Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Dr Who Books Read and Heard, Part 22! TOM BAKER SPECIAL!

 As promised, here comes a lot of Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor.  He was my Doctor growing up, with a bit of Pertwee, and I feel, in the modern world, we could do a lot worse than look to Tom Baker’s sort of Doctor for inspiration in life: intelligent, urbane, only sometimes shouty or violent – much more often full of casual wit and peace-making skills, poise, confidence.  Astonishing dress sense.  *Such presence*.  Anyway – I haven’t cherry picked these next stories – they are the Targets that were next to read, in order for him, and whichever of the Virgin Missing Adventures or the BBC Past Doctor Adventures that I was reading , happenstance, when I decided this whole post would be Just Tom.  And I realised I was never going to get to the Big Finish Tom audios unless I stopped in my tracks and went specifically to his series’s, as those monthlies do go on forever (and I will resume next time I can have a listen). 
But for this one…it’s a nice sea of Nothing But Tom Baker.  Man of All Moments!


1.    Doctor Who and the Android Invasion, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
4th Doctor.  Hmmmmmm.  This is a patchy story on TV, with some incredibly good, archetypal moments: the banter of Tom and Liz; the deserted town, the strangely brand new money; the falling off of Sarah’s robot face; the robot UNIT staff…and, the book of this story was even patchier.  I’ve never thought this story much good once Styggron appears, and unlike many others I don’t think Milton Johns saved the thing as Crayford either.  

The one thing that I really noticed about the book vs. the TV, was the complete absence of the wonderful banter between Tom and Liz Sladen that makes so much of all their scenes together so wonderful.  I went ranting to Stanley about it, as he knows much about how the classic era worked, as he was present during bits and pieces of it.  He explained to me, as I was in full mid rant about how Terrance Dicks really should have kept that banter in and not edited it out, that I had it all backward.  Here’s the interesting thing:  apparently, by this time, Dicks was no longer working directly on the show, he was gone, and working full time on other projects [Stanley did tell me exactly what but I forget and it’s not relevant: what’s relevant is that he was no longer on set, or on staff of the actual TV show – he was only writing those books for the Target series as asked.]  So what would happen is he would be sent scripts, and he would write the books *from* the scripts, alone.  These are not the days of the DVD and the video…he was full time busy on other paid work, and he would not have had access or time to go and watch a screening of the stories he was writing the books for.  Stanley told me that Tom and Liz in particular, had a brill relationship in terms of enjoying each other as actors – they adlibbed a lot of that wonderful banter; it was unscripted, and often changed between takes. 

So there I was blaming Terrance Dicks for removing some of what is best about the entire Tom and Liz era, and I had no idea it wasn’t actually his fault – he never saw it till long after the fact, after the books were written and published.  So, though no doubt I’ll be mentioning again that the lovely banter is gone, I – and us, readers, the previously ignorant ones like me – must remember it wasn’t Terrance Dick’s fault.  It was Tom and Liz’s fault for being very funny and such a good team, y’know, if we’re determined to apportion blame!

That’s really all I have to say about this story: patchy and banter-less in book form – despite having some truly creepy and classic moments in it.  It’s one of those plots too, that doesn’t stand up after a bit of looking…but I shan’t go there.  There’s enough joy in the falling off of Sarah’s robot face to see me through!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
2.   Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
(I find this one of the hardest TV serials to watch – I just don’t like it, it feels hugely melodramatic, and not in a ‘so bad its good’ way!  It’s odd as I love most of the Hinchcliffe era, but this one…nope.  I’m happy to report I found the book easier going, with Philip Madoc’s Solon overly effusive and intense Dr Frankenstein knock off villain simply OTT to read, instead of unbearable! In the book he was almost a pantomime villain, with some of the intensity removed.

I usually really enjoy books that collage others, with the Frankenstein elements, the folkoric overlay of the Sisters of Karn’s siren effect, the Grail-ish borrowing of the Elixir etc.  As a read, this was definitely better for me than to watch, with these disparate elements seeming to blend more instead of fight one another as I had felt they did while watching.  I enjoyed the outright sci-fi elements, the ambition of the brain transplant; the scary idea of the Mindbending competition, imagining someone backward until they go before conception and die.  The use of static electricity to blow Morbius’ dome, as the Doctor was hoping.  It all flowed as a good yarn, when reading.  The idea of the Elixir itself, formed as the flame hits rocks, causing condensation and oxidisation…it’s a marvellous bit of poetic cod-science, as it totally fails to explain why that reaction would create a life extending liquid, but it sounds good when read!

I particularly like Condo’s character [who reminds me of a later incarnation of the loyal but dim 174, the cloned character in new Who’s Sleep No More that I saw the other day].  I felt quite sorry when he died, specially after all the lying about where his arm had been all this time.  The unusual thing I always remember about Condo’s death was that Tom baker’s era of Who was relatively bloodless, and yet Condo’s shooting was complete with blood squib under the shirt and spreading stain.  Of course, this emphasis was not repeated in the book, so didn’t have the same visual impact, though I was still sad to see him go.

I always feel the most interesting people in the whole thing are The Sisters of Karn, and their stagnation, pointed out by the Doctor, in the cruel but accurate summary that “death is the price of progress”.  By the end Maren has realised he was right, and her sacrifice is quiet, but important – when she gives the Doctor the only few remaining drops of elixir, before and too late for more to form so she can have some before dying.  The need for a next generation for new ides is quietly explored here.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
3.   Doctor Who: Destination Nerva, by Nicholas Briggs (Big Finish 4th Doctor Adventures, Series 1, Story 1)
(Hmmmmm! This picks up exactly at the close of Weng Chiang – which is a little risky, placing itself so entirely right next to a classic original Who.  And makes remarkable immediately, any change in tone and feel from the Hinchcliffe era it has placed itself in.  And there is a change in tone – it’s not 1977ish as it has advertised itself.  I’m, not sure what year I’d date it, and it’s not too far off, but it’s not quite right.  Perhaps it would have been better to not situate it so exactly, and allow for some room in tone. 

Also, to have the story partly set on the Nerva Beacon, yet it not entirely being relevant to the plot, is a bit like when Halloween 3 called itself Halloween 3, but had no Michael Myers or any of the requisite characters or setting whatsoever and was simply set at Halloween and was therefore cashing in on the franchise and not standing on its own two [perfectly good] feet.  So I felt that they needed to have been more careful with that, as it could have been any space station, it didn’t specifically need to be Nerva, and remind us all of Ark in Space. 

Glad to hear Louise Jamieson sounding so true to character as Leela, it was just as it used to sound. Though Tom's voice has changed immeasureably with age; it’s almost hard to identify him as the Doctor in some parts of it.  Both tone, pitch and register - as well as delivery of lines, all sound so much less rambunctious and full-spirited than before.  Which is a bit sad.  But there's echoes of his former self in some lines.  And it did get me wondering how the Doctor would be if he did stay in one form for ages and didn't regenerate.  [Which then also made me wonder why no one has jumped on the bandwagon of Young Hartnell, or Young Troughton type stories - the way there is a book range for Young Bond of James Bond...I'm sure it will occur to someone at some point. If it hasn’t already and I’ve missed it…]

The main thing here, apart from Leela being very Leela and one of my favourite companions – and the Doctor treating her slightly less patronisingly than he did in some of the original stories – was the very lovely music.  The composer, Jamie Robertson, went to some trouble to do a very in keeping Dudley Simpson-esque soundtrack: it had a very percussion led orchestral feel, I felt that was marvellously in keeping.

This ‘in keeping’ thing though, that I keep referring to here.  Is this going to be the absolute bugbear and killer for Big Finish, for some of us fans?  Stanley for example tells me I’m silly to want more of the same, more of the past – what’s done is done and there, the rest is lost, and now it’s all different.  To keep trying to remake stories and re-vision them *as though it were still 1977* - is that even doable?  [I won’t say wishable, cos clearly I wish it.] 

The same thing is true in horror circles if you’re into horror films.  For a long while now, there’s been a steady stream of 1970s homage films – either set in the 70s and looking spectacularly beautiful and accurate in terms of set dressing, camerawork, lighting and casting; or else made as now, but with the mores, tropes and ticks of the 1970s horror subgenres: the possession film, the slasher, the vicious backwoods etc.  I am always on the look out for a perfect one: where I could slot it on the shelf with my other 1970s horrors and say: ‘I can’t tell this one was made in 2015/16/17’.  Because I really think they did it better then, in many ways.  I have never yet found one, but several have come pretty close – and even then, there’s still an intriguing layer of NOW over their past-ness, which adds to things, oddly.

Now, as a lover of old classic Who, I love that they are trying to add to the classic era at Big Finish…and I’m puzzled that they aren’t so far able to capture more of the tone, in various adventures I’ve reviewed.  Partly I think its confusion over what we want, as fans – do we want 1977 [or whichever year we like], as if it went on forever?  Or do we want more, similar, but also with an added element of: ‘it could also have been like THIS?’ – which is definitely true for the treatment of Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, who we all know, didn’t get much of a chance originally to get a varied or even consistent flavour.  There was so much original Tom Baker, and in noticeable delineated eras…should the latter Big Finish’s be considered simply an extra era, in a sort of alternative dimension, an alternative timeline, almost?  But can they, when they, like this story, stubbornly squeeze themselves between 2 highly rated classics, and then sound noticeably different?  Hmmmm, like I said at the beginning.  Stanley is shaking his head at my overthinking!  But hey, it’s what I do.  On to the next!  ON DOWNLOAD.)
4.   Doctor Who: The Renaissance Man, by Justin Richards (Big Finish, Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series 1, Story 2)
(Ahh – this is a lot more like it!  I’m not busy worrying about whether it’s in keeping, simply following along with a good story, feeling secure in the voicing and characterisations of Leela and The Doctor.  If the two main characters are sounding and acting as we imagine they would, the rest falls into place.  I don’t know why Tom Baker’s voice characterisation was so much better in this second story, but he thoroughly sounds like his younger self again, with all the nuances and humour, all his whimsical touches restored.

This had rather a complicated plot, seeming at first to be one thing [a stealing of knowledge of people’s], and then becoming another [which I won’t spoiler], and I would describe it as cracking, a cracking good story, rippling along, full of life and verve [and the odd Messerschmidt].  The atmosphere of the countryside is well produced, and the poor archetypal people are well-voiced and plausible.  Ian McNeice does well as the fiendish Harcourt, pitted against the Doctor, another Renaissance Man in his way, who only defeats Harcourt by feeding him misinformation, and providing another plot twist as he does so.  This story did trot along very well, was funny, used Leela very well indeed, and had the Doctor sounding so much himself, I was mentally watching on TV as I listened.  Enjoyable!  Also – I’m liking this shorter 2 episode format for this run of stories – I haven’t felt some of the longer Big Finish stories have made the best use of the longer run time; keeping the stories shorter, as here, prevents padding and keeps the pace buoyant. ON DOWNLOAD.)
5.   Doctor Who: The Wrath of the Iceni, by John Dorney (Big Finish, Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series 1, Story 3)
(I really enjoyed this.  There was a lot of beef to the moral discussions going on between Leela and the Doctor about Boudicca and her mental state [insanely bent on revenge], the rightness or wrongness of attempting to change history [Leela thinks Boudicca’s cause is just even though she’s gone mad, why can’t we help her?], and whether keeping it the same is cowardice or strength.  There was a lot of atmosphere in the sound palette too. I won’t spoiler this, I was just very impressed – everyone in this was on top form, I felt for all the characters and understood their motives, and it kept me involved and wondering what would happen next.  Good!  ON DOWNLOAD.)
6.   Doctor Who: Seeds of Doom, by Philip Hinchcliffe (Target Original)
(I have disappointingly little to say about this one!  It’s one of my favourite Dr Who stories ever on TV; and the book did not let me down either.  It’s pacey, the two sections of the icy wastes and research lab, contrasted with the reclusive home of Harrison Chase, with Scorby to link the two. There’s the wonderful line about everything coming to end, “even your pension!” showing Tom Baker at his wonderful righteous best.  There’s poor Sarah Jane getting threatened with becoming a Krynoid.  There’s the Krynoids!  Which I personally think are one of the most believable Who creatures ever – possibly because of the sound effects used with them during the TV show. 

In a way, my love of this story on TV is a problem, because I can’t separate it when reading the book; I am seeing and hearing one of my best known and loved stories as an overlay – I’m not really using my imagination to re-envision according to how Philip Hinchcliffe has written.  But the thing there is that there are hardly any notable changes; a bit of dialogue reshuffle, but mostly it’s all as it was – a stomping, running, shouty excellent story. 

The other thing here is, Harrison Chase is almost my favourite villain EVER in Who…because I partly agree with him.  Give the world back to the plants!  Let the trees run wild!  Weeds are not weeds, they’re just in the wrong place!  If I were a SuperVillain, I think I’d be a bit like Tony Beckley’s Chase.  I just LOVE this story and always have.  The balance between Doctor, companion, villains and any urgency is just right, and I was genuinely frightened of the Krynoids and fascinated by the idea of them at the same time.  If you were to start watching Dr Who around about here; or start reading – there are many worse places you could begin!!  10/10!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
7.   Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora, by Philip Hinchcliffe (Target Original)
(Ahhh.  I find it really hard to review the ones I really like!  I am always tempted to simply say:  this is one of my favourites, er…and I really enjoyed reading it too!  The End.  So I’m simply going to say that the usual praise heaped on the BBC for doing well with historically set Who’s is here deserved just as much in the book as in the TV episodes [placed so nicely in Portmerrion, as was The Prisoner]; it all comes across just as lushly and believably.  The stilted and melodiously overdramatic ways of the Italian characters talking are just as much a joy to read as they were to hear and watch.  The characters are as well delineated.  The Doctor is his usual inventive self, doing science with what’s to hand e.g. the use of wire and a soldier’s breastplate to protect against and earth electrical charge coming at him.  Some elements greatly surpass the TV show’s ability to render at the time e.g. the battle at the end, where the Demnos cultees unmask themselves and start to electrically fry all and sundry at the masque – in the episode  this was understandably a small room with not many people in it, it was a little bit lame, but you got the idea!  In the book of course, this scene is at it should have been, a large ballroom with hundreds of people and chaos and crowd panic when the frying begins.  It’s on the scale that it was meant to be on, when reading – that was nice.

It’s also worth a note that this was the first story where the Doctor bothers to explain to Sarah how she can understand someone speaking in Italian [or indeed any of the other languages that they hear in their travels], and how the people she is with can in turn understand her when they are clearly speaking different languages.  It's explained this is due to a telepathic link, a sort of Babel-fish by another name – that Sarah is sharing with the Doctor whilst with him.  It’s not till later, much later, that you get the explanations that also involve the TARDIS; at this stage, it’s just Tom and Sarah, or other companions who feel the effect of this.  It does beg the continuity question of whether the link just works for language alone, as in a previous Pertwee adventure, The Ambassadors of Death, the creatures were communicating through radioactive electronic impulses and not always being understood; and in a later Tom story, The Creature From The Pit, the Doctor himself cannot communicate with the thing – though there’s lots of amusement watching him try – without the disc it needs you to hold to stimulate the telepathic linkage for communication.  And in that case it also seemed to control minds via it, not just communicate…Stanley would be irritated with my nit-picking, as those were not days of excessive concern with continuity and universe building with coherence, so I just mention it as interesting without criticism.

It’s also another story where the Doctor is the direct cause of the problem, as he brings the energy with him.  And there’s the worry that if he fights it here and succeeds, it may just knock back the future development of Earth by several hundred years, by causing the Dark Ages to last a lot longer than they otherwise would have.  Imperilling the entire start of the Renaissance.  A properly history changing worry, which makes the story bigger than it otherwise would have been.

The Mandragora energy, the helix energy, is worth a note itself.  It’s one of those threats that has no particular character or voice, even [as I noted with Fury From the Deep; that creature just wanted to survive].  The energy does inhabit people and cause them to do things – but it seems as if they merely get to be larger more uncontrollably egomaniacal versions of their selves already, playing out their own fantasies of control.  It didn’t seem to be the desire of the Mandragora energy itself, in any particular way.  It was just an unfortunate effect.  Interesting in that – and I always feel threats are more believable when they don’t talk too much, just do what they do.   I do love this story; it’s up there as one of my favourites!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
8.   Doctor Who: A Device of Death, by Christopher Bulis (Virgin Past Doctors Adventures)
( - With Harry and Sarah.  This was one of the best of this series I’ve read.  The plot centres on a war between Landor and Averon that is being dragged out forever, dishonestly, by some people who want to make some money.  I’m afraid I’ve just spoilered you utterly, because you spend the entire book getting to this revelation, but I did start to see it coming from about halfway through, the clues were there.  The journey is still very much worth taking, regardless of whether you’re aware of the situation.  There’s a lot of debate about the morality of war, of weapons and arms-trading, of whether robots can be alive and have consciousness. 

The Doctor and his companions are separated early in this book and remain so for some time – so you get to see them acclimatising to their new surroundings: Harry caught up with some soldiers who begin to understand the dodgy truth of the endless war they are engaged in; Sarah getting enslaved for a bit and escaping with the help of one of the loveliest characters I’ve read, the robot Max, who is essential to the peace by the end; and the Doctor, who unravels the mystery and is righteously judgemental about it.  It’s all a magnificent journey and I encourage you to take it.  It also contains the amusing line: “are we heading for anywhere in particular, or just running away in general?”, from Harry, at a particularly crucial moment; which is fun.  There’s also a much later model TARDIS sent by the Timelords to help the Doctor at one point.  His annoyance at it is very funny; when it works it irritates the hell out of him.  Apart from that one garguantuan spoiler, I won’t say anything else – the range of characters, the range of views and arguments rehearsed here as to how you can convince moral and clever people to become traitors to their own nations [pp.158-9 for example], and the emotional hit of the book is just beautiful.  Please read!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
9.   Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (Target original), by Terrance Dicks
(Have very little to say.  Enjoyed.  Sad to see Sarah Jane go… Yes, hilariously, after the far too much detail I’ve already gone into with all the others, I’m now going to end with none…I enjoyed that last and flowed along with it…and the sense of that era it gave me was so well demonstrated by Sarah Janes Andy Pandy outfit that I am gobsmacked with love every time I see it.  It also reminds me I am the wrong size to even think of jokingly wearing such an outfit.  I feel I should say much about Eldrad, but all I have is: you were great as a hand, better as an odd female, and not believable as a big slabby thing at the end.  Basically – a great and silly story.  ACTUAL BOOK.)

It seemed right to finish the blog with Sarah Jane’s going, the real end of an era.  The whole tone of Tom’s stories began to change after this point.  I don’t feel analytic just this minute, so I’m not going to decide if things were better or worse after this cut off point – I’m just going to carry on reading. ‘Cos it’s fun.  Regular Who reading and listening resumed shortly.

And yes, I’m back.  It’s been a long while.  Bit of a head reshuffle; may be another on the way – I’d be alarmed if there weren’t.  But I’m back for now – and who can say anything more than that?

Except – not all my posts will be this bleedin’ long…promise.
See you soon...