Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cold War: Diving For Dear Life, When We Could Be Diving For Pearls

The Ice Warriors of Mars first appeared in Doctor Who opposite Patrick Troughton's Doctor in 1967 in the eponymous six-part story written by the late Brian Hayles. A shameless homage to The Thing From Another World (1951) the story was one of the most fondly remembered of its era as were the Martian monsters themselves, one of a series of new menaces for The Doctor introduced to the series during a period when the production team were unable to use The Daleks due to reasons far too complicated to go into here. Unlike several of these, The Ice Warriors would return three times over the next seven years (firstly in the, not-particularly-special 1969 six-part The Seeds of Death, then in the witty and well-regarded 1972 political parable The Curse of Peladon and finally in it's less-successful 1974 sequel The Monster of Peladon, all of these written by Hayles). Since then, there have been numerous fan rumours concerning their return to the series - they've even been alluded to occasionally (as recently as a cut scene from the 2009 episode The Waters of Mars, for example). But, otherwise, they have remained, like The Yeti, The Krotons or The Drashigs, a part of the programme's distant 'classic era' past. Now, however, they're very much part of the present. Or, at least, 1983. Which is as close to the present as this episode gets.
'Is he that dangerous?' 'This one is.' It was probably inevitable that if there were ever to be a comeback to the series for The Ice Warriors it would be a rabid fanboy like Mark Gatiss who would be the writer to make it happen. The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat had originally been hesitant to bring back The Ice Warriors, being on public record as worrying that they were seen as 'the default condition for what people thought of as rubbish Doctor Who monsters - things that moved very, very slowly and spoke in a way that meant you couldn't hear a word they said.' A bit like The Cybermen only, you know, less shiny. Yer actual Gatiss his very self, however, was a major fan of the original Ice Warriors stories and had been campaigning to bring them back for a couple of years. Reportedly, it was during a 2012 telephone conversation with Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) which was actually supposed to be a discussion about the pair's other series, Sherlock, that Gatiss suddenly and without warning went off on a fanboy tangent and pitched some new and, reportedly, 'very clever' ideas about what to do with The Ice Warriors. Moffat, eventually, agreed. The submarine setting for the episode was also Gatiss's idea; executive producer Caroline Skinner would subsequently describe the story as 'letting a huge Ice Warrior loose at the heart of a classic Hunt For Red October style submarine movie.' Which, given the - freely admitted - lack of originality in the first Ice Warriors story has a nice circular aesthetic to it.

So, it's 1983 - the height of the Cold War (you know, it was a bit like the Cod War only with a touch more ... 'l'). The world is trembling behind the sofa about the threat immanent nuclear war but, more specifically, because Duran Duran are cluttering up the charts. It was the days of when protest records against Thatch were, generally, quite decent. Perhaps significantly, therefore, Professor Grisenko's love of eighties Brit-pop is distinctly Tory. 'It's the Eighties, everything's bigger!' The episode packs a lot into a small timescale (it's only just over forty minutes long). Thankfully, it avoids the problems of actors trying to do dreadful Russian accents by wholly ignoring them - and then, making that aspect a part of the episode's central plot. The political angle, such as it is, begins with a whiff of 'for the under fives' about it but then starts to develop into something much more substantial, particularly in such a talky episode as this. The Mutually Assured Destruction conversations and bluff and counter-bluff moments between The Doctor and Skaldak give the episode a depth which it didn't, initially look as though it was going to get. Add in it's - very obvious - Alien riffs, a nice cheeky continuity reference to The Curse of Peladon (The Doctor deciding that the situation doesn't warrant him 'pretending to be an Earth ambassador') and some nice characterisation work (especially in the scenes between Clara and Grisenko) and you've got something which is considerably more than the sum of its parts. This is, basically, Gatiss writing a love-letter to those Jon Pertwee episodes he loved as a kid where The Doctor tries talking his way out of a situation and, now and again, even manages it.
The guest cast for the episode is outstanding. In particular, it featured one of this blogger's favourite actors. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping has wanted to see David Warner appear in Doctor Who for years, ever since as a sickly child, catching David's very Doctor-like performance in a - now virtually forgotten - 1970 heist caper movie called Perfect Friday. If you've never seen it, check it out, it's thoroughly brilliant and Warner is superb in it. Probably best known to dear blog readers via his appearances in two of the Star Trek movies, villainous roles in Twin Peaks, Babylon 5 and that bit in The Omen where his crazed photographer character gets decapitated by a sheet of plate glass, David was born in Manchester in 1941 and became one of the great stage actors of his generation. His wider breakthrough when he was just twenty one, as Blifil in Tom Jones. He became a genuine twenty four carat television star soon afterwards, as Morgan in David Mercer's masterpiece A Suitable Case for Treatment (Warner would subsequently reprise the role in the movie version four years later). His CV also includes Work is a 4-Letter Word, The Bofors Gun, Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Age of Innocence, the hugely under-rated Time After Time, The Man With Two Brains, Time Bandits, The Company of Wolves, Planet of the Apes, Scream 2, Titanic, Wallander and From Beyond The Grave as well as voicing Ra's al Gul in Batman: The Animated Series. He's even played an alternative version of The Doctor in one of Big Finish's Unbound series of audio plays. David is, in short, a God damn legend. If you're a keen player of the 'six degrees of separation' game, he also provides Matt Smith with a direct link to, not only Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and Gregory Peck, but also to Bob Dylan (via the - now tragically lost - 1963 BBC play A Madhouse On Castle Street). In 2010, Mark Gatiss interviewed David about his role in The Omen for Mark's acclaimed BBC4 documentary series A History of Horror. It's tempting to think he may have ended the interview by pitching the part of a Russian submarine scientist in Doctor Who to him!

'It never rains but it pours.' There was also a decent, controlled, quietly statesmanlike part for the always excellent Liam Cunningham and an eye-rolling, lip-curling, so-far-over-the-top-he's-down-the-other-side one for Tobias Menzies (to match a similar performance recently in The Shadow Line). Doug Mackinnon's direction was dark, menacing, claustrophobic (all of which you'd expect from an episode set on a submarine) but also, in places, dreamlike and fluid, a harsh, visceral juxtaposition with the tense and often jerky camerawork seen on the sequences with Skaldak running (or, rather stomping very slowly and occasionally slithering) amok through the narrow corridors of the ship. There's some great dialogue too, as you'd expect from Gatiss. I loved Grisenko's sarky reaction to Stephashin's dismissive comment about 'a little green man from Mars.' 'Correction, it's a big green man from Mars!' David Warner, in fact, gets many of the episode's best lines, including his opening conversation with Cunningham's Captain Zhukov: 'Am I interrupting something?' 'We were about to blow up the world, Professor.' 'What? Again?!'

Like last week's episode, Cold War isn't perfect. It is a shade too talky at times (although, again, there's not really much you can do to counter such a problem when you've got an episode set entirely on board a submarine). It's also just that wee bit too derivative of other texts (many from Doctor Who's own past, admittedly) to be considered as a wholly successful entity in and of itself. But, it's still pretty damn good for all that. It's a TV episodes about honour and trust, about the rejection of xenophobic attitudes when, admirably, survival instinct isn't the primary concern but, rather, doing the right thing is. So, not bad. Not bad at all, Gatiss pulled it off. If nothing else it is - by a distance - the best episode featuring The Ice Warriors since 1972 so, you know, that's worth something in the great scheme of things. And, by the look of the trailer for next week's, they're about to abandon The Thing and Alien and start jamming on The Stone Tape and The Legend of Hell House instead. And that's never a bad thing.
TV Comedy Line Of The Week time and, yet again, it's from Have I Got News For You. Well, you'd expect nothing less from the sharpest satirical comedy on TV. In this week's episode, good old Mad-As-Toast guest presenter Brian Blessed (on splendidly shouty form) tells Ian Hislop 'Gosh, you're a mine of information,' Paul Merton, the king of the dry, pithy one-liner, interjects with: 'If he was a mine of information Margaret Thatcher would've closed him down years ago.' Even after twenty three years Have I Got News For You is often imitated but seldom, if ever equalled.
Yer actual Keith Telly Topping is indebted to his old pal Abie for the following thought: 'Back in 1979 my contribution to political debate was marching against The National Front as part of Rock Against Racism/The Anti-Nazi League. Now, it seems others are contributing to political debate by spending seventy nine pee on a Wizard of Oz song and lining the coffers of a big corporation. Well done you lot.' Sarky maybe, but the lad has a definite point. Let it, therefore, be noted that in yer actual Keith Telly Topping's case, back in 1979 his contribution to the political debate was buying 'The Eton Rifles' and 'Oliver's Army' and 'The English Civil War' (and, a few months later in 1980, 'Stand Down Margaret') - all for considerably less than seventy nine pee, let it be said - and lining the coffers of Polydor, United Artists (which distributed Radar) and CBS. (The Beat, bless 'em, had their own, independent label, Go Feet so we'll let them off.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

Interestingly enough, on a somewhat related theme, my brief mentionette of the 1990 Elvis Costello song 'Tramp The Dirty Down' the other day on this blog, got my friend Deborah to stick up a YouTube link to a performance of that very song on Facebook. At which point I, rather sadly, had to note that, personally, I always used to feel a bit uncomfortable when Elvis played 'Tramp The Dirty Down' live. Not, necessarily, because I disagreed with much of the sentiment in the song or that I wasn't then, and indeed remain, a massive fan of Old Declan his very self but simply because it always seemed to bring out the schoolboy in the audience; cheering in all the right places like some sort of musical equivalent of a - not particularly inspired - Ben Elton routine from the same vintage. All rite-on stuff, of course, but it was as if the audience was being cued to merely react to stimuli in a particular way - almost like Pavlov's dogs - and not, actually, think about that they were listening to, something that - otherwise - Elvis made a career out of doing. I used think 'this is too obvious, Elv, you're capable of more than this.' Interestingly, in the Facebook discussion which followed this (see, Daily Scum Mail, Facebook isn't all silly campaigns and pictures of people's genitalia taken on a drunken night out, sometimes some of us do use it to, actually, talk about things) my good friend Andrew had similar feelings about 'Tramp The Dirt Down': 'The stuff about Thaaatch bearing down on the innocent babbie [sic] is too slim and obvious an image to really stand up to such overwrought treatment and the song as a whole seems jerrybuilt merely to reach the titular spleen rather than arising naturally from inspiration; that is, it seems that way on repeat listening - the first time you experience it, it's bloodcurdling. I remember watching that Late Show edition with my mouth open and my heart racing. "I'm not some little kid they can put down, I'm thirty five years old and I'm fucking sick of it." And Costello looks genuinely upset by finding himself singing such bile, too. But it does only really work once.' I completely agree. Deborah also used the thread to express her great admiration for another, older, Elvis song about a part of Margaret Thatcher's legacy, the gorgeous 'Shipbuilding' - a much more subtle and intelligent song - and put up a link to Robert Wyatt's stunning performance of the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Which is, therefore, today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day if for no other reason than it's quite spellbinding. However, there's a small sting in the tail. In what might be the most perfect metaphor imaginable, the link Deb provided initially brought up the same clip that you can watch above but first it was prefaced by a YouTube advertisement for an underarm deodorant (which has since, thankfully, been removed). That says an awful lot, frankly, about the world that Margaret Thatcher - quite proudly - left behind; a world fashioned in her own image. A song about something really rather important and serious - the Falklands conflict, the moribund nature of heavy industry and a way of life in the early 1980s, the death of young soldiers in a pointless, but ironically profitable, war - should have an advert (for underarm deodorant, of all things) introducing it. That's, perhaps, Margaret Thatcher's ultimate legacy. A world, not necessarily full of greed but certainly full of selfism (and, hell, this blogger is as guilty of that flaw as anyone else). A world in which 'making it' is everything (no matter what or whom you push aside to do so). A world of private enterprise and public indifference. A world where the Lord helps those that help themselves. 'There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.' This is the world we're left with, dear blog reader. A world made in Maggie's image but, also, in our own. We are all - whether we like it or not - Thatcher's children now.