Wednesday, 31 July 2013

BFI Southbank: Sylvester McCoy


When Daleks lurked in Shoreditch... (Image: BBC)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 27 August 2013

In 1988, Doctor Who was just hitting its stride again when it was cancelled a year later. Sylvester McCoy's Dalek story shows why everyone was getting excited.

Seven Doctors in and I’m happy to report that in 2013 ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, Sylvester McCoy’s entry in the BFI’s mammoth anniversary season, looks as fresh as paint. After disillusionment with Doctor Who in the mid-1980s, I’d been tentatively lured back by the freewheeling fun of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ the year before, but put off by the stumbling steps towards quality of ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Dragonfire’. I think I only watched the first episode of each of those, though I thought McCoy himself showed promise.

If anything, ‘Remembrance’ has improved with age. What’s striking is the air of confidence about the production, from the cinematic direction and pyrotechnics to the authentic early 1960s period detail. There’s very little wrong with it: the Dalek props wobble a bit on location and some of their voices don’t seem quite right. Unfortunately the incidental music is terrible, sounding at its worst like Frankie Goes To Hollywood are about to hove into view (not that there’s any wrong with FGTH – relax, don’t do it).

No one’s doing hammy ‘Doctor Who acting’, the pacing is really modern – bearing comparison with the new series – and Saturday’s screening revealed that Ben Aaronovitch’s script has cast a long shadow over the BBC Wales reboot. The scene where the Doctor talked the Black Dalek to destruction was riffed on in Rob Shearman’s Eccleston script ‘Dalek’, and an apocalyptic confrontation with Davros with the Earth as the battleground is similarly referenced in Russell T. Davies’ ‘Journey’s End’. Another link between 'Remembrance' and the 2005 revival is the always interesting special effects designer Mike Tucker, interviewed after the first episode, who worked on the 1988 serial, created the iconic Dalek Emperor for 'The Parting of the Ways' and has latterly been engaged on some of Matt Smith's stories.

Dalek meets author.
(Image: Mike Kenwood)
The guest list was as impressive as usual. K9, in the person of the affable and witty John Leeson, was interviewed before the screening started. (I had no idea he’d provided the voice of the Dalek Battle Computer in ‘Remembrance’, believing it to be courtesy of Davros actor Terry Molloy.) There was some fond reminiscing about Leeson crawling around on all fours in rehearsal with Tom Baker and his companions, creating a bond between the character of the robot dog and the regular cast. As he talked, I noticed that Mathew Waterhouse was sitting two rows in front, back from the States on a return visit. Once you’re a Doctor Who fan you’re a Doctor Who fan for life.

After the screening, Aaronovitch, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (the incendiary-inclined Ace) took to the stage in what is becoming a distinguished line of funny, charming and nostalgic interviews at these BFI events. McCoy was sporting both kilt and crutches, apologising to the audience that ‘Sylvester McCoy couldn’t make it, and has sent his father in his place.’ Recovering from a foot operation, his banter with Aldred was nevertheless as engaging as ever, moving Aaronovitch to note that when script editor Andrew Cartmel’s team of writers first saw the chemistry between the two, there was a cry of ‘Quick! Write loads of stuff!’ Dispelling the myth that the RTD regime didn’t like the Seventh Doctor’s era, Aldred revealed that it had been planned that Ace would appear in The Sarah Jane Adventures as a successful, eco-friendly business woman.

Of course, it all ended far too soon; then again, the sign of a successful event is that the audience is always left wanting more. Afterwards, there was the traditional decamp to the bar and the added fun of having my picture taken with a lovingly recreated Special Weapons Dalek.

I’ll say it again: the BFI are the only organisation doing a year-long celebration of Doctor Who in its 50th anniversary year, and they deserve much more recognition and praise for that than they’re currently getting.

See you soon on the Games Station...

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