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.

Friday, 20 November 2015

TV21 1-3: Genesis of Evil

OK, last post I reviewed a TV episode which now exists only as a recon but has been adapted into a comic; next I am journeying 8½ months earlier in 1965, to review a comic which has been given an animated "recon" of its own. Which, I suppose, requires some context; but since I've got 17 of these reviews to fill, I'm going to space that out. And, since everything is new here - which means I've so much to say I'm splitting it anyway - I'm just going to concentrate on the content. With major spoilers!

The Comic
Genesis of the Daleks this isn't: rather than six slightly bloated 25-minute TV episodes we have three single-page comics. The economy of storytelling on display is impressive, with the entire war happening on page 1 and feeling surprisingly unhurried. Unfortunately, this instalment also has enough space to be rather problematic.

Those of you with total recall may remember that when I reviewed serial B, back near the beginning of this marathon, I complained about the racist and (particularly) ableist themes, with the idea of the Daleks as Nazi analogues being undercut thanks to them being the horrifying mutants and the Thals being noble, physically-perfect Aryans. Unfortunately the beginning of this story is, if anything, even worse, with the "tall, handsome" Thals petrified of being assaulted by the "short, ugly" Daleks - even though the current Dalek leader, Drenz, is a pacifist! And, of course, the Thals are right, because nature will out: the Dalek Minister of War Zolfian assassinates his ruler and takes control once his ultimate weapon is prepared. You can't trust nasty little blue trolls like these even to get war right, though, and a natural disaster sets off their neutron bombs early, wiping out all civilisation on Skaro.

I'll tell you what's short and ugly: this instalment of this comic. But you know what? When I was a child I wouldn't have blinked an eye at that. So I'm going to swallow my privileged, righteous 21st Century anger and move on. 'Nuff said, in the words of an unpleasant character who I used to really admire.

Ahem. Anyway, there are a couple of continuity issues you might have noticed mentioned in passing. Yes, the Daleks (not Dals, not Kaleds) are blue, and humanoid but not quite human in shape. Fair enough; nobody has to pay for makeup here, so why not turn them into a cross between the Mekon and the Smurfs? And I'll tell you what else is different: the machines that will house them are built by chief scientist Yarvelling. Not Davros. The other Genesis is a long way in the future.

I've only covered one-third of the story, so let me plough on. The second instalment opens two years later, with the only two Dalek survivors (Zolfian and Yarvelling, naturally) coming out to explore their dead world. The phrases 'neutron bomb' and 'cobalt bomb' probably don't have the same resonance with people of younger generations that they do with me, but this doesn't strike me as an unrealistic image - it feeds into a fear that most of us had growing up in the 60s and 70s. This was quite possibly how the world would end.

Life hasn't quite ended, though, because there's the traditional final-panel reveal of a "proper" Dalek, encased in a travel machine (sorry, "war machine"). Well, I say proper; the artist hasn't got it quite right. It's too tall and thin. Perhaps it's a Mark I. Nevertheless, this is what we have been waiting for - and in the third instalment Zolfian and Yarvelling work hard to fulfil their sick ambitions before dying of radiation sickness. And we get to witness the creation of the golden emperor!

So: well-written, well-painted, with some unpleasant politics. Oh, and a continent called Darren: that has to be worth something.

Published:
Dates: 23rd January to 6th February 1965

Rating:
Comic: 6/10.

Next Time:
Genesis of Evil revisited.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Episode 86 (DC): Dalek Cutaway

[This review has been much delayed because Isaac wanted to keep up Isaac's corner, but school has been a bit crazy lately. Still, I've written the three following reviews while waiting for an opportunity, so there shouldn't be any more delays for a little while.]

Every year, a friend who lives further down our street organises the Cheap Thrills Zero Budget Film Festival. People submit videos they've put together on a shoestring, these are edited into an evening of entertainment, and the show premieres in the chapel of the cemetery that lies beyond the bottom righthand corner of our garden. It's been very successful: it started out local, went national, then international...

This year is the first time that there has been an entry from offworld; specifically, a zero-gravity performance of David Bowie's Space Oddity, courtesy of the International Space Station. I don't know about you, but I think that's wonderful! Nevertheless, it points out quite effectively what a different world we live in now, compared to the one that existed when this episode was broadcast - a world where humans had barely ventured into space at all, but where it was assumed that we would keep on travelling further and further.

Of course, it was also a time when James Bond could be seen as an unambiguous hero, fighting the good fight for Queen and Country alongside his fellow (not-quite-so-) superspies. The character of Marc Cory is, basically, James Bond in space, combining two of the nation's fascinations. Ably played by Edward de Souza in a cut-glass accent, he's cool, calm, and callous. Human life means little to him, compared to his mission.

And, like Cory himself, this is an incredibly confident script. Not only is the Doctor absent, Nation makes the canny choice of withholding the Daleks from the screen for nearly a third of the runtime - which does a lot to help build up their menace after the comedy of The Chase. Meanwhile, there are the Varga. All we have, of course, are recons, so it's hard to judge how effective they actually were; but the concept, at least, is horrifying. I remember watching the transformation in The Ark in Space as an eleven-year-old, and the image stayed with me: never mind the bubble-wrap, that was true horror right there! Perhaps for those born a decade earlier, the same would have been true of the Varga transformations. We may never really know: Loose Cannon have once again done a lot with very little, but without any surviving clips that atmosphere is impossible to capture.

I said that all we have are recons, but thanks to Rick Lundeen that's no longer quite true. In later posts I'll go into more of the background to his graphic novel adaptation of The Daleks' Masterplan, but for now I'll concentrate on just this first chapter. The first thing to say is that it is very nicely done, the best-looking comic of this marathon so far: interesting layouts, varied camera angles, consistently recognisable characters, and a good use of colour to set the mood. His adaptation of the script is pretty faithful; he takes some liberties in order to make the story work as a comic, but if anything perhaps he sticks too closely to the original, resulting in some very wordy pages full of Nation's dialogue. That's a minor fault, mind you; it's a great read, and sets the scene nicely for the story to come. And some of the technology looks far more appropriately futuristic than would have been the case if he'd stuck with 1960s designs, such as Cory's recorder!

Getting back to the element that is common to both comic and recon - the story - this builds very well, with the quieter scenes of the Great Alliance (where the main interest would have been seeing all the aliens) interspersed with the action sequences of Cory and Lowery fleeing from the Daleks. There's a lot of exposition, but it doesn't feel overwhelming because it's tied so well into the worldbuilding. I have no hesitation in declaring this to be Nation's finest script for the show to date.

But by golly, it's bleak! All the way through you get the impression that something drastic will have to happen to save any of the humans, or even allow them to complete the mission. It doesn't happen; the beacon never gets activated, and everyone dies.

The Daleks have finally taken their place as the ultimate threat.

Isaac's Corner
Although the reconstruction was very clever, I still found it very hard to follow and only got a fuzzy idea of the story. It was much clearer in the comic. This episode really reminds me of the stories from the Dalek annuals of the time, with its Doctorlessness, and with a lot more action and extermination! The normal Doctor Who stories generally focus on defeating the large-scale Dalek plans rather than the small-scale battles. I didn't particularly like it but I didn't particularly dislike it either. I think I might have been a bit more decisive if we could get a proper idea of the acting, because the soundtrack is fuzzy and that's all we have to go on for acting. The illustration on the comic was good - he seemed to have put a lot of effort into it. Overall I would give it a 6.5/10.

And now, because it seems like the most appropriate time, we're going to be taking a break from the Doctor for a fairly extended period. The next 52 posts (if I've counted right) belong to the early solo exploits of the Doctor's arch-enemies: the Daleks...

Daleks conquer and destroy! Daleks conquer and destroy!

Broadcast:
Date: Saturday, 9th October 1965
Viewers: 8.3 million
Chart Position: 37
Appreciation Index: 54

Rating:
Mine (episode): 9.5/10.
Mine (comic): 9.5/10.
DWM Mighty 200: 64.54%, 133rd.
2012 Gallifrey Base Non-Dynamic Rankings: 6.67, 136th out of 234.

Next Time:
Genesis of Evil.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Episode 86 (T/A): Mission to the Unknown

Yikes, a bit of a long break before this one! Never mind; here at last is the first of two posts on this strangest of episodes - in which I don't review the content at all.

There's a reason for this, which is that I found it impossible to come at the story with an open mind. There is just so much mythology and trivia flying around concerning Mission to the Unknown that it clutters up my ability to appreciate it simply for what it is, so I decided to get that out of the way first.

Let's start with the reason it exists, which is, basically, scheduling. Towards the end of the previous recording block the last two parts of serial J (Planet of Giants) were combined into one because there wasn't enough content to warrant a four-parter, but this meant that the team had effectively produced one week's worth of Doctor Who less than planned. Sydney Newman decided to tack an extra episode on the end of the second recording block to make up for it.

Of course this meant that the episode needed to be fairly cheap, and also ran into the problem of the regular cast having to work an extra week. Verity Lambert came up with a solution that solved both of these issues at once, and in the process produced something quite unique.

This, then, is the first ever Doctor-lite story. It's so lite, in fact, that the Doctor doesn't appear at all (which is not quite true of any others, not even the 1960s episodes when William Hartnell was on holiday). His companions don't appear, either. Nor the TARDIS.

It's impossible to imagine the impact this would have had on viewers at the time (though Philip Sandifer gives it a go in his review) - it's almost as if the program had been invaded by another show altogether.

And, in a way, it had. Without the regular cast to hold people's attention, Lambert turned to that other great attraction of the program, the Daleks. (In fact, it could be argued that they were even more popular: the first Dalek film came out in the summer, the stageplay Curse of the Daleks was announced at the end of September, and the second Dalek annual was due to go on sale two days after broadcast. Dalekmania indeed!) Lambert asked Terry Nation to produce a 'teaser' episode for the forthcoming Dalek epic, and Nation decided to use the opportunity to test out the viability of an independent Dalek program.

So, how successful is the only single-episode story of the classic series? You'll have to tune in next time to find out what I thought...

Behind the Scenes: Verity Lambert
Before she disappears from the show I need to say something about Doctor Who's first producer. This was Lambert's final episode before following Sydney Newman out of the door to produce The Newcomers with him, followed by Adam Adamant Lives! (a show my mother remembered fondly). Lambert went on to have a glittering career, which is detailed in the usual places, so I won't reiterate it here. Other people have also said plenty about her contribution to Doctor Who - see Sandifer again for an eloquent example. I just want to add one thing.

When I got properly back into the show (after a long break) in 2006 I decided to investigate some highlights of the eras I had missed first time around, as well as revisit some old favourites. Being new to fandom I defined eras by the most obvious method (the actor playing the Doctor), and the highlights by fan consensus (since I hadn't had a chance to form my own opinions). It took me by surprise quite how off target my expectations were, and in particular quite how much I enjoyed the Sylvester McCoy and Hartnell eras, neither of which had been suggested as highlights.

As time passed and I grew more knowledgeable I could refine that a little more: what I loved was actually the Andrew Cartmel and Lambert eras. Oh, there are plenty of joys still to come before we reach the end of The Tenth Planet, and there have been a smattering of clunkers already; but this has been a real golden age. And it set up the show to run and run, for another fifty years so far. So I am very glad that she lived to see the show successful once again in a new millennium, under Russell T. Davies.

Next Time:
Dalek Cutaway.