06/02/2011

Citizen Jek by Anthony Malone

God, I was disappointed with this story when it first went out. Bear in mind I was 11 and desperately wanted Davison, my Doctor, to go out in a story resembling Earthshock as closely as possible. The announcement of Davison’s departure prior to the Five Doctors was shockingly early and built expectations of a tour de force third series featuring armies of Raston Warrior Robots facing off against Daleks; not a big ask, imaginatively, mainly because of the great ideas we were seeing month after month in DWM. The comic strip was just as much a part of this era with “The Stockbridge Horror” providing some of the most memorable images of the period; the masked alien clinging to the outside of the TARDIS pinched wholesale for the opening of Utopia, for example. No, Davison’s departure was a crushing disappointment, “The Five Doctors” was the last time Doctor Who had currency in my playground, but…at least a regeneration was on the horizon.

Yet Androzani, even to a kid, seemed completely out of step with what had gone before. I couldn’t follow the complexities of the story, the episode 1 cliff-hanger was far from fantastical and there weren’t any returning monsters to duff up Davison, no Raston Warrior Robot. Boo! You always took the rough with the smooth with Doctor Who but even so here was talk of copper mines, bat’s milk, red cloth and mud bursts; no metal monsters turning to the camera and intoning “Explode the bomb…”. Still, even I knew, as the opening credits rolled, that the name Robert Holmes had significance but while there was anticipation that the heroic Fifth Doctor really was going to cop some flak this time it took me until receipt of a VHS recording with dodgy tracking many years later to really appreciate four of the most extraordinary episodes of Doctor Who.

Androzani is extraordinary, you must admit. Even if you err on the side of caution and hesitate before using it as a test case for a non-fan – “this is one of the better ones” – you and I know this is delicious stuff; that if you are a fan, and you’ve watched the whole of the Davison run, it contextualises three years worth of rather all-over-the-road storytelling. I like to think Holmes – the King in exile, the prince across the water, the man who wrote, er, The Power Of Kroll – had been watching the whole of the Davison run and, when commissioned, drew his pen from his scabbard with the words “I will settle this”. Even if you hand Harper the gong for the story’s oomph (the Masai Warrior mask, the casting of Christoper Gable, the way Jek folds his arms, Stotz versus Krelper in the quarry, the regeneration…), it was Holmes who wrote the lines “I’m not going to let you stop me now”, “I’m sorry, Peri. I can’t make it” and “…but your eyes, they tell a different story”. Above all Holmes caused a Doctor who once maintained “Small beautiful events are what life is all about” to wander into and be brought down by a “pathetic little war”. Either the decisions Holmes made in the script for Androzani were miraculously serendipitous or he’d been keeping a close eye from afar and wearily shaking his head. Fan wisdom (now there’s an oxymoron) suggests Harper souped up a run of the mill Holmesian remix but this – cut TARDIS intro and Giant Bat battle notwithstanding – is brilliant writing.

However, Talons is superior. Androzani needs to be seen in context to milk every drop of satisfaction from it whereas Talons is standalone. Ratty also gets off far lighter than the Magma Beast, even though both missteps are now part of ancient history in television terms. We pass off the Giant Rat off as one of the last instances of a lack of televisual self-awareness, while the Magma Beast gets a groan because JNT put such store in souping up the production values when he arrived. Talons also does most of Androzani first. Talons doesn’t have the lead actor wearing cricket whites. OK, Androzani has Nicola Bryant’s ne plus ultra d├ęcolletage, but Talons has Louise Jameson (who is brilliant in that story) educating schoolboys in more than Janus thorns. Talons and Androzani also both have their lead actors on supreme, never better form; Davison as the Fifth Doctor is utterly validated by Androzani but the evidence was there right from Castrovalva. His shocked, expressionless, croaky “Cybermen…” getting a new generation bang on board as to how dangerous the men in tinfoil were; making “Warriors of the Deep” worth it with “There should been another way”; the performance as Omega... I’m with Cornell; Davison rocked as the Doctor and I’ll push anyone who says otherwise into a spectrox nest.
 Bowie as Jek. You can…almost…see it, but no; what we got is a guest performance that strays perilously close to camp without ever crossing the line; every foot fall is deliberately placed, each movement slow and fastidious until the explosions of shocking violence. Jek is a deadly serious, tragic, character which should make him wide open for a piss-take but there’s no two ways about it, he is just thrillingly brought to life. The voice, the posture, the lines he has to speak, the costume; this is a rhapsody in character building; not quite perfect because I reckon Jek would collapse as a character outside of this story but psychologically speaking, there is no more adult moment in the whole of Who than Peri screaming at Jek’s revealed face and the handheld camera following him as he crawls on hands and knees, protecting his head, under a table. It also takes quite an actor to communicate from behind a mask that his character is lost in bitter thought but that is exactly what we see when the Doctor first enters Jek’s lab.

So why no fifteen minutes on Christopher Gable’s career on the new DVD? The extras aren’t averse to a bit of cultural history or, for that matter, Kate O’Mara gossiping about the gossiping actors on Time And The Rani, so what gives? Gable appeared out of a clear blue sky in Who, delivered a barnstorming performance, then disappeared and I’m sure Harper would have had interesting nuggets of information. Also, as an Androzani obsessive I want any documentary about this story to treat it with the same reverence as the Dead Sea Scrolls, yet “Chain Reaction” has a breezy, regional, feel to it. Eric Saward gets interviewed under a whacking great big sign saying “WRITER” in case we forget he read “The Loved One” on holiday and thought a transformation scene Hinchcliffe had cut should have seen transmission. Dear old Eric has wound up by fate as the go to guy for this period when he was to the production team what Adric was to the TARDIS crew. I want to like Eric Saward, but he has a wounded air that after twenty five years is wearing thin.  
     
No matter. We brush Androzani off as a classic these days, as the Citizen Kane of Doctor Who, to indicate our regard for it rather than as a description of its conventional, just very well done, structure. That leaves it as a conversation killer: “Yes, Androzani is very good isn’t? Full stop.” My hunch is if it were dropped into the middle of today’s show, we would see it as a bleak, pacey, well-written, story that does what it says on the tin and, well, that’s it. It certainly isn’t kid friendly, there are other stories to show to a new fan first, but the DVD is handed over with…ceremony. It has gravity. It is bloody good. It proved the beginning of the end; it fatally inspired the scriptwriter; JNT thought Twin Dilemma was the hit of the season; the crew thought Harper was mad; they shouldn’t have explained the celery; it was one of the rare moments in Doctor Who when all the planets were in alignment. Relish it.

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