Sunday, 17 September 2017

On "The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne (1713-68)

Some early drafts of this review.
[Nota bene, reader: this review is not simply written about Tristram Shandy, but very much also in the style of Tristram Shandy. If it pleases you not, the book is probably not likely to be one of your favourites either.]

How, I beseech you, does an (almost, or as good as) penniless young man, faced with a book as rich and complex and difficult as The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, - a book which has gifted to this our formerly-Anglo-Saxon tongue such words as disparate and IDIOSYNCRATIC, to be sure, as "Cervantic" and "Shandean", not to mention a film written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Messrs. Coogan and Brydon, - surely one of the greatest cultural artefacts of the as-yet-admittedly-still-green 21st century[1], notwithstanding the apparent lewdness of said film's title, A C*ck and B*ll St*ry - when faced with such a book, I say, how does such a young man have the slightest chance of knowing where to begin? 

"At the beginning!" ---suggests the indignant bookseller who sold that young man the book, or, perhaps, speaking more strictly, as if I were a schoolmaster, in the mood subjunctive as opposed to the mood indicative: he would have sold that young man the blessed tome, were it not the case that the young man purchased the book via the ever-more-popular medium of Kindle. 'Tis the latest in a long string of benighted attempts to usurp the goodly book - not to be confused with the (less general but more capitalized) Good Book, that which was long-ago-usurp'd, and is now yclept the Not Bad But Still Quite Problematic Book -, said string of benighted attempts including the theatrical extravaganza, the film, the television serial, the peculiar evil of the short story, the blog (heaven help us!), the soap (so-named, for the subject matter is always clean, and never bawdy), and the social media, which last is most goodly of all, for in the act of writing it everybody is allowed a turn. To the detractors of this last, I say "Honey's Sarky, Malley Ponce", as they seem to put it in the Twitter's Sphere; you and I, naturally, as devout Francofiles Phrancofiles  Phrancophiles, content ourselves with honi soit qui mal y pense, to wit, "may he think badly on it when he is a-shamed", commonly prayed in nunneries.

Monday, 11 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 6 (13 May 1967)

What can we say after six episodes of The Faceless Ones? It never exactly set the world alight; it never even really set Doctor Who fandom alight for that matter. Ironically for a story all about identity theft, it has had its central premises done many times since, and often much more memorably or enjoyably, leaving their initial use here looking rather, well, faceless. The Doctor figuring out how to interact in the present day? The Web of Fear, The Invasion, and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Doctor Who does Bond? The Enemy of the World ... and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Bad guys who aren't all evil? Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Curse of Peladon, and Frontier in Space. Evil doubles and aliens disguised as humans? Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion (okay I didn't say they were all good)... Simply put, this story's USPs at the time have all been rather undermined by what came after, which is a pity, because much of what The Faceless Ones has done well has been rather enjoyable. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 5 (6 May 1967)

"Remember the teaching of our Director: the intelligence of Earth people is comparable only to that of animals on our planet." At the risk of repeating myself, it's one of the funniest aspects of The Faceless Ones that, of all the races the Doctor has fought, the Chameleons must rank both down there among the stupidest and up there among those who go on about their own intellectual superiority the most. Every other line they're saying something about stupid humans or about how clever they are and how assured they are that their plan will work (the silliest bit is where the Director tells Jamie about how brilliant his own mind is, but he does so in third person, because he's pretending to be Crossland at the time). It's so ridiculous that, even though the production is played almost entirely straight, I have to wonder if the whole thing has a significant tongue-in-cheek element, to be honest, particularly because of how frequently, bananas-ly absurd the Chameleons seem to be much of the time: they don't come across as master-planners at all. "It was a pity that the Chameleons themselves were a bit unbelievable," wrote then-fan, later-playwright-and-Doctor Who-scribe Robert Shearman in Cloister Bell 6/7 in 1983, adding that "they .. weren't as clever as they imagined themselves to be". Spot on. It's such a shame that they're as daft as they are, because the make-up work is really good (the stuff of nightmares) and they're responsible for some genuinely intriguing, nasty images - Jamie discovering miniaturised people inside a drawer being another icky highlight. And, more importantly, there's a genuinely tragic dimension to them that's somewhat hampered by the silly 'evil bad guy' pretensions.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 4 (29 April 1967)

One oddity about the Chameleons that seems, if truth be told, rather born out of the necessity of padding a story with a four parter's worth of ideas out to six parts, is the sheer variety of the technology they seem to have available to them. If that seems like an odd complaint, I suppose what I really mean is that none of their weapons or abilities seem to have much to do with one another. They have frozen ice gas but don't do anything to do with temperature or deep-freezing elsewhere, nor are they reptilian which might account for cold-bloodedness or hibernation. They have ray guns but only use them intermittently when they're not using strange pen-like devices that make people immobile. This seems like a rather impractical weapon that fails to kill somebody and leaves them handily lying around to recover later exactly when you don't want them to; why not just use your ray guns on them if they're somebody you want disposing of? Then there's the ridiculous matter of the button that's actually a grenade that Meadows slips onto the Doctor's back (and which Jamie pulls off him, easy as anything), which feels a lot more like a Bond gadget than anything else. Even sillier is the great big whopping laser they have on the wall in this episode, nicked straight from Goldfinger (it's a budget imitation of that famous scene, but the resolution is cleverer). They've tried to kill the Doctor and co. over and over again with all these rather different methods, failing each time; I almost wonder if the Chameleons are meant to be A Bit Crap?

Saturday, 9 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 3 (22 April 1967)

I don't want to talk too much about Malcolm Hulke's Pertwee stories here - there's a time and a place for that (probably some time in the 2020s...) - but many of their hallmarks are things one can spot here, even if merely in prototype form. We've already discussed the modern-day setting, but it's also worth drawing attention to the fact that the Chameleons are distinctly characterised as individuals rather than as a gestalt - not just presented as mindless creatures stealing identities. Meadows, Blade and Spencer are all quite distinctive, with different attitudes towards the situation at hand, meaning there's potential for conflict on the opposing team as well as on "ours", so to speak. This is something of a step forward in the portrayal of alien species for Doctor Who, and we'll only see it develop with Silurians, Ice Warriors, and others during the Pertwee years. It helps, naturally, that the Chameleons are, well, chameleonic, and that they look just like us because they've stolen human bodies; it's much easier for us to think of them as individuals with whom we can negotiate. But it's one step towards thinking of monstrous-looking reptiles in battle-scarred armour as individuals with whom we can negotiate, too. The whole point of much of Hulke's writing is this expanding of our frame of reference.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 2 (15 April 1967)

The Troughton era, more than the Hartnell era I would argue, makes more effort to be outright, explicitly scary in the way that later phases of Doctor Who will also prioritize.  The stock music here is creepy as anything, going out of its way to unnerve and alarm; the whole thing is so beautifully atmospheric; Gerry Mill shoots it with Hitchcockian suspense and the close-ups of the scorched, veined face of the Chameleon aliens are really unpleasant (Polly lying comatose inside a packing box, her eyes wide and staring, is another good reveal). The Faceless Ones will never go down as the best Doctor Who script ever but, damn it, it's really nicely made. And the villains are basically Ryanair, which, well, yes.

Friday, 8 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 1 (8 April 1967)

Season Four reaches its penultimate story in the form of The Faceless Ones, probably not one which ranks as anybody's favourite story (unlike, say, The Moonbase or The Macra Terror, both of which have their devoted admirers) and now more of a forgotten curio than anything else, akin perhaps to The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace. The main thing to note about it, in the context of Season Four at least, is that it takes place in our world - and crucially, in what is recognisably our world. Not just in the sense of The Underwater Menace, which was an alien story in present-day Earth where the location just happened to be "the depths of the ocean". Not just in the sense of The Macra Terror, which was aesthetically a 1950s holiday camp and thus imported some degree of social realism into Doctor Who, even if the story was technically set in the far future. No, this is a full-blooded successor to The War Machines, that infamous late Hartnell story which broke the show's mould by being set in what was clearly, unmistakeably 1960s London, complete with the Post Office Tower being part of the story-line. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 4 (1 April 1967)

"Stop! You're breaking the law!"/"Bad laws are made to be broken." This is a tight and pacey final episode, which brings The Macra Terror to a fairly strong close; it's good to see Peter Jeffrey get a little more to do as the Pilot, too, including questioning his orders and defying Control even in the face of Chief of Police Ola's narrow-minded authoritarianism. It's a bit late in the day for the Pilot to properly 'come good' and save the day in a moment of self-sacrifice, and though thankfully the story never quite goes for as obvious a conclusion as that, it's hardly unpredictable that it is Ben who 'comes good' and sorts everything out at the last minute. There's a bitter irony in the fact that just as Innes Lloyd was deciding that Ben and Polly weren't really working and they should be written out in the next story - David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke's The Faceless Ones - Michael Craze turned in some of his best work as Ben, in probably the character's most important story to date. But it is clear that the talented Frazer Hines is more than ready to take up his mantle and become Troughton's definitive companion.

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 3 (25 March 1967)

In this episode, we see a fair bit more of the hard labour colonists are forced to do, specifically mining for a toxic gas that slowly permeates your lungs and kills you. While this feels a little like filler at points, it also introduces a new character into the mix, Officia (could they have made the word any closer to "Official"? Well, one letter closer, I suppose), played in lovely, understated, businesslike fashion by John Harvey. A figure named Officia watching over people mining  a gas which kills them and the purpose of which they do not know and never learn is perhaps the most explicitly Kafkaesque part of the story, along with giving people titles instead of names - Pilot, Controller, even Doctor - and ensuring the colony name and planet and even the year in which the story takes place all remain unknown. Very like old Franz; I do wonder if Ian Stuart Black had recently been reading In der Strafkolonie ("In the Penal Colony"). Officia's no-nonsense approach - he's just a cog in the machine after all, following orders - is another brilliant example of the way the story approaches its politics, rather than giving us villain after villain. "What's it all for?" Polly asks with regard to the toxic gas, and nobody has an answer. They just do what they're told.

034. The Macra Terror by Ian Stuart Black: Episode 2 (18 March 1967)

"NO ONE IN THE COLONY BELIEVES IN MACRA! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS MACRA! MACRA DO NOT EXIST! THERE ARE NO MACRA!" These deluded ravings, the words of the Controller whose handsome face is projected, Orwell-like, onto screens throughout the colony, are among the most electrifying in the story, and a peak attempt at double-think. It's a brilliant little sequence, as his voice gets more and more hysterical and the electronic music gets more frantic. Brainwashing and mind control (in this story, symbolized by the "hospital for correction") are crimes the Doctor is particularly loath to forgive, in all his incarnations (see the way he responds to the Silence, or the Mandragora Helix, or the Editor, all examples for which I am grateful to Hugh Sturgess for raising): the very worst thing you can do is control how somebody else thinks, deny them the individuality of their own mind and the freedom to make their own decisions, make them all uniform. This is the same threat the Cybermen pose to people, making this a relatively good pairing with The Moonbase, for all that I think it's a far greater story, though it's also an excellent successor to The Power of the Daleks in that it's about power struggles in an Earth colony, deceit and lies, and things not being what they appear.