Thursday, August 4, 2011

Carnival of Monsters

Robert Holmes is generally considered Doctor Who's greatest writer for good reason: he was able to write stories that stayed entertaining through their entire length through great characterization, dialogue, and world-building.  But look close enough at many of his stories, and you also find something highly subversive.  In fact, if he's not the writer in charge of things, he's very often biting the very hand feeding him (and a hand for which he has obvious affection).  Under the many layers of Caves of Androzani resides a subtle critique of the entire Fifth Doctor era and a sense that Holmes is saying, "This is how you should have been doing things the last three years."  The Krotons seems a deliberate attempt to re-align the Second Doctor's stories with his characterization, something that rarely happened outside of David Whitaker's scripts.  The Two Doctors barely even hides its contempt, instead reveling in its mockery of the era's over reliance on continuity references and ugly violence.

Carnival of Monsters has self-satirical ideas of its own, albeit of a different sort from those above.  But like Caves, on the surface of its subversion is a terrific adventure yarn, and is a blast to watch without seeing a hint of what's going on underneath.

Carnival of Monsters opens with an effective model shot, followed by a nicely done series of scenes showing the world.  These sets may be small, but Barry Letts films them like they're big and makes sure to have backdrop paintings (done with CSO) and multiple layers of sets to give a real sense of size.  Lots of extras, elaborate makeup and costumes complete the illusion.  It's low-budget, but it's more than enough; we're not on a flimsy set, but really on another planet, fleshed out in detail.

And it's all worthwhile, because Holmes himself does a terrific job fleshing out this world with only a handful of characters.  Letts' visual worldbuilding complements Holmes' dialogue- and character-driven worldbuilding.  Homles basically creates an entire world, complete with complex politics, industry, and caste system, through exactly three characters - a government tribunal - and their attempts to deal with two traveling entertainers who stumble onto the planet Inter Minor.

Inter Minor has two classes - the upper class, from which our tribunal is drawn, and the lower class functionaries, who seem to speak only in grunts, but have been becoming increasingly violent.  They have also long outlawed alien visitors, but their new ruler has been relaxing many of the old restrictions.  Unfortunately, a functionary revolution is brewing, while his advisers prefer the old ways and plot against him; his reforms may be too late.
The Functionaries
 All this is conveyed in dialogue sounding absolutely natural, full of wit and character, spread through the story.  Further, it's conveyed by three characters who spend almost the entire story in a single room.  It's an impressive writing achievement for Holmes, and an impressive achievement for Letts to make it feel so energetic and cinematic.  The makeup of the functionaries isn't so impressive, but the makeup for the tribunal is superb.

And then, having created this entire world so brilliantly, they don't even drop the Doctor in it.

With the end of The Three Doctors, the Doctor is at last unchained from present-day Earth and allowed to roam free.  Well, technically, he spent almost the entire previous season bouncing around in time and space, but now it's official: the Doctor is back in the TARDIS, traveling everywhere and everywhen.  Which makes his attempt to show Jo the famous blue planet of Metabilis III rather disappointing when they appear to wind up on a steamship in 1920s Earth.  But the Doctor is insistent that, wherever they are, it's not 1920s Earth.

Delightful interplay between the Doctor and Jo about where, exactly, they've managed to land brings us through this ship, where, again, everything is fleshed out with just three characters.  Jo keeps insisting they're really on near-modern Earth, and her arguments are increasingly convincing.

Right up until the Plesiosaur attacks the ship.

We move between these two stories, each intriguing for their own reasons, wondering what the two have to do with each other, but enjoying both.  On Inter Minor, we get to know the Space Carnies, Vorg and his appealingly sarcastic assistant Shirna, played by Leslie Dwyer and Cheryl Hall, and watch their attempts to not be deported or worse by the tribunal, made of by-the-book Pletrac, sinister Kalik, and his somewhat dim henchman Orum.

All these characters are wonderful creations, superbly acted, but it's Michael Wisher's delicious villain Kalik who stands out.  Wisher played a lot of characters on Who in the early '70s, including a Dalek voice, but he's best remembered for Davros, still a couple years off.  Kalik isn't quite as memorable as Davros, but that's only because Davros sets the bar so astronomically high; Wisher's magnificently sardonic portrayal would easily walk off with the entire show if the other elements weren't so consistently strong.

But it's around here that the tribunal mentions that "amusement" is illegal on Inter Minor, which makes the Carnies and their machine even worse off.  The thought has been expressed, however, that the Functionary violence is caused by lack of amusement.

And on a first run through, it's not obvious, but knowing what we eventually know about the Miniscope and how that plays out, it seems Holmes isn't attacking Who so much as the whole of television.  After all, Vorg's Miniscope, a sort of zoo with creatures miniaturized and shown on a screen, and controlled to do whichever actions will most amuse customers, with dials switching to different worlds and monsters, does have a certain resemblance to a certain box of flickering images.

It's a little more than just that, though: Carnival of Monsters features four different, diverse locations -- Inter Minor, the ship, the Marshlands, and the interior of the machine -- all effectively created and captured... and yet, in a way, the entire story takes place within a single room and briefly in adjoining ones, all centered around this box of images.

And what's Holmes saying with all this?  The tribunal notes that the thought has been expressed that the anti-government violence has been caused by lack of amusement.  So, TV is mindless, exploitative nonsense keeping the lower and middle classes down by amusing them too much to revolt.

...I'll buy it.  I could have written so many letters to Congress in the time I've spent watching this show, not to mention writing about it on this blog.

What's brilliant about the satire is that Holmes remembers that the first thing a satire has to succeed at is at being entertainment.  You can have a blast watching this episode without noticing any of the underlying themes.  Sure, he's gently mocking his entire livelihood, but he does so in the midst of a thrilling, highly original adventure, full of action, humor, and, obviously, monsters.

As the story goes on, we're through through all sorts of exciting sequences and intriguing mysteries - Jo using her skeleton keys to escape; the "adjustment" to the Miniscope controls that makes the humans violent, resulting in the customary Third Doctor fight scene, (complete with Three casually taking off his jacket because he's the Third Doctor, and in this incarnation he'll be the one doing the thrashing, thank you) as well as chases and gunfire (and Kalik's dark amusement); the strange, unearthly metal nobody seems to notice exists except for the Doctor and Jo; the ship members stuck in a time loop; and then HOLY CRAP THAT CLIFFHANGER!  The two stories become one in a single shot.

Things don't slow down in the second episode.  The Doctor and Jo break out of the ship and into the inner workings of the machine, which is a fantastic sequence.  The settings are all well captured here, but here the production outdoes itself.

But at the end of episode two, things get raised to another level altogether, as we get the major monster for this story - THE DRASHIGS!

The Drashigs are honestly one of the best monsters ever on Who.  Everything about them - the design, the puppetry, their involvement in the story - is brilliant.

There's no question these awesome things are my favorite non-speaking monster in Who.  For once, the monster effects work brilliantly, and in the midst of an episode good enough that it might have got by without that, but that also uses them well enough that their success isn't wasted.  The Drashigs are awesome.  Seriously, how have these things never shown up again?

With the Drashigs involved, the story only gets more exciting, as the Doctor slows the Drashigs down by igniting the hell out of the flammable marsh gas with his Sonic Screwdriver.

Best Sonic Screwdriver scene ever.

But when they escape back into the machine, the Drashigs follow them, and now the entire machine is under attack from the Beasties to end all Beasties.  Eventually, the Earth sailors get to fight it out with the Drashigs.  It's a rough fight, but their heavy weaponry pulls it off.  It's worth noting that even after being machine-gunned and dynamited to death, the Drashigs still seem threatening.

Outside, the damage is ruining the machine while Kalik plots his takeover of the government using the machine and said Drashigs.  These scenes have a wonderful wit about them.  Kalik has a great line in response to one of Vorg's various complements: "Merciful and compassionate?  One has... twinges."  It's a good line anyway, but Wisher's deliver is magnificent.  And the bit about the eternal batteries is worthy of Douglas Adams.  Who, incidentally, I do believe was getting himself drunk in Austria and having thoughts about miscommunication and hitchhikers of the galactic sort right about this time.

The Doctor escapes, resulting in a great bit where Vorg mistakes him for a fellow carny.  But the humor doesn't take away from the building tension both in the machine and out, as Kalik's plan to sic the Drashigs on the city is unopposed, and the humans, Jo including, are dying due to the damage caused by the battle with the Drashigs.

And then the Drashigs escape and... The climax... well, it's a fairly exciting 45 seconds in itself, I guess, but it's not really a satisfying payoff for anyone except Kalik and Vorg.  It's as though, having reached the climax, Holmes just finished it up as quickly as he could, leaving most of the characters dangling.  Further, the Doctor ultimately does nothing more than tell Vorg to flip a couple switches; he never faces off with or even speaks with Kalik, nor does he have much affect on the climax or outcome outside of a lucky coincidence that allows Vorg to save the day.  Though to be fair, Vorg saving the day with the eradicator is fun.

And Kalik's death is great.  Uh... spoiler.

A lot of early Holmes scripts had this issue including his next, The Time Warrior.  Here, though, it's not so bad, since Barry Letts is a much better director than Alan Bromly, and makes the most he can of what little climax he has.

At the end, all the stuff with the functionaries goes nowhere.  Most of the characters get a wrap-up, but don't have much to do at the finale itself.  It really is a let-down of an ending.  Not a bad one, necessary, but an adequate climax to four episode of excellent is hard to let slip.

Still, finale aside, Carnival of Monsters stands up remarkably well.  It's one of the Third Doctor's finest stories, a fantastic adventures full of action, humor, Holmsian dialogue, and imagination... and some cool stuff under the surface, too, for those who want to look.


* * * ½ 


  • The Doctor and Jo both have cool boots in this one, though I don't know how Katy Manning climbs and runs so well in platforms that high.  It's a lost art from long before my time, I suppose.
  • One of the sailors, Lt. Andrews, is played quite charmingly by Ian Marter, who goes on to become companion Harry Sullivan in season 12 and bits of 13, where he's even more engaging.
  • The Drashigs blasting through the wall of the machine only adds to their threat; intriguingly, the DVD has a short reel of deleted and test effects footage where they're eating their way through, and it's just not as frightening, and kinda cheesy.  The effects people did a great job on this story for the most part, and their work on the Drashigs more than redeems the much less compelling Plesiosaur.
Even on his hand, they look awesome.

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