Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts One and Two

John: So the plan to seamlessly flow this off of the back of ‘Tragedy Day’, and thus see ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’ in the context of its era, seems to have gone a bit off the rails. On the other hand, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. I’ve seen a lot of posts where people do that, and they all seem to come down to, “Gee, it doesn’t fit in there all that well!” I hope that the delay means we can talk about more than just whether they recaptured the mid-90s feel.

Dee: I can’t say I felt like it was anything like ‘Tragedy Day,’ and if you hadn’t told me they were supposed to flow one from the other I wouldn’t have known it. On the other hand, the first two parts are a solid adventure and a fun one. Especially for me, as I said in my review post a few months back. Geeking plus mocking Newagers (which you should pronounce “newage” like “sewage”) plus cross-stitch. They had me at the concept.

John: The concept is great. But I have to say, as we sit at the halfway point, that it hasn’t really gotten going yet. It has a problem that was always one of the weaknesses of Paul Cornell’s Seventh Doctor material, which was that he never really liked the manipulative aspects of McCoy and so they tended to be a bit ham-fisted. The Seventh Doctor rarely did anything as clunky or blatant as nip back in time and stick a giant cylinder of sleeping gas in the ventilation ducts to foil the baddies’ plans, even during this era (which may be why it doesn’t feel like it fits in with ‘Tragedy Day’). He was always a subtle manipulator and a brilliant improviser and you could never tell where one ended and the other began. This part, where he’s just being really obvious about scamming the monsters, is the weakest bit of the story to me. Do you feel the same way?

Dee: It’s hard for me to say. Right now, having not heard the whole thing, my feeling is that he’s still playing them because Seven was never this, as you say, blatant. But there are lots of old Who episodes where the Doctor was, so I am inclined to give it a pass. Instead, I’m focusing on the lovely character grace notes and the humor, which is thrilling me no end. I don’t even want to specifically talk about the parts that made me laugh out loud in case I spoil it for someone else. Furthermore, with Cornell writing and Sophie Aldred reprising her part with clear joy and her usual talent, we’re back to an Ace I like. That goes a long way, in my heart, towards spackling over plot holes.

John: Oh, yes. Ace and Benny are the clear highlights of the first disc, what with her casually chatting about how she did her usual “storming off in shocked betrayal” bit, and Benny getting a rather terribly large number of good lines. I will avoid quoting most of them, for the reasons you mentioned, but I have to say that the exchange: “Are you pregnant?” “How did you know?” “I didn’t. I just ask that question to break the ice at parties,” is one of his better Benny moments, and this is the man who created the character. They were clearly having a ton of fun, and you totally forget that this is the first time that Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman have acted together as Ace and Benny. Which is why I’m glad they didn’t do a story set earlier--with chemistry this good, why waste it by having them act all tense and angry at each other?

Dee: Precisely. The bigger negative, to me, than the plot being hamfisted is that I just can’t tell the baddies apart. It’s one thing when you can see actors facing each other on screen, but in this case it’s just distracting because you’re never sure which baddie you’re hearing. It’s still minor, though. And it doesn’t hurt my anticipation of the next installment. I do want to address the nice bait-and-switch that was almost set up, which is that we hear the possession of the medium before we have the body in the elevator. I wish we could have had the body first, so it looked more like a murder mystery. But then I suppose the fandom gatekeepers would have been upset we didn’t get the monster first, so there’s no way to win on that one.

John: I know what you mean about the monster voices. The actors in question have some really good voices, but they’re so heavily modulated that you can’t tell them apart in monster form. I agree that the body would have been a better cold open in some ways...actually, I was going to say “but” when I realized there’s no “but” there. The body would have been a better open, it would have foregrounded the Doctor, and it’s not like they couldn’t have gotten to the other stuff later. Have you noticed, by the way, that we haven’t been talking much about themes? This feels so much like a nostalgia piece to me that it seems more concerned with being of this era than being about something. Or am I being too hard on it?

Dee: I don’t see that at all. I see it as being more of a throwback to a Hinchcliffe era, if you want to talk nostalgia, but that’s OK with me. To me, the themes are more about people needing something to believe in. Mary needs to believe in Brian and the medium. Michael needs to believe in Brian, then in these people who are (hopefully) saving his life. Ace and Benny need to believe in the Doctor and are almost desperately doing so.

John: I can see something of that, but it does feel sort of secondary at this point to the Doctor being smug about fooling aliens and the aliens being smug about fooling the Doctor. I do recall some people at the time being put out a bit about the Scourge, by the way. In terms of themes, there were people at the time who felt like putting clinical depression down to “evil aliens making you feel that way” was trivializing a very real thing. Speaking personally, I sometimes feel it’s helpful to externalize depression, to remind myself that it’s a brain chemistry thing affecting me and not an aspect of my feelings, but I can see how this might be taking it too far.

Dee: As someone who’s mentally ill myself, and sensitive to this, I didn’t hear the Doctor mention “clinical depression,” which can be seen as different from colloquial “depression,” so unless on a relisten I hear him use the word “clinical” I’m giving it a pass. I welcome others to feel differently, though, and there is a bit of ableism in there. I don’t think at the time this was made that was even a word, though, so again, giving Cornell slack. He always tries hard to be openminded and caring, and he’s a definite ally to many communities. Now, the smugness thing… yes, but holy cow, how many times did Baker do that schtick? It’s not new to the series, that’s for sure.

John: No, it’s not new at all. But I just feel like McCoy doesn’t quite know how to play it. He’s good at enigmatic, he’s good at knowing, but he always played that off in the past as distant and mysterious. I don’t think he likes having to be the one to explain all his own plans here. But as I said, he’s much better when he gets to be clever instead of smug and improvisational instead of all-knowing, so the next disc should be much more entertaining. Join us then!