Friday, 17 November 2017

TV21 47-51: Eve of War

The Comic

Let's start with something that is a definite improvement for me, although it may not have been such a good thing in 1965: this story is "written for the trade". Now, that's a phrase from the US comic scene meaning that the story is designed to work best when read in one sitting, rather than issue-by-issue. Normally I'd be a bit more ambivalent about it; but as I've commented in my reviews of the last two stories, the constraints of a single-page-per-week format have been actively harmful recently. This story trusts that the reader will be sufficiently intrigued to keep reading even without a cliffhanger - indeed, the only cliffhanger in the whole story is at the end of the first episode - and that allows for more natural pacing. The result is the best storyline in a long time.

Of course, plot is only one aspect of a comic story, and the art goes though by far its biggest change in the series between episodes 49 and 50: Richard Jennings leaves, to be replaced by Ron Turner. This is not something you'd be likely to see in a written-for-trade comic! Turner has a more cartoon style, with thick, dark lines and deeper shadows. The results are mixed, and neither artist does the Mechanoids justice, with the worst point being a panel with the Dalek Emperor talking about their "powerul arms" beneath an image where those arms look like flimsy plastic. I do prefer Turner's spaceships but his Daleks are vastly inferior, looking as if they are sliding around in giant sardine tins. Comparing the space battles, Jennings' final panel - showing the Mechanoid ship exploding - has much more energy than the corresponding panels on Turner's first page (which also feature molten metal from a doomed saucer dripping down towards the bottom of the page, despite the absence of gravity). Overall, at present I feel that this is definitely a change for the worse.

Turning next to the dialogue, I'm afraid I have to continue my run of snarks about the over-reliance on technobabble. This really goes into overdrive here, which is a shame as it damages my ability to take the story seriously. People complain about the technobabble in Star Trek, but that show put it to much better use than David Whitaker does here. For example, the Emperor helpfully explains precisely how they scan a Daleks' mind to find out about the Mechanoids:

"This hypnotic cloud is made up of thought patterns. They make indelible pictures, stored by this Dalek in its memory retina. We have added substance particles and dimension atoms to that cloud. Watch the result on the visualiser."
Thanks, yer highness! That makes it so much clearer! </sarcasm> Never mind that it is so full of nonsense phrases as to be meaningless, or even that it doesn't explain how a Dalek who has never seen a Mechanoid can remember what one looks like. The most annoying thing is that it isn't needed at all. A sentence like "scan this Dalek's brain for useful information" would do the job just as well, probably better.

Despite these flaws, the plot makes me excited for what is to come next. After all, it's the Mechanoids! Of course that revelation was going to please me, as I've known them as the Daleks' nemesis since before I saw either on screen. But more on that later...

Comic: 4.5/10.

Dates: 11th December 1965 to 8th January 1966

Next Time:
Altered Vistas' take on Eve of War.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

AV07: The Menace of the Monstrons

(I'm posting this a bit early because the weekend's busy and then on Monday I'm going into hospital for another back operation, but I don't want to risk leaving it for ages between the two reviews of the same story! Fingers crossed this'll be the penultimate op!)

The Animation
Between writing the previous review and this, I went and read Delta's review - and was struck in particuar by his observation about the resemblance between this story and The Dominators. My, it's quite some parallel, isn't it? Other than the minor detail of the Daleks not being a bunch of Pathetic Hippy Pacifists (tm), of course - I'm sure Mssrs. Haisman and Lincoln would consider Yarvelling's creations much better role models for today's youth.

So, what have AV made of this story? For one thing we've got the best humanoid animation yet (not counting the version of Genesis of Evil I watched, which was redone towards the end of the series). There are also some lovely little effects, including the scanner patterns (very 60s) and the night flight, which was wonderfully atmospheric.

In adapting the story for video AV added a great deal of humour and several references, all of which enhanced the experience for me. There are two door jokes: in one, the engibrain robots stream through a doorway in pretty much the same way as the Daleks when they were on board the DARDIS in The Chase. In the other, there's a doorway that has a big circular cut-out at the top to allow the Emperor Dalek to pass through! I bet some of the more irreverent Daleks snigger and make "I'm not saying the Emperor's got a fat head, but..." comments.

Still, my favourite joke has to be when the Monstrons are scanning for similar lifeforms. As well as Whoniverse creatures such as Sensorites and Zarbi we get the Mekon, the creature from the Black Lagoon, and more.

Which is not to say that it's entirely humourous. The tone is more like that of the 60s Dalek movies, in which genuine tension is cut with comedy. Let's face it, we're watching a fan-made animation of a weekly single-page comic aimed at preteens. Treating it in a po-faced manner isn't going to give much leeway for the inevitable imperfections, and the occasional nod-and-a-wink jest really does help. As I say, I'd rather watch most of these than Dreamland, despite the fact that the latter (presumably) had a much higher budget, and I think this is part of it.

Still, not all of the continuity nods are jokes anyway. We get a shot showing us the Black Dalek still being rebuilt, which fits this into the larger ongoing story; and a discussion of the Magnetiser which protected their city in a previous story plugs a plot hole I hadn't even noticed! Lastly, the body of water from the panel in the comic where the surviving Daleks emerge is here named the Lake of Mutations; which, well, of course it is.

This is the second story in a row where the animation has improved on the original comic. I'll be interested to see if this trend continues.

Animation: 6/10.

VCD Extras
The only extra on the disk is the trailer for the next Dalek Chronicle animation. I don't know about anyone else, but it certainly excited me...

Dates: 2nd September 2005

Next Time:
Eve of War.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

TV21 40-46: The Menace of the Monstrons

By complete coincidence (although I must admit I cheekily added the last line of my previous review after I found this out), in the Iris Wildthyme audio I am listening to on Spotify - Series 3 - Iris and her companion Panda are menaced by the Monstrons! I wonder if it's the same Monstrons?

The Comic

Okay, maybe I'm feeling hyper-sensitive today, but I can't help feeling awkward looking at the portrayal of the blue-skinned aliens attacking the Daleks in this story. The thing is, in an attempt to make them look alien, artist Richard Jennings has given them slanty eyes and thick rubbery lips. Which kind of seems like an ugly mashup of how people of African and East Asian background used to be portrayed by us White Europeans. The original "aliens", in fact. Ah, don't you just love a touch of racism in your Doctor Who?

Putting that to one side and turning to the plot, we come to the start of the spoilers!

This is a curiously uneven serial. Taken overall it's a massive, epic tale with huge consequences and a startling death toll. So let's look at that side of it first.

The Monstrons are scientifically advanced (particularly in the arts of war) and methodical. They capture a Dalek and analyse its capabilities before devising a strategy of conquest, protecting themselves behind an unbreakable force field while they do so. Then they soften up the Dalek city with missiles before sending their robotic troops in to finish off the inhabitants, and finally burying the city in liquid metal! I mean, talk about scorched earth policies - these guys could have taught the Romans a thing or two. And that's just the Monstrons' advanced party. Almost all the Daleks are dead, and the only reason the invaders lose is because the captured Dalek manages to temporarily escape and sacrifices its life to activate the volcano atop which the Monstron ship has landed.

Chilling? Well, actually, not entirely; and that's where the other side of the story comes in. Unfortunately, the tone is often in distinct contrast to what I have just described. The robots are called Engibrains and resemble the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still; the missiles feature anti-invisibility thrusters; and two episodes are taken up with a subplot wherein the Emperor falls into an underground river and pleads for help while being threatened by a giant electric eel. The solution? Another magnet, this time a 10' tall horseshoe magnet of the sort we were all familiar with as children, complete with red-painted handle and metallic poles. What is it with the Daleks and magnetism at the moment? This one, once again, needs power in order to work, which the rescuing Daleks have to provide from their own casings, and then they use the eel to provide power until they can recharge. It's bizarre. As the TV series moves towards the feel of the early comics, the comics seem to be moving more towards the feel of The Chase.

Overall, then, it's exciting, but it's terribly old-fashioned (including the particular form of racism), and the tone is frustratingly inconsistent. At this point I'm wanting more: stories like Duel of the Daleks or The Amaryll Challenge feel very far away at the moment.

Comic: 5/10.

Artwork: Richard Jennings
In the 50s and early 60s Richard Jennings was probably best known for his artwork in the celebrated British comic The Eagle, or possibly his work advertising Bovril alongside his better-known Eagle colleague, Frank Hampson (of Dan Dare fame). From 1964 onwards he became associated with the Daleks, both in the Dalek Annuals and the early Dalek Chronicles. While not one of the giants of the industry this later work had an influence on a generation of children: I should know, because I was one of them. And so, as Philip Sandifer has pointed out, was Russell T. Davies. There is a direct line from here to The Parting of the Ways.

Only part of his career was spent on comics, and he also worked as fisherman, lorry driver, and painter and decorator.

Dates: 23rd October to 4th December 1965

Next Time:
Altered Vistas' take on The Menace of the Monstrons.

Monday, 30 October 2017

AV05: Plague of Death

The Animation

Well, this being a story with no organic life on-screen, I thought it would be ideally suited to animation; and, indeed, this turns out to be the case. I enjoyed this much more than the original comic.

Still, let's start with sound rather than vision. One minor annoyance is the presence of some irritatingly slow Dalek voices, as there used to be in some of the previous stories. I notice that this one is actually an earlier release than The Pentaray Factor, where the problem didn't occur; so I'm hoping this is the last time we'll have to deal with it.

In contrast, the voice of the Brain Machine was fun; and the music and sound effects from Empire 639 were great! The recording quality of all the sound is as crisp as I could want, which hasn't always been true. All of this really helps the experience.

Visually it's a strong release too. There's a lovely shot where the camera is pointing through a sheet of metal, which is gradually eaten away to reveal the scene behind. In fact, several of the rust attack shots impress, as does a first-person view of the Black Dalek seen through the eyestalk of a plague victim. The landscape of Skaro is also pretty spectacular - it looks like it might be taken from photographs, but if so I'm uncertain where on Earth they were snapped! The only significant flaw is a glitch where the Emperor's saucer disappears behind a strip of "sky", which is a shame.

Sound and vision also work together well to support the characterisation. They really show how scared some of the Daleks are, and I also found that the Black Dalek's personality comes through even more strongly than in the comic.

Another aspect of the adaptation that raises this above the comic is the pacing. Various events are compressed or expanded, creating more tension and putting back some of the structure that was absent from the comic. To be fair, this is taking advantage of the fact that there doesn't have to be a cliffhanger every page; but regardless, it's a carefully judged move which is a vast improvement.

There's not much humour here that wasn't present in the original comic (scaredy-Daleks take a bow), but two moments are particularly worthy of note. First, I loved the restrained and disarmed "volunteer" Dalek, poor thing; and second, the moment when opposing Daleks are told "Do Not Fight In Here!". I wonder if the Emperor's throne room is known as the war room? It would certainly be appropriate.

VCD Extras

Surprisingly, there are no extras this time around. The disc didn't really need them, but I was slightly disappointed. Ah well, I suppose I'd better just cut this short and go drown me sorrows - or at least listen to an Iris Wildthyme audio, which is pretty much the same thing...

Animation: 5/10.

Next Time:
The Menace of the Monstrons.

Monday, 23 October 2017

TV21 33-39: Plague of Death

The Comic

First, a note about the dates of publication. Mission to the Unknown went out on 9th October 1965, which means that the Dalek Chronicles (which began before The Chase was broadcast) are now overtaking the point I've reached in the TV strand of my marathon. And what's noticeable is that, in terms of tone, the TV series is only just catching up with the comic. Anyone who enjoyed Mission will have done so largely due to the sight of Daleks being both implacable and deadly, with additional variety provided by other alien threats. Basically, you have to possess a fascination with fear and death (as many humans do), a sense of horror that is at the heart of the comics' appeal as well. This, however, was almost entirely absent from The Chase, and to be honest not a major component of The Dalek Invasion of Earth after the first episode. No, you'd have to go all the way back to their debut as the title monsters of serial C to watch this mode of storytelling in action, and in that story the Daleks were confined to a single city and therefore in some way "safe". Like dinosaurs. Now they are out in the universe.

But enough of that - what of this serial? Structurally it's very interesting. Up until now the stories have been entirely linear, but most of this adventure takes place on Skaro while The Penta Ray Factor is happening elsewhere. What's more, the next serial begins before this one is fully resolved! It definitely adds something to the series.

[Spoilers all the way.]

Unfortunately I'm not so enamoured of the content. I'm not one to complain about dodgy science usually - oh, OK, I suppose that's the opposite of true, but generally I'll do so in passing and move on. Here, though, I find it particularly silly. The problems start with an explosion of dalatomic radiation, which fortunately exits in a column through a hole in the roof, leaving the laboratory area uncontaminated. Now, in a genre where we have energy beam weapons I can imagine that happening with a controlled process, but in an explosion? I mean, one of the things about radiation is that it, well, radiates. But it gets better. The beam strips the rust off the metal roof on the way out, creating a radioactive cloud of rust, the one thing Daleks fear.

(Incidentally, this leads to one of my favourite scenes, with Daleks running away from a wall while their leader yells at them to stop panicking. Very Monty Python and the Holy Grail...)

Now, this rust voraciously destroys any metal it touches, including desert stations and Dalek casings. What's more, when fired upon, it climbs the energy beams to contaminate the attackers. Fortunately the brain machine (remember that?) gives them the answer, and the cloud is stopped using static electromagnets. David Whitaker does love his static electricity, doesn't he? Though I can't see how it can create an electromagnet, which produces a magnetic field with an electric current. Perhaps my school just didn't teach me enough physics.

Anyway, this is when things get really weird. The rust turns into a plague, and Daleks start shooting each other to prevent their fellows getting close enough to pass it on. The Emperor returns to find that it isn't being spread between members of the general population, but only from one carrier Dalek - who just happens to be the Black Dalek, the one whose role means that he comes into contact with more of the populace than anyone else. The poor guy should have learned to delegate. He tries to sacrifice himself, but the Emperor refuses, saying they will build him a new casing. So, a happy ending, after a fashion.

I suppose the problem isn't really that the science is dodgy per se, but rather that each twist feels like a completely random magic-wand way of extending the story. There is no logic to it, and no story progression: each page or two a new way for the Daleks to be threatened by the rust appears. This is the serial, episode by episode: (1) create the cloud, (2) show the effects, (3) now it can climb energy beams, (4) the wind blows it towards the city, (5) it turns into a plague, (6) the Black Dalek is the carrier, (7) conclusion, but an alien ship lands. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.

I take it back. Regardless of the way it overlaps with the stories on either side, this serial has no structure whatsoever.

Comic: 2.5/10.

Dates: 4th September to 16th October 1965

Next Time:
Altered Vistas' take on Plague of Death.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Episode CC9.03b: Founding Father

This episode is actually called The Founding Fathers, of course (see my previous review). There is more than one founding father figure in the story, once the frame is taken into account; but I think the singular form still works, just utilising ambiguity rather than inclusivity. Hence I am adopting it as a minimal change.

Big Finish have this to say about CC9.03, The Founding Fathers:
The TARDIS lands in Leicester Square in the summer of 1762. When the Doctor, Steven and Vicki find themselves locked out of the TARDIS, only one man can possibly help them. But the American, Benjamin Franklin, has problems of his own...
Well, the framed story in this episode is, if anything, even sparser than last time, with most of the drama residing in the frame. That doesn't leave me much to talk about, and rather than pad it out I'll leave this as a short review.

Let's talk about characterisation. Most writers seem to "get" Vicki, and Simon Guerrier is, of course, no exception: he has her mannerisms down pat. Cleverer is where he shows us Vicki as seen through Steven's eyes, when he describes her as seeing the world in black and white (another nod to the TV show?) - which is almost true, but with a world-weary twist that is slightly dismissive of youthful idealism.

Steven is a harder character to get a handle on, partly because of the circumstances of Peter Purves' time on the show (which forced him to take on whatever role the plot required, to a greater extent even than William Russell). Here, his finding work as a boatman reminded me very much of Ian in The Library of Alexandria. His anger and sense of justice do come through strongly, but moreso in the frame.

Right, on to the plot. Minor spoilers coming up!

If last time was mainly about the Doctor and Benjamin Franklin, then this one is more about Steven, Vicki, and Abigail (with the Franklin/TARDIS thread dealt with briskly, and mostly offstage). Abigail's story holds echoes of Clara's in The Snowmen (it's obvious when you hear it, so I won't go into detail), but holds up well on its own merits. My favourite moment this time around is a scene where she is picked up by a cab, which is seen from Steven's viewpoint - he is already there. It provides an elegant twist on the classic "heroes get into a vehicle to find their enemy waiting " trope.

(Incidentally, I found listening to this episode to be a particularly visual experience. I pictured a lot of the action in my head in low-definition black and white, and with a definite difference between the outside location shoots and the inside sets.)

Of course, Abigail was never in the history books, and her story is left frustratingly incomplete. That's something which doesn't happen often, because we're dealing with fiction here. Usually, by the time the TARDIS leaves, the main guest cast are either dead or at the end of one chapter of their lives (perhaps journey completed, danger averted, about to start work on rebuilding their world; or thwarted and imprisoned or on the run). Indeed, there's often a "who was that masked man?" moment to underline the end of the story so that we aren't left hanging. There's nothing like that here.

But then, that's kind of the point - in two ways. For one thing, the Doctor and his companions are intruders into other people's lives, and their stories generally begin before the TARDIS arrives and continue after its departure. The Doctor is a transformative force, certainly, but there's no reason that the chapter breaks in the various tales should always match up neatly.

Plus, of course, this isn't the end of the story anyway. The adventure in the past is over, but - moreso than almost any Companion Chronicle not written by Guerrier - that is just one part of a larger tale.

Normally, I'd add a post on the story as a whole next. Instead I'm going to leave that until the framing sequence fits, after Steven's parting from the Doctor, and link back to these.

Huh. Guess I had more to talk about than I thought.


Next Time:
Plague of Death.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Who Is This Blog For? (redux)

Reading my last review, an unknown physician on Gallifrey Base pointed out that I hadn't explained what the audio was about!

Actually, it went further than that, since I'd also forgotten to say what the audio was called. The latter was a simple oversight, but the former was the result of a stylistic decision that has, perhaps, gone too far. Regardless, the question prompted me to think hard about the purpose of the blog, not for the first time.

Let's make one thing clear: this blog is mainly for my own benefit. That's true of all blogs, really, though the authors' benefit can be measured in different ways - money, egoboo, personal satisfaction, a sense of giving something to the community. In my case, it's primarily a writing prompt. It used to have a significant secondary purpose, which was to help me keep going with my marathon through the tricky bits; but that has stumbled anyway.

Still, having said that the blog is targeted at myself, it's a bonus if I can inform, educate, and entertain other people along the way. And I've probably paid too little attention to this lately. I think the solution is to make that part of the writing prompt from now on (and making it slightly more specific than "just write something" is no bad thing).

That doesn't mean it's going to be a review blog like, say, Doc Oho's or Styre's, which people might turn to when deciding which audio/dvd/book they are going to spend their hard-earned money on next. As I said in reply to the question, mine are more like "water cooler" discussions: more "hey, did you notice this interesting thing about last night's episode" than "I have analysed this release carefully and here's why I think you should/shouldn't buy it." It will also continue to avoid giving away much of the plot where possible, and post spoiler warnings where not (except in the case of the TV series, which I tend to assume people dedicated enough to read something like this have seen). And it will continue to include snippets of production info and items of personal importance where relevant.

I hope that this will continue to be of interest to some of you. If there are any suggestions for further refinements, please feel free to comment!

Next Time:
Founding Father