Archive for Dr Who

Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by dcairns

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.

 

Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.

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Things that aren’t films: year’s end summary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Finished season 2 of The Knick, the historical medical drama. Looks like that one’s finished. Some incredibly strong moments, particularly the death of a major character in the finale, but also a slight sense of a shark being jumped. It was soapier than season 1 — in one episode, a character who was definitely dead showed up again, and a character had a sudden foreign wife appear whom he definitely didn’t have before. The writers also amused themselves with in-jokes: the Laurel & Hardy line “I brought you some hard-boiled eggs and nuts,” and a product called Rough on Rats, which is an really obscure reference to the Winsor McCay cartoon THE PET.

We got hooked on Toast of London, the sitcom starring Matt Berry, written by Berry and Arthur Mathews of Father Ted fame. I’d been missing out on this comedy gold for several seasons, for no good reason. The first episode I watched seemed a bit too harsh for my tastes. It is a big negative at times, but also brilliant, in terms of visual gags, plotting, ideas, performances, and the bizarre story world, a non-period-specific vision of actors’ Soho, theatres, pubs and voice-over recording studios.

It’s interesting to me that while Mathews has gone darker, raunchier and swearier, his Father Ted co-author Graham Linehan has co-authored the BBC1-friendly Count Arthur Strong. which takes a fairly abrasive radio and stand-up character, senile music-hall comedian Count Arthur, and folds him into a gentle, at times sentimental series set in a recognizable real contemporary world (Count Arthur, like Steven Toast, formerly inhabited a timeless universe where he could theoretically have been around since the thirties). Linehan’s genius for farce plotting is still apparent — see an episode where two untrained pilots go up in a two-seater plane, each convinced the other is the pilot, and Count Arthur’s malapropisms are funnier than they have any right to be (“I have written a racist book.” “Racist? What do you mean?” “You know: Ooh, Madam!” He means ‘racy.’) While Linehan’s move is a more radical departure, Matthews’ seems to us the more successful show, tonally solid in its determination not to touch us, not to be endearing, not to mean anything at all.

original

Doctor Who gave us two really strong episodes — amazingly strong! — at the end of the series, but seems unable to sustain a quality run longer than that — the Christmas special was an extraordinary misfire, festive only in the sense of including snow, strained laughter, and a lot of frenzied, pointless activity. It was also weirdly mean, which is fine for Toast of London but problematic for a show starring a noble, pacifist hero. But series head Stephen Moffat seems compelled to push at the limits of how dark he can make his lead character, a strategy that seems better suited to practically any other fictional hero in existence. This episode also showed why doing a comedy episode is unlikely to work on Doctor Who: because composer Murray Gold will crap all over it.

My reading seems to have ground to a halt, owing to being in prep for a film, and owing to my having started Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock, a slow-going but fascinating fantasy novel. It’s quite dense — it takes the world of myth and fairy tale seriously, and tries to invent the forgotten mythology of the Ice Age. Into this are plunged characters from our world. A long way from Tolkein, and more serious and interesting than I can make it sound, just a little hard to wade through when you’re distracted by other stuff.

But I did read The Writer’s Tale, while in early prep. It’s basically Russell T. Davies’ email correspondence with Benjamin Cook, editor of Doctor Who Magazine. It had the effect of making me like Davies more — some of his Who scripts would make me so annoyed, it’s easy to forget there’s an essentially well-meaning person behind it all, trying to entertain us. Davies is so funny and self-excoriating here, you feel he did his best writing in his emails instead of on the show — his best work in TV prior to Who had one foot and a few toes in reality, something the time-traveling adventurer was never going to make easy. It even made me feel sorry for Murray Gold, who was apparently reduced to tears by unsympathetic fan reviews of his music. “I don’t know how to score this show any better!” he declared, helplessly. It could stand being scored LESS, I’d have thought. Less of everything is good advice for this time of year.

At this time of year I like to watch this, obsessively —

I like looking at snow without having to touch it. And I like how the director, after choosing to shoot at dusk in Scandinavia, has made all his other decisions based on that fact — i.e. it’s fucking freezing, how can I shoot all of this with the zoom from a single stationary position so we can get indoors before bits start dropping off?

Also, do they really sing, at about 2.00, “You’ll be dancing once again / Like an angry hen / You will have no time for breathing”?

 

Bone and Sinew

Posted in literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by dcairns

Boneless

The best episode of Dr. Who this season was called “Flatline”, written by Jamie Mathieson and featuring aliens from a two-dimensional universe, known as “the boneless.” This season has featured an influx of big screen talent — Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of 24HR PARTY PEOPLE); Ben Wheatley (director of A FIELD IN ENGLAND) and Rachel Talalay (TANK GIRL), but ironically these have all been trumped by Mathieson, who has only one cinema credit, and director Douglas MacKinnon, whose several other Who episodes have not reached such heights of atmosphere and excitement. The combination of a lively story full of ideas, both amusing and creepy, and a well-conceived look for the baddies (inspired by 3D printer glitches — this gives them a Francis Bacon quality) brought out the best in everyone.

***

This will all link up in the end. For my birthday, my parents gave me some goodies including Best Movie Stories, a review copy of a 1969 anthology of cinema-themed short fiction. While it was delightful to read Noel Coward referring to “the Beverley Hills” (that definite article still cracks me up, obscurely), the big hits for me were the tales by William Saroyan, O.K., Baby, This is the World, and Gerald Kersh, The Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Passes, which is actually the last part of a novel, An Ape, a Dog and a Serpent.

I resolved to seek out more Saroyan and Kersh.

boneless1

***

More or less at once, a copy of The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories fell off my shelf. Like Best Movie Stories, this was a second-hand bookshop purchase, and it turns out to contain a story by Kersh, Men Without Bones. It’s quite Lovecraftian, with maybe some Quatermass thrown in. It doesn’t make all that much sense but stirs up some creepiness and revulsion, with its armies of small, fat, jelly-like boneless men.

Anyhow, that connects up with Dr. Who, doesn’t it?

***

So now I’ve bought Fowler’s End, supposed by many to be Kersh’s best novel, a black comedy of London life in the early thirties, set around a decrepit cinema showing silent films. Here’s how Kersh describes the central light fixture in the auditorium ~

“From a peeling brass-plated rod fixed in the centre of the roof hung a kind of orange-and-green dustbin made of glass lozenges. If there is such a thing as brown light, brown light leaked out of the top of this contraption, making a shapeless pattern which, when you looked at it, took away your will to live. Looking up as a quicksand closes over your head, you see such a light and such a pattern as the last bubble bursts.”

Like Edinburgh Filmhouse, the Fowler’s End Pantheon is housed in a former church, in this case one created by a sect called the Nakedborners. It’s owned by a grotesque caricature of the Jewish entrepreneur, a vulgar, crooked lunatic called Sam Yudenow, whom the Jewish Kersh has great fun making as flamboyantly repulsive as possible. Kersh is also the originator of Night and the City and London low-life was his metier, though he also wrote sci-fi and horror and journalism and whatever paid the bills.

***

bonel

Addendum: in an old volume entitled St Michaels’ 65 Tales of Horror — published by the shop chain Marks & Spencer in the 70s, and containing a story, The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which I filmed in 1993 (the text still has orange highlighter where I underlined the useful bits), I find another Kersh, Comrade Death. It is astonishing, horrific.

“And then again, gas; I can show you some quite amazing things the Necrogene has done to men. They have twisted themselves into positions — well, I tell you, if they had studied acrobatics all their lives they could never have achieved such contortions! Amazing! One poor fellow bit himself in the small of the back. But you’d never believe. Come, let me show you —”

Brrr.