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Classic Who: The Leisure Hive

Onto season 18, now. I think I'll try to write up the stories in this one at a time as I go along - otherwise it just becomes too daunting if I let a back-log build up and have to write three at once.

Fourth Doctor: The Leisure Hive
This story marks the arrival of some new top honchos (John Nathan-Turner, Christopher Bidmead), and it is very obviously designed to do so distinctly and explicitly. Hmm, let's see now... so, the central theme of the story is about trying to find a way of ensuring the future survival of a sterile race whose lives are devoted to providing mass entertainment, via the use of hitherto criminally underused cutting-edge technology. Ummm... no, sorry, I don't get it - COULD YOU SPELL IT OUT FOR ME?

There are some new aesthetics to get used to while all this is happening - several of which are clearly designed to make the series seem more Futuristic! and Up-to-date! The incidental music is suddenly leaning much more towards the electronic and the synthesised than it ever had before, and I found it rather more intrusive. And of course, the opening and closing credit sequences have changed, too. This is exciting in one way, because I actually remember these credits from my childhood. (I'm aware that the Peter Davison ones are very similar, but I definitely remember Tom Baker's face specifically, appearing and disappearing in the middle of the screen). But I had some mixed feelings about those credits, even as a child. The new neon logo looks a bit naff now, but the stars and light flares looked then - and look now - extremely cool. The whole receding star-field effect also very clearly states 'This is a programme about wondrous journeys INTO SPACE!' - and as a child, you really appreciate that. Also, I think that even at the age of four, I realised that the way Tom Baker's face coalesces out of and then dissolves into a field of stars in some way designated him as a mysterious, all-powerful space-being. Nowadays, I'd say a constellation, and therefore probably also a mythological hero, but obviously I didn't have those concepts or that vocabulary at the time - I think I'd have just seen him as some kind magical, benevolent space-man (which is functionally the same, of course).

On the other hand, though, I was always deeply disturbed by the 'explosion' at the end of the closing credits sequence - when a single blue 'star' glides past the camera, and then returns and grows to engulf the whole screen in an explosion of white light. Again, I don't think I could have put into words why this bothered me as a child, but I think now that what upset me about it was that it made it seem as though the whole story-world, and all those lovely people who were in it, had been destroyed when the programme ended. I knew it wasn't real, and I also knew they would be back next week - but I didn't like the idea that they had so definitively GONE at the end of the programme. It would be like tearing up a book after you'd read it. I wanted to be able to imagine the story going on, and them continuing to live their lives, until we returned to the story the next time. Oddly, I get much the same feeling now from the closing credits of Have I Got News For You. I haven't watched the programme for a while, so the closing credits may have changed - but the end of them always used to feature the applauding studio audience gradually disappearing as the screen fades into blue. And I hate that! I have to switch off the TV or leave the room if it's happening. I mean, of course I know it's an effect, and that it's a recorded show and the studio audience aren't even there any more. But how horrible to see them all being swallowed up into an featureless sea of blue! I can't bear it.

Anyway, getting back to Doctor Who, we also had the music from this era's opening and closing credits on a children's music tape (alongside gems such as 'We're Going to the Zoo, Zoo, Zoo', 'Nellie the Elephant' and 'The Clapping Song'), which got played rather a lot on long car journeys. So this version of the theme-tune is pretty hard-wired into my psyche. Nowadays, though, I'm somewhat ambivalent about it. It does have some cool elements, like the swooshing and zapping sounds laid over the main tune, and some lovely sequences of repeated chords in the closing credits, which seem to 'bounce' one after another. It also has the great advantage over almost all of the previous six years' worth of credits (bar, I noticed, episodes three and four of The Invasion of Time) of including the wonderful 'middle eight' in the closing section of the credits - which is, in my view, probably the very best bit of the Doctor Who theme tune. BUT, at the same time comes the utter sterilisation of the main driving 'diggerdy-dum' bassline (rather like in the new version created for New Who season 4, actually). Previously visceral and gutsy, suddenly it's just - synthesised. And I don't think that's a price worth paying for the rest of it.

Then there's the matter of the Doctor's new apparel. Up to now, I've enjoyed watching his clothing develop gradually since season twelve. Apart from the obvious staples of scarf and hat (though even the latter changes) there have been three main coats, in this order:

But even these have tended to overlap with one another, swapping backwards and forwards for different stories; while they've also been set off by a variety of different waistcoats, cravats, shirts, trousers and boots. Among these, I'd just like to make special mention of what I call the Brown Argyle Cardigan of Love, seen here in The Ark from Space:

It's not that I actually like brown argyle cardigans, y'unnerstand. It's just that it's such an obviously off-kilter thing for a man to be wearing, even in the mid-seventies, that the fact that he is doing so anyway makes it incredibly endearing, and therefore LOVE. He fixes spaceships - in a brown argyle cardigan! *swoon* Anyway, my real point is that although there has obviously been a very consistent 'look' for Tom Baker's Doctor up to this point, the individual items he wears all look like elements in a larger wardrobe.

In this story, though, we suddenly switch to this:

And all of a sudden, we've got a costume, rather than a character-appropriate outfit. I don't like the way all the elements are clearly parts of a matching whole, rather than a casually thrown-together ensemble as they were before. And (despite my comments about the cardigan, above), I don't like the breeches and argyle socks, either. They make him look so doddery and old-mannish.

'Cos that's another thing about this story, of course. I don't know exactly when the decision was made relative to when it was recorded, but if I thought I was going to be able to pretend to myself that everything was still fine through the course of this season, and that Tom Baker wasn't really going to leave, my illusions were well and truly shattered by the opening five minutes - which have him nodding off senescently in a deckchair while Romana is talking to him. Oh, there are still scenes when he's his usual bouncy, energetic self - but the idea that this Doctor is getting old and tired is very clearly in the air here; and literally demonstrated when he accidentally gets aged by 500 years in the Tachyon Recreation Generator. I must say that both the make-up department and Baker himself do a brilliant job here - it's one of the most convincing faked agings I've ever seen on TV (far better than New Who has managed in fact), and Baker conveys the slow stiffness of advanced age really beautifully. But the fact remains than I just don't want the idea of his ageing to be raised at all. :-(

For all my emotional reactions against change, though, the actual story is pretty good. There are some interesting ideas in it (planets dedicated entirely to VR leisure pursuits; scientists faking results in a desperate attempt to secure funding; the creation of mass armies cloned from one person), some compelling characters (especially the rapidly-ageing Argolin Chairwoman, Mena) and some nicely-presented details (e.g. Mena's costume, which underlines her sterile status by making her look like The Virgin Queen). Best of all, it also has a strong Classical grounding. At the beginning of the first story, Romana explains the concept of the Leisure Planets to the Doctor, and we learn that not only the one on which the main action takes place, but others too, have the names of ancient Greek cities and islands: Argolis (the modern region where the ancient city of Argos is located), Abydos and Limus 4 - not so direct, but rather reminiscent of Limnos.

When we get to Argolis, we find a lot of plastic statues scattered about the place with a strong resemblence to Classical Greek herms (though I didn't spot any phalloi), and something a lot like a Corinthian helmet hung from the court-room ceiling. Later, we learn that the helmet is a relic of a hero named Theron, who waged great wars, but caused the near-destruction of the planet in the process. Meanwhile, in one scene, the ageing Mena and her younger son, Pangol, explicitly discuss the ancient Greeks and Romans (whom they presumably know of through their contact with Earth), characterising the Athenians as moderates and the Romans as warriors. And this is great, and so much better than the very empty Classical references in Underworld and The Horns of Nimon, because this constitutes using the Classics as a way of adding actual value to your own story. Rather than just dumbly following a Classical story, this helps to characterise the Argolids, and show up divisions within their society: between the majority who sympathise with the moderate, intellectual Athenians, and new elements like Pangol who want to move towards the war-like ways of the Romans. That helps the audience to relate to them, and is both much more interesting and much less constrictive.

Finally, New Who watch noted marked similarities between the Tachyon Recreation Generator and the rejuvenation machine in The Lazarus Experiment; between the clicks and whistles by which the Foamasi communicate and the bubbles of the Hath in The Doctor's Daughter; and, since I'm still reading Lungbarrow at the moment, between the concept of a sterile race trying to find new ways to reproduce itself in both. And that's not to mention, of course, the Aged Doctor motif already mentioned. Meanwhile, Old Who watch wondered why Romana was eagerly helping people with their ham-fisted time travel experiments yet again, when surely she should have learnt her lesson about that in City of Death; and also noted that David Fisher sure likes putting the Doctor on trial, since he did the same thing (to questionable effect) in The Stones of Blood.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 11th, 2008 07:32 am (UTC)
Tom Baker was quite ill during the recording of Season 18 apparently, which probably explains why he looks kn@ckered half the time.

On the subject of costume, I started watching Shada last night and was amused by the scene where Skagra confronts the Doctor and demands to know where the book is. Instead of Skagra being dressed in his camp 70's disco gear, he's now dressed as 1970s Dad, and the Doctor retorts with "I don't like your tailor".
Jun. 11th, 2008 08:05 am (UTC)
"I don't like your tailor"

Oh, I know - that's so funny! It is so obviously a line displaced from some other part of the story, in which he was still wearing the cape. I guess that's the kind of line that would have been edited out before broadcast.
Jun. 13th, 2008 10:41 am (UTC)
You were (and are) a sensitive child, weren't you! As we're talking nostalgia, I remember being very perturbed at the changes consequent on the JNT takeover. The new title sequence I thought was attempting to set a far too slick and Star Wars-y note, whereas the old 'swirling tunnel' effect had an eerie claustrophobia which was far more scary. The current one, of course, just beats you into submission, which has its own sort of appeal. Before the season started the old Dr Who Magazine ran a cover of Baker in the new gear which, as you say, constituted a costume rather than a collection of bits and pieces believably thrown together from whatever might have been lying around the TARDIS's wardrobes. Not that at 11 I really appreciated that. What I noticed was the question marks embroidered on the Dr's shirt lapels. Again, I don't think I could have articulated it then, but it marked the start of a sort of arch self-commentary on the show, as well as implying that the TARDIS contained not only an extensive clothes storage area but also apparently a team of seamstresses. Discovering later how much JNT hated Baker put it all into context - not that that time didn't produce some of the most fun moments in the show.
Jun. 13th, 2008 12:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're so right about the question marks. It's very, very hard to imagine the Fourth Doctor commissioning little embroidered question marks on his clothing. I imagine him instead popping to obscure junk-shops or flea-markets he knows every time he realises his old clothes are wearing thin, and just buying whatever old hand-me-downs seem about right, regardless of what era (or planet) they come from, what colour they are, or whether they go with any of his existing clothes. Somehow, the luck of the gods goes with him, and he manages to cobble together something that looks about right - but it's not down to any conscious design on his part.

To be fair, though, the question-mark lapels probably aren't entirely down to JNT. I noticed in The Power of Kroll that the Doctor was wearing duck-shaped badges on the lapels of his beige coat, while in City of Death he's wearing an artist's palette and paint-tubes in the same place - both clearly designed to 'suit' the settings of the stories. So someone was obviously trying to get a bit meta-referential with the costuming before JNT came along.

(And gosh, I really do feel incredibly geeky for noticing and analysing something so trivial! Back to Real Work for me, I think!)
Nov. 5th, 2011 06:14 pm (UTC)
Review request

I'm putting together a book that reprints reviews of classic Doctor Who stories and I'd really like to include this review. Email me at smithr@math.mcmaster.ca and we can discuss the details.


- Robert Smith?
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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