Audio Frequencies (DWM #518, December 2017)
Reviewed this issue:
Time in Office
The Silurian Candidate
The Night Witches
Comedy, said WC Fields, is a serious business. And there are some Doctor Who fans – the ones who measure comedy by quantity (“Too many jokes!”), as opposed to whether it’s funny or not – who would agree it’s no laughing matter.
For most of us, though, Doctor Who’s refusal to take itself too seriously is one of the things that makes it so cherished, especially when so much sci-fi/fantasy is prone to flatulent pomposity.
Ever since the arrival of Dennis Spooner as script editor in 1965 – to be followed by a succession of gag-merchants from Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams to sitcom writers like Steven Moffat and Richard Curtis – the show has been shot through with an anarchic wit and love of wordplay that makes Monty Python or Blackadder arguably more relevant touchstones than Asimov or Tolkien.
In the early 1980s, producer John Nathan-Turner famously took a large blue pencil to Douglas Adams’ “undergraduate humour” and declared it was time for Doctor Who to get serious again – then almost immediately cast one of Britain’s leading sitcom actors in the lead role.
In fact, Peter Davison juggled recording his early Doctor Who serials with starring roles in two comedies – Sink or Swim, about a pair of mismatched northern brothers living in London, and Holding the Fort, in which he played a stay-at-home husband and father (a simply hilarious notion in 1980). On days when he rehearsed Doctor Who in the mornings before dashing over to a sitcom taping in the afternoon, there must have times when he didn’t know if he was supposed to be saving the planet or warming a bottle (with Adric around, maybe it didn’t matter).
And now, 35 years on, Davison gets to legitimately combine the two skills in Time in Office – the nearest thing we’re ever likely to get to an actual Doctor Who sitcom, as the Doctor finally takes up his duties as Lord President of the Time Lords, with hilarious consequences.
Davison, who has made a good career out of being agreeably flustered, is perfect casting as the reluctant commander-in-chief, and has shared sci-fi comedy history with writer Eddie Robson, having been a regular in his Radio 4 sitcom Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. Though this isn’t quite as jocular as that (there’s no studio audience, for a start), being more of a political satire, in which the Doctor finds himself in the thick of it on a Gallifrey stubbornly resistant to his radical reform programme. (Think Yes, Minister in space.)
Robson has also made concessions to the fact that this is still Doctor Who, and thus requires at least some scenes of mild peril amidst all the japes. Opener Period of Adjustment, in particular, treads softly softly, focusing more on politicking and world-building than belly laughs – though there are topical barbs about Gallifrey not being ready for a woman president, and pointed digs about “the Capitol bubble”. Damn those Metropolitan Time Lord Elites, eh?
The most obvious avenue for comic potential – Tegan being forced to marry the Doctor in order to get citizenship – ends up being a road not taken (she’s made an ambassador instead) which is mildly disappointing: I’d have loved at least one episode of Hi Doctor, I’m Home. There’s still plenty of great material for Janet Fielding, though, and she rises to the occasion, proving a good foil for Louise Jameson’s fabulously deadpan Leela (who, we learn, has the Raston Robot’s head mounted on her kitchen wall).
In Period of Adjustment, the President embarks on a bit of interplanetary glad-handing and ends up provoking a full-scale diplomatic incident, the doofus. A loose satire of religious conflicts (don’t go expecting Chris Morris), it has some lovely gags, including a Time Lord with a time travel phobia and a memorable scene in which Leela requisitions a ride-on lawnmower as a battle tank. A hapless Tegan also gets to utter the immortal line “I didn’t mean to commit genocide!”, which is not a phrase you hear enough in sitcoms.
History Repeating puts Janet Fielding centre-stage as she hooks up with a fanboy, wannabe Doctor who whisks her off to a planet made of toothpaste. Like I said, it’s not Asimov. Meanwhile, the Doctor is finding Time Lord life predictably stultifying. “I think we should get on with this before anything happens,” says one of his advisers. “Oh yes,” he sighs. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen. That would be awful.”
By the final instalment, Architect of Destruction, he’s mucking around and refusing to take anything seriously, despite being at the sharp end of a political conspiracy plot. He’s also mortified by being forced to accessorise with the Sash of Rassilon and the Belt of Omega, which is a bit rich for a man who habitually wears pyjama trousers and a decorative vegetable.
There are times during Time in Office when I found myself wishing Robson and director Helen Goldwyn had committed more fully to the sitcom wheeze (though I suppose a laughter track would have been pushing it). But it’ still a breezy, hugely likeable quartet of comic cuts that, if not always laugh-out-loud funny, should at least leave you wearing a big daft grin.
If Peter Davison came to Doctor Who with a track record of light comedy, then Sylvester McCoy was a one-man cabaret act, who’d made his name shoving ferrets up his nose and putting nails down his trousers (or was it the other way round?). As such, his Doctor started out ZANY and WACKY, before a rethink saw him restyled as a manipulative, cosmic chess player with SECRETS.
That journey informs much of the plot of The Silurian Candidate, in which Ace warns Mel, now back on the TARDIS full-time, that the Doctor isn’t quite the goofy, spoon-playing jester she might remember. That said, Matthew J Elliott’s zingy script comes packed with gags, comic business and what, forgive me readers, I can only describe as bantz. (Let’s be honest, if Bonnie Langford had got more lines like “The last person I posed a threat to was the reigning Pease Pottage roller disco champion”, her character would be much more fondly remembered.)
There’s a dark, bittersweet edge to the Seventh Doctor’s humour at this stage in his life, though. “Into each life some rain must fall,” he notes at one point (because of course he’s an Ella Fitzgerald fan). “Why do you think I carry an umbrella?” It’s a perfect piece of writing for Sylvester McCoy, who plays the sad clown so well (though Elliott really ought to know by now that he’s less sure-footed with voluble anger).
Set in 2085, with the world on the brink of war between East and West power blocs, the story is a direct sequel to 1984’s Warriors of the Deep, albeit with much better lighting. Tonally, it couldn’t be more different from that story – director Ken Bentley likens it to an episode of The Avengers, and there are definite shades of Who’s own Bond-on-a-budget caper, The Enemy of the World (1967). But it does revisit some of its themes – and indeed, that of every Silurian TV appearance – principally the knotty question who are the real villains: the indigenous Eocenes, or the human interlopers?
In this latest bout of sapien v reptilian, the Doctor is still yearning to find “another way”, setting him on an ideological crash course with ape sympathiser Ace, whose reasoning boils down to a pithy: “You snooze, you lose.” It’s the set-up for another exploration of Ace’s faith in the Doctor, and vice versa, leaving Mel slightly yearning for those more innocent days of Welsh holiday camps and galactic freezer centres.
It’s meaty stuff for Sophie Aldred and Bonnie Langford, while Nicholas Briggs gets to add a 70s/80s-style Silurian to his list of monster credits (he sounds so happy, in the bonus interviews, discussing the relative merits of ring modulation versus pitch-shifting). Someone really should have had a word with Nicholas Asbury, though: as Western bloc leader Chairman Falco, his “Australian” accent is all over the map.
Patrick Troughton originated the “wise fool” interpretation of the Doctor (shall we give the word “Chaplinesque” another run out here? I think we should), but clowning is in short supply in The Night Witches, which ushers in a new series of Early Adventures this month; indeed, it’s a Doctor Who story with a rare weight of sadness to it.
The title derives from the German nickname given to a regiment of young, female Soviet aviators who flew bombing missions during the Second World War using antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes. It’s a fascinating, little known footnote in military history that’s ripe for the Doctor Who treatment, and Roland Moore – who previously explored the theme of women in wartime in his BBC series The Land Girls – has more than done it justice with a lovely, heartfelt, romantic tale that succeeds in combining the emotional heft of modern Doctor Who with a genuine feel for the Troughton era. It’s what we fans call a “pure historical”, too, which is exactly the right choice, as there’s more than enough human drama at play here without Kraaarg the Destroyer or whoever stomping all over it.
Frazer Hines, pulling a double shift as the Doctor and Jamie, delivers another terrific Troughton impersonation, shifting his voice down a register to capture that peculiar rhythm – with the rising sentences and that little, mid-sentence catch of throat – of his old mucker. (In fact, at 72, you could argue his Doctor is more convincing than his boy Jacobite.)
It’s really Anneke Wills’ show, though: in addition to narration duties, she plays the dual roles of Polly and Tatania, a Night Witch who just happens to be the Chelsea girl’s exact double. (Yes, it’s the old doppelgänger chestnut, but rarely has such an eye-rolling plot device been used to such moving effect.) With fabulous performances from Anjella Mackintosh, Wanda Opalinska and Kristina Buikaite as the young flying aces, and evocative direction from Helen Goldwyn that conjures the frozen Russian winter so vividly you’ll be tempted to put the heating on, it’s a contender for Big Finish’s strongest release of the year. And that’s despite being largely devoid of the humour I have just argued is fundamental to the very soul of Doctor Who. How funny.
Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #518, December 2017 © Panini UK Ltd
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