Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Growing up with the Doctor – Part 6

Growing up with the Doctor - Colin Baker (1984–1986)

Colin Baker's tenure with the Doctor began with the "Twin Dilemma", and set the tone for the years to come. Arguments, violence, and poor production values, along with a catastrophic choice of costume made this probably one of the worst in the programme's history. The programme, not unlike my relationship with my girlfriend Marilyn, was coming apart at the seams.

It was not Baker's fault. He had shown himself a good actor in other productions, and later in Doctor Who audio drama, he was an excellent Doctor Who – given the right script. But his opening script was the first in a long line of flawed writing, with little in the way of high concept ideas or social comment.

The often best cited of his tenure, "Vengeance on Varos", was full of casual violence, and for all its pretensions to be a satire on the sadistic elements in modern television, it was a profoundly ambiguous one.

But most of all, what really was eating away at the programme was an obsession with continuity and looking backwards to the past, albeit extremely badly. "Attack of the Cybermen" took the Doctor back to Telos and the Tombs, homage for fans, but they didn't look anything like the grand sets of the Patrick Troughton story. A gantry, and a few empty rooms with doors, was presumably all the budget could manage.

The mythical element was being lost. Even when Doctor Who tried to draw on its roots, as in "Timelash" by presenting us with the young H.G. Wells, it was done in a lazy fashion. The smallest research would have shown that H.G. Wells was a cockney, and here he is instead a somewhat effete posh speaking young man, wholly unlike the historical character. The story and acting in that tale were pretty abysmal as well. At least George Stevenson did have an accent, even if "Mark of the Rani" with its fake moving tree, also hit the odd low.

I watched Doctor Who, because I've always watched Doctor Who, but I hoped for some kind of improvements. The move to a 45 minutes story, dragged out over two episodes, seemed slow, and left a lot of room for endless Tardis scenes, and lots of shouting arguments between the Doctor and his companion Peri. This show lacked pace, lacked decent scripts, and lacked good production values.

And the level of violence had increased. Hands bleeding as the Cybermen crushed them, death by being knocked into a pool of acid by the Doctor, a stabbing in the neck by one character using a syringe in "Revelation of the Daleks", and a fatal stabbing in the chest in "The Two Doctors", as well as the Doctor himself despatching a villain by using a cyanide soaked cloth on their face. This was no longer a children's programme. It was becoming a nasty sadistic television show, and losing the potential that was there.

And then it was cancelled for 18 months in 1985 by Michael Grade. Grade never liked Doctor Who, and this current series certainly provide plenty of ammunition for him. But the same team remained in place, with Eric Saward in charge as script editor, the man who thought you needed to show violence to be realistic.

In my own life, I was looking at a historical figure whose life spoke of peace and non-violence, and yet was a charismatic figure, one that people would look at for centuries after his death. In a way, he embodied much that Doctor Who should be about, and the disparity between his story and the last series of Doctor Who only highlighted the divide, and showed how far the show had fallen from its moral roots. His name was Francis of Assisi.

I had been contacted by Rosemary Hampton, an old friend, and the wife of the Rector of Grouville, Terry Hampton. They wanted to do a celebration of the life of St Francis. There would be music, well known hymns stemming from the life of Francis, where the audience could sing with. But in between, she needed some short playlets which would tell episodes in the story of St Francis, and also in the middle, a short slide show with narrative to give more background, and paintings of Francis, and picture of Umbria. It worked very well, and I managed to rehearse and largely control my somewhat unruly friars!

Doctor Who meantime was due to return in "The Trial of a Timelord". The violence had been toned down, but what remained was muddled and largely unwatchable. I did watch it, but the narrative was broken up by endless trial scenes, in which the Valeyard would shout at the Doctor, and the Doctor shout back at the Valeyard.

Such gems of dialogue in the stories were:

"I intend to adumbrate two typical instances from separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum."
"I would appreciate it if these violent and repetitious scenes could be kept to a minimum."
"Nobody likes brain alteration"
"There's nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality"
"A megabyte modem"
"How utterly evil!"

The courtroom scenes, far from enhancing the narrative, disrupted it because of the heavy handed way in which they were fed into the whole long story arc over 4 different stories. The "Key to Time" sequence, where references to the quest were at a minimum and stories could stand on their own two feet showed what could be achieved, but instead this was a disaster than went steadily downhill.

Probably the best story was the one with the Vervoids, a kind of Agatha Christie with added alien plant monsters, but even that was hardly gripping, and again suffered from discontinuity – the story jumps to the Doctor standing with an axe over a broken communication panel, with no real explanation of why it jumps except for another Courtroom scene. And what was an axe doing on a spaceship anyway?

But I soldiered on watching it, hoping against hope that it would get better. There were the occasional flashes of brilliance – the character of Glitz, a kind of interstellar spiv, and the different Mr Popplewicks. But there was no real pace, and no sense that the cliff-hanger should be something exciting, when the viewer wanted to tune in next week.

Back in the real world, the St Francis playlets being a success, Rosemary Hampton had a much more ambitious task ahead. She had shown me a church in England which had produced a kind of historical pageant, in which music from each period was interspersed by the same family coming in the costumes of that period. But it wasn't really dramatic, and she wanted something based on Grouville Church history -and there were certainly enough saintly and villainous characters there to fashion something from.

So my task was to write a slide sequence history for the middle section, as before, and a series of different acts, some of which would involve seeing the same family present at different periods, but which would be based on real historical incidents, from Norman times to Victorian times.

As the odd Rector had been taken away by officials, and imprisoned, or dealt corruptly with farmers, there was plenty of scope for drama. I saw that we could also fit in a miracle playlet and I wrote a pastiche about the woman caught in adultery. There was the pardoner, seeking coins from the family to let souls out of purgatory, a wonderfully over the top performance by Simon Hicks, with blacked up teeth to give a grotesque gap tooth appearance. And the drunken soldiers from the Militia, one of whom is now the present Constable of Grouville, John Le Maistre, who provided some much needed humour (and always got a laugh). And finally a Victorian piece, with the saintly Abraham Le Sueur and the very officious and villainous Peter Briard (a role I grabbed for myself!)

The narrators, in the meantime, would fill in the gaps and link the playlets together. As there was more information to put out, I decided on two narrators. And to make it more interesting, one would be mainly concerned with the church building, the fame of some Rectors, and a triumpalistic tone, while the other would be more prophetic, looking at the more spiritual side, and also the church's failings.

Narrator 1 By the fourteenth century, the Church was doing rather well. It had become prosperous and respectable. It is around this time that the list of Grouville Rectors was begun with the name of Pierre Faleyse, Dean of Jersey and Rector of Grouville. He was a staunch upholder of the rights of the Church! The Church had Its own Courts of Law, distinct from the Civil Courts. Pierre fearlessly defended these against the Civil Authorities - even against the Bailiff.

Narrator 2 Pierre upheld the rights of the Church. But what good are rights without justice?

Another example from the Victorian section:

Narrator 1: The Victorian age saw the Church in decay, badly in need of restoration. The floor was raised two feet above the damp that was seeping through

Narrator 2: Yes, the Church was in decay. Pews - with a good view of the pulpit - had been bought by the rich; the poor were shunted to the back of the Church. Was this God's house - a place where position could be paid for?

Narrator 1: But a general restoration was under way, brought about by Abraham Le Sueur, Rector of Grouville from 1851.

Narrator 2: He also cared for the poor and needy, encouraged education for all young children, and took an active interest in the Jersey Female Orphans Home.

The idea of two narrators, driving the narrative with a degree of conflict between the differing viewpoints, came of course indirectly from "The Trial of a Time Lord" and the Courtroom scenes. It couldn't be an exact fit, of course, because none of my narrators was actually on trial. But the idea of opposing viewpoints came from Doctor Who, even if the execution was different.

Sometimes the contrast between narrators was sharp, and at other times, more complementary; it had to be tailored to the drama unfolding. But there was often a sense that one narrator was very much putting the more materialist viewpoint of the other on trial. With one narrator male, and one female, it also gave contrasting voices to make the narrative links more interesting to listen to.

I am sure that Rosemary Hampton never knew the subtle influence from Doctor Who, nor did anyone else who took part. It was, after all, not a slavish copy, but simply a good narrative device, and unlike "Trial of a Timelord", it worked well.

Despite the Great Storm of 1987 disrupting the Friday night performance (postponed until Sunday night), the event went ahead and was a success. The drunken soldiers ad libbed about needing to cut down branches with bayonets on the way to the church. The historical hymns between each act captured each period well.

But another kind of storm was coming at the BBC. The script editor Eric Saward had left acrimoniously after an angry dispute with the producer John Nathan Turner. And the "Trial of a Timelord" had not been a success. Controller of BBC1, Michael Grade, decided one last try for the show was in order, but without Colin Baker. He was blown away by the fickle fate that had dealt him such a bad hand. Trees had fallen in the Great Storm, and the key actor and script editor had fallen from Doctor Who. Was there any hope left for one last blaze of glory, or had the programme had its day?

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