Category: science fiction

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit http://www.avclub.com/tv/doctor-who-classic/. Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at http://www.avclub.com/author/ChristopherBahn/. The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club, Doctor Who, Shada

“Shada” (season 17, episodes 21-26. Filmed in 1979; never aired.)

In 1979, Douglas Adams, then script editor for Doctor Who, wrote a story for the show in which the villain disastrously shatters into half a dozen fragments of himself that scatter throughout time. That was “City Of Death,” one of the best serials Doctor Who ever did. Later that year, he wrote another one. This time, the story itself exploded, shattered into half a dozen fragments of itself, and scattered throughout time. That was “Shada,” the great lost story of season 17, a half-filmed serial from Tom Baker’s second-to-last season as the Fourth Doctor. And for a long time, people wondered if it too wouldn’t have been one of the greats. But that was back when it was still lost.

It’s oddly appropriate that the last scene of “Shada” begins with the Doctor reading from Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because despite the persistent efforts over the years to give it life again, “Shada” remains, in all its various and contradictory manifestations, just an old curiosity. It’s not awful, mind you. It’s not anywhere near the toxicity level of something like “The Twin Dilemma,” in which the stupidity is actually painful to watch. No, this is just a thinly written, overly formulaic story, with some clever ideas and a smattering of good Adamsian jokes and Bakerian Doctoring stretched out over a lot of boring filler. “Shada” would never have engendered so much interest if Douglas Adams’ name hadn’t been attached to it.

Still, even if it’s mediocre, it’s worth a look. If nothing else, “Shada” is interesting as a bit of complex pop-culture archaeology. There are at least seven versions of “Shada” floating around out there, ranging from complete adaptations to fragmentary scraps.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club, Doctor Who, The Caves Of Androzani

“The Caves Of Androzani” (season 21, episodes 17-20. Originally aired March 8-16, 1984.)

Across all his incarnations, the Doctor’s character has always stayed true to a few core traits, perhaps none more so than his restless, insatiable curiosity and wanderlust. He’s a traveler, winding his way around the universe on a flightplan drawn up with no grand scheme in mind other than to see the next new thing. He rarely knows where he’s going, and rarely plans ahead. He just steps out of the ship and looks around. And from the beginning, that has always gotten him into trouble. Which is only to be expected. That’s the basic setup of the whole show: He arrives somewhere, he gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble, and he leaves. It’d be a pretty boring show without the middle bit. But still: It’s a dangerous universe out there. You’d have to be foolish to go out there without a plan, armed with nothing but your wits. And you’d have to be criminally reckless to take people with you. One of the things that makes “The Caves Of Androzani” great is that it cuts to the heart of this problem and brutally critiques it. Here, the Doctor gets himself and his companion Peri into a deadly mess that rapidly shows itself to be much worse than he bargained for, and against which the best he can reasonably hope for is base survival and escape. In the end, he can’t even manage that. He saves Peri but sacrifices himself to do so, as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor collapses, and essentially dies, regenerating into Colin Baker’s Sixth.

“The Caves Of Androzani” enjoys a very high reputation in Doctor Who fandom; in fact, Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 readers’ poll named it the best story in series history. I can’t go quite that far, though it would certainly make my top 10 or 15. For one thing, though this is admittedly minor, you’ve gotta take some points off for the the magma beast, just a sad, sad, weak attempt at the obligatory monster-of-the-week. But what really bothers me about this one is how corrosively cynical and dark it is. And I say this as a fan of corrosively cynical and dark stories in general, and of the cynical and dark mind of Robert Holmes, who wrote this one, in particular. It’s the whole point of the story, of course, so in essence I’m objecting to Holmes hitting the bullseye. But in the final analysis I just can’t buy into the notion that a story this pessimistic is what Doctor Who is about, on a grand scale.

Still, I can see why it won that poll. It’s a terrifically propulsive, twisty thriller, well-directed by Graeme Harper—tense, raw and very dark. It vividly creates a world that has been corrupted, perhaps irreversibly, by the toxic effects of greed, violence, and unchecked corporate power, and which has poisoned the souls of every character we meet—especially the revenge-crazed maniac Sharaz Jek, a creepy and intense but ultimately pitiable Phantom Of The Opera-like figure vividly played by Christopher Gable. And it made excellent use of the extra dramatic weight that all regeneration stories get as the closing chapters of their eras, really putting the increasingly desperate Doctor through the wringer and making him fight with his every last breath. Davison makes the most of it, giving one of his best performances in a script that gives him a lot to work with.

Originally published Feb. 3, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

R.I.P. Bernard Horsfall, British character actor of Doctor Who and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Actor Bernard Horsfall, whose 50-year career of film and television roles included the 1969 James Bond thriller On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, small roles in Braveheart and Gandhi, and four guest appearances on Doctor Who, died on Tuesday, reports Radio Times. He was 82.

Horsfall made his film debut in the 1957 Cold War drama High Flight, going on to play military men and similar tough-guy roles in movies like The Steel Bayonet, Guns At Batasi, and Shout At The Devil. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he appeared as Campbell, who helped George Lazenby’s Bond on a mission in Switzerland, only to be [spoiler alert] killed by archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld as a warning against further interference.

Horsfall is probably most well-known for his Doctor Who roles, beginning with 1969’s “The Mind Robber” as the fictional traveler Lemuel Gulliver. In the same year’s “The War Games,” he returned to play an unnamed Time Lord who presided over the trial of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, then returned in 1973 to play Taron, an ally of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, in “Planet Of The Daleks.” Most memorably, Horsfall played opposite Fourth Doctor Tom Baker in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin” as the ambitious and power-hungry Time Lord Chancellor Goth, who hunted the Doctor through a nightmarish, hallucinogenic landscape only to be betrayed and killed by his boss and the Doctor’s nemesis, the Master. The serial’s third-episode cliffhanger, in which Goth appears to be graphically drowning the Doctor, became infamous after being singled out by conservative antiviolence campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and was censored from subsequent broadcasts for years. Horsfall later returned to Doctor Who in the 2003 audio drama Davros.

Horsfall appeared frequently on British TV screens, including starring roles in the late-1970s WWII drama Enemy At The Door and the short-lived 1960 series Captain Moonlight: Man Of Mystery, as well as guest roles in The Saint, Z-Cars, three episodes of The Avengers, and the 1988 Jeremy Brett adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Horsfall also appeared frequently on stage, including several productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s.

Originally published on avclub.com. Read the original article.

TV Club, Doctor Who, Warriors’ Gate

“Warriors’ Gate” (season 18, episodes 17-20. Originally aired Jan 3-24, 1981)

As the title implies, “Warriors’ Gate” is about transitions. The gate in question is a doorway between dimensions that all the characters want to pass through—well, almost all of them, and that’s the emotional key to the story. Gates present you with a choice: this side or that side, this life or that life, out or in. And for the Doctor’s companion Romana, this gate offers her what’s probably the most difficult choice of her life.

More than most Doctor Who serials, “Warriors’ Gate” is not easy to just dive right into. For one thing, the story is a little complicated, stranding the Doctor and friends in a strange non-place that exists outside of everything—two everythings, in fact—anchored by a key sequence that, like a waking dream, puts two sets of characters in the same place but at different points in time, kind of sort of simultaneously. It’s a story that rewards some thought, even a second viewing, before what’s happening becomes clear. Neither is “Warriors’ Gate” very self-contained. The entirety of season 18, in fact, ties together into a broader storyline, and basically assumes you’ve been following along in sequence—which is, I have to admit, probably the best way to watch this particular season, much as I prefer skipping around between eras of the show. This was a season of tumultuous change, both on and off screen, so before I get into the story at hand, let’s set the stage.

Originally published Jan. 20, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Review: Stephen Baxter, The Wheel Of Ice

Usually, fans have to be wildly optimistic, if not delusional, to expect quality literature from a line of authorized tie-in novels to a science-fiction TV series. But in recent years, the editors behind the Doctor Who books have been making an effort to overcome skeptics by snaring acclaimed science-fiction authors like Michael Moorcock, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter to put their own stamp on the adventures of the time-traveling vagabond. Baxter tells a new story about an old Doctor with The Wheel Of Ice, which features Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in an adventure set during the TV show’s sixth season, in 1969.

Baxter earned his reputation for the rigorously constructed hard-SF Xeelee Sequence books, but he’s no stranger to happily jumping on someone else’s train—besides his recent collaboration with Terry Pratchett on The Long Earth, he’s written an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and co-authored a trilogy set after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter takes the TARDIS controls with similar respect for the original source material, which is one of The Wheel Of Ice’s chief strengths. Troughton was Baxter’s childhood Doctor, and Baxter’s enthusiasm for the era is palpable. The book fits his serious approach to emphasizing the science in “science fiction” particularly well—although the Second Doctor era was hardly rigorous about that sort of thing, its enthusiasm for futuristic ideas like space travel was based in part on the idea that someday, humanity’s real future might look like the one it was showing us. Baxter’s Xeelee stories are filled with well-thought-out, sometimes arcane explorations of astrophysics and xenobiology, and although he tones that down to a less mind-bending degree with Wheel, it’s good to see some thought put into Doctor Who’s alien worlds beyond the superficial, timey-wimey, hand-waving level the series often settles for.

Wheel hits the ground running with an engaging, breezy first half, as the Doctor investigates an enigmatic, dangerous hole in time near the Wheel, a mining base orbiting Saturn. In spite of the exotic setting, his Companions Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon quickly feel at home—the former because she grew up on a similar space station and the Wheel is actually part of her own history, and the latter because the Wheel is populated by Scots like himself, with whom he feels a strong camaraderie, even though they were born hundreds of years after he was. But all is not well. The harsh conditions on Saturn are made worse by the profit-motivated tyranny of the Wheel’s corporate masters. That, in turn, is causing grumblings of revolt from the station’s young people and working poor, along with mysterious, deadly acts of sabotage. In classic Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor and friends are falsely accused of the crimes upon their arrival, and must find the real culprits: android-like “Blue Dolls” who serve the same alien entity responsible for the hole in time. That being, called Arkive, is older than the solar system, and aches for the days of its youth in a way that’s more than a little insane, not to mention hostile toward the unsuspecting humans it thinks of as usurpers.

Baxter nails one of the basic elements of any book like this one, capturing the voices of his three main characters with such precision that Troughton is almost audible in the Doctor’s lines. Baxter is especially good at seeing through Zoe and Jamie’s perspectives, going beyond using them as placeholder heroes, and getting at what makes them tick. Jamie’s rugged heroism and desire to protect people comes to the fore when he shepherds a group of young rebels who flee to a nearby ice moon. And Zoe has to confront the unsavory side of her own history as she learns that her own advanced civilization was founded on the near-slavery conditions on the Wheel. Baxter has mixed success with his secondary characters, creating a compellingly well-rounded portrait of a family divided by the growing political revolt, but an annoyingly one-dimensional shrew in the book’s main human antagonist, Florian Hart, a corporate greedmonger oozing with angry contempt.

Still, the first half of Wheel Of Ice is tremendously promising, setting up a smart, engaging mystery that feels like a genuine artifact of 1969 Doctor Who. That only makes it more frustrating that the second half is botched so badly by an underwhelming finale. Baxter seems to lose interest entirely in Arkive’s aeons-long scheme in favor of a hackneyed confrontation with Hart involving some truly hoary clichés concerning a ticking time bomb and the color of the wire that should be cut to defuse it. Worse, genius-astrophysicist Zoe has no part in the resolution; Baxter sidelines her so she can babysit a 3-year-old. It’s a disappointing fumble to an otherwise satisfying read.

Originally published Jan. 14, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Ambassadors Of Death

“The Ambassadors Of Death” (season 7, episodes 12-18. Originally aired March 21-May 2, 1970)

To call “The Ambassadors Of Death” the weakest serial of Doctor Who’s seventh season is less of a knock against it than it might seem. Jon Pertwee’s first year as the Third Doctor was well above average as a whole, especially given the success of the gamble to drastically reinvent the show as an Earthbound, team-driven sci-fi drama of what we’d now recognize as the X-Files/Fringe/Torchwood format. There’s a pretty good case for calling it the series’ best season, period. (That’s a hard one to pick, though. Doctor Who has been so changeable over the years that it’s difficult to compare seasons, like apples and some fruit that doesn’t even grow on this planet. I’d vote for season 13, the second Fourth Doctor season, with its murderers’-row of “Terror Of The Zygons,” “Pyramids Of Mars,” “The Brain Of Morbius,” and “The Seeds Of Doom.” But I digress.)

“The Ambassadors Of Death” isn’t perfect, far from it, but nevertheless it has a lot going on that I really love, and which exemplifies what the creative team was trying to do with season seven—lure in a larger (and older) audience by blending the established “eccentric scientist fights alien monsters” sci-fi with slicker, higher-octane spy-thriller stuff that aimed for the less campy, more serious side of James Bond and The Avengers. The gloriously lavish action sequences here are the most blatant part of that, like a big neon billboard, but there’s subtler stuff percolating in the story too, particularly in the way it strives to suggest that its titular aliens might be truly out-of-this world, in the sense of perhaps being too strange for us to meaningfully communicate with or understand. And it also rests on a more-complex-than-usual motivation for its lead villain, General Carrington—arguably, he’s not a bad person, but a decent man twisted by his own inner trauma. (If only the presentation of that had been less murky, this could have been a much better story—but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Originally published Jan. 6, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Planet Of Giants

“Planet Of Giants” (season 2, episodes 1-3. Originally aired Oct. 31-Nov. 14, 1964)

Maybe the most interesting thing about this one is what it isn’t. As broadcast in 1964, “Planet Of Giants” is a respectable but not overly exciting artifact of the First Doctor era, talkier and duller than a single-sentence synopsis makes it sound: The TARDIS crew has to stop a murderer and avert an environmental holocaust while trying to survive in a world where they’ve been shrunk to one inch high, menaced by ants that now seem as big as wolves. It’s not lacking in ambitious ideas but never quite gels together, and a last-minute re-edit that condensed the original third and fourth episodes into one hurt the story more than it helped. (And I hardly need to point out the irony of that in a story about making the characters victims of traumatic miniaturization.) In the end, it’s something of an offbeat little curiosity, and not much more.

If history had gone a little differently, though, “Planet Of Giants” could have been a much bigger deal: It was supposed to have been Doctor Who’s first trip. As originally planned, after being confronted by his granddaughter’s teachers Ian and Barbara in “An Unearthly Child,” the Doctor would have kidnapped them by unexpectedly dematerializing the TARDIS—only to botch the takeoff and miniaturize them all. But the script fell through, so “100,000 B.C.” went into production instead, followed by the unexpected blockbuster of “The Daleks,” and the rest was history.

So what? Well, I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but it’s interesting to note that unlike about 99.9% of Doctor Who plots, “Planet Of Giants” doesn’t involve time travel at all. It’s set in the present day, and gets its science-fictional mojo not by jaunting into the past or the future, but sort of sideways. That physics-gone-crazy, our-magic-technology-is-actually-crazy-dangerous kind of story would become a minor but significant subset of Star Trek episodes, but Doctor Who never really got into it in a big way again, despite the original intentions of its creators. It’s implied in the very name of the TARDIS, after all. The acronym describes how the ship travels: through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Most Doctor Who shows are about time. “Planet Of Giants” is one of very few that’s about relative dimensions. If it had been produced in 1963 instead of 1964, it might have inspired more stories like it instead of being an anomaly.

Originally published Dec. 9, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

“The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” (season 25, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Dec. 14, 1988-Jan. 4, 1989)

It’s not a good sign when the first thing that pops up on screen is a cornball, embarrassingly dated rapper who talks up how wonderful the rest of the show is going to be, like a high-school principal trying desperately to get in touch with youth culture without really knowing what he’s doing. But I suppose the Rappin’ Ringmaster didn’t seem quite so terrible when “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” was originally broadcast, at the tail end of Sylvester McCoy’s second season as the Seventh Doctor. Which is also, at least where I’m coming from as a viewer, something that can be said about the Seventh Doctor era in general. This period of the show has plenty of champions among Doctor Who fans, not just among the Internetigentsia, but pretty clearly in the ranks of the folks who make new Doctor Who shows today; I think it’s safe to say that the spirit of seasons 24-26 has had a greater influence on Russell T. Davies’ and Steven Moffat’s versions of the show than anything that came before. When you look at this era in the context of the long and tortuous evolution of Doctor Who as a series, there’s a lot to admire, with a plethora of ambitious ideas and creative energy. “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” is a great showcase of this trend, showing a significant and progressive improvement over the disaster of the Sixth Doctor era. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to warm to this era, certainly not to the extent of the sizable number of fans who call it the zenith of classic-era Doctor Who. Because for all they were doing right here, it too often feels thin and amateurish, with potentially good concepts too often marred by sloppy thinking, lame execution, and tacky gimmickry. At its worst, it makes me feel a little mortified to be a Doctor Who fan in the first place. Exhibit A: the Rappin’ Ringmaster.

So, with that said: what were they doing right here? Most importantly, the sour and misanthropic stories favored by previous script editor Eric Saward were history. Andrew Cartmel’s vision of Doctor Who was more hopeful, more whimsical, and much more fun. It aimed, I think, for the bantery, light-hearted approach that typified the best of the Fourth Doctor/Romana seasons, not coincidentally the last time the series had pulled in large ratings. The show also leaned more heavily on the fantasy side of science-fantasy, which is particularly apparent in “Greatest Show In The Galaxy”: With its reliance on mysticism and allegory, and especially its tres-1980s fixation on the broken, corrupted legacy of the 1960s counterculture, this serial wouldn’t be at all out of place next to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Originally published Nov. 11, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Deadly Assassin

“The Deadly Assassin” (season 14, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Oct. 30-Nov. 20, 1976)

This is one of the giants, one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who. In terms of influence on the rest of the series, “The Deadly Assassin” is almost unsurpassed, establishing much about the Doctor and his homeworld that reverberates through subsequent seasons, from the legendary figure of Rassilon to the concept of artron energy, the quasi-radiation that the Doctor picks up from traveling through the Time Vortex in the TARDIS. The first extended look inside the society of the Time Lords, “Deadly Assassin” showed a much more human side to them, full of flaws and hypocrisy and corruption that explained much about why the Doctor ran away in the first place. It was also a significant step forward, maybe even a culmination, in his long struggle to achieve independence from their control and meddling in his life. Nothing would ever be the same again.

It doesn’t hurt that “Deadly Assassin” is so well-crafted all around, starting with the smart, slyly satiric script by the great Robert Holmes that plays off political thrillers, noirs, and espionage/conspiracy movies (especially The Manchurian Candidate) and restages the Kennedy assassination on Gallifrey, with the Doctor caught in a trap that casts him as Lee Harvey Oswald. Director David Maloney also has more than his share of Doctor Who classics to his name, including “The Mind Robber,” “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” but I don’t think he ever topped the tense, surreal, and nearly dialogue-free sequence set in the virtual-reality Matrix that takes up around a third of the running time here.

Originally published Oct. 28, 2012 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

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