Wednesday, 5 September 2012

'Slippin' Back'

The foggy mists of time always reveal some hidden gem from the expanded Whoniverse, notable for its rarity, its whimsical nature, or sometimes for the guilty pleasure value it holds. Prior to the BBC's attempt at mature and adult-oriented spinoff material, which began in earnest with the 'New Adventures' series of novels, most 'Doctor Who'-themed spinoff and expanded Whoniverse offerings pandered to the lowest common denominator. 

Either they revealed their limited grasp on the 'officially licensed material', and as such either ignored relevant details that were introduced and promoted within the series itself (witness the abomination that is the 'Timelord' role playing game source book, a future subject for review within this blog if ever I lay my hands on it again), or else they simply abandon all hope of reconciliation with the Whoniverse from which they spawned and instead sought to create their own mini-universe of canon (such as the Marvel U.K and U.S comic stories). Every once and awhile, however, even in the gaudy days of the 1980's, when everything from music to fashion was loud and abrasive, an unexpected entry into the expanded Whoniverse would come along that defied criticism from Whovians for these reasons. After all, this was an officially-licenced audio play, created by the BBC themselves, intended for transmission on BBC Radio Four. This was only the second time 'Doctor Who' in audio form would be presented by the BBC (the first being the LP 'The Pescatons', narrated by Tom Baker and starring his fourth Doctor), and it would mark the first in which the story was not a narration or a book-on-tape, but rather a new, original story featuring the loud and abrasive, not to mention gaudy, Sixth Doctor. This was 'Slipback'.

Perhaps, in a renegade, classically low-budget way, the first 'true' audio plays were those created by the young fans of the show, that first generation who marvelled to the black and white adventures of the doddering old fellow as he awkwardly traversed tinfoil worlds and plastic skies. Utilizing the microphones and primitive tape recorders of the time, these proto-Whovians held their devices up to the tiny speakers from their black and white televisions, and recorded entire episodes as they happened in real time. In a generation before the advent of VCR's, this truly was the only way in which one could 'capture' a story and preserve it forever. Otherwise, precise details would be lost to a young mind's imagination in the days between the Saturday evening airing and the Monday re-enactment for the benefit of their peers during the recess playground gatherings. Little did these children know, in addition to supplementing their own library of 'Doctor Who' stories in an era when the BBC did not budge from their unofficial stance of never repeating stories unless absolutely forced to, they were doing a valuable service both to the BBC and to the generations of Whovians like them to come. For, today, a great majority of those black and white classic era stories have subsequently been 'junked' (or, to use the correct terms for it, 'copied over, as the cheap BBC had exploited their use to their satisfaction and simply re-used the film reels and canisters they had been placed on and in'). These stories, long thought lost forever, have been brought back to 'life', in the form of worthwhile ventures such as the Doctor Who Restoration Team, which animate them using a combination of 'telesnaps' (again, young fans who held primitive cameras up to their TV screens and literally photographed entire episodes)..and those very audio recordings made 50 years ago, cleaned up with the latest software where applicable. Often, the Restoration Team will also partially or fully animate the stories, and combine that with the audio, for as close a presentation to the original as is possible with today's technology. Clearly, 'Doctor Who' in audio form has its own long and glorious, though little-known and unheralded, history. These fans did this out of love and devotion to their favourite show, and in essence were themselves time-travelers, causing the creation of their own fan-generated 'Big Finish audios' 30 plus years prior to the real thing!

By 1985, 'Doctor Who' appeared, on the surface, to be doing swimmingly. Those fans who once held tape machines to their TVs while their parents made supper and pined for the late news, gave way to a new breed of fan who were more sophisticated in their tastes, more technologically oriented, and more voracious in their consumption of all things 'Doctor Who': the consumer boom of the 1980's did not go unnoticed by either the BBC or by John Nathan-Turner, the producer of the series. Sales of Target novelizations of selected episodes were strong and growing, as were sales of VHS releases of those and others. Forays were being made 'across the pond', as 'Doctor Who' continued its non-stop broadcasting appearances on PBS (Public Television) stations throughout the United States and Canada. New fans were being created in the U.S, and these markets, in large American cities such as Detroit and Chicago, were eagerly being courted by Nathan-Turner, who quickly arranged for convention appearances by not only the current Doctor Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, but former Doctors such as Peter Davison, Tom Baker, and Jon Pertwee. After a brief spell of declining due to his long-standing reluctance to speak to the press, a trait which worked against publicity of the series during his era, Patrick Troughton was won over and became a fan favourite. Sadly, Troughton died while appearing at a convention in the U.S, as did Pertwee a few years later. 

When it came to promotion of the series abroad, the man fans would name 'JN-T' was your man. He had catered to every whim, from stories that brought back the Cybermen, to the Daleks, to even the Second Doctor, to approving scores of new merchandise requests. Fans could order a 'Gallifrey Beach And Body Towel' to take to the beach with them. It would appear that life was good. 

But, for all this attention to the outside details that the BBC itself would later create an entire division within their corporation just to oversee (BBC Exploitation, now known as BBC Enterprises), JN-T overlooked some key details within the creative output of the series itself that, ultimately, led to an abrupt and prolonged 'hiatus'. The true nature of the 1985 hold on production that stretched to 18 months is still debated to this day, mostly due to the key players involved. Both those who pulled the trigger and those affected by the decision offer differing opinions as to the 'why'. Fan research and numerous interviews point partially to an internal BBC decision to once again save money by either not producing 'Doctor Who' or else producing it as cheaply as possible. In that case, the creation of the BBC's daytime service resulted in a full season's order of the expensive soap opera 'Emmerdale', which would need to be paid for in advance. A 'trimming the fat' mentality became prevalent at the time. The BBC Controller in overall charge, Micheal Grade (see the Colin Baker Q&A here in this blog page for further details during this period of time in the series' history), decided against continuing to fund the production of what was once described, during the glorious Tom Baker era, as their 'flagship show'.

JN-T had allowed the series to become a soft target for scorn, ridicule, and criticism. The Doctor's clothing was considered tacky, over-the-top, and unsubtle. Storylines became increasingly adult-oriented, focusing less on traditional and straight-forward action-adventure and more upon violence and unsuitable content such as numerous alien beings 'lusting over Peri'. JN-T blamed his script editor, Eric Saward, for allowing these running themes to prevail in the body of scripts. Saward insisted he had re-written numerous scripts to bring them more in line with the 'spirit' of 'Doctor Who'. Yet, upon filming, JN-T either encouraged the inappropriate behaviour or else failed to curb it, and rarely chastised the directors. Colin Baker began to grumble his own comments and suggestions were beginning to fall on deaf ears, despite his role as the one person who was front-and-centre and taking the slings and arrows (which he still does, sadly, to this day, though the efforts of Big Finish and his numerous convention appearances have assisted fans in seeing the Sixth Doctor in a new light). Nicola Bryant, unhappy with the skimpy and revealing clothing she was asked to wear as Peri, nevertheless held her tongue, aware the role of a companion is all-too-easily replaced and not having the requisite acting experience or credits, she decided not to make a fuss. In short, the only people happy around this time were those fans who could snap up increased merchandise options, meet and greet one of the actors who played the Doctor and/or a companion, and, in an odd way, the division of the company that became BBC Enterprises. Despite the premature 'axing' that the main corporation's big wigs had given the series, they were reaping the financial rewards of book sales. Even with the series on hold and its future cloudy, as long as the merchandise machine was kept greased, it was all gravy, according to BBC Enterprises.

When the show went dark for those 18 months, Baker was one of the few who could afford not to worry overmuch. He had a contract, and would continue to be paid his fee regardless. JN-T was a BBC producer; he could and did acquire other short-term projects, which included dreaming up Christmas pantomime programs for children that were mounted throughout the country and often featured 'Doctor Who' actors such as Baker and Bryant. Script editor Saward likewise had projects that would keep the cash flow alive. But despite the public backlash against the Colin Baker era that was beginning to ferment at the time, despite the thrashing it was taking in the take-no-prisoners British press, specifically the tabloid and 'scandal rags', despite the all-time-low of being taken off the BBC airwaves for the first time in its history (save pre-emptions due to long-running Cricket and Olympic coverage)..BBC Radio Four still contracted it's script editor Saward, it's lead actor and actress, in addition to casting Vaentine Dyall (who had played the Black Guardian in the series), the actress Jane Carr (who had a popular role in the hit series 'Minder'), John Glover (who was at the time providing voices for the infamous 'Spitting Image' puppet series), and writer and stand-up comedian Nick Revell. Why? In order to create, write, record, and produce 'Slipback', the only original audio play at the time, of course. 

'Doctor Who' was creatively on its last legs and beginning to truly show not only it's age but that, perhaps in hindsight, it 'needed' a rest badly in order for everyone involved to assess what was going wrong and what needed to be fixed. Of course, they failed to take advantage of the rest they did get, anyway, with the mixed bag that would be the truncated season known as 'The Trial Of A Timelord', but that's a different story. None of this would stop BBC Enterprises from attempting to squeeze more financial life out of it. A quickly-penned contract with Eric Saward to not only write the story but also the Target novelization 'of' the story (which became the first, but not the last, of the Target novelizations of a non-televised story), in addition to the spike in popularity several weeks’ worth of advertising for the story in advance would no doubt bring to the associated merchandise meant that BBC Enterprises may not have had the TV series to exploit at the time but they sure were going forward with another revenue stream, creativity be damned.
It is with this 'do it for the money' approach that sours many on 'Slipback', this reviewer included. Call it cynical, but when the left hand of BBC is publicly questioning if they even 'want' to bring the TV series back, while the right hand of the BBC is heavily promoting a 'new, original story featuring the Doctor and Peri', it's a safe bet it's not being done for the fans. The story itself, what little there is to discuss and review, is essentially this: The Doctor and Peri arrive for no reason on the space liner 'Vipod Mor', where they quickly get accused of being art thieves by detectives on board who are investigating thefts. The usual confusion abounds regarding the Doctor's identity. Eventually, after a whole lot of nothing happens, a mutant being is let loose in the cargo hold, in order to break up the monotony of the story, I suppose. 

Turns out the mutant exists due to Slarn, the captain/overlord of the ship. He continually threatens to unleash a horrific virus that his species is capable of exuding while he relaxes in a toxic ooze bubble bath. Like just about every other monster/bad guy of season 21 he gets a real mad-on for Peri. Some other stuff happens, don't worry you aren't missing anything, until finally it is revealed that the entire ship is not only traveling back in time, it's rapidly approaching Event One, and it's blowing up will cause the Big Bang. 

This plot point comes smack dab in the middle of the final episode and is totally there to clumsily clue the whole thing up on a semblance of drama, except first the Doctor attempts to 'stop' this activity, which means those pesky Timelords magically appear and talk him out of doing so, which just smacks the taste out of the mouth of the word 'anticlimax'. This story also pushed 'Terminus' up against the locker in school, called it a momma's boy, and is waiting for it behind the monkey bars.
Yes, the depicted events of 'Terminus' the TV series will, of course, always take precedence over what is considered 'secondary canon' by Whovians. But the mere fact this sloppy, second explanation for the Big Bang was allowed to be written and dramatized n the first place, by the series' script editor of all people, is unforgivable. Not only was 'Terminus'trasmitted in recent memory of the current TV production team (and most of them worked on 'Terminus' anyway!), but, as the producer of 'Slipback' was a BBC Radio producer named Paul Spencer and not JN-T, Saward literally had and has nobody to blame for this one but himself. 

In 'Slipback', the Doctor is secondary to the plot (which would also happen in Saward's 'Revelation Of The Daleks' episode...OK, I know Saward disliked just about everything to do with the Sixth Doctor's era and in fact resigned in a huff mid-way through 'Trial Of A Timelord' and disallowed JN-T to use his original script to close that saga out, but the script editor OF 'Doctor Who' ought to, I don't know, write stories that feature THE DOCTOR prominently!). Peri is given little to do save run around, get captured at one point, and essentially serve as eye-candy for yet another slug-like bad guy. Slarn, voiced by the late, great Valentine Dyall, gets all the best lines, and is essentially Sil, if Sil sounded just like the Black Guardian. It's too bad that 'Slipback' marked the final work as an actor of Dyall's long and distinguished career, as he passed away not long after recording his part, and one month prior to the story's original radio transmission. But, hey...Orson Welles voiced Unicron, and that capped his career, too. Life is rarely fair.

The production end of the story is only so/so. While it in places is plainly evident that the principal actors are all gathered around a microphone, as there is no feeling of 'depth' to some of the actions they take, overall it holds up about as well as can be expected; the BBC were and are no slouches in the radio production side of things. Most of the cast were veteran radio actors and presenters (Dyall and Baker had done years of radio work in their careers), and that experience can be heard in their confident deliveries. It is the lack of plot and of action, the reliance upon 'stock sound effects' such as 'generic space ship hum' and 'generic futuristic whoosh of door opening', which contributes to the absolute certainty one feels upon listening to each and every episode of this hour-long bore fest (6 episodes of 10 minutes duration), that it was created solely in order to suck more money out of people with the sure-thing book tie-in and the favourable BBC press releases and cassette tape and CD release. It is, quite simply, quantity rather than quality.

In a time when 'Doctor Who' sorely needed people of vision and insight, people who could grab the creative reins and deliver a superior product, 'Slipback' ultimately was more of the same, and more from the same people who had been responsible for the situation it was in on television. 'Slipback' could have been much more than simply a cash-grab. It could and should have been a brief but shining example of what a 'Doctor Who' given a re-birth could be, what a 'Doctor Who' it's superiors at the BBC demanded it change into. It didn't need stock situations, it needed a strong story that would have reminded the BBC,Whovians, and casual fan alike that 'Doctor Who' was back, and better for the rest. Saward at no point in the script acknowledges the elements that caused the BBC to pull the show off the air, elements he contributed to! He instead perpetuates them again and again in this story! 

As it stands, 'Slipback' is yet another failed experiment in an era that, sadly, saw more than its share. It is a small sliver of an original story, a slight 'bonus mini episode' to sandwich between the televised seasons 21 and 22, but it's not much more than that. BBC Audio has in recent years sold the story for play as an mp3 and digital download, and in 2010 the U.K newspaper The Daily Telegraph, perhaps in some small way as an atonement for the relentless media bashing they and their brethren heaped on 'Doctor Who' not merely in Colin Baker's time in the TARDIS but throughout the 1980's as a whole, actually gave the story away on CD for free in one of their daily editions. I have to say, as bad as it is, I'd listen to it for free! 

As a forerunner to the great Sixth Doctor audio plays to come with the Big Finish range, and the 'Real Time' BBC flash animation webcast featuring the character, it is good that there are contemporary audio stories involving Baker that are superior to 'Slipback'. Because if it was alone in the universe in terms of audio stories, it would be a bleak and rarely-discussed story. The hiatus was bad, all around...or haven't we discussed 'Doctor In Distress?';-).

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