am fascinated by Trial of a Time Lord. During their time on the show, Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward shifted the primary focus of Doctor Who away from telling interesting, fun stories and toward telling self-referential stories about Doctor Who as a phenomenon. Or, put another way, Doctor Who became about Doctor Who. The show was about itself, about referencing the past, about exploring the question of what made Doctor Who great. But it was rarely about telling good stories. Good stories did get told during the Colin Baker era, but I think, on the whole, this era was too focused on itself as a part of Doctor Who rather than focusing on finding its own voice, its own drive, its own storytelling agenda. By focusing on itself, it did eventually find all these things, but more by accident rather than intentionally.

Oddly, one of the recurring motifs in the Colin Baker era is the image of people watching TV: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and now Trial of a Time Lord. Each of these stories features characters watching other characters in stories, watching the Doctor. Trial goes to the unfettered end of this meta-imagery by giving us a Doctor watching episodes of Doctor Who.

Now, in many ways, Trial is a brilliant piece of post-modern conceptualization. It works as a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes turmoil going on at the time. The ultimate question in this case is whether or not Doctor Who deserves to continue being made. This commentary is not so subtle. And through this commentary, the show is able to evaluate and criticize itself. The only problem is that it is handled so sloppily, almost making the critique on its own. “The Mysterious Planet” segment is so effectively by-the-numbers old-school Doctor Who that it is incredibly dull. The banter between Glitz and Dibbler are yet another example of the Robert Holmes double-act, but the story is unbearably dull at times. Thankfully, it is punctuated by Glitz and trial scenes.

“Mindwarp” gets more interesting with each episode, but I just can’t bring myself to get past Brian Blessed’s over-the-top portrayal of Yrcanos. The story never quite reaches the amount of self-parody needed to contextualize such a performance. The ideas are what save this story, but even then it is almost not enough.

Oddly, “Terror of the Vervoids” was the most watchable segment for me. I enjoyed the idea of killer plant life, and Pip and Jane Baker did a good job of subverting expectations (even when the dialogue was atrocious). And despite knowing that “The Ultimate Foe” was incomplete when Robert Holmes died, it seemed better paced than much of what we were given throughout the season.

But overall, even Trial was not spared from the inability of JNT and Saward to create good stories. All the potential in this season was wasted by not taking advantage of the 18-month hiatus to start from square one. There was no real attempt to rebuild the show; instead it seems they merely take a clever idea and did the same old thing. It is full of flaws and grossly illustrates the deficiencies of the current form of Doctor Who. Thankfully, change is coming, but it is disappointing that Colin Baker’s era would remain unredeemed until Big Finish began producing stories. And I also hate that Michael Jayston was so interesting and turned in a great performance as the Valeyard. This makes the conclusion even more unsatisfactory. I want to know more about the Valeyard. I just want other people writing it.

My Rating

2.5/5

 

Doctor Who – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (The Missing Adventures)

Where Can I Find It?

Book Finder is a great resource.

Written by

Christopher Bulis

What’s It About?

Book copy: ‘There’s no such thing as magic,’ the Doctor said.

But the land of Elbyon might just prove him to be wrong. It is a place, populated by creatures of fantasy, where myth and legend rule. Elves and dwarves live in harmony with mankind, wizards wield arcane powers and armoured knights battle monstrous dragons.

Yet is seems that Elbyon has secrets to hide. The TARDIS crew find a relic from the thirtieth century hidden in the woods. Whose sinister manipulations are threatening the stability of a once peaceful lane? And what part does the planet play in a conflict that may save an Empire, yet doom a galaxy?

To solve these puzzles, and save his companions, the Doctor must learn to use the sorcery whose very existence he doubts.

Cover for The Sorcerer's ApprenticeThe system took care of everything

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice changed my mind about something.

Up until this point, I was approaching Doctor Who as a semi-unified whole. By this, I mean that I was slotting Missing Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures, and Big Finish in to where they would have happened in the original Doctor Who chronology. I am now convinced this is wrong for me to do. By its very nature, due primarily to release schedules for the DVDs (and the VHSs before them) Doctor Who can easily be experienced piece-meal. We can pick up a Fourth Doctor adventure here, a Second Doctor adventure there, a Tenth Doctor adventure afterward and so on and so forth. But I have wanted to see the trajectory of Doctor Who over time. Because of this, I need to craft an artificial headspace in which each era speaks for itself, and by “era” I don’t mean “First Doctor stories, then Second Doctor stories, then Third Doctor stories” and so on; I mean stories written in the 1960s, stories written in the 1970s, stories written in the 1980s, stories written in the 1990s, and you get the idea. And even though Peter Darvill-Evans states in the introduction to Goth Opera that the Missing Adventures “slot seamlessly into a gap between television stories,” they don’t. Not really.

But neither should they have to. While it is a fun detail that Ian starts The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in his “Marco Polo” attire, the story doesn’t seamlessly fit between “Marco Polo” and “Keys of Marinus” because the very approach to science fiction (and Doctor Who) are not the same between the 1960s and the 1990s (when Apprentice was published). Thus, The Missing Adventures line are best read after Doctor Who went on indefinite hiatus in 1989. They are best read along with The New Adventures because they used the same writers and thematically conversed with one another. Between the two publication lines, these novels are a conversation about how to evolve Doctor Who from what it was to what it could be. They are the evolutionary gap between classic Doctor Who and new Doctor Who. And this gap needed to happen. I’m writing this as I’m making my way through “Trial of a Time Lord,” and if nothing else, ToaTL is evidence that the show needs a new path, a new direction. Doctor Who needed to evolve in a way that JNT and Eric Saward could not make it evolve. The novels offered writers, both fans and professionals, the opportunity to force Doctor Who to evolve through trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The true trial of the Doctor was not on television, it was in these novels. They are the vital gap for seeing the transition from the old series and the new.

All this to say, after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I will probably not be slotting in Target novels, Missing Adventures, and Past Doctor Adventures into my blog’s chronology without creating the artificial, temporal headspaces. My new approach to Doctor Who is grouping around publication/air dates. Since Doctor Who involves time travel, how unreasonable is it to posit that as the Doctor travels, his past actively shifts and changes? Perhaps one mark of a Time Lord is that such changes don’t destroy the psyche. Perhaps one danger of interference in time is that greater interference causes greater temporal flux, leading to new adventures arising out of this flux.

As for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice itself, the novel is entertaining. Bulis manages to capture the voices of the lead characters, but I am far more interested in his deconstruction of fantasy and mythology. While the story revolves around the mystery of a planet where magic exists, the tropes of fantasy and mythology are the clues to the mystery. The entire story is a meta-commentary on a genre, not evaluating worth, but providing structure and stability to a system that has grown extremely unstable. Here I go in to some spoilers, so abandon reading if you want to approach this story fresh.

The central mystery revolves around an ancient race that had nanotechnology. The technology took care of all their needs and comforts, which led to boredom. So, a group from this race altered the mandate of the technology, and the planet changed. The intellect of the race was suppressed. Humans eventually colonized the world, but by this time the nanotechnology was manifesting thoughts and desires. Human religious ideas incarnated on the planet, creating horrors of every kind. Even people of the same religion would manifest conflicting gods if their theologies were different. One man figured out what was causing this horror and chaos, and he determined that he must erase religion from the minds of the colonists. The only problem with this was, in a system in which all imaginings became real, eliminating religion was only a temporary measure. Any conflict would play out. Thus, he used the technology to re-write the consciousness of all the colonists so that the myths of King Arthur and Merlin became the reality of the people. The ideas present in the mythological stories defined a new reality.

These are interesting ideas, and they even spark a question about mythology as religion. Do these stories of legend become the stand-in for religious belief, only devoid of belief in deities? These are fun questions to ask. It is also fun to identify the myth/fantasy tropes in the novel. Even the Doctor starts to identify them and use them to his advantage. But in the end, once you know the secret in the story, the re-read value diminishes. I have read this novel twice. I loved it the first time; I enjoyed it well enough the second time. Since the tropes are a part of the narrative, essential to the narrative, the story becomes incredibly predictable once you know the secret. There is nothing left to grip the reader.

That said, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an enjoyable first read. The story works well and the characters are realized well. But this may only be an adventure you embark upon once.