Colin Baker was the best ever Doctor

•19 March, 2018 • 3 Comments

This is the sixth in a series of monthly articles.

Everything was wrong with Colin Baker’s era of Doctor Who. Producer John Nathan-Turner had made some questionable decisions about the direction of the show: a garish costume for the lead, a Doctor and companion who didn’t get on, and using the final serial of the departing Peter Davison’s last series to introduce a new Doctor and make the new lead totally unlikeable. Among all this, the new lead he cast was an actor that he discovered through a chance meeting at a mutual friend’s wedding.

Colin Baker was a fan of the show and would say in interviews in the nineties that he had intended to stay in the role for longer than his namesake predecessor did in the seventies. But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Turner’s overbearing control of the creative direction of the series was at its height and Michael Grade (Controller of BBC1, Director of Programmes, and finally Managing Director Designate across the mid-eighties) was looking for any reason he could to terminate the show. Yet, in the early two-thousands, Doctor Who’s fandom would discover a new appreciation for the Doctor who was worst-served by circumstance.

Baker’s brash portrayal of the Doctor was hard to see past, especially with that nightmare of a costume. But his audio work in the role for Big Finish showcased the other side of his character: warm-hearted, saving the brashness for outraged protests against the evil of the villains he faced. This side of his portrayal was evident during his time on television, but was buried under the antagonistic relationship the Doctor had with his companion, Peri (Nicola Bryant). Yet, during the filming of Peri’s final episodes at the start of the ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ series, Baker and Bryant decided to play against the script, letting the barbs between them become more affectionate. The Doctor of the first ‘Trial’ episodes has the warmth and charm that offset the pomposity of the character. This was a Doctor that loved his friends and rained hellfire on his enemies. ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ also showcased just how good an actor Baker was. Many of the cliffhangers in the fourteen episode run were twists in the trial’s proceedings, requiring a final shot of the Doctor reacting to a new revelation. That this didn’t become a parody of itself is purely because Baker was able to keep his reactions fresh.

In some parallel universe, Colin Baker was the Doctor from 1985 until 1993/4. He wore a leather jacket and polo neck sweatshirt instead of the Victorian clown costume. Turner, in this idealised universe, would have moved on in 1988, and Doctor Who would have had a much-needed budget increase rather than being cancelled twice. Colin Baker would have been the Doctor for a generation of fans in exactly the same way that Tom Baker was before him. And the iconic eighties Doctor would have been known for his warmth and courage rather than that bloody multi-coloured coat…


Thinking About Meat

•26 February, 2018 • 1 Comment

It’s easy to ignore, what with the lying bastard tactics certain animal rights organisations use to shock us, quite how unpleasant the reality of animal farming is. Traditional farming, with animals roaming, is giving way to battery farms for animals bigger than chickens (and even the battery chickens are kept in some horrible conditions) and this has implications not just for animal welfare, but also the environment. The slurry from larger shed-based dairies is a blight on the countryside, for example. Britain may have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world, but while we’re content to buy cheap meat with no concern for its provenance, the market will continue to make farmers cut every legal corner they can to turn a profit in the face of the poor prices supermarkets and other food packagers pay.

The answer, as far as I am concerned, is not to go vegetarian or vegan. I see free market capitalism as a democracy in which one votes with one’s wallet. The problem with the system is that the people in it don’t think beyond the product in front of them and the price tag on it. (Or the meaningless designer label, but that’s another story…) So I’ve been saying for a while now that, once my poverty has ended, I’d be conscientious about where I buy meat. The thing is, I realised over Christmas that money was a poor justification for a sentient being’s suffering. So this January, I stopped buying any meat that wasn’t labelled as “free range”. Let the pound in my pocket go to the producers who would care for their animals the way I’d wish them to.

It’s hard work. To all intents and purposes, it means I have to be vegetarian outside the house. Very few restaurants or takeaways take any particular care as to the nature of the farms they get their meat from. I live on oven baking processed food for reasons of time and money. Suddenly, I’ve replaced chicken burgers in my meals with vegetarian substitutes, and the ones I can afford are not necessarily the nicest or healthiest. When I’m working out, I find I crave red meat roughly every three days. Sadly, in terms of supermarket meat, the only guidance available much of the time is the RSPCA Freedom Food mark. It’s limited in its remit, and the only red meat animal it certifies is the pig. To cut a long story short, I’m now eating more sausages per week than is wise for a man who has come to recognise the need to lose two stone.

I hope government plans for increased meat labelling extend to the farming method as well as the slaughter method. It would be nice to know for certain that that lamb cutlet in Sainsbury’s came from a grass-fed sheep. In the mean time, I hope to find a paying job soon enough that I can start using a proper butcher in the near future.

Peter Davison was the best ever Doctor

•19 February, 2018 • Leave a Comment

This is the fifth in a series of monthly articles.

By 1980, Doctor Who had become a cultural icon. It had been on British screens for seventeen years, and its charismatic lead had been playing the role for longer than the original two actors combined. Appearing out of nowhere and playing the role for so long, Tom Baker WAS Doctor Who. So how do you follow an act like that?

The BBC wanted the show to go in a new direction, to be fresh again. And lightning had struck twice in terms of the production team finding a Tom Baker to replace a lead as successful as Jon Pertwee. So they opted to cast a name in the role – Peter Davison, known for All Creatures Great and Small and at the time starring in two sitcoms (Sink or Swim and Holding the Fort).

Davison chose to play the role much in the vein of his “wet vet” character Tristan from All Creatures… For the Doctor, this was a return to the quiet scientific form of his sixties characters. It was a departure from the larger-than-life swagger that the Doctor had established in the seventies, and it allowed the show to evolve. A quieter Doctor could relate to his companions, allowing the show to deal with the emotional fallout that the high body count of these adventures in time and space was likely to engender. Could you imagine Tom Baker’s Doctor, he who said a muted ‘goodbye’ to Leela then chuckled and built a new K9, reassuring Tegan and Nyssa after the death of Adric? The television landscape was changing, and an action adventure series needed to engage realistically with human drama. Davison was the actor best placed to handle that change.

Everything that made Davison’s Doctor the best was distilled into his final serial in the role: Robert Holmes’s The Caves of Androzani. Here, the Doctor is lumbered with a new companion, a whiny American called Peri. It’s clear as they snipe at each other in the opening scene that they don’t really get on. But when she gets fatally poisoned on a remote alien world, the Doctor moves the heavens to save her. Dying himself, he staves off regeneration to keep control of a hijacked spaceship; negotiates with a corrupt politician, a hell-driven general, a band of thugs and a vengeful megalomaniac; and gives Peri the only dose of the antidote knowing that he may have held off regenerating for a fatally long time. Davison’s cutting sarcasm betrayed an inner steel that becomes so evident in Caves. The Doctor’s motivations as a champion of the underdog become more scrutable: he cares, and it’s clear that he cares.

Since the revival, the series has become more emotionally literate even than its eighties incarnation. Davison’s Doctor could transplant easily into this environment, reassuring his companions, fighting for the underdog because he feels that it’s right, and embodying the motto “never give up and never give in”. That same inner steel would also have driven shows of the earlier, more flippant, era.

The Soundwaves Music Competition

•12 February, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Those of you who have been following the activities of Harlequin’s Kiss via this blog may be forgiven for wondering what happened with our involvement with the Soundwaves Music Competition. Where I left the tale was that we had been involved in a live audition at the Victoria in Birmingham. Well, to cut a long story short, we passed the audition and the subsequent video submission stage, but we chose not to continue participating.

We had small suspicions about the organisation, but we could tell that it had expanded from a Glasgow-based contest to a national situation. The contest is not affiliated with the Soundwaves festival in Croatia (and maybe we should have questioned the choice of name), but the opportunities offered by the competition were still attractive: playing the main stage at the O2 Academy. That’s good exposure, right?

Pay-to-play and how reasonable such gigs are is an ongoing debate in the independent music community. The Victoria audition was technically pay-to-play, but the outlay of £20 with a mere 4 tickets to sell to break even seemed a reasonable way to cover the competition’s expenses to us. So we played that gig in November with little reservation. The next round would be a big deal in its own right, wouldn’t it?

Well, having jumped through the hoop of producing a video of our work at less than a week’s notice (a demand that they justified as being a test of our ability to work with the normal demands of the music industry), we were told that our participation in the regional final would require us to buy 30 tickets at £10 each that we could sell on to our fans. How many tickets we sold would contribute to our score in the final. A £300 outlay was bad enough but, just like the audition, we would only be playing a 10-minute set.

As far as we are concerned, we would not insult our fans by asking them to pay £10 to see us play for 10 minutes, especially when we can’t even guarantee who else is on the bill. Furthermore, we could think of better ways of spending £300 that we might not necessarily recover, including hiring venues that we could play in our own right with quality supports that we have vetted ourselves.

Having made the decision to make better use of the money, we are now considering what we can do with a gig that we have spent £300 putting on. This may turn into a show in a city centre venue in Birmingham once we have our new drummer settled into our show. We sincerely hope that the finalists who chose to participate got what they wanted out of the show, but we could not continue to participate in the Soundwaves Music Competition in good conscience.


Insomniac Ramblings

•9 February, 2018 • 2 Comments

So here I am, drunk at 6am. It’s been a funny couple of months, and unfortunately blogging has had to take a back seat. You see, I realised as Christmas was approaching that I had to call a halt to most of my life before it all came collapsing around my ears. Imagine a plate-spinner – one of those people who balance plates on wobbly sticks: one plate goes up at a time, and they have to wind the sticks under each plate up periodically or the plate comes crashing down. I had too many plates up, and realised that I had to take almost all of them down before they broke. So I had to keep the band ticking over at a bare minimum, and the job hunt on the go, and also had to finish the seemingly endless task of getting my bedroom decorated and my stuff sorted so I could move in properly and start to really sort my life out.

It’s February now, and I’m very close to finishing the job of sorting out what I can keep in my room and what has to go in the loft. You’d think that the weight would be lifting off my shoulders as a result, but something seems to be wrong at the back of my mind. I’m getting tense and bad-tempered. I’ve broken the back of the insomnia that’s been plaguing me since the end of August, but my sleep has gone weirdly out of whack – I’m sometimes not sleeping and sometimes oversleeping, feeling like I could sleep for a week even after I’ve finally woken up. And tonight I’ve just let the Monster take over, allowing myself to drink like a maniac and indulge whatever whim comes into my head. Right this second it seems to be writing, but earlier it was dicking about on the internet and listening to eighties ballads on youtube. I’m not sure what to make of this.

I regard some of this as the swings and roundabouts of depression and anxiety. Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of indulging this the way I used to. When I was a student, I had only six hours of lecture commitments per week and a job that took up two seven-hour shifts. I could afford to work in lumps, writing and researching like a maniac when I was high and scaling back to the minimum when I was low. Unfortunately, I have to make some attempt to conform to the nine-to-five so it doesn’t destroy me when I get back into paid work.

In reality, I need to finish at least one of the novels I’ve been threatening to write for the past sixteen years. In an ideal world, I could work as a writer and go back to working in the lumps I used to. And at night, when my creativity is at its best. Wish me luck, because careers in music and writing are as much that as judgement.

Tom Baker was the best ever Doctor Who

•29 January, 2018 • Leave a Comment

This is the fourth in a series of monthly articles.

Jon Pertwee had changed Doctor Who, or rather, redefined it. Still a scientist and a moralist, Pertwee’s Doctor was a man of action who leapt off the screen. The show had become more violent and the lead role had been played by a sparkling, charismatic actor for almost as many years as his two predecessors put together.

After several casting false starts, the producers settled on a virtual unknown to replace him. Tom Baker was a jobbing actor, sleeping on a friend’s sofa and working as a builder’s labourer when his recent film role as Rasputin got him the call to play one of the most iconic roles in British television. What is truly remarkable about Baker is that he hit the ground running. He was immediately Doctor Who, from his fist appearance in 1975’s ‘Robot’. He had all the screen presence of Pertwee. And something more.

We knew that Doctor Who was an alien. That had been made clear to us over the course of Troughton’s tenure. Troughton conveyed it by seeming to know more than the characters around him about what was going on. Pertwee conveyed it by his aloofness and his unshakeable belief in a “united world” morality. Tom Baker simply was alien. His boggle-eyed looks when he was reminded of human concerns, his disarming bohemian behaviours, and his sense of being not on the same wavelength while still being very believably a part of what was going on made Baker seem more like he came from another planet than any Doctor before or since. Doctor Who had turned around in the early 1970s and became an icon for a new generation of TV viewers. With Baker in the role, the show grew from strength to strength.

Over the course of seven years, it was clearly Tom Baker who was at the centre of the show’s popularity. Through a series of producers, the tone of Doctor Who shifted from Hammer lite, to kids’ action, to fantasy with a sci-fi bent. All the while, Baker never seemed out of place on the changing show.

One of the key factors in Baker’s success is that he loved the role. Even though he wasn’t very familiar with Doctor Who before being cast (he tended to be drinking in Soho on a Saturday evening), he put his heart into it. He could be difficult, but at the same time, camera rehearsal footage from 1977 serials is very telling. Famously, he and his co-star of the time, Louise Jameson, didn’t get on, but what carries across in the rehearsal footage is Baker’s sheer professionalism, and the desire to give the best performance and best shot. No tension between Baker and Jameson is evident.

Tom Baker’s Doctor is not a product of his time, and as such is timeless. He defined Saturday evening television in the late 1970s and, transplanted to now, could still lay down the blueprint for how to play a Time Lord among humans.

Jon Pertwee was the best ever Doctor Who

•4 December, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is the third in a series of monthly articles.

It was 1969. BBC TV was about to become all-colour and Doctor Who’s future was in question. Its star, Patrick Troughton, saw himself as a jobbing actor, and therefore didn’t do chat show appearances to promote the Saturday night staple. Ratings were in a steady decline, Troughton was leaving, colour filming was expensive, and a new production team were coming in to face these challenges. In a million universes, Doctor Who limped on for a year or two in the seventies before being shot like a lame horse.

Outgoing producer Derek Sherwin had created a new format for the show. To save money, it would be set on Earth and would centre around a military organisation set up to deal with the top secret and the paranormal. The production team’s choice for a new Time Lord to replace Troughton was… Ron Moody.

Moody would have likely played a character in the vein of the two previous incarnations. Not very physical, mostly cerebral, a Quatermass figure among the military hardware of early seventies Doctor Who. We can only speculate whether the series would have survived with Moody at the helm. When Moody declined, the role was offered to light entertainment actor Jon Pertwee. When he asked the production team how to play the character, he was told to play it as Jon Pertwee. He later said that he had to work out who “Jon Pertwee” really was.

It turned out that ex racing driver and Naval Intelligence operative Pertwee was a Venusian martial artist, car enthusiast, protector of the underdog, and advocate of peace and co-operation. His personality leapt off the screen and his man-of-action persona made for a smooth fit with fictional military division UNIT.

The new, colour Doctor Who quickly moved from being a flagging teen show to once again being a British cultural icon. This was in no small part due to the sheer charisma of its new lead. Never having worked in drama before, Pertwee’s natural talent as a character actor lent itself readily to both his gritty first series and the more child-friendly tone that the production team moved to as the decade continued. Doctor Who was still Doctor Who: despite the car chases and fight choreography, the character was still at heart a scientist. He designed gadgets, tinkered with computers, and pushed for the non-military solution in the face of alien invasion. Over the course of five years in the role, Pertwee’s Doctor Who was a show that went from strength to strength.

Despite Pertwee being a seventies alpha male, he had his female co-stars’ backs on set. Likewise, he saw the character as something of a “mother hen”. This action Doctor with both charm and a huge heart could stand today, even away from seventies mores. I could see Sean Pertwee reprising the role, maybe annoying Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor some with his patronisation, but still showing the strong moral centre of the character and his never-say-die approach to saving the universe.