Saturday, 23 February 2019

DOCTOR WHO: LOGOPOLIS at the BFI Southbank, 17 February 2019

Doctor Who's Season 18 is in better shape than ever on Blu-ray, and was celebrated with a launch event that included the customary special guests.

It’s early 2019 and we’re already at the third BFI Southbank event to launch a new Doctor Who season Blu-ray box set, in this case Tom Baker's swansong, Season 18. I remember it well from the time; for a lot of fans of my generation, Tom was the Doctor and had certainly, mostly for better and not worse, made an indelible stamp on the programme over seven years. To discover in 1980 that he was leaving, after the departures of Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson’s K9, sent an ever increasing tidal wave of excitement through Doctor Who fandom, with the major question being asked – how would the reign of the seemingly indestructible Fourth Doctor conclude?

Unevenly, as it turned out. Tom’s finale ‘Logopolis’ is a strange story. For every amazing concept like the Logopolis planet of mathematicians who can model every space/time event in the universe through spoken calculations, and TARDISes replicated inside one another, there’s some noticeably amateurish elements. Clunky expository dialogue, Janet Fielding’s overacting as new companion, air hostess Tegan (not her fault, as she wasn’t allowed to see rushes) and glaringly illogical story development – the Doctor and Adric can’t go to Logopolis because the Master’s TARDIS is hiding in theirs, then they decide go to Logopolis with the Master’s TARDIS hiding in theirs, after incomprehensibly trying to “flush him out” by landing underwater in the Thames – tend to back up script editor and writer Chris Bidmead’s on-stage assertion that they were “making it up as they went along.”

What really makes ‘Logopolis’, of course, is Tom’s iconic central performance. The trademark feral grin and Wildean quips so beloved of this incarnation are almost completely absent, replaced by a gloomy, fatalistic seriousness entirely in keeping with the funereal atmosphere of the story. As has become customary with these Blu-ray releases, new effects have been created for stories where the originals were found particularly wanting, and considering the importance of ‘Logopolis’ there’s no more deserving recipient. There are new renders of the planet and city itself and the Doctor’s climactic fall – rather shockingly – can now be enjoyed for the first time (though perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t exactly the right word).

You can’t fault the BFI’s approach to these events as they go out of their way to find complementary guests for their Doctor Who screenings, with the emphasis always on the people involved in the making of the story. They came up trumps here, with Bidmead and production manager Margot Hayhoe, as well as actors Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) and Adrian Gibbs (the enigmatic Watcher).

Hayhoe and Gibbs were up first, between episodes one and two, in a discussion chaired by the BFI’s always amusing Dick Fiddy. Commenting on the debate between the pair about where the lay-by was that the TARDIS landed, Fiddy quipped “I love a good lay-by conversation.”

In contrast to the flagship status that Doctor Who is afforded by the BBC today, Hayhoe revealed that the show’s standing within the BBC at the time of ‘Logopolis’ was very different, as it was afforded a miniscule budget compared with the prestigious classic serials: “That was one of the big bug bears of the producers – here was Doctor Who, which was one of the biggest sellers of the Corporation, and it wasn’t getting the money it deserved.” Gibbs, meanwhile, found the whole experience of making ‘Logopolis’ “an adventure” that kept on giving, as he was still asked to sign autographs. Reflecting on their experience of Tom Baker, Hayhoe admitted to being “terrified, because he had a reputation for being a little difficult sometimes. But he was absolutely fine, and I think it helped because it was his last one”. Gibbs, meanwhile, remembered “going to the pub a few times” with his leading man, a memory which drew an appreciative ripple of laughter.

Bidmead and Waterhouse were full of good natured bonhomie, the former particularly so. “I just want to say that this is a quite extraordinary event for me,” he said, marvelling at the almost sell-out audience. “38 years ago, we did something that we thought we’d bung out there, there’d be one repeat, and life would go on. And here we are 38 years later, and there are people in this audience who weren’t even born then… So, thank you, very much!” His endearing enthusiasm was rewarded with a round of applause.

Discussion between the two ranged over bringing a new scientific rigour to the programme under the executive producership of 1970-74 producer Barry Letts – rather ironic at the screening of a story in which mathematical magicians intone what are basically spells – and the observation in ‘Logopolis’ that Tom “rarely addressed his fellow actors.” “A stage tradition?” inquired joint host Justin Johnson. “Not really,” Waterhouse replied, to another outburst of laughter. “A Tom tradition.”

A more serious point Bidmead made was that the job of script editor on Doctor Who was almost unique within the BBC at that time. “Nobody knew what the job was – this was the point,” he observed. “There were lots of script editors around the BBC, of course, but everyone had a completely different idea of what a script editor should be. For some people it was just a matter of putting a few commas into the script, for others it wasn’t even that – you’d just be good at taking writers out to lunch… The pressure was so great, that we would have writers in, we’d have a brainstorming session, and they go away and come back with scripts two weeks later. And the scripts would not reflect what we’d talked about during the brainstorming session.” Such a situation inevitably resulted in Chris having to “ring up the caretaker and be let out of the building, because I was sitting there so late re-writing.”

The event could have gone on longer – always a sign that a screening has been well paced – and Chris regretted that he couldn’t stay to meet the fans, as he was professionally whisked away by his “entourage”.

The overall impression was of being left wanting more,
a criticism that certainly can’t be made of the forthcoming Season 18 box set, teasers from which were shown throughout the afternoon. As last words go, it looks like being the very definition of definitive.

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