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Tardis Party: the Adams apple of Douglas’s eye? Shada ~ Gareth Roberts (Review)

September 25, 2013

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Author: Gareth Roberts

Year: 2012

Publisher: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing)

ISBN: ISBN-10: 184990328x/ ISBN-13: 9781849903288

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Thanks be to Rassilion, for in the wake of the UK (and, to some extent, the wider world) going truly Who crazy in recent years, the Beeb finally got its arse in gear last year and ensured the unfinished, never broadcast, should-have-been-awesome Douglas Adams-penned, Tom Baker-toting Doctor Who serial Shada (1980) has finally lived up to its potential and been realised in a wholly satisfying, entirely successful incarnation.

Over the years, Shada has (ahem) regenerated from its original TV story into an audio adventure (oddly with Paul McGann’s Doctor) and back to a very underwhelming, cobbled together DVD release of the original serial, but don’t doubt it, happily Gareth Roberts’ novel(isation) of last year can absolutely lay claim to being the definitive version. This literary Shada from Roberts then (‘NuWho’ scribe  of 2007′s The Shakespeare Code, 2008′s The Unicorn And The Wasp, 2010′s The Lodger and 2011′s Closing Time and script editor of 2007-11′s spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures) is the only one to realise the sadly deceased Adams’ vision. That’s to say, it’s an adventuresome, acerbic, silly, very funny and very polished biblio-centric version of Shada that’s surely the triumph Adams could only have dreamed his TV serial would be.

The fate of the original Shada‘s a sad one – not least for Baker fans. Given the transitory, disappointing and, well, pretty crappy nature of the thesp’s final season on the show (1980-81′s Season 18), he and his fans should at least have enjoyed, in the shape of his penultimate season’s final serial – yes, Shada – a last hurrah. But thanks to industrial action affecting the BBC (this was the fag end of the ’70s/ the ’80s’ crap new dawn), that was never to be; Shada didn’t see its filming finished, let alone get broadcast. Alas, indeed. For here was a four-part story that on paper (or, rather, on the page) rivaled the blissfully brilliant story City Of Death (1979) from earlier in its season.

Like City Of Death, it too of course was written by The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy supremo Douglas Adams (Doctor Who‘s then script editor), and like that serial too (and Hitch-Hiker’s) featured a clever-clever, twisty-turny, space-travel-meets-time-travel-meets-marvellously-mundane-Britishness plot and comic sensibility. The ‘Britishness’ came courtesy of its major setting being a Cambridge University college, itself a hotbed of eccentricity and the unique, of course, if nicely humdrum when compared to the colliding glamour and adventure of The Doctor’s universe-wide world.

But fast-forward over 30 years into the future and, yes, Shada is now back in book form. The plot’s exactly the same – testament indeed to Roberts wisely trying to keep the novel as faithful to the original script and as, well, Adamsian as possible. It’s, yes, 1979 and Baker’s Fourth Doc and Lalla Ward‘s Romana (II) are visiting Cambridge college St. Cedd’s, as they’ve been messaged by a certain Professor Chronotis that he wants to see them. Only the highly forgetful, very old and loveably doddery Chronotis doesn’t remember sending them a message at all.

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And just as our hero wonders who did and, more worryingly, why they did, so appears on the scene a jumped up, ludicrously dressed but brilliantly intelligent psychopathic alien named Skagra, whom in addition to stealing other genius’s minds with a silver spherical globe device, wants something Chronotis has. It couldn’t be a particular book the old duffer (whom, worryingly but most intriguingly, it turns out is a retired Time Lord) allowed a lovelorn postgrad scientist Chris Parsons to borrow in order to impress his would-be girlfriend, but has suddenly discovered can seemingly bring to life memories, fantasies and things that may happen in the future, could it? No it couldn’t be that. Surely not…

Shada‘s success lies in its marvellously well honed, irresistible combination of the familiar and the unexpected. First, the familiar. The protagonists here could only be the Baker and Ward incarnations of The Doctor and Romana, respectively (him full of gleeful-abandon one-second, oh-so-sober-cosmic-caretaker-foreboding the next with his daft curls, even dafter boggle eyes and even dafter never-ending scarf; she with her delightful aristocratic angelic air that all but overpowers poor Chris Parsons); K-9 could only be the incredibly intelligent, incredibly useful, but also incredibly dangerous robot dog he is and the TARDIS could only be, well, the TARDIS. So far so good; Roberts truly deserves a medal for bringing to life the late ’70s Doctor Who so fondly, amusingly and satisfyingly with these perfectly realised tenets.

Yet now we come to the unexpected, for its here that Shada earns its stripes just as much, if not more. Unlike – what was filmed of – the original TV serial (see above video clip), Roberts absolutely nails the characters of Parsons, Claire Keightly (his love interest), Chronotis and despicable baddie Skagra, their respective worlds and their collective importance and driving nature to the overall plot. In short, Shada is far from just The Doctor, Romana And K-9 Show. The original serial sees a Chris Parsons (played by Waiting For God‘s Daniel Hill) whom seems rather too old and smooth to be the socially awkward and even more amorously awkward postgrad of the story. Here, Roberts puts that utterly right and, in doing so, turns the character into an Arthur Dent-esque bemused, nicely comic soundboard for the audience (masquerading as a human ally for the heroes). Additionally, it’s utterly obvious why Chris has fallen for Claire; she’s everything he’s not, confident, resourceful, forceful and quick-witted – at one point (thanks to a bit of hypnotism) she even rivals Romana in the indispensable companion stakes.

Chronotis too is a far more satisfying character here than in the original serial; a quirky, adorable old grandpa figure whom you get the idea maybe hides an extraordinary secret, not just an estimable bookcase-cum-TARDIS and a big penchant for tea. But, perhaps most memorable of all, is Skagra, a wonderful villain of the piece. Blessed with a huge intellect, an amazing propensity to build 2001: A Space Odyssey-style spaceships, ruthlessly cold and totally bonkers (rather like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper gone very, very wrong). Yet his best moment may just come when a street yob compares his unwittingly ridiculous get-up to that of  ’70s funkster Disco Tex (“How’s the Sex-o-lettes?” – priceless).

Apparently, Roberts felt he would  have to fix one or two plot holes when he went through the original serial’s scripts to write his adaptation – no wonder then the plotting’s so tight and the story’s final, almost devastating complication (accompanied, fittingly, by what we may assume is a Gallifreyan swearword on the Doctor’s lips) so effective. Speaking of such humour, the author indulges in further Adamsian humour by coming up with a wonderful near ethereal character in the shape of the pseudo-consciousness of Skagra’s awesome spaceship – it’s a wonderful echo of Hitch-Hiker’s Marvin the Paranoid Android. Indeed, you’d never realise it (always the mark of a good writer and a well edited novel this), but apparently as he started adapting Shada, Roberts found it a task far more difficult and far more time-consuming than he’d thought it would be. Just goes to show, then, that if it’s tough work, like The Doc when we first meet him on a boat on the River Cam, some things are very much worth a punt.

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Further reading:

Shada’s page at BBC Books/ Ebury Publishing

twitter.com/OldRoberts953

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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ City Of Death (Season 17/ 1979)

September 15, 2013

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Paris pair: “You know, in some cultures, pulling my scarf like that would mean we’re married…”

For many not particularly, er, versed in the ‘Whoniverse’, Doctor Who seems to have offered never-ending lashings of humour, far-fetched fantasy and silly looking aliens, but it wasn’t always so. By the late ’70s, however, after the ace behind-the-scenes team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes had shuffled on, the show was in the hands of producer Graham Williams and – maybe or maybe not – under pressure from the likes of ‘Clean up TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse, had noticeably toned down the high thrills and mild horror and upped the comedy and camp – and many a Who fan wasn’t that impressed.

The show itself wasn’t suffering awfully in the ratings, though, while the introduction in 1977 of the irresistible robot dog extraordinaire K-9 had surely been all kinds of wonderful, and this era enjoyed its unequivocal crowning glory in the Paris-set, post-modern marvel that is City Of Death. Hopefully then, this post (the latest in George’s Journal‘s current celebration of the sci-fi giant’s golden anniversary) proves just why this serial is just as much a masterpiece as any of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisas

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Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Companion: Lalla Ward (Romana II)

Villains: Julian Glover (Count Scarlioni/ Captain Tancredi/ Scaroth); Catherine Schell (Countess Scarlioni)

Ally: Tom Chadbon (Duggan)

Writers: Douglas Adams, Graham Williams and David Fisher (all credited as ‘David Agnew’)

Producer: Graham Williams

Director: Michael Hayes

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Season: 17 (second of five serials – four 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: September 29-October 20 1979 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 14.5 milion

Previous serial: Destiny Of The Daleks

Next serial: The Creature From The Pit

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The Doctor and his current companion Romana (a Time Lady from his own planet Gallifrey) are relaxing atop the Eiffel Tower while on holiday in Paris. They agree the French capital is so agreeable because it has ‘a bouquet’ – ‘like a  fine wine’, The Doctor adds, but concedes the year of their visit, 1979, is ‘more of a table wine really’. As they sit down to lunch in a café, Romana is intrigued an artist is sketching her – and turns around to see. Aggravated by her spoiling her pose, the artist leaves in a huff and tosses away the sketch. Just as he gets up to examine the discarded paper, The Doctor experiences ‘a turn’ – in fact, more than that, as the last few seconds for him, Romana and us replay themselves. Fully aware of this (unlike any of the humans around them), the pair become concerned as they look at the sketch; instead of Romana’s face it features a clock face with a crack through it – ‘a crack in time…’ muses The Doctor.

Meanwhile, in the cellar of a château across town, a Professor Kerensky has just demonstrated what his highly advanced and highly expensive scientific equipment is capable of to his employer – and the château’s owner – Count Scarlioni. The latter, smooth as silk, enigmatic and devious, isn’t impressed, however, and emphasises the need for improvement and urgency – he wants the next test the following day; ‘it’s a matter of time‘, he says. The Doc and Romana have by now made their way to the Louvre art gallery and are examining Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, as the former wants to show the latter the exquisite art humanity is capable of. Nonplussed, Romana declares it merely ‘quite good’.

Just then, another time distortion – or time  slip – occurs, The Doctor ending up on a nearby bench in the corridor, next to an attractive, dignified woman wearing a gaudy bracelet and his head resting against a man in a trenchcoat. The latter asks him whether he is all right, to which he replies ‘my head dented your gun’ (the one in his trenchcoat pocket, that is). Away from the Louvre, The Doctor reveals to Romana he half-inched the woman’s bracelet and placed it in his companion’s pocket. The latter examines it and comes to the same conclusion as he did in the Louvre – the bracelet did not originate on Earth.

The Doc belives it’s a micromeson scanner, which the woman was using to monitor the art gallery’s alarms. Joined by the chap in the trenchcoat now, who’s followed them, they warn him she (and probably others) plan on stealing the Mona Lisa. This piques the former’s interest, a detective named Duggan, for his task it is to put an end to a spate of extremely valuable works of art being stolen while brilliantly impressive fakes are put in their place. He also reveals the woman in the Louvre was Countess Scarlioni, wife of the Count, one of the richest and most notorious men in the world. Quickly, the trio are faced at gunpoint by thugs, while back at the château, the Countess, having on her husband’s orders sent the thugs to apprehend the three (whom she assumes stole her bracelet), is looking for her husband. Behind a locked door, the Count stands now before a mirror and opens up his face to reveal the green-skinned, one-eyed head of an alien.

Countess Scarlioni: [Referring to The Doctor] My dear, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he seems
Count Scarlioni: My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems

Taken by the thugs to the château, The Doctor, Romana and Duggan are presented to the Countess in the drawing room; The Doctor being pushed into the room (and to the floor) by a henchman – ‘what a wonderful butler,’ The Doc observes, ‘he so violent!’. As he tries to feign knowledge of what she and the Count are probably up to, Romana picks up a Chinese puzzle box. The Countess informs her it’s impossible to work out the correct combination of sliding components to open it; using her intellect, Romana delightedly opens it on her first attempt and, from it, the bracelet falls into her hand. The Count enters and relieves her of the bracelet, ordering for his opponents to be locked up in the château’s cellar. Duggan picks up a chair to defend himself from the Count’s goons and, seemingly horrified, The Doc asks him what he’s doing – ‘that’s a [priceless] Louis Quinze chair!’ he exclaims.

Using his sonic screwdriver to ensure their escape from the cell, the trio investigate their surroundings, The Doc intrigued by Kerensky’s scientific equipment and Romana working out that there must be a secret room walled-up behind the cell. Just then, Kerensky returns to the cellar and undertakes another test, a seemingly fascinated Doctor happily watching. The experiment sees an egg hatch into a chick, which within seconds grows to a full-sized chicken which then rapidly dies and becomes a skeleton. This is an experiment in time then – on the orders of the Count, of course. The Doc, however, points out it’s not actually a success and reverses the chicken’s existence before the professor’s eyes, claiming it’s dangerous dabbling with time if you don’t actually know what you’re doing.

Stubbornly (and unnecessarily), the ‘force always first’ Duggan knocks out Kerensky and somewhat redeems himself by launching himself against the cell’s wall to ensure the trio manage finally to break through and discover what the secret room conceals – but they’re far from prepared for it. Inside a cupboard they discover a Mona Lisa, which (owing to him having spent time with Leonardo da Vinci, thus becoming an expert on his style and work), The Doctor claims is genuine, then finds five further versions of the painting and declares they’re all genuine too. Duggan is confounded, but points out that if a Mona Lisa were hanging in the Louvre, no-one would buy a fake unless they thought they were getting a real one.

Unbeknownst to them, Scarlioni has joined them in the secret room, taking pleasure in their shock discovery, at which point Duggan characteristically knocks him out so they might escape the château. The Doc leaves Romana and Duggan and scarpers across town to the TARDIS, in which he sets the co-ordinates for Florence, Italy… in the year 1505. He steps out into an artist’s billet, taking in the glorious Renaissance sunshine through its window, before he’s faced by a sword-carrying guard, whom claims Leonardo da Vinci isn’t home because he’s engaged in important work for Captain Tancredi. The Doctor clearly does not know who this is, but immediately finds out as an elegantly dressed soldier walks into the billet – with the face of the Count. The Doctor asks what he’s doing here, to which the Count replies ‘I think that is exactly the question I ought to be asking you, Doctor…’

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Despite having been put in thumbscrews to find out how he’s managed seemingly to be in two places at once, The Doc manages to elicit from his captor how he’s managed literally to achieve that very feat – for the latter can’t help boasting to the former. He says he’s in fact Scaroth, the very last of the Jagaroth. The Doctor has heard of this race; having nearly wiped itself out in a war 400 million years ago, their tiny number of survivors travelled to Earth, which was in a lifeless state. Here they were believed to have finally snuffed it when their spacecraft exploded on take-off from the planet’s surface. What actually happened, however, was that Scaroth survived the explosion – albeit his existence was compromised, as splinters of his being were scattered across Earth’s future time and space; all of them identical, yet none complete. Eventually, his captive is forced too to explain his secret (he can’t stand being tortured by the guard’s cold hands, which are holding the thumbscrews); he tells Scaroth he’s a Time Lord and Romana a Time Lady and then asks the latter how he manages to communicate with his other selves – only to receive an instant, unexpected demonstration.

As he watches, the ‘Tancredi version’ of Scaroth holds counsel with his other ‘splinters’ (the ‘Scarlioni version’ of 1979′s Paris interrupting a discussion with the Countess, whose goons have just successfully stolen from the Louvre its Mona Lisa for them). Owing to the almighty effort this requires Scaroth, The Doctor is able to use this distraction and flee, having earlier (while Scaroth was out of the billet and the guard knocked out) found Leonardo’s original Mona Lisa and identified the canvases on which the artist would paint for Tancredi the further Mona Lisas to be found in the future, he then wrote on each of them the legend ‘This is a fake’ – so they might be assumed as such under examination and scupper Scarlioni’s thieving scheme – and left an explanatory note for Leonardo in the latter’s favoured code of backwards writing.

Safely inside the TARDIS now, he observes on its scanner 12 versions of Scaroth appearing and converging (including one from ancient Egypt, another from Neanderthal times, another from the far future and another that looks suspiciously like Julius Caesar). (The)  Scaroth(s) are blathering on about masterminding the building of Pyramids, discovering fire, inventing the wheel and pushing forward the entire human race to save his own – clearly his grand art thefts (using alien technology such as the bracelet) have financed his time experiments via Kerensky, whose intended result is to ensure he can return to the moment before the Jagaroth spaceship exploded, so he can save the race and unite his splintered selves. Unfortunately, he now knows of both The Doctor and Romana’s time-travel knowledge.

For her part, Romana, with Duggan in tow, has returned to the château; the two of them deciding, as they have found out the Louvre’s Mona Lisa has been stolen, the best thing they can do is to hunt for the real painting – if the Louvre’s is the real one. Once there, they’re immediately captured by Scarlioni’s guards once more and, having been taken back down to the cellar, Scarlioni/ Scaroth enjoys informing them he now knows from The Doctor himself that Romana’s a time-traveller and can aid him in his quest. If she refuses, he’ll use Kerensky’s equipment to destroy Paris. Duggan doesn’t believe any of this, but Romana assures him their captor can do what he’s threatening. Kerensky, though, desperately pleads for all his work and equipment not be used for such malevolent purposes, at the sound of which his employer orders him to stand in the centre of the equipment and check it’s working properly, giving the evil alien the chance to do away with the now unnecessary Kerensky – he switches on the machine and the hapless professor ages at a staggeringly rapid rate, ending up nothing more than a skeleton.

Romana: You should go into partnership with a glazier. You’d have a truly symbiotic working relationship
Duggan: What?
Romana: I’m just pointing out that you break a lot of glass
[She puts a pair of wine glasses in front of him; instead of opening the wine bottle he smashes the neck off it]
Duggan: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs
Romana: If you wanted an omelette, I’d expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef

Scarlioni/ Scaroth declares Kerensky was killed because the equipment’s ‘time field’ is unstable. Whether or not the first part of this statement is true, Romana knows the second part is. She has no alternative then to help him and alter the equipment so it’s safe when operated. Meanwhile, The Doctor has returned to the château and faces the Countess, he casually informs her that a green, one-eyed alien is ransacking the art world to save his species. He is taken down to the cellar, but has unnerved the Countess and got her thinking… she retrieves from a cabinet an Egyptian scroll that features several gods, one of which has a green, one-eyed head.

In the cellar, it appears Romana’s finished her work, ensuring the equipment is ready to be used to send its owner back through time. The evil alien then enters the drawing room to bid farewell to his wife. She levels a gun at him and demands to know just what he is. He smoothly tells her it was easy to deceive her – a fur coat here, a trinket there – and removes his ‘face’ to reveal his green, one-eyed true form to her for the first time. Then he suggests it was kind of her to keep wearing the bracelet; he activates it, instantly killing her – ‘goodbye, my dear, I’m sorry you had to die, but then, in a short while, you will have ceased ever to have existed’. Back in the cellar, Scaroth steps into the centre of the equipment and disappears back through time, only too aware that Romana has rigged the thing so he can remain in his destination only for a few seconds before he has to return, but he only needs a few seconds. Duggan, relieved, believes it must now all be over and they can relax and go for a drink, yet his two companions declare they must go on a journey.

As The Doctor and Romana return to the TARDIS, taking Duggan with them then, the former pilots the machine after the ‘time trace’ left by Scaroth’s journey. The three step out of the time- and space-machine on to barren rock, which The Doc declares is a point that in the future will be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, but is now 400 million years into the past. He spies the Jagaroth ship of which Scaroth spoke and, nearby, a soup of slurry that contains the amniotic fluid from which all life on Earth will begin. Romana notices the ship’s thrust motors are damaged and when its pilot (the ‘past’ Scaroth) attempts to take-off it’ll explode; the Doctor realises in fact this explosion didn’t just splinter Scaroth through time, but also the radiation thrown out from it ignited the slurry of fluid and kick-started life on Earth. Scaroth must absolutely be stopped from preventing his ‘past’ self from trying to take-off in the ship!

Speak of the devil and, well, the devil appears, fresh from travelling back through time too. As he calls to his fellow Jagaroth not to take-off, The Doc cries that he’s rolled the dice once and doesn’t get another chance – or at least doesn’t deserve one. Duggan, however, reverts to type and simply knocks out Scaroth; this time to The Doctor’s delight – ‘Duggan, I think that was possibly the most important punch in history!’. Scaroth’s time is up and he disappears, travelling back to the future, where (back in the château) his reappearance as a monster causes his henchman to destroy the equipment, blasting Scaroth out of existence and starting a major fire. Back in the past, the trio hurry back into the TARDIS just before the Jagaroth ship attempts to take-off and explodes in a fireball, in turn of course, beginning life on Earth.

Later, atop the Eiffel tower once more, The Doctor attempts to convince Duggan that just because the only one of the seven Mona Lisas to survive the fire in the château has ‘This is a fake’ scrawled on the canvas, underneath the painting, doesn’t make it any less the genuine article – after all, it was undoubtedly painted by Leonardo. If the authorities x-ray the portrait and discover the writing, it serves them right – why should they have to examine such a work so closely to deem it great art, instead of merely looking at it and appreciating it? The two Gallifreyans bid Duggan goodbye and the latter picks up a postcard of the Mona Lisa from a stall next to him, ruefully looking down at the image.

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Not only is City Of Death the funniest, it’s also by far the most popular (on original showing) and easily one of the absolute very best Doctor Who serials – and probably my favourite story of the original ‘Classic’ series too. How could you not be pulled in, enthralled and delighted by a four-parter that features ‘ultimate’ Doc Tom Baker with arguably his ultimate companion (a fellow Gallifreyan who’s the cute as a button Lalla Ward; on whom the actor unquestionably had his eye, so much so they got together and eventually married – see bottom video clip) gallivanting around the practically perfect Paris, with a hapless, loveable detective for an ally and a desperate monstrous-looking monster hiding in human form as a suave villain, with his equally charming, aristocratic wife. Oh, and seven – count ‘em, seven - Mona Lisas thrown into the mix too.

The primary reason why the serial’s such an utterly entertaining and satisfying entry in the Who canon, though, is the quality of its writing. Unmistakably scripted by Douglas Adams, its story and dialogue has all the hallmarks of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy legend. Undoubtedly, this is Doctor Who as comedy, but Adams’ brilliance isn’t in just writing a thoroughly funny serial, it’s perhaps more so in how he makes it funny.

His script doesn’t so much wallow in the died-in-the-wool and/ or far-fetched fantasy conventions of Who (a rather ridiculous-looking alien; the fact The Doc can go back in time to meet and become chums with Leonardo da Vinci; he and his companion are ‘assisted’ by a slow-on-the-uptake, often useless ally), it delightfully plays around with these conventions (the alien has been hiding as a member of the human race, which he’s deliberately pushed forward in development; The Doc tries to scupper the alien’s scheme of forcing Leonardo to produce a multitude of Mona Lisas by writing on their pre-painted canvasses in, yes, felt-tip and the slow, useless sidekick is a p*ss-take of the Bulldog Drummond-esque trenchcoated detective of pulpy action fiction – his fists-first approach a running gag that always delivers). The clever fooling about even extends to the serial’s title – in the language of its setting City Of Death translates as ‘Cité de la mort’, which sounds an awful lot like ‘Cité de l’amour’ (‘City of Love’, a nickname for Paris). In short, in this story Adams gives Doctor Who the entirely effective post-modern treatment. Never since has the show taken the mickey out of itself – and screen adventure drama in general – with such smarts, confidence and swagger.

Adams’ script isn’t confined just to comedy, though, for the pacing throughout the four episodes is pitch-perfect and the cliffhanger to Episode Two one of Who‘s very best; revealing a villain in Renaissance Florence who’s troubling Leonardo to be exactly the same villain troubling The Doctor and his mates in the present. What the hell! And the explanation for this in Episodes Three and Four is even better – the villain’s entity is scattered throughout time, so versions of himself exist in different eras and places at exactly the same time. It’s almost breathtaking (like the cliffhanger) on first viewing – and so good is it, current ‘NuWho’ show-runner Steven Moffat seemingly borrowed it for the explanation of companion Clara’s mystery in latest episode The Name Of The Doctor (2013). And, let’s not forget too, that nicely-slid-in theme of what constitutes great art, which The Doc, Romana and Duggan disagree over throughout the adventure – all those Mona Lisas, which one’s tops if they’re all Leonardo’s? And what so great about them anyway?

Mind you, City Of Death isn’t just The Douglas Adams Show. Director Michael Hayes does an excellent job in realising the script’s humour, twists and turns and ambitions. Plus, while clearly relishing the story and comedy, Baker’s in his element as our hero, as is Ward as companion Romana. Moreover, the casting of quality, familiar TV faces Julian Glover and Catherine Schell as the villain and villainess is up there with the best guest casting in the show’s history (cf. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot in 1977′s The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) and Tom Chadbon’s Duggan makes for a fine foil to all the sci-fi-informed characters around him.

And special mention too must go to a pair of Who story facets that rarely get acknowledged, namely the music and the locations. City Of Death was – maybe surprisingly, given its era of production was the economically depressed, fag end of the ’70s – the first Who serial to feature overseas filming and a good deal of it at that; the Parisian locales adding (up to that point) unique, nay unparalleled atmos, style and class to proceedings (‘a bouquet’, you might say). And regular incidental music composer Dudley Simpson’s work is particularly satisfying – and unusually memorable. The theme that plays over The Doc, Romana and Duggan’s haring around Paris’s streets complements the on-location work perfectly, even adding the mostly comedy-first story an authentic, thriller-esque dimension.

The final word here, though, has to go to those unforgettable few seconds right before the story’s final climax – those two art lovers’ utter guff over why the TARDIS is such a deserving ‘modern art’ piece belonging in the gallery in which The Doc’s parked it (see video clip above). This double cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, brilliant veterans of British screen comedy already by this point, add a totally unexpected but utterly perfect moment as The Doctor, Romana and Duggan sweep past them, into the TARDIS and the latter disappears. It’s the quintessential example of Doctor Who stepping out of itself and straight back in that this serial is all about.

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As so often with great Who stories of lore, the omens weren’t good for City Of Death. It began life as The Gamble With Time, a 1920s-set adventure in which an alien poses as a human playboy whose wife’s gambling finances his time experiments. It was conceived by David Fisher, author of the previous season’s efforts The Stones Of Blood and The Androids Of Tara (both 1978). Fisher, however, was going through a particularly messy divorce when called on by producer Graham Williams to deliver a final script, in which case then the task of delivering it fell to Williams’ script editor Douglas Adams.

The latter, after struggling for years, had at last – and all at once – landed on his feet. He was fresh from his big success with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series (1978), plus had just seen his set-to-be-even-bigger-success, the book based on the former, published, and was now of course slogging away as the official overseer/ re-writer of Who‘s scripts. And this particular re-writing job truly was one, requiring Adams to churn out four 25-minute-long episodes in practically no time at all. He was then, clichéd as it may be, holed up in Williams’ home and, fuelled by whisky and coffee, somehow managed to get it done in a single weekend. The rest, of course, is history. So much so, in fact, that Adams re-used elements of his script for that of his fellow brilliant (but ultimately only half-filmed) effort this season Shada (1979) and his later novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987).

Although filming overseas – not least in a place as aspirational (to the late ’70s British mentality, no doubt) as Paris – was an exciting first for Doctor Who, the reality was far from glamorous. Not only was there a lot of rain, the schedule forced the crew to cross the channel on May Day weekend when many establishments were closed – even a pre-selected café, the rattling of whose door-handle during one scene caused the business’s alarm to go off and the thesps and crew to, well, have to scarper. Also, according to a later interview with Adams, along with Ken Grieve, director of the next story to be filmed that season (Destiny Of The Daleks, which was broadcast directly before City Of Death), on an impulse he jetted off to Paris because he hadn’t been invited to the ‘glamorous’ location. Once they got there, though, neither found themselves particularly welcome as everyone else was hard at work. The pair then spent the evening and night drinking in Parisian bars before flying back to Blighty – essentially, for Adams’ part, so he could boast to anyone who’d listen in BBC TV Centre next day what he’d just done.

Cast-wise, City Of Death affords Who two of its strongest connections to the world of 007 (one of any number of reasons why I love this story, must confess). Both Julian Glover (Scarlioni/ Tancredi/ Scaroth) and Catherine Schell (Countess Scarlioni) would feature or already had featured in supporting roles in James Bond films; Glover as similarly smooth villain Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Schell as one of Blofeld’s delectable ‘Angels of Death’ in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Moreover, Glover had already played Richard The Lionheart in the Who story The Crusaders (1965) and would achieve maximum fame as General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and as, yes, smooth villain Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989), while Schell had co-starred opposite Peter Sellers in The Return Of The Pink Panther (1976) and as a regular player in Gerry Anderson’s TV series Space 1999 (1975-78).

Worth noting too is the fact John Cleese and Eleanor Bron were roped into making their cameos thanks to Douglas Adams knowing them from his Cambridge Footlights days and working – certainly with Cleese – on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74). Lalla Ward, however, had nobody but herself to blame for the highly flattering letters she received from many a red-blooded male thanks to choosing to wear a schoolgirl’s uniform costume throughout – she apparently, and most naïvely, did so because she hated wearing them at school and thought girls watching the programme would enjoy doing the same more if they saw Romana in one.

The boast above that, in terms of original broadcasts, City Of Death remains the most popular Who serial ever isn’t an idle one. Its average audience (across all four episodes) of 14.5 million is exceedingly high in itself, but was boosted by the – now astounding – 16.1 million peeps who tuned in to watch Episode Four (comfortably the highest ever viewing figure for any Doctor Who broadcast) on October 20 1979, albeit a Saturday night when owing to industrial action ITV was forced into a black-out.

All in all then, although City Of Death dates from the much maligned humour-centric, Graham Williams-produced late era of Tom Baker’s tenure, there can surely be no question this generally derided time in the show’s history was well worth it, yes, for all its flaws and false notes, given it gave us this biggest, (possibly) best and definitely funniest of Doctor Who efforts. In the words of Eleanor Bron, exquiste… absolutely exquiste.

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Next time: The Five Doctors (Special/ 1983)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Season 14/ 1977/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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Tardis Party: Mary Tamm/ Lalla Ward ~ Time Ladies

September 13, 2013

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Talent…

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… These are the lovely ladies and gorgeous girls of eras gone by whose beauty, ability, electricity and all-round x-appeal deserve celebration and – ahem – salivation here at George’s Journal

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Yes, this blog’s celebration – in the show’s golden anniversary year – of all things Doctor Who (not least the eye-catching, er, eye candy it’s offered watching dads down through the years) continues apace, peeps, as we enter the late ’70s and the short but estimable era in which The Doc was accompanied on his TARDIS-steered adventures by a frighteningly fine pair of fillies from his own home-world. Yup, unequivocally then, for their original and regenerated guise, respectively, of Time Lady Romana, the simply marvellous Mary Tamm and the utterly wonderful Lalla Ward more than deserve their timely joint entrance into this blog’s Talent corner…
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Profiles

Names: Mary Tamm/ Sarah (Lalla) Ward

Nationalities: English

Professions: Actress/ Actress, author, illustrator

Born: March 22 1950, Bradford, Yorkshire (Died: July 26 2012)/ June 28 1951, London, England

Known for: Mary – originating the role of The Doctor’s only companion from his home planet Gallifrey, Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana for short) in Doctor Who (1963-present). However, she played the role – a highly intelligent, capable, attractive and wonderfully well tailored Time Lady – for one season only (1978-79′s 16th, loosely known as The Key To Time), citing the character reverting too much to a ‘damsel in distress’ type the reason for her decision to move on. Prior to her brush with Who, she appeared in memorable supporting roles in the films The Odessa File (1973) and The Likely Lads (1976) and later enjoyed leading roles in the BBC dramas The Treachery Game (1980) and The Assassination Run (1981) and sitcom The Hello, Goodbye Man (1984), as well as between 1993 and ’96 in the Channel 4 soap Brookside (1982-2003) and another drama for the Beeb  Paradise Heights (2002). Sadly, she died last year, aged just 62.

Lalla – daughter of Edward Ward, the seventh Viscount Bangor (thus descended from both the English medieval kings Edward IV and Richard III), Lalla left school aged 14, impressively taking her O-Levels on her own, to pursue an acting career. Her big break came in the Hammer horror film Vampire Circus (1972), after which she won a long-running role in the BBC drama The Duchess Of Duke Street (1976-77) and guest spots in The Protectors (1972-74), Van der Valk (1972-77) and The Professionals (1978-81), while she played a young Elizabeth I in the cinematic adaptation of The Prince And The Pauper (1977) and starred as Ophelia opposite Derek Jacobi in the BBC’s 1980 version of Hamlet. She succeeded Tamm in the role of Romana in Season 17 (1979-80) of Who after first appearing in the previous season’s serial The Armageddon Factor (1979) as Princess Astra. She remained The Doc’s faithful and (more than close?) companion until midway though Season 18 (1980-81), Tom Baker‘s last. Indeed, she got on so well with the latter that they embarked on an affair, the result of which was a marriage – mind you, it only lasted 16 months. Later, through Douglas Adams (author of The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide To The Galaxy radio plays and books and Who script editor during her time on the show), she met scientist and infamous atheist Richard Dawkins, whom she subsequently married. Nowadays, she can be heard voicing characters in Who-related audio plays and narrating audiobooks and has also authored knitting and self-illustrated children’s books.

Strange but true: Tragically, just two weeks after her own death and literally hours after her funeral in the summer of 2012, Mary’s husband also died/ an illustrator and an amateur scientist, Lalla Ward’s great-grandmother was the first person documented to have died in a car crash.

Peak of fitness: Mary – her introduction in Who; in a long, langurous white dress, her hair up and showing a wee bit of leg in her first appearance in The Ribos Operation (1978) / Lalla – many would suggest her Romana in the naïvely chosen schoolgirl outfit in the wonderfully realised Who story City Of Death (1979), but I might just plump for her appearance in that oh-so fetching sailor-cum-Edwardian-boy’s-swimming-costume-number on Brighton beach in the following season’s The Leisure Hive (1980). Mmm…

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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (S14/ 1977)

September 10, 2013

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Elementary, my dear Magnus: The Doctor channels Sherlock Holmes as he faces a future war criminal against a backdrop of the Victorian theatre and London’s Chinese underworld

So, on the day we discovered the name-to-be of The Greatest Ever Sci-fi TV Show™‘s golden anniversary special (The Day Of the Doctor, no less), this very blog is also contributing its latest offering in celebration of Doctor Who‘s 50th year. Yes, this post, peeps, is George’s Journal‘s latest close-up look at/ review of a classic serial from the show’s past – and its focus is the acclaimed The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (i.e. Tom Baker‘s Sherlock Holmes one).

Yet, as this post hopefully points out, the Sherlock Holmes tributes are the least of all the goodness that Talons offers the viewer – it really is a treasure trove of late Victorian era-set adventuring. Oh yes…

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Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Companion: Louise Jameson (Leela)

Villains: Michael Spice (Magnus Greel/ Weng-Chiang); John Bennett (Li H’sen Chang); Deep Roy (Mr Sin)

Allies: Christopher Benjamin (Henry Gordon Jago); Trevor Baxter (Professor Litefoot)

Writer: Robert Holmes

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: David Maloney

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Season: 14 (sixth and final serial – six 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: February 26-April 2 1977

Total average viewers: 10.4 million

Previous serial: The Robots Of Death

Next serial: Horror Of Fang Rock (Season 15)

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Materialising his TARDIS in late Victorian London’s East End, The Doctor steps out into the foggy, chilly night sporting a deerstalker hat and a snazzy, large brown overcoat with his new companion, tribal-savage-cum-warrior and Earth descendant Leela. He’s intent on teaching her first-hand her ancestors’ cultural history by visiting a music hall, at the nearest of which (the Palace Theatre) a poster claims Chinese magician Li H’sen Chang is the current top-billed performer. Suddenly, the pair hear a scream and discover a band of Chinese hoodlums carrying away a man’s body. Leela catches one of their number, yet a policeman appears on the scene and, claiming her actions could be interpreted as causing affray, carts the three of them off to his police station.

There, as a sergeant questions The Doctor and Leela, news comes through a heavily mauled body has been found nearby in the Thames, which The Doc assumes is that of the man. A chap now arrives at the station to act, he claims, as an interpreter for the arrested Chinese coolie. From his poster, the former is quickly recognised as Li H’sen Chang by The Doc – our hero brightly asks him to perform a trick, at which point the Chinese hoodlum instantly dies; ‘very good!’ marvels The Doctor. Unseen by him and the others, Chang had passed his compatriot a pill containing poison before leaving the station. The Doc, though, quickly takes control and concludes from a tattoo on the dead coolie’s wrist he was a member of ‘The Tong of the Black Scorpion’, a Chinese criminal organisation that is said to worship the god Weng-Chiang. He orders the sergeant to organise an autopsy on the body, for he suspects the cause of death to be from scorpion venom.

Arriving at the mortuary, The Doctor and Leela meet ace pathologist Professor Litefoot, whom having already performed an autopsy on the man murdered earlier, declares it bizarrely looks like he was attacked by a giant rodent (which doesn’t seem to surprise The Doctor at all). Indeed, the latter recalls that Weng-Chiang is considered a god of abundance, capable of making objects and beings grow to enormous sizes. With his suspicions of what might have mauled the man then, he and Leela depart for the city’s sewers where they quickly come face to face with a giant, very angry rat.

Escaping the over-sized, voracious rodent, the pair rejoin Litefoot, whom invites them both to his house for dinner. However, on the way The Doctor departs for the Palace Theatre, the last known whereabouts of the murdered man. There, he meets the manager, the amiably animated Henry Gordon Jago, whom The Doc suspects has been hypnotised by his contracted magician Mr Chang, thus hypnotises him himself but finds out little. However, Jago realises the monogram ‘EB’ on a lady’s glove he’d found in the theatre earlier must stand for ‘Emma Buller’, whose husband (the murdered man) had earlier visited the theatre to demand of Chang what he had done with her, as she had volunteered to be part of his magic act and had promptly disappeared.

The two descend into the theatre’s cellar where they are chased by a figure wearing a leather hood that conceals his face and whom knocks out Jago and attempts to kill The Doc. Meanwhile, as Litefoot and Leela eat (the latter’s lack of any table manners bemusing the former), he notices someone lurking outside, so investigates with his gun, while she’s suddenly faced by a midget brandishing a knife whom, seemingly, has a Chinese-like wooden face.

Henry Gordon Jago: Curious coves these Chinese – I’d have propelled him on to the pavement with a punt up the posterior!

The naturally athletic Leela manages to escape her diminutive would-be assailant by jumping through a window, then hitches a ride on the carriage transporting Chang and the midget as they flee the scene. Recovering to Litefoot’s house, The Doctor takes an interest in a cabinet in the former’s dining room he claims is a souvenir from his family’s time in China; to his bemusement, The Doc considers it looks like it might be a time machine from Earth’s future, yet a small, key component that would fit in its front is missing.

Meanwhile, Leela observes as Chang hypnotises a prostitute into accompanying him to the theatre and, once arrived there, Leela switches with the girl as Chang goes away to find another – a cleaner in the theatre itself. Taking the two of them down to the cellar, Chang hands them over to the hooded figure, whom he addresses as Weng-Chiang, his master. The latter places the cleaner girl into a cupboard-like cabinet he refers to as a ‘distillation chamber’, which will transfer her ‘life essence’ to him. Leela, however, attacks him and tries to free the girl from the chamber – only to discover she’s dead, her skin utterly dried out (this presumably was what also happened to Emma Buller). Escaping, she enters the sewers again and is faced by a giant rat once more; she’s saved by The Doctor, whom has been investigating the local waterways and sewers with Litefoot, as he shoots the rat with an elephant gun borrowed from the professor.

The Doc and Leela return to Litefoot’s house, whom has bought an elegant dress for her as she and the Time Lord are set to attend a performance by Chang at the theatre; both he and Litefoot find the sight of Leela in the dress particularly ‘charming’. During the performance, Chang spies The Doctor and calls on him to assist with a ‘cabinet of death’ trick – clearly as a means to do away with him, as he had earlier promised an unconvinced Weng-Chiang he would. However, to the amusement of the audience, our man simply walks out of the back of the ‘cabinet of death’ and, once he has gone through the trick to its end, Chang opens the cabinet to find Jago’s theatre orderly inside, having been killed by Weng-Chiang, owing to his snooping about in the cellar. Now, Chang realises that Weng-Chiang – or whomever he is – is not a god; he has been duped into following a desperate, murderous false idol.

Backstage, The Doctor and Leela confront Chang, whom claims Weng-Chiang had appeared to him years earlier back in China, seeking out his help to look for a misplaced ‘time cabinet’ and requiring him to find young women whose ‘life essences’ he would absorb in order to survive.  It’s clear to all now that Weng-Chiang is a time-traveller and The Doctor believes is likely to be deformed (hence why he wears a hood), because although each time absorbs ‘life essence’ he maintains his own life, he also worsens his condition.  Jago now appears, having been forced to close the theatre, at which point Chang escapes into the sewers. The Doc and his companion return to Litefoot’s, only to discover the latter’s Chinese/ time cabinet has been stolen by Weng-Chiang and his midget, named Mr Sin, who’d been delivered to the house in a laundry basket earlier in the day. The two of them escape by carriage – but where to? Where’s their hideout?

Reading the address on the laundry basket, The Doc deduces this must be the site of The Tong of the Black Scorpion’s – and Weng-Chiang’s – HQ. Once there, he and Leela come across a blissed-out but pathetic Chang smoking opium. Before he dies from his wounds from a giant sewer rat, he leaves our hero a ‘Chinese puzzle’ of a clue to their quest: ‘beware the eyes of the dragon’. Meanwhile, having recovered a carpet-bag from the theatre’s cellar, Jago journeys to Litefoot’s, looking to pass it on to The Doctor. The two Victorians examine its contents – highly advanced time-travel technology bits-and-bobs they can make neither head nor tail of, but which includes a crystalline roundel. Brimming with adventure, though, the pair decide to take off to the Chinese laundry/ Tong hideout on their own in a bid to help The Doc.

Leela: This is a big village
The Doctor: Yes
Leela: What’s the name of the tribe here?
The Doctor: Cockneys

As soon as they arrive there, though, they’re captured by Weng-Chiang’s coolies, the latter threatening to kill Jago unless Litefoot reveals to him where the time cabinet’s key is (for he cannot operate the former without the latter) – describing it perfectly as the carpet-bag’s crystalline roundel. Under pressure then, Litefoot confesses it’s back at his house, whence Weng-Chiang, Mr Sin and his hoodlums set off again to recover it. However, The Doc and Leela have now returned here too and, the latter having found the time cabinet’s key and recognising it instantly for what it is, gather together as many potential weapons in the house as possible, for they rightly anticipate Weng-Chiang will try to ambush them. As his goons infiltrate the house, Weng-Chiang attacks an off-guard Leela in the dining room, whom defends herself and, in doing so, pulls away the face-mask of the former’s hood to reveal a terribly deformed face.

The Doc returns to the room, faced by Weng-Chiang, whom has knocked out Leela. Weng-Chiang believes he holds the upper hand and demands the Gallifreyan hand over the time cabinet’s key. However, knowing full well that the key would break into hundreds of pieces if he dropped it, the latter makes a deal – he’ll hand over the thing at the hideout so long as Weng-Chiang leaves Leela behind and frees Jago and Litefoot. The villain reluctantly agrees. Once there, Weng-Chiang reveals his true identity; he is Magnus Greel, a war criminal responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths in the 51st Century and a dabbler in time-travel experiments.

Leela has followed them to the hideout, but having been captured is ordered by Greel to be placed in his distillation machine. The Doctor disables the latter, though, and declaring Greel finished, pleads with him not to place the key in the front of his time cabinet and attempt to use it, as his time-travel experiments are seriously flawed – it will cause a huge implosion and wipe out London. Greel ignores him and orders Mr Sin to mount the back of a giant dragon statue and fire lasers at his foes, which emanate from the statue’s eyes (‘beware the eyes of the dragon’).

As The Doc, Jago and Litefoot take cover, Leela recovers a discarded pistol and shoots out the dragon’s eyes, disabling the laser, thus allowing The Doctor to grab Greel seconds before he activates his time machine and throw him into his distillation cabinet. Instantly, the latter crumples into nothing, having undergone a cellular collapse, and the former destroys the key. Yet everyone seems to have forgotten Mr Sin. The latter suddenly jumps Leela, only for The Doc to jerk him away from her and pull out of his back his computer core – he was actually a robot with a pig’s cerebral cortex. Taken by Greel from c. 5000 AD, Sin was known as the ‘Peking Homonculus’, created for aristocratic children, but owing to its pig brain loved carnage and nearly caused World War Three. Phew!

Their work complete, the foursome walk to the TARDIS, Litefoot trying to teach Leela the fineties of fine tea, as they do so. The Doctor and his companion warmly bid Jago and Litefoot farewell, the former pointing out that the TARDIS, as it dematerialises before them, is The Doctor’s transport, whom he’s decided is a detective extraordinaire with extraordinary devices working for Scotland Yard, hence why he travels in a remarkable ‘police box’…

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The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is easily one of the best Doctor Who serials – and, truly, a contender for the very best of them all. Quite simply, there isn’t facet in which it doesn’t excel. It’s a whip-cracker of a story that snaps along from one episode’s climax and cliffhanger to the next, back and forth between locations and full of time-travel complications, music hall paraphernalia and evil diminutive pig-brained cyborgs. Like, well, all the best serials from this mid-’70s era of Who, it was written by the show’s script editor of the time, Robert Holmes – and, boy, did he know what he was doing.

He references practically everything that was worth referencing from late Victorian/ early 20th Century exotic adventure fiction/ myth: Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (The Doctor’s get-up and detail-reliant detecting; Jago and Litefoot’s varying roles as Watson to The Doc’s Holmes; Litefoot’s housekeeper ‘Mrs Hudson’; the line ‘Elementary, my dear, Litefoot’); Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu stories (a mustachioed Chinese villain in the East End perpetuating a ‘Yellow Peril’); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and the late Victorian Jack the Ripper hysteria (an evil entity kidnapping/ murdering young, attractive women with sexual undertones), Gaston Leroux’s original The Phantom Of The Opera tale from 1909 (a deformed man hiding beneath a theatre and putting under his control, again, young, attractive women) and even George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion (Leela’s educating of her cultural ancestry by The Doc and genteel society by Litefoot and her wearing a beautiful dress bought by the latter).

Holmes takes all this Victoriana and Chinoiserie then and mixes them into a rich, heady brew that also, of course, features necessary Who ingredients, not least the sci-fi element of a fallen, flawed egotist whose time-travelling ambitions have destroyed him – and could destroy The Big Smoke. Plus, lest we forget, this serial was the introduction to the show of (what would become) the pivotal 51st Century of the ‘Whoniverse’, which Moffat’s ‘NuWho’, in particular, would build on with the likes of time agents such as Captain Jack Harkness, rebels like River Song and villains in the shape of Madame Kovarian and her ‘priest army’.

But Robert Holmes doesn’t deserve of all the credit. Director David Maloney (himself arguably already a great Who helmer – 1969′s The War Games, 1975′s Genesis Of The Daleks and 1976′s The Deadly Assassin) pitches the tone exactly right; balancing the requisite thrills and spills – including a thoroughly satisfying climax – with slower, character-driven, dramatic scenes that bring to life the sparkling dialogue spouted by practically all of the characters (especially the verbose, alliterative-admiring Jago – see first quote in the ‘Doctor What?’ section above).

Ah, the characters… Talons boasts surely the greatest supporting double-act in the show’s history. Jago and Litefoot are a magnificent creation – a Cockney opportunist/ Victorian gentleman academic odd-couple wonderfully realised by their players Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. They don’t actually meet until the fifth of the six episodes, but prove a perfect pairing as soon as they do – in fact, so perfect is it, it sort of feels as if they’ve known each other the whole story.

Indeed, the fact that this is a six-episode-long serial is also moot. For, unlike some of the long stories of Who lore, at no point does it lag – least of all in the middle, the point at which many of its ilk tend to droop. From its cracking start (‘NuWho’ originator Russell T Davies has claimed Episode One is the best example of TV drama-writing imaginable, and who’s to argue?) to its exciting end, Talons is utterly terrific.

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Producer Philip Hinchcliffe has in recent times claimed he doesn’t feel Robert Holmes consciously referenced all this serial’s literary/ mythic influences, believing the writer plucked them from the ether of inspiration and organically worked them in. That’s surely debatable, but what isn’t is Talons‘ origins as a different story entirely. At first, the sixth and final story of Who‘s 14th – and, in fact, Hinchcliffe’s final – season was to be written by Robert Banks Stewart (who had scripted, among others, the excellent serials that were 1975′s Terror Of The Zygons and 1976′s The Seeds Of Doom) and entitled The Foe From The Future, featuring a time-traveller attempting to take over a Devon village.

Fate rarely plays a hand in the fictional science-is-king world of Doctor Who, but in the show’s behind-the-scenes world, it often does. For Stewart was took up a role offered by ITV to run a soap opera and so wasn’t available to turn his treatment for The Foe From The Future into a script, thus, as script editor, Holmes was tasked to re-write it. Obviously he did more than that – he took merely its time-traveller from the future element (Magnus Greel) and shaped an entirely new story around it.

Of particular interest in how Talons came to the screen is its locations. Unusually, perhaps, much of the ‘outside broadcast’ bits that are supposed to be set in and around Limehouse in London’s East End were actually filmed in and around Limehouse; the show’s team pretty much being able to shoot in the real locations as written in the script. This filming usually took place in the middle of the night (much of the serial is set at night) and, in one scene a giant bale of hay appears, which was in fact a street resident’s Porsche covered in a tarpaulin itself covered in hay, following its owner’s decision not to remove his prized car despite being asked to. The theatre that features prominently, though, isn’t in London at all. Its actually the Royal Theatre in Northampton, whose late Victorian building-date and thus appearance perfectly fitted what was needed. Featuring in a cameo as the composer of the theatre’s orchestra is Dudley Simpson, the show’s then incidental music composer.

Cast-wise, Talons certainly lucked out (as in so many other areas). Most prominently here, of course, are Christopher Benjamin (Jago) and Trevor Baxter (Litefoot). The former had already appeared in Who as an avuncular government minister in Inferno (1970), but like the latter, it could be said his career was defined by his Talons role. By the time of his casting for this story, Baxter was a seasoned thesp, having worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and written several stage plays, which he still does today. Indeed, Jago and Litefoot’s popularity with fans has proved so enduring that in recent years they’ve appeared in several of their own Doctor-less audio adventures.

Elsewhere, ‘Peking Homuncus’ Mr Sin was played by actor Deep Roy, whom has appeared in many other big and small screen fantasy favourites, such as Blake’s 7 (1978-80), Return Of The Jedi (1983), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Return To Oz (1985) and as Scotty’s ‘cute’ assistant Keenser in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and as ‘every’ oompa-lumpa in Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005). More controversial, mind you, is versatile and acclaimed actor John Bennett’s portrayal of Li H’sen Chang. Now, to my mind and those of many Who fans, he gives an excellent performance as the tragically exploited Chinese magician, yet down through the years, the fact he ‘yellow faced’ to do so (a Caucasian actor playing a South East Asian character à la Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in 1961′s Breakfast At Tiffany’s) has drawn its detractors, although unlike Rooney’s performance, his could hardly be called racist.

Criticism, though, could be more fairly levelled at some of the story’s treatment of its Chinese characters; not that there’s anything that could be called racist, but perhaps a little xenophobic – The Doctor, for instance, doesn’t call out anyone around him for their anti-Chinese statements, something that would be unthinkable in today’s ‘NuWho’. Still, it should be recalled that Talons was not made in 2007, but 1977; it dates then from a decade in which Britain was even less comfortable with immigration and outside cultural influence than this one. And, in any case, this factor should in no way detract from the undeniable quality on show in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and the excellent entertainment it provides – as Henry Gordon Jago might put it, to watch Talons is a practically perfect past-time; a positively unimpeachable experience.

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Next time: City Of Death (Season 17/ 1979)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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Playlist: Listen, my friends! ~ September 2013

September 1, 2013

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In the words of Moby Grape… listen, my friends! Yes, it’s the (hopefully) monthly playlist presented by George’s Journal just for you good people.

There may be one or two classics to be found here dotted in among different tunes you’re unfamiliar with or have never heard before – or, of course, you may’ve heard them all before. All the same, why not sit back, listen away and enjoy…

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CLICK on the song titles to hear them

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The Gals & Pals ~ Blue On Blue (1964)1

The Beach Boys ~ I Know There’s An Answer (1966)

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore ~ Bedazzled/ Love Me (1967)2

Cat Stevens ~ Tea For The Tillerman (1970)3

Agnetha Fältskog ~ Vart Skall Min Kärlek Föra (1972)4

Ronnie Hazelhurst (featuring Stephanie Reeves) ~ Theme from Are You Being Served? (1972-85)

Marvin Hamlisch ~ Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer/ The Ragtime Dance from The Sting (1973)

Captain Beefheart ~ Upon The My-O-My (1974)5 

Gil Scott Heron ~ Johannesburg (1976)

Marti Webb ~ Take That Look Off Your Face (1980)

Ryuichi Sakamoto ~ Theme from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

Blue Room ~ Every Time You Go Away (1987)6

The Four Tops ~ Loco In Acapulco (1988)7

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1 The Swedish group’s iconic version of the early Bacharach/ David tune; this take would be memorably sampled by Röyksopp on their 2001 hit So Easy

2 The double bill of Dudley Moore compositions from the classic Cook/ Moore comedy hit – both of which are performed in a Ready Steady Go! (1963-66)-style set; the first (sharing the film’s title) is performed by Cook’s Devil in the guise of ‘Drimble Wedge And The Vegetables’ and the second by Dud’s hero Stanley Moon as a pop star (thanks to the Devil granting him one of his wishes) before an adoring audience of teenyboppers

3 Cat Stevens’ short but fantastic tune from his album of the same name that many years later would become the theme for Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant’s excellent BBC comedy series Extras (2005-07)

ABBA megastar-to-be Agnetha performing a Swedish-language version of I Don’t Know How To Love Him dating from when she played the role of Mary Magdalene in an early ’70s Swedish touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar 

5 The oh-so idiosyncratic Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band performing this effort from their Unconditionally Guaranteed album (1974) on an edition of the Beeb’s late-night music showcase The Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast the same year

6 Hall & Oates’ 1980 pop ballad (four years later a huge hit for Paul Young; #1 in the US and #4 in the UK) as performed by band Blue Room on the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Steve Martin and John Candy-headlining, disaster-laden road movie comedy hit Planes Trains And Automobiles (1987)

7 The UK #4 hit that featured along with a couple of Phil Collins smashes (Two Hearts and his cover of A Groovy Kind Of Love) in The Great Train Robbery-themed Collins and Julie Walters-starring Brit rom-com Buster (1988); the tune itself was written by Collins and Lamont Dozier (one third of the legendary Motown writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland)

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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976)

August 31, 2013

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The wanderer returns: a companion-less Fourth Doctor is summoned back to his home planet Gallifrey where he’s embroiled in a devious assassination plot devised by his arch nemesis 

Coo, isn’t 2013 flying along? It’s nearly September and feels like it shouldn’t be any later than June. Well, at least that means one thing – yes, peeps, we’re getting ever nearer to the day the greatest sci-fi TV show of all-time Doctor Who (1963-present) marks its golden anniversary.

And, in its comprehensive (nay, time- and space-journeying) celebration of all things Who, this blog offers up the latest in its looks-back at/ reviews of outstanding serials from the show’s past. And this time it’s a big one, all right; the one that not only set in stone the look and feel of The Doc’s world Gallifrey, but also notoriously got Mary Whitehouse’s back up like never before. Deserving of celebration indeed, then ’tis The Deadly Assassin

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Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Villains: Peter Pratt (The Master); Bernard Horsfall (Chancellor Goth)

Allies: George Pravda (Castellan Spandrell); Erik Chitty (Co-ordinator Engin)

Writer: Robert Holmes

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: David Maloney

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Season: 14 (third of six serials – four 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: October 30-November 20 1976 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 12.2 million

Previous serial: The Hand Of Fear

Next serial: The Face Of Evil

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Having been summoned back to his home planet Gallifrey and, thus, having been forced to sadly depart from his maybe more-than-fondly-thought-of companion Sarah Jane Smith, The Doctor unwillingly pilots his TARDIS towards his destination, only to have an unpleasant vision – indeed, a premonition of the Gallifreyan President’s murder… by The Doctor himself (see video clip above).

Landing his TARDIS in the Citadel (the capital city that towers into the sky to a point and is the Time Lords’ home), he slips out, but not before leaving a note about his premonition for the security bods he knows will enter his TARDIS to find whom owns it – because, of course, when he left Gallifrey way back when, he borrowed (i.e. stole) the time- and space-ship, ensuring it’s unregistered. He’s almost immediately cornered by a guard, though, only for the latter to be killed by an assailant dressed in black robes.

The Gallifreyan security chief, the level-headed Castellan Sprandrell is angry that the guards have allowed a TARDIS thief – and seemingly the murderer of one of their number – to escape into the capital, while The Doc himself (disguised in the ostentatious ceremonial garb of the Time Lords) finds his way to the Panopticon, the Citadel’s great hall where the resignation of the very President whose ‘murder’ he witnessed/ carried out  is about to take place.

Here he converses, albeit evasively, with old classmate Runcible, now a newscaster, who’s covering the event for (one assumes) the equivalent of TV on Gallifrey. As our man chats, he spies across the hall a staser rifle resting next to an unattended camera. Rushing to it now, just as The President steps on to the stage opposite, he takes hold of the rifle, looks through its sights and seemingly shoots the former dead.

The Doc isn’t the assassin, of course – but the odds-on would-be-successor to the deceased President, Chancellor Goth, is sure he is and swiftly holds a trial to determine our hero’s innocence or (more likely, the way it’s going) his guilt. However, the latter has an ace up his sleeve and plays it, for he invokes an article of Gallifreyan law that ensures he’ll have time to prove he isn’t the assassin and find out who is. He declares he’s standing for the Presidency in addition to Goth, which means his sentencing will have to be put on hold until the election is completed. Another Chancellor, Borusa (The Doctor’s old teacher, whom appears to hold a prickly opinion of the latter) acknowledges his former student is within his rights to exploit this loophole in the law and declares he therefore has 24 hours to clear his name.

Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of ordered calm, protected against all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power. But this was to change. Suddenly, and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history… ~ The Doctor’s voice-over prologue that opens the first episode

Getting to work quickly, The Doc returns to the Panopticon with Spandrell and his underling Co-ordinator Engin in tow. There, the former points out he wasn’t aiming the staser that he fired at the President, but at the figure whom was surely the real assassin, a chap in black robes The Doctor spied at the last moment. He discovers he was unsuccessful in shooting the assassin, though, because the rifle’s sights are off, which Spandrell confirms, while The Doc also discovers the blast mark in the far wall his staser shot made. Could he be telling the truth? Could somebody be trying to elaborately frame him? Spandrell begins to think it’s a possibility.

Indeed, he believes it even more likely when, just as The Doctor suggests they check the ‘TV’ camera’s barrel (for surely it would have recorded the actual assassin), they hear Runcible scream in terror. He’s discovered the camera barrel is empty of film and in its place is the cameraman – miniaturised. Suddenly, things become much clearer for The Doc; death-by-miniaturising is one of the favourite forms of murder of his sworn enemy, renegade Time Lord The Master. Instantly, having departed to try to find the film, Runcible wheels back towards them, a knife in his back; he dies within in seconds.

Curiously, neither Spandrell nor Engin are aware of The Master’s existence, claiming there’s no record of him in the Matrix – a database that taps into the minds of past ‘saved’ and present ‘living’ minds of every Time Lord, which among other things operates as an effective forecaster of future events. Engin is responsible for maintaining the Matrix and is thus flummoxed, in particular; The Doctor’s adamant however – for The Master to be wiped from it (presumably by his own hand or that of an accomplice enmeshed in the Citadel) there must be another unknown ‘entry point’ into the network, which one of them accessed.

This, The Doc reasons, was why he had a premonition of himself ‘murdering’ the President; it was generated and sent to his mind and then all trace of it deleted along with The Master’s details. There’s nothing for it then, he decides, he must interface – or, essentially, ‘go into’ – the Matrix and find who’s been manipulating it, as the culprit will most likely be the assassin. Spandrell and Engin stress how dangerous this will be, but The Doc won’t be swayed – he has no choice; he has to do it.

Once inside the Matrix, he finds himself in a reality seemingly created and shaped by its interloper, which gives the latter a distinct advantage as a battle of wills takes place between the two. It’s a hostile terrain that, one moment, takes the manner of a sliding, shale-rock-filled quarry and, the next moment, a tropical-like jungle. Outside the Matrix, Spandrell and Engin observe the ‘virtual’ physical trials The Doctor is undergoing (almost being struck by a by-plane, escaping a train within seconds of it running him down and journeying for what feels like miles and miles and hours on hours with an injured, bleeding leg – see bottom video clip) are taking a huge toll on his mind, and fear he may not be able to survive it. There’s a danger too The Master’s accomplice, we discover, we may not make it out of the Matrix alive either, as hiding elsewhere in the Citadel, The Master (the figure in the black robes of before, but now a husk of a humanoid that’s little more than a skeleton) turns up the power with which they’re manipulating the network to maximum, despite the pleading of his unseen accomplice.

The Doctor: What was his plan?

Assassin: [Dying] Couldn’t… fight… his mental dominance. Did everything he asked. Sorry now

The Doctor: What was…

Engin: It’s no use, Doctor

The Doctor: No answer to a straight question. Typical politician

Eventually, The Doctor gains the upper hand in this nightmarish ‘reality’ over his opponent – in the guise of a big-game hunter with a rifle and a netted hood over his face; a hood that the former manages at least to remove – only to discover his enemy (and presumably the assassin) is none other than Goth. A tussle ensues, during which Goth unsuccessfully attempts to ‘drown’ The Doctor in a lake. The manufactured world of the Matrix begins to burn around them and The Doc manages to escape and – only just – regain consciousness. He informs Spandrell and Engin of the assassin’s true identity and they hasten to his and The Master’s lair, having been able now to trace its location via the Matrix.

There the trio discover The Master lifeless and seemingly dead and Goth on the verge of dying, owing to the further power surge pushed into the Matrix and the toll of his ‘mind battle’ with The Doctor. He confesses, having discovered The Master near death (the evil Time Lord at the end of his regeneration cycle of 13 ‘lives’), he brought him back to Gallifrey and devised with him the intricate plan they almost pulled off by which he’d definitely gain the Presidency. Before the other three can learn what The Master would have got out of it, though, Goth slips away, leaving The Doc uneasily feeling The Master surely wouldn’t have accepted ultimate death as easily as it seems he has.

Linking what Goth would practically have gained in assuming The Presidency to what The Master could have gained – the actual seals of office of The President, the ceremonial relics that are the Sash and Rod of Rassilion (the latter being a legendary Time Lord whom original harnessed ‘Time Lord power’ and created Gallifrey’s society), The Doctor learns that it is precisely these two accoutrements that can act as tools to open the Eye of Harmony (the heart of a black hole that Rassilion captured and from which he derived Time Lord power), which lies beneath the Panopticon. Indeed, he and the dignitaries soon discover that The Master has faked his death and stolen the Sash and Rod and, clearly then, wishes to use them to open the Eye in order to jump-start his regeneration cycle – even though doing so will destroy Gallifrey.

Reaching The Master just in time, The Doc wrestles with him, as the entire Citadel begins to shake and start to break up owing to the Eye being opened. Yet, The Master slips and falls through a fissure in the floor and the former is able to close the Eye before the city – and the planet – are destroyed. Accordingly, Borusa (dismayed at all the damage) accepts The Doctor has saved the day, as well as Spandrell’s explanation of how he was framed and who really murdered the President, thus he drops the charges against The Doc so long as he leaves Gallifrey. This our hero is only too happy to do – although Spandrell witnesses a survived Master also fleeing the scene in his own TARDIS, which is disguised as a grandfather clock. Nonetheless, Borusa grudgingly gives The Doctor a mark of ‘nine out of ten’ for his efforts…

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Why is The Deadly Assassin such an essential Doctor Who serial? Because it’s utterly unique while, conversely, also fitting very much in the mould of a classic Who story – and does both of these brilliantly, ensuring it’s easily one of the best adventures of The Doc’s long back catalogue of escapades.

First up, distinguishing itself from every other ‘Classic’ serial ever made (and every Doctor Who story ever made apart from – at my count – the late Tennant specials The Next Doctor from 2008 and The Waters Of Mars from 2009), The Deadly Assassin features no companion whatsoever for its protagonist. It boasts allies, sure, in the shape of Spandrell, Engin and to a lesser extent Borusa and Runcible, but as The Doc’s been forced to dump (arguably his greatest ever) companion Sarah Jane at the end of the directly preceding story The Hand Of Fear (1976), as she can’t accompany him to Gallifrey, he has to visit his home planet entirely on his tod. Indeed, this too ensures there’s not even a single human being in any of the story’s four episodes. Another first and only for the series?

It’s something of an experiment, for sure, but as a one-off it works – with TARDIS-like cloister bells on. Caught up in The Master’s near-ingenious murderous scheme, with all its high political machinations, and framed as the killer, at times The Doc’s left more singularly alone than we ever usually see him, emphasising then the trap into which he’s fallen among the people one not versed in what makes him tick would think he’d feel most at home.

Secondly, we have that assassination/ political-underbelly-revealing plot. Like so many from Who‘s ’70s golden age, it was dreamt up by then script editor Robert Holmes (other classics of his being 1975′s The Ark In Space, much of 1975′s Pyramids Of Mars and 1977′s The Talons Of Weng-Chiang). It’s an absolute humdinger, full of thrills, spills and marvellously imaginative ideas (especially the ‘virtual reality’ of the Matrix). The influence of Richard Condon’s iconic brainwashed-assassin-themed novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) – and its subsequent, equally iconic 1962 Hollywood adaptation – is clear to see to any fan of US literature and cinema, yet Holmes does far more than turn out a sci-fi take on a cultural classic of political corruption gone wild.

Fusing wit and irony to the proceedings throughout, in Assassin he and director David Maloney arguably don’t give us a fascinating (and smartly constructed) window on to the running of Gallifrey’s Time Lord society, but instead deconstruct the whole thing as they show it to us, gently satirsing the everyday oneupmanships, frippery, corruption and cover-ups that take place in governments and the running of powerful states.

If you doubt that, consider Borusa’s starched, unyieldingly (supposedly) upstanding demeanour at the end despite all that’s happened and his unchanged attitude to The Doctor, Runcible’s smug reaction to our man’s black sheep-like return to the fold in spite of the former being merely an establishment-connected TV presenter and the general slow, lumbering, ceremonial-filled, millennia-old ways of Gallifreyan society. The Deadly Assassin has as much in common with Yes Minister (1980-84) and Yes Prime Minister (1986-88) or the humour of a top sketch from That Was The Week That Was (1961-63) as it does with, say, Inferno (1970) or The Dæmons (1971).

Yes, all right, there are two or three quibbles. The otherwise gloriously OTT Time Lord costumes look a little too plastic (and sadly cheap) not to be distracting, The Doctor himself surrenders his overcoat, hat and – sacrilege! – scarf throughout (although this just emphasises the serial’s difference and its different treatment of the character, plus he looks pretty cool in just his white shirt and burgundy bottoms) and, of course, the story’s title itself is an example of monstrous tautology, yet ultimately these points simply can’t detract from Assassin‘s unquestioned quality and iconoclasm.

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As mentioned above, Assassin‘s status as an experiment of a Who story is no exaggeration – apparently Baker had suggested to mid-’70s era producer Philip Hinchcliffe that, upon Elisabeth Sladen‘s departure from the series, the show – and maybe more specifically he – could go it alone without a companion and change the thing from a two- to a one-hander drama.

Oddly, given the terrific thing the serial turned out to be (yet, for the sake of the show to come, it was surely the right decision), Hinchcliffe deemed the result mixed and the idea of Baker leading the show alone not to be its future – maybe he could envisage the perhaps excessive artistic influence Baker might wield in the years to come? Although, maybe a bigger concern was that Holmes had actually found it especially challenging to write a story in which The Doctor had no companion to bounce thoughts, ideas and plans off – the essential role, one might argue, of his companion. Louise Jameson made her debut as The Fourth Doc’s new companion Leela in the following story, The Face Of Evil (1976).

This serial too, lest we forget, marked the height of ‘TV standards’ campaigner (read: media prude extraordinaire) Mary Whitehouse’s obsession with Doctor Who. The cliffhanger at the end of the third episode (in which Goth holds The Doc’s head underwater attempting to drown him) was the moment that broke the camel’s back for her; she claimed children could be damaged by it as they wouldn’t know whether he’d survived it for at least a week – although the show had been offering up cliffhangers of that exact nature for years. What was new about it perhaps, was it’s visceral nature – it’s seen been cited a classic exemplar of the Hichcliffe/ Holmes old-school horror/ terror-influenced era.

A particularly intriguing point cast-wise concerns Bernard Horsfall, whom played The Master’s stooge Goth. Outside of Who, he’s maybe best recalled as 007′s ill-fated MI6 colleague in the George Lazenby-starring Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); inside Who, he’d previously appeared in the serials The Mind Robber (1968), in which he portrayed Lemuel Gulliver, The War Games (1969) and Planet of the Daleks (1973). In the second of those two stories he also played a Time Lord, whom because he’s unnamed, many have suggested may be Goth in younger years – probably not, but it’s interesting to speculate.

Elsewhere, following the sadly premature death of the great Roger Delgado, the role of The Master (in a very different guise to that of Delgado’s goatee-bearded, devilish smoothie) was taken by Peter Pratt, a thesp famed for his stage roles, especially Gilbert and Sullivan operas, while Czech actor George Pravda (Spandrell) also appeared in the Bond film Thunderball (1965) as an Eastern European scientist.

Aside from Baker, none of Assassin‘s thesps would appear in the show again, but their characters would. Angus McKay’s Borusa cropped up again at the end of the following series in the also Gallifrey-set The Time Warrior (1977), as well as in Arc Of Infinity (1983) and, most notably of all, in the 30th anniversary-celebrating special The Five Doctors (1983) – although in these three serials the character was played by John Arnatt, Leonard Sachs and Philip Latham respectively. Just like Borusa, the Time Lord society (its disciplined dedication to its stuffy traditions, its lofty stand-above-it-all attitude to the universe, its political machinations and its look as established in Assassin) was to appear over and again in the ‘Classic’ series and eventually in the ‘timelocked’-era of the ‘NuWho’ The End Of Time specials (2009-10).

The very model for Gallifrey then was established – and has never better presented than – in The Deadly Assassin. No question, few stories in the show’s history have looked through the sights and pulled the trigger as well as this Gallifreyan juggernaut.

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Next time: The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Season 14/ 1977)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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Purrfectly pink/ Diamond geysers? The Pink Panther (1963)/ A Shot In The Dark (1964) ~ Reviews

August 26, 2013

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A few weeks ago, I kicked-off (yet) a(nother) ‘summer season special’ here at George’s Journal in the shape of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the not to be underestimated, mostly very funny Pink Panther comedy film series – and have punctuated it since with a couple of pictorial-based posts dedicated to the beauty of four of its female co-stars Capucine/ Claudia Cardinale and Elke Sommer/ Catherine Schell. Now, however, it’s time to take that blog season by the Clouseau-esque trenchcoat lapels and really get it properly going with my thoughts on (i.e. reviews of) the first pair of Pink Panther movies – the one, the only (well, actually, the first and original) The Pink Panther and it’s direct sequel A Shot In The Dark. Cue Henry Mancini…

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(The Pink Panther) Directed by: Blake Edwards; Starring: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Capucine, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, Colin Gordon, John Le Mesurier and Fran Jeffries; Screenplay by: Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin; US; 110 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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A cynic might say the funniest thing about The Pink Panther is that of all The Pink Panther films it’s the least ‘Pink Panther’ film. Personally, I’d probably put it in more conciliatory terms: although not as laugh-packed as most of its succeedents, the first in the universally known comedy blockbuster series is unlike many of the others, its charms arguably being more unexpected and, in a way, more intriguing.

Distinguishable from its wholly Peter Sellers-fronted, mostly slapstick-fuelled sequels, The Pink Panther is actually a smooth, luxuriant, Euro-exotic crime caper that was intended as a star-vehicle for the talents of the debonair David Niven as charming rake Sir Charles Lytton (who’s secretly jewel thief extraordinaire ‘The Phantom’), but of course the movie was stolen by supporting player Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the French Sûreté, who’s tasked with tracking down the former – whom vainly always leaves a white silk glove engraved with a capital ‘P’ at the scene of his crimes – when its assumed he’ll attempt to steal the most expensive diamond in the world, the ‘Pink Panther’, from its owner the gorgeous Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale) of the fictional Lugash colony, as she visits the exclusive ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo.

The film then has arguably more in common with glamorous Hollywood capers of the ’50s and ’60s like To Catch A Thief (1956), Charade (1963) and Topkapi (1964) than the other Pink Panther flicks. Taking a cue from the urbane persona of Niven himself, much of its tone and pacing is relaxed; the photography only too happy to languidly make the most of the Alpine locations, while the slow-tempo action’s perfectly accompanied by Henry Mancini‘s score, oozing classy, jazzy melodies and motifs. Indeed, at one point an entire scene’s given over – far from unpleasantly, though – to a performance by singer Fran Jeffries of the Mancini/ Johnny Mercer song name-checked in the movie’s iconically animated opening titles, Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight).

And things are so relaxed, at other times they’re even horizontal – in one scene mid-way through, Dala lies prostrate on a tiger-skin rug getting plastered on champagne as Niven’s Lytton attempts to seduce her (so he may get his mits on the diamond), but it’s such a slow carry-on – especially the by-play – it’s maybe not surprising the seduction doesn’t work at all. More critically, the movie’s two major set-pieces – a costume party at which the diamond’s theft and its thief’s capture are finally attempted and a subsequent multi-car chase through the night-time streets of Rome – both suffer from a lack of haste.

Yet, what elevates The Pink Panther into something truly memorable (and a huge box-office hit back in the day) is the presence of Sellers, of course. Clouseau may only be in his genesis here (he plays a violin dreadfully rather than executing the karate chops and leaps to come), yet he’s already a wonderful creation of Buster Keaton-like big screen buffoonery. For instance, thanks to his inexplicable insistence on wearing a medieval knight’s suit of armour at the aforementioned costume party, his clanking about the shop, not being able to see where he’s going at all (as his visor keeps clanging shut), imbues the sequence with enough hilarity to more than save it.

Indeed, it’s his exaggerated facial expressions, pratfalls, misunderstandings and general incompetence that make the film – it’s faster and simply funnier when he’s on-screen and less satisfying when he’s not, even with the presence of fellow supporting actors Capucine (on fine comic form as his wife Simone, whom unbeknownst to him’s in total cahoots with Lytton) and an exceedingly young Robert Wagner as Lytton’s tearaway nephew George, whose inclusion, it must be said, unnecessarily complicates the plot.

Ultimately then, The Pink Panther is more a curate’s egg than a solid entry in the enduringly popular film series it spawned, being – as pointed out – really rather dissimilar to the entries that followed it. Yet, when it sprouts wings and flies, it truly does (just like the series’ other entries) and when it does so it’s with two classic Pink Panther film facets – first, the opening titles that introduce both the DePatie-Freleng cartoon Pink Panther and Mancini’s instantly recognisable theme and, second, the movie’s most satisfying and best slapstick sequence, which sees Clouseau and his wife prepare for bed while the latter tries to dispel the amorous Lytton and then the randy George from the hotel room without her husband noticing. Somewhere along the line a bottle of champagne accidentally erupts; just like the scene itself, it’s explosive, delightful and hilarious.

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(A Shot In The Dark)  Directed by: Blake Edwards; Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, George Sanders, Tracy Reed, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark and André Maranne; Screenplay by: Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty; US; 102 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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One uninitiated into all things Pink Panther might be fooled on first viewing A Shot In The Dark, going away with the impression it was the first in the series. It wasn’t, of course (as the above review and my other posts in this PP season very much attest), but it was with this follow-up flick (coming just months after the original’s release) that the ‘Pink Panther film’ really got going, really found its identity, truly connected with the public; in short, got its mojo.

Ironically, owing to the fact it neither features the words ‘Pink Panther’ in its title, nor the eponymous diamond or ‘The Phantom’ character in its plot, Shot could be said actually not to be a Pink Panther movie; however, that’s just technicalities. For so many tenets of the series were established in this picture: Clouseau (Sellers) taking centre-stage, adopting his ‘reedeeculoos’ French accent, his trademark trenchcoat and tweed trilby and somehow attracting and maintaining a gorgeous female love interest (Elke Sommer‘s lovely Maria Gambrelli); the introduction of Herbert Lom’s utterly marvellous Sûreté superior officer, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and his murder-causing insane hatred of his hapless inferior; plus, of course Burt Kwouk’s  mad manservant Cato, whom never misses a chance to put his employer Clouseau through his karate training paces – at any time, at any place.

Based on a French play adapted for the US stage, it was initially scripted by William Peter Blatty (who’d achieve absolute pay-dirt status nine years later when his screenplay of his own novel The Exorcist was turned into the notorious monster horror hit), on which Blake Edwards started collaborating as he was completing the first Pink Panther flick. The plot then, ostensibly a whodunnit, sees the seemingly useless Clouseau mis-assigned to a murder case at the manor house of a Parisian aristocrat (an as ever über-urbane George Sanders), for which his beautiful, possibly nymphomaniac maid (Sommer) is the chief suspect – so much so anyone in their right mind can’t see any scenario in which she couldn’t be the killer. Except Clouseau, of course, because he’s immediately fallen head over heels for her, and makes it his mission to prove her innocence, in spite of mounting corpses and his own incompetence.

Quality-wise, Shot is easily the best Pink Panther film. Its tight, witty, accomplished plotting ensures it stands out among its fellow Clouseau-featuring capers. And, while there’s the usual slapstick sequences (more than in The Pink Panther, less than in the later series entries), they’re carefully conceived and expertly realised – and most of them unexpected. We have Clouseau’s ridiculous attempts to go undercover and monitor Ms Gambrelli that repetitively get him arrested, then the pair going on a night of dates at each venue of which someone’s bumped off by accident instead of the intended target, Clouseau, and best of all, our hero following his would-be-lover to a location that he discovers all too late is a nudist camp – a sequence that builds to a crescendo of them both trapped in the nuddy in a very busy Parisian traffic jam.

Much credit must go to director Edwards. Already a dab-hand at helming films with smart, sassy humour and physical comedy (1959′s Operation Petticoat and 1961′s Breakfast At Tiffany’s), he dials down the aspirational, glamorous style and tone of The Pink Panther and ups the character-driven comedy and slapstick to suit his upgraded star Sellers – or, more specifically, the latter’s genius character. It’s true that, like its predecessor, Shot‘s certainly a glossy piece of work (more so than the ’70s Pink Panthers, which look and feel very much of that decade), but being a detective comedy based around a manor house, the exoticism of the previous film is gone and, in its place, there’s far more Clouseau and far more gags that land – indeed, many of them positively zing, both visual and verbal (“Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world”/ “Look at that, I have Africa all over my hand”/ “François, I just cut off my thumb”).

In the end, though, it’s hard not to suggest the lion’s share of Shot‘s effectiveness – and deserved success (it outgrossed the box-office big-hitter itself that was The Pink Panther) is down to Sellers. If the first film was his US break-out flick, it was this one that made him a Hollywood star and Clouseau a comedy icon. Proof can be found by looking no further than the confusion his mis-pronunciation of the word ‘moths’ (‘meuths’) causes George Sanders’ Monsieur Ballon – even though, despite Ballon having a slight French accent contrasted with Clouseau’s over exaggerated one, they’re both supposed to be speaking in French, so why doesn’t he understand him? It’s a gag that defies the logic of its movie’s universe, yet because it’s so brilliantly executed it doesn’t matter a jot; in fact, it’s wonderful fun that simply washes over the highly entertained audience. Much like the movie itself, you might conclewwwd. I mean, conclude.

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