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Sunday, 25 May 2014

What to Watch Next: The Age of Steel & Inferno

Hullo! All back to normal this week.

The Cybermen comparisons were dealt with quite efficiently last time, but a note on parallel universes; Inferno was the first of the surprisingly short list of times that Doctor Who has dealt with them, as there's not much point having a parallel reality unless you have a strong supporting cast set in one time period, a state of affairs that only corresponds to UNIT-era Who and the Davies era. It's otherwise much easier to just tell stories about doubles, of which we've had plenty - at that, the fact that Moffat chose his first alternative-regulars story to involve body doubles might have been a tip-off about his long-term intentions for supporting characters. You can't really imagine an alternative story with the Paternoster Gang, for example - there just isn't enough information available about them for the reader to work with and appreciate the contrast between the current and altered versions.
(I wouldn't count "The Wedding of River Song" on this score - Amy and Rory do feel like they're behaving the way their normal selves would if said normal selves were put into this situation, and both of them apparently default to being soldiers when they're not with the Doctor in any event. While the point of what Ian McNeice is doing is that his Churchill is as close to the normal historical character, or at least DW's representation of that character, as possible. But that way the debate between environment and heredity and madness lies.)

("The Mind Robber" gets a half-point for working out a way to use a supporting cast who were familiar to the audience without having to introduce 'em. One of the many reasons it's delightfully clever.)

Age of Steel

The selection process was straightforward this week: which pic was closest to the inevitable Pertwee image?

"R100"
If alt!verse London has zeppelins, then someone must have been around to build them, and in fact there's a pretty definite point where this might have happened but didn't. The R101 airship debacle, aside from inspiring Paul McGann's first audio companion, put paid to the R100 (the privately-built counterpart to the more famous British Air Ministry airship); this was somewhat better engineered and could have been been the basis for an entirely different model of air transport today, but as the video notes, was broken up for scrap. Aircraft engineer engineer Nevil Shute, who wrote about the whole competition between the two craft in an even-handed if slightly biased fashion in his autobiography (he worked on the R100) would probably have never gone to Australia or become a serious novelist but would have stayed around in England making airships. 

All right, so that fact that they're called "zeppelins" and England is a republic now suggests some other point of departure, but it's worth remembering that technological development isn't nearly as set in stone  as the historical timeline might suggest. 

With so much fuss about Vitex in this story, a look at Britain's first energy drink seems in order. The pictures of cows looking sorrowfully at Bovril are morbidly amusing, but as an examination of how advertisements feed into national stereotypes and visa versa...well, this lecture argues it's the example par excellence. Could use more discussion of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, though (he of the "It was a dark and stormy night" opening).

"Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits"
The trouble with these things is, sometimes you run across a bit of telly history that's perfect but can't be found. For instance, the 1957 "Noddy in Toyland" would be ideal here - it stars Graeme Harper in one of his few acting roles, Colin Spaull (Mr. Crane) and David Brierly, the not-John Leeson K9. Or then again, "Huntingtower," which along with Harper had an astonishingly high number of actors who went on to star in Doctor Who, including Roger Delgado and Frazer Hines as Napoleon.

As neither is actually available, we'll have to resort to something else...oh, how about the first episode Harper directed for "Star Cops" instead. Chris Boucher got a whole SF show to himself; it was cancelled after nine episodes. Which is a shame - witty, full of intrigue, and savagely ironic about Cold War politics, it deserved much better than the same type of scheduling fiasco that also brought down DW. And this episode features Frobisher, i.e. Robert Jerzak.

"The Fatal Floor"
Nothing like Patrick Troughton's dulcet tones, is there? As sad as the death of Mickey's gran is, and as much as Noel Clarke does to sell this as a sympathetic, character-building moment, the direction of the part where he looks anxiously past his alt!gran at the ominous rug really does make this an irresistible comparison. Tragedy's next door to comedy and all that.

Last time I mentioned the Public Information Films I neglected to link to the write-up that Combom had already done for a DVD of these things back in 2009, which in turn links to the National Archives, where the films have all been preserved for posterity. The Jimmy Savile one is even more disturbing these days. You can easily lose an afternoon marvelling at these, if you're not yet familiar to the point of quoting along with the voiceovers.

"That time that David Tennant and Roger Lloyd-Pack had an engaging stand-off"
The pop culture suction of Harry Potter is unavoidable in this one instance, especially as the bits with David Tennant (doing that tongue thing he'd employ occasionally during his tenure as the Doctor) are about the most memorable parts of the movie, along with a musical interlude starring Jarvis Cocker and several other heroes of the Britpop scene. Also some musicians from Radiohead.

But to reiterate a point made in About Time Seven; how did it not occur to the production team to milk their casting so as to get some extra traction from the HP bandwagon? Because Tennant and Lloyd-Pack never actually meet on screen, since Lumic has been cyberised by the time they do, and this does seem a little counterintuitive for a meeting of franchises at a point when both were peaking.

Inferno

"With a face like that, you could land on the moon"
There's a specific name for "the pulling of freakish faces such as Jon Pertwee makes while he's crossing between dimensions" and that would be gurning. It's a thing. See, the link is to a World Championship for it and everything. None of the competitors are as good as Pertwee of course, particularly once his already silly expression were run through the fun of BBC editing effects, but that's why he's a professional. 

"Dick Turpin"
The Christopher Benjamin- Trevor Baxter duo was a little short-changed in the "Talons of Weng-Chiang" write-up. Benjamin's appearance in this story as the pleasant if hapless Sir Keith provides an opportunity to make up for that, by dint of showing off another of his performances in a costume drama.

Despite the "we're coming in in the middle" opening, this is the first episode and it does sort itself out by the end (all you really need to know going in is that Turpin was an 18th century highwayman who was the subject of innumerable legends and was hung in York, historically; this series starts after that.) Benjamin gets to play the aristocratic rotter set up in opposition to our Robin Hood-esque folk hero, and he has immense fun playing the part. Richard O'Sullivan hasn't a single thing to do with DW but is brilliant anyway.

(In retrospect, it would have been more appropriate to have used a link to the "Koroshi" episode of "Danger Man" for "Talons", especially with that whole theme of white blokes unconvincingly faking Oriental accents while actual Asians play the bit parts, but Benjamin just doesn't have enough to do in the episode to make it worthwhile on that score.)

"Doppleganger"
Gerry Anderson finally got to do a proper live-action SF film, which wasn't exactly the delightful experience he'd been hoping for. This was in 1969, therefore long after DW had already played the "parallel Earth" card with "The Tenth Planet", but as the title suggests this one is specifically about a parallel Earth inhabited by duplicates of our heroes...although don't think through the science for that, it'll make your head hurt. The many-worlds theory is miles more sensible than the "counter-Earth" gimmick used here.
(spoiler: it's a close enough duplication that the doubles aren't all evil any more than the heroes' world is. Whichever one you'd like to consider that to be.)

"Project Mohole"
The real-life inspiration for "Inferno's" conceit. It's not the most interesting documentary, spending entirely too much time just describing what we're seeing, but they try to get the technical details they do describe right. It's wryly amusing seeing how taken-for-granted the essentially American nature of the operation is assumed to be (aside from the enthusiastically blatant patriotism, it's assumed that the research scientist from the firm that put up the money for the operation gets to have the first look at their discovery...). Plus a celebrity cameo. Not the one you're thinking.

But there's gray-green ooze down there! How exciting. Doesn't mean that the stuff in Inferno looked anything like this, as you'll see, but at least they were in the right part of the spectrum.

"An Accident Waiting To Happen"
Casualty. Long-running BBC medical soap, to anyone not from Britain. This episode may be by Paul Cornell, but that doesn't mean it's more than workmanlike for most of it. There's just not much anyone could do with some of these plot developments (the actress can't deliver the tale of her adoption brother-sister accidental-incest sob story with an entirely straight face, and one can't blame her for that). Be nice to know whether the punning title was his idea or not, though. Dudley Sutton's turn as Grumpy Old Man's is well enough.

Oh, and there's a vicar. But not a female one, uncharacteristically. Martha's mum is in it too - Adjoa Andoh comports herself well as always and gets to be one of the most dignified people in the lot.

Anyway, that bit on the Wikipedia page for "Inferno" about a character named Petra Sutton in this episode is true (it was there with a big "Citation Needed" and everything, I thought it might be worth double-checking). Indeed it was worth double-checking: the article ought to be updated to note that it's "Dr. Petra Sutton" in the credits, which may or may not strengthen the evidence that it's an homage. Well, Cornell being Cornell it's undoubtedly deliberate, but someone should probably ask him about that at a convention for the sake of the encyclopaedia-writers. 

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