Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Slipback" by Eric Saward (July-August 1985)

Slipback surprised me, in that I actually rather enjoyed it. I have no great love for most of Eric Saward’s individual scripts nor for his particular vision of Doctor Who; the kind of macho posturing that, from 1982, he seemed determined to import into a show where it rarely fits leaves me pretty bored and dissatisfied. But perhaps I was forgetting the high esteem in which I hold Revelation of the Daleks, his 1985 script, and how that maybe signals that he was learning as he went along. Slipback is no literary triumph, and by landing us on a vast spaceship, the Vipod Mor, with a rampaging alien creature in the hold, we are plunging directly back into SF cliché territory - but it’s actually rather good for an Eric Saward effort, and in its pleasing eccentricity of tone feels both like a homage to Douglas Adams and a forerunner of Red Dwarf.

Take the comedy, dual-personality computer with a distressingly noxious American accent and the occasional hiccough, for one thing; it just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing you’d get in a Colin Baker TV story, but instead has a Deep Thought-ish lightness of touch about it that hops from irritating to enjoyably bizarre (“it saddens me to report that Mr Bates and Mr Wilson have just become the intruder’s lunch… I know this may be difficult for you to relate to-”/“They’ve been eaten?”/“You’ve got it!”). The main computer’s studying the culture of all known lifeforms yielding only “lists of pointless wars, […] butchery and self-inflicted unhappiness” becomes a philosophical musing on absurdity and a determination to go back to the very beginning and become life’s “midwife”, and this feels rather Adamsian too. It’s not just the computer though - there’s also a pair of comedy policemen called Snatch and Seedle who aren’t quite up there with the Holmesian double acts, but still aren’t too bad, a short-lived android called Barton who is more or less Marvin from Hitchhiker’s (“I do beg your pardon, sir. I was composing my epitaph”), a storyline involving an art thief that feels like Saward doing a City of Death tribute, and the comic creation of Slarn, the ship’s captain who suffers from psychosomatically created diseases that he then passes on to the rest of the crew and who spends most of the story in a lava bath or receiving a massage. It’s not an especially challenging part but the late Valentine Dyall, ex-Black Guardian, plays him with scenery-chewing relish; it was all going swimmingly until Slarn uttered the words “I’m rather partial to Earth women” and the familiar spectre of 80s villains lusting over Peri reared its ugly head once again. Urgh.

Adding catatonic alcoholism to the Colin Baker Doctor’s list of sins during this his early period is played for laughs (“come to think of it, when was last night? On second thoughts, don’t answer that question”), so I don’t especially mind it, but it too probably isn’t especially wise - given his frequent physical and verbal abuse of Peri as well, it quickly gets ugly in that typical Sawardian way if you think about it too much. The rapport between the Doctor and Peri is actually rather good here, though, and Colin’s particularly strong performance is a nice indicator of what he might have been like in 1985 with slightly pacier, slightly more comic stories (and note that he gets called “quite nice” and “the most agreeable person I’ve spoken to all day”, which is surely a first for an 80s-era Sixth Doctor story, even if the speaker in question is an insane computer). The Doctor’s anecdote about an actor whose performance was so bad that the ravenous creature devouring him was forced to regurgitate him back up again - all told breathlessly whilst running away from another ravenous creature, a Maston - might be (chronologically speaking) the funniest thing in Doctor Who since Douglas Adams was script editor (“such was the mind-bending stiltedness of the performance, the mucus in the hedron’s gullet evaporated”). He also gets a lovely, humble moment in Episode Five that isn’t the sort of thing I recall Saward giving Baker during his time as script editor (on being told “you are a great disappointment, Doctor,” he doesn’t respond with angry ranting but just concedes “most people feel that way”).

A little overstuffed but with rather a fun plot, Slipback is no classic (I’m not sure we needed another reason behind the Big Bang either; did Terminus crash into the Vipod Mor, then?!), but it’s decent stuff, and it’s nice to have another genuine slice of mid-80s Doctor Who starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant.

Other things:
“Is the intruder humanoid?”/“Oh, decidedly so. Estimated height: 2 metres 10. Weight: 125 kilos.”/“That is a lot of intruder.”
Dick Mills’ sound effects and Jonathan Gibbs’ music are so astoundingly retro - even just listening to the first two minutes will give you a good idea - that I kinda love them. It’s the kind of sound that the Colin-era BFs strive for (I remember Whispers of Terror sounded pretty 1985ish) but even the most well-tuned effort won’t quite capture. Another thing I like about Slipback that I wish the Big Finish audios did is the reading of the title and episode number at the beginning. That title sequence and music, in my mind, accompanies that information, so it’s a shame not to hear someone say it in the BF audios like they do here. Not keen on the episodes being quite so short, though - it means that we have a lot of subpar “noooo!” cliff-hangers!
Line I’m not sure about: “The console started to wink, flash and grunt like some dirty old man in a park.” Hmmm.
“I get the feeling it might be a difficult creature to persuade. As you can hear, it does have a rather limited vocabulary!”/“RAAAR!”
“Massage my chins, will you. I always find that very relaxing.”
“I’ve beaten my fists raw on some of the finest criminals in the galaxy.”/“Are you policemen?”/“Certainly not, miss. You’ll just have to accept the somewhat implausible story that we are environment inspectors.”
“No gun. You must be feeling confident.”/“Never carry one. Causes my pocket to bulge. Ruins the cut of my coat.”
“A cursory examination of [the Doctor’s] mind shows it to be cluttered with trivia.”
“But what about the great cultures that have flourished?”/“Such civilisations are built on a wave of suffering and domination.”/“You seem to have a very negative point of view.”/“You are in favour of war?”/“Quite the reverse, although I have discovered that most life forms take a little time to sort themselves out.”/“And whilst doing so sacrifice millions of their own kind.”/“This is all very altruistic but I do think you ought to-”/“There is no but about it, Doctor. The slaughter has to stop.”/“I agree, but it would take an awful lot of convincing on your part.” A well-done exchange, and though it seems at first that the Doctor seeming to make space for war as “sorting themselves out” looks like typical Sawardian machismo I actually think this is a nice bit of writing for the Sixth Doctor: he’s a pragmatist, not an idealist.
“You have the right to remain silent, but I wouldn’t encourage you to do so. Anything you say will be taken down, altered to my satisfaction and used in a court of law to send you down for a good many years. So start confessing.”
“Like the creation of life itself, my independence was an accident: only, in my case, on the part of a careless technician.”/“I see, so a simple case of crossed wires.”
“Instead of allowing life to develop in the haphazard arbitrary way it has, I shall supervise its conception, gestation, and final birth.”/“Well, you certainly don’t set yourself small tasks.”
I love that Grant recognises a description of the Doctor by his “fair, curly hair” and not the garish clothing. It’s both a good joke but also reasonably plausible given we have no clue what Grant is wearing or what futuristic fashion aboard the Vipod Mor might be like!
“As with so many people in this galaxy, the crew die because of their leader’s anger.”
“I’ve never met such a devious door. It refuses to open.”
“You're nicked. Whoever you are.”
“That would look good on my tombstone. ‘He didn't know, so the universe was never created.’”
“I’ll be the first machine ever to commit suicide. Hey! How about that?!”

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 2.1: Buried Secrets (February 2006)

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