Doctor Who: Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred Interview (rare)

Here’s a very entertaining interview with Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred of Doctor Who fame (the classic period). Baker’s at his best here, given enough room to expand upon his tallish stories, but not overstepping the bounds of good taste. Sophie counterbalances him nicely with some lovely stories of her own, as they appear together on a pledge drive for Maryland Public Television broadcast in 1990.

I suppose the reason I wanted to post this now is that with the Trump administration occupying so much of the communications bandwidth in American life, we forget that actors and artists express themselves so much more gracefully. The president and his spokespeople regularly abuse the English language (arrivederci Scaramucci), so it makes a nice change of pace to listen to people who can put together sentences with intelligence, grace, and wit.

Tom Baker is especially good at spinning yarns with an improvisatory air, but occasionally landing on a serious point. Still, the atmosphere is light, and the paper plates stuck hastily to the studio walls in fond emulation of the old TARDIS set help ensure that we’re never far from a giggle.

You get an hour’s worth here, but I may post the final 15 minutes elsewhere. In those final minutes, when asked to deliver a soliloquy on the need to support public television, Baker goes over the top in reviling non-contributors as “parasites,” repeating and embellishing with a vengeance previously reserved only for Daleks! This is amusing in light of the fact that abolishing funding for public TV is one of the Trump administration’s avowed policy objectives. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Survival, Friday The 13th, Doctor Who, and Black Cats

My entry on the topic of Survival

doctor-who-animatronic-cat

Surviving Friday The 13th has historically meant avoiding black cats. But the Doctor Who story “Survival” — which was the last story aired during the “classic” period ending in 1989 — was all about cats, cat people, and human beings surviving their excursions into animal nature. The not-so-subtle message telegraphed toward the end was “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

Some cast members barely survived location filming at Warmwell Quarry, where temperatures reportedly soared into the hundreds. Lisa Bowerman, who was decked out in Fun Fur as a Cheetah Person named Karra, came down with heat stroke. Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, was troubled by the heat, but more so by fellow actor Anthony Ainley’s approach to method acting. With an impish half-grin, McCoy recalls how Ainley (who played The Master) beat the crap out of him.

Sophie Aldred, who played Ace (and famously beat up a Dalek), is allergic to cats and barely survived playing a scene with a black cat without giving out a sneeze that would have blanketed Perivale. In addition, the animatronic cat used in some scenes (pictured above) was none too convincing, and had to be augmented by bringing in a sack of live cats, coaxing them to perform on cue — not much harder than getting cats to march in a parade. As finicky as these cats were, they demanded tea breaks and to be paid union scale.

Though none of the actors knew it at the time, Doctor Who itself would not survive. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel suspected as much, and Cartmel dropped in some closing lines for “Survival” intended to address the possibility that this would be the last episode:

The Doctor to Ace: There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!

But like the Doctor himself, the series ultimately managed to survive by regenerating. Such regeneration was far from instantaneous, but when the series finally returned after a 16-year hiatus, one time-honoured Who tradition thankfully did not survive: the tendency to produce the show on a shoestring budget.

“The BBC Steadicam — a bit of rope and a lens,” Sophie Aldred famously remarks in an outtake from “Battlefield.” Yet when the series returned in 2005, it was given a budget that allowed for special effects comparable to major film releases. No more cheap rubber monsters (though the monster in “Vincent and the Doctor” is a bit goofy-looking, and does slightly resemble the carpet monster from the 1964 camp horror flick The Creeping Terror).

Perhaps more important to the new Who’s artistic merit, the character of Ace influenced the way that new Companions like Rose Tyler and Amy Pond were written. They had to have a good back story, be emotionally complex, and really drive the series, not just be window dressing or foils for the Doctor. Still, in an analogue to the classic Peter Cook & Dudley Moore routine about a “unidexter” applying for the role of Tarzan, things haven’t reached the stage where unattractive women need apply.

At least, having complex female characters who drive the series is progress for Doctor Who. Things weren’t always that way. Back in the 1970s women wanted challenging roles, and though actresses auditioning for Companion were often promised same, their roles frequently degenerated into screaming and being rescued by the Doctor. This was even true of Sophie Aldred’s immediate predecessor, Bonnie Langford, who played Melanie Bush. Though Andrew Cartmel originally had high hopes for bringing out Mel’s complex side (she was supposed to be a computer programmer), that complexity never emerged and Mel became instead the paradigmatic shrill screamer, able to shatter glass at thirty paces.

The character of Ace marked a genuine turning point for the show, and the final (26th) season was all about seeing Ace develop emotionally. “Survival” was written by Rona Munro, whose interest in feminist theory was not so heavy-handed as to spoil the story as entertainment. The strong female Companion is one good feature of “late period classic” that survived the regeneration.

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

Another surviving feature is the occasional dalliance in Doctor Who with political themes, usually left-leaning. “The Happiness Patrol” (also from season 26) is about a totalitarian world where it’s a crime to be unhappy. The main baddie is a female monarch who’s a scathing sendup of (then Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher.

The new Who has its share of political themes and subtexts. “The Beast Below” (S05E02) is arguably about the exploitation of labour, or exploitation of Third World resources by First World powers. It’s also about repressive tolerance. You are free to protest, but those hitting the “protest” button are quickly whisked to Starship UK’s dank lower extremities. The story is also about survival and the ethical compromises a developed nation will make in order to survive. The implication is that few people can bear to know the truth about the means used, and those who see the truth find it more convenient to forget it.

Survival is a major theme of Doctor Who, and of science fiction in general. The survival theme may be handled crudely or elegantly, with comic-strip characters or complex human ones, but it tends to inform much great drama.

Trivia: In the dry spell between 1989 and 2005, some of the forms in which Doctor Who survived were novels and audio productions. The Seventh Doctor got a new Companion called Bernice Summerfield, who followed in the Ace tradition by being complex, rebellious and anarchic. Eventually, the character became independent of the Doctor and branched out on her own. In the numerous Bernice Summerfield audio plays produced by Big Finish Productions, Lisa Bowerman, the actress who played Karra in “Survival,” plays Bernice.

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light Picture Gallery

doctor-who-ghost-light-picture-galleryThe real world is so fraught with conflict and suffering it’s no wonder I sometimes take refuge in the Whovian universe. While writing about “That’s The Way To The Zoo” (a song sung in “Ghost Light”), I became obsessed with taking screenshots:

From left to right: the Doctor, Control, Inspector Mackenzie, and Ace

From left to right: the Doctor, Control, Inspector Mackenzie, and Ace

The Seventh Doctor in Full Philosophical Mode

The Seventh Doctor in Full Philosophical Mode

The Doctor and Ace: dramatic tension

The Doctor and Ace: dramatic tension

 Sylvester McCoy reacts with horror when John Nathan-Turner suggests tattooing a question mark on his forehead

Sylvester McCoy reacts with horror when John Nathan-Turner suggests tattooing a question mark on his forehead

Gordon Bennett! Suddenly I have a wicked headache. (Sophie Aldred)

Gordon Bennett! Suddenly I have a wicked headache. (Sophie Aldred)

Need a butler? Just bring your friendly neighbourhood Neanderthal out of stasis.

Need a butler? Just bring your friendly neighbourhood Neanderthal out of stasis.

Exchanging pleasantries with the magnificently muttonchopped Reverend Ernest Matthews

Exchanging pleasantries with the magnificently muttonchopped Reverend Ernest Matthews

Under the gun: Such rude treatment from the Royal Geographical Society!

Under the gun: Such rude treatment from the Royal Geographical Society!

Sophie and Sylvester: a defining moment

Ace and the Doctor: a defining moment

Sylvester McCoy and Katharine Schlesinger each have their scenes with Sylvia Syms

Sylvester McCoy and Katharine Schlesinger each have their scenes with Sylvia Syms

Ace teaches an evolving life form to say "The rain in Spain falls mainly down the drain." (No, really!)

Ace teaches an evolving life form to say “The rain in Spain falls mainly down the drain.” (No, really!)

From an unfinished episode: Just to give the Doctor aggro, the Master turns Ace into a babushka doll. This episode remained unfinished because all the babushka dolls went on strike. Apparently their motto is "One out, the lot out."

From an unfinished episode: Just to give the Doctor aggro, the Master turns Ace into a babushka doll. This episode remained unfinished because all the babushkas went on strike. Apparently their motto is “One out, the lot out.”

Sylvester does his Mr. Bean impression for Sophie

Sylvester does his Mr. Bean impression for Sophie

It's getting very near the end: the last scene filmed for Doctor Who classic

It’s getting very near the end: the last scene filmed for Doctor Who classic

Sophie and Sylvester (who share the same birthday) fooling around between takes. The joke here is that Sylvester is supposed to yell "Cover your eyes!" But because he's blinded by the light he keeps covering inappropriate body parts, causing Sophie to totally crack up.

Sophie & Sylvester (who share the same birthday) fooling around between takes. The joke is that Sylvester is supposed to yell “Cover your eyes!” But because he’s blinded by the light he keeps covering inappropriate body parts, causing Sophie to totally crack up.

sophie-aldred-sylvester-mccoy-2
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This fan page is intended to promote the BBC series Doctor Who. All source videos copyright BBC. Photoshopping and expressive captioning by Michael Howard.

See also “Rehearsing Doctor Who.” [link to follow]