Monday, 17 July 2017

TV21 25-32: The Penta Ray Factor

The Comic
Well, my first thought on seeing this is to wonder what the animation is going to do with all these humanoids. Still, I have the comic to review first. There will be SPOILERS!

When I was young there was a magazine called Look and Learn, a fairly earnest affair I used to pick up occasionally on holiday or in charity shops. It featured an ongoing strip called The Trigan Empire - a massively long-lasting strip which ran from the 60s to the 80s. It was kind of an SF version of Imperial Rome, and the artwork here reminds me of that; I do wonder if there was something in the air at the time. The Roman influence continues with the Cassandra-like seer and his magic future-scrying bowl, which made me think of the eleventh Doctor in The Wedding of River Song.

Now, the Hartnell era is a particularly magical one, with a feeling that anything could happen; but I haven't got the same vibe from the Dalek comics. As a result, this blatant fantasy element (there is no attempt at a pseudoscientific explanation) felt very out of place. I also figured out what the seer's arc was going to be quite early on.

Unlike other aspects of the story. There are some more obvious elements, like the traitor who decides to sell out his people to the Daleks; but this particular plotline goes in a completely unexpected direction. I don't think I've ever seen one of these cowardly traitor characters actually betray the Daleks and win! And then, when the Emperor gets called back to Skaro, the whole story is interrupted by another! Predictable this ain't.

Probably my one complaint about the story is that there isn't a lot to it, and it is in some ways just a rearranging of familiar elements. Still, my surprise at what it does with those elements is a distinct positive.

Rating:
Comic: 7/10.

The Animation
I used to work in motion capture, programming equipment used by hospitals and the entertainment industry, and as a result I am particularly picky about the animation of human movement - which is one reason I am so pleased when we come to stories without humanoids! And, indeed, the movement here is... well... bizarre. There is more of it, and I'm grateful for that; but the scenes with Daleks, vehicles, and architecture work so much better. As usual, many of the panels from the comic are faithfully recreated, and there is even animated water, which surprised me. The comic has suitably unearthly technological design, which gives the animators quite a bit to play with.

The plot has been expanded, and the additions are generally good, giving people a little more character and filling in some of the more egregious gaps (though I still don't understand how the Daleks could manage to smuggle in a giant fake weapon and bring the real one out without anyone noticing). I wasn't so happy about the introduction of a love plot between Mirva and Jareth, though - just because he finally did something selfless doesn't mean he's suddenly likable.
Oh, and one other addition was just boggling. The statues in the throne room all seemed somewhat more, ah, well-endowed than I would expect to see...

Overall, then, still fun but not so good as last time (though for understandable reasons).

Rating:
Animation: 3/10.

VCD Extras
Apart from an advert for the previously-released animations, this disk also includes "I Am the Doctor", a 1972 song by Jon Pertwee. Well, I say song, but he's actually just speaking the lyrics over a version of the theme tune. Although I knew of it I don't actually remember hearing it before, so that was fun; and the run-through of Pertwee's episodes in a diamond window reminiscent of a TV title sequence gave me something to look at. Nothing special, but it made me smile.

Published:
Dates: 10th July to 28th August 1965

Next Time:
Timeslip: The Fire in the Sky.

Friday, 23 June 2017

TV21 18-24: The Amaryll Challenge

Spoilers from the start.

The Comic
Finally, the Daleks make it into space! The first instalment of this serial is a bit like a teaser trailer, concentrating on the Dalek space program. You almost get a sense of the heroism of the early Dalek pioneers sacrificing their lives for a worthy cause.

And this is what makes me think hard about my reaction to these stories. The Daleks are evil empire-mongers, and yet they are undoubtedly the heroes of the comic; which gives me a kind of double vision. I've never understood the attraction of programs like Dexter or Hannibal, where the audience is meant to be, in some sense, attracted to utterly horrible serial killers; and yet, here I am rooting for the Daleks to get into space! Maybe I'm not so different from the fans of those shows after all. My approach to superhero and spy fiction is similar: in real life I would abhor the actions of violent vigilantes and government agencies who put ordinary people's lives at risk, but I can put that to one side and enjoy them on their own terms.

This way of reading is certainly put to the test in the rest of the comic. First we get the thrilling spectacle of Daleks fighting sentient vegetation (no joke - it is thrilling, and my moral sentiments are nowhere to be seen as I enjoy the sight of Daleks being killed in a variety of inventive ways); then the Daleks cause the destruction of the entire planet. I guess spectacle is what it's all about rather than black and white hats, but whatever; it works brilliantly. The only thing that makes it inferior to the previous story is that there is no characterisation on display at all.

Rating:
Comic: 9/10.

Published:
Dates: 22nd May to 3rd July 1965

The Animation
It may be because it was a long time since I last watched one of these, but it felt as if this was a step up. The sound recording quality is still a little subpar, but in general Altered Vistas continue to push against the limitations of what they can achieve. I noted last time how a 'making of' documentary explained why they had to use still shots when Daleks spoke; here, we actually get some shots with speech and character motion, and even the static shots are less noticeable. This is partly due to careful direction, with motion that comes to a natural halt just before the static section; and partly because for some shots they use a scrolling backdrop - an advantage of the Daleks having made it into space.

Speaking of which, the first episode of the comic is expanded to a ten-minute sequence. Again the additional material is mixed. The Emperor's speech at the end is perfectly in keeping with the source material - in fact, it's quite chilling, just as, later, on the speech about "one Dalek is still an army, one Dalek is still an invasion force", set in a beautifully-lit cavern, is a brilliant addition; but the meetings where the Emperor bangs on about how the Daleks are failing seem out of character.

Once we reach the planet, I was pleased to discover that mobile vegetation and lizard-worms don't give the makers as much of a problem as humanoids. Again, the care and attention that has gone into this really shows.

Overall it's nicely done, but rather slow-paced (there was no room for any extra material this time). I would have preferred it if it were five or ten minutes shorter overall, but I still feel getting the whole set of these was a worthwhile investment (especially since it only cost me blank disks, postage, and a little printer ink).

Of course, it's a long time since I've posted one of these reviews as well; so I should point out that I don't make conscious allowances for this being an amateur production. I think there might be an unconscious bias, and the subect matter certainly helps, but even allowing for that they're really not doing bad! For comparison, I rated the BBC productions Dreamland 1.5 and The Infinite Quest 3.5...

Rating:
Animation: 4.5/10.

Next Time:
The Penta Ray Factor.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Turbulence, indeed!

Well, I felt like doing some writing for only the second time in ages but wasn't up to tackling anything important, so I thought I'd have a go at reviving this blog. Which, of necessity, involves saying a little bit about why it's been so long.

Almost two years, in fact - and a pretty grim two years, both personally and politically, despite a few bright spots here and there. We all know about the politics, so I'll concentrate on the personal (which - according to a theory I have a lot of time for - is political, but hey).

Health has been a major issue, both mine and my daughter's (as has the underfunding of the NHS which has put a great deal of pressure on my midwife wife Alison). Following a long decline we decided at the beginning of 2017 to make dealing with health issues our absolute top priority, to the extent of raiding savings earmarked for the kids' university education. This has actually marked a turnaround, and we feel there is now a distinct upward trend. We've been on a strict elimination diet to try and identify foods that provoke an autoimmune response, with some success - we would never have realised how badly May reacts to potatoes without it, and we both have some trouble with the entire nightshade family. It's far from a miracle cure, but cutting out stuff has meant we both have somewhat better endurance, and I have managed to reduce my typical daily pain medication by 25%. As a happy side effect, we've both lost quite a bit of weight. May's BMI has just got back into the normal range after years of being overweight or obese, and I've lost over 10kg in four months (though I'm still towards the top end of overweight). This has helped my mood and concentration too, though my memory is still pretty appalling (I used to do most of the cooking, but after a number of accidents with pans boiling dry I am reduced to a primarily supervisory capacity).

Anyway, thanks to all this, we were able to go to the Eboracum Roman Festival as a family last weekend (I simply wasn't well enough to get there last year). Living History is a bit of a thing for us, and it was great - even if I did end up spending Sunday morning at the hospital. May managed to make us all tunics, and she and Isaac put together authentic shoes for the two of them (though mine and Alison's are still anachronistic).


One thing that hasn't improved my mood is the state of my family tree. My last two aunts died in 2016, so there are now no family members of any higher generation. A few weeks ago one of my cousins died of cancer; her sister has dementia and is now blind. I haven't been able to visit either of them because I can't manage the travel.

But enough of that - this is supposed to be a Doctor Who blog, right? So since I last spoke, my son Isaac and I went to meet Matthew Waterhouse when he was visiting Galaxy Four here in Sheffield. That means I've now met every surviving male companion actor from the classic series except for Mark Strickson though none of the female ones (just coincidence, I assure you)! Matthew was very friendly; he was touched that Adric is Isaac's favourite companion and seemed very happy to be working with Big Finish (he responded enthusiastically when I raised the subject of his work on Dark Shadows). The only other bit of writing I've done is a first Doctor original team story submitted to The Doctor Who Project - it was massively over word count, so I may need to do some rewrites. We'll see.



So is this post just a one-off? To be honest I don't know. In case it isn't I've come up with a two-pronged plan. The first thing is that I'm not going to post any more until I have a batch ready. One review (The Amaryll Challenge) is in the bag, and has been sitting there almost complete since just after I last stopped posting, but I won't put that up until I have maybe four more in hand. That way I'll hopefully avoid "false dawn syndrome", which can be extremely offputting to me as a writer. The second is that - since Big Finish haven't taken a two-year hiatus, and I've still been buying some - I'll incorporate timeslipped reviews of audios that should have occurred earlier in my marathon too, to break up the run of comics.

Right, I'm off to vote. Fingers crossed it won't be another two years before you hear from me again...

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Christmas Hiatus, and the arrival of the Norwood Institute

I had hoped to avoid this - particularly since I'd already written more than half of my next review before I posted the last one - but there's been no opportunity to watch the animated version of The Amaryll Challenge (partly due to family health problems) and we're now heading into the holidays, when I know I'm not going to have much time for blog writing, because I never do. I'll pick up again here in the new year.

You don't have to go completely without the whitterings of me and my family, though! My children and I (all of whose writing you have already seen here) have just recorded the first two instalments of a new podcast - the Norwood Institute. It's a bit of an experiment, and our web presentation is a little unfinished, but do check us out over at https://norwoodinstitute.wordpress.com/ or on http://norwood-institute.tumblr.com/. You can download the MP3 or play it on a certain tube, and I promise that there is some Hartnell discussion coming up soon.

Next Time:
The Amaryll Challenge (after a couple more announcements).

Monday, 7 December 2015

TV21 11-17/AV02: Duel of the Daleks

Bigger spoilers.

The Comic
The punchline first: this is undoubtedly the story that cemented The Dalek Chronicles' place in history. Almost everyone rates it highly, and in my opinion they are right to do so. Having got that out of the way, then, let's turn to the more interesting question: what makes it so good?

First off, it's just a riproaringly fun adventure serial, perfectly suited to its medium. Pacing is key in something like this: each instalment holds the interest and - six times out of seven - ends on a dramatic cliffhanging moment. (Even the seventh is better than some of Terry Nation's TV efforts, and he's actually pretty good at this sort of thing.)

Oddly enough, in a story that features only Daleks, it's the characterisation too - basically, that there is some. Zeg (the first Dalek with a name, possibly also the last until the Cult of Skaro? I'd have to check) and the Dalek Emperor are contrasted by their personalities, which are broadly drawn but definitely present. Both are confident, but it's a different stripe of confidence in each. Basically, they embody the brash spirit of energetic Youth and the calm wisdom of experienced Age.

Interestingly, Age wins by cheating. The Brain Machine says that Zeg must prove that he is smart, and the Emperor must prove that he is strong; but all along it is the latter setting traps for the former, destruction testing Zeg's casing. He succeeds eventually, ignoring the Machine's dictum in order to do so.

What drives the Emperor is revealed in the final instalment: he genuinely believes that the Daleks can only thrive with him at their head. It's not as visible, but he is just as arrogant as Zeg - and indeed the Black Dalek, making his first appearance here (with an imperiously callous air) as the Emperor's enforcer. Really, it's a key feature of the Dalek psyche, and it's impressive that characters driven by the same basic forces can be made so different.

I haven't said much about the artwork, but it continues to be effective in ways I've already described, and also adds its own spin to the atmosphere. For instance, during the duel Zeg is very prominent, foregrounded or featured on his own three times as often as the Emperor, who tends to lurk around the edges. This really helps to show us that the duellists are not the same.

Published:
Dates: 3rd April to 15th May 1965

Rating:
Comic: 9.5/10.

Terry Nation's The Daleks?
Having talked about the scripting a lot over the last few reviews, it's probably worth saying something about the writer. The logo panel says "The Daleks by Terry Nation". Apparently for some strange reason a few people believed that this meant the strip was written by Nation, though I can't imagine why: it's pretty obvious that Nation had nothing to do with it, and that David Whitaker was the writer (along with TV21 editor Alan Fennell for the first story).

Whitaker needs no introduction to readers of this blog, but this is the first time we've seen him as an actual writer of the Daleks. He had already written some printed Dalek stories - which we'll get to in a little while - and he'll get to write them for TV during Patrick Troughton's time on the show. What he does here is to create much of the imagery that people who grew up in the 60s associate with Daleks, despite much of it not appearing on the show itself - even the Dalek Emperor was conspicuous by his absence until Nation stopped writing the scripts. There are many figures who contributed to the success of the Daleks, and Whitaker is right up there among the most significant.

The Animation
The sound quality here is much better, which is a relief; and Stuart Palmer has reduced the number of times he pro-noun-ces each syll-a-ble se-pa-rate-ly, though he still does so on occasion. The fact that this story features no humanoids also means that it is ideally suited to animation. It's still very primitive compared to the remastered Genesis of Evil, and in a way I'm sorry I watched that one first; but I did enjoy it. Given that this is AV02 and the previous story was AV04, I'd expect this one to be the less advanced; but for the reasons given above it feels like a slightly later effort. At the moment the comic is still considerably better, though!

VCD Extras
This disc has a "making of" documentary, which was really useful for helping me understand quite how much work goes into an animation like this. I can see why almost all the shots featuring speech (and hence flashing lights) were done as basic, 2D animation, and boggle at the hours that go into producing the sets. Worth a watch.

Rating:
Animation: 4.5/10.

Next Time:
The Amaryll Challenge.

Monday, 30 November 2015

TV21 4-10/AV04: Power Play

Only minor spoilers this time.

The Comic
The first thing I notice is that, within the comic series itself, there appears to be nothing to mark the break between one story and the next. Rather like the original program itself, in fact! Still, as with the TV series, there are definitely serials (or perhaps chapters), so it makes sense to give them names. This second chapter in the sequence is over twice as long, at seven pages, which becomes fairly standard - seven out of the next ten stories are this length.

The story itself is not as strong as the first, but then origins are always a good hook (which is why superhero comics and film series reboot so often). What is clever here is that for a long time it feels like a simple incident, one that doesn't progress the overall narrative; but then, in the final instalment, something key happens that expands the canvas on which future chapters can work.

The Daleks are well-characterised. They are clever and devious, but also limited in key ways (although how they have managed to rebuild a city without slaves is not explained, despite this being a key point last time). There is a nice nod to The Chase, and the various betrayals that happen meant the story held my interest.

Unfortunately, the heroes of the piece are - once again - young, attractive, white humans (or at least indistinguishable from humans), while the villain is ugly and purple. This feels less extreme than last time - it's not something we've escaped in the half-century since, after all - but it still rankles a little.

One welcome artwork change is that the Daleks are now portrayed with their correct proportions (the title panel changes to reflect this partway through the story). The continuity-obsessed part of me can easily justify this, happily: the first, overly-tall Daleks were prototypes, and they have now improved the design. The Mark 2, perhaps.

A less happy change is that the inking on the fourth through sixth instalments is much lighter and less detailed. This makes everything look sketchier, and definitely takes away from the atmosphere. Fortunately the original inker is back for the finale, a very nicely done page in which the climactic event - the launch of a spaceship - distorts not only the panel where it happens, but bends the next row up as well! A simple trick that gives a sense of enormous energy.

TV Century 21
Time for some background. The first comic to feature anything from the world of Doctor Who was the venerable TV Comic, which had already lasted 673 issues before the Doctor came on board. TV Century 21 was a different beast, and had the Daleks - in colour! - out of the gate. The new comic was focused mainly on Gerry Anderson's stable of shows, and cleverly pretended that they all fitted together when they were clearly not designed that way - something us Whovian continuity obsessives would know nothing about, of course.

Throughout much of the 1960s, Anderson's shows (Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, and so forth) were massive - in fact, for a while, TV Century 21 (later simply called TV21) was by far the biggest comic on the stands. It took a unique tack, dating the issues a century in the future and presenting itself more like a newspaper, as if reporting on events in the world of the future. More details can be found in Stuart Palmer's narration of The Story of TV Century 21, an extra on the remastered Genesis of Evil VCD, which is accompanied by a slideshow of covers from issues featuring the Daleks.

Published:
Dates: 13rd February to 27th March 1965

Rating:
Comic: 4/10.

The Animation
One of my problems with the story in the comic was that the Daleks had apparently built their city on their own despite claiming to need slaves for handiwork. The VCD addresses this straight away, with a narrated series of still shots showing the Daleks' extermination and capture of survivors of the neutron bomb. It's just what was needed to set the scene.

Unsurprisingly, this is a much less sophisticated animation than the previous one. The sound quality is poorer (I had to really concentrate to make out some of the dialogue), Palmer hasn't quite got the pacing of the Dalek voices he was to develop later, and some of the scenes are not cut at quite the right point. More importantly, the human characters have no lip sync at all, and are often shown in still shots. It feels much more like a recon than the last!

At just over half an hour for a comic that is more than twice the length, this is a faster-paced adaptation. Some of the cuts are neat, using techniques such as zooming in on the emperor's eye, and I can see the seeds of a very good director in Palmer's work here. In a way I would be much more impressed if I hadn't just watched what he produced later on!

VCD Extras
Dalek Cutaway is an animated guide to the Dalek machine. There have been a number of these published in books; this one is based on Terry Nation's Dalek Special (1979) and The Doctor Who Technical Manual, which I haven't seen. I mostly like it, but the teletype-style text comes up at too slow a pace for me (I'm a fast reader), which means I spent some of the time waiting for the next word to appear. Still, a good effort.

Rating:
Animation: 3/10.
(I should note that I am judging the animations by pretty much the same standard I use for professional work; 3/10 is therefore not as bad as it might sound!)

Next Time:
Duel of the Daleks.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

AV20: Genesis of Evil

Spoilers again!

The Animation
There have been two versions of the VCD; I've got Genesis of Evil Remastered, which was released in 2009, near the end of the time these discs were being produced. I suppose the creators weren't satisfied with their original offering, but this release is certainly impressive.

3D computer modelling is used for the animation, and let me start with an area that always gives difficulties: living beings. The characters here aren't good enough for TV (though to be fair I thought that was true of the tenth Doctor adventure Dreamland as well). They are stiff, lacking the little movements that characterise real people. There is also a problem with hair, which tends to sink, ghostlike, into the body. The lip sync, however, is very good indeed.

A great deal of care has been spent on the sets, which are lovingly recreated from the comic and then expanded. These and the true Daleks are the highlight of the animation, and - except for resolution - they are TV quality. From the initial view of Skaro in space (with the hateful opening text scrolling, Star Wars-like, in the foreground) to the final rising crane shot of massed Daleks chanting, they are a delight. It's only when there are people in shot or pyrotechnic effects (such as the destruction of Dalazar) that I am reminded that this is effectively an amateur production. Even then, it's a very good one.

The actors do a decent job. Stuart Palmer (who also voices the true Daleks) plays Zolfian very much in the Richard III tradition, reminding me strongly of John Ringham's Tlotoxl from The Aztecs - in fact there's little subtlety in any of the performances, but then that's not what's wanted. A bit of ham suits the pulp SF mood. Richard Dadd's Yarvelling and Paul St. Marter's Drenz join in willingly. The sound quality is great, with effective music and effects from Empire 639.

So, what about the story? This is 20 minutes long, and the first instalment of the comic, in particular, has been expanded significantly - it now takes almost half the runtime. This is a mixed blessing: it lacks some of the punch of the original and some of the new dialogue is a bit flat, but we get to see more of the world (which, as mentioned above, is pretty darn impressive). I was less happy with the alterations than I was with the expansions. The addition of the mutos in the wilderness seems like an intrusion from the later Genesis, as does the way that the original Daleks (now human in shape, presumably because of the availability of 3D models) have been at war with the Thals for a long time, which sits oddly with having a peace-loving leader. On the other hand, putting rational arguments into the mouth of Yarvelling just feels wrong - I think it would have been better to keep the two Daleks focused on Thal annihilation and trusted the audience to figure out that there was an argument against continuing war against scattered survivors! Still, these are minor complaints.

I could say more - about the in-joke of a bomb with the registration DVRS-75, perhaps, or the effective "Stripped for Action" style title sequence - but this review has already been split once because of it turning into a monster, and there's one more thing to cover.

VCD Extras
There are three extras on this VCD, and I'll cover The Story of TV Century 21 next time. The Chronicle Years is a tour through the music and news of the two-year period when the comic strip was being published. It's put together well, with a soundtrack comprising extracts from the number one chart singles playing in order (and identified in a strip at the top of the shot) while the main part of the screen shows images of current events (described in a band at the bottom). During weeks when the TV show was being broadcast, a small image of the current story is displayed bottom left. The month and year is on the right. It took a little while for me to get used to this layout, but after that it worked well - with one caveat. It goes on too long. My brain was divided between interest in how everything fit together (shades of Philip Sandifer's psychochronography) and mental clock-watching. Cutting it into two and having the second half on the Archives of Phryne disc would have worked much better for me. Then, right at the end, there's a delightfully bizarre 1960s BBC "Interlude", showing an invasion of rolykins toy Daleks being fought off by a crawling baby doll. Ah, the 1960s!

That just leaves I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek, to which that last comment could also be applied. This was a single released by the Go-Gos which is, shall we say, not the greatest piece of pop music ever produced, even if we restrict our attention to novelty releases. Enlivened by a very simple, tongue-in-cheek animated "pop video", it's fascinating. Like a car crash.

Rating:
Animation: 7/10.

Next Time:
Power Play.