[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"To Them, We May Appear Ugly": Strangers in Space/The Unwilling Warriors/Hidden Danger

The first thing that grabbed me about the first episode of the story arc collectively known as The Sensorites was the bonhomie between the TARDIS team in the wake of the events of the Aztecs. It's openly acknowledged
IAN: There's one thing about it, Doctor. We're certainly different from when we started out with you.
SUSAN: That's funny. Grandfather and I were talking about that just before you came in. How you've both changed.
BARBARA: Well we've all changed.
SUSAN: Have I?
DOCTOR: Yes, it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it's turned out to be quite a, quite a great spirit of adventure, don't you think?
IAN: Yes. We've had some pretty rough times and even that doesn't stop us. It's a wonderful thing, this ship of yours, Doctor
The Doctor puts it well, noting that what started as a of mild curiosity in a junkyard, but now it's developed into a great sense of adventure. Barbara and Ian are happy. They like the Doctor and Susan, they like traveling--though ultimately they want to go home, they seem content to go the long way around.

The TARDIS has landed within a space ship from the 28th Century, complete with two dead astronauts, Captain Maitland and Carol Richmond. Except they're not dead; they're asleep, placed in an extended slumber by the unknown aliens, the Sensorites, who refuse to allow humanity to leave "this area of space." The awakened team of 28th Century astronauts are trying to break free from the Senorites, but their hope is low; they persuade the TARDIS team to leave after dropping hints about Earth's future, such as the whole southern half of England is now known as Central City; it hasn't been known as "London" since the 24th Century. The Doctor and Ian's help Carol to avoid a Sensorite trap, pulling their ship into whatever heavenly body it's nearest, but the crew persuade the Doctor and Ian that they cannot safely be helped--until they all smell something burning, and discover the TARDIS's lock cylinder has been removed, trapping them outside of it.

As they try to discern next moves, Susan and Barbara go for water, only to be trapped in a different section of the ship, where they are stalked by the third member of the crew, John. He is vaguely zombie-like, slightly menacing. He tracks Barbara and Susan, only to fall at their feet, crying. Touched, Barbara kneels down by him, and holds him, getting from him that he's ill.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is panicking about Susan's well-being (and Barbara's too), and stirring Maitland to force the door, especially after Carol reveals that John is trapped on the other side, the most thoroughly broken member of the crew, and most under the Sensorite control. The Sensorites draw near, with strange high-pitched noises. The Doctor and Ian attempt evasive action, with some success.

John is awoken, giving rise to a brief fear that he will attack Susan and Barbara, but he avows that he will protect Barbara and Susan. "Yes," Barbara murmurs kindly to this squirrelly, rather broken, man, "You protect us."

Back in the control room, a Sensorite--rather a gremlinish little thing--latches onto the window of the ship.

The Sensorites gets a rough ride from Neil Perryman, so I was expecting it to be deathly dull. Halfway through, it isn't. There are two dramatic movements here that kept me interested: First, the Doctor and Susan being in conflict, with Susan (to my mind) being in the right. She wants to talk with the Sensorites (as does he), but she understands their fear much better than he does, and his brusqueness is harmful to establishing diplomatic relations. Through these three episodes, the Doctor calls on Susan to be obedient, and ultimately prevails, but her gentler approach is in fact more productive.

Susan's telepathy is revealed here, and she is altogether more impressive than in past episodes. Carole Ann Ford is quite effective, much less flustered than she is normally required to be, and Susan's brief rebellion is well played.

Barbara likewise stops Ian from attacking the Sensorites on the spaceship, and this, plus the Doctor's not pressing their advantage when he has blinded them, leads the Sensorites ' First Elder to try a negotiated solution. Susan's growing up, and her greater wisdom here, is a great character beat. The Doctor being wrong (though not entirely) likewise works well. When the travelers are brought down to the Sensphere, the Doctor starts adjusting to the atmosphere, and following the path Susan had initially laid out.

The second major plot line is that the Sensorites are actually quite timid, reluctant to hurt the humans, but desperate to save their imperiled world from further infection. In a gambit echoed in The Zygon Inversion, fear leads to bad decisions--in the Sensorites, it's the terrified junior ministers of the Sensephere who decide to kill the humans (thus endangering the cure to the plague that afflicts them).

The travelers and the crew of the Earth ship go down to the planet, and try to negotiate peace. But Ian, who has drunk of the waters received for the lowest caste Sensorites, is struck down by the plague....

The Sensorite faces are well realized; the bodies less so. Raymond Cusack's design is effective, both on the spaceship and on the Sensphere--two very different future aesthetics, each distinguishable from the other, and from the TARDIS.

It's dated, this parable about making peace, but not as badly as all that--it feels rather like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and that's no bad thing.

Messing About In Boats

So, la Caterina and your Anglocat are on vacation (hence the lack of updates). We've traveled from New York to Baltimore, where we feasted on "ginormous" crabs at LP Steamers (A regular stop for us), drove down in die Saturne to North Carolina, where we are staying with La C's family. In addition to reconnecting with my in-laws, my brother in law reminded me of something I used to greatly enjoy but haven't had much scope for of recent years: messing about in boats.

You see, They live on a lake. Yes, right on the lake.

So two days ago, with several friends and myself, my brother-in-law took me out in a fast-crushing sleek motor boat that made Ratty's contrivance look quaint. And as most of the party experimented on the wake board (my sister-in-law and brother-in-law being especially impressive; for the narrative's sake, we'll call them A and B, respectively), I just enjoyed the sensations of being on the water, zipping through the lake.

Yesterday, A had a wedding to attend, and B very kindly took us out to dinner--across the lake, in a pontoon boat. From our gentle ride over, to the more spirited return (wind in my face, as the sun began to contemplate setting), it was a delicious experience. And the meal was good too. You'd be surprised how fast a pontoon boat can go, too.

I may be Mole, but I can see Ratty's point.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Not One Line!": Doctor Who: The Temple of Evil, The Warriors of Death, The Bride of Sacrifice, The Day of Darkness

I know, I know, the multiple titles are a bit much, especially when the whole story arc is perfectly well known and even celebrated as The Aztecs. And yeah, I could do that. But the thing is, it's not true to how these stories were experienced. Each episode went out under a separate title, so you didn't know the length of one story-arc until the TARDIS left the scene of it. I think that's worth keeping to the forefront.

The love for this story is pretty easy to get: it's a four-parter, not six or seven, and so it's much less padded than were The Daleks or The Keys to Marinus. It's got the first TARDIS team at their best--the cast is working well together, the travelers all care for each other's well being, there's none of the dislike and rivalry that marred their earlier appearances.

The guest actors range from serviceable to excellent, with John Ringham's Tlotoxl either a height or a nadir depending on taste. Tlotoxl is an over the top, scenery chewing villain who breaks the fourth wall to provide the cliffhanger for "The Warriors of Death." Ringham just goes for broke here, and he is compulsively watchable, if way over the top.

The Doctor gets his first (onscreen) romantic interest in Margot van der Burgh's excellent Cameca, an Aztec widow he courts for information, but who genuinely touches him. (Note that the Doctor, on their departure, keeps Cameca's parting gift after preparing to abandon it.) She deftly underplays her scenes with Hartnell, who is (at first) fairly obviously scamming her, but who comes to respond to her with genuine tenderness. It's really quite lovely, and a reminder that, despite the line fluffs (no second takes in early Doctor Who--Hartnell makes the most of them, but they happen to everyone, regular and guest.), Hartnell was a damn fine actor. The comedic courtship by cocoa (the Doctor doesn't know that it's used for betrothal, and he's too self-confident to wonder at Cameca's rapturous response) is as funny as David Tennant in his (*ahem*) Elizabethan phase.

The story is a classic British imperialist trope, but subverted here: the TARDIS crew arrive in Mexico of the 15th Century, and, as so often happens in such tales, one of their number is mistaken for a goddess--Barbara finds herself enthroned, and in complete control. Until, that is, she tries to improve Aztec culture, disregarding the Doctor's famous warning that "you can't rewrite history! Not one line!" At this point, Barbara intercedes to prevent a human sacrifice, with disastrous results--the victim kills himself, and Tlotoxl is determined to prove that she is a fraud. (Ironically, he's right here, and so,awful as he is, he has an element of truth on his side.). The would-be savior of the Aztecs is lucky to escape with her life, and those of her "servants."

But it isn't all waste; Autloc (Keith Pyott, in a thoughtful, sincere performance) is convinced by Barbara's idealism. He leaves, to find peace in the wilderness, to wrestle with the import of the new concepts Barbara has given him. When Clarence Darrow looked for hope, he would say, "there is always one man to state the case for freedom." Thanks to Barbara, the Aztecs may yet have one, if he returns.

It's dated in places, but The Aztecs is a genuine classic; Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Spirits in Prison: A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
April 23, 2017
St. Bartholomew’s Church

In Robertson Davies’s novel The Manticore, David Staunton, a Canadian criminal defense attorney, has reached a turning point in his life, after his father’s mysterious death. His father, a business tycoon and former Governor-General of Canada, drove his car off of a pier, with a round stone in his mouth, and drowned in his car.
David’s father had spent the earlier part of that day with an old friend, a schoolmaster, and a new friend, a world-famous magician. The stone had been given to him by his old friend, who identified the stone as one that back when he was a small boy, David’s father had thrown at his old friend, who dodged it, and a woman walking by was struck by it. She went into labor, and the child she gave birth to grew up to be the magician.

After his father’s death, David interrupted the closing act of the magician’s last show of his Canadian tour, a brazen head that would answer audience questions, by asking out loud who had killed his father. As the brazen head answered, David fled the theater, and accused himself of being mad, and needing therapy. He finds himself guilty, and describes all this to the Jungian therapist he sees as his punishment for causing a scene. His analyst suggests that the best way for them to proceed is for him to lay out his life like a legal brief—to plead his case. She explains to him that he should “let it be a brief for the defense; you will inevitably prepare a case for the prosecution as you do so, for that is the kind of court you are to appear in—the court of self-judgment. And Mr. Justice Staunton, will hear all and render judgment.”

David doesn’t want to be his own judge, and asks his analyst if she can be the judge. She refuses, saying “I will be an interested spectator, and…a figure that appears only in military courts, called Prisoner’s Friend. And I shall be an authority on precedents, and germane judgments, and I shall keep both the prosecutor and the defence counsel in check. I shall be custodian of that constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.”

We all of us have to appear in our own courts. We all have to reach conclusions about our own conduct, and to come to grips with those times in our lives when we feel that we have failed, or, worse, done the wrong thing knowing it was wrong. And if, like me, you’ve been raised in a tradition where God is held out to us as our judge, and as the only righteous judge, you may be, like David Staunton, assuming that righteous judge will be very severe.

Your own inner judge may be like David’s “Mr. Justice Staunton,” severe, harsh, all in the name of righteousness. But as David’s doctor reminds him, “a judge is not supposed to be an enemy of the prisoner.”

In today's Gospel, Jesus doesn’t promise us a judge who will be strict and severe with us. He promises us an advocate. In fact, the Advocate, with a capital “A.” And that Advocate, we are explicitly told, is the Holy Spirit itself. Likewise, in the the Epistle, taken form the First letter of Peter, we are told that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

Now these two passages have provided grist for an uncountable number of theological mills. The Advocate or the Paraclete has been the subject of whole books, and today’s passage from First Peter has tied up in knots some of the best theologians in the Western tradition; Both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas westled with it, and in each case it’s frankly like watching a kitten with a ball of yarn. Lots of logic chopping, and sudden movement, but a bit of a mess at the end of the day. Martin Luther just gave up, admitting “a wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage than any other in the New testament, so I do not know for certain just what Peter means.”

So obviously, I can’t give you a simple, authoritative interpretation of either of these texts. But that doesn’t mean these passages have nothing to say to us. Various books of the Bible resound again and again with rhetoric of judgment. But these readings give us good news, when we’re up against our own courts of judgment, and an insight into what God’s judgment is like.
In First Peter, we are confronted with not just an obscure scriptural text but with an uncomfortable one. For one thing, it presupposes the existence and reality of hell. You know, where, as Jesus himself said, "where the worm diet not, and the flame is not quenched. Hell.

Wait a second, we think, hell? Our living God, our teacher Jesus, is threatening us with what the Anglican novelist Susan Howatch once called “the eternal wienie roast?” How can God love all His children, and condemn some unknown number of us to everlasting suffering?

But in fact our reading from Peter today does mention hell, depicting Jesus, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, going to hell, where he “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” This is what’s known as the Harrowing of Hell, the release of souls from hell.

Augustine and Aquinas get tangled up in the questions of how the release of prisoners in hell could mesh with God’s justice, or how the dead can be saved, but ultimately they agree on one thing: Jesus didn’t go to hell to crow over those who were condemned. And he wasn’t taking a victory lap. Jesus went down in some manner to break the chains of hell.

Now just stop for one minute. Never mind whether you believe in hell, or in God sending the wicked to it. Remember hell got its start as the land of the dead, a mythological depiction of the state of death itself, all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the dead are depicted as dirty, bedraggled birds chained in place with nothing but dust to drink, and earth to eat.

The point is, in Peter’s telling, the sacrificial love of God, as represented by Jesus does not give up on us, not even after our death. Not even after, under all the theological constructs Peter would have known, there could be no hope. Even then, God wills to save us, to redeem us.

Which brings me to Susan Howatch’s story of the sheepdog trials, in her novel The High Flyer. Howatch recounts a sermon in about judgment, and what it means. She writes that “You can’t talk about judgment without talking about justice—and justice is the other side of love. If we love someone, we want justice for them. We don’t want them to be treated unfairly, we want them to be treated with love and understanding.” Echoing Davies, himself an Anglican, Howatch reminds us that “people so often think of judgment as something severe, but a great judge will weigh up the good points as well as the bad; a great judge will see that real justice is done.”

And so the sheepdog trials. As she tells the story, a man and his little son on vacation in the Lake District see a sign directing them to sheepdog trials. You know, an open-air exhibition of the skills the dogs need to herd sheep, and the best dog receives a medal. The little boy wants to see them, so the father takes him. When it’s all over, the little boy is confused: Where’s the jury, where’s the prosecutor? Shouldn’t the judge have a big bench?

Of course, it’s not that kind of trial. Not at all.

Howatch suggests that God is like the judge of the sheepdog trials, not like an old school hanging judge. And, she concludes that judgment is the process of being loved and healed by our maker after the tempests and traumas of life, “because nothing in the end can separate us from the love God, nothing, of that I’m quite sure.”

Before we accuse her of sentimentality, let’s remember that her last line is a paraphrase of St. Paul, in Romans chapter 8, where he avows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let’s also remember that Peter believed that, God doesn’t give up on us on either side of the grave.

And finally, let’s remember that Jesus himself tells us that you are precious enough to God, we are precious enough to God, that God will be your Advocate, our Advocate, as well as our judge.

In our own court, and in God’s we are not undefended. In fact, the judge is the defense counsel, the Prisoner’s Friend—the authority on precedents, and germane judgments, who keeps both sides in check, and strives for both justice and mercy. The judge who remembers that justice is the other side of love. And who loves us far too much to give up on us.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Game of Drones: The Snows of Terror, Sentence of Death, The Keys of Marinus

Oh, as usual, dear. The Snows of Terror has the makings of a passable story, and even intermittently works. Very intermittently. It's set in a winterscape very like the North in Game of Thrones, albeit with enough of a budget to buy a cup of Bovril, and the primary antagonist, a trapper who seeks to rob and kill Ian and Altos, and rob and rape the women, presents a threat made all the more credible by its mundanity. (Of course, the sexual politics are reprehensible, but then, that happens more often than we'd like to admit on Game of Thrones, come to that). Admittedly not ideal children's fare, but, hey, nobody is slowly dying of radiation sickness, so we have that going for us.

The problems are pretty simple: First, Ian and Barbara each grab the Idiot Ball and give it a good, long, loving squeeze in this one. Then they do it again. Then again. And then we get a reprise of the most dull portion of The Daleks--a scene where Terry Nation tries to build suspense by making us watch a group of characters, one at a time, cross a chasm.

Welcome to--The Snows of Terror!

OK, the plot, such as it is, goes like this: A trapper named Vasar, who clearly did not attend the educational institution named for him, rescues Barbara and Ian from teh cold, feeds them, and then, while salaciously eyeing Barbara the whole time, gets Ian to leave her with him while Ian goes searching for Altos. Ian sells this travel dial for some furs, and leaves. Barbara, clearing the table, finds the segments of the keys that have been found (wasn't this Sabetha's chain?) and three travel dials. Does she close the door, and try to make a plan? No; she asks Vasar about the chain, and how he got it.

Vasar decides to attack Barbara there and then. It's clearly uncomfortable for both actors, and Vasar seems almost relived when Ian and Altos (he found him, and discovered that Vasar has secreted away Sabetha and Susan) overpower him, after Barbara unbolts the door. They leave--no, really--the keys, the travel dials and Sabetha's chain in the drawer of the table, compelling Vasar to lead them to the cave where he secreted Susan and Sabetha.

Who are now freezing to death, so they go deeper into the cave, Crossing a fragile rope bridge, where they find the key, albeit inaccessibly frozen a massive block of ice, with some frozen knights, and turn back to find their friends have found them. Barbara and Altos cross the rope bridge; Ian grabs the Idiot Ball, and does so too, leaving Vasar behind--oh, he cuts the end of the rope bridge and buggers off home.

I'm sure that was meant to be a shock, but I actually went, "well, ja," and then tested ny recollection of German swear words. (Mem to self: Brush up.)

OK, they go in to the chamber and find a way to melt the ice, while Ian and Altos build a bridge. It needs to freeze into place. As soon as the ice melts, they grab the key--and the knights awake and give chase. Susan crosses the bridge, and the others follow her lead (yay Susan!). The TARDIS party cross one by one, and leave the cave, after Ian cuts the ropes. They go to Vasar's home, break in (Vasar makes a play for the Idiot Ball, by not bolting the door, the schmuck). The knights start cutting their way in, Vasar gets stabbed, we're off to the next destination, and--

Ian is knocked unconscious. Frankly, on this episodes showing, it suits him.


Sentence of Death is a lot better--a taut little kafkaesque legal thriller, where Ian is charged with the murder of the man who was trying to steal the missing key--in league with the Doctor. The burden of proof is squarely reversed, with Ian required to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. He decries the laws that so reverse the burden of proof, and the missing Doctor at last turns up.

The Doctor is far better in this episode than we have seen him. He's outraged at the injustice of Ian's pre-conviction, wily wrangles an adjournment, and Cooley sends each of the characters about their task: Sabetha and Altos to do legal research, Susan and Barbara to accompany him to the scene of the crime, and Ian--Ian must trust him.

The "reconstruction of the crime" scene is really well done, the Doctor earning his imperiousness by his mind's racing with ideas. He works out the identity of the killer swiftly, and sends Barbara and Susan to try to elicit some details. Thanks to a bold challenge by Susan, it works, and the Doctor uses Sabetha to startle the killer into revealing himself at the trial. (Hartnell is absolutely on fire in these courtroom scenes--much fewer line fluffs, much more crisp delivery. With the right material, he is nailing the part.) When he is killed in turn by his confederates, the tribunal resumes--

--and the plot goes belly up. Rather than have the Doctor pursue his almost successful line of defense, Susan is kidnapped, Ian is hastily threatened with death, even though the prosecution case is a shambles.

Oh, Terry. So bloody close to a classic.


The Keys of Marinus

Another excellent actor in a guest role (he was in the previous episode as well; Donald Pickering, who was such a superb Dolly Lomgestaffe in The Pallisers, and suffered through Sylvester McCoy's first story as the Doctor, Time and the Rani, plays the prosecutor, graciously complimenting the Doctor, who is downcast. The TARDIS crew and Altos and Sabetha come close to finding Susan, but miss the clue, and leave. And then Barbara realizes that one "innocent" knew more than was possible, and Barbara leads a rescue of Susan. The Doctor sets a trap for the remaining conspirator:
TARRON: Kala's made a full statement. She's named her accomplice.
DOCTOR: Ah. Then you can stay the execution.
TARRON: No, I can't. Kala's sworn testimony states that the man she was working with was Ian Chesterton.
DOCTOR: Impossible!
BARBARA: But she's lying.
TARRON: Yes, I have doubts myself. She's a vicious, dangerous woman, but just doubts aren't enough to ask for a stay of execution. They'd need positive proof.
SUSAN: What about that man who called on the phone thing? I heard him tell her to kill me.
TARRON: Did you recognise the voice?
DOCTOR: What else did he say?
SUSAN: Oh, nothing much. Just that he'd collect the key later and then pick her up.
DOCTOR: Collect the key. Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Yes, yes. You understand? The villain that planned all this, the one who planned this whole affair, is now planning to collect the key! What a wonderful opportunity it gives us to catch him red-handed. And to release Chesterton!
(later, the room is dark as a figure enters and unlocks the cupboard. It removes the mace and is immediately pounced on by two Guardians who were hiding behind the desk. The Doctor turns on the lights and removes his hood)
TARRON: Call the prison.
(Later, Eyesen has been taken away and Ian released. The Doctor opens the mace to reveal)
SUSAN: The key!
IAN: How did you know it was there, Doctor?
DOCTOR: It had to be. I knew it all along. Until we knew the culprit, the information was no good.
TARRON: Everyone and everything that went in and out of that vault was checked. Everything except this mace.
So they all head back to Arbitan.

Who's dead of course. (Do try to keep up, as Missy might add.). The Voord, in their bat-gimp suits, with Teletubbie head ornaments are in control. And daft enough to think that a black latex bat/gimp suit with a hood ornament can pass for George Coulouris. It doesn't, and Ian slips the Bat-Arbitan a fake key:
(The Doctor is untying Sabetha and Altos)
DOCTOR: So when Yartek gets the final key, his power will be absolute.
ALTOS: Yes, with the aid of the machine he could control us all.
DOCTOR: And our impulse to leave this planet would be destroyed.
SABETHA: That is true.
SUSAN: Altos, Sabetha.
(happy greetings all round)
DOCTOR: You heard about Arbitan?
IAN: Yes. We met the man who's usurped his place.
DOCTOR: Give me the key. We must have it destroyed.
SUSAN: Ian gave it to him.
DOCTOR: What! You gave it away?
IAN: I gave him a key. Sabetha, you remember that fake key? Barbara found it on the idol.
BARBARA: I remember.
IAN: That was the key I gave him. This is the genuine key.
DOCTOR: My dear boy!
SABETHA: We must go quickly. Leave the building.
IAN: Why?
ALTOS: Yartek may put that false key into the machine at any moment. If he does, it will set the machine in motion, but once it feels the full force of the power, it'll break under the strain.
IAN: You mean the machine'll blow up?
DOCTOR: There's not a moment to loose. Come on!

The machine, which would have preserved peace on Marinus by inhibiting violent emotion explodes, taking the Voord with it. As he leaves, the Doctor comforts and counsels Sabetha:
DOCTOR: I'm glad to have this moment alone with you, Sabetha. I want to speak of your father. You know, he was a very wise and brilliant man, and I know how you felt when you learned of his death.
SABETHA: His life's work destroyed.
DOCTOR: No, no, I wouldn't say that. His work will go on, only not quite in the same way. But I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that. Now I only hope that you'll carry on his good work, please. Goodbye. Bless you, my child.
(The Doctor enters the Tardis)
I've said several times that Doctor Who was a different show when it first aired than the one we watch now. That show, which has run ever since had its pilot in Marco Polo. Its leading man, who was a character actor, has found the part, and the Doctor as you know him today, and as I know him, has taken the stage.

The TARDIS and her pilot know who they are. The adventure is begun.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Put the Candle Back": The Acid Sea, the Velvet Web, The Screaming Jungle

I'm not going to lie; the first episode of the story collectively known as The Keys of Marinus damn near led me to skip the whole thing. The first scene, with the TARDIS party exploring a glass beach bordering on an acid sea (Susan nearly loses her feet by going paddling in it), augured well, but then as the travelers explore a huge edifice, the exact same revolving wall stunt as famously depicted in Young Frankenstein above is used no fewer than 4 times, and is meant to be thrilling and suspenseful each time it's employed.

Strange men in bat-themed rubber suits stalk the TARDIS party, and--

Oh, it was dreary beyond words.

Then, we are given an exposition dump by a tragically wasted George Coulouris as Arbitan (who is then subsequently tragically wasted, getting knifed by a bat-suit). In the exposition dump, we are told:
DOCTOR: Yes, yes. I want to know more about this planet. Your technology, you say, reached its peak over two thousand years ago?
ARBITAN: Yes, and all our knowledge culminated in the manufacture of this. At the time, it was called the Conscience of Marinus. Marinus, that is the name of our planet. At first, this machine was simply a judge and jury that was never wrong, and unfair. And then we added to it, improved on it, made it more and more sophisticated so that finally it became possible to radiate its power and influence the minds of men throughout the planet. They no longer had to decide what was wrong or right. The machine decided for them.
DOCTOR: I see. And in that case it was possible to eliminate evil from the minds of men for all time.
ARBITAN: That is exactly what happened. Marinus was unique in the universe. Robbery, fear, hate, violence were unknown among us. Yes, yes, for seven centuries we prospered, and then a man named Yartek found a means of overcoming the power of the machine. He and his followers, the Voords, were able to rob, exploit, kill, cheat. Our people could not resist because violence is alien to them.
(A Voord is eavesdropping on all this)
IAN: But surely by this time this machine had become a great danger to you? If it had fallen into the hands of the Voords, they could have controlled Marinus. Why didn't you destroy it?
ARBITAN: We always hoped to find a way of modifying it and making it again irresistible. So instead of destroying it, we removed the five key microcircuits.
IAN: What did you do with them?
ARBITAN: One of them, I kept. There it is. (points up) The other four were taken and put in places of safety all over Marinus. Only I know where they are, and now the time has come when they must be recovered.
BARBARA: Well why don't you simply make new keys?
ARBITAN: The keys are very simple, but the microcircuits inside are very complicated. A permutation of numbers and signals that would take a thousand years to unravel. And besides, since the keys were hidden, I have worked on this machine and modified it, so that when they're replaced
DOCTOR: When they're replaced it would mean that your machine is irresistible and you can overcome and control the Voords again.
IAN: Surely there must be someone you can send for these keys?
ARBITAN: Through the years all my friends, all my followers, have gone. They have never returned. Last year I sent my daughter. She has not come back. All I have now to comfort me is the distant echo of her voice, the imagined sound of her footsteps. But now your coming's brought new hope. Oh yes, yes, you must find the keys for me.
Yeah, good luck. The travelers return to the TARDIS, only to find they can't get in--an invisible field prevents their entry. After an improv exercise straight out of Mummenshanz (Susan's field is further out from the TARDIS than everyone else's; Hartnell prods his with his walking stick, with weary air of resigned disgust that almost saves the scene), Arbitan's voice is heard saying he'll let them in if they bring him the keys, and he's really quite sorry, but--no, he's not either. They accept the watch-like travel devices that let them jump from place to place (but not time to time, so not vortex manipulators), and the assignment.

So the reluctant travelers set out--and then Arbitan is killed, as hinted above, by a diver in a bat-themed gimp suit, who stabs with all the earnestness of Bobby Jindal.

We move on.


Things take an immediate turn for the better; Barbara, having preceded her companions, greets them from a Roman-style couch, garbed in Roman-style robes, queening it up, with serving women attending her every whim. Jacqueline Hill plays it to the hilt--Barbara is relaxed for the first time since Coal Hill, and grateful to have, as she thinks, fallen into the hands of a culture that desires only to please its guests. So, at any rate, she has been told by Altos, a young man, and Sabetha, who is the chief of the serving women. Susan wants a dress made from some of the fine bolt of silk Barbara has been given, and the Doctor wants a laboratory. Ian alone is skeptical, wondering when the bill will be presented.

In the morning, Barbara is horrified--all the beautiful objets d'art with which she has been surrounded are revealed as cheap, dirty stuff, her dress a simple shift, and the fine crystal dirty mugs. The other travelers look at her as if she's gone mad. Barbara flees, and evades Altos, who seeks to take her to the physician.

If, by the physician, you mean the lead of four brains, with tapered stalks supporting their eyes, that reside in bell jars and have enslaved the populace through hypnosis. (The effect is rather delicate, and not bad at all.) The brain declares that Ian and the Doctor will work for them, Susan will be trained as well, and Barbara--well. she knows the truth so hypnosis won't work on her anymore. Just kill her. And Sabetha, too, who didn't put Barbara under properly.

The rest of the episode is the Barbara Wright Show, as she circumvents Altos, rouses some vestige of independence in Sabetha, and is strangled by Ian, now fully under control. This last is disturbingly well done; William Russell goes after her pretty hard, and Hill fights back just as hard. She wins, and attacks the bell jar with a tool. This goes a little less well, as some of her blows are obviously ineffective. Still, Barbara operates on an old maxim of Harry Flashman's--keep striking until something breaks. She kills the brains, the peasants revolt (quite loudly), and Altos and Sabetha--agents of Arbitan (indeed, Sabetha is his daughter) join with the TARDIS crew going to the next of the four destinations. Except for the Doctor--he's off to the final destination...

Jacqueline Hill is the star of the episode, and carries it well. She even does the action hero stuff usually left to Ian, who is marginalized and then weaponized against her. Hartnell's Doctor is easily seduced by the lure of the perfect laboratory, and believes a battered old mug will help him fit the TARDIS. Hartnell sells the Doctor's greed for knowledge here, but, near the end of the episode, his cool decision-making. He's crisp throughout this one. Carole Ann Ford is quite good too, and William Russell sells both Ian's threat to Barbara and and his horror when he comes to.


The Screaming Jungle, though, dips back into mediocrity for most of its duration. Terry Nation has good ideas, but pads them out like he's writing for Dark Shadows. Oh, well. Susan arrives first, and is deafened by, you guessed it, the screaming of the plants. By the time the others join her, they've stopped, but Susan is in full scream mode. (A scream-off between Carole Ann Ford, Bonnie Langford, and Walter Koenig (yes, I mean it) would be a damned close-run thing.) Barbara finds the key (yay!) but disappears (boo!), and then Sabetha realizes it's a fake key (oh, crap.). So everyone else goes off to meet Barbara (in case she's used her travel device), except Ian. Who finds her, fights some plants, including one that looks a bit like Audrey. Barbra finds the key, based on an inspiration of Ian's, they teleport away, and--

Are freezing to death on a windswept mountain.

Bloody Terry Nation.

Here we go...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Send in the Clowns: Rider From Shan Tu, Mighty Kublai Khan, Assassin at Peking

The above "making of" video regarding the filming of the seven episodes normally referred to under the title "Marco Polo" may be of interest to you; it was to me.

The travelers journey through the arid wastes of vast, empty, spaces--or as I like to think of them, Episodes 3, 4 and 5. That's a tad unjust on Episode 5. After a messenger brings the Khan's command to Polo that he must come at full speed to the Summer Palace, the caravan separates into two groups in order to try to avoid bandits (unsuccessfully, since Tegana was part of the planning party). The "bandit attack" staged by Tegana to seize the TARDIS is pretty good, with Ian and even the Doctor acquitting themselves pretty well in the swordplay (I think--the telesnaps aren't as helpful here as video would be).
Tegana, by the way, stabs his flunky to maintain his ambassadorial credibility. But then the dreary slog resumes (livened with some appealing maps).

But when they arrive at the Summer Palace, we get a whole new genre--Doctor Who comedy. Kublai Khan is a henpecked old man with gout. The Doctor, worn out from a breakneck faced march (ok, horseback journey), is himself hobbling around like a Crimean War veteran. The two old men bond over their ailments, and there's a quicksilver magic in the air that's been missing for too long. Hartnell is quite good at comedy; you can tell even without the video, his voice conveys his irritation, and then, subsequently, his smugness as he realizes he's winning much of Kublai Khan's money (and stallions. About 400 of them):
DOCTOR: My game.
KHAN: You're too good for us at backgammon. Tea?
DOCTOR: Please.
KHAN: Oh, that is our reckoning?
DOCTOR: Ah, yes it is, sire, yes.
KHAN: What do we owe?
DOCTOR: Er, thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions. Four thousand white stallions, and twenty-five tigers.
KHAN: That's not too bad, so far.
DOCTOR: And the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought over from India.
KHAN: Oh, that? What else? What more?
DOCTOR: I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.
When the Empress leaves, the Khan discusses his grandfather Genghis,in such a way as to suggest that he doesn't share the Doctor's enthusiasm for her:
A trumpet sounds)
KHAN: Oh, the Empress. Hide it, hide it!
EMPRESS: Winning, my love?
KHAN: One wins, one loses, my dear.
DOCTOR: The great Khan is far too modest, my lady.
EMPRESS: You're not wagering are you? You know how it affects your gout.
(The Empress leaves)
DOCTOR: How charming.
KHAN: Charming indeed, and yet there are moments, old friend, when we wish our character were more like that of our lamented grandfather, Genghis. Did you hear of him?
DOCTOR: Genghis Khan? No, I didn't meet him, but I have heard of him. Yes.
KHAN: Oh, he was the warrior of the family. Nothing frightened him. We are the clan of the statistician and the administrator. Oh, she will be furious with me when she finds out what I have lost.
DOCTOR: Oh, then you've lost nothing, sire.
It's pretty much the Timelord and the warlord as The Sunshine Boys. Except they like each other.

Kublai Khan is pretty laid back about his losses, but accepts the Doctor's "royal gesture" (as the Khan calls it) to play one last game--all that the Doctor as once thus far against the TARDIS.

The Doctor loses, and walks away with a bill of the Khan's paper money as a "consolation prize." He doesn't seem too perturbed though, possibly contemplating a return engagement. Ping-Cho's husband-to-be, an old man she dreaded marrying, dies, and she elects to stay at court for a while (possibly fancying the gallant young rider who brought the Khan's command to Polo). Noghai, Tegana's lord, has encamped outside Peking, and the Doctor realizes that Tegana's plan is to kill Kublai Khan, disheartening his forces, and allowing Noghai to seize the Khan's domains.

The travelers break free, inform Polo, who bursts into the throne room--just in time to duel Tegana while the Khan--great administrator though he is--scuttles for safety. Marco is victorious, the Khan sets him free to go back to Venice--and the Doctor and friends slip into the TARDIS. We get one last joke from the Khan:
POLO: I'm sorry, my lord. I had to give them back their flying caravan.
KHAN: If you hadn't, the old man would have won it at backgammon.
All is forgiven, and the TARDIS is in flight again.


For all the longeuers in this story, this is where the show we know is fully present. (And, in fact, the longeuers persist pretty much throughout classic Doctor Who. For every The Dæmons, we get one The Ambassadors of Death--and even The Dæmons has some padding in it, if I'm being candid.) The Doctor is eccentric, sometimes charming, sometimes cantankerous; he's surprisingly competent when he needs to be. Ian is stalwart, the prototype for Harry Sullivan, except much more sensible. Speaking of sensible, Barbara is largely wasted here, but she stands bravely up to Polo on behalf of Ping-Cho, and seems to be captivated by the sights and sounds of an era and place that fascinates her. She's adjusted, enjoying where she can, and fighting where she must. Susan's friendship with Ping-Cho is nicely realized.

As to the guest cast, Derren Nesbitt plays Tegana with a sort of offhand confidence that makes him more intriguing than any scene chewing villain. He's a loyal vassal to Noghai, so deception, murder, theft--whatever. He's got a job to do. Mark Eden is a sympathetic, occasionally histrionic Marco Polo. As the story is framed by his narration, we have intervals of Marco being the viewpoint character, an interesting experiment.