Sunday, March 31, 2013

Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John

Steven Moffat said in numerous interviews in recent weeks that “The Bells of Saint John” was as close as Doctor Who could get to James Bond. I don’t know about all that, but the episode does sport some nifty action sequences, there’s a great deal of running to and fro, and the mechanics of it all work as long as you don’t analyze them too closely, which opens the door to a special kind of hell for those of us who must write about this show.

What the episode really smacks of is Russell T Davies. This is the closest thing that’s been done on Moffat’s watch to what Davies was often doing before him. It’s as if Moffat was haunted by the ghost of “Partners in Crime” while he plotted this, which isn’t a bad thing, because this style of action romp/social commentary has been missed. If anything, in the past it was easy to take these sorts of stories for granted, because they appeared so effortlessly written. Moffat’s guiding hand isn’t quite as steady as Davies for this kind of material, but as season openers go, it more or less accomplished what it set out to do. Oh yeah, that’s right…this isn’t a season opener. Though we’re still in the middle of season seven, “The Bells of Saint John” has that “the story’s starting over” vibe; the sort of thing you’d feel at the top of a new season.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The BBC's Alice in Wonderland (1986) & Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973) DVD reviews

The Rued Morgue has love for the most famous works of Lewis Carroll, but it wasn’t that love specifically that led to the desire to check out and review these two recent DVD releases from the BBC. Unsurprisingly, both programs have Doctor Who connections, and both I’ve known about for years, but have never seen. Kudos to the BBC folks who dug deep into the archives and unearthed these rarities for public consumption. A few years ago I reviewed another BBC TV version of Alice in Wonderland (1966) – a version that was a drastic departure in terms of presentation from what we’ve come to expect from the classic story. This version? Not so much. Not at all, really. Indeed, it is extremely faithful to Carroll’s work, and nearly all of the dialogue (including a number of songs) seems to have been lifted directly from the original text, and it covers most of the book. Having suffered through the plastic Tim Burton movie, Carroll scholars will surely find this a worthy adaptation based on the dialogue alone.

Titled Alice in Wonderland, the episodes are dated 1985, but according to IMDB, it started airing on the BBC the first week of 1986. It was produced by Terrance Dicks and dramatized and directed by Barry Letts, and like a classic Who serial, is presented over four episodes, each running nearly 30 minutes. In addition to the behind the scenes contributions of Messrs. Dicks and Letts, this production features some other noteworthy Who alumni: Elisabeth Sladen as the Dormouse, her husband Brian Miller (“Snakedance”) as the Gryphon, Roy Skelton as the Mock Turtle, and Michael “Davros” Wisher as a pretty sinister Cheshire Cat; all four appear under heavy makeup and are barely recognizable. However, heavy doesn’t necessarily equate to great, and these creatures are often not much more convincing than the sort of thing you’d see at a professional children’s theatre (the production often feels like theatre). Having said that, many of the anthropomorphized creatures bear striking resemblances to the illustrations drawn by Sir John Tenniel to accompany Carroll’s original text, so in a sense, the effects, makeup and costuming strive to be true to the original work as well.  

This is a low budget video affair, produced on more of a shoestring than even Doctor Who (which was on its infamous mid-80s hiatus at the time this was made). The production is loaded with Letts’ notorious CSO, which, alongside some basic set work, is used to achieve Wonderland. The BBC version of the technique had been honed considerably by ’86 (versus when Letts when using it on Who during the early ‘70s), so it doesn’t look bad, per se, but it is a matter of getting used to the surreal-but-often-flat atmosphere. Who’s to say what Alice’s imagination dreamed up?

What sold me on this Alice was the dawning realization that Letts and Dicks are seemingly paying homage of sorts to the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. The styles used to achieve the two productions are similar, even though they’re separated by decades and tools. Today, the painted backgrounds used to frequently bring Oz to life would be unthinkable, as would these flat CSO backgrounds – but the end results aren’t terribly different if you analyze them sans prejudice. We (hopefully) make allowances for Oz when we watch it today because it’s an understood classic, and forgive that it’s a product of its time, just as this Alice is of its time, and just as importantly, its place: BBC TV.

Other similarities? The use of songs, the previously mentioned anthropomorphized creatures (ala the Cowardly Lion), as well as the casting of an older actress to play the lead role (Kate Dorning’s Alice is at least 16 here). They even begin each episode with a prologue set in reality (Carroll weaves the tales to his niece and her friends) and colored in sepia tone! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying or even implying this is anywhere near the same level of artistry as Oz. It doesn’t have the same energy or vision. Nobody’s ever going to call it a classic – it’s far too restricted by its TV origins. But I can picture Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, when putting this production together, using Oz as a jumping off point - or for inspiration, if you like, and at the end of the day being reasonably pleased by the results, given what they had to work with.

The second program is Alice Through the Looking Glass, which, while indeed based on Carroll’s second Alice book, is not a sequel to the previous production. Dramatized and directed by James MacTaggart, it was shown on Christmas Day in 1973 as a single 74 minute show, and stars Sarah Sutton (Nyssa of ‘80s Doctor Who fame) - who was 11 when it was shot - as the title figure. Having said all of that, it still makes a fine sequel to the previously discussed production, as the techniques are similar, right down to the dodgy (but lovable) CSO. Though I didn’t necessarily get the same kind of Oz vibe from this one, its adherence to both the text and the illustrations of its source material is clear. It’s also got a somewhat more high profile cast (in terms of British TV royalty, anyway) with Brenda Bruce, Judy Parfitt and Geoffrey Bayldon all playing sizable parts. However the standout performance must surely be that of Freddie Jones (Dune, The Elephant Man) as Humpty Dumpty, who does amazing things with just his face and voice. Sutton acquits herself nicely as well, and her Alice has a bit more spunk than Nyssa was ever allowed to.

Both discs are bares bones with no extras whatsoever, aside from optional English subtitles. While both programs present frequently disturbing visions that no doubt haunted the children of their respective days, it seems unlikely that kids weaned on the production values and dramatic pacing of today would find much to appreciate here. No, from today’s vantage point, this is fare for adults who can appreciate the conditions under which these shows were created, or people who just want to soak up as many screen versions of Carroll’s literature as possible. Now, BBC, how about releasing Barry Letts' dramatization of Gulliver in Lilliput from 1982?

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Black Whisky Union: The Lysergic EP

“Our focus is memorable melodies, heartfelt story telling, acoustic guitar, piano, bass groove driven soul. Our music is built on the rawness of music. No frills, no samples, no auto-tune.” – The Black Whisky Union

Long time Morgue readers may recall my love for an L.A.-based pop rock band called Vinyl Candy. After three albums of SoCal goodness, the band is currently “on hiatus.” Even though I’m in sporadic contact with some of the band members (i.e. we’re Facebook friends), I don’t actually know the specifics behind the break, or if it’s permanent, or what. I do know that in pop and roll terms, three albums is not a number to sneeze at, and they were three solid albums, and those three CDs will sit nicely next to my Jellyfish and Big Star discs[1].

The good news is that two members of Vinyl Candy – all around musical maestro Jim Leber, and percussionist Michael Wessner - have formed a new band with a lady named Brit Sheridan, who’s handling the majority of the vox on this project. She’s got the looks and the pipes, this girl, and is unquestionably an ideal front person for The Black Whisky Union. Brit’s also an actress, and if you’re a Supernatural fan, you may have caught her on last year’s episode “Bitten.”

The Black Whisky Union kicked off their sound around Christmas with a holiday offering appropriately entitled “Christmas Time” - a bold move. Most bands don’t do the holiday stuff until like the fifth album. They followed that up with a exceptional cover of the Eagles radio staple “I Can’t Tell You Why,” and now they’ve unveiled a three song EP entitled Lysergic, which frankly gets catchier and more perfect with each successive listen; major ear wormage, in the best possible way. I’m particularly fond of “Letter,” which reminds me of the great Vinyl Candy ballads. You can listen to all of this stuff on Soundcloud at the band’s website. Like what you hear? It’s all available on iTunes. 

The band intends to release two more EPs later this year (perhaps to be titled Acid and Diethylamide?). Be sure to “like” them on Facebook so you can keep up with their tuneage and release schedule.

 [1]Matt Corey and Justin Brinsfield – your contributions will be missed like you cannot imagine.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space Special Edition DVD review

“The Reign of Terror” was an ideal DVD release to kick off the 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who – a tale unseen by many a fan, finally available on a platform for mass consumption. (By the way, the Morgue “Reign” DVD review has been updated with some new info, so you might want to peek at that entry again.) While the release schedule isn’t exactly slowing down, it won’t be until June that we get a DVD of a previously unreleased story (Jon Pertwee’s “The Mind of Evil”). Such stories are dwindling as we near the end of the DVD range, but that had to happen sooner or later. Though it might not seem like it sometimes, there actually is a finite amount of classic Who in the world.

So until June you can either save some money, or you can double-dip, and there’s no better place to start that double-dipping than with the special edition of “The Ark in Space,” the revolutionary second story of Tom Baker’s tenure that firmly declared a new direction for the series. One of the unexpected results of these special editions is that they occasionally force me to reconsider tales that weren’t among my favorites in the first place. Not that I’ve ever had a beef with “The Ark in Space,” but in the past it’s often felt dwarfed by so much of what came after. A new DVD brings a new attitude, and here I found myself really rather in love with the whole affair.

The Doctor (Baker), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) have left the present behind and are now travelling a cosmos of the distant future. The TARDIS takes them to a seemingly dead space station – however, the “ark” holds the final remnants of the human race, in stasis, ready to reclaim the Earth and begin again. The humans begin to awaken. Leaders Vira (Wendy Williams) and Noah (Kenton Moore) are first, and both are baffled by the station’s system failures. While the humans have slept, an alien nasty called the Wirrn (pronounced “we’re in”) has infiltrated the ark, intent on piggybacking upon millions of years of human progress, at the cost of the future of the human race.

Make no mistake, “Robot” was great fun, and a worthy enough jumping-off point for the new Doctor, but it clearly had one foot in the previous Pertwee/Letts era, with its Earthbound, UNIT-driven setting. Elements of its plot even harken back to the previous season’s tales “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and “Planet of the Spiders.” Baker’s Doctor felt as though he was itching to leave all that familiarity behind, and go out in search of the unknown, which is precisely what happens in “Ark,” and why thematically it is the real beginning of the Fourth Doctor’s era.

“The Ark in Space” has frequently been compared to Ridley Scott’s Alien. This is clearly a somewhat dodgy proposition, and if one wants to look for similarities, expectations must be kept thoroughly in check for first time viewers. Alien is, after all, the granddaddy of modern sci-fi horror, and “The Ark in Space” is a 1975 BBC TV serial produced on a shoestring budget. That being said, the parallels are there, and when “Ark” was unveiled, it had been some years since Doctor Who had aimed to scare the piss out of the little ones. The serial went even further, by attempting to chill adult viewers as well. Look beyond the green colored bubble wrap and the static look of the Wirrn, and there is indeed something horrific going on, provided you use just a little bit of imagination, as this is also a tale of Cronenbergian body horror done for a family audience.

One of the tale’s obvious triumphs is the rather marvelous set design of the space station by Roger Murray-Leach. The sets were in fact so elaborate (by Who standards, anyway) that they were used twice in the season; later on “Revenge of the Cybermen” portrayed the same station, only set in a much different time period.  On this viewing, however, I was particularly taken by the sound design of “The Ark in Space.” Theres a heavy, all-encompassing eerie, moody vibe (the hum of the station immediately sets the tone), much of which is no doubt the work of Dick Mills, but due credit must also be given to Dudley Simpson’s exceptional score. This is a serial that’s as much fun to hear as it is to watch.

Though the performances are pretty tight across the board, it’s worth finishing up with a little talk of Baker’s work here specifically. Never before had the series presented a Doctor who was so thoroughly alien. Baker’s got a bizarre sense of hard wonder about him here. His is a totally original performance, and not always entirely likable. His Doctor would of course soften over time, but right here at the beginning, what Baker’s doing is a particularly unusual sight to behold. After five years of the far more comforting Jon Pertwee, what must regular viewers have thought of this rogue space traveler upon viewing this serial in ’75? He wasn’t a grandfather you could look up to and believe in, but more of a mad uncle with a wild stare - a visage that keeps you up at night when the lights are out. Baker’s Doctor at this stage was very possibly as unsettling as the creatures he battled. Yes, Doctor Who was in for some changes, and “The Ark in Space” was only the beginning.

"Homo sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species! It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable...indomitable."

DVD Extras: A few items have not made the crossover from the original release of “The Ark in Space.” The “Who’s Who” feature is missing, as it always is on the special editions, so not a big problem there. Also gone is a location report from Wookey Hole, featuring an interview with Tom Baker during production of “Revenge of the Cybermen.” This has since been presented on the “Revenge” DVD (which is really where it belongs), so again, not a massive omission. Gone for good, however, are the Howard Da Silva intros. If you’re a fan of these – and some of you are – then you’ll likely want to hang onto your old DVD. The commentary track with Baker, Sladen, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe has of course been ported over, along with everything else from the original disc, including the alternate CGI sequences, though in order to activate these, you must go to the second screen of the Disc One main menu.

New to Disc One of this two-disc special edition is a fine 30-minute talking heads and clips making of doc entitled “A New Frontier,” which includes gab from Hinchcliffe, director Rodney Bennett, Murray-Leach, and guest stars Williams and Moore, as well as Nicholas Briggs, who talks about the excited shock of watching the serial as a kid. There’s also a new and improved photo gallery.

Disc Two, which features the bulk of the material new to the set, offers up a 70-minute movie version of the serial, also broadcast in ’75. This is the sort of thing that’s possibly of interest to someone who viewed it upon broadcast, but when the complete version exists a mere disc away, it’s unlikely to be something one will get much use out of (your mileage, of course, may vary). Another great documentary entitled “Doctor Forever! Love and War” is an absorbing look back at the Doctor Who book ranges that emerged during the period the show was off the air. Including perspective from Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, and Paul Cornell among others, this is a delightful piece, sure to entertain and inform those who read those books, and even those mostly oblivious to their existence. “Scene Around Six” is some lovely footage of Tom Baker surrounded by fans of various ages that runs around seven and a half minutes. Additionally, there’s a minute of 8mm location footage from “Robot,” and a trailer for the special edition of “The Aztecs.” Finally, there’s a bit of a PDF bonanza: Not only do we get the usual Radio Times listings, but there are materials for two different crossover ad campaigns – one for Nestle’s chocolate and another for Crosse and Blackwell baked beans(!). As if that’s not enough, the entirety of the Doctor Who Technical Manual is presented here. If you’re sort of old like me, then that’s sort of exciting.