Category: The Doctors
The beginnings of a bonkerish theory…
… the Christmas Special is partly set up to explain why the Doctor, after a solid run of thirteen male bodies, regenerates into a female body. And it’s connected with the First Doctor.
Moffat likes his Who metaphors: I’ve argued before that the episodes immediately leading up to the 50th Anniversary could all have been read as metaphors: each representing the various ages of the Before Gap programme. During the Capaldi era, he’s played quite heavily on the metaphor of ‘Doctor Who as legend’, as ‘story’. The Capaldi incarnation of the Doctor is often struggling to retrieve the real person who lives behind the legend of ‘The Doctor’. Robin Hood thought it was better that the legend be remembered; the Capaldi Doctor is not so sure.
Moffat also likes explaining things. The ‘explanation’ is very often a ‘blink and you miss it’, ‘available if you think about it’ kind of explanation, but Steven Moffat is still, at heart, the completist fanboy. The Doctor Falls, for example, sneaked in an explanation for why the Master became Missy after staying resolutely (and misogynistically) male for body after body. Quite simply, having met himself as a woman, the Master now knows (at some level) that he will have to make a gender switch. Missy didn’t ‘just happen’; Missy is part of a Moffat loop.
So I’d suggest that, rather than leave the Doctor’s regeneration into a female body as an ‘Oh, look, I’m a woman now, funny it took so long’ there will be an explanation – just as Moffat didn’t ignore Peter Capaldi’s previous appearance as Caecilius, but briefly explained why the Doctor had unconsciously chosen that face.
Why might that explanation be connected with the First Doctor? Because in a way, William Hartnell’s regeneration into Patrick Troughton was the real beginning of the transformation from ‘programme’ to ‘legend’. Up to that point, Doctor Who was like Journey into Space or Space Patrol. Massively popular, but didn’t outlive its time. It was regeneration that gave Doctor Who the potential to become one of the immortal stories.
But if it was the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton that began ‘legendary Who’, then did the regeneration of the First Doctor into the Second Doctor begin the long process of becoming ‘legendary Doctor’? Might the Capaldi Doctor see it as the beginning of the process of losing his ‘real’ self behind a legend? Given that Steven Moffat does like connecting events in-story to the history of the programme, I’d suggest that such a connection will be made.
Are the First Doctor and the Capaldi Doctor still the same person? Is that original 1960’s Doctor Who still the same programme as the bigger budgeted, CGI’d juggernaut that is the 21st Century Who? Or is that moment of doubt in Deep Breath, where the Doctor clearly wonders if there’s anything of his original self left, prophetic on both levels? In all that change, is the core self (the ‘soul’) – of the Doctor, of the programme – still the same?
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter? What do you hold on to, when your leading actor and your production team go through periodic, complete, changes? When you can be ‘whatever you feel like when you get up in the morning?’
And, in-story, Gallifreyans aren’t just shape-shifters – unlike Zygons, their periodic regenerations shift both body and persona. They must have cultural methods of coping with this – but the Doctor has fled from his own culture. The one and only constant in the Doctor’s life is that his TARDIS likes to appear as a police box. Oh, and that he always regenerates as a white male.
Hold on to that last thought. After Moffat’s finished with the Christmas Special, it’s possible that we’ll be able to see that in a different way.
The production team have one advantage that the Doctor doesn’t have; despite the ‘missing episodes’, there’s an awful lot of Doctor Who history available for instant reference. The production team know what they’re changing from. Even though the latest actor to play the Doctor wasn’t alive when William Hartnell was the one and only Doctor, she can haul the episodes out of the archives, put the DVDs on expenses and effectively ‘remember’ the previous characterisations. If she wants to.
The Doctor doesn’t have that luxury. He’s over two thousand years old; his childhood was so long ago that he tells Bill that he can barely remember whether he was a boy or a girl. He has a photo of Susan and River on his desk – as if he’s now frightened of forgetting his own family. If the Smith Doctor was ‘the Man Who Forgets’, the Capaldi Doctor has become ‘the Man frightened of forgetting too much’. In episode after episode the Capaldi Doctor struggles to remember stories that much of the audience know perfectly well. The Second Doctor told Victoria that his family slept in his memory – which implies that he didn’t need photos; he remembered them without any props. The Capaldi Doctor keeps their pictures on his desk.
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter who’s over two thousand years old? What do you hold on to, when your memory of your childhood is slowly fading and you need a photo to remind you of the granddaughter who was once so precious?
What do you hold onto when you’ve always hated regenerating?
We first saw the Doctor as an old man with a granddaughter. At that point, regeneration wasn’t even a twinkle in Sidney Newman’s eye; he wanted some actor with a bit of gravitas, and in the 1960’s that meant age.
But once regeneration becomes part of the lore of the programme, you start to wonder why the First Doctor would keep that first body so long that he was literally starting to wear out. Then you look at the Second Doctor (forcibly regenerated by the Time Lords) and all the following Doctors. None of them chose regeneration – except in the sense of ‘regenerate or die’.
Romana, on the other hand, seemingly regenerated because she fancied a new body. She also appeared to have considerably more control over the process than the Doctor does; the only time the Doctor managed to control the process was when the Tennant Doctor regenerated into the Tennant Doctor, by diverting some of his regeneration energy.
Let’s look at this again; it seems that the Doctor has never willingly regenerated – and in fact, once chose to keep the same body. The Tennant Doctor compared regeneration to dying – a ‘new bloke’ walks away. The Capaldi Doctor had to insist that he was still ‘me’, the same person as the Smith Doctor.
But then, unlike those Gallifreyans who regenerate among Gallifreyans, the Doctor generally regenerates surrounded by people who struggle to accept the new body, the new persona. Regeneration, for the Doctor, has become traumatic. Through the eyes of his companions, he sees just how much each regeneration changes him; no wonder that he has to insist that he is, indeed, still ‘me’. And unlike the Master, or Romana, he doesn’t generally start his regeneration process exclaiming ‘great, a new body to look forward to’.
Metaphors again: the Companion is the audience surrogate; their difficulty in accepting the ‘new Doctor’ represents the audience struggle to accept the ‘new bloke’. Until Smith, new Doctors generally had an old Companion or a continuing character (like the Brigadier) to make the cross-over with them and be the lightning rod for any audience confusion. But how far can the Doctor change until they stop being ‘The Doctor’? How far can the programme change the Doctor until the character stops being that Doctor created by William Hartnell, Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman?
Moffat likes paradoxes. At what point in the Doctor’s life will the paradox of Theseus’ Boat come into play? Can the Doctor replace everything about himself over a dozen times, and still be the original? Is he still that little boy who’s afraid of the monsters in the dark?
He tells Bill that he’s not sure whether he was a boy or a girl any more – yet Rule One is: the Doctor lies. Because when he returns to Gallifrey he (twice) goes straight back to the barn where that little boy hid.
He’s changed everything about himself a dozen times. Except for one thing. He’s still that little boy.
If gender selection at regeneration is a true 50/50 chance, then the probability of the Doctor managing all male regenerations this number of times is about 1 in 4000. Moffat’s been hinting that it isn’t truly random; the General loudly insists that she’s never trying that again, the Master has met Missy. The suggestion is that Gallifreyans can, at some level, select which gender they will become. The General prefers being female, the Master prefers being male; so that’s what they usually choose.
And the Doctor doesn’t like regenerating. He’s scared that he’s going to lose himself; that the ‘new bloke’ might be the one who finally makes the break from that original self, that the humans who generally surround him at regeneration might one day be right – regeneration makes him a different person, not just a different persona. So if there’s one thing he can control, one thing he can choose not to change – is he going to dare to change it? Or is he going to always keep that connection with the original self, the little boy in the barn, by always being the white male of his childhood? The little boy and the 2000+ year old man are still, literally, the same man.
If that’s the case, would the Doctor ever dare to regenerate as a woman? Or would that represent, to him, the last, final break with his childhood, his first body, his self?
And then we go back to meeting the First Doctor. Because it’s not just a question of whether the Capaldi Doctor remembers that long ago self. It’s a question of whether that long-ago self can recognise his incredibly older, much regenerated self – as still himself. The Doctor’s met himself before, of course. But those other meetings were much closer in time.
If the First Doctor recognises the Capaldi Doctor as himself, as ‘Doctor Who’, even after thousands of years and over a dozen regenerations, then those ever-changing personas were just … personas. The core self, the soul, has always remained. The Doctor has always been the Doctor. The Doctor Who of 1966 is still recognisably the Doctor Who of 2017.
But there’s more. Because the Doctor (and Doctor Who) has changed. You can see it in the role of the Companion, you can see it in the way the man who would kill a primitive human now counts humans as friends, you can see it in many, many ways. It is not just a matter of that original self being able to recognise his future self as himself. It’s a matter of the Capaldi Doctor being able to recognise that the changes that have happened weren’t all bad. He is, after all, still scarred from nearly committing genocide. He’s still haunted by the thought that he might not be a good man. He’s scared that his changes might have been for the worse.
So meeting his original self also becomes a matter of recognising that it might not necessarily have been a bad thing to change some aspects of that original self. Some childish things we keep. Others we put away. Sometimes, what we need is to look in the mirror of our old self – and realise that we like the way we’ve changed.
Did the Doctor ‘lose himself’ by becoming the legendary ‘Doctor Who’? Or was the ‘change’ he’s so worried about really ‘growth’? Did becoming the legend make him more truly ‘The Doctor’ – and is ‘The Doctor’ who he truly wants to be? Is the legend something to live up to, rather than to deny?
If his first self recognises his current last self, then the Theseus Boat Paradox has an answer. However many times the body changes, the person within the body is the same person. However many different personas there are, the self remains. His ‘self’ (or soul) is the constant thread that runs through the Doctor’s lives. Regenerations are not a way of losing oneself; they’re the Gallifreyan way of changing and growing. Humans struggle to understand that – but the Doctor isn’t human.
And with that understanding, he can not only choose to regenerate. He can choose to step outside the self imposed limits of the previous regenerations. He no longer has to cling to that little boy by always being a boy; he can recognise that, man or woman, he will always be the same person as that boy.
And recognising that, secure in that core self – he might choose to no longer be a good man – but try to be a good woman, instead. After all, he’s just seen how it appeared to change Missy for the better. Maybe it’s time to try a major change
But she might keep the hoodie. 😉
Master: Is the future going to be all girl?
Doctor: We can only hope.
With hindsight it was obvious this regeneration was going to be the one. The one that brought us a woman Doctor.
We’d seen it established that Time Lord regenerations can involve a change of gender as well as of height, hair colour, apparent age and so on. We’d engaged with the Master/Missy conundrum.
DOCTOR: She was my first friend, always so brilliant, from the first day at the Academy. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.
BILL: I’m sorry?
DOCTOR: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
BILL: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah?
DOCTOR: We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
BILL: But you still call yourselves Time Lords?
DOCTOR: Yeah. Shut up.
With lines like the above, we were being set up to welcome (or not) a woman to the role. Still, at some level, at least until a couple of days before the announcement, I really thought they might row back from that and say no, not yet, not this time. I really wasn’t sure they had the bottle to do this.
There’s been a lot of rather predictable frothing at the mouth, harrumphing and incipient apoplexy, with claims that this is the BBC surrendering to some mysterious all-powerful Political Correctness lobby (‘Murdered a part of our culture for feminazi political correctness ideology!’ ‘Doctor Who … didn’t die nobly as you might expect. He was murdered by Political Correctness’). That’s best ignored, by and large. I fear that Jodie Whitaker will have to contend with worse than that, and with personalised unpleasantness, but I’m sure she’s well aware and will be ready for the haters.
Not everyone who dislikes the change is of this breed, of course. There has to be a core of Doctorness with each regeneration, and some feel that maleness is a part of that. I disagree, but I suspect that many of those people, if they genuinely love the programme, will continue to watch and will be won over. Another response was that whilst of course boys have far more heroic role models in popular culture to emulate and be inspired by than girls do, the Doctor is different, and valuable because of the ways in which he is different. I do see the need for boys to have role models who aren’t all about action and fighting (even fighting for Good against Evil), but part of what makes the Doctor different, for me, is that gender roles and stereotypes simply aren’t (or shouldn’t be) relevant.
A plethora of girls and women have regarded the Doctor as a role model, and identified with him, over Doctor Who’s 50 year span, whilst he’s regenerated, repeatedly, as a man. The Doctor is still, no doubt, going to be the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker – alien, two hearts, both of gold, funny, witty, snarky, capricious, kind, adventurous. (Juniper Fish, Doctor Who Forum)
The Doctor can and should be a role model for both boys and girls, in a way that Captain America or Batman can’t quite be – and probably Wonder Woman and Buffy can’t quite be role models for boys either. So, the Doctor can continue to inspire boys whilst giving girls and women a whole new image of how to be wise, and brave, how to save the world, to do what’s right, to be kind. Girls need to develop the confidence to take the lead roles, not to assume that a hero/a protector is by default male.
Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
Funnily enough, whilst the Outraged/Betrayed/Will Never Watch Again lobby were as loud and silly as one might have expected, overall what I found on Twitter was a mix of sheer delight, excited anticipation – and a different kind of silliness. See the #TardisFullOfBras hashtag, for example – someone took a hostile Daily Mail comment and turned it around, so that it’s full of fan art and daft jokes (and bras). That’s the way to go, I think.
There’s little point in trying to engage with someone who throws ‘feminazi’ into the conversation simply because someone gives a job to a woman that has been previously held by a man. There’s little point in trying to unpack the hotchpotch of false analogies and fake news and mythology that is evoked whenever the term ‘political correctness’ is used. And if someone believes that ‘social justice warrior’ is an insult, we don’t really have a lot to talk about.
What matters here, to me, is the delight that this news has brought to so many of us. It’s only a story, but stories are the most powerful things in the world.
Stories can make us fly.
We need stories, and we need heroes. And if we can’t immediately see around us the heroes we need, we build them. It seems that we are having a real moment here.
When I wrote about Wonder Woman, only a week or so ago, I did not know – though I hoped – that the 13th Doctor would be a woman. They’re quite different of course, but what is so glorious is that now, right now, there are two more in the pantheon of women who can, women who can stand up, will stand up. We have a woman (OK, a demi-god) who uses superhuman physical strength, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity, and another (OK, a Gallifreyan Time Lord) who uses the wisdom of centuries and galaxies, wit and invention and intellect, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity.
without hope, without reward, without witness
I felt when I was watching Wonder Woman like punching the air and having a bit of a cry at the same time, and when I think about the Doctor’s next regeneration, I feel much the same. Of course it is vital that the stories are well written, that the wit and humour is there, as well as the thrills and chills. Of course it is vital that the gender thing is dealt with intelligently, that stereotypes are undermined or dismissed with humour and that the Doctor is and remains Doctorly, demonstrating both difference and continuity as each new incumbent has done over the last 50 years.
It is perhaps even more vital that the stories are strong because there are those who (even though they may have vowed never to watch it again) will be waiting for it to fail, wanting to say that they told us so, that it could never work, that the Doctor can’t be a woman. If Jodie kicks it out of the park, as we hope and believe she will, then each regen that follows can be whoever seems right at the time and whoever takes it on will be critiqued for their ability and not for their gender.
Meantime, we’re loving this moment. Loving it for ourselves and for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, all the young women who can now enjoy Doctor Who in a different way, who can take on the lead role in playground games. Not just companions or assistants but The Doctor.
My love for Doctor Who is, I realise, a bit ridiculous but I don’t bloody care because we all need escapism sometimes and, as my often tested loyalty to lost causes show, my love is nothing if not tenacious. At primary school I distinctly remember the humiliation of a school assembly where some of us were asked to share our pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. A Timelord was not an appropriate aspiration for a girl apparently and the piss was duly ripped. Not the first, worst or only time youngling (or indeed “grown-up” me) encountered sexism and ridiculous gender stereotypes but, because as a troubled kid my fantasy life was a refuge and a solace, one of the hardest stings. Anyway, fuck that nonsense because anything can happen with a Tardis and hooray for progress and little girls being allowed imaginations. And no, that does not come at the expense of little boys at all, and yes, I am really sorry Capaldi and Bill are gone because when they got the scripts they were brilliant and that, actually, is the heart of what I want. Good writing, please, please, please (and obviously for me to get a ride in there somewhere with them, because what is the Doctor if not an intergalactic anarcho-flaneuse who needs a bit more glitter?) (Morag Rose)
Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world. (Laurie Penny, The New Statesman)
1979, London, England, Super8 film format, colour, sound, 75 minutes long.
Ocean in the Sky is the great lost epic fan film. It’s not the earliest documented fan film – that honour goes to Kevin Davies ‘Doctor Hoo’ a three minute animated short from 1977. Before that there’s a rumour of a fan film called ‘Son of Doctor Who’ from the late sixties or early seventies. But Ocean stands out as a milestone for the sheer level of ambition – 75 minutes, as long as a serial or movie feature, and for the ambition of the production, featuring Daleks, monsters, genuine actors, special effects, and as many as fifty people involved in the production.
So far as we can determine, it was shown in its entirety, only a single time, in 1979.
Ocean in the Sky was the brainchild of Marc Sinclair, then a teenager, whose parents were well off enough to own a high end Super8 millimeter film camera and accessories. Sinclair appears to have been quite well off, there’s a report of him visiting at Terry Nation’s home and hanging out with his Daleks. In the early 70’s, he bought a Dalek and a Police Box shell at Elstree Studios and had them refurbished.
Sinclair, a Doctor Who fan, started making Doctor Who fan films with his friends. Early titles included Threat of the Leviathans and the Destructors. From clips, these seem to be short, rough productions, perhaps a few minutes long, and what you’d expect from kids playing in the basement. Based in London, Sinclair was at the heart of Doctor Who fandom of the day. These were the glory days of Tom Baker, when Doctor Who was not just a cult item, but a popular success, and Baker an iconic personality. Back then, the series ran six months at a time.
This was also the time of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, formed in May, 1976. There had been previous fan clubs, but these had been local. This was an ambitious group, lead by an Executive Committee or Board, and publishing a regular fanzine, Tardis. DWAS won recognition or approval from the BBC. With these credentials, membership grew to as many as a thousand, with members as far away as Canada, Australia and the United States. As the recognized ‘official’ fan club, they organized the first official Doctor Who Convention at Battersea.
On the strength of his of his previous fan films, his interest in film and live production, and the fact that his family owned a super8 sound equipped movie camera, Marc Sinclair ended up as head of the DWAS Drama Department around 1977. He may well have been the entirety of the department. I’m guessing a bit here.
DWAS minutes suggest that Marc was a bit tumultuous and perhaps hard to get along with. With typical British understatement, there’s a section of the DWAS newsletter that wryly notes that Marc himself was a source of the some of the drama. That seems unkind to me. Fans generally have no shortage of drama. As a whole, we’re a socially inept bunch with thin skins and a deep need for affirmation.
Whatever the case, by 1977, Marc Sinclair and his camera were in DWAS, and DWAS behind him, and both a pool of volunteers and an actual venue of fans, Marc Sinclair, together with Owen Tudor, a regular writer for the Tardis fanzine, conceived a difficult and ambitious project: Ocean in the Sky, an actual feature length, 75 minute long, Doctor Who Fan Film. How difficult and ambitious?
Consider that they were working with Super8 film. A Super8 cartridge will give you three minutes of running time. Assuming that they simply shot cartridge after cartridge for a series of two or three minute scenes and spliced them together without edits, Ocean in the Sky would have taken 23 cartridges of Super8.
But there’s evidence that they were considerably more ambitious than that, so I estimate, depending on whether they did multiple takes, how many takes, how much effects work, that they might well have gone through anywhere from 30 to 100 cartridges, minimum. Or hundreds of cartridges, at the upper end of complexity and ambition..
Even exhibiting something like this it would be a challenge – Super8 film reels for longer lengths ran either 15 to 23 minutes. At 75 minutes, there would have to have been at least three changes of reel, perhaps as many as five. Unless they had two super8 projectors keyed up to run side by side and switch back and forth, at the end of each reel, there would have to be a laborious process of removing the old reel, securing it properly, and threading a new reel, ready to go – perhaps an awkward five or six minute intermission between each reel. This was going to make it very difficult to exhibit.
As I said, this speaks to an astonishing level of ambition and dedication. And for that reason, I give Sinclair a pass. People may have found him difficult, but that’s what it takes. Basically, you need to be a bit driven and focused and off the beaten path to pull something like this off. There has to be a level of drive and stubbornness that actually gets things done. Far less ambitious films and fan films fell by the wayside as less driven people wandered off or found more interesting things to do. Film production, any kind of film production is long, hard and complicated, a sisyphean journey of endless steps. Sinclair and his circle of friends persevered across two years, and he got it done. That is to be respected.
Production began approximately September of 1977. In DWAS Bulletins, it’s mentioned as being roughly concurrent with the shoot for Underworld, which aired in December 1977/January 1978.
The story, what we know of it from personal communication with Marc Sinclair, involved Daleks at a base on Mars, attempting to invade the Earth through a blue portal in space, thus the title ‘Ocean in the Sky.’
A newspaper article posted by Richard Bignell elsewhere refers to multiple ‘blue holes’, and monsters called ‘Ancholi’ and assorted ghouls. Accompanying pictures depict gauze draped ghostly figures attacking or chasing the Doctor. One set of pictures shows the Doctor fleeing a tentacled columnar thing that might have been an Ancholi, or perhaps an Emperor Dalek.
The Dalek Mars base was shown, by using, according to Sinclair, “a hospital corridor on a model set.” I’m not sure what that means, but I assume it was a miniature.
The ‘stars’ were two Daleks, nicknamed ‘Fred’ and ‘George’. There’s a rumour that these might have been Daleks from one of the Peter Cushing movies. But then again, those movies were more than ten years prior, so I’m skeptical of that provenance, I simply find it hard to believe that any of the Cushing Daleks were still floating around. By that time, they would have either fallen apart, been destroyed or were jealously guarded by collectors.
Part of that rumour may have come from Marc’s own contact with Terry Nation’s Daleks. Nation had four Daleks from the second Cushing movie as his personal trophies. As described in the Dalek props history site: “In the summer of 1974 one lucky fan, Marc Sinclair, who lived locally to Terry Nation, was given a treat when he was invited to tea with his family and Matron from his school at the Nation home in Lynsted. Although Nation was away on business, Marc recalls having tea with his wife Kate and meeting Dalek AARUII 12-9 and Dalek AARUII 9-11. Both were kept in an outhouse in a walled off part of the garden and both were starting to look well worn. Marc was able to play with the Daleks all afternoon and remembers the lights on Dalek AARUII 12-9 were still working.” Despite this contact, it seems unlikely that Nation would have sold or surrendered any of his props to a teenager.
On the other hand, these might possibly have been the Daleks from the Seven Keys to Doomsday stage play from 1974. These were modeled on the Cushing versions, but had key differences. The timing to acquire these certainly works better. Or they may simply have been builds from enthusiasts – in November, 1973, the Radio Times had published (inaccurate) Dalek Blueprints, and had spurred a wave of enthusiastic amateurs.
This was the heyday of Toby Chamberlain and Julian Vince, the most knowledgable and capable Dalek enthusiasts and builders of their day. Julian Vince had no connection to the movie, and was pretty disparaging of the Ocean Daleks, so we can rule him out. Julian’s rather brutal put downs of the Ocean Daleks also suggests that they weren’t from either the TV series or the movie, he was pretty much the expert on it so he would know. So this points to either the stage play, or an amateur build, or even a combination.
Looking at the available pictures, it’s very hard to say. From what we can see, these Daleks look pretty good. In clips, there is a red one and a black one. In some of the photographs, the black ones silhouette and appearance doesn’t seem right, too narrow around the neck. They look slightly different, as if from different builds. There’s definitely signs of serious wear and tear in some pictures, with collar rings misaligned and the lower skirting along the base of one seems seriously damaged. Who they were, where they came from, we can only guess.
Sinclair mentioned that they had a third unit, an Emperor Dalek. If true, it’s possible that this was an third original build, separate from at least one, possibly both. Or it may have been cannibalized or adapted from one of their existing Daleks, perhaps just a bit of ‘dressing up’.
As to the ghouls, nothing much stands on them. Steal someone’s gauze curtains, wrap it a round an extra there you go. The Ancholi may have been more ambitious, but we don’t know much about that costume.
At the same time that Sinclair obtained at least one of his Daleks, in the early to mid-seventies, he also acquired a Tardis shell. Again, the rumour is that this was a Cushing box, which I’d be skeptical of. But it may have been from the stage play, or perhaps a local amateur build. It eventually ended up on display in a shop in England.
There was apparently a Tardis interior/control room, was constructed by Reg Spillett, costing about three hundred pounds to construct, which shows the scale and ambition of the project.
Shooting took place indoors and outdoors. The print article refers to shooting on weekends in Mark’s garage, and at a studio in Whitstable. Surviving clips show outdoors, so there seems to have been some substantial location work, although the locations aren’t particularly distinctive – which is a shame, since England seems to be dripping with terrific locations and visuals.
The Doctor was played by Leo Adams, a local actor with the Manchester Repertory Company, then 69 years of age. There’s some indication that he appeared in films, but he doesn’t seem to show up on the IMDB. According to the newspaper article, he had been an amateur film enthusiast decades earlier, and on the Ocean’s poster, he is one of the people holding director credits. From this, I assume that he brought some competence to the role. He would pass away at the age of 92, having hopefully lived a life as full as it was long.
Diane Woodley was about fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of shooting. She was Sinclair’s best friend, Nigel Woodley’s sister. Nigel Woodley is mentioned as supplying technical expertise.
As to the rest of cast and crew – perhaps fifty people were involved with the production, at various points and in various ways. Adams and Woodley were the only credited cast members known. Owen Tudor had script credit, but there’s also a reference to Tom Marshall having worked on the script. Direction is credited to four people – Marc Sinclair, Tom Marshall, Leo Adams and Nick Kelley, a credit that Sinclair was prepared to defer to.
The project attracted Mark Ayres, then studying music at Cambridge, for Music. Ayres would ‘go pro’ in the late 1980’s providing musical scoring for serials during the Sylvester McCoy era.
Kevin Davies participated, and seems to have formed a separate second unit/special effects unit who operated on their own, together with David Beasley, Jon Saville and Peter Cox. Davies apparently did high speed photography, explosions, and model work with both a spaceship and miniature Tardis. Some of the props and models may have been borrowed from the BBC. Davies would go on to direct Shakedown, two episodes of Space Island One, as well as Dalekmania, 30 Years in the Tardis, and numerous Doctor Who themed documentary shorts.
Marc Sinclair went on to be a noted actor and casting agent himself. The IMDB lists him as having an uncredited role as a Cyberman in the actual series.
Owen Tudor, the writer, appears to have been a prolific contributor to Doctor Who fanzines, but I’m not sure where he ended up. He was stuying at Oxford during the filming.
There’s a reference in a DWAS Bulletin suggesting that it was going to be shown in 1978 at that year’s Panopticon. But it’s not clear that ever happened.
Ocean in the Sky, so far as we can verify, was publicly shown in its entirety only a single time, on Saturday, September 18, 1979, at Panopticon in London, England. Sinclair believes that there was only the single showing.
Reviews were mixed at best, as I’ve said. Julian Vince, a stern perfectionist, and Paul Tams, already an industry professional, were openly disparaging. In fact, they cited it as an inspiration for their Mission of Doom project. Marc Sinclair in the Wartime dvd extra refers to it as ‘Puddles on the Ceiling.’ Even now, he’s fairly dismissive, commenting only that it kept them out of trouble, and perhaps that it’s not worth the effort. Reports in DWAS publications mentioned ‘mixed reviews.’
The closest we have to an independent assessment is from Bruce Barnes, an Australian fan who attended Panopticon. “Another production in 8mm was Ocean in the Sky. We were told at the beginning, ‘Don’t expect too much, This is a Doctor Who story but it is strictly an amateur production.’ And they weren’t kidding.”
There are a number of reasons that may come into play for poor reception, beyond the film itself. 75 minutes is a substantial length for a Super8 film, perhaps an exhausting length. Due to the simple size of the film stock, and the automatic processing, Super8 images tend to be grainy and oversaturated, which can be difficult for an extended period. It’s a long time to be asking people to sit quietly in uncomfortable chairs, to stare at a mid-sized projection screen. The need for intermissions for reel changes, may well have killed dramatic momentum and taken people out of it. The story was continuous, not broken into episodes like the classic series, so there was no opportunity to structure it into cliff hangers which might have worked with the reel changes.
And as a continuous story, it might have felt different in structure and flow, from Classic Doctor Who, in a jarring fashion. Doctor Who’s serial format gave it a very distinctive feel, and a continuous, non-serial story might not have had that.
It may also have been genuinely ahead of its time. The audience, though fans, had no culture and no experience with fan films as a genre. Instead, they would have measured it against the stringent measures of professional productions, and in particular, of Tom Baker’s 70’s era Doctor Who, a professional production at the top of its game.
It reminds me a bit of Paragon’s Paragon, the 1974, feature length, Super8 mm, Star Trek film shot by John Cosentino in the United States. That film, like Ocean, is now largely lost. But some fragments of it have survived to upload to Youtube. I recommend looking them up, it may give you some insight into the visual aspects of Ocean – what Super8 would have looked like.
I suspect that it also suffered from the sound quality. That’s an Achilles heel for a lot of productions. It appears that they were using a high end camera equipped with sound microphones, and they were using actual Super8 editing equipment for the serious hobbyist. But the microphones were always pretty inferior, and often omnidirectional, so the sound could be pretty harsh, particularly outdoors. Another fan film, the 25 minute (single reel) Image Makers, by Paul Tams and Julian Vince also appeared at that Panopticon, as a silent film, and got a much better reception.
It should be remembered that this was a time before the female Doctor of Seattle International, or before the Federation, or Planet/Ad-Lib, or Beeblebrox, or Mini-Unit Minstrels. From about 1984 through 1991, there was an explosion of Fan Films, shot on a variety of formats from 16mm film to VHS camcorder, ranging from episode to feature length with varying levels of professionalism. People were used to the fan film genre, they were exposed to a variety of styles and formats, they had learned to accept and appreciate it. But in 1979, there was almost nothing – certainly nothing on the sheer level of ambition of Ocean in the Sky.
1984-1991, was also the era of VHS tape trading, as fans built up their bootleg collections of actual Who episodes. This created a distribution network for fan films, where they could be copied and recopied, circulated and traded. Fan films were exhibited at conventions, sometimes with rooms or tracks devoted to them. They were even shown on cable access channels in the United States.
The fan films from 1984 through the 90’s, also had the advantage of emerging during or beyond the troubled period of the show itself. There was the disastrous 18 month hiatus, the awkward seasons floundering of Trial of a Time Lord and McCoy’s first season when the series had arguably lost its footing, and the period beyond the cancellation of 1989, all meant that fans were experiencing huge gaps in the show – you weren’t up against Tom Baker in his glory, you were dealing with a fan community hungry for more, and a series which was troubled and limping badly, when it was there. In that environment, fan films were likely to get a more welcome reception.
None of this existed in 1979. The show was live, omnipresent, regular and at the top of its game. The technology to easily make or trade copies simply wasn’t there. The ease of access of simply loading it into a VCR and pressing play didn’t exist. What it amounted to was a single copy, which could only be played in limited forums and only with difficulty, to an audience which simply didn’t have the tools or experience to deal with it.
All of which means I take the rather lukewarm reception with a grain of salt. It’s entirely possible that had it made it onto VHS and some form of wider distribution, it might be much more appreciatively remembered today.
Is it a lost masterpiece? I hesitate to go that far. Hard work and enthusiasm are not entirely complete substitutes for skill and training. But then again, there were some talented people involved with this, people who would go on to prove their chops later on, and people who, at the time, had actually had theatre experience, some experience making smaller films and technical experience.
At the very least, I can say that the ambition, and some aspects of the production, aimed at the levels of the series themselves. Those were good looking Daleks, they had a real actor in the role of the Doctor, they had a police box, a tardis interior, monsters, actual effects. Even if it fell down in some areas, it was still impressive.
From what I can gather, the major complaint seemed to be that it dragged on, which is a common sin for fan film makers, afflicting many productions, even the otherwise brilliant Fire and Ice.
So, while it probably wasn’t a lost masterpiece, I think we can assume it was considerably better than viewers at the time thought. In terms of the ambition on display, and the level of commitment, I really think it deserves a look. Had it managed to circulate in America during the late eighties… it might be legendary now. As it is, it must be added to the lore of lost history.
Hard to say, the only publicly available material on it are a few photographs and clippings, a poster, some references in DWAS literature, and a few clips on one of the DVD extras of Wartime (1999) and K9 Unleashed (2000).
The original film would thirty-eight years old now, which means it’s probably gone. The actual film stock, super8 is quite durable. Assuming it was stored properly, the film itself might be fine. But the edits and splices, joined by more volatile glues, have probably fallen apart. There’s a chance it might have been recorded to videotape at some point. We do know that enough of it existed in 1999 and 2000 to provide clips for the documentaries. Marc Sinclair has mentioned the possibility that a friend of his might actually have a copy. Is it worth tracking down?
For now, it’s lost….
AS we finally approach the beginning of Series 10 and with the end of the 12th Doctor’s era now hard upon us, I thought now be a good time might be too reflect what he’s brought to the role, what he might give us for his final year as the Doc and where he leaves the show. Read more…
This is a working cover for a book I plan to publish this month.
The Grimwade story is an interesting one. Like many of the show’s figures, his career with Doctor Who spans an immense period of time.
His first work on Doctor Who was as a production assistant on Spearhead From Space, with Jon Pertwee. He followed it up with a similar position on The Daemons, also with Pertwee.
From there, he jumped to the Tom Baker Doctor, again, a production assistant and precociously directed the miniature shots for Baker’s first serial, Robot. He was production assistant for Pyramids of Mars, Robots of Death and Horror of Fang Rock, which, if you have to be connected, is a pretty damned good trinity.
In Robots of Death, he achieved a sort of notoriety, when Tom Baker ad libbed ‘Grimwade’s Syndrome’ as the name for a pathological fear of robots.
But he wasn’t just a production assistant. Peter was kind of a jack of all trades. As early as 1969 and 1971, he was getting professional writing credits on productions of Z Cars and Spare the Rod. He was an enthusiastic young man. In the late seventies, he submitted a proposal for a script called Zanedin, which was almost accepted. He took the BBC’s in-house Director’s workshop program.
And he got to know John Nathan Turner, when the two of them were working on All Creatures Great and Small, starring Peter Davison. For Turner, Grimwade was in the sweet spot. Turner wanted to bring new blood into Doctor Who – new writers, new directors, out with the old and in with the new. Sometimes that worked brilliantly, sometimes it was disastrous. But the bottom line, Turner wanted to shake things up. At the same time, Doctor Who was, even then, perhaps especially then, a peculiar thing, not everyone had the hang of it.
With Grimwade, he had a young man who actually had real history of the show, who had worked with Baker and Pertwee on some of their best serials, but was for creative purposes, new blood.
So Grimwade got his first chance to direct: Full Circle, 1980, the first serial in the E-Space trilogy, from Tom Baker’s final season. It’s not bad, it’s a mysterious and moody piece that’s quite well done, though it tends to stand in the shadow of Warrior’s Gate. It’s also known for introducing Adric, as a sort of fish-man evolved to full pseudo-humanity.
That went well enough that he was assigned to direct Logopolis, in 1981, Tom Baker’s final serial. Logopolis was marked by little production crises, the house originally set to be shot in was not available. A police box was in a state of disrepair. Grimwade handled these challenges with aplomb, basically, all that time in the trenches as a production assistant paid off.
In 1982, Grimwade directed Peter Davison’s Kinda, a very unusual story, full of buddhist overtones, with the Doctor and his companions encountering a psychic creature of evil, the Mara, who would possess Tegan. The Mara came back the next year for Snakedance. Personally, didn’t really get into it. But it was both an unusual story and a very well done production.
From there, Grimwade went on to direct Earthshock – and what is there to say about that? Brilliant direction, sterling performances, the surprise return of the Cybermen, it had been seven years since their previous outing with Tom Baker in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen, and fourteen years since their last story before that, in 1968’s Invasion. It also featured the death of Adric and the extinction of the Dinosaurs. It was a tour de force.
It was also kind of ironic when you think about it. As a Director, Grimwade had helmed Adric and Matthew Waterhouse’s entry into the Doctor Who Universe, in Full Circle, and then ushered him out in Earthshock.
While all this was going on, his script Zanedin was working its way through the bowels of the system, finally being produced as Time-Flight, a somewhat muddled story of a Concorde supersonic passenger jet being kidnapped into the Jurassic by a mysterious alien force which turns out to be the Master.
Okay, I’ve been waiting to say this for years – But if you’re going to throw a story into the Mesozoic era, there’d better be some fracking dinosaurs! Jurassic, people, Jurassic! I’m not fussy, I don’t need T-Rex. Stick a few sauropods, an iguanadon, a pterodactyl, have a stegosaur lumber through the frame. Throw us a bone! And if you’re not going to throw in some dinos… Don’t go their. Set it in the precambrian, or the ‘earth was a lifeless desert’ or the ‘marshes and slime molds’ era. But don’t go Jurassic, and then screw us out of dinosaurs. Really!
Time-Flight was initially quite well received, but it hasn’t actually stood the test of time very well. There’s some interesting things going on, the fact that the crew and passengers of the Concorde, trapped in a Jurassic world, are mesmerized into believing they’re at Heathrow, that’s odd and creepy. But there are too many negatives. The script has clearly been in the oven far too long, its been polished too much, too many revisions and alterations, it’s gotten mushy. It also suffers from ‘end of season-itis’ – when the budget is mostly blown and everything has to be done cheap and fast.
For me (…. must…. not… rant… about … dinosaurs… again!), the big problem with Time-Flight is ‘Didn’t we just watch this?” Think about it: Mysterious alien enemy which turns out to be a familiar old foe, a mysterious time warp, a detour to the Mesozoic – it feels like the same key elements. It’s like the way McCoy followed Remembrance of the Daleks with Silver Nemesis.
Davison’s first year had been a good year for Grimwade. Of the seven serials of that season, Grimwade had accounted for three – two directed, one written. Maybe too good a year. This was the John Nathan Turner era, and Turner was… Well, a personality. The Baker years had come to be overshadowed by Tom Baker’s ego. The Turner era would see three different Doctors, but the real dominant personality, the real ego of the series, was Turner – brash, domineering, arrogant, indifferent, Doctor Who was his baby. A lot of the desire to throw out so much of the old was to eliminate rivals, to make the show his and his alone. Basically, Turner didn’t really have room for anyone but Turner. So being too successful, too dynamic, too forceful or regarded as a creative force in the show… Well, jealousy started up.
For the next season, 1983, Grimwade had a second script accepted: Mawydryn Undead, a complex time travel story, featuring the return of the Brigadier, the introduction of Turlough, and a strange and tragic group of lost dutchmen.
Grimwade was also slated to direct the final serial of the year, The Return, to feature the return of the Daleks. Unfortunately, labour troubles intervened. The Return was cancelled, literally two days before shooting was to start. Everyone was out of a job.
To console people, Grimwood took the cast and crew out for lunch. Turner wasn’t invited. The intent, we’re told, is that Grimwade had intended to have Turner out for a private supper. That doesn’t seem implausible. But Turner took it as a deliberate insult, and that was that.
The Return eventually made it onto the third year roster, as Resurrection of the Daleks, directed by someone else.
Eric Saward, the Story Editor, whose relationship with Turner was also deteriorating steadily, tried to bring him back as writer for Planet of Fire, Davison’s second last serial in 1984. Planet of Fire, ironically, saw the departure of Mark Strickson, and his character, Turlough. As with Waterhouse, Grimwade had ushered him in, and ushered him out.
Planet of Fire turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Changing circumstances ensured constant rewrites and very little support. The production was being shot on Lanzerotte in the Canary Islands, but Grimwade was specifically excluded from the junket by Turner. Instead, he was asked to do a location script for a location he wasn’t allowed to visit. Eventually, Grimwade just let Saward rewrite it as he wished.
That was about it. Grimwade submitted one more story, the League of Tancred, which was kicked around for a while, but eventually rejected. But his career and association with Doctor Who was largely over. He wrote novelizations of his three scripts, something Turner had no control over in 1985, but he was largely absent from television, either as a writer or director after 1984.
Peter Grimwade spent most of the rest of his career directing industrial films, which, I suppose pays the bills. But it’s hard to think of it as a preferred career choice. He died of Leukemia at the age of 47 in 1990.
So what did it come down to? Directed four serials with Tom Baker and Peter Davison, wrote three scripts for Peter Davison, wrote three novels based on those scripts, worked production on six of Pertwee’s and Baker’s best serials, and had one unmade script, that’s not a bad career, all things considered. I’m willing to give him a big pass on Time-Flight, it’s a first script, and a lot of what goes wrong doesn’t really fall on his lap. But you have to wonder, he showed a lot of talent as a director and writer, handling very difficult material adeptly, if not for Turner’s ego… What might he have done, what could he have written or directed or contributed to the later floundering seasons of the classic series. But that career was over.
In 1986, Peter Grimwade, revenge came in the form of “The Come-Uppance of Captain Katt.”
Okay – Captain Katt is an incredibly popular space opera on a private television station. The Actor who plays Captain Katt is a beloved celebrity, wildly popular with kids, perpetually in demand for things like supermarket openings, and a gigantic dickhead. Also, someone is trying to kill him. The half hour story switches back and forth between the show and the production of the show, as we find out that just about everyone wants him dead.
“The Come-Uppance of Captain Katt” was written and directed by Peter Grimwade as part of ITV (a rival British network)’s ‘Dramarama’ youth program. Dramarama seems to have been a half hour children’s anthology series – each episode was a stand alone story. “Captain Katt” was the lead episode of series four.
Basically, what Grimwade did was take all his experiences working on Doctor Who, his observations, frustrations, everything, and pour it into ‘Captain Katt’ as a sort of Anti-Valentine. He was pretty honest about it too. If anyone asked him, he’d be quite upfront in admitting he drew on his experiences with Doctor Who.
Is it nasty? Well, there was a limit to how vicious you could be, or how polished. This was a low budget youth oriented one-off program after all, and half an our really doesn’t allow you to develop the characters of a large cast, or really explore the complex premise he sets out. But if you allow for the limitations, it’s definitely got an edge.
There’s no laugh track, instead, you either get the gags or you don’t. Shot as a drama, I think some of the comedy beats are off. Alfred Marks who plays Captain Katt and his alter ego is a human train wreck, utterly self absorbed, insecure, bullying, greedy and grasping, he’s a figure of titanic ego, a man lost in his own imaginary glory. He’s clearly a reflection of Tom Baker in his final year as well as John Nathan Turner. His opposite number is his savage alien companion, Mugwump, played by Ros Simmons, a stand in for hapless companions from K9 to Adric. Watching it, we can’t help but wonder about the rest of the cast and crew, who they represent, what incidents and moments from Doctor Who have been borrowed. It would be great to see an annotated version. It’s a lot of fun.
So check it out….
The Trodos Tyranny -https://whopix.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/dr-who-in-the-trodos-tyranny/
Return of the Trods -http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110104182443/tardis/images/7/78/Trod.png
The Trodos Ambush -https://whopix.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/dr-who-in-the-trodos-ambush/
Pursued by the Trods – https://whopix.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/dr-who-in-pursued-by-the-trods/
The Time Museum – https://whopix.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/dr-who-in-the-time-museum/
Take it with a grain of salt. These comics are the products of a different era, a different culture. The stories are brief, almost superficial. They’re like potato chips, more food-like than food. There’s a sense of brevity to the things, I think that an average story would be hard pressed to translate into a fifteen minute episode. They weren’t great literature, even for their time. But, I think for the people who grew up with them, they were probably pretty terrific.
Story: The Tenant and Smith Doctors end up materializing in at an empty school to solve a mystery and learn a thing or two about life…
Review: This is simply exquisite. Very well acted, great chemistry, well shot, well edited, the writing is terrific, and it captures both the humour and the sweetness that is at the heart of Doctor Who. It is an honest pleasure.
That’s really all the review you need.
Go watch it.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE CONSTANTINESCU BOYS….
WATCH IT HERE
STORY: The Seventh Doctor and Ace are attending a breakfast at an old friends place. The Doctor reminisces about how, the last time he was here, in the 1970’s, things got quite sticky. As he flashes back, we see the Third Doctor, riding Bessie to his next adventure….
REVIEW: All right – I’m going to review this one out of order. Gene Genius is a product of a group or collective that goes by the name ‘The Projection Room’ – they seem to have formed around 1994, the same time as Timebase Productions, probably for the same underlying reasons, and their output is comparable in volume, if not necessarily quality. I assume they started for the same reason – the aborted revival and implosion of 1993. The key person seems to be Chris Hoyle, but really, it’s a collective effort.
Gene Genius is one of their later era productions. Really, I suppose I should be watching and reviewing their stuff in order. Why am I jumping the queu? A couple of reasons. First, it seems to be out of continuity with most of Hoyle’s work – you don’t miss anything by not having watched the previous adventures. It’s a safe stand-alone.
Mostly though, it’s because Sylvester McCoy plays the Doctor and Sophie Aldred reprises Ace in it. That’s right: The real actors are playing their characters in a fan film. WTF?
Aldred and McCoy are basically there for a framing sequence. They’re visiting for breakfast at some friends, and McCoy starts to reminisce about some adventure they had the last time they were there, back in the 1970’s. Cue flashback. At the end of the serial, the story returns to them, and they’re back again, to join the action and help wrap things up.
In the main body of the story, doing most of the heavy lifting, we have John Field playing Jon Pertwee, playing the Third Doctor. I had no idea who John Field was, but I googled he was known for dressing up as the Third Doctor, for the Doctor Who Experience in Llangollen.
I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up. It turns out that the Doctor Who Experience in Llangollen was one of the largest exhibition of original props from the series, covering 6000 square feet. Open year round from 1995 to 2003, it averaged about 50,000.00 visitors a year.
So I imagine that John Field was dressing up as the Doctor because at least part of his work was as a host for the Exhibition. It was an actual paying gig – so he has some credit as a semi-professional Third Doctor. John’s connection to the Experience might explain some of the props seen in Gene Genius. By all accounts, he seems to be a charming fellow, nice guy and longtime fan……………..
Synopsis: On the planet far, far away, two medieval Kingdoms, Desarn are attempting to seal a peace treaty with a royal marriage between Prince Germain and Princess Aldriana. It’s not working out well, the Princess is kind of butch, the Prince definitely isn’t. Things go wrong when the evil Wizard Utomu’s henchman, Formor, breaks in and kidnaps the Prince. The Doctor is enlisted to rescue the Prince, with the aid of some song and dance…
Review: Visions of Utomu trades a lot on the goodwill of Wrath of Eukor. Eukor is so well done, that we’ve built up an affection for the characters, we’re willing to be forgiving. If Utomu had come first, I’m not sure that it would have worked as well. Or maybe it might have worked better. Eukor casts a shadow, without it, maybe the flaws and faults of Utomu wouldn’t have been so glaring in comparison. As it is, Utomu suffers a bit from little brother syndrome, it’s always going to be seen as the lesser work.
Utomu, in terms of performance, production values and cinematography is simply a less polished work. Sometimes a lot less polished. I think it’s because they got ambitious here, and their ambition dramatically outran their money and abilities. Utomu had several key swerves from Eukor that, I think, undermined it. It switched from 16 mm film to 3/4 commercial videotape, for instance. That saved a lot of money on lab and processing costs, but perhaps lost a bit in image quality. They also decided to shift from a location backed story to a set-based production, and building sets, building good sets is hard. The cast is larger, there’s a lot of extras but often not used well, they play with a lot more ideas.
In terms of the fandom splash, the female Doctor was making, Utomu’s timing was on. Filmed November, 1985, and released January, 1986, the future of the Doctor was still up in the air. The hiatus would not end, and Trial of a Time Lord would not begin until September, 1986.
Let’s just tag our way through the good and the bad.
The Bad: Those sets! Ouch! What it looks like is a handful of flats, painted in a stylized manner to suggest brick work, with some styrofoam blocks thrown on here and there. What it reminds me most of is a theatrical set, stylized, lightweight, moveable and designed for a stage, and a more forgiving stage audience.
Except that we aren’t a stage audience, and we’re expecting a higher degree of cinematic realism. The artificiality of the flats really is jarring, its like biting on tinfoil. To make matters worse, initially, they shoot it in the worst possible way, just glaring lighting, flat and bright, that really makes it impossible to see it as anything but fake and artificial. It’s heartbreaking to think of how hard they must have worked to make something that looks so crap.
It’s particularly damning because this is actually the sort of sets or locations that the BBC was good at. England is lousy with castles and immense brickwork monstrosities, so they have a lot to choose from, and even when they’re shooting in studio, they have enough experience with how they look and how to shoot them effectively, that they carry it off. So they’re falling afoul of our subconscious expectations, as much as if they accidentally painted the Tardis orange.
Oddly, as the episode goes on, they seem to get better at it. They play with the lighting, darkening the flats, focusing on foreground characters and blurring the background, filming action to emphasize movement. It’s as if we’re watching them learn how to shoot these flats. The sets, for the most part, stop being disconcerting and jarring. Possibly we’ve been beaten into submission. Or more likely, they’re just doing it better – shooting and lighting them properly and focusing better on the story and characters, so that it’s generally stronger later on. But still, getting better later on only buys you so much, when you set your foot badly wrong on your first step, its hard to recover from.
That’s how it is when you’re working with sets. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. Doctor Who has had its share of stylized or tosh sets. Sometimes you can dress them up, sometimes you can work around them, sometimes they just don’t work that well, but you have to forgive them. In this case, it slipped by them. It’s a medieval setting – back in those days, no central heating, people were always hanging curtains and tapestries and drapes off the wall, tarting things up by hanging weapons and clothes and tools. They could have tried that, but they didn’t. So I’ll tell you right now, be ready to dip into the pocket of forgiveness on this point.
To be really fair – remember that mostly, this was being shown on mid-1980’s, 12 to 24 inch colour television sets, not high def or high resolution, and often being shown in crowded rooms at gatherings of fans. So it may not have been as jarring back then. There’s a lot of stuff that looked okay on the old scan line/cathode ray televisions that is now pretty blatant on higher resolutions and higher definition.
What else? Randy Rogel’s choreography… Just not up to the job. Sorry. It’s one of those things where they bite off more than they can chew, when what carries in the script can’t carry in real. What hurts is that Randy wanted to do it. He was pushing to do a song and dance number. Kind of a mistake there.
Again, inexperience kind of hurts. Kinetic stuff, fight scenes, dance numbers, they’re tricky to shoot. You can’t actually just have the camera sitting there. It has to almost be a character, and the dancer or the fighter has to play to it as much as they simply do their stuff. From what I understand of the shooting, they didn’t really have the time or resources to do it right, and frankly, I don’t think they understood what they were getting into. Time to dip into that pocket of forgiveness again.
So that’s a pair of really harsh flaws to get caught between, and you really have to make the decision to let them slide in order to enjoy the story.
Beyond that, the acting is variable. Some of the performances and direction seem appropriate to a high school play, there’s some awkward blocking. There’s problems with the sound quality – there’s a point for instance, where Utomo’s voice seems patchy. In an early scene, they’ve got a crowd running around in panic – it’s just harsh.
I dunno though, maybe I’m too critical. I could see some people not even noticing these things, just delving right into the story and grooving to the light, breezy touch.
With a little forgiveness, Visions of Utomu is actually quite good. A major strength: The costumes and props. We got medieval stuff coming on strong here. Initially, I looked at the great costumes and the fake set flats, and thought maybe he’d hooked up with some kind of stage company that had done a medieval or shakespearean production.
But no, Johnson managed to link up with the Society for Creative Anachronism, so the result is that we’ve got some very sharp, nice quality costumes, and an impressively large cast of extras that, sadly are not used to full effect.
As I’ve said, the cinematography does pick up as we go along, with increasingly effective use of light and shadows. The production overall, seems uneven. There’s shots and scenes and transitions that are amazingly good – the zoom in on the henchman as Carl does his dance routine, shows us a man being captivated – that’s beautifully done. Or almost every scene or shot where Rice is playing the villainous Utomu. The first scene between the Prince and Utomu, there’s a wind sound foleyed in, it’s subtle, but chilling. The background music is well used, never so loud as to call attention to itself, and almost always just right for whatever they want to convey in the moment.
The script is equal parts witty and convoluted. But it works, and on the whole, I think it works a lot more often than it doesn’t. Does it transcend its flaws? That’s a judgement call.
For the most part, the actors acquit their roles nicely. Benedetti and Rogel as the Doctor and Carl have some really nice chemistry going on. It’s amazing to see how well they work together, putting in all these little visual gags and witticisms. That really is the consistent highlight of the whole series. Benedetti is one of the best fan Doctors. I don’t think she’s the best, that goes to Rupert Booth. But the Doctor/Companion thing she has going on with Rogel, that’s unparalleled.
Wesley Rice as the evil wizard Utomu is also a standout, he manages to convey intelligence and menace, and he’s got some very nice bits of stagecraft going on, despite not moving around too much. That’s the lovely thing with stage actors. They know how to work business.
There’s a nice bit of gender role reversal – the Prince, played by Robert Eustace, is in the essentially feminine role, he’s quiet, bookish, all about feelings, physically tentative and is the one who gets kidnapped. The Princess, played by Stasia Johnson, is active, joins in the rescue and is a bit of a hellion. The performance of Jim Dean as the King is a mirror opposite of Rice’s – he’s doing a light comedy character with a very deft touch. Jim Dean, by the way, played the survivalist/vietnam Vet, Grant, in Eukor.
There’s a strong sense of fun – people are dressing up and going in disguises, and seeing through each other’s disguises. Everyone’s got a smart line they’re tossing off, there’s double takes, and ‘oh whoops’ moments, and a whole series of visual gags. What can you say when the plot hinges on sneaking into the Wizard’s castle disguised as a song and dance duo? This is Bob Hope and Bing Crosby territory.
Thats saves Utomu, what makes it work for me. Its tongue is firmly in its cheek. It’s a light comedy, good hearted, with a wink and a smile. Eukor was a serious story with a few comic touches – let’s face it half the cast dies and the story is about a body snatching alien menace. Utomu, in contrast, is light – the opening scene is a clip from Singing in the Rain, it’s full of comic touches, and the climactic battle is outright slapstick. It’s got just enough darkness, in the form of the wizard Utomu to keep it grounded and moving, otherwise it might have floated away on its own lightness.
Visions of Utomu finishes up as a pretty good Doctor Who story. On its own merits it has real strengths. It’s imminently watchable. Utomu doesn’t do everything well, but it does a lot well. What it comes down to, do we notice and work to the terrific costumes and performances, or do we dwell on those awful faux walls, or the flubs in the sound or an awkward edit? Take your pick. For me, the cheerful amiability rules, it’s a Gene Kelly sort of story. Eukor you appreciate, but somehow it’s Utomu that puts a smile on your face.
Statistics: 32 minutes. 3/4″ videotape. Filmed November 1985, released January 1986.
Cast. . . Barbara Benedetti as The Doctor, Randy Rogel as Carl Evans, Wesley Rice as Utomu, Stasia Johnson (no relation) as Princess Aldraina, Robert Eustace as Prince Germain, Jim Dean as the King, Randy Dixon as the M.C., Joseph McCarthy as Formore, and an orange. Written, Produced and Directed by Ryan K. Johnson.
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