Fan Film Reviews: Ian Levine’s Exquisite Corpse, Part Three
Showing up at 33:28 to 38:15, the first part seems like new material, the rest of it is just clipped from the original downtime.
No, no, no, no!
Okay, let me be blunt. Downtime is it’s own little low budget masterpiece. A flawed work, surely, one which shows the limits of its budget here and there. But also one that often transcends that budget. It’s a Doctor Who adventure without the Doctor, one that beautifully showcases the Brigadier, brings back Sarah Jane, introduces the Brigadier’s daughter, gives us the best use of the Yeti ever, and tells a good story. As far as I’m concerned, anyone associated with it can be justly proud of it. It doesn’t need to be improved. It’s fine.
Complaint out of the way, what do we have?
Sylvester McCoy! That’s right, Ian Levine got Sylvester McCoy to come back and reprise his role as the Doctor. Either they’re good friends, Ian’s paid a lot of money, or Sylvester McCoy is honestly that nice a guy. Take your pick.
Anyway, the 7th Doctor makes a visit to the Dat Sun Monastery, where he has a converstion with a leathery animated corpse of Padmasavamba, the host of the Great Intelligence from the Abominable Snowman. It’s not as exciting as it sounds. The conversation seems to meander pointlessly. It feels like an unnecessary set up, referring to past history, hinting at things to come. Pointless exposition. Visually, it doesn’t really match up – it’s clearly shot on video, as opposed to the rest of downtime, which seems to use a film stock.
It’s nice to see Sylvester McCoy play the Doctor, and it may be as simple a thing as the fact that Ian Levine could get him in to do it.
But really, Downtime’s fine the way it is. I don’t know that inserting the Doctor into it adds all that much.
Death Comes to Time
This is a peculiar one, appearing at 38:18 to 44:23.
Okay, here’s how I understand it. Back in the 1990’s, the BBC set up an online or web based presence known as BBCi. BBCi discovered that it could carve out an internet niche by focusing on cult classics, which necessarily included Doctor Who.
Pretty soon, they were doing all sorts of Doctor Who stuff, including running Loose Cannon’s Doctor Who reconstructions. It was the first real opportunity that many viewers had to see these lost classics in decades. And it was within the available bandwidth.
Emboldened, BBCi hooked up with Big Finish, to produce and air a series of three original Doctor Who stories which were sort of animated. Sort of animated is the right word. Basically, these were audio stories, accompanied by a handful of colour drawings. A crude animation was achieved by zooming in and out, or by panning across the the drawings.
The first of these, I believe was Death Comes to Time, starring starring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Stephen Fry (that Stephen Fry) as the Minister of Chance, which ran 2001 – 2002.
Then there was Real Time, in late 2002, starring Colin Baker. Not bad, ended in a cliff hanger which was never resolved. Then Shada with Paul McGann and Lalla Ward in 2003, which tried to patch together a new version of the lost Tom Baker classic.
Eventually, in 2003, BBCi ended its relationship with Big Finish and decided to go with Cosgrove Hall to create an absolutely original Doctor, to be played by Richard E. Grant. This Doctor was to be the new, official, canonical Ninth Doctor – appearing in Scream of the Shalka. A second serial, Blood of the Robots was in production, but was cancelled when they restarted the live action series with Christopher Ecclestone. Grant’s ninth Doctor was subsequently de-canonized.
Anyway, back to Death Comes to Time. I’ve never watched it. I liked Real Time, drew the line at Shada, and ran screaming from Death. It’s five episodes, all of which run long, so you’re looking at about three hours of some pretty limited and slow animation. Sorry, I have limits.
Anyway, the story is that the 7th Doctor is still out saving the universe, and gets embroiled in a fight with renegade Time Lords using their ‘Time Powers’ for evil. There’s vampires, alien warlords, Ace shows up, the Minister of Chance (another Time Lord) gets involved. Eventually Ace becomes a Time Lord and the Doctor dies, sacrificing himself to use his ‘Time Powers’ to blow up the bad guys.
I suppose this is problematic for continuity, given that McCoy’s seventh Doctor is killed off, but a few years before, McGann has already come in as the Eight Doctor. Then there’s all this stuff about ‘Time Powers’ and the Time Lords being rather more godlike than the series has ever shown.
So why is Ian Levine bothering to do a fan revision of Death Comes to Time? Does he have some hope of making the primitive animation slightly less primitive? Who knows.
Thinking out loud, and this is completely speculative on my part, it may be that Levine was put off by the ‘continuity raping’ of the original story, and he’s adding or editing in new story to try and bring it back into continuity. That’s just a guess, given that elsewhere, as in Music of the Spheres and Destiny of the Doctors, he seems compelled to ‘fix’ these productions. I’m wondering if he was able to recruit McCoy and Aldred again.
Feel free to consider me a jerk, but I’m not watching the original version. I’m not interested in watching Levine’s version.
Mind you, that’s just me, and for the record, you dear reader might well enjoy and derive considerable satisfaction and pleasure from either or both.
Destiny of the Doctors
We’re almost to the end of Levine’s marathon compilation. This one 44:26 to 47:03. Really, Ian did himself no favours by running all his shorts as one godawful marathon. Watched individually, they’re tolerable, even engaging. All together… just brutal.
Live action. Ian Levine plays a Time Lord, Castellan Cramdor. Ian Levine owns a Time Lord costume. Okay. Sylvester McCoy once again shows up, establishing once again that he’s either (a) a close friend; (b) well paid; or © just a really nice guy. They hang out in a big gallery on Gallifrey, which seems to be rendered by some decent greenscreen work.
The Master is up to his old tricks. He’s gotten into the Gallifeyan Matrix once again, and he’s created his own world in there, where he’s summoned up analogues of the Doctor’s seven incarnations and is busily torturing or playing games with them. Same thing really, where the Master is concerned.
This seems to be a wraparound plot for a 1997 computer game called ‘Destiny of the Doctors.’ In that game, the Master has taken over the planet Siralos, a world made from ‘pure psychic energy’ where he kidnaps the seven incarnations of the Doctor. Luckily, the Doctor (Doctors?) create a psychic being called the Graak, a sort of agile jellyfish who is the player’s character, to get them out of the jam. The Graak wanders around the Tardis, performing various tasks and trying to stay out of the way of, or defeat, Sontarans, Yeti, Zygons, Sea Devils, Silurians, Cybermen, Daleks, Ice Warriors, Quarks, Autons and Raston Warrior Robots.
Anthony Ainley appeared in voice and video clips as the Master. His collected clips from the game appear on the DVD for survival. All of the surviving Doctors except McGann – Tom Baker, Colin Baker, McCoy and Davison appear (audio only) in the game, as does the Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. Pertwee was represented by dialogue snipped from his serials, while Troughton and Hartnell’s Doctors voices were played by David Coker.
The game sounds nifty enough. Never played it, but I did watch Ainley’s clips on the DVD.
It was designed for Windows 95, so I don’t think it can be played on personal computers. Who knows though. It might be online, or on ebay. You might be able to download a Windows 95 emulator that would handle it. It’s all cyber stuff.
What we have here is Ian Levine’s attempt to incorporate the game into a narrative based episode or fan video by shooting extra footage and wrap around footage, and maybe editing the heck out of it all.
I’m really at a loss here.
It seems like an interesting effort. I’m just more bemused than anything, really. How does he turn a computer game, even with some additional footage, into a standard episode? Is there a lot of extra footage? How is it melded together? I couldn’t guess. I couldn’t even venture whether the resulting product is brilliant, peculiar or simply a mess.
After a lot of different approaches to animation, it’s nice to see live action, and I’ll give Levine credit for both recruiting McCoy and putting on a Time Lord outfit.
It is at least intriguing. I’ll say that much.
Music of the Spheres
The last one, running from 47:06 to 49:12, and concluding Levine’s showreel.
Well now. Okay. Let’s see. Back in 2008, you see, David Tenant was inconveniently doing a production of Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I say inconvenient, because this meant that he wasn’t available to appear in person for the Doctor Who Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. Which is awkward, if you’re having a Doctor Who Prom and the Doctor isn’t showing up.
As I understand it, by the way, the Prom was some sort of musical event which had nothing to do with High School Graduation in the North American tradition. It seems to have been some sort of classic music review by the BBC Philharmonic showcasing the work of Murray Gold among others. Freema Agyeman (played Martha Jones) and Catherine Tate (played Donna Noble) showed up to give presentations or introductions, people were in Doctor Who costumes. It all seems very peculiar to me, one of those strange little hybrid performance pieces which happen when two art traditions intersect and try to cross promote to each other’s audiences – like Boy George’s appearance on the A-Team.
Anyway, Tenant isn’t available to appear in person as the Doctor, so what they do is shoot a live action short segment of Tenant playing the Doctor, breaking the fourth wall, composing music and looking in at and talking to the audience in Albert Hall. Are you with us so far.
Well, someone has the idea that this is kind of dull, and so to complicate and liven up proceedings, the Doctor is bedevilled by a mischievous little alien called a Graske, which is out to screw over the concert in some mysterious way for some mysterious reason. The Graske a dwarf or child in a little three horned reptoid costume.
Okay, it worked well enough. You can find it on youtube. It’s a peculiar little sidetrip in Doctor Who lore. No big deal.
The Graske originally appeared in ‘Attack of the Graske’ a fourteen minute interactive game thingy that the BBC did. It would go on to appear in a crowd scene at the end of End of Time. And it would bedevil Sarah Jane Smith a couple of times in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, and The Temptation of Sarah Jane. Basically, the Graske are not so much scary monsters, as mischief makers, little reptoid dwarfs who seem to pop in and out of reality to screw with people.
The Sarah Jane series was something of a cosmic dustbuster, hoovering up leftover costumes, special effects and plot elements from Doctor Who sometimes. If you wanted more Judoon or Slitheen, or another whiff of Sontaran, well… Sarah Jane. Not necessarily a bad thing.
And yes, if you are asking, this is a godawful lot of preamble, but we’re coming to a point.
So, Ian Levine’s ‘Music of the Spheres’ fan film, what is it, and how does it fit?
Well, oddly enough, it’s full on CGI which we haven’t seen before from Levine. The clip that we see amounts to three Graske, over in Graskeland or Graskworld or Graskedimension. They look pretty high ranking. Anyway, they’re standing around conspiring, so there’s a lot of static talking head stuff. On the other hand, the CGI is not bad, the aliens look alien and the whole setting is peculiar and moody.
Of course, if you don’t know what the Graske are to start with, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s just funny looking reptoids standing around talking about their plot. What does that have to do with Doctor Who? That’s why I’ve taken time out to explain about them. It doesn’t help that these Graske all seem to be regular size – it throws you off a little so you don’t recognize them automatically (that and the CGI rendering which stylizes them a little).
The Graske are talking about the Doctor, seems the Doctor is doing some musical thing which turns out to be the whole Music of the Spheres Prom that I just talked about, and the Graske are sending an agent to screw with them.
Basically, it’s a wraparound scene to try and make an overall sense of the Tennant performance and turn it into something resembling an episode or that fits into the normal continuity and format. So kind of similar to the Destiny of the Doctors.
Why? I suppose Levine felt it needed doing, it satisfied some sense of completion. I have to wonder how much of it there is. What we have here is a two minute segment which seems to serve the wraparound purpose. Is there any more? Is there any need for any more? Does Levine come up with more plot, more CGI, does he attempt to incorporate the other Graske appearances? I dunno. Maybe.
Verdict? On the one hand, it’s just another set of talking heads standing around, mouthing a lot of windy exposition to each other. That seems to be a running theme with Levine. On the other hand, the CGI characters and perspective are kind of interesting.
So What Does It All Amount To?
Well, first, let’s get a few things out of the way.
This bears repeating: Ian Levine is a controversial and polarising figure, and in many quarters, he’s despised. So if you want to, you can despise these fan films because they’re Levine. Get over it. Seriously, get over it. The reality is that often people are shocked when artists, actors, writers, performers whose work they love turn out to be despicable, unlikeable people.
The first rule in this business is never confuse the artist with the work. You can have lovely people who do terrible work, and terrible people who do amazing work. Here: We are looking at the work. It’s not about whether or not Levine is a good person. It’s about whether these fan films are worthwhile. Separate issues, folks.
In terms of authorship – a lot of these things seem to have some tangled provenance. Levine is certainly not doing it all alone. Up front, there’s a lot of voice talent and actors being recruited, starting with Sylvester McCoy and Lalla Ward. In terms of production, we know that David Busch is really the active force for animation at least for Mission to the Unknown. Busch may have been a principal guy for some or all of the other animations. We don’t really know what Levine’s specific contributions or work was – is he just a producer, does he direct, is he writing dialogue and scripts, did he do animation himself. We know he acts in Destiny of the Doctors. And a lot of the dialogue and the talking heads expositing format is consistent enough from one clip to the next I suspect that there’s the same guiding mind. But regardless of specific role, these all seem to be Levine’s in some fashion. So I’m not going to worry over it.
As far as snobbery goes – get over it. This isn’t Pixar or Disney, and a work shouldn’t have to be Pixar or Disney to have some merit. Judge it on what it is, rather than in comparison to some hundred million dollar production with a small city’s worth of technicians.
So how’s it rate?
Well, as bodies of work, it’s impressive. Even acknowledging that several of his projects are add ons or extensions to existing work, there’s still a dozen projects and the total volume of new material may extend to hours, possibly several hours. That’s very, very impressive.
Technically, it’s also a diverse body of work – we’re looking at classical (if limited) animation, photo-animation, telesnap/recon format, CGI, live action. It might or might not all succeed, there’s likely quite a few bad decisions or flawed executions in there. But I’m inclined to respect the diversity of approaches.
That technical diversity might hurt him. I mean, if you have a large body of work in a consistent format, people get used to it. They start to accept the format, focus on the content. You develop proficiency with the format. Technically diverse? It can be hard to master your technique and content if you keep changing your media or method. And even worse, it can be hard to bring your audience along with you, because every time out, you’re asking them to learn how to watch it all over again. That can be tough. I won’t fault him for it. But then, I can’t fault an audience if it gets lost over it.
As to content, it’s hard to generalize given the diversity of sources. Levine’s corpus includes recreations of actual aired episodes with their scripts and sound tracks, unmade but professional scripts, and new work based on novels, story outlines or simply invented stuff inspired by one thing or another.
On the whole, there does seem to be a consistent penchant for talking heads or roughly static characters blabbing exposition at each other. That’s an easy trap for a lot of the formats that he uses. Characters actually doing something is expensive and difficult to shoot, animated characters actually doing something incredibly time consuming and difficult. So a lot of stuff falls into this category in both animation and live action – a lot of talent goes into either getting away from that, or getting away with it.
So it’s not that Levine should be faulted just for talking heads reciting exposition, almost everyone does. The question is, does get away with it, does he pull it off. It’s tough. The sheer volume of the 49 minute compilation gets to you, you get worn down by the relentless succession of talking headism. This may be an effect of the package, rather than the individual elements.
There’s a sameness to the dialogue, a kind of long winded rambly quality, which might be difficult. I have the impression that Levine did a lot of writing, and that windy quality may be his writing style. Which might be hard to take. On the other hand, he’s working with actual scripts by other people, and they come out sounding much the same. So voice acting? Direction? Hard to day.
There’s some stuff here that I find really interesting and compelling, and I think I’d love to see. Most notably, Yellow Fever and Shada…. Maybe Gallifrey.
There’s stuff that might be genuinely worthwhile, but I’m not terribly into personally, or at least not enough to make allowances – Evil of the Daleks, Mission to the Unknown, The Dalek Masterplan.
There’s stuff I find absolutely unnecessary – Downtime? Why, oh why?
Music of the Spheres and Destiny of the Doctors? Leaves me bemused and a bit curious.
As for the telesnap stuff, The Eight Doctors, Lost in the Dark Dimension, I’m knowledgable enough to understand what he’s doing, but I’m not immersed in the genre sufficiently to appreciate or assess it.
Looking over the whole thing, I really do get the sense that Ian Levine is a major closure junky. Almost all of this work, in one form or another, is about completing Doctor Who, about filling in the gaps.
It’s closure junky stuff – a compulsive filling in of gaps that leads to animating the unfilmed parts of Shada, or the lost episodes of Dalek Masterplan, to adding the Doctor into downtime, or trying to make Music of the Spheres or Destiny of the Doctors into full stories. Or for that matter, in creating iconic unmade stories – Gallifrey, Yellow Fever, Dark Dimension, Eight Doctors.
As I’ve said, the best fan films often seem to be about addressing gaps in the series. The Benedetti stories made their mark during the hiatus. Downtime, Shakedown, the Booth stories all come about following the anniversary failure. Gene Genius and Death Takes a Holiday are both on the cusp of revival. Fire and Ice is a response to the gap created by Tennant’s specials and deparpture. Project Fifty is for the anniversary. It’s like these fan films represent a kind of dialogue with the BBC show.
Levine’s work very much fits into that tradition, although it’s much more wide ranging. Levine sees gaps, he sees incomplete stories, or lost stories, or parts of things that should be stories, and he seems to feel compelled to fill those gaps. I can see why, irregardless of actual quality or outcome, he’s proud of them. He’s addressing something that, on very deep levels, he feels compelled to address.
And in that sense, he’s got a lot of company. Making a film of any sort is a lot of work. Making a fan film is a lot of unrewarding work. The ones who do it, and do it well, they’re compelled, I think, on very deep levels.
Ultimately, these things are a labour of love. You have to respect that. Love doesn’t guarantee perfection or competence. Love can lead you off a cliff as easily as it leads you to success. Love often lacks technical polish. Sometimes you just can’t overcome limits of budget and resources and time. A film is produced by an army of people with all kinds of money and multiple takes of everything to work with. Often, these things are produced by a small handful of people with little in the way of resources, and they only get one or two shots to get it right, and if they don’t, they live with it. For me this leads to a certain forgiveness that I won’t extend to Jurassic World or Terminator Genesys.
Whatever you think of Levine, he’s tried to do something, he’s produced this impressive body of work, and a lot of it looks really cool and interesting.
I have the impression that he craves some kind of official recognition. I heard he offered his Shada to the BBC for free. Mission to the Unknown is a real demo for a commercial proposition. I think he desperately wants to somehow become a small part of BBC canon, that’s why he wants them to accept it, maybe why he won’t release it generally. He’s like a kid with his face pressed to the window at the toymaker’s shop, desperately wanting to be in there, playing.
If so, he’s dreaming in technicolour. It’s never going to happen. The BBC is a corporation, it’s a bureaucracy, it’s got its own culture, its history, its ways of doing things. You don’t just walk through that door. And even if there was a snowball’s chance in hell, I think his reputation and his prior antics damn him. They won’t touch him, the well is too poisoned. He’s go his little niche in history, wormed his way to a point, and they won’t let it go further. He’s his own worst enemy.
But that doesn’t mean that these fan films of his are not worthy and worthwhile in their own right, as significant contributions to a genre of Doctor Who fan films, many of which approach the series, and offer meaningful dialogue.
So, for what it’s worth, I hope that we’ll eventually see these released.