Friday, September 19, 2014

Doctor Who S12 Ep78: Genesis Of The Daleks: Do I Have The Right?

"Do I have the right?"
-The Doctor on determining to end a cycle of violence led by The Daleks or permit them to live despite their sole objective to exterminate the living-
"He didn't just do it as written. Everything stopped in rehearsal and he said, 'Just a minute, let's take this seriously....' He was actually agonizing over the dialogue. That scene was terribly important to Tom, very important."
-Elisabeth Sladen-

This comes as a supplement to my coverage of Season Twelve, Episode 78, Genesis Of The Daleks.

There are always moments in classic television that require reassessments and further reflection. My latest immersion of late of all things Doctor Who, particularly the Tom Baker years, opened the door to revisiting the single most powerful moment of the six-part Genesis Of The Daleks (1975) - the critical, time sensitive moment The Doctor must decide whether one of the universe's most deadly creations, The Daleks, must live or die. In effect, The Doctor is placed in a very powerful and unenviable decision - the same position many leaders are often faced with.

This singular moment, penned by Terry Nation has consistently has landed Fourth Doctor Tom Baker's Genesis Of The Daleks, not only among the greatest of Daleks episodes, but among the best episodes of Doctor Who ever written. Certainly there are other tremendous moments whereby writer Nation provides some strong exposition for both The Doctor and the evil Davros further enhancing this strong story.

My assessment in previous coverage is that Genesis Of The Daleks begs some terrific philosophical questions and poses the kind of great moral debate that enters into great science fiction, but that the story is agonizing in its generally slow pace across the span of six parts. Certainly judicious editing was required at the very least.  While the writing is clearly good Genesis Of The Daleks nevertheless suffers from its long serialization to deleterious effect. Genesis Of The Daleks, if shorter, would conceivably have packed just as powerful a wallop and perhaps even moreso.

Genesis Of The Daleks landed itself at number 3 among the best Doctor Who episodes of all time in Doctor Who Magazine #474.  It's undeniably a potent piece of the Doctor Who legacy, but certainly doesn't sustain the kind of enjoyment that can be found in more recent tales like Ninth Doctor Chris Eccleston's Dalek (2005). Genesis Of The Daleks is indubitably influential securing an important place in history, a place which rests largely upon the shoulders of Nation's dialogue penned in Part Six. Unfortunately it's a bit of a slog to get there.

In that segment the age old question of whether evil should be repelled and destroyed or allowed to fester at tremendous cost is once again posited and given a new look. If you glimpsed the terrible future and the role of evil and its affect, would you stop it if you could?

You can certainly think of a number of other examples. One such strong example executed to great effect is David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983). Christopher Walken's Johnny Smith sees the future of a dark politician with diabolical plans and given that information Smith takes action to prevent catastrophe.

In Doctor Who, The Doctor is faced with the same dilemma, but responds quite differently.

Which decision would you make? Could you make that decision? Would you have stopped Hitler or appeased his advancement? Do you bomb ISIS terrorists now? Or do you wait for that evil to grow? It's not going away. Closing your eyes and wishing for peace won't stop ISIS. It didn't stop The Daleks.

These are always difficult propositions and while we do not see the future like the good Doctor, we do have history at our disposal. The actions of Hitler, Al Qaeda and other acts of intentional evil had to be met with choices. Act now or be forever damned.

Great science fiction has a way of reflecting back our realities. Genesis Of The Daleks delivered a genuinely thought-provoking piece of television then and asks those equally relevant questions of us today. No one wants violence as a solution, but sometimes it is required. Did The Doctor make the right choice in Genesis Of The Daleks? Will we, the human race, make the right choices today and tomorrow?

Here is the scene that continues to spark the imagination and resonate with us with a chill today.

The Doctor: "If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?"

Sarah Jane: "We're talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them. You must complete your mission for the Time Lords."

The Doctor: "Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and the Daleks will cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word 'Dalek'."

Sarah Jane: "Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn't hesitate."

The Doctor: "But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form - then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks."

Intelligence is the word in question and certainly irrelevant when that intelligence actively seeks to destroy us. If only our own decisions were as simple as two wires then the answer would be easy. In contrast to our own problems, the Doctor's choice seemed relatively clear and I think Sarah Jane was the right voice of conscience.

Genesis Of The Daleks had some wonderful philosophical components regarding the right to life. It also enjoyed ethical and scientific questions involving genetic experimentation and more. The serial raises a good deal of pensive speculation.

In the end, we may not have the right. None of us, but we do have the free will to execute a decision. If there are those in this world willing to exercise their free will to terminate life or "exterminate" the living, then we are required to stamp it out, end it and mollify it, and essentially do whatever is necessary to stop evil. Of course, we exercise that free will only if we have the courage and resolve to stand up to it in the face of adversity. The Doctor did not have that resolve and evil and death persist as a result.

To quote Tom Baker himself from Doctor Who Magazine #258, "everything had to be resolved by violence, simply because everything has ultimately to be resolved by violence - the violence of death generally." It is indeed a necessary evil in itself. And here in Genesis Of The Daleks the choice not to use violence to end it allowed evil and violence to flourish.

If free people with a desire for peace wish to retain it hard decisions will inevitably have to be made. The Doctor is a reflection of those difficult choices which is why it can be such great television series posing such quandaries. The reality of it is- real evil is left for us. Should the right to choose life be that hard, because the alternative is unimaginable. What tomorrow will the choices we make today bring?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tom Baker: Sam Neill And Jurassic Park

"I recall going to see Jurassic Park at the cinemas in Tunbridge Wells, near where I live. The most remarkable thing about it was that they had cast Sam Neill in the lead, who must be the most boring actor ever to darken our screens. He could bore for England, that man. He could earn a very good living curing whole audiences of insomniacs - they'd be dead to the world within minutes. And I watched this film and for the half-hour all the children were bored out of their brains - it was like being in an aviary. They used to be like that with Doctor Who when I had long dialogue sequences and all they wanted was the action. ... So I thought the film was terribly boring and completely relied on its amazing optical effects. What was Men In Black about? ... it was finally all just jokes. ... it was just a piss-take. There was nothing heroic, nothing lasting. With Doctor Who it was ... heroic and lasting. Of course it couldn't be particularly profound because everything had to be resolved by violence, simply because everything has ultimately to be resolved by violence - the violence of death generally."
-Tom Baker (Doctor Who Magazine #258, p. 11)-

No shortage of running for The Doctor in Doctor Who or Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, the man who would bore Tom Baker apparently.

"Do I Have The Right?" (A Doctor Who dinosaur coloring book echoing the scene from Genesis Of The Daleks)
And don't ask me how this strange little post came to fruition, because I'm not actually sure, but I guess we can start with Tom Baker's quote. The man has no filter.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Richard Kiel (1939-2014)

"Well, here's to us."
-Richard Kiel's single line of dialogue as Jaws to Dolly, Jaw's girlfriend, in Moonraker-

The wonderful, hulking, charming 7'2" actor Richard Kiel (1939-2014) has unfortunately passed away. I'm always saddened a bit to see these wonderful childhood icons, figures and role models pass away each year.

I have such great fondness for the Roger Moore years of James Bond 007. While not considered critical favorites, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) remain two of my very favorite James Bond films. They will forever remain so.

Roger Moore and Richard Kiel are two big reasons I love those films. Kiel popularized the villain Jaws and made him a big, dumb, but lovable baddie in The Spy Who Loved Me. I'll never forget the climax of The Spy Who Loved Me when the scene became essentially Jaws versus Jaws in the shark tank. Two scenes were shot. One envisioned the shark winning, the other Jaws would survive. It was clear Kiel would return for Moonraker. Jaws was still a strong man in Moonraker but he was softened a bit because kids like myself absolutely adored him.

Scene after scene of Kiel's screen time in the 007 films are unforgettable. And he barely said a word apart from that wonderful final line in Moonraker. He didn't have to say a thing. His physical presence was everything in those films. His command of the screen was electric with Moore.

Kiel also figured prominently in To Serve A Man (1962) for The Twilight Zone. Other genre favorites included The Fall Guy, (1981), Land Of The Lost (1977), Starsky & Hutch (1976), Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Gilligan's Island, Emergency!, The Monkees and I Dream Of Jeannie. He was also nearly retained for the role of The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s.

For some reason the world seemed a little better with the likes of Richard Kiel in it. Kiel passed away at 74. Here's to us indeed. We were lucky to have him.

Please check back. I plan to upload my favorite Richard Kiel moments as Jaws here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic in the days ahead. It will be fun to revisit those films.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Doctor Who: The Tardis Driver And His Mate

So long, and good riddance, Martha Jones, hello Donna Noble.

The Doctor: The last time with Martha... it got complicated. And that was all my fault. I just wanna mate.

Donna: You just want ... TO MATE!?

The Doctor: I just want ... A MATE!

Donna: You're not mating with me sunshine!

The Doctor: A MATE. I want A MATE.

Donna: Well just as well, because I'm not having any of that nonsense. I mean you're just a long streak of nothing... you know alien nothing.

The Doctor: There we are then. Okay.

The quality of writing in Doctor Who is often all over the universal map. The number of genuinely great episodes versus average episodes will certainly test the patience of those looking for challenging science fiction. I didn't have quite as many issues with Doctor Who Season One featuring Christopher Eccleston as I'm finding with Series Two through Series Four helmed by David Tennant. Eccleston's brief run is like a shining star on every front, performance and writing being at the fore.

I understand the series as a whole is about adventure and escapism or when you can't escape essentially be forced to save the Earth every other week from complete annihilation. It's actually rather remarkable how the Doctor, through complete and utter luck, can find himself, at any given point in time or space, in just the right place to save us all. It is rather amazing isn't it? That part is likely Doctor Who fatigue talking. But apart from the preposterous nature of the show, there really isn't anything like it on television which more than explains why it's the longest running science fiction series in history and generally beloved despite its flaws season after season. It's indeed an original.

If the writing consistently equaled some of Steven Moffat's ambitious best (The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink) or the quality of Russell T. Davies challenging highlights (The End Of The World, New Earth, Love And Monsters) or high marks like the works of Mark Gatiss (The Unquiet Dead), Robert Shearman (Dalek) or Toby Whithouse (School Reunion), Doctor Who would undeniably be a more consistent and satisfying experience. As it stands it's definitely a hit and a miss, and certainly its misses are good enough as passable entertainment. But many entries are hardly challenging as hard science fiction goes. Again, I suppose that is to be expected. But as someone reared on the atmospheric Tom Baker years it all feels a bit like sound and fury at times. Everything is so quick the characters rarely have time for an actual human moment.

On occasion the show devolves into the silly or implausible. I mean most of Doctor Who is that of course, but the crazy special effects simply cannot sell some of the outlandish ideas and the whole thing seems to just spiral or fall apart when I'm frowning at the lack of internal logic to a given episode.

When the series focuses on a singular theme or story without attempting to get too epic or too big it can be positively sensational (Dalek), but even big and bold risks can work out rather well (The End Of The World). Still, even in those large canvasses must be taken to bring things into the focus and intimacy of the Doctor and his companion. This often happened in Series One with Eccleston and Billie Piper. The preference to slow things down for the more human components of the series is when it really breathes believable life into its characters. Mind you I'm afraid that's not often enough. It may be why I enjoyed Human Nature (written by Paul Cornell) so much and why fans of the series rate that episode so highly. Take away those special effects and trust your actors to deliver the special stuff for a change and you'd be surprised. You may say they certainly do that of course. Then I say trust them a bit more then as they did with Carey Mulligan in Blink. School Reunion had some of those simpler moments too. Fans of the Fourth Doctor and the adored Elisabeth Sladen were certainly over the moon with School Reunion. It was not only a love letter to those fans - a very respectful nod - but a successful episode thanks to the concentration on story and performance reuniting the Doctor and his old mate Sarah Jane. Even with Series Four, Catherine Tate takes time to surprise with both comedy and drama, but those moments are still few and far between.

Honestly, my apologies in advance if I am fighting the David Tennant fatigue factor or I'm simply finding Doctor Who to go beyond the pale of believable with its formula. I know I shouldn't expect believable. But sometimes it all gets just a little too ridiculous. And diversions from that formula are always welcomed too. Tennant delivered Doctor Who to the mainstream globally and he is impressive at times. I don't want to take that away from him. Unfortunately, there are some real opportunities wasted at writing something a little more significant. Either some of the classics had a sense of authenticity about them or the sheer lack of flash served to ground it by default. Sometimes the new Doctor Who feels like it blows real opportunities in the writing department and delivering something truly special. You can't expect it week after week, but it would be nice to experience a little more consistently.

For me, Season One hit much more than it missed and I think there was plenty in that year of Eccleston that really felt right especially the character drama and interplay. I understand the three years of Tennant really established the series and popularized the show more than ever. It was a smart move that worked well and there is nothing to be ashamed of there, including a number of strong stories, but Doctor Who could still be a better science fiction adventure grounded by its terrific casting. Despite the highlights, there are some real gems of stupidity. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at the improbability of a number of factors in each given story. It just can't possibly be.

And don't get me started on Martha Jones. That character was an absolute out and out bore. Painful really. If I felt I was being too hard on that opinion of her it was cemented by Freema Agyeman's brief guest return in The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky two-parter. This is a good example of dumbing down Doctor Who. Good grief they even cloned Martha Jones. In fact, she was such a boring character to begin with I couldn't differentiate between the real Martha Jones or the fake. Sorry, she was serviceable at best. And about the stupidity. I mean how does Martha Jones have top level clearance? Wait What!? Good riddance Martha Jones. That was one mate I could have done without. Her family wasn't even likable. The Doctor going solo might have been more fun. Sometimes it makes you wonder if the success of The Doctor isn't just as dependent on the strength of a given companion. Tennant seems only to be as good as his partner in crime, the company he keeps. Yes, Smith wasn't as thrilling with Jones.

And speaking of reunions and companions, without question Sarah Jane was one of the finest. She was authentic through and through. Billie Piper came along for the new series and sort of reinvigorated that girlish but tough ideal. As Rose, Piper has spunk and heart and energy and a great sense of humor. She just lit up the screen.

Following a year with Martha Jones, Doctor Who returned to Catherine Tate as Donna Noble with Series Four, Episode One, Partners In Crime for the first time since their split at the end of the Christmas special The Runaway Bride (2006). Unlike Jones, at least Noble is a character. I sometimes half expect she may break into a foul-mouthed Joannie 'Nan' Taylor skit from her own The Catherine Tate Show. Noble's return almost suggests, 'well, maybe we made a mistake. Maybe Donna Noble should have followed Rose.' But then again the producers saw the wisdom in bringing back the Martha Jones character for three episodes in Series Four so there goes that theory. Agyeman performance in The Doctor's Daughter was actually a little cringe worthy. Whhheelll, at the very least some of us were hungry after the rather flat year of Martha Jones for something a little more vibrant. I mean I have difficulty even buying into the idea that the Doctor was just absolutely great mates with Jones in Series Three. There was no chemistry. Whenever they reunited I just wasn't buying the act at all.

The contrast of Noble versus Jones is rather stark and welcomed. Almost immediately there is a bounce in the Doctor's step in Series Four. There is an energy back that seemed absent and, yes, there is humor again. The humor is welcomed. The child-like silly of some stories isn't so much. Agyeman played it all fairly straight and just wasn't a good comedic sounding board or foil for some of the Doctor's personality. The two lacked spark. Already the Doctor and Donna Noble in just one episode seem more alive. Obviously these things are subjective. But even when it seemed like there was an effort between Jones and the Doctor to seem high-spirited it all felt rather forced. The exuberance and the dynamic just didn't feel real or authentic. Jones return in Series Four reminded me of that rather lacking dynamic.

We just didn't care about Jones in the way Billie Piper developed Rose. Certainly, we could quickly point to the fact the Rose character had two seasons to work that magic, but, in truth, from the moment Rose appears we immediately took to her. It didn't take long for us to care about her, her mum, her Dad, her Earthbound love interest Mickey. But Martha and her family, eh. It just didn't really work there for me.

Already in just one episode, Partners In Crime, we like what we see between Donna and her grand dad. In just one entry it would appear the Doctor has found a dynamic that works, a companion that clicks, and what could possibly be an interesting mate for his travels. I'm curious to see where it goes from here. David Tennant's Doctor is certainly appealing and easily the most accessible. He knows how to say the word "Whhheeelll" and makes that a classic. The One To Be Pitied passed through the room and approved immediately, "he's cute." So there you go. Charming, cute, bouncy, but lacking in that sense of alien curiosity and complexity behind the eyes. There was something mysterious within Tom Baker and now Peter Capaldi that drew us in.

In any event the companion in the case of Donna Noble is firmly established as a mate rather than a potential love interest like Rose or whatever Martha Jones was trying to be. The mate, in effect, is more definitive than the over arching generalization of the companion. Yes, Noble will be the companion, but strictly the mate. The Pet Shop Boys recorded a b-side called The Truck Driver And His Mate, and Series Four is definitively the year of The Tardis Driver And His Mate strictly speaking. Oh I'm having a bit of fun here aren't I?

One thing is certain, as evidence would suggest, Doctor Who is often strongest when the two choices for the roles of Doctor and Companion are sound and the chemistry works. The selection for those roles is imperative.

For the series on the whole, Doctor Who would be best if there was a marriage of the more serious tone or at least the atmosphere of the classics with the narrative speed of the new series coupled with stronger stories. Doctor Who would get it right more often than not. As it stands, the new series gets overly silly and relies to heavily on winks, nods, noise and flippant remarks which need a little more support from a stronger, more disciplined tale to tell. The writing could be better as it is when scenes slow down to focus on a given character's actual handling and response to genuinely fantastic circumstances. This is where older fans would love to see Doctor Who really soar and get its narrative and tone just right. It would be nice to see them dig into Doctor Who a bit more. As Donna Noble says to the Doctor in The Doctor's Daughter, "You talk all the time but you don't say anything." That's exactly the problem at times with Doctor Who. Talking is a great defense mechanism for many people as it is for the sometimes guarded Doctor, but in terms of narrative at times I'd love for Doctor Who to be more. That's certainly the more demanding adult in me.

This is why so many fans, like myself, unfairly project high hopes upon an older, seasoned actor like Peter Capaldi. The face of the franchise may change but if the meat that it builds upon is unchanged how can we hope for a less cartoonish version of The Doctor himself? Certainly the evidence to date (Deep Breath, Into The Dalek and Robot Of Sherwood) suggest a complexity to the character that is refreshing. Sometimes the camera can just hold on Capaldi and at least the man is interesting. Not that it's perfect, but when it comes down to a Doctor and Companion dynamic you really can't do much better than Capaldi and Coleman.

I'm optimistic about Doctor Who's future. It will no doubt endure. Its longevity and popularity has certainly proven that. But can Doctor Who be better, smarter and possibly not faster? Wherever the Tardis takes us my hope is it will be stronger character-centric stories.

Time will tell and as Time Lords go I suppose we have plenty of that.