Tag Archive for nicholas briggs

Kingdom and Katarina

"The whole plot? In that tiny box, Doctor?" "Mmm, yes, my boy..."

The Daleks’ Masterplan is one of the most sprawling, epic, flawed, fascinating and utterly space opera-y Doctor Who stories of all time. It was the fourth ever Dalek story, screening as part of the third season of the show in 1965-6, and it marks the end of Doctor Who being a safe kids show.

I had heard so much about it in my years as a Doctor Who fan – I knew that it was the first story that killed the companion (and it did it twice), that it was twelve (and an extra) episodes long, not only a record at the time but for many decades to follow, I knew about the weird Christmas episode, and Nicholas Courtney playing a character called Bret Vyon, and all manner of plot details.

If you feel knowing all the plot twists & who dies in The Daleks Masterplan would spoil enjoyment of the story (it doesn’t, honestly, it can only help) then please look away now.

Jean Marsh now, with current Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan

It wasn’t until I actually listened to the story (available as an audio recording as most of the original TV serial was wiped) that I saw all of those facts in context, however, and began to fall in love with it as a story. Yes, even (especially) the silly Christmas episode.

I was reminded of that love again recently when listening to The Anachronauts, a great Sara-and-Steven Big Finish Companion Chronicle, set in between a few acts of The Daleks’ Masterplan, and featuring the greatly talented voices of Jean Marsh and Peter Purves. (as those of you who tuned in for my Upstairs Downstairs post know, I’m on a Jean Marsh kick at the moment)

In the behind the scenes bits of the Anachronauts, they mentioned the audiobook of the novelisation of The Daleks’ Masterplan, read by both Peter and Jean, and I was interested because they are both so very good at audio work – Peter Purves does a killer Hartnell impression which really brings the story alive. Also, it occurred to me, while the audio-only version of TDM did drag on a bit at times, making me wish I could see the televised version, the good old Target novelisation, which I’d never read, might prove otherwise.

Luckily for me, both volumes of the audio book: Daleks: Mission To the Unknown and Daleks: The Mutation of Time, were available at my local library. I’ve just finished listening to the first of these, which brings me up to the middleish of the Great Doctor Who Space Opera.

I’ll start by saying that the performances are, as I had expected, brilliant. But the format of the audiobook really brought home to me how excellent the work by Big Finish is, because this BBC production was far more by-the-numbers. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh take turns reading large sections of the book, which means they end up at times reading each other’s parts – a Big Finish audio book or two-hander narrative play, like The Suffering starring Peter Purves as Steven and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, would always edit in the actual actor playing his or her own voice. A lot more work, but far greater effect to the reader!

I definitely felt like Sara Kingdom was given a disservice by the audiobook at times by this method – Peter Purves does not do as good a Jean Marsh impression as he does William Hartnell, and by necessity he is busily trying to make his voice sound less male in those scenes and thus ends up making Sara sound a lot more wet and passive than she actually is – our kickass Emma Peel in space.

Then there’s the book itself (or themselves) – both volumes were written by John Peel and it’s important to remember that authors tended to take quite a lot of liberty when writing the novelisations – that’s part of the fun of a Target, you don’t quite know what you’re going to get, whether it’s sudden scenes in the Doctor’s POV, plot developments being switched around, authors explaining motives that weren’t quite clear in the story, or on one memorable occasion, the Doctor’s entire Trojan adventure being told as if through the eyes of Homer, who was mysteriously not present in any of those scenes during the televised version.

But I can’t help noticing that Peel’s version of the story, while it rattles along with great pace and invests the villains with some marvellous motivation and character work, isn’t very kind to two rather important characters in the story: Sara Kingdom, and Katarina.

Poor Katarina. Possibly the companion least remembered by fandom as a whole – except for her death, which makes her the first Doctor Who companion to be sacrificed to lazy writing. I was quite intrigued by her on my first listen to The Daleks’ Masterplan, and found her to be a much more interesting character than that book I have by Peter Haining made out. (there’s a nice lament for the mishandling of Katarina here)

But oh, John Peel’s novelisation puts paid to any hint of that. While Katarina acts no differently in the book than it sounded like she did on screen, the other characters are constantly thinking about how stupid she is. I don’t mean once or twice. CONSTANTLY. The three men around her: the Doctor and Steven and then Bret Vyon (who joins the TARDIS crew by holding them at gunpoint, but falls instantly in love with them and joins their merry band, only occasionally remembering to point guns at them again at regular intervals) simply cannot shut up their inner commentary about the dumbness of Katarina. At one point, the author is particularly meta, having the Doctor think what a mistake it is to travel with a companion from a pre-technological era, which was the offical production reason for jettisoning the character almost as soon as she had arrived.

"If you won't be BFFs with me, Doctor, I can give you the address of my ancestor the Brig."

Vicki, played by Maureen O’Brien, had been let go at very short notice (we never hear an explanation given for that one!) and as they wrote her out in the story set during the Trojan War, they replaced her with a handmaiden who was in the right place at the wrong time, and had barely featured in the story.

The story goes that the production crew realised their mistake instantly, that a companion from pre-industrial time who saw time travel and space ships as evidence of gods and magic, would never work. So they wrote her out early on in the Daleks’ Masterplan, “replacing” her with Sara Kingdom.

None of which is, as it happens, reflective of the story we see. For a start, there is no way Sara is a replacement for Katarina, except as being the token female character, because they are so deeply different, and serve the story in different ways. Also it was only a couple of years later that the Second Doctor was running around time and space with the bekilted Highlander Jamie, who also saw space stations and Cybermen as evidence of magic, and was an adored fan favourite as well as an extremely well-matched-to-his-Doctor companion.

"Trojan handmaidening is not unskilled labour!"

Katarina’s death, while problematic in many ways, is handled remarkably well in the story, and indeed the novelisation (as audiobook). After several episodes trying to wrap her head around an enormous cultural shift, mostly believing herself to already be dead and certainly believing the Doctor to be Zeus, she is beginning to ground herself in this bizarre science fictional world of flashing lights and gear sticks when she is taken captive by a Plot Extender Maniac who holds her at gunpoint and forces the TARDIS crew (not actually flying the TARDIS at this second but a different space ship) to go to a planet full of Daleks instead of the Earth, where they were heading to warn humanity about the impending invasion. The men are all stuck in a moral quandary, and indeed Bret is the only one who seriously considers sacrificing Katarina’s life for the greater good.

Katarina takes control. She has been shown rudimentary controls of the ship and she knows what the big button does. For the sake of the mission and saving the galaxy from evil (concepts she grasps, coming from a time of great war, even if she can’t quite take in the scale) she sends herself and her captor out of an airlock.

It’s a shocking, brutal moment. My favourite bit is that Steven says immediately ‘she got the wrong button’ and the Doctor knows otherwise. Katarina the handmaiden was a lot of things, but she sure as hell wasn’t stupid. I was pleased that this scene and the emotional followup to her death was respectful to the character in the novelisation, and that the author managed to convey the meaning of her sacrifice rather than falling back on the unpleasant character sabotage of previous chapters.

Much though I defend Katarina, and I am deeply attached to Bret and his ridiculously cuddly relationship with the Doctor and Steven (they work as a unit for several episodes) the moment that Bret Vyon’s body hits the floor is the moment that, for me, the story really gets its groove on.

Kingdom, Sara Kingdom.

The actual plot of the story (yes there is one) is that the Daleks are about to invade the solar system, and Earth’s glorious, best-beloved, deeply trusted Bloke in Charge has sold out his own people to said Daleks, because he’s evil. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and there’s a Terranium Core (magic rock) which is super rare and hard to put together, which fuels the Dalek Doomsday Plot and the Doctor accidentally gets hold of it quite early on, leaving Mavic Chen and the Daleks to run around like headless chickens trying to get it back off him. Only instead of slapstick comedy (that comes later) this first half of the story is grim, unrelentingly grim, with shootings and political conniving and only occasional bits of banter.

This is the first time that I have really put together in my head that yes, the Terry Nation who “always” wrote the same Dalek story, really is the same Terry Nation who wrote the first season of Blake’s 7. It’s space opera, shoot-you-in-the-back style.

"Even my gun belongs in Blake's 7... Avon stole his sinister smile from ME"

I love the fact that the novelisation teases out Kingdom’s reputation as Mavic Chen’s top agent, ruthless, smart, dependable. I don’t remember how much her gender was deliberately unreferenced before her appearance in the show itself, but it’s very effective here.

Of course, most people who go out of their way to listen to an audiobook of a novelisation of a 1965 Dalek story are probably the sort of people who read Programme Guides back when there were still two mm’s and an e in ‘program’ and thus already know that Kingdom is a woman. But still, it’s a nice little anachronistic touch – this is a future in which women are equal, GET THIS, 1965 TV WATCHERS, SHE’S GONNA SHOOT HER BROTHER WITHOUT BLINKING. AND THEN SHE’S GOING AFTER THE DOCTOR. SHE’S THE FUCKING TERMINATOR.

Have I mentioned how much I love Sara Kingdom?

Check out this post with screencaps of one of her extra-curricular appearances as a kickass comics character.

I was greatly disappointed that the key emotional scene in which Sara Kingdom discovers that the brother she shot was telling the truth and that it’s her employer, not her brother, who betrayed the solar system to the Daleks, and makes the painful transition from ‘person who wants to kill the Doctor’ to ‘person who asks, what’s happening, Doctor’ is read by Peter Purves and not Jean Marsh. As I mentioned earlier, his Sara Kingdom is not a patch on Jean’s (for obvious reasons), and while I really enjoy his reading, it would have had greater emotional punch in her voice. Also, returning to the author rather than the voice artist… really? I get that you’re trying to make Sara Kingdom a more likeable character, but did she REALLY cry that much in the televised version? There’s a lot of crying upon crying and wobbling lips and wailing in these scenes, and it did make me cranky.

"Did I mention I have an Emmy for stoic restraint? Just sayin."

Yes, she’s devastated. We know that. So she should be. But she’s SARA “MY MIDDLE NAME IS STOIC” KINGDOM, and it’s really noticeable that it’s the narrative, not the dialogue, that utterly depowers her, and turns her into a quivering heap of feelings.

To my great pleasure, though, after these uneven moments, the story kicked into another gear, and I ran out of things to complain about. Steven and Sara together make a great team, working with the prickly Hartnell Doctor. The Peel narrative does feel the need to repeat how handsome/pretty they both are, and how hot they are for each other, which doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but this passed the point of being mildly irritating all the way into funny for me.

I have greatly enjoyed the many hours listening to Daleks: Mission to the Unknown, especially the way that the novel format accentuates the dystopian space opera feel of the story, and makes all the planet-hopping feel more epic that it probably ever looked on the small scratchy black and white scene. I love how the whole thing has this amazing Blake’s 7 vibe, fifteen years before the Liberator turned up. The characterisation, even of minor characters, is very effective, and I feel I’m getting a much better grip on the story than I did before (though of course it’s not entirely the same story in some places). Peel’s real brilliance is in the way he puts scenes in the point of view of the Daleks, making them feel like individuals, which serves to make them more effective villains (especially in the transition to the page). He is a very good at effective adaptation.

"Stick with me, kid. We'll ditch Dodo and pick you up just in time for The Gunfighters."

Peter Purves and Jean Marsh do a fabulous job – and while an audio book in which she gets to say all of Sara’s lines and he gets to say all of Steven’s and the Doctor’s lines would have been a zillion times better, there is something to be said for the single voice doing big chunks technique, and at least we do have proper Dalek voices edited in, they’re not total barbarians. I’m looking forward to the second half of the story, not least because I’ve been reading recently about how the second half was almost completely written by NOT Terry Nation at all but Dennis Spooner, and I want to spot the seams where Blake’s 7 sneakily transforms into Red Dwarf. I’m even looking forward to the Christmas episode because COME ON, pyramids and policemen and random vaudeville! I’m totally voting that we save that one first when we really get time machines and are allowed to go back and find all the missing episodes.

I do think, however, that it was important to note the way that the novelisation imposed a few problematic gender issues on to the story that simply weren’t there in the original. I remember coming away from listening to the sound recording of the 1965 The Daleks’ Masterplan delighted at how feminist it felt, particularly the futuristic equality vibe between Steven and Sara, but also that Katarina’s death was less of a throwaway moment than I had always been led to believe. Sara Kingdom is the first female companion since the original Barbara to be a grown woman rather than a teenage girl, and she got to act as if that was the case most of the time. I will enjoy the second novelisation far more if it refrains from making her sob uncontrollably, moon romantically over Steven, or sprain an ankle.

Most importantly, when Sara dies at the end, trying to save and protect the Doctor, I want very much it to be portrayed as the epic end to her own story, not simply a plot detail used to make Steven and the Doctor sad. So no pressure at all there, Mr Peel.

*takes deep breath*
*goes in*

Doctor Who: Daleks: Mission to the Unknown
An audiobook of a TARGET novelisation (by John Peel)
of half of a lost Doctor Who story (The Daleks’ Masterplan) from 1965-66.
Read by Jean Marsh, Peter Purves, with Dalek warblings by Nicholas Briggs
BBC Audio

[cross-posted from tansyrr.com]

That Other Time The Doctor Was a Lady: Unbound Exile

The Doctor Who Unbound series of audio plays at Big Finish were one of their earlier experimental series – you can tell it’s early because a) the plays are all the in the ‘Big Finish for Under a Fiver’ grab bin on their website and b) David Tennant is in it.

David Tennant actually turns up a lot in early (pre-2005) Big Finish plays because he was taking any opportunity he could to be involved with the franchise – previously I’ve heard him as an unrepentant Nazi in Colditz (with the Seventh Doctor and Ace) and as an outrageous Scottish hard-ass UNIT commander in UNIT: The Wasting.

This time around, in Unbound: Exile, Tennant is a bumbling, second string Gallifreyan CIA agent (that’s Celestial Intervention Agency, yes really) trying to hunt down the Doctor on that planet where you usually find the Doctor.

The trick of course being that the Doctor has managed to regenerate, rather sneakily, into a woman, and thus is even harder than usual to track down.

The Unbound series provided some seriously batty premises, the idea being that the production crew could play around with the very idea of what a Doctor Who story was, canon bedamned. The stories are mostly stand alone (though a few have sequels) and include such premises as: the Valeyard killed the Doctor and now Mel is trying to redeem and/or kill him; the Doctor and Susan never left Earth; and my personal favourite, what happened to the Brigadier if the Doctor was never exiled to Earth in the 70’s?

Taking such a bold step to the left allowed them to cast all manner of alternative Doctors, including Derek Jacobi, David Collings, Geoffrey Bayldon and David Warner, and to explore a variety of alternate time streams. At the time, it probably seemed fairly controversial to make one of those Other Doctors into a woman – these days, I suspect we’d wonder why they only picked one.

All I knew about this play coming in was that it was widely regarded as being a bit crap – and my feminist spidey senses had sparked up, wondering whether it was truly bad or if the listeners were just trying to justify why they felt uncomfortable listening to a woman play the iconic “male” role. But I still hadn’t got around to listening to it until recently when the actress in question, Arabella Weir, appeared in DWM talking about her recent experience performing in the Christmas special.

Among other things in the interview, she talked about how she was close friends with David Tennant, and how he had been part of her previous Who experience when she played the Doctor (long before he got to on TV). So I had to check it out!

And… oh. Right. Um.

It’s not a great play, not by Big Finish standards, and certainly not by the standards I expect of the writer, Nicholas Briggs, who turns out stellar material these days. It’s not as bad as I expected, but I can see why people turned away in droves as the first twenty minutes of the story is basically the (female) Doctor getting repeatedly drunk off her face, belching and throwing up with all the sound effects you would expect from such a thing.

Once the story settles down and there’s a bit less vomiting to listen to, it’s actually pretty good. Arabella Weir herself does an excellent performance, though I prefer it when she’s playing the part straight than all the comedy stuff – as would be the case, I think, of any male Doctor too.

I wonder at their choices, long before the script was written. Why is it that the only female Doctor in this series of cool, alternative Doctor Who stories is also the only one that’s a slapstick gross out comedy? Did they think that the listeners wouldn’t accept a serious story with a female lead? Why, if one of the Doctors had to work in a supermarket, was it the woman?

On the other hand, women are often derided as ‘unfunny’ because we’re not used to respecting them as comedians in our culture. Am I the one with the problem, by thinking the female Doctor SHOULDN’T get to be funny? Would I feel differently if it was Tina Fey or Dawn French in the role?

I think, in the end, it’s a bit of all those things. I actually really enjoyed the play when I wasn’t having to listen to burping and vomiting – I thought the plot twist as to why the Doctor was female and how she had got that way was interesting, I liked the friendships she had made on earth, and I thought it did some interesting things to interrogate the role of the Doctor in a domestic setting. Even the issue of characters drinking all the time on weekends to balance out their crappy lives (this was written at the height of “ladette” culture as a media buzzword) was discussed with a certain degree of gravitas. Plus, David Tennant.

I actually REALLY liked Arabella Weir as the Doctor. When she (and that script she’d been lumbered with) wasn’t grossing me out.

Ultimately I suspect that they didn’t quite think through the ramifications of depicting gross-out humour in audio (directly into your ears rather than on TV/film screen at a nice safe distance) and that it sets the play up to fail (or at least scramble to recover from the awful introduction). It’s a shame because if played far more straight, a noirish mystery about the female Doctor, why she was that way, and her attempts to stay under the radar, could have been a far more powerful piece of drama than the mixed bag we ended up with.

And maybe by now, nearly ten years later, Big Finish might have had enough encouragement from fans to portray a female Doctor more than once.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this one, if anyone else has downloaded this play.