Posts Tagged ‘Jon Pertwee’

I have been trying very hard to like the new millennium Doctor Who, but I think the time has come to admit defeat. I have now reached the tipping point where I have given up hope that the series will  turn into something that I actually enjoy watching. Something that I can watch without constant cringing embarrassment at its maudlin emotional excesses or irritation at its poor narrative construction, moral ambiguities and repeated excursions into dubious religious territory. Then there’s the bombastic and intrusive orchestral score which grates like sandpaper on my musical sensibilities. That’s quite a list unfortunately! As  The Outland Institute has it – a once favourite program has turned into Neighbours in Space: a soap with science fiction fantasy trimmings.

If my parents were avid watchers of Doctor Who, right from the early William Hartnell days (Dr. Who first went to air in the UK in 1963), the Doctors I grew up with were Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. I dropped out mid Tom Baker due to other non-television watching activities, fortunately before that point where his performances and the story lines degenerated into eccentric and twee pantomime and tedious fannish stories about the Doctor’s fellow Time Lords and home planet of Gallifrey.

My first memories of Dr. Who were of Patrick Troughton in a shaggy overcoat accompanied by his companions, Victoria and Jamie, battling with mysterious and rather frightening yeti in Tibet who turn out to be robots animated by impressive glass silver spheres. The air of menace in my memories of this story was further enhanced by the constant howl of a  freezing wind in the background, the interaction of the Tibetan monks and the alien intelligence, and the grainy black and white in which the series was filmed. Unfortunately this adventure titled ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ first broadcast in 1967 has been lost – wiped as was a common practice of the day in relation to television series. This was reflective of the low status of television as an art form at the time and, of course, nobody had any idea that the technology for home recording and viewing would exist in the future and that much money could be made from a combination of nostalgia and fan completism.

I am part of a generation – indeed generations – who grew up with Doctor Who and it has no doubt structured the imagination of those generations in ways they cannot even track – and this is perhaps part of the reason for the huge success of the new millennium version of Doctor Who. People want to like it, as it hooks into a cultural imaginary formed by Doctor Who in the past. Parents also want their children to have that experience. Of course, in the 1960s the mere mention of ‘cultural formation’ in relation to something like Doctor Who, more readily defined as genre trash culture for children, would have been anathema. The series creators tried to attenuate this with some educational pretensions – notably the adventures set in various periods of European history. But Patrick Troughton eventually left Doctor Who on the insistence of his wife who thought that acting in this children’s rubbish (furtively watched by many adults as well) was a poor career move. But of course, apart from a small but notable part in The Omen (1976), his three-year stint as Doctor Who from 1966 to 1969 is what he is remembered for today. This disqualification of certain types of imaginative output – namely the speculative imaginary – as suitable for consumption by adults is by no means dead in current culture.

To be continued


Read Full Post »

Kim Newman, Doctor Who. London: BFI publishing, 2005.

My rating: ***

Doctor Who (BFI TV Classics) Doctor Who by Kim Newman

Kim Newman is a well-known and prolific author of genre novels, overviews on cult and horror film and TV and a reviewer for the film magazine Empire.

This book, an entry in the excellent BFI TV classics series, is an enjoyable if sometimes hastily written, short handbook. It manages to provide a nicely opinionated overview of ‘classic’ Doctor Who with a few references to the new post 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

There’s no strong argument unifying the book but there are a number of thought provoking tidbits, a few of which I will dip into below.

It is good to see Newman confirm my own long held prejudice that from ‘1963 to K9, Doctor Who was important and from 1977 to 1989 it wasn’t.’ (p. 7) Like Newman, I stopped watching not long after the introduction of K9, the metal robot dog, which Tom Baker would kick in frustration behind the scenes. I didn’t mind K9 so much as Baker’s increasing tendency to treat proceedings as all a bit of a joke. I was more interested in the serious science fiction offerings of the Troughton and Jon Pertwee eras. After around 1977, as Newman says, the series degenerated into failed comedy, pantomime and self-referential fan-fiction.

Newman also provides a number of other insightful observations. For example, in relation to the fixed (and ghastly) costumes of the later Doctor Who. These costumes he describes as a ‘comic-book invention … unsustainable in live-action where audiences wonder if the hero is wearing the same, never cleaned, never-worn-out clothes for years on end’ (p. 97) The earlier Doctors if they had a certain style (ie Jon Pertwee’s Carnaby St Edwardian style) they still had different sets of clothes to their wardrobe.

I also enjoyed Newman’s remark in relation to Who merchandising that it became difficult to be scared of monsters like the daleks that had been turned into soft toys. (Speaking of soft toys, there is an excellent blog at Live Journal titled Who_knits: Time and Double Pointed Needles in Space which details a variety of Dr. Who knitting projects. And this is by no means the only Dr. Who knitting site on the net.)

Newman also notes with a surprising ambivalence for someone who has been involved in cult genre and fandom for so long, ‘in the 1960s, fictional events were not obsessively covered by the national press. Now no popular television drama can surprise audiences by writing out a character through murder, marriage or act of God (or have them outed as gay or a serial killer) without a leak making the front page of the tabloids’ (p. 40) He is discussing here the lack of fanfare that heralded the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.

It would have been interesting to see some further elaboration on why these changes have occurred. My own view is that this shift marks a welcome move away from the hide-bound stranglehold of the scientific and Hegelian world view where only the rational and the empirically visible had any value, returning to a much earlier view that there is more to existence than what we can see immediately before our eyes. This earlier view is described by French historian Jacques Le Goff in his book The Medieval Imagination. It is a view which didn’t draw a rigid division between the fictional and the non-fictional.

Another observation I thoroughly approved of was Newman’s comment about the propensity of American series not to understand that ‘viewers who enjoyed the adventures, didn’t want to listen to whining characters who only wanted to get home and lead boring lives’ (p. 20). The Wizard of Oz has long been an exemplary fan disappointment on this front – as was its ending – ‘it was all just a dream’, a generic resolution universally loathed by fan viewers whenever it appears in a series or film.

Unfortunately, Doctor Who was not entirely exempt from this irritating hankering after home theme. One of the later companions, Tegan, was particularly tedious in this respect. This is something that Russell T. Davies (a hater of The Wizard of Oz ending) has deliberately gone out of his way to counter in the new series of Doctor Who – even if I do find these new outings problematic on a large number of other fronts. The Outland Institute blog very aptly describes the new series as ‘Neighbours in Space’.

Also of interest in this book, is Newman’s broad knowledge of other cult and genre television which he is able to reference in his discussions which goes a long way to contextualising Doctor Who in the context of other contemporaneous cult TV and film.

Read Full Post »


This post was updated 24 April 2014

My rating: *****

Note: Simon Coward’s comprehensive, but now defunct, Ace of Wands website (available in the Wayback machine internet archive) and Andrew Pixley’s copious viewing notes which accompany the 2007 Network DVD release have been invaluable in providing background information and quotations for this review.

This British children’s fantasy series is by all current technical standards fairly dire. It is slow, there are noticeable differences between filmed exterior shots, archive stock footage and videoed interior shots as well as glaring continuity errors and booms in shot. The special effects induce hilarity rather than wonder or horror, there are gaping plot holes and dialogue is sometimes stilted. Yet one reads enthusiastic review after review of this series – all of them recent – on the web. Perhaps, it might be argued, that these represent nothing but the rose coloured reminiscences of the legion of nostalgia buffs out there. Yet there are people new to the series, seeing it for the first time (it was made available on DVD in 2007) who are equally keen, even if one admits that those buying such a set are already a specialist audience amongst specialist audiences.

When I first started watching the DVDs I found the stories hideously slow and unconvincing. The special effects (shaking rooms and floating Egyptian artefacts) and faux location shots in quarries were entertainingly amusing rather than gripping. Neither am I a fan of borderline pantomime villains of the type found in The Avengers and the later series of classic Dr. Who. But by the end of the series I was completely hooked. So what happened, what drew me in and kicked all my fan mechanisms into gear? But before talking about that let’s provide some background on the series first.

Ace of Wands is a children’s fantasy series originally broadcast by Thames Television from 1970 to 1972. The central figure, Tarot, is a highly successful stage magician and illusionist who, dressed in the height of early 70s fashion and with the help of two assistants/friends (one male, one female), investigates and solves weird goings on. His pet owl, Ozymandias, although not of any practical help in these proceedings, provides moral and aesthetic support.

Three seasons of the series were made and in the historical and cultural vandalism that marked television policies of the 1960s and early 1970s, the first two seasons were wiped by the television company who were out to save money by reusing old videotape. Little did they realise that some thirty years down the track this would be a more than false economy, and that they had unwittingly deprived themselves of a goldmine. There is a lesson in there somewhere. Fans continue to scour the world in the hope that, as with Dr. Who, copies will be found secreted away in the archives of some less irresponsible television station outside the UK.

If these first two seasons ever do come to light, one thing I would particularly like to see is Tarot’s minimalist and futuristic Japanese style warehouse flat. For some inexplicable reason, in season 3 he is moved to a houseboat. I have a serious weakness for futuristic white minimalism and can only see a houseboat as a backwards step in this context.

Perhaps the secret of the series, and what finally engaged my fan interest is the conceptualisation of the central character and Michael Mackenzie’s performance in this role. Indeed the acting all round, of both principals and villains, is very solid which helps make up for other shortcomings. Mackenzie explains the considerable success of his character with the audience at the time, which included not only children but large numbers of university students. Tarot was, he says, ‘a really good looking bloke in attractive trendy clothes of the time – someone the girls like. For the boys he has a pet owl, fast cars and motorbikes’. One might remark, however, that this statement in relation to gender preferences is perhaps unduly limiting. Not a few girls, then as now, tend to look favourably on a man who accessorises himself with fast expensive cars and an animal as exotic as an owl.

In an interview with Simon Coward Mackenzie further remarks on his approach to the role:

I had no idea what I was doing at first, apart from making sure that I looked good in the trendy clothes, fast cars and beautifully designed sets! I thought he should convey the impression of great inner strength and mental and spiritual development but be relaxed. But basically I was so inexperienced I thought it was best to do what I was told by the directors.

He notes elsewhere, ‘I think Tarot is a rather reserved and mysterious person’. In fact we have no background information on Tarot at all and he seems to possess vaguely paranormal powers. A character like this is usually played with a degree of coldness and remoteness, but Mackenzie as well as admirably succeeding in conveying all the character traits he lists above, opts for a warmth and humility which nonetheless, as he says himself, doesn’t preclude Tarot from being a bit of a ‘smartarse’. It is perhaps telling that Mackenzie prefers the episodes penned by P.J. Hammond (of future Sapphire and Steel fame) where Tarot is under genuine threat from adversaries who are far stronger than himself.

There is also a good deal of chemistry between Tarot and his friend Mikki and also it would seem from remarks about the earlier two series, between Tarot and her predecessor Lulli. Nothing is ever stated but perhaps the actors decided that in real life, in non-television land, two people who shared an unusual telepathic link, who embarked on numerous adventures together and who both shared a love of 70s fashion would inevitably get together. We notice Tarot and Mikki flirting quite outrageously sometimes and a discreet physical contact between them that would seem to indicate that offstage in uncensored reality, something was going on that couldn’t be dealt with up front in an early 70s children’s series. Further, as Michael Mackenzie indicates, Tarot had to be seen to be available and unattached to maintain the attention of the female viewing public.

Personally, I have never really understood this argument which is frequently advanced in relation to the depiction of male leads in TV series. From my own point of view, I find it far more interesting to see how my male heroes deal with attachment rather than avoid it or fail to achieve it. It would seem for all these prohibitions, however, that the actors manage to slip the hint of a relationship under the radar and in between the lines. In the DVD commentary tracks Mackenzie and Petra Markham (who plays Mikki) refer to the problematic nature of the undefined relationship in the script, and joke about the flirting between the characters but say nothing about the choices they made in playing the roles at the time.

If Judy Loe (Tarot’s first female ‘assistant’) left the series at the end of season 2 justifiably fed up with, as she says, ‘being allowed some intelligence, but always having to be rescued by the man’, her replacement was given more character scope and freedom. Mikki although sometimes a bit airy fairy and impulsive frequently gets Tarot out of trouble and occasionally initiates an adventure herself (‘The Beautiful People’). It is her brother Chas (Roy Holder) who is the one who usually needs rescuing. This change may have been due to writers such as P.J. Hammond taking over more script control as Trevor Preston, the originator of the series, started to move on to other projects. P.J. Hammond, of course, was to go on to write a wonderful female role (greatly aided and extended by Joanna Lumley’s uncompromising approach) in Sapphire and Steel.

The character of Tarot shares much in common with his contemporary Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in Dr. Who. Both characters have a love for flamboyant 70s fashion – although Tarot’s wardrobe is far more extensive and expensive (!) than the Doctor’s. Both use their wits and intelligence to fight adversaries, even if they can both be irritatingly secure in the conviction of their superior knowledge. Both have mysterious origins – Tarot perhaps more so, as at least we know that the Doctor is an alien from another planet. Both characters also display a warmth and a sympathy towards those around them – even if the Doctor demonstrates an irascibility and impatience that we never see in Tarot. Likewise (unlike David Tennant’s Doctor), they are not willing to condemn their opponents to oblivion. The Doctor is devastated when Unit blows up the Silurian stronghold, Tarot recognises ‘Mama Doc’s’ behaviour as the result of mental illness and arranges some discreet intervention after he has dealt with the main problem. Both characters are also linked in with the ambient early 1970s cultural interest in the ‘mystic East’ and the then trendy interest in the paranormal, the ‘mystical’ and the ‘occult’. These cultural tropes went on to be read very differently in the 1990s during The X Files period.

Most unfortunately, after season 3, in spite of excellent ratings and no sign of a wane in popularity, the series was cancelled, ending on a sudden cliffhanger. The cancellation was due to a change in the directorship of children’s programming at Thames and the series was replaced with the arguably inferior and less subversive The Tomorrow People. One can only speculate on what the series might have become with a couple more seasons, but like so many other promising shows that have been cancelled, we will never know.

The other attraction of Ace of Wands for current viewers is that it is a concept (good looking, mysterious and stylish stage magician investigates weird things with his friends) which still holds up very well today and in this age of the remake and the ‘reboot’, a reactivation of this series could go down very well indeed. (Hint, hint to any program developers out there).

My other posts on Ace of Wands
Ace of Wands (2)

Links to other pages on Ace of Wands
The Ace of Wands website – now defunct but still archived on the Wayback Machine
David Sheldrick
Geoff Wilmmetts
Andrew Screen
Review on the Retro to go site

Mondo Esoterica Review
BFI screenonline page Includes video clips
Pages at Clivebanks.co.uk

Read Full Post »