Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Last Orders Please...

Here's something about me: I like putting things in order. (By which, I don't mean I'm some sort of vigilante, nor do I correct historical events like Sam Beckett out of Quantum Leap.) If you've followed any of my online activities, you'll see that I devote an awful lot of time to devising sequences for things. Doctor Who – The Complete Adventures is obviously the most extreme example of this, and you may also have seen my suggested re-sequencing of the episodes of Space: 1999. This is a borderline autistic tendency of mine, and it can be seen in the way I place any two related items together – as the book and DVD shelves in my home would bear witness. Everything is carefully arranged in a very precise order, which may not be the more obvious alphabetical or publication orders, but instead reflect my personally preferred reading or viewing orders. The shelves are also divided and sub-divided into numerous sections, grouped variously by medium, genre, director, studio, nationality – all dependent upon a complex formula I keep in my head. It bewilders many, but it makes perfect sense to me, and I know instantly where anything might be.

Well, that's an insight into my peculiar mind. But I want to return to the subject of tv shows and their running orders – and reflect on just how I first got started with that. I personally think that any tv show without a continuing storyline is fair game for a re-sequencing. Mainly this applies to the sort of genre shows that used to populate American television: cop shows, spy shows, sci-fi shows and so on. Now, in most cases, you get a new story every week, the status quo is restored by the end of the episode, there's no continuity to speak of and no consequences. And for most people, myself included, watching such shows in any broadcast order is just fine – Kojak or The Incredible Hulk or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Six Million Dollar Man work in just about any order – although it's probably best to watch the episodes in each season as separate blocks, as cast and format changes usually occur at the season breaks, and occasionally you get sequels to popular episodes from previous seasons. (In the case of one of my favourite shows, Mission: Impossible, I might even argue that you could watch the episodes from any season interchangeably – other than the first, which had a different lead actor – since the very premise of the show is that Jim Phelps goes through his dossier of agents and selects those who are right for the particular mission at hand. Having Leonard Nimoy and Lesley Warren one week, then Martin Landau and Barbara Bain the next, reinforces that concept – as long as you can overlook the clothes and longer hairstyles on display in the late sixties/early seventies episodes!)

But there are occasions when being a fan of a show leads one to have a more direct engagement with it, and indeed a more interactive relationship. A desire to recontextualize the show is very much part of that – that can include writing fan fiction, doing video re-edits, or re-ordering the episodes to something more satisfying. In a lot of cases, it may just mean going back to the production order rather than the network broadcast order. This works for the original Star Trek for instance. Sometimes though, a series requires a much more radical approach. Where a show has little to no continuity between the episodes, re-ordering them becomes a creative act in itself – you are devising a new ongoing narrative, using the discrete episodes as building blocks, positioning them in such a way as to strengthen the storyline you're trying to tell. (For instance: asking yourself whether a character makes a certain choice in episode X because of his experience in episode Y?) It's this sort of engagement that takes the fan above and beyond being a mere passive viewer, and it's to be celebrated.

As an aside here, I should point out that this generally applies more to American series than British ones. British broadcasters have traditionally not been as afraid of ongoing plotlines, continuity and character development as the American networks seem to have been, and generally speaking the series reset has not been a thing in this country. Whilst each episode is clearly its own story, it contributes to an ever-ongoing storyline for the characters. (Obviously, I'm not thinking about serials and literary adaptations here, and soap operas have always done this.) But it's just a given that British tv proceeds in order – you can look back at pretty much any long-running show from the sixties onwards and see this. The Power Game, The Brothers, A Family at War, The Onedin Line, Hadleigh, Warship, Callan, The Main Chance, Colditz, Man at the Top, When the Boat Comes In, Upstairs Downstairs, Sam, The Duchess of Duke Street, The Sandbaggers, Secret Army, All Creatures Great and Small, Enemy at the Door, By the Sword Divided, Nanny, Tenko, The House of Eliot, Survivors, Wish Me Luck, and Blakes 7 are just some examples that I can see on my DVD shelves right at this moment. What I'm trying to say is, it's just normal for Britain.

And yes, Doctor Who is just such a show – to the extent that I would never question the broadcast order of the episodes. (Arguments have been made for re-ordering seasons 25 and 26, which had their sequences changed from the original intended order quite late in the day. I might almost concede the former, since the alteration was forced by an unexpected scheduling change, and does lead to a minor visual continuity error. The change to season 26 was an artistic decision made by the producer, so I think should be respected. It doesn't mess up continuity, though it may change the emphasis on certain lines of dialogue. Ultimately though, the notion that broadcast order is the right order for a BBC drama of this type is so ingrained in the consciousness, that I find I cannot disagree with it.) The point of The Complete Adventures is not to re-arrange the tv show itself, but to go beyond into all the panoply of spin-off media. The creative act here is to create the narrative for the Doctor's entire life (as far as we know it) using the various disparate stories to construct that – it's the same principle as an episode re-ordering, but on an infinitely larger scale.

In contrast, the American networks seemed to prefer the “new story every week” format for most of their drama shows, and this held true up until the 1990s, when story arcs became a thing. The legal drama Murder One is usually held up as the first show to really push the envelope with a season-long arc, although this probably just demonstrates how sci-fi was a neglected poor cousin in those days, since Babylon 5 was already half-through a five year arc when Murder One came along and excited the critics with its “innovation”. (And hell, I could point out that the original Battlestar Galactica in 1978 had a very definite arc plot running right through it.) Since then, the age of the box set and binge-watching has come upon us, and continuing plotlines are very much the norm in America now. So they finally caught up with us!

And that, in a roundabout way, brings me back to my subject. I've stated that ongoing plotlines are very much a British thing, but there are exceptions – for example, some cop and detective shows, where each episode is a new case (but even those often have underlying character arcs running through them) – and most obviously, filmed adventure series such as The Avengers, the Gerry Anderson shows and various ITC action thrillers. These were designed to be sold to America, and so aped the “new story every week” formula. In the majority of cases, as with the US shows, any order works just fine. But there's one ITC series where the running order has long been a subject of intense debate and the cause of much anxiety. That show is The Prisoner, and that's really where this story starts.

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered The Prisoner through the Channel 4 repeats in the early 1980s – before that, it was something you'd heard of (it was occasionally mentioned in the pages of Starburst and Doctor Who Monthly) but had no real idea what it was. I was 14, which was probably the right age to discover The Prisoner. To a teenage boy, it seemed like the best thing ever, in a way it probably wouldn't to a man in his forties. And indeed, I can't put my hand on my heart 35 years later and say it's the best tv show I've ever seen, because it patently isn't – not when you've read proper books and seen things like Edge of Darkness or Secret Army or I Claudius. Indeed, it's a show that demonstrates most of the tropes of the ITC action shows – although it's trying to do something more intellectually worthwhile with them. I still applaud it, and gain a great deal of satisfaction when I watch it again.

But one thing that surrounded the show right from the outset was the question of the running order. I remember back in 1983, a man called Roger Goodman (one of the original founders of the Six of One appreciation society) appeared on Points of View to review the repeats, and made much of the fact that Channel 4 were showing the series in the wrong order. He seemed certain that if the show had been broadcast in the right order, it would all make a lot more sense. And some of things he pointed out made sense. But let's face it, The Prisoner was shown in the “right” order back in the sixties, and it didn't make a lot of sense to the viewers back then either.

Anyway, as a insanely keen teenager, I sent off my money and joined Six of One, and that's where I discovered the controversy around the running order. What I particularly loved about it was that a healthy debate was encouraged, and there was no official fan club position. It was an eye-opener to this teenage mind, who'd joined the club expecting to be given some answers. And yet, it really does befit The Prisoner that there are no easy answers – and that the rights of the individual to place their own interpretation on the series is encouraged and celebrated. (This seems to have changed in later years, and Six of One eventually endorsed a particular running order for the series – this was used for an American DVD release, which also described it as the “fan preferred” order. It didn't say which fan preferred it though! Six of One seems to be a shadow of its former self, with a dwindling membership, so I'm not sure how representative of fan opinion they can be these days. Even Roger Goodman has denounced them.)

There's a Wikipedia page listing Prisoner episodes, and various attempts at ordering them, which contains the statement that “everyone agrees on the first and the last three episodes of the 17 produced shows”. I'm not sure that's true – in the old days of intense debate, I knew several people who shifted The Girl Who Was Death out of the fifteenth slot for various reasons. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that even the opening and closing episodes don't have to be set in stone. It's a fact that the final sequence of the last episode is the same as the opening sequence of the first, suggesting that the whole series goes round in a loop, and you can leap in anywhere. It's like the televisual equivalent of Finnegans Wake or Dhalgren. So perhaps the episodes can be viewed in any order – perhaps a non-linear narrative is the whole point. You could even open the series with Fall Out if you wanted, and treat the rest of the episodes as flashbacks.

My own preferred order – though it's changed and developed over the years – is a bit more conventional than that, and attempts to construct a more or less linear narrative. I did this by looking at the production order, the original UK and US broadcast orders, and assimilating the good and bad points of each. And then applying those to the story I wanted to tell. I set out certain narrative strands that I wanted to follow through the series, and arranged the episodes to reflect those. There are clearly some episodes where the Prisoner is fairly new, and the Village authorities are treading carefully with him so as not to risk damaging him – so there are simple psychological tricks, deceptions and manipulations employed. Also, of course, it's in these earlier episodes that he makes all his attempts to escape. Later on, we see an escalation of the threat, with mind control, brainwashing and dangerous drugs being used. At the same time, the Prisoner seems to give up the idea of escape and concentrates on trying to fight the Village from within. This in turn leads to a change in the power dynamic between the Prisoner and his adversaries, and he eventually brings about the downfall of several of the Number 2 characters in the process. Synthesizing the narrative progression from all that leads me to this order:

Free For All
Dance of the Dead
The Chimes of Big Ben
The Schizoid Man
It's Your Funeral
Many Happy Returns
Living in Harmony
The General
A. B. and C.
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
A Change of Mind
Hammer into Anvil
The Girl Who Was Death
Once upon a Time
Fall Out

That's a fan preferred order, and I'm the fan who prefers it! Seriously, it's the order I tend to stick to whenever I rewatch the show. It enhances my enjoyment of the show, and that makes it worthwhile intellectual exercise in its own right. Make of it what you will. (I's aware I haven't gone into a detailed justification for my reasoning here as it's outside the scope of this article – that's something to follow up another time.)

As I said earlier, The Prisoner is something of a special case, and the majority of the ITC thriller shows are watchable in almost any order – I say “almost” because many of the shows have an opening episode that sets up the format and backstory, and in most cases should be watched first. But sometimes even that is mutable. The Champions for example shot additional footage to wrap around its first episode, turning it into a flashback where the heroes look back to how it all began – which meant the episode could now be dropped anywhere into a repeat run, and indeed that the series could go round on a loop forever. Conversely, although Man in a Suitcase has a first episode (Man from the Dead) it was actually shown sixth on the initial transmission – because it isn't the beginning of McGill's story, which starts in media res – rather it's where he finds out why he's in the situation he is. Placing it sixth does cause a few continuity problems, such as where dialogue in other episodes refers back to a situation we can only understand if we've seen Man from the Dead. In that case, I'd recommend sticking with the production order, which is how the show is sequenced on the DVDs.

A few years after The Prisoner, another show got me vexed over its running order. The much-missed TVS started to repeat UFO as part of its Late Night Late slot. (Strange to think now that 24 hour broadcasting was once a new and exciting thing.) I didn't catch all the episodes initially, but those I did see had a few weird juxtapositions that leapt out at me. The disconnect between the end of Exposed, where Foster has just been recruited into SHADO, and the start of Survival, where he's already been made Commander of Moonbase didn't sit well. And some episodes that seemed to me to belong early in the series were screened quite late in the run. Obviously, I wasn't the only person who noticed this: the host of Late Night Late, David Vickery, mentioned that they'd received a few comments that they were playing the episodes in the wrong order. (An in-vision continuity announcer – you don't see many of them any more!) He then explained that when TVS had announced they would be screening UFO, the station had received a letter from a fan who'd listed the order they ought to run the episodes. Since I'd already identified a few anomalies, I wondered quite what rationale this fan had employed to devise his sequence. I'd caught up with more of the episodes by then, and I began to piece my own order together. (Something else |I'll come back to in more detail at a later date.)

Funnily enough, around that time I caught with an old school-friend, Alec Baker, whom I hadn't seen for a while. He shared my interest in The Prisoner and UFO, and I remarked to him grumpily about the fan's letter to TVS, and how it had got the running order completely wrong. You can imagine how embarrassed I was when Alec revealed to me that he was the one who'd written in! He was gracious enough to concede that he probably hadn't gone into the series in quite as much forensic detail as me, and had gleaned his order mainly from things he'd read in the Fanderson magazines. Well, there's a lesson there probably. Looking back with three decades' hindsight, I realize what an insufferable prig I could be at times, especially when I'd decided I was an expert on a particular topic. These days, I hope I'm more relaxed about it all. I try never to lambaste another person's pet theories, instead I just suggest a possible alternative, lay out my own arguments for consideration – there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy debate, and frankly we should do all we can to oppose the development of an ossified fan consensus. I do try and take care not to present myself as some definitive authority just because I've got a website – and I'm frequently at pains to point out that The Complete Adventures is just my own take on the Doctor Who timeline, and encourage others to develop their own ideas.

I don't always get the same courtesy in return, but I guess that's the internet for you. I was once accused in a Google group of trying to “rape” Space: 1999 (yes really!) for suggesting a different running order. My critic, who also said he wanted to throw up after reading my site, went on to state that the production order was the only correct order – not that he offered any sort of argument to support his position. (I'd already explained why I found the production order unsatisfactory.) As I've said, I'm all for discussion and debate, and an amicable difference of opinion. But is there any need for such inflammatory language, especially over something as trivial as a tv show? I don't know, some people... On the other hand, there's a Space: 1999 themed wiki that's adopted my running order as its standard – without any prompting from me, I might add. (And with proper acknowledgement too.) So what started as an intellectual parlour game, a creative exercise for my own amusement, ends up being something of benefit to others – and that makes it all seem worthwhile.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Canon Balls!

Do you remember the 3W Institute in Capaldi's first series finale? Named in recognition of the “three words” that so terrified Dr Skarosa? (Actually it had a funny resonance for me, since 3W was the form I was in at school at the time of season 20 – our form teacher was Mr Caspell, who'd once been a stunt driver on the tv show Star Maidens – but I digress... maybe that's a story for another day.) What I'm getting at in this rather tortuous opening paragraph is the notion that, for me, the three terrifying words are something different: “Is it canon?”

Yes, that's right – the three words (or some variant thereof) that are guaranteed to creep into – and very often derail – any forum discussion about spin-off media. Usually by about the third or fourth post in any thread! You know the sort of thing: someone posts a perfectly innocent question on Reddit, like: “I enjoyed Paul McGann's portrayal in The Night of the Doctor – what other stories are there about the eighth Doctor's involvement in the Time War?” From which, you might expect some helpful replies, pointing them towards the Big Finish audios; then maybe mention of the War in the eighth Doctor novels, prompting an interesting discussion about whether that's a different earlier Time War, or the same event seen from another perspective. But it's not long before someone will chip in with the dread question – is any of that considered canon? It makes you want to scream. (If it needed saying, this is indeed a summary of a genuine Reddit discussion I encountered recently.)

So why does it wind me up so much? Primarily it's because the canon question is nearly always used in a negative sense – it serves to shut down debate and enquiry. I get that there are some people for whom only the tv show counts, and that's fine as long as it's their choice, not something that they feel has been imposed on them from without. (It does strike me as perverse however for someone to pile into a conversation that's clearly about spin-off media to question its canon status, as if those discussing it were simply deluded and needed the scales removed from their eyes.) For a long time Doctor Who fan like me, this idea of canon as something to be strictly observed has always seemed like an alien concept, probably imported into Who fandom as the show has become better known internationally – imported from other (that is to say American) fandoms. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a rant about them being rubbish – as a matter of fact, I like both of the chief culprits. More on them later.

But it's a fact that I just don't remember it being a thing in the old days. That's not to say that, even as a child, I didn't know the difference between the tv show and the spin-offs. But the point is, I still read the TV Comic strip or the Annuals as stories that were really happening to the Doctor. I didn't expect the tv show to reference them of course, but that didn't make them any less real for me. After all, these were stories about a character who could go anywhere in time and space, who could theoretically have any sort of adventure. The notion that they weren't like the tv show didn't really occur to me then – that had to wait until the 80s and my days as a super-nerd fanboy. Thank God the 90s (and one hopes a degree of maturity) loosened me up – with the arrival of the New Adventures (and I suppose the lack of a tv show) pushing me towards embracing Who in all its forms. Which, I guess, is why that's the decade when I first conceived The Complete Adventures.

Now, it is interesting to compare the way that other fandoms do it. Star Trek for instance: Paramount is quite insistent that only the tv shows and the movies count – none of the books or comics or other spin-offs really happened. (In fact, at some times, even the cartoon series has been in the exclusion zone – though that seems to have been done to humour the whims of Gene Roddenberry, who in later years, decided he didn't like it. After he died, the cartoon got brought back into the fold.) That doesn't mean though that Paramount hasn't been happy to license plenty of spin-offs over the years, and doubtless to reap the financial rewards. It's effectively saying: “Please buy the books, although we have no belief in them ourselves.”

What's really happening is that the producers are giving themselves a get-out clause – to free themselves from having to remember and take account of the details of fifty years of spin-offs when devising new stories. And really no one can blame them for that. It's surely hard enough just to keep track of all the tv episodes – which no doubt explains why they've contradicted themselves a good few times over the decades! What's troubling is the way that this sensible behind-the-scenes decision has been interpreted as an instruction to fans. And I think really it's the use of the word “canon” that's to blame for that. I don't know if Paramount actually used the term themselves or if it was the fans who applied it; but either way, the damage was done.

Star Wars on the other hand adopted a multi-tiered system of canon: basically anything George Lucas said was considered the topmost, unassailable level of canon – so effectively that was the films themselves – and various books and comic strips were placed on lower strata. They were to be considered as canon unless or until they were contradicted by something in one of the films. I suppose if you're going to have a canon declaration, that's the most sensible way of doing it. Effectively, it's the same as the Star Trek rationale, a way to protect Lucasfilm from having to be beholden to their own spin-offs – but it achieves it in an inclusive and less didactic fashion.

Or at least that would be the case if Disney hadn't bought Lucasfilm and fucked it all up. Now, I understand that Disney wanted to start making new Star Wars movies, and didn't want to have to take account of all that “expanded universe” stuff , which has effectively told us all about what happened to Luke, Han and Leia for the next forty odd years – and all about what happened to their kids too. Obviously that was going to contradict any new stories that they wanted to tell with those characters. Which makes it a more extreme case than that facing the Star Trek producers, I suppose. The weird thing is that Disney/Lucasfilm want to have their cake and eat it. They've announced that every book and comic produced from now on is going to be part of canon – but every spin-off produced previously is not. But they still want to market those old books (for reasons of profit one assumes) so they've rebranded them as “Legends” – literally, there's a big gold flash across the top of each book saying so. It's such an odd thing when one considers that Star Wars is a sort of fairytale that we're quite specifically told occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Aren't all their tales just legends then? Nevertheless, the most hardcore Star Wars fans seem to be happy embracing the distinction – I'm always finding YouTube videos discussing characters and their backstories, where the narrator clearly demarcates what's canon and what's only “legends”.

One of the refreshing things about Doctor Who is that the show's producers or the BBC have never tried to lay down such rules. They've never so much as uttered the word “canon” – (well, except for that one time when some PR idiot used it to tell viewers the Adventure Games could be considered part of the ongoing storyline.) Which I guess means that they trust fans to make up their own minds what they want Doctor Who to be. Some will point to the BBC charter expressly forbidding the need to purchase additional material to make a story complete – surely that proves that the spin-offs don't count? Well, I don't see that at all. I think that is specifically to ensure that the show doesn't conclude with a cliffhanger leading into a commercial spin-off; imagine the last series had ended with World Enough and Time and an announcement that the conclusion was exclusively available to buy from BBC Store. But it doesn't deny the existence of further Doctor Who material that you can buy should you choose to do so – such material can even be referenced in the show itself (and it has been) as long as it's just for colour and backstory. It can inform one's viewing and give a deeper meaning, but it mustn't be essential for the understanding of the general audience. (So I guess, as they were free for licence fee payers to download, they were allowed to plug the Adventure Games as being part of the series.) From the point of view of the producers, they have a rich seam of history to draw upon, but they don't need to feel bound to it. Of course, where Doctor Who scores over Star Trek and Star Wars is that the very nature of its narrative allows the wholesale rewriting and disregarding of its backstory anyway. We're told that time keeps getting rewritten, and I've discoursed at length before about the way the Doctor's timeline might intersect with a changing universe. The show has contradicted itself so many times that it's clear the producers aren't even interested in keeping faith with past tv episodes, let alone the spin-offs.

So we're left with the current situation, where every fan can have their own idea or interpretation of what constitutes canon. I think that's a wonderfully liberating thing, something we should all cherish – rather than fighting when another's opinion differs from our own. I can fully understand why some only want to count the tv show – it's the most easily accessible and requires the least investment in terms of time and money. But as I've said above, even that can be optional really. I'm sure there are fans who've come to Doctor Who only with the modern series – for whom even the original 26 seasons must seem like some distant legend. And some may want to include the novels but not the comic strips – or only the New Adventures – or Big Finish audios, but not books. It should be entirely up to the individual. For myself, I decided long ago that there was no “canon” as far as Doctor Who was concerned. There was just a mass of stories that happened to the Doctor.

I think ultimately I understand the purpose of the “is it canon?” question, especially when it comes from a new fan. They're looking at the daunting mass of past Who spin-offs and asking themselves if they really need to get amongst all that to understand the series. And the answer is, of course they don't. But if they want to dip their toe in, it doesn't commit them to anything. And they may find something they love. The flipside to that though is when a long term fan has decided not to indulge in the spin-offs – and that could be for any reason, it's not for us to judge – but then uses the “it's not canon” argument to justify their choices. And the worst example of this is when they use it to try and shut down discussions about material they're not familiar with. I think it's a sort of inverted self-justification, a way to belittle those whose conversations they can't keep up with. What does that achieve? Just accept that everyone gets something different out of Doctor Who, and bow out gracefully. We'd all get along a lot better.

What do these different reactions tell us about the fans of each series? I suppose no one should be surprised that Star Trek fans are so eager to swallow the dictates of Paramount. They've always struck me as the keenest to embrace rules and regulations, and bow to a higher authority. That's why they dress up in the uniforms, give themselves ranks, and act as if they're really members of Starfleet. Doctor Who of course is a story about a maverick, a pricker of pomposity, an anti-authoritarian iconoclast, and that's why the “no canon” stance seems the most appropriate, as long as we accept the choices of the individual to embrace or reject whatever they like. The Star Wars fans intrigue me though, with their quick embrace of a doublethink mentality over “canon” and “legends”. You'd think that they would be rebels, like the heroes of the series – not prepared to bow down before didactic pronouncements from the content providers. Maybe, they all secretly want to be in the Empire! Myself, I was always a fan of the Star Wars EU – some of it was shockingly bad, some of it was brilliant, but isn't that true of everything? Yet I've only bought four books since the new canon declaration, and all of those are ones set during the timeframe of the older films, so are just filling in backstory. I've not bothered with anything set post-Return of the Jedi, because I've already got a continuation of the Star Wars saga that I'm perfectly happy with. I've seen the new films, of course, and I'm quite comfortable with the notion that there are now alternative timelines. I'm just not feeling the need to invest additional time into a whole other EU. And that's my choice. But I don't call it “legends”, I just call it Star Wars.

So... canon? It really is just a load of nonsense. I like Doctor Who, I like Star Trek. Shouldn't I be happy that there are even more adventures of the Doctor or Captain Kirk for me to enjoy? I think so. Do I worry that they have some sort of sanctioned authority to exist? What we're ultimately arguing about is whether one lot of fictional tales is somehow more fictional than another lot. And frankly, I can't see any sense in that.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What the Hell Am I Doing?

Blogging is a funny thing really – it's based on the assumption that people want to share my inane and random witterings on obscure subjects. (Maybe some of you do.) Or then again, perhaps it comes from an inbuilt desire to record my thoughts in a permanent form, without a care whether anyone reads them or not. Perhaps that's really what it is. Something like a diary, but without the more intimate thoughts. (I've never kept a diary incidentally. I tried once, in about 1986, but by the time it got to January 3rd and nothing much had happened, I soon lost interest.)

If there is anyone out there reading this stuff, you will no doubt have noticed that I haven't really written anything here for a long time (over a year – and that was a one-off after a four and a half year absence.) I think perhaps some of the problem with a blog is the need to find a focus for it. You'll look back and see that this one started as a place where I could expound on the many issues of Doctor Who continuity. And yes, I got a lot of that off my chest in the early days – but then there wasn't so much more to write about. It's more likely that a specific continuity matter would be discussed and debated on my Facebook group, without the need arising to lay down my definitive thoughts on the issue here.

So I tried a reinvention: the “Anderthon”. Do you remember that? It dominated 2011. But then that dried up the following year. I always meant to get back to it, but then the death of Gerry Anderson put a bit of a dampener on the whole thing, and I felt less comfortable about criticizing the man and his work. So it all kind of fell by the wayside. It's not that I stopped watching the Anderson shows, I just didn't want to be writing “witty” capsule reviews of them any more. There are still things I might want to say about them though, just not necessarily in that context.

And that takes me back to the original fundamental question: what is the blog for? There are things I want to say, thoughts I want to express in words. For my own satisfaction really. But they don't have to be about Doctor Who or Supermarionation or tied to any particular theme really. So what I want to do is wipe the slate clean, as it were, and say this blog isn't about anything particular. Just whatever is exercising my mind at any one time. Sometimes these might be reactions to actual events. Sometimes they might be about things long past that have only just occurred to me. Just freeform ramblings really, without the need to tie them to a particular theme or direction – because interests and enthusiasms change. I may even find myself contradicting previous entries, because opinions too can alter with time. So this blog becomes an exercise in documenting the state of my mind over time – God help us!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Doctor Who and the Facts of Inaccuracy

Those of you who know me well must realize that I can be at times a man of the most trivial and petty obsessions, and it's just such a thing that's been exercising me lately. It's a very, very minor and unimportant piece of Doctor Who trivia, but it's been reported incorrectly and now the inaccuracy has spread across numerous sites on the internet.

This story actually starts in 1974, but for me, it goes back to 2005, and it's then I'm going to start this strange tale. BBC Audio released Doctor Who at the BBC Volume 3, and its major selling point was a previously unreleased mini-drama featuring Jon Pertwee and Lis Sladen. Needless to say, I listened to this eagerly to try and ascertain where it might fit into continuity. But the fact is, eleven years later, I still haven't added it to “The Complete Adventures”. Why not? Well, it's made quite clear that this “mini-drama” was actually a series of audio inserts made to accompany a personal appearance Sladen made for a public event at Goodwood – which to my mind, put it in the same category as Hartnell opening that air show in the sixties, or Tom Baker visiting childrens' hospitals in character – I don't try to fit those into continuity either, they're just part of the publicity machine.

And that's probably where I would have left it if two things hadn't happened recently. Firstly, BBC South Today released some clips of their coverage of the event from 1974. It was fun to finally be able to put some images behind the soundtrack, and also to learn that, in addition to the Daleks and Aggedor, one of the Metebelis spiders was present at the event (she wasn't mentioned in the audio inserts.) It also pretty much confirmed my original interpretation of the soundtrack – that it was played over the tannoy to give some context to the live event which was being staged on the day, with Sladen effectively miming to her pre-recorded dialogue.

 The second thing that happened was that a member of my “Complete Adventures” Facebook group asked me why I hadn't included the story. And though my reasons for excluding it probably haven't changed since 2005, I'm prepared to concede that the release of the news clips coupled with the existence of the audio inserts might give it a bit more permanence and legitimacy than other in-character personal appearances might possess. So I might be re-considering some time soon – I've already come up with a theory about how this story might fit into continuity – but that's not what this article is about.

No, what intrigued me was that my correspondent referred to this little piece of ephemera as “the Third Doctor audio drama Glorious Goodwood”. For the reasons I've outlined above, I'd dispute that you could call this an audio drama, but what really leaped out at me was that title. Where had it come from? Glorious Goodwood is the popular name for the annual flat racing festival held at Goodwood Racecourse in late Summer. I hadn't supposed that the Doctor Who event had any connection with the Racecourse, but had taken place at the Goodwood Motor Circuit, a motor racing venue a couple of miles to the South. I mean, pretty obviously, you wouldn't drive the Whomobile around a horse racing track, especially not one of the world's most prestigious. You certainly wouldn't fight Daleks and blow up giant spiders there. The dialogue also makes it pretty clear: Sarah says she's going to take the Whomobile for “another spin around the circuit”, and there are several references to British Leyland (even the Daleks identify them as the organizers of the event!) and Stirling Moss. It's obviously a motor show, and you wouldn't hold a motor show at a racecourse.

So it was a bit surprising to find that the back of the Doctor Who at the BBC CD said the mini-drama was “specially recorded for Glorious Goodwood in 1974”. The track listing meanwhlle calls it “Personal appearance at Goodwood Races”, although the booklet is a bit more vague saying “although it's not clear at which particular event our item was recorded, the reference to 'Glorious Goodwood' suggests that it was part of the famous five-day festival held at the end of July “. Lis Sladen even says in her links that the inserts were for a public appearance at Goodwood Racecourse. So that would seem to settle the matter – you'd think if anyone would know, it would be someone who was actually there.

But I just couldn't reconcile that with my previous observations that the event must have been staged at the Motor Circuit. These pictures from the South Today report are clearly showing a motor track.

I'll be generous and assume that Lis Sladen simply didn't remember the precise details after thirty-odd years, and was happy to go along with what was written in the script for her links – presumably written by the disc producer Michael Stevens, who also seems to have done the blurb in the booklet. And I think he's misunderstood the dialogue and jumped to an erroneous conclusion. Now, it is true that when Sarah phones the Doctor in the audio insert, she says she's calling from “glorious Goodwood” – but she says it with something of a smile in her voice. To me, it's obviously just a jokey reference to the fact that the word glorious often precedes the name Goodwood, not a definitive indicator of where she is.

I did a bit of digging around online, and I found a 2008 post on a motor racing forum, discussing the upcoming Goodwood Festival of Speed, in which the poster casually mentioned that he'd been to Goodwood Circuit previously in 1974 and had fought the Daleks then. Prompted for further information, he'd explained that he was in the Royal Military Police in 1974, and the Commandant had been approached to provide a couple of teams of armed soldiers and vehicles to appear in a Doctor Who production at the circuit. This absolutely confirmed the thing for me. The RMP were stationed in those days at Rousillon Barracks in the North of Chicester, literally a stone's throw from the Goodwood Circuit. (I wouldn't say the poster was 100 percent reliable, since he believed that he'd been taking part in an actual tv episode – and that Tom Baker had been the Doctor at the time and present at the filming – but again, three decades had passed, and memories can get a bit jumbled. He might be recalling the South Today news cameras, and misremembering the rest. But he's unlikely to have forgotten being in the Royal Military Police, and as I say they would absolutely be the nearest unit who could have been called upon by the event organizers.)

I asked on Gallifreybase if anyone could confirm or deny my conclusions, and the ever-knowledgeable Richard Bignell came to my rescue. He even provided me with an advertising poster that confirmed the event was at the Goodwood Motor Circuit, and was indeed a British Leyland Test Day – and it would seem that the legendary driver Stirling Moss was also present, which explains Sarah's throwaway reference to him. It even confirms the date of the event as 18th May 1974, the same day Planet of the Spiders part three was broadcast, and a good couple of months before the Glorious Goodwood festival.

So all this seems pretty conclusive. I still couldn't work out how this thing had somehow acquired the title Glorious Goodwood, so I did some more googling, and found several references. There's an entry for the thing on the DiscContinuity Guide website, which covers audio adventures. There are several reviews and blog entries about it, all of them calling it Glorious Goodwood and describing it as an audio adventure or a radio story. And pretty much all of them assert that the events take place at Goodwood Racecourse, some even suggesting the date of July. I think eventually I traced this back to its source when I found the article for the story on the Tardis Wiki. On the article's “Talk” section, the page's creator explains that “the mini-episode was untitled so I've created an article under the title of the programme, as I did with Tonight's the Night.” OK then, I can understand what he did there. The trouble is, of course, that the audio inserts were not broadcast as part of a programme (either radio or tv) called Glorious Goodwood. I think he's taken the CD liner notes assertion that it was “specially recorded for Glorious Goodwood in 1974” a bit too literally. The other websites I've mentioned have just picked up this retronym, and so it propagates itself across the web. Since we now know what event this production was mounted for, if anything, it ought to be titled “Hares Goodwood British Leyland Test Day”, which doesn't exactly fly off the tongue.

The body of the article tells us that:
Glorious Goodwood was a BBC Radio Story.”
“The episode was created in conjunction with an appearance at Goodwood Racecourse in West Sussex and was apparently to have been played at the venue itself.”
“The untitled mini-episode was never broadcast.”

...all of which we can now disprove. (It's not a radio story, it was at Goodwood Motor Circuit, and it was indeed broadcast exactly as intended – by being played over the tannoy at the event – you can even hear it in the background during the South Today footage .)

The wiki article includes a plot synopsis, which repeats that it takes place at Goodwood Racecourse. And also asserts that “the US Cavalry arrives to help defeat the Daleks”. Which is a surprise. Again, I think this is an over-literal interpretation of Sarah's line where she's waiting for help to arrive, and calls out desperately: “Come on, the US Cavalry, wherever you are!” Again, like the initial “glorious Goodwood” comment, I read it as a jokey reference, in this case to the tropes of Westerns, where the Cavalry sweep in to save the day. The RMP officers playing the soldiers I would suggest are more likely to be playing British or even UNIT troops. (In the South Today interview, Lis and the reporter only refer to the army arriving in the nick of time.) Still, I deal with the minutiae of Doctor Who continuity all the time, and one of the things I'm constantly banging my head against is fans taking everything ever said in the series literally, every line of dialogue as a statement of absolute fact.

Well, armed with all this information, I wondered what should I do? I thought I could go and edit the page on the Tardis Wiki, but as soon as I looked at it, I realized that “Goodwood Racecourse” was a clickable link that opened its own article, stating that Sarah Jane encountered the Daleks there and defeated them with the help of the US Cavalry. And “US Cavalry” lead to another article about them, which only stated that they helped Sarah defeat the Daleks at Goodwood Racecourse. And so on. And of course, the events are described again in the article on Sarah Jane Smith, and probably on the one for the Daleks. (I'd stopped looking by then.) Even on this one fan wiki, the inaccurate information has started to spread itself into several articles, all backing each other up. You'd have to edit, delete, retitle, move several articles – and even then, would you catch it all? And was it really worth the effort for eight minutes of audio nonsense that most fans probably will never listen to?

Of course it wasn't. And anyway, even if I did all that, I couldn't change all the other websites out there that are already quoting the wrong information. It's too late, the genie's out of the bottle. Even the actual Wikipedia contains the following note at the end of its article on Goodwood Racecourse: “See Also: Doctor Who at the BBC, a series of Doctor Who releases, which included an audio adventure entitled Glorious Goodwood, set at a Goodwood race, featuring Elisabeth Sladen and Jon Pertwee”. Which is both inaccurate, and really not very relevant to an article on a famous racecourse.

So why am I so wound up about all this? I'm not blaming someone for having originally made a mistake. I'm just annoyed that the mistake has been taken up and repeated across the internet when some basic checking could have laid it to rest. With a few simple and verifiable assumptions, some logical deductions, and about thirty minutes of research, I was able to get at the truth of the matter. If I could do it, then so could (and should) everyone else. Does it really matter in the scheme of things? Probably not, but if this exceptionally insignificant error can be perpetuated across numerous web sources, what guarantee do we have that actual important news and information is being quoted and reported truthfully? And that's the worry.

Small update: January 2018
I see the Tardis wiki page was eventually updated based on my research here, by someone who clearly had more patience than me.  Well done!  It's just a pity that the title can't be changed too -  or the mass conglomeration of misinformation everywhere else on the Web.  Meanwhile, the event is now listed in The Complete Adventures under its proper name!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Anderthon: Fireball XL5 episodes 25-28

The Forbidden Planet

2062 is interplanetary astronomical year, and in preparation all the scientists of the “neutral planets” have been working on a great new project. (And straightaway, it seems, they're still just making this stuff up as they go along, as we've suddenly got a new political grouping to swallow – wonder what happened to the “United Planets”...?) The project is a space observatory, a space station from which they hope to look further into the universe than ever before – which seems like a cool idea, prefiguring things like the Hubble Telescope. But unlike that, this isn't an automated machine in planetary orbit – it's a manned station far out by itself in space. (At least several hours flying time for Fireball XL5, as we'll discover later in the episode.) And yet, despite the contributions of all the neutral planets, the observatory is manned only by Earthmen: Professor Matic and a Dr. Stamp. The interior of the space station is rather spacious for just the two of them, but the control room also doubles as a tv studio, with automated cameras filming their work and beaming a special broadcast back to viewers across the neutral planets. Back on Earth, Venus is tuning in with Steve and Commander Zero. Steve has a very low opinion of television (which is a bit like biting the hand that feeds!) – but Venus seems to approve of the medium, saying that the programmes have a lot of educational worth, and that Steve only ever bothers to watch the interplanetary ball games. (A throwaway line that hints at great social developments in the galaxy – we've got political affiliations and now even sports leagues – a far cry from the parochial patrols of local space and occasional contacts with aliens that we saw in the earlier episodes. In a modern series, this stuff would be part of a great world-building story arc.  Here it just seems like random inconsistency.) Unfortunately, the picture breaks down just as Matt is unveiling their latest scientific breakthrough to the watching audience. Whilst the tv company try to get the picture back, they stick on an episode of Four Feather Falls as a stopgap. Steve though is worried about the loss of contact, and decides to take Fireball XL5 to the space observatory to find out what happened.

What happened is that Matt and Dr Stamp used a new long range device called an ultrascope to observe Nutopia, the so-called “perfect planet” – which they point out has never been seen before by anyone in “all the universes”. (How many do they think there are, then? And how do they know Nutopia is so perfect if no one's ever seen it?) On Nutopia, the observation is detected, and the Nutopians use an ultrascope of their own to look back at them. As with so many worlds before, the entire planet seems to have a population of two – human-looking but with exaggerated characteristics. Perfectos has a monk's tonsure, whereas his superior Privator (the Guardian of Nutopia) has a pointy nose. They are outraged that the Earthmen have been spying on their world, which no one can be allowed to do and live. Their secret weapon is something called the protector ray, which they beam at the observatory and render Matt and Dr Stamp unconscious. Then they use a travel transmitter – what you or I would call a teleporter – to travel to the observatory and bring the scientists back as prisoners. (Interestingly, the ultrascope device allows instantaneous viewing across vast interstellar distances, but the travel transmitter is a bit slower – though still faster than the speed of light, of course – and allows the subject to remain conscious and aware of the sensation of motion through space. They're also rendered invisible, which Privator says is “convenient” as it allows them to travel around space without being seen.) The Nutopians keep Matt and Dr Stamp in a glass case labelled as a specimen jar. Meanwhile, Fireball arrives at the observatory, and Steve and Venus space walk across – which makes me wonder why on Earth you'd build a space station that didn't have the capacity for a spaceship to dock with it! Inside, Steve and Venus are waylaid by the image of Privator on the monitor screen, who explains to them exactly what the great secret of Nutopia is: they possess eternal life.  Why blab it so readily?  Well, it seems that he's just keeping them talking until Perfectos can beam in and take them prisoner as well.

The presence on Nutopia of the “beautiful Earth woman” Venus causes some distraction. Privator and Perfectos discuss the fact that there are no females on Nutopia – it's implied that this was a deliberate choice in the creation of their perfect world. (I'm not sure what that says about the gender politics of the time!) I suppose if they have eternal life, they don't need women around for reproductive purposes. Nevertheless, Perfectos visits Venus and says that he will allow the others to go free if she will stay and be his bride. He has to hastily mumble an excuse when Privator catches them together – but as soon as Perfectos has gone, Privator makes Venus the exact same offer! Perfectos overhears however, and there's nothing for it but for the two of them to fight a duel over Venus. And this is where the absence of other inhabitants on the planet really shows itself up – for they have to get Steve to act as umpire of the duel. He switches the ammunition in their guns for some sort of knockout drug – and while the two Nutopians are unconscious, the prisoners escape. They use the travel transmitter to return to the space observatory – but Matt has to guess how to operate the machine, and manages to leave it on overload. By the time Perfectos and Privator get back to their control room, the transmitter explodes, showering them in debris. (But does this put paid to them? I can't believe they wouldn't have another transmitter or the ability to rebuild it? Will they come seeking revenge against the Earthmen? Isn't their secret now out? There's a lot of loose ends here...)

The Granatoid Tanks

Planet 73 is being checked out for colonization by a small scientific research party consisting of Professor Becker and his assistant Zamson. Everything seems to be fine, and they're going to recommend the planet – when suddenly Zamson notices the instruments are detecting something moving on the other side of the planet, which as the planet is supposed to be uninhabited, is something of a surprise. What's causing the disturbance is a phalanx of heavily-armoured tanks advancing inexorably on the research station – they've got some serious cannon on them and amusingly, two radio aerials on each tank that wave around like deely-boppers! Professor Becker recognizes the tanks at once as belonging to the Granatoids, a race of robots out to conquer everything in their path. For such a terrible threat, the Granatoids are rather silly-looking robots with square heads and moulded caricature human features – and their leader has a head shaped a bit like a crown. (They also speak exactly like Robert!) They are virtually unstoppable – the only thing that has an effect on them is the mineral Plyton, which acts to repel the Granatoids in some unspecified way. Of course, there's none to be found on Planet 73, so the scientists are forced to call Space City for an evacuation. (And again, I have to reflect upon the wisdom of leaving people stuck out in deep space, in potentially hazardous situations, without their own means of escape.)

Back on Earth, Steve and Matt have gone to Space City's shopping arcade. It's Venus's birthday tomorrow, and they're after a present. They visit a music shop run by Ma Doughty, a little middle-aged Irish woman. The shop makes no effort whatsoever to be anything other than a 1960s record emporium. They're not buying downloads for their ipods. No, my suspicions are confirmed: Ma Doughty is selling 12 inch records in card sleeves. There's even a listening booth into which Steve and Matt can listen to the latest disc before deciding to buy. The record in question is a rather cool Dave Brubeck-style jazz piece. Also in the shop is a massive keyboard-based musical instrument, which Matt calls an electrorchestra – it can simulate the sounds of all the instruments of the orchestra, enabling one person to play all the parts of a composition himself. (I suppose we'd just call that a synthesizer these days – as such a thing had hardly been invented in 1962, I'll forgive them for making up a silly name for it – it seems a bit of a shame though that they didn't realize the electronics would make such a thing small and portable, rather than the size of a church organ!) Matt proves to be adept at tinkling the ivories as he sits down to bash out a tune. Steve is impressed, and decides to buy the electrorchestra for Venus. Ma Doughty says she'll have it delivered tomorrow. Ma, it turns out, is always pestering Steve about wanting to take a trip into space – her father was one of the first ever astronauts, it seems, and she's always wanted to honour his memory by following in his footsteps. This is a well-worn argument for Steve, who tells her again that it's simply not possible for her to go for a trip in Fireball XL5. At that moment, Commander Zero's voice booms from a tannoy, announcing that the Granatoids are attacking Planet 73 and calling Fireball's crew to launch stations immediately. There's some nice throwaway bits of sci-fi world-building here, as the characters talk of the Granatoids as a past enemy that they'd hoped they'd seen the last of. It helps to give a sense of depth and history to the story, rather than just making the Granatoids seem like this week's random hostile aliens. Ma Doughty says that her father told her all about the Granatoids – so it would seem that the earliest space travellers came into conflict with them – and that she didn't need to be afraid of them. She also mentions that her father gave her the necklace of rather roughly-hewn stones that she wears. I think I can see where this is going.

Fireball XL5 takes off for Planet 73. Matt works on building a gadget that might be able to simulate the effects of Plyton on the Granatoids. Meanwhile, Venus checks the hold, where she discovers the crate containing the electrorchestra – but when opened, it actually contains Ma Doughty, who's taken the opportunity to smuggle herself on board and finally get her trip into space. Needless to say, Steve is not best pleased. When they arrive on Planet 73, he confines Ma to the lounge. Outside, there are clouds of dust looming on the horizon as the Granatoid tanks approach rapidly. Matt tries to deploy his gadget, which proves to have no effect on the Granatoids whatsoever. By this time, the tanks have surrounded the research station, and they find themselves cut them off from Fireball. But as all seems lost, Ma Doughty emerges from the ship (through a hatch in the side I don't think we've seen before – she has to climb down a rope ladder) – and tells the Granatoids to leave the planet in peace. Her necklace glows with an inner light, and the robots retreat. It's not a surprise when Matt discovers that the necklace is made from Plyton. Back on Earth, the crew take over the Space City control room to throw a birthday party for Venus. Somehow they even bring the electrorchestra for Matt to play, despite the fact it's far too large to get it in the lift...

Dangerous Cargo

Fireball XL5 calls in at Pharos, the “derelict planet”. It's the site of a Ciluvium mine, now worked out and abandoned. We're told that the mine was built and worked by robot miners in 1998 – which doesn't explain why it looks like an old Western town, with run-down wooden shacks. The planet is so riddled with mine shafts that it's literally falling apart. The ground is continually caving in, and structures collapsing. Steve and Venus land in Fireball Junior, and take a look around on their jetmobiles. It's clear that the planet could break up at any moment, so Steve is going to recommend to Commander Zero that it be destroyed as a hazard to navigation – which is sad for Venus, who discovers some beautiful flowers growing amid the rocks. However, there are a couple of random aliens secretly watching them, who seem to have some sort of grudge against Steve Zodiac. (It's not really explained – though obviously Steve has pissed off any number of aliens during the course of his adventures! The lack of any proper motivation is just lazy writing here – especially coming after last week when a few well-chosen lines filled in a bit of background history to the Granatoids). The aliens plan to wait until Steve returns, and then take their revenge upon him. Back at Space City, Zoonie has been left to wander around unsupervised. (Venus mentions that Commander Zero is supposed to be looking after him, but I guess he's a busy guy...) Zoonie manages to get into the city's power plant. Incredibly, there are no guards (and, it would seem, no locks) on the doors, and no one working inside, so there's nothing to stop the lazoon getting inside and tampering with the controls. When Zoonie overloads the power output, the control tower starts to speed up its revolutions, eventually careening around like some crazy fairground ride and leaving Zero and Ninety pinned down by centrifugal force! As you'd imagine, the Commander is not pleased with the lazoon, and wants him out of his sight.

Steve reports the condition of Pharos to Commander Zero, who agrees that the planet should be destroyed. It's too close to the space freight routes from them to use normal missiles, as it would take years to clear the resultant debris. The only option therefore is to completely vaporize the planet, using an explosive called Visevium 9. This is a ridiculously-volatile substance, which is delivered to the launch site inside a large packing case that's winched aboard Fireball. It's stored in Matt's lab, which causes the poor Professor some consternation, as he's afraid of even the slightest jolt that might set it off. Meanwhile, Venus has the problem of what to do with Zoonie. Since she can't leave him with the Commander again, Steve agrees that she can bring him aboard Fireball, but only if the lazoon is confined to the space jail. (Though once they arrive on Pharos, he relents and lets Zoonie out, although insists he remain confined to Fireball.) Steve and Matt take the Visevium into one of the old mine shafts, where Matt works to assemble a bomb. With an hour to go until detonation, the aliens use a large boulder to seal the entrance to the mine shaft, trapping Steve, Venus and Matt inside. The bomb has already been activated, and there's nothing they can do now to stop it detonating. They'll all be killed. (Honestly, do these people never think about safety measures?) The aliens meanwhile scarper in their own spaceship, and that's the last we see of them in the episode – wonder if we'll see a rematch? Steve suddenly thinks about calling Robert on the radio to come and help them, but even the robot can't shift the boulder. What they don't realize is that Zoonie followed Robert outside, and goes off into the rocks to pick some of the flowers Venus admired earlier. Steve tries one last desperate thing – removing the power pack from his ray gun and overloading it to blast the boulder to fragments – despite the risk that an explosion in such close proximity might set off the Visevium early. Fortunately, it succeeds and they get back to Fireball with just seconds to spare. It's then that Venus discovers Zoonie is not on board. He must have been destroyed on the planet. Hearing the news, even Commander Zero is upset and regrets his earlier harsh treatment of the lazoon. But in Fireball's lounge, as everyone is mourning Zoonie, they suddenly find him asleep behind the couch, with one of the flowers he's picked for Venus. All I can say to that is: Venus couldn't have looked for him very hard before jumping to the worst conclusion!


Matt Matic has sealed himself away in his workshop for days, with only Robert for company, while he works on some new invention. The whole thing is played like a surgical procedure, with Robert handing Matt the tools as he requests them – cue some heavy-handed slapstick moments with hammers dropped on feet, and so on. Security seems to have been stepped up in Space City, maybe as a result of events last week – there’s now a security guard patrolling on a jetmobile, checking on the outlying buildings. (Despite his futuristic uniform, he’s written and played as the stereotypical Irish cop familiar from US police dramas of the period.) Anyway, what’s Matt been working on? That's what Venus would like to know – she's got Steve and Commander Zero round for dinner, but Matt never bothered to turn up – his dinner's still in the “atom oven”. (There they are again, thinking that atomic equates to futuristic – I've no problem with Space City being powered by atomic energy, but what that does is generate electricity, which you'd use to power your oven in the normal way – it's hard to imagine an oven directly powered by its own nuclear reactor, which seems ridiculously wasteful and dangerous.)

Matt's invention is finished – and it's a time machine. It has a large control panel, with a dial that can select specific years, and a glass booth into which the time traveller is placed. Matt decides to test it by sending Robert back to the year 1875, where he arrives in a Wild West town. (Interesting that there appears to be a movement in space as well as time – since we've previously established that Space City is on an island in the Pacific...) I'm prepared to forgive this, though, since it gives the producers the chance to revisit the milieu of Four Feather Falls – and indeed, this is all a very familiar setting, complete with puppet horses tied up outside the saloon, and harmonica music coming from the town jail. Playing the instrument is Deputy Dodgem. He decides that he wants some coffee, and is rather startled by the appearance of Robert from the back room with a coffee pot. The Deputy thinks the robot must be a ghost, and locks himself in his own jail cell. Around this time, Matt decides to bring Robert back, and the robot fades away to reappear in the time machine's booth. The time machine seems to work by projecting the subject into the past – certainly no part of the machine actually travels there – so the fact that Matt can subsequently retrieve his subject suggests to me that the machine could also be used to snatch people from the past. The fact that Robert returns still carrying a coffee pot from 1875 might seem to support this hypothesis. But I'll return to this theme later. Matt locks up his lab and leaves the key with Lieutenant Ninety, telling him the lab is not to be opened until the assessors from the interplanetary patents committee arrive in the morning – which is an amusing twist. I can't imagine anyone inventing time travel in any other series, and their first concern being to secure the intellectual property and commercial exploitation rights – although it strikes me as what would probably happen in the real world. A neat touch by the writer.

Overcome by curiosity, Commander Zero demands that Ninety hand over the key to the lab. He goes with Steve and Venus to investigate, fearing that Matt has been wasting public money on some useless invention. Unable to work out what the machine is, the three of them enter the glass booth. The only trouble is that Zoonie has followed them into the lab, and starts fiddling with the controls. This isn't going to end well... Sure enough, the three interlopers are dematerialized. The process of time travel is depicted from their point of view as a sensation of travelling through the stars whilst intangible and invisible (which is so similar to the way they were transported by the Nutopians, I found it rather disappointing). But then something strange happens. When he arrives in the Western town, Steve is dressed as a cowboy and doesn't remember anything about being a space pilot from the future. Seeing that the town is in need of a sheriff, he takes the vacant position. Meanwhile, Venus and Zero have arrived at an encampment some way from the town and believe themselves to be a couple of bandits, keen to hit the town while it has no resident sheriff. (So the people going back don't realize they're from the future – it's a very odd take on the time travel concept. I wonder if it's what Matt intended.) Sheriff Zodiac discusses his new responsibilities with the Deputy and Doc, who runs the town bank – unaware that Frenchie Lil and Zero are already breaking in. They use dynamite to blow open the safe, and then capture Steve and his friends when they come to investigate, locking them up in their own jail. Meeting Lil stirs a strange memory in Steve, who suddenly feels that he knows her... But before anything can come of that, Zero knocks Lil out and escapes the town with the loot – which is only fair enough, since Lil had been planning to double cross Zero too!

Back in 2062, Lieutenant Ninety wakes Matt and tells him that the others went to his lab, and have now vanished. Matt rushes to the time machine – but Zoonie has fiddled with the controls and changed the year setting to 1066, so Matt can't be sure where they've ended up. I was expecting a trip to the Battle of Hastings, but Matt decides to gamble that the machine was on its original setting of 1875 when the others left. He manages to retrieve Steve and Commander Zero, who come back to the present in their WSP uniforms, with only the vaguest memories of what's been happening to them. But Matt can't seem to retrieve Venus, and surmises that she must be unconscious. (So perhaps the machine can home in the subject's brain waves.) He tries to turn up the gain to find Venus, running the time machine to overload – and manages to extract Venus just moments before she would be caught in a second dynamite explosion! But the strain is too much for the time machine, which blows itself up. Then the two assessors from the patent office turn up, and appear to be Doc and Deputy Dodgem! They seem to feel that they've met Steve and co before – a very long time ago, Steve tells them. I'm not really sure what this ending is supposed to mean. I suppose, theoretically, they could be descendants of the original Doc and Dodgem, but why would they remember Steve? This, as well as the odd and inconsistent way in which the time travel process seems to work, suggests to me that the writer hasn't really thought it all through. (I suspect they wanted to do a Western, and weren't too bothered about the question of how it was going to work.) I'm also wondering, now that they've invented time travel, whether they'll be using it again in future episodes...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Anderthon: Welcome Home...

Fireball XL5
episodes 21-24

Flight to Danger

The episode opens with Fireball XL5 executing a series of erratic manoeuvres. But it’s alright, nothing’s gone wrong this time: the ship is being piloted by Lieutenant Ninety (under Steve’s tutelage) – it’s part of his training towards earning his astronaut’s wings. We learn that this is Commander Zero’s idea – but interestingly, he’s not really seeking to sponsor his assistant’s advancement in the organization; rather, he believes that Ninety will be better able to function as a flight controller if he understands the spaceships from the astronauts’ point of view. Zero in fact has less confidence in Ninety than Steve has: there are three main tests that the trainee astronaut has to complete, the first of which is to successfully land the ship. Zero doesn’t believe the Lieutenant is ready yet, but Steve decides to let him go for it. Despite a few hairy moments and some wobbly steering, Ninety manages to bring Fireball in to land on the apron amid the usual clouds of exhaust smoke. The next test is to successfully launch the ship (which it seems to me ought to be easier than the landing – you’ve just got to sit back and let the rocket sled shoot you along the track – although remembering the time Lieutenant Ross failed to get XL1 Alpha into the air, perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that…) Anyway, Lieutenant Ninety successfully gets XL5 off the ground, and Commander Zero agrees that they can press on with the final test. This is the true challenge: a solo flight around the Moon in a one-man capsule. On the night before the launch, the Fireball crew hold a party for Lieutenant Ninety at Venus’s beach house – juxtaposed with scenes of Commander Zero sitting alone in the darkened control tower, stoked up on coffee and fags like a late night radio talk show host. It’s a lovely character moment, once again stripping away some the aura of the commanding officer to show him as a human being, worried about his subordinate in a way he could never admit to in public. When Ninety’s rocket launches the next day, Fireball XL5 takes off to track the capsule on its journey. Unfortunately during the flight, a component breaks away from its mounting inside Ninety’s capsule – thanks to a label on its side, we know this is a nuclear reactor. (In the real world, nuclear reactors probably don’t come so handily labelled, but overly precise and demonstrative signage is one of the endearing charms of the Andersons’ world.) I also doubt that a real nuclear reactor would be the size of the small canister depicted here – and given that the nuclear industry is subject to the most rigorous safety regulations in the world, it’s unlikely it would be attached to the wall of a spaceship by a couple of clips, nor that it would be positioned precisely so that it could fall into a reservoir of highly volatile fuel – nor that this potential disaster area would be separated from Lieutenant Ninety’s cabin by a thin wall. They’re just looking for a tragedy to happen!

As the capsule passes behind the Moon, radio contact with Lieutenant Ninety is temporarily cut off. (Hey look, a bit of accurate science. You see, they can do it…) When he comes back into contact, Ninety reports that the capsule is overheating. The heat from the fallen reactor has ignited the fuel – before long, flames are lapping around the cabin. Steve asks Matt what could have happened, Matt can only conclude that the nuclear reactor must have broken loose. (The fact that Matt can instantly think of it suggests to me that the reactor’s dodgy connections have already been identified as a potential design flaw – which only makes me ask why they haven’t already done something about it. There’s something prophetic about this though – I’m unfortunately reminded of the way NASA ignored the potential problem with the o-ring seals in the space shuttle’s booster rockets.) Fireball XL5 rushes to the rescue, but it’s a real race against time – and incredibly, actually ends in disaster: the capsule blows up before XL5 can reach it. Since you expect a nick of time rescue in this kind of show, it’s actually quite shocking. The Fireball crew are stunned by the tragedy – but no one is as badly affected as Commander Zero, left alone in the control tower to mourn “the best assistant I ever had”. You have to wonder also whether he’s feeling guilt since he was the one who put Ninety forward for the astronaut training. What none of our heroes realizes is that Lieutenant Ninety is still alive, having managed to eject from his capsule at the last moment. It’s only a temporary respite however, as he’s got no way of contacting the others and only has one oxygen pill left. (Though I would probably imagine that a slow slide into oblivion due to oxygen starvation is preferable to being burnt alive or blown up.) In his final moments of consciousness, Ninety reflects fatalistically on his situation in a sequence that’s surprisingly mature for this kids’ series. Meanwhile, Matt detects an unusual reading on the “spacemograph” and, despite their dejection, Steve determines that they still have their duty to do and sets off to investigate. Just as well, for the mysterious blip is none other than Ninety’s unconscious body. As Steve rushes to recover him, we rather neatly fade into the Lieutenant recovering in hospital. As everyone gathers around him, excited by his miraculous escape, all Ninety can focus on is the set of astronaut’s wings that Commander Zero presents him. This is almost a “bottle episode”, featuring only the regular cast and mostly the existing sets and effects. It’s also brilliantly effective – probably the single best episode so far – exploring facets of our characters (particularly Zero and Ninety) that we don’t normally see amid the usual gung-ho alien encounters. Terrific stuff!

Space Vacation

The planets Kemble and Olympus are ridiculously close together – to the extent that Kemble fills half the sky of Olympus and surface features can be made out in precise detail. If they’re really that close, then they have to be a twin planet system sharing the same orbit, and revolving around a common centre of gravity – as indeed the Earth and the Moon do – and yet the Moon is so small in the sky that you can cover it with your extended thumb. Despite that, the Moon exerts enough gravitational pull on the Earth to cause our ocean tides – so at the distances we see here, I’d expect Kemble and Olympus to be literally pulling each other apart… It’s also interesting that two worlds in the same orbit are so different: Olympus being a verdant paradise, while Kemble is a barren, rocky hellhole racked by lightning storms and earthquakes. This dichotomy works well for the sake of the script though, which sets up the two worlds to be polar opposites of each other. This even extends to the inhabitants: both species have the same sculpted faces with prominent cheekbones, but the inhabitants of Kemble are dark haired and sinister, whilst those of Olympus are white haired and saintly-looking. The people of Kemble live in underground shelters since their world is so awful – their leader Canarik is due to go to Olympus soon for peace talks – but he announces to his (unseen) people that his real plan is to take control of Olympus and migrate his people there. On Olympus meanwhile, the leader Jankel is planning to assassinate Canarik with a bomb fixed to his chair at the official banquet. The voice of reason here is his son, Ergon, who points out that there’s plenty of room on the planet for both peoples to be able to live in harmony – but Jankel doesn’t trust Canarik and doesn’t want to take any chances. Into this fraught situation come the crew of Fireball XL5, who’ve selected Olympus as a holiday destination, after Steve flew past it once and thought it looked nice. (Astonishingly, Commander Zero allows them to use Fireball – an expensive piece of military hardware, after all – for their vacation.) As our heroes pack for the trip, we get predictably sexist jokes about the number of suitcases Venus wants to bring. Then they set off, dressed up like stereotyped American tourists in Hawaiian shirts.

On Olympus, they’re invited to the banquet, where Canarik presents Ergon with a gift (it’s his birthday apparently) – a bottle containing an “Elixir of Life”. (Amusingly, it comes with a nice printed label on it, as if it’s something mass-produced that you can just buy from the chemists on Kemble…) The Elixir is really the deadly “glansta” poison, and Ergon collapses into a coma. Thinking that he’s suffered an allergic reaction, Venus goes back to Fireball Junior to fetch some medicine – but she’s waylaid by Canarik, who kidnaps her and spirits her back to Kemble aboard his ship. He doesn’t want her being able to cure Ergon. So it appears his big plan to secure an invasion of Olympus is to murder the leader’s son – I’m not really sure how this is going to help him, especially seeing that Jankel is the hostile one, and Ergon would have been the more likely to have welcomed the people of Kemble. Jankel tries to make political capital out of the incident, saying how it proves Canarik cannot be trusted – at which point the chair he’d earlier directed Canarik to sit in blows up! Jankel pulls a ray gun and demands that Steve fly to Kemble to retrieve Venus and/or find an antidote – and just to make sure, he keeps Matt as a hostage. Initially, he starts out with the usual “if my son dies, the Professor dies” threat – but he eventually has Matt tied up to a chair facing a crossbow on a timer mechanism: three hours to go until he’s shot dead… Steve arrives on Kemble and explores the underground chambers – where he finds Venus chained to a wall. He sneaks up behind Canarik and drops a rock on his head – not a small rock either! (Luckily, he seems to have a thick skull. Equally luckily, none of Canarik’s people come out of their shelters to hinder Steve…) Quickly, Steve races back to Olympus with Venus, the captive Canarik and the antidote – just in time to save Matt from the crossbow. Once Ergon has recovered, Steve’s solution to the problems is basically to bang Jankel and Canarik’s heads together and tell them to sort it out between themselves. So negotiations proceed with the two leaders like squabbling kids, constantly inflicting practical jokes on each other (of the exploding cigar variety) – with Ergon threatening to call Fireball XL5 back whenever it looks like they can’t get along! This is an interesting episode, with a clever reversal of expectations as the apparently saintly Jankel turns out to be just as bad as Canarik. It suggests that some terrible past animosity between the two peoples has led to deep-seated hostilities, while Ergon represents a new generation moving beyond ethnic hatred and looking for a peaceful future. I also liked that Steve left them to find their own solution rather than imposing one by force – I hope it’s a sign of a new maturity for the characters and the show.

Mystery of the TA 2

Matt detects an unusual reading, so Steve decides to investigate: they find a piece of floating space junk which they deduce is part of an old WSP ship. Plotting its trajectory, Matt is able to work out where it must have come from – so they follow that course, and eventually find the wreckage of the TA 2, an old one-man patrol ship that vanished nearly fifty years ago. Although it’s battered and broken, it’s possible to see that the TA 2 is like a primitive version of the Fireball ship – a long cylindrical ship with the same large glass cockpit – so it’s nice to see that the modelmakers have bothered to extrapolate the design lineage back logically. Exploring the ship, Venus and Steve enter through a hatch, while Matt floats through one of the broken windows of the cockpit. Unfortunately, he didn’t warn the others of this, so he’s standing behind a door when Steve and Venus open it, sending the Professor shooting off into space! Matt’s taken his thruster pack off to explore, so he’s got no way to arrest his flight. Steve has to fly off after him – oddly, the way the scene is filmed, it looks like Matt comes to a halt and ends up floating some distance away, allowing Steve the chance to catch him up. (I’m not sure that was the intention though, so I won’t mark the show down for another science failure for this one.) There’s no trace of the TA 2’s pilot, Colonel Harry Denton, so Steve begins to wonder if he might have escaped the wreck and still be alive somewhere – even after all this time. Matt plots some more vectors, and deduces that the wreckage has come from the planet Arctan. They decide to follow the trail. Steve, Matt and Venus proceed down to the surface of Arctan in Fireball Junior. It’s a frozen planet, so they wrap up in furs, and split up to explore. Some kind of seismic activity opens up a crack in the ground, into which Venus falls. Later when Steve and Matt come back to meet up, they find Venus’s jetmobile abandoned and her footprints leading up to the edge of the crevasse, and figure that she must have fallen inside. They descend into the crack on their jetmobiles – but when they try to explore the cavern, gas pours out of a vent in the wall and renders them unconscious. Meanwhile, Commander Zero tries to contact Fireball XL5 to find out what’s keeping them, but only manages to get through to Zoonie who’s been left aboard the ship. The creature merely repeats his stock phrases – needless to say, the Commander isn’t too happy about it. (I’m not sure why Robert wasn’t able to answer the radio – he was sitting right next to the lazoon – mind you, his conversation doesn’t consist of much more than repeating the odd catchphrase either…)

Steve wakes up to find that he, Matt and Venus have been tied to stone slabs under a cave ceiling from which jagged icicles are hanging. Two aliens appear and proclaim that they know the Earthmen have come to take their king away, which seems an odd assumption to make. (As this point, I guessed where this story was going…) Steve denies the charge, but the aliens subject them to a trial – as their body heat melts the icicles, they will fall from the ceiling – should the icicles strike them, then their guilt will be revealed. (Which is a somewhat vague and crude concept on which to base a judicial system – especially as Matt has a particularly sharp-looking icicle right above his face! As he says, he’s going to be guilty!) The icicles start to fall, but the trial is interrupted by the arrival of the king, who demands the Earth people are released. The king is not one of the aliens’ own race – he’s clearly an elderly human, with a straggly beard down to his knees. The crew are freed just in time, Matt sitting up just as the icicle falls where his face would have been moments before. As you may have guessed, the king is the aged Colonel Denton. He’s pleased to talk to Steve and co about what life is like now on Earth, but he doesn’t want to leave with them. His life is now here on Arctan. As Junior departs though, Denton remarks wistfully how much he would have liked to return to Earth aboard XL5 – but he feels under a moral obligation to the Arctan people. They are like children, and he cannot leave them. (I’m not sure if he means he thinks of them like his own children, or if they’re so simple he feels he needs to stay and take care of them – their justice system might suggest the latter, but you have to wonder how the race managed to survive before Denton turned up. There’s an untold story here – of how Denton first came amongst the people of Arctan, and how he became their king, what he’s done for them in the last 50 years… What I like about this is the complexity, the hints of things that happened off the page – there’s a pleasing depth to the writing, something for the adult viewer to contemplate beneath the surface adventure.) Back on Earth, Zero chews the crew out for leaving Zoonie in charge of the main ship – and bans them from taking pets on future spaceflights – but seems to mellow a little as Zoonie bids him “Welcome home.”

Robert to the Rescue

The episode opens with a strange expanse of riveted metal sheets, which we eventually realize is part of an artificial planet – years before the Death Star! A spaceship approaches, piloted by two aliens with tall dome-shaped heads – and flies through a hatch into the metal world. Meanwhile in Space City, Professor Matic has built a new telescope, which he’s using to make astronomical observations. In a rather laboured comedy sequence, he initially thinks a giant lazoon is in orbit – but it turns out to be Zoonie looking into the aperture. Matt makes a real discovery however: a new planet that’s appeared in the solar system. He wonders if it might be named after him – but the control tower cannot detect the new world at all, and Commander Zero dismisses Matt’s claims. But when an unexpected solar eclipse occurs, it becomes clear that there really is something up there. Zero finds Matt breaking all the safety rules of solar observation by looking at the eclipse directly through his telescope – to make matters worse, the Commander’s soon peering through the eyepiece himself. (What a ridiculously irresponsible thing to show in a kids' programme…) Whatever the new planet is, it can’t be detected with Space City’s radar. Zero despatches Fireball XL5 to check it out. On the way, Steve and Venus take time out to discuss how Robert is single-mindedly obedient: give him an instruction, and he’ll keep going until he’s carried it out. (I suspect this observation may turn out to be important later on.) Arriving at the metal planet, they land Fireball Junior on the surface – but after a quick reconnaissance on their jetmobiles, Steve and Matt can’t find any way in. They take off again – but before Junior can rejoin the main ship, it’s pulled back down to the metal planet by some unexplained force. Retrorockets have no effect – but just when it seems they’re going to crash, a hatch opens in the side of the planet, and Junior disappears within – and vanishes from the radar screens in Space City. Inside the planet, Junior is floating within an eerie pitch black void, devoid of gravity. Steve, Matt and Venus explore with their thruster packs, and eventually locate a set of double doors in the void. This leads to a corridor with normal gravity – but once they’ve passed through that, they go through more doors into another void. After crossing another chamber, they eventually meet the two aliens, who announce that they hadn’t intended to encounter any humans, but now they’ve no choice but to take them prisoner. Steve reacts hostilely to the word prisoner, but finds his ray gun has been neutralized. (It’s not explained what the aliens are doing in our solar system – it seems an odd place to have brought their artificial planet if they wanted to avoid detection – but at the same time, they don’t seem to have any hostile or war-like intent. It’s all very strange…)

Matt calls the aliens “domeheads”, which seems rather personal – if not borderline racist! The aliens fetch Robert from Junior, and then declare that they’re going to make the crew part of their race. They take Venus and Matt away and strap them to a machine which erases their memory and will. (Again, there doesn’t seem to be any real malice in their actions – they’ve decided that, since they can’t let the Earthmen go, they’re going to absorb and integrate them into their society. There is something unsettling about seeing our heroes losing their own identities however.) Realizing he’s next, Steve quickly gives Robert an order: to take Junior and crew back home. The domeheads have no use for Robert, and have him tossed over a balcony onto a conveyor belt, which is feeding ore into a furnace. Robert – unable to do anything but obey Steve’s last order – tries desperately to escape, but his arm has been trapped under a huge chunk of ore. Meanwhile, Steve has been put in the aliens’ machine, and his mind wiped. Literally at the entrance to the furnace, Robert manages to pull himself free and climbs back up to find the crew. Steve, Matt and Venus no longer know each other, let alone what they’re doing there. When Robert re-appears, and tells them to follow him, they have to obey him, as they have no will of their own. (Rather neatly, they take on the same blind obedience that drives the robot.) Robert leads them back to Junior, telling them when to put their thruster packs back on. Eventually, Robert fires a missile to blow a hole in the side of the metal planet, and flies Junior out of there. With their minds empty, the crew are reduced to sitting on the floor, unaware of what’s going on. When the domeheads realize that their prisoners have gone, they also know that their memories will soon return once free of the metal planet – and decide they have no choice but to leave the solar system. So they take their artificial world off once again. We never do find out what they wanted. In a way, I find that more interesting than the usual plans for invasion or conquest – it makes the aliens seem strange, remote and incomprehensible – the sort of trick that Space: 1999 will pull off one day. The crew of Fireball recover their minds – but finding no trace of the new planet, Venus decides that they must all have been suffering from space hallucinations. It’s a clever reversal of the usual “all a bad dream” story. Even more subtle is the final shot, which closes in on Robert’s crushed and damaged arm – proof that it really did happen after all…

So, four cracking episodes – character studies, depth and layers of complexity. Has this series found its feet at last? I don’t know if it’s significant, but I note that three of these instalments were written by Dennis Spooner, one of the true greats of British television: he’ll soon become one of the most important writers on the early Doctor Who, and go on to create and write many of the ITC adventure series. (Although in the interests of fairness, I should point out that he also wrote the incoherent Space Pen episode.) But I’m certainly hopeful that this is a sign of things to come…