Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Voyager 3.12: Macrocosm

As an alternate Janeway will once say, "When diplomacy fails,
there's only one alternative: violence."
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Twelve - Macrocosm
Written 9/9/15

The 1979 film Alien had a profound effect upon science fiction, establishing a darker genre in which alien hostility took on a personal nature, and space is populated by dusty-skinned space marines and women in vests. Our woman in a vest this week happens to be Captain Janeway, and this episode is a lengthy, if not entirely direct, tribute to Alien and its influence. Funnily enough, this was completely unintentional, the Voyager writers simply wanting an "action" episode without any moralising. I think it's a testament to both Alien and to Kate Mulgrew's biceps that Ellen Ripley is the first thing that comes to mind.
     The plot, while very good at building suspense and drama, ends up feeling a little askew due to the ridiculousness of the aliens attacking Voyager. While Janeway and Neelix were away on a diplomatic mission, The Doctor attempted to play nurse to an alien colony crippled by a virus. He discovered that the virus is able to absorb the growth hormones of the host, increasing its size to a macroscopic level, first into irritating flies and then floating, stabby basketballs. Janeway and The Doctor end up the only two members of the crew unaffected, with The Doctor's cure fixing Janeway's initial infection upon entering the ship. Jacket off and gun in hand, she fights her way to environmental control, where she floods the ship with cure-gas and the day is saved.
     In the real world, of course, viruses don't work that way. Most viruses are nothing more than a few strands of genetic information (RNA) surrounded by a protein shell, and absorbing a growth hormone intended for a multi-celled organism would do diddly-squat. I could have accepted a bacteria forming a multi-cellular organism, but viruses aren't even that complex; they're the simpletons of the microscopic world. This doesn't really harm the episode's effect, because the average viewer isn't assumed to know that much about microbiology, and this stuff is alien after all. Who knows, we might find something like this one day.
Janeway splats one of the macro-viruses.
     As for the stated aim of being an action plot and nothing more complicated... a 100% success! Janeway looks rather strapping in just her grey under-vest, and Mulgrew really seems to take to the Ellen Ripley soldier look, as she shoots and rolls her way around the ship like a bowling skittle with a tommy gun. The scenes of her exploring the ship upon her return and discovering the crew's sick bodies, placed before The Doctor's reveal about the disease's origins, would of course have been far more effective if I hadn't seen the episode before and knew about the Macro-viruses. I really enjoyed the Doctor's expository flashback half-way through the episode, as it gave The Doctor a chance to use his mobile emitter and it also gave the first and last thirds of the episode the well-needed tension they deserved.
     The word Macrocosm, by the way, refers to the entirety of a system, as opposed to individual parts within it. Like many Voyager titles (Parturition, Parallax and Cathexis come to mind) it has a paper-thin connection to the actual episode itself. Which is an unfair connection, because for once the Voyager writers did exactly what they set out to do - a fun, tense action plot incorporated into Voyager's surroundings, giving Kate Mulgrew a chance to do something other than be the ship's captain/mother/inquisitor. So what if the science behind the macroviruses isn't right? Didn't anyone tell you that this was Star Trek? They let Neelix near food.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: Neelix gets in trouble when he meets an old friend... wait, Neelix has friends? That not a Fair Trade.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Revelation of the Daleks and Mindwarp

This seventh volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers stories from the later Sixth Doctor.(See here for more on this project.)

Revelation of the Daleks
(Main article.)

Even by the standards of Dalek stories, Revelation is just weird. Named after the frankly insane final book of the New Testament, the final story of Season 22 puts the focus on Davros for the first time since Genesis, giving Terry Molloy's version of the character the room to breathe. The result is a performance that invokes the power of the original, and is infinitely more fun and slimy. The same can be said for the rest of the story, which is brave in the way that it celebrates the grotesque parts of human nature. If Genesis of the Daleks was a BBC documentary, then Revelation of the Daleks is Horrible Histories.
      And yet it’s still funny, in a really sick way. Saward manages to perfectly balance a mix of horror, disgust and dark humour, making us reflect upon the less palatable aspects of human nature. Particularly striking is the scene in which Natasha has to kill her father -  a scene where music, lighting and the script come together to create a moment of genuine tragedy. (Made worse, in fact, by the realisation that she shares her name with Saward’s own daughter.)  And then there’re the little things; Jobel’s dismissal of the President’s wife as a foaming nuisance, the guard who picks his nose, Jobel’s death due to injection of embalming fluid.
     Sure, it’s not something that you perhaps want over your Saturday teatime, but the story itself is undoubtedly a work of genius. By sticking the Sixth Doctor and Peri on the outskirts, it gives the impression that the world of Who works fine without them, that there are forces of good and of evil, that this is a living world rather than one that only comes alive whenever the Good Doctor makes an appearance. We get colourful characters like the exceptional Orcini, or the creepy Jobel, or the tragic Tasambeker. Revelation is in itself a revelation, a revelation that a story doesn’t have to be focused on the Doctor to be good as long as the writing is up to scratch. Perhaps no one expected it to be Eric Saward that was delivering this message, but regardless of the writer, Revelation of the Daleks is a story to be celebrated – not just for its quality, but for its creative audacity too.

Mindwarp
(Main article.)

The second part of the Trial of a Timelord season, Mindwarp’s four episodes are characterised not only being very confusing, but for being deliberately. Where its spiritual prequel Vengeance On Varos sought to attack the use of excessive horror in television, Mindwarp takes it one step further by being deliberately manipulative in itself. On its own, its plot and story may make very little sense, but in the context of the Trial arc and considering the Valeyard’s manipulations, it quickly becomes one of the cleverest stories of the season.
     The standout of the cast is BRIAN BLESSED’s first and sadly only appearance in Who. While Blessed can do subtle performances, such as in the lauded I Claudius, I think he simply enjoys the more boisterous roles that he’s famous for. Mindwarp is no exception to this; Blessed gets to scream, shout and monologue, and he provides the story’s best line by far – “"Ok. Today prudence shall be out watchword; tomorrow we will soak the land in blood." He also allows the story to cement its theme of human brutality in all its different forms – the scientifically-driven evil of Dr. Crozier; the physical beast of Dorf; the banal commercialism of the Mentors; the uncontrollable actions of the cave-creature and the blood-thirst of Yrcanos. It’s all about the difference between evil actions committed because one wants to commit them, or as part of their immediate nature, and it asks the audience the simple question: which scenario describes The Doctor’s actions here?
     And, for the first time, Doctor Who uses the Unreliable Narrator trope. It’s actually really interesting to see the way in which the serial lets the Valeyard play to the audience’s expectations; we know now that The Sixth Doctor’s portrayal in the flashback as a heartless torturer was a manipulation of the evidence on the Valeyard’s part, but to an unforgiving public who already disliked the character, this would be perfectly believable. The serial, through the Valeyard’s manipulation, challenges the audiences’ view of the Sixth Doctor, ultimately trying to send him on the road to public acceptance. Not that Mindwarp succeeds in that aim. What it does do, however, is provide a really interesting piece of TV, and a brilliantly tragic end for one of my favourite companions.

Thanks.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who 9.2: The Witch's Familiar

It's nice to see the older Daleks after the whole
"Every Dalek Ever" fiasco, but what's the point of them?
This is really frustrating. Really, really quite frustrating. Because it wasn't necessarily the case this week that I thought that the episode was bad - Moffat is continuing with this whole thing of getting better at some elements and just as terrible at others. This week I wasn't cringing at insensitive lines so much as I was cringing at the more twist-and-turn aspects of the plot which have become so idiosyncratic of Moffat's style. While the episode was so filled of terrible Moffat cliches, I think I'm just so tired of them that I saw past it to the genuinely good moments, of which there were myriad. It keeps coming back to this point with Moffat scripts that even if I enjoy the more recent ones, I still wish they were better and that they were something I could call "good Doctor Who."
     The episode immediately negated the cliffhanger of the previous episode with a lengthy cold open which used technobabble to excuse it away, as well as explaining why The Master survived being shot in Death In Heaven. The episode followed two subplots, one with The Master and Clara making their way through the Dalek "sewers" (an interesting concept where the sewer consists of the still-living rotten remains of dead Daleks), and another with The Doctor and Davros discussing his fate. Davros claims to be dying, and offers The Doctor congratulations at the knowledge that the Time Lords are alive. He even goes so far as to open his real eyes for the first time in the show's history, just to be able to watch one last sunrise. The Doctor, being compassionate, decides to give some of his new regen. energy into the Dalek's hivemind, which apparently is a trick by Davros to rejuvinate himself and the Daleks. This is discussed for a while but then turns out to be another trick by The Doctor, with the living sewers rising up against the Daleks. And at one point Clara ended up inside a Dalek casing and it was weird.
     Ignoring for now the question of whether it was a good Doctor Who story, let's ask - was this a good Dalek story. Everyone has their own criteria for what that means - for me, it means that we got a story where the Daleks were not only good villains, but which showed us something new about them. Like the rest of the episode, there is good and bad. On the bright side, a lot of the scenes where Clara's voice was translated through the Dalek speech modulator, and The Master explained how a Dalek thinks. Julian Bleach's Davros is still an amazing addition to the show, and the scenes where Davros is pretending to be dying had me on the edge of my seat. The downside was that a lot of the episode's concepts for the Daleks are either derivative of other Dalek stories, or directly contradict previous stories.
Julian Bleach is the best Davros since Michael Wisher,
hands down.
     There are elements of the show which still really don't work going forwards, and it's the kinds of things which prevent me from fully enjoying the episode. Moffat had the first female Master call herself "the bitch" in this episode - not a word unique to Moffat, RTD used it twice in reference to Cassandra, but the word rings differently coming from The Master because he has spent the majority of his life (as we've seen it) as a male persona. Ignoring for now the relative absurdity of an alien race that can completely rearrange its DNA having the same concept of gender as we have, this history means that all of "Missy"'s lines come from the mouth of a man. Gomez is brilliant in the role and there are a lot of moments her character brings which are genuinely enjoyable villainy. But there was no reason for Gomez' Master to be here for anything other than popular demand, and she seems to be being employed in the same way that River was a few seasons ago.
     When I watched Dark Water last year, I had some hope that Moffat had maybe learnt to tone down some of his old habits. That story had some brilliant buildup, slow and menacing, alongside an interesting sci-fi idea. It avoided Moffat's old traits - bizarre posturing, women being used as devices, "wacky" moments that had no effect on the plot. This episode was so on the edge of being brilliant - Julian Leach is amazing, the Davros moments were phenomenal, and the scenes with The Master and Clara in the sewers were making my day. But the fact is, they were sharing the stage with so many of those old moments: the weird effing "sonic sunglasses", this claim about a "great prophecy" of a Time-Lord/Dalek hybrid when the same thing happened in Evolution of the Daleks eight years ago. I don't expect perfection in TV - I couldn't be a critic, otherwise. But this episode was blisteringly close to that perfection, and that makes the bad moments sting all the more.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Underwater mayhem in Under The Lake.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: Voyager 3.11: The Q and the Grey

Star Trek, never afraid to push the dick joke.
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Eleven - The Q and the Grey
Written between 5th and 6th August 2015.
"My crew and I will get home. We're committed to that. But we're going to do it through hard work and determination. We are not looking for a quick fix." Katheryn effing Janeway, everyone.

From the somewhat sublime to the totally ridiculous. Of all the story arcs in Voyager's predecessor, The Next Generation, the most complete and satisfying was that of Q, the omnipotent being who in that show's premiere and finale sets out to judge Humanity in the 24th Century, with several visits inbetween in which his character developed from a trickster god into a benevolent caretaker. Voyager rather questionably decides to continue this arc further, in a trilogy of episodes focusing on change in the Q continuum. The first of these episodes was last year's Death Wish, and this is the second, incredibly disappointing, follow up.
     Q appears on the ship and starts pursuing Janeway, asking to mate with her and conceive a child, which of course she would look after. She is completely bemused by this, even as Q starts asking around the ship as to how to woo her. Eventually a female Q arrives, claiming to be our Q's eternal mate. Q whisks Janeway off to the continuum and explains that, since the death of Quinn in Death Wish, the Q have been in a violent civil war started by Q himself, which is having repercussions in the rest of the universe, demonstrated back on Voyager by a series of supernovae in quick succession. This Civil War, in Janeway's terms, is being expressed as the American Civil War, except with the muskets in fact being inter-dimension weapons capable of killing a Q. The female Q takes Voyager into the Continuum and they save Q and Janeway from being executed, with Q and Miss Q procreating with a touch of the fingers.
     The episode's first fifteen minutes are a total farce, with Q chasing Janeway around the ship and borderline sexually harassing her. The reasons for Q's desire to "mate" with Janeway aren't explained until half-way through the story, and so we're left to believe that the omnipotent protector of humanity simply has the horn. The way Q's request travels around the ship like schoolyard gossip irked me quite a bit, and it also highlighted the main issue with this whole thing: Q's treatment of Janeway would not happen if she were a man. Q tested Picard, and attempted to fight Sisko. The Q are an omnipotent race of beings who live in an ethereal space inconceivable to us, why would they have a concept of gender? And why must we straddle Star Trek's only main female captain with a plotline where Q wants to make babies with her?
You're only saying that because you played the
first named Klingon female on Star Trek.
     What's even more bizarre than Q's behaviour on Voyager is the whole thing going on within the continuum. The idea of the Q Civil War is an interesting one, and granted there are a few decent conversations regarding its origins and its solutions, mainly using ideas carried over from Death Wish. But the use of the US Civil War as an extended metaphor robbed the whole idea of its significance. The flimsy excuse of the "muskets" which are weapons powerful enough to harm a Q but which can be easily operated by humans shatters suspension of disbelief, and the fact that the entire plot is resolved by two people touching fingers is quite frankly insulting, rendering the whole thing a waste of time. Not to mention the further treatment of women - Janeway and the female Q are both rendered in the Continuum as wearing cumbersome, flowing dresses, because God forbid a woman actually be capable of doing useful things.
     There were a few fun moments in this episode, mainly surrounding the J/C ship which always tickles my pickle. But the humour missed the mark often enough that it really didn't feel like a worthy return for such a cool character. In fiction we often avoid omnipotent characters because their powers rob the plot of all tension or drive, and they are boring as people. Q subverted this, and managed to be one of the franchise's stand-out guest stars. Unfortunately, here he is wasted, his story being far too silly and just plain odd to make and sense. That's a commonality in Season Three, as we'll find out in the coming weeks.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: Giant microbes make Janeway lose her shirt and turn into Starfleet's answer to Rambo. It's Macrocosm.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Attack of the Cybermen, Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors

This sixth volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers stories from the early Sixth Doctor.(See here for more on this project.)

Attack of the Cybermen
(Main article.)

A lot of my other articles in this book have waxed lyrical about my history when it comes to Who – how I came to the show from old DVDs and repeats and was already versed by the time the New Series came to cement my love. Attack of the Cybermen represented something of a new stage in my appreciation of Who that came about two or three years ago when I decided that this New Series wasn’t keeping me topped up and that I really should go back to my roots in the Classic Series. The first Classic Who DVD that I went out and bought was one that I remembered from when I was a kid – Attack of the Cybermen, a tale that is the epitome of what I love about the series.
      I’ll not beat about the bush and assume, due to all of his hallmarks being present, that we can call this a Saward story. Saward’s multi-strand dynamic allows most of the plot to happen outside of the realm of our two squabbling main characters – at least for the first half of the story. Those squabbling protagonists are somewhat of an acquired taste for many Who fans, often making them dismiss Six’s era completely. Me? I like them, and they’re the highlight of the era – I just really enjoy seeing the two characters bouncing off of one another and I really, really like it when Six’s enjoyable arrogance is counteracted by Peri’s wit. Of course, this doesn’t happen very often… but it’s worth the wait when it does.
      The ineffable Maurice Colburne also gets a chance to really stretch his wings after playing a very supportive role in the previous season’s Resurrection of the Daleks. Lytton is slimy and charming, strong and yet vulnerable – you never quite know where you stand, and that means that Lytton becomes the singular attraction whenever he’s on screen. The Doctor’s final declaration that he had misjudged Lytton, when the characters spent the best part of five seconds together in Ressurection, is a bit silly, but that’s what it’s all about, in the end.
      I know that Attack of the Cybermen is in most quarters considered “bad” but in my experience… there’s just something there, a charm, a flick of the tongue, something that keeps me coming back. Unlike Time and the Rani, which I know is hilarious, the reason why I like Attack so much so far eludes me… but it’s probably a mixture of heady nostalgia, my favourite villains and a Doctor whose performance gets me interested every single time. It’s not perfect, but I don’t think Attack ever really wanted to be.

Vengeance On Varos

One of my favourite films is 1999’s The Truman Show, and one of the main reasons for that the way that it managed to predict and fully take apart the concept of Reality TV several years before it arrived on our screens. Little did I know that Vengeance On Varos manages exactly the same feat 15 years prior, all the while infusing it with the 80’s trademark satire and horror. Vengeance doesn’t so much attack 80’s TV so much as it brings it to its knees, by not only criticising the creators of video nasties but also the audience willing to watch them.
      The story is famous amongst detractors of Colin Baker’s Doctor for the scene in the second episode where the Varos facility’s guards end up falling into the acid bath. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon in its own right that some disliked the character so much that they actually remembered the scene to implicate the Sixth Doctor in their deaths. As strange and fascinating as it is, it’s one small scene in a much bigger picture. Every step of the way, video nasties are criticised in a variety of ways, from their purely profit-driven nature (in Sil and his cronies) to the way in which they influenced the market. It was also a jab at the expanding role of the media in politics, to the point where “democracy” is dealt out from the living room.
      The story’s best feature though has got to be Arak and Etta. While their scenes were tacked onto the end of production, they still have a profound effect on the story’s potency, helping to reflect the attitudes of the people of Varos; without them, we would be left with trying to find a compromise between the rebellionist views of Jondar and the madness of the Mentors. They are a direct lifeline to the audience at home, calling out to them to have some standards. And they’re funny, too. 
      The most important thing in Vengeance on Varos is not the gore, or the silliness of people transforming into birds, although that does form part of it. It’s about the way that ideas influence people; and it tries to promote an awareness of those ideas in the viewer. And, as we can see by the controversy it created, it’s an aim that the writers very much succeeded at.

The Two Doctors

I’m a bit of an anomaly when it comes to your average Who fan. Most fans my age started with the new series in 2005, and explored the Classic Series from there. Well, I didn’t. I started with two stories; a DVD of The Five Doctors, and the VHS of this story, The Two Doctors. In hindsight, this explains a hell of a lot about the areas of the series that I like, as The Two Doctors contains almost everything that I love about the series – expansive continuity, fun monsters, complex villains and political messages that never really know what they’re doing. Oh, and running. Lots of running. 
      Colin Baker is on top form as his arrogant and somewhat abrasive Doctor, but at every stage of the way he shows just how awesome he is. From the waterside recollection of tasty gumblejacks, to his fear that the death of his younger self would destroy the Universe, to the despair at the lengths that his old friend Dastari has gone to gain favour with his own creation. If there’s any story from Season 22 (which I love, if no-one else does) that I would use to introduce someone to the series, it would definitely be this one. Why? A few reasons. For one, it’s got the best use of the Sontarans since their first story, with creator Robert Holmes returning to write for them after their embarrassing use in Season 15’s Invasion of Time. For two, it’s by far the most normal and certainly accessible multi-Doctor story, and it requires pretty much zero knowledge of previous stories; it’s one of the only stories from this era that doesn’t have a lot of continuity.
     And sure, the story doesn’t really fill its runtime, but even the filler scenes (the trip to Seville, especially) only serve to highlight not only how damn beautiful the setting is, but also how fun the series can be when simply walking around in its world. So what if the story’s messages are a bit brutally expressed? This is a world full of intriguing characters – Dastari, the Androgums, the Sontarans, Oscar Botcherby – and it never fails to entertain despite not really doing anything. And in my eyes, any story capable of doing that is worthy of great praise. And a good chuckle or too. 

Thanks.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Review: Doctor Who 9.1: The Magician's Apprentice

The Two The's are back together once more.
There was a time, years ago, when the return of Doctor Who would merit excitement and joyous celebration. As far as my reckoning, that was four years ago. Doctor Who for me now is a necessary evil, something to wait through until the good stuff comes back. That didn't stop me from enjoying last year's Series Eight, at least in part, and that was down to a combination of Peter Capaldi and some bizarre increase in the quality of the writing. This week's episode took a few steps forward and fewer steps backwards, and I can't help but feel like that had something to do with Russell T Davies having his name in the credits...
     The plot surrounded another continuity snarl, with it being revealed that the Twelfth Doctor accidentally met a young Davros, later creator of the Daleks, on a Skaro battlefield. Later, we bring Clara into the episode when she investigates a convoluted bid by The Master to gain her attention by "pausing" all of the world's passenger airliners. The Master revealed that she had received The Doctor's last will and testament, and together they travelled to the past, where The Doctor has spent three weeks parting and introducing anachronisms into medieval England. Eventually they are contacted by a serpentine servant of Davros, who teleports the trio to Davros' base - soon revealed to be Skaro, where The Daleks have congregated and rebuilt once more. They kill The Master and Clara, and destroy The TARDIS. In the episode's brief cliffhanger, we see that The Doctor has once more returned to the child Davros - this time with the intent to kill him.
     It's a Moffat plot, so it's as convoluted as Dave Lister's family tree, and this isn't helped by the fact that this season has been formatted into five "loose two-parters" and two stand-alone episodes, with the story being concluded next week. I was surprised at how fast the episode seemed to move, and how I was only driven to tut or groan once or twice. The inclusion of Dalek models going back to the 60s and the welcome return of the excellent Julian Bleach as Davros leant a sense of continuity which didn't feel too heavy handed, the premise of the episode's dilemma being directly related to a Tom Baker quote from Davros' premier story, Genesis of the Daleks - a story which got a number of shout-outs here. While I'm still not thrilled about yet another retroactive incursion into Doctor Who's past (don't get me started on The War Doctor or Listen), I at least think that Moffat is learning to handle these urges of his with some tact and subtlety.
Ah, Throw-Away-Moffat-Villain #23,
please come in and sit down. 
     Due to the pacing of the episode and the rushedness of the plot, there aren't really any secondary characters to speak of, the main character development being placed firmly in the hands of Michelle Gomez' marmite-esque Master, whom I still refuse to call "Missy". As I attested back in January when I reviewed Death In Heaven, Gomez' performance is what makes the character bearable, a lot of her jokes hitting the mark and others just seeming weird and halting to the pace of the episode. I liked the fact that we got to discuss The Doctor and The Master's complex relationship, finally shoving aside the fears that Moffat would try to make The Master fall madly in love with The Doctor in a romantic sense. However, there was still the fact that Moffat writes Gomez' Master as innately sexual in the things she does and says in a way that simply present in any of the male Masters, and that it seems to be a part of the way that he writes his "Strong Female Characters" (imagine huge, arthritis inducing inverted quotes there) that he has to give them overly sexualised banter.
     Something which was true of Dark Water and Death In Heaven is also true here, though. Despite its many, many problems, I still enjoyed it. The continuity didn't feel that tacky, I loved that Julian Bleach is back, I love that we seem to be keeping some semblance of the Dalek storyline established in the 70s and 80s and carried on by RTD, except this time held together in one big timeline. (And I love the fact that everything in Moffat's prior Dalek stories seems to have been ignored this week.) Capaldi, Gomez and Coleman are all on very fine form, and I think that if this episode was a little better-structured, was a little more focused on characters rather than empty mysteries to be thrown away and forgotten about, that we really might be heading into good Doctor Who. One can but hope.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Daleks, Time Travel and retcons. Retcons everywhere. The story concludes in The Witch's Familiar.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Take2Guide To Lost - Published Today!

As I mentioned last month, today marks the publishing of the Take2Guide to Lost, the ultimate guide to the brilliant show that helped to define television in the noughties. It contains over 400 articles from over 50 authors, including yours truly, and has overviews, discussions on themes and characters, as well as individual episode recaps.

If you have any interest in Lost at all, I cannot recommend this book more.

Buy the book here. Sales will help an ailing student writer. :D

Thanks.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Review: Voyager 3.10: Warlord

Kes tries to become more fashion conscious with her new collar.
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Ten - Warlord
Written 31/8/15

One of the things that can be levelled against Kes is that her character only becomes really interesting whenever the show's spotlight is directly pointed at her. This is something that crops up a lot, and there is some truth to it. That is less to do with the character's premise and more to do with the writers, who created this incredibly bizarre and alien character only to end up giving time to Neelix. I say this because, as a Kes fan, this is the episode I've been waiting for for a long time - the episode that the whole Kes/Neelix relationship comes to its halting conclusion, and which spends the majority of its runtime developing Kes' character. Tears of joy abound.
     Voyager saves a small ship with three member of the Ilari race aboard, one of whom dies. Janeway offers to take them to their home planet, which isn't far off their path, but when they approach Ilari, Kes stuns some guards and runs off with the two aliens. A meeting with the son of the planet's leader reveals that Kes has been possessed by the mind of Tieran, an ancient Ilari leader who has managed to preserve his consciousness such that he can depose the ruling family and rise again. Tieran and his followers attack the central government building and he takes his place as leader using Kes' body. Tuvok attempts to infiltrate the compound, and manages to meld with Tieran for a few seconds. Ultimately his attempt fails but this gives Kes' consciousness the strength she needs to put Tieran in a lot of pain, When Voyager's crew storms the building, Kes is freed of Tieran's mind.
     Jennifer Lien obviously gets a lot of screentime this week, playing the dual roles of Tieran and Kes, and sometimes a little in between. It mostly works - Lien wasn't used to playing this sort of character at all, and it shows, although sometimes that works for the episode's advantage. Lien manages to show Tieran slowly becoming more confident in Kes' body - at first appearing uncomfortable, and then becoming more arrogant until she's literally jumping and crawling across tables and pursuing a bisexual, multi-spouse relationship. While this is not Kes per se, we do get to see these elements of her character in a brilliant scene set inside her mind, where Kes and Tieran verbally spar and she reveals herself as just as relentless and ruthless inside as Tieran is making her be on the outside. It's a great scene which really feels like Kes is coming of age as a character - finally realising that she no longer has to rely on her mentors, or on Neelix, to feel confident and active.
This director deserves the seventh circle of hell for inserting
not one, but two scenes of Neelix reacting orgasmically to a
footrub.
     And, as I mentioned before, this is where that relationship ends. This is one of the weaker points of the episode - it is Tieran who breaks up with Neelix, as opposed to Kes herself. The status of Kes/Neelix is never brought up again after this, with it only becoming truly obvious a few episodes later in Darkling where Kes starts dating again. It seems incredibly odd that an event like this, one with some significance to continuity, is so brushed over. While it's obviously very apparent that the writers wanted to be rid of Kes and Neelix's dalliance as soon as possible, allowing the development that this episode provides, it would have helped the characterisations even more if this breakup had more development than a five-second-scene near the end where Kes doesn't accept Neelix's hug! That way, we might have allowed the characters to explain why they were together in the first place - implied to be the appeal that Neelix had to Kes as both an outsider and someone with experience - instead of all that having to be read from very passive subtext.
     But, as difficult as it was to maybe realise it had happened, that break-up did happen. And Warlord does mark a point of change for the season, almost as much as the previous story did. This story marks the introduction of the Paxau Resort hologram, an interesting new locale for the show somewhat like Chez Sandrine in Season Two. More importantly, Kes from hereon out is more independant and willing - she spends less time defined by her relationships with others (Neelix, Paris, The Doctor, Tuvok) and more time shining as her own being - a plot development that would later lead to the explanation of her leaving the series at the beginning of the fourth season. As a marker for this moment of change, Warlord works exceptionally well, as well as being a whole bucket of fun.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: The omnipotent Q attempts to pay for sex with Janeway by offering to send Voyager home. And then the Q continuum fights a civil war using muskets and cannons. I am not kidding. We approach the mess that is Q and the Grey.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: The Five Doctors, Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma

This fifth volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers stories from Season 21. (See here for more on this project.)

The Five Doctors
(Main article.)

The Five Doctors was where I started with Who, all the way back in 2003 when I first watched the Special Edition DVD and fell head over heels in love with Doctor Who. I was running around the playground pretending to be a Dalek two years before any of my friends had heard of them, and one of my favourite playground games was “Raston Warrior Robot.” I did what all children tend to do with DVD and video at that age; I watched it again, and again, and again until the disk itself was so out of commission that I had to order the 2008 release just to be able to see it again. It’s a story that stands at the centre of my love of Doctor Who, and I cherish it like no other.
     As a starter story, it’s got everything. The concept of regeneration is explained so fluently, and you get to sample the second-to-fifth Doctors (and an approximation of the first) without breaking a sweat. As a child, I was drawn to everything – the trek through the Death Zone, the ancient myths of Rassilon, the hallucinations in the corridors, the swooshy CGI time-scoop taking away old companions, and most of all I loved the Cybermen; their deep booming voices and their few vestiges of humanity peeking through their spandex. (Ooh, sounds rude.)
      What did The Five Doctors tell me about this strange new “Doctor Who”? It told me that this was a show with a lot of great ideas and a rich history filled with a wide variety of monsters, heroes and companions. It was tense, it was scary, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun. The Five Doctors did what it was intended to do, and in a really profound way it is to date the greatest celebration of Doctor Who’s rich and varied history.
    Until the 50th, that is. We hope.

Warriors of the Deep
(Main article.)

In the past, I've realised that I’ve been very kind to a gamut of Doctor Who stories that many would consider… less than adequate. My optimism when it comes to Who has been challenged many times, but none more so than the 1981 story, Warriors of the Deep. The story is a rare example in Doctor Who of when The Doctor has a bit of an off-day. Here, there is no doubt that the Doctor’s is a Pyrrhic victory; everyone bar the main cast is dead by the end, some in incredibly gruesome ways. After Johnny Byrne’s other stories, which celebrated human kindness and ingenuity, it’s a bit of a shock that the attempt to channel Cold War themes translates roughly into a theme of, “Sentient beings have the capacity to do horrible things, and you shouldn't trust anyone.”
     Now that doesn’t make the story bad, necessarily, but it does make it a bit of a downer. I can celebrate the beauty of a tragic opera just as well as I can the rhythm of a Madness song. What I’m essentially saying, and I don’t mean to sound pretentious here, is that Warriors of the Deep is a piece of high-class art. Stop snickering. What Warriors attempts, and ultimately succeeds, in representing, is that the state of paranoia caused by the Cold War only causes us to lose our humanity. The Silurians’ motives, while perhaps alien to us, are completely in line with the frighteningly paranoid people on both sides of their futuristic war. These people have become so consumed by war and death that their motivations are now as alien as those of our reptilian brethren. The guard who refuses to open the door to allow Tegan and The Doctor escape from the Myrka; the bomb controller, whose reluctant actions under hypnosis represent man under the Cold War, and the Sea Devils, whose presence reinforces the absurdity of each side’s power blocs.
     Warriors of the Deep isn’t much to look at, and if you want to try to treat it like a traditional Doctor Who adventure then you’re not going to get much out of it. But take it as a metaphor, as a warning, and then perhaps it’s possible to ignore the special effects failures, ignore the wet paint of the costumes, and see it for the masterpiece it really is.

The Twin Dilemma

I found myself in what I then considered to be a very perilous position when I first sat down to watch The Twin Dilemma. The end-credits rolled after episode four, and… and… I liked it. I bloody loved it, and I could see absolutely no reason (beyond the whole momentary-strangling thing) why it was the subject of such venomous assaults as I had seen in Fandom. It was then that I and fandom decided that for the most part, we had a serious disagreement. 
     The best thing about the story, when you get past the run-of-the-mill story with its traditional villain, setup and nods to the past, is by far Colin Baker’s performance as the unstable and out-of-control early Sixth Doctor. His spasmodic episodes of villainy tow a line between frightening and funny, and especially towards the end of the episode one begins to wonder whether The Doctor is in on the act, and is simply using his condition in order to get away with doing whatever he damn well wants. It’s incredibly refreshing and it embodies what I love about the Sixth Doctor – he doesn’t care about what others think of him as long as he manages to both enjoy himself and save the day. 
     And everyone remembers the story for the strangling bit, yes. It is a bit over the top, and I would have toned it down a bit, but I don’t object to it in principle. The New Series is all about showing us how dark The Doctor can be, and this is just an extension of that. Instead of showing him brooding over an act of slight moral ambiguity, The Twin Dilemma takes the bulls by the horns and exposes a raw part of The Doctor’s id, taking the audience into the potential evil that lies within him – as we see later in The Valeyard and The Dream Lord. 
     What does The Twin Dilemma ultimately do? It introduces a new Doctor and does it in style. So what if the story’s a bit one-note, when the main character is this good so early on in his career? Of course, some people aren’t going to agree with me. But when it comes to this story, I have no dilemma at all. It’s underrated, fun and I love it.

Thanks.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: Voyager 3.8-9: Future's End, Parts 1&2

These two are together
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episodes Eight and Nine - Future's End
Written between 28th and 30th August 2015

Sometimes it's easy, when watching 24th Century Trek, to forget the time in which it was made. The effects in DS9 and Voyager are never so behind-the-times as to be noticable, and anything weird and anachronistic can be explained with, "Hey, it's the future, the future is weird." This episode of Voyager, however, decides to use the show's love of time travel and blend it with the "characters come to the present day" appeal from the incredibly successful Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. While it isn't as outwardly comedic as that film, the episodes do create a nice mixture of captivating sci-fi fare and incredibly goofy comedy scenes, courtesy of the Wacky Nineties.
     Voyager is accosted by a time-ship from the 29th Century, helmed by Captain Braxton, a member of a future Starfleet who focus on maintaining the time stream. He claims that a piece of Voyager was found in a 29th Century explosion, and so he has returned to the past to destroy them. Voyager outguns Braxton's ship, and in the resulting melee the two ships are sent back in time - with Voyager travelling to 1996 Earth. Putting on funky 90s clothes, a few of the crew head down to Los Angeles, and, after being perturbed by local fashions, they find Braxton as a homeless man, having arrived on Earth in 1967. He explains that his ship was found by hippie-turned-industrialist Henry Starling, who began to crudely reverse-engineer the technology, in a pattern which will eventually lead to the explosion anyway. Earth's SETI project, designed to look for alien life, detects Voyager, and eventually Starling discovers Voyager's presence. As the station's operator Rain Robinson (comedienne Sarah Silverman) encounters Tom and Tuvok, Starling does a full scan of Voyager and downloads The Doctor, giving him a Mobile Emitter which allows him to move anywhere he wants. After the Doctor is rescued, Voyager's crew try to prevent Starling from travelling to the 29th Century, and upon destroying the Time-Ship Braxton comes and whisks them back to the Delta Quadrant in their own time. There's also a random subplot about racist conspiracy theorists holding Chakotay and B'Elanna captive. That's the States for ya.
The Doctor enjoys a new found freedom. And Tuvok wears
an awesome hat. 
     It's probably a British perspective, but the thing this episode reminds me of most is Back To The Future. The California aesthetic is very similar, and so is the language involved - Captain Braxton's explanation of the time-loop feels very Doc Brownish. This episode also faces the same issue that Back To The Future faces in its "present" scenes - the fact that the episode is instantly dated both in its ideas about the present and near future. I was born in 96, and an ocean away, so I don't really know how accurate the view of 90s Los Angeles is, but the aesthetic and technology comes straight out of that video where Chandler and Rachel teach you how to use Windows 95, complete with huge monitors, massive phones and melodramatic soap operas. In hindsight it becomes incredible to think that Starling has mastered the technology behind force fields and ray guns, and yet hasn't conceived of a smartphone or a flatscreen tv or a non-tweed suit. (Haha.) There's also the unfortunate lack of foresight on the behalf of the future scenes - Voyager takes ages to download a 90s hard drive (of which the biggest was about 16 GB) but Starling can download THE DOCTOR without Voyager noticing!
     Thanks to a combination of cool sci-fi powers and the performance of Robert Picardo, The Doctor had by this point become one of the series' breakout characters. One of the elements of his character was that, as a medical hologram, he could only appear in two places - sickbay and the Holodeck. In order to increase his flexibility as a character, and to continue the arc of his becoming more human, this story gives him the Mobile Emitter - a piece of 29th Century technology that becomes one of the show's most-used techy plot devices, alongside Seven's nanoprobes in next season. I'm very divided on whether the Mobile Emitter was a good idea or not - on the one hand, it's great that Picardo now has the same freedom as the rest of the cast, and The Doctor can be involved in stories in whole new ways, but I feel like removing the main physical limitation of The Doctor's character risks making his arc a little stale. Thankfully this doesn't end up being the case and Seasons 4 and 5 would give his character a lot of interesting things to do, but those things only really relied on his ability to move about the ship - which could have been done without time travel.
I love Starling, but he is yet another Sci-Fi character who
retroactively claims to have invented the Internet. Yawn.
     Really, one of the best things about this story is how genuinely funny it is, both for intentional and unintentional reasons. Despite the similarities to The Voyage Home, the comedy elements of the script and the exploitation of its own datedness make it a really fun story to watch - especially when bolstered by expansive location shooting, fun sci-fi mechanics and an amazing guest cast. Starling is a great villain who never goes too over the top, Rain is a charming side-character and episode-of-the-week romance for Tom (despite some of Silverman's later endeavors). and Braxton is a nice window into the Trek Universe's future continuity (as would later be developed in VOY Season 5 and Enterprise.) I love Future's End and everything it represents for the series, and in my opinion, it's one of Voyager's finest hours.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: Kes finally breaks up with Neelix. Or, at least, an alien controlling her body does. It's the brilliant Warlord.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment

This fourth volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers the Black Guardian Trilogy. (See here for more on this project.)

Mawdryn Undead
(Main article.)

In 2003, channel UKTV Gold broadcast all of the Classic Series, in detail, to celebrate the show’s 40th Anniversary. At the time, I was around six or seven, and I lapped it up. One of the earliest stories I remember from those reruns was the fascinating Mawdryn Undead, a story whose checklist approach could have ended up badly but instead revealed a brilliantly twisting tale of treachery, deception and time-travel. Peter Grimwade’s way of apologising for writing the previous season’s Time-Flight, it was written with the prerequisite that it must introduce new companion Turlough, start the Black Guardian Trilogy and feature show-favourite Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
     Turlough’s character was unfortunate in that his execution throughout the series didn’t live up to his premise. But what a great premise that was. Turlough was the first companion who had worked his way onto the TARDIS for nefarious purposes, and the first who actively tried to kill The Doctor. As a villain, Turlough wasn’t just cackling evil – he was also incredibly frightened, both of his own actions and of the wrath of The Black Guardian. It was his fear, as well as his origins as an exile of a corrupt society, that drove his actions and his villainy.
     The Brigadier’s return, despite throwing up all sorts of issues due to dating, is very welcome, with Nicholas Courtney arriving in the place of the planned return of Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s first companions. Despite his last-second inclusion, Courtney is still excellent in the role, and subtlety alters the way he plays the character between the two time zones. The 80s Brigadier is older and wearier, while the 70s Brigadier is much more alert and to action. Although it would have been great to see those old companions again, The Brigadier is a welcome substitute and more than makes the role his.
     The story can possibly be best remembered for its use of the Two-Streams story technique, with Nyssa, Tegan and Mawdryn running around in 1977 and The Doctor and Turlough using The Brigadier’s memory in 1983. It’s something that wouldn’t be done again until the Moffat era, and it’s a great use of a time-based dynamic that was strangely rare within the Classic Series. Add that dynamic to the weirdness of the Mawdryn mutants, the wonderfully hammy performance of Valentine Dyal and the return of the Brigadier, and you’ve got a recipe for a bona fide Who classic.

Terminus

Apart from old stories like The Sensorites and The Web Planet, there is no Who story in my mind that gets as much flack for being “boring” than Terminus, the second part of the Black Guardian Trilogy. The same allegations, unfortunately, that go out against its companion focus, Nyssa of Traken, introduced in 1981 as a guest character who was then added to the companion roster for no apparent reason. However, I must make an admission here: I really got to like Nyssa when I first saw Five’s era, and so her departure in this serial had me in tears.
      And that’s all anyone seems to remember about it, really. Nyssa in this story does come under the shadow of the Fanservice monster, strutting about in a transparent nightgown that leaves very little to the imagination, but that I feel doesn’t end up detracting from the characterisation that goes on here. Nyssa, having spent a season and a half in the shadow of the Doctor’s louder companions, finally steps out and finds some purpose in her life. Unlike a lot of other companions in this era, she leaves The Doctor not because she’s found a better offer, because she’s upset with him or even because she had to. She left because she had the opportunity to help people, and because it was the right thing to do.
     There’s a lot more to this story, though, than the loss of Nyssa. Steven Gallagher returns as writer from Warrior’s Gate in Season 18, and the general tone of the story is deliciously thick; as atmospheric as a Jovian storm cloud and just as filled with jeopardy and paranoia. The use of the plague analogue is perfect, especially for me who finds stuff like that incredibly unsettling. (Let’s just say that I bought a few facemasks in the summer of 2009). There’s also the use of several Norse themes, which are fun, and the timely tradition of being of a Who story that can be struck into different metaphors. In the beginning, Terminus is the Barge on the River Styx, ferrying souls to the afterlife. By the end, the serial takes a turn for the positive, and Terminus becomes a wonderful metaphor for the NHS, with the Vanir (NHS staff) no longer slaves to Hydromel (money) and allowed to focus on healing their patients.
     I think the thing that makes so many dismiss Terminus is that not a lot of people liked Nyssa’s character and thus weren’t engaged with her story. Me? I think that it’s a wonderfully complex and thematic masterpiece, wherein both Nyssa’s and the Vanir’s fight for freedom and expression compliment one another, all the while set to a backdrop of The Doctor saving the Universe once more.

Enlightenment

Fans who’ve grown up on the standards of the new series are sometimes far too quick to attack the production values of the Classic Series, going on tirades about wobbly sets, tin-foil monsters and shoddy CSO. Whenever my friends say such things, I point them here, towards Enlightenment, one of the Classic Series’ most visually impressive stories. There are no wobbly sets here, and the highly conceptual script matches up to the brilliant visuals. Here we find a race more long-lived than the Time Lords; a race whose longevity has robbed them of all imagination and emotion, and who must parasitically live off us inferior “Ephemerals” in order to satiate their boredom. Unlike the end of the series’ other major arc up to that date, The Key To Time, this story also provides an excellent end for the experimental Black Guardian Trilogy.
    The entire first episode takes place below decks, leaving the ship’s true nature as a space-faring vessel for the episode’s cliffhanger. Indeed, this story has some quite good cliffhangers: the nature of the ship, Turlough diving off into the vacuum of space and Lynda Baron hypnotising Tegan into becoming her weapon. Baron’s performance as Captain Wrack always slightly weirds me out, because Baron was a big part of my childhood in her Come Outside series. Her performance then, for me, becomes strangely hypnotising; a kind of cackling evil that really says how much she was enjoying the role. The same is true of the celebrity cameo Leee John (not a typo) who is delightfully camp. 
     Turlough’s final introductory story sees him betray both The Doctor and The Black Guardian in various ways, as his fear and madness drive him to various different aims. One moment he’s desperate to get rid of the Black Guardian’s influence, until he concedes to him and tries to work his way into Captain Wrack’s affections. Like the rest of the script, the incredibly clever twist lies in the question of what Enlightenment really is – the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. It’s implied that immortality by its very nature encourages amorality, and that our short time on this Earth is the very reason why we should be nice to one another. With all of the modern fuss about dodgy morals in Doctor Who, I can’t think of a better one, more intelligently conveyed. Enlightenment, appropriate to its name, is one of the most cerebral stories in the entire JNT era, and is an absolute delight.

Thanks.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Hold back (the) River!

I feel so sorry for Alex Kingston because she's amazing actress,
given suchterrible stuff to work with. But hey, it pays the bills.
Image from The BBC
In recent news, River Song is coming back to Doctor Who. You'll know if you followed my reviews of the last season that I've really given up on being excited about new stuff from this show, prefering to be pleasantly surprised by any good stuff that manages to slip through Moffat's tight grip. While Series Eight was messy in places, had a lot of flawed relationships and had a worrying theme of "faith defying science", it did seem like it was trying to have some fun ideas and concepts, and I often found myself enjoying it despite its silliness.
     One of the things that made Season Eight bearable was the absence of River Song, once an interesting and promising concept character who now stands as the personification of everything wrong with Steven Moffat's writing. I went into detail a bit with this in my article "The Best Laid Schemes Of Mice And Moffat", but I'll recap here. River Song was initally presented in her "final" episode, as a potential future friend/love interest of The Doctor. What that turned into was River being a "psychopath" assassin essentially kidnapped from Amy Pond's womb as a baby, raised specifically to murder The Doctor, who nevertheless falls in love with him upon first meeting him because of how cool he is. She is then forced into an Astronaut suit to kill him anyway (which is ridiculous, because why train her to be a willing killer if she's forced into it anyway, anyone could have manned that suit) and "kills" him. Except she doesn't, because it's just a robot facsimile of him. Despite this, The Doctor (and the Universe, and herself) insist that she spends the majority of the rest of her life in prison for killing The Doctor. The Doctor treats this prison as her home, picking her up and dropping her off here, even though she apparently has the ability to come and go as she pleases. And at one point we meet her ghost. Huh.
     Suffice to say that River Song is a total mess. Her concept was robbed from the character of Bernice Summerfield in the Expanded Universe (a tactic Moffat uses a lot), her dialogue is filled with bizzare non-speak and cliches designed to make her "mysterious" or "sexy", while her behaviour is informed by some insulting concept of what Moffat defines as a "psychopath" (see also Mary Morstan in Sherlock) and her character really exists for no other reason than to loosely tie together Moffat's stories. Seeing as that particular brand of ridiculousness belongs back in Eleven's era, and the show did seem to be trying to move away from that, I think that it's a huge disappointment to see her character return yet again. Nothing good is going to come of this, I'm telling you.

Thanks.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review: Voyager 3.7: Sacred Ground

I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Seven - Sacred Ground
Written 22/08/15

This episode of Star Trek was written by a woman named Geo Cameron, a Scottish shaman and priestess. That goes some way to explain why this episode, centred around a discussion of faith and science, goes entirely against the philosophy of Star Trek and spends the vast majority of its runtime attacking it with laughable strawmen. Unlike partner series DS9, which addressed faith and belief while still providing a very open option for a secular interpretation, this episode likes to talk deeply about things of which it has very little understanding. Secularist ramblings follow.
     When visiting the Nechani people, Kes is knocked unconscious by a force field within an ancient ruin. With the condition purportedly terminal, Janeway decides to do everything she can to identify the scientific cause. Seeking answers, she agrees to undergo a ritual in which she would ask the Ancestral Spirits for answers. In the ritual, she faces several challenges, all while being taunted by several figures who confront her on her devotion to science and evidence. At one point she is injected with a hallucinogenic substance and begins seeing visions. After her treatment failed to save Kes, she goes back, and is taunted further by visions of three old people as they mock the idea of evidence and science. They try to make the case that Janeway blindly believes in science, and so might as well take Kes back into the field. She does so, and Kes recovers. The Doctor has a decent explanation for why that happened, but Janeway is still shaken.
     The spirits who so abrasively mock Janeway treat her adherence to the scientific method as a heinous fault of character, and try to claim that she has "faith" in it "working" no matter what. This especially cuts cold because of Janeway's background - she is the only one of the five main Star Trek Captains to have risen to her position through Starfleet's Science division. Science is not in any sense of the word a faith - it is a philosophy which informs the way you examine and process the world around you. Faith values blind belief, and the strength that can come from it, while Science attests that nothing can be truly known unless it satisfies thorough and valid experimentation. That in particular is what makes the author's jabs at Science for being about certainties baffling - the scientific consensus is flexible and ever-changing, and said change is encouraged. 150 years ago, the atoms which composed us were seen as indivisible little balls - now we know them as fuzzy areas of mostly empty space, with a concentrated positive nucleus surrounded by "clouds of probability", areas where an electron might be.
Benevolent spirits worthy of being followed and believed in
would not randomly attack a young woman and then torture and
emotionally abuse the woman trying to save her.
     This progress is what informs Star Trek's core philosophy, even ignoring some of Gene Roddenberry's weirder addenda. In the future presented by Star Trek, technology has allowed mankind to flourish. Breaking the speed of light unites the nations of the world under a single government. Humanity becomes so abundant with riches that currency itself is abolished, and people go to work each morning because they want to, so they can improve themselves, help others, and explore the Galaxy. It's a Utopian vision, and even when you layer it with the real-world contexts presented by DS9, it is still a story of scientific endeavour and progress making people's lives better. The author avatars in this story make light of attempting to kill a young woman, and torture Janeway essentially for wanting to save her, and yet we are supposed to think that Janeway actually comes around to their way of thinking? If anything, this is the reaction of a victim of abuse. Funny, how often that comparison comes up in spiritual interactions.
     I can understand why the writers wanted to do this script - whenever Voyager isn't rolling out old plots, it's trying things that are genuinely new and interesting. But this episode and its discussion of faith is frankly insulting, and nowhere near as good as Emanations from the first season. Huh, never thought I'd be referring back to that episode. Luckily for me, Voyager's third season take a great turn next week, and this story will never be mentioned again.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: Voyager goes Time-Travel mad in the wonderful two-parter Future's End. What Eugenics Wars?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and Time-Flight

This third volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers stories from Season 19.(See here for more on this project.)

Four To Doomsday
(Main article.)

I love Peter Davison’s era; it was the era that I grew up on, if only through the realm of the DVDs. The era has some triumphant highs and some hilarious lows, but on a purely conceptual level none of them interest me more than Davison’s first recorded story, Four To Doomsday. On a first watching, the serial is patently ridiculous; frog men from outer space are coming to invade Earth! This does reflect in some of the lines - there’s a certain gimmickyness to the serial that it never really escapes from – but when you get down to it Johnny Byrne’s script provides some funky sci-fi ideas.
       Now if you haven’t seen the story, I’d recommend you go do so before I spoil the surprise. The biggest plot twist is that the villains of the story, the Urbankans, and their ship filled with humans in period costumes, are in fact all androids. Despite the dodgy effects, this means that the half-way cliffhanger (made more important to reflect the new bi-weekly broadcasting schedule) is an absolute smasher. My reaction on first viewing sums up why I love this story so much. After laughing at Tegan knowing some obscure aboriginal language, and at her suddenly impressing artistic skills, I was blown away by that completely unexpected layer of sci-fi, which made villain Monarch’s plan that more brilliant.
     And what a villain. Stratford Johns, known for crime dramas like Z-Cars, may be hidden under a pile of makeup, but it’s his performance that ultimately shines through. The image of the megalomaniac who almost innocently believes himself to be a god, struck with the impression that he can break the laws of physics and go back to meet himself at the dawn of time. But he’s that great kind of affable evil; he’s like that weird Uncle who only comes down for weddings who’s probably been inside a few times, or so I heard, who will still give you a pat on the head. Even Adric can’t help but like him.
     But it is the initial subtleties of those sinister undertones that really allow the story to build in the way it does. One of my favourite lines is when The Doctor identifies Monarch’s “Minister of Persuasion”; in that one line-read, Davison banishes any inklings of doubt about the Urbankans’ intentions, and any doubt that he is the right man for the lead role. Sure, the story may have some goofy line reads here or there, but if you let the story speak for itself, then you’ll find a more captivating hundred minutes than you could ever have imagined.

Black Orchid

Ah, the Pure Historical. It’s a well-worn staple of Doctor Who, especially in the 60s. Someone along the line decided that they weren't fun enough, and so we’re left with the Dark-Times-sized 16 year gap between William Hartnell’s The Gunfighters  and Peter Davison’s Black Orchid, a story set in the Roaring Twenties that comes as a breath of fresh air after a few seasons of Serious Business. It’s also a glorious two parts long, which means that I can pop it on whenever I’ve got an hour to kill.
     Here, our TARDIS team of Nyssa, Tegan and Adric are seen to simply be having fun for the most part; Adric and Tegan don’t actually get involved with the story’s murder-mystery plot at all, and The Doctor only stumbles into it because someone stole his costume. It’s that which donates to the story’s sense of levity, really, coupled with that quaint Interbellum British attitude that you see in places like Jeeves and Wooster and even other Who stories, like 2008’s Unicorn and the Wasp. 
     The most standout scene is near the beginning, which follows a rather unconventional path; the gang are taken from a train station to a field, where Peter Davison gets to show off his cricket skills and Nyssa gets mistaken for her identical body double. It sounds and feels like an episode of Heartbeat, but it’s also got a deformed aristocratic explorer, a South American speaking with an Indian accent, and, the most important thing for Adric, an extensive buffet. On the DVD commentary, the actors complain that the story isn’t fun enough; bully them, I say! Black Orchid is a barrel of fun, whether it’s the little idiosyncratic character ticks that allow our characters to actually be themselves, or the expansive period costumes that the BBC does so well. It’s a big relief before the darkness of the following story, and I wouldn’t be without it. 

Time-Flight

There’s got to be a reason why Doctor Who has such a long-lasting appeal, and at least part of that reason is that no matter how wrong an episode’s production goes, there’s always something fun. If a story like The Invasion of Time is the introductory thesis, then Season 19’s Time-Flight is the dissertation. There are so many various things that turn people away from this story, but it’s all of those things that draw me to it. You may not be able to root for the heroes or try and work out the Master’s plan, but you can certainly have a good laugh.
     Anthony Ainley’s third appearance shows just how much he enjoys the role, and he appears in yet another one of his disguises. The brilliance of the Khalid disguise is exactly in how useless it is; The Master has displayed just how Crazy Prepared he really is by making sure that if The Doctor does somehow appear, then he’ll be ready for him. And it works, for the first episode at least. The other villains, the Xeraphin, are an awesome concept that despite a neglected execution still manages to be one of the serial’s more interesting and long-lasting ideas. They also gave us one of Davison’s best lines in the entire season; “I think The Master has finally defeated me!”
      By far the most memorable thing about the serial is simply the setting. The first few shots of Heathrow Airport in the first episode are actually really well done. The backdrop for Prehistoric Earth, which is an expansive matte painting clearly a few metres behind out actors, is almost necessary in breaking the boundary between simple bad and this story’s glorious shade of So Bad It’s Good charm. Had they gone to some far off desert, shot it on film and given us wide, sweeping landscapes, then the script would have been inexcusable. Instead, it all fits together in one quirky mess that just gets funnier and funnier with every viewing.
     
Thanks.