“Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom” (1976)

This is the last story from the second season of Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor, when Philip Hinchcliffe was the show’s producer and Robert Holmes the script editor. The programme took a dark turn, with many of the stories featuring gothic themes and levels of violence that were perhaps a bit unsettling for a programme that went out at tea time and was popular with small children. This basically is the imperial phase of Doctor Who, when the show reached heights that it has never matched since. And I am not just saying that because these are the first Doctor Who stories I saw myself when I was very small; watched again with an adult’s critical eye the stories of this era have a consistent quality unmatched by earlier or later Doctor Who (including the entire corpus of nu-Who). This period also saw the programme attract the highest viewing figures it would ever obtain.


Seeds of Doom is a six-parter, dealing with gothic nature themes (at one point the protagonists find themselves besieged in an old mansion by malevolent plants). I have read that usually Doctor Who six-parters were written so that they are effectively a four part story followed by a two parter resolution. This one reverses that. The action begins in Antarctica, where some scientists in a research base discover two strange vegetable pods that have been buried in the ice for thousands of years. Unfortunately one of the pods is exposed to UV light, causing it burst open and release a tendril that infects one of the scientists, causing him to transform into a human-plant hybrid monster. The Doctor just about manages to resolve this situation, but the other pod is stolen and brought back to England by agents working for Harrison Chase, a keen collector of exotic plants. The rest of the story follows the Doctor and Sarah as they try to retrieve the pod from Chase’s mansion before a global catastrophe occurs.
This is one of the all-time classic Doctor Who stories. Everything comes together in it. The writing and direction (by Robert Banks Stewart and Douglas Camfield) give the story a relentless drive, with a continuous building of tension in the second section around who is going to be infected by the pod and what will happen when the infection is left unchecked. Tom Baker is astonishing as the Doctor, playing him as strange and alien, oddly callous about the lives of individual human beings yet risking everything for humanity as a whole, while Elisabeth Sladen shines as his assistant, her character having a strength that puts her beyond the usual assistant role of having to be rescued or having the plot explained to her.

What is particularly striking though is that even away from principals there is a depth to the portrayal of the other characters. As the story rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear that Tony Beckley’s Harrison Chase is a member of the barking mad community, but rather than being a cackling villain he manages to display a suave persuasiveness; like all the best villains it is easy to see how he is the hero of his own story, and not just because he likes weirdo music. The late John Challis delivers a brilliant performance as Scorby, Chase’s violent fixer, who manages to have more going on than just being the guy who repeatedly threatens to kill the Doctor and Sarah. When circumstances force him and Sarah to band together there are some great moments when she challenges him on his assumption that everyone else is as entirely out for themselves as he is. You get this sense of a man whose life experiences have engendered a nihilistic cynicism, in some ways reminiscent of the protagonists of the more recent Kill List. Even the more minor characters have some heft to them, like the various civil servants or Mark Jones as Keeler, Chase’s doomed botanist, and Seymour Green as Hargreaves, Chase’s butler. I particularly liked the scenes where Hargreaves struggles with his habitual deference to Chase, despite the fact that his master is clearly deranged and by his actions threatening everyone with destruction.
I don’t think people talk much about the costuming of Doctor Who, but the clothes in this story are also amazing. The Doctor obviously boasts the classic Tom Baker outfit while Sarah has this great 70s boots and dress look going. Chase meanwhile boasts a succession of beautifully cut three-piece suit that gives him a certain demonic Mr Humphries aura. And Scorby rocks a poloneck jumper and suit look. I want outfits by these costumiers.

So yeah, a classic. Like a lot of Hinchcliffe Doctor Who it draw on other sources, with the Antarctic pod sequences evoking John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?. But nevertheless it is striking how innovative this is, with the body horror aspects of the plot preceding both Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing by several years.


images:

Harrison Chase and the pod (BBC)

Infecting Sarah? (BBC)

Scorby and the Doctor (BBC)

Film: “Censor” (2021)

Directed by Prano Reilly-Bond, this brings us back to the exciting days of the video nasty boom and associated moral panic of the early 1980s. For the benefit of younger readers, this was a period when VHS technology meant that shops in which people could rent videos were opening across the UK. However, mainstream studios were a bit slow to release films on the new format. Into the breach stepped the makers of schlock horror films, which meant that suddenly these were widely available in a way they had never been previously. The public’s easy access to these lurid films led to claims that they were causing the breakdown of society, exonerating concerns that the mass unemployment unleashed by the Tory government might have something to do with social problems.

Censor is about a film censor whose job it is to censor these films. Now, the most famous of UK film censors to me is James Ferman, who headed the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 to 1999. If you know anything about UK film censorship you will know that he had a morbid dread of nunchucks, fearing that if young lads who worked in factories were to glimpse these items they would knock some up themselves and take to battering each other with them. So for many years the depiction of nunchucks in films and TV programmes shown in the UK was effectively banned (including in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film and the cartoon TV series about those popular amphibians, which was renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK to make it less nunchucky).

When I first heard of Censor, my hope was that it would be about a nunchuck-averse censor who struggles to eliminate these terrible weapons from society, only to end up having to pick them up himself to battle the sinister Mr Big behind the whole video nasty enterprise in a climatic fight scene. Censor is not that film. Instead it sees Niamh Algar (one of our own) playing Enid Baines, a censor working for the BBFC. She is committed to her work and sees herself as helping to protect society from the violent content of the horror filmmakers. But things are not right with her. Ostensibly she is sufficiently focused on her work that continuous exposure to disturbing content is not affecting her. However, she begins to suspect that a particular actress appearing in one of the films is her sister, who vanished in mysterious circumstances when she was a child. The boundaries between fantasy and reality begin to blur etc. (no spoilers here: this is all in the trailer).

A lot of people really liked this film. And there is a lot to like. The look of the film is amazing, with the cinematography and art design giving it a the kind of retro look previously seen in Berberian Sound Studio (which also deals with disturbing films of yore). And having all the action take place either indoors or at night gives the film an oppressive quality (reminiscent again of Berberian Sound Studio, but also of Richard Ayoade’s brilliant adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Double). And there are some strong performances in the film, not least from Algar herself but also the people playing the other censors and Michael Smiley as a sleazy film producer.

But nevertheless I have reservations. I think you could make a very good film about a film censor who spends their time looking at disturbing content. There are a number of different ways you could go here. You could roll with the idea that watching disturbing violent content turns people violent (which, after all, is the basic premise of film censorship) and so have the censor transformed by all the material they view into a violent maniac. Or perhaps you could have the censor see some kind of haunted video that somehow transforms them or draws them into a world of disturbing horror. I’m sure other possibilities suggest themselves and I think any of these would have been more profitable paths for cinematic exploration. Censor though brings in the whole missing sister thing, which to me makes the film feel like two separate films uncomfortably mashed together, one about a censor who is staring to crack up and another about a woman obsessing about her vanished sister.

I also thought it a bit lazy that the censor lady is depicted as being prim and uptight. In almost all her scenes she comes across as emotionally repressed, while her clothing is always of the buttoned up variety. Plus her name is Enid. To me this seemed a bit too like coding her as a fun-hating frump who has got into film censorship because if she isn’t having any fun then she doesn’t see why anyone else should have any either. I found that a bit lazy and suspect the film would have got more heat over it if it had been made by a male director.

But reservations aside, there is much to like about this film. And everyone else loved it so you probably will too. I think both Algar and Reilly-Bond are people to watch and I look forward to catching their future endeavours.

image:

Poster (Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA) (@IFTA) on Twitter)

My Music of 2021: part 3

My journey through the music of 2021 continues. If you want to you can go back and read part 1 and part 2.

m-orchestra The Grim Circus (Bandcamp, download)

m-orchestra is the music name of Martin Belam, who writes about stuff in the Guardian and is one of my Tim’s Twitter Listening Party buds. The record is plinky oldschool electronica of the kind you make in your bedroom, with sampled vocals from spooky TV shows of yore. One track edits a long Dave Allen shaggy dog story about a house with a haunted room to eliminate the chortlesome punchline and keep it as worrying tale of the uncanny, one reminiscent of ballet The Haunted Ballroom. Others feature reports of local hauntings or tales of provincial witchcraft.


The most actually disturbing though is “Anneliese” which shares title and subject matter with a song from the first album by Public Image Limited. I could have easily passed over this but the Anneliese case came onto my radar recently thanks to The Battersea Poltergeist, where it was mentioned when some guy decided to have a crack at exorcising the girl at the centre of the phenomena. That ended in farce, with the cops arriving to arrest the exorcist on the grounds that black magic rituals were still at that point illegal.

The Anneliese case had a more tragic outcome. Anneliese Michel was a young German woman who suffered from seizures and intermittent psychosis triggered by epilepsy. Her parents became convinced that their daughter was possessed by a demon and called in some Catholic exorcists. Unlike in the films, there was no dramatic battle of wills between indomitable priests and a monstrous demonic entity; instead Michel was subjected to a series of exorcisms over a 10 month period that seemed to feed her delusions rather than help her. Michel largely stopped eating and took to self-harming, but her parents and the priests continued with the exorcisms instead of consulting medical professionals. Eventually she died a result of malnutrition and dehydration. Anneliese’s parents and the priests were convicted of her manslaughter but received short sentences, ultimately suspended. There are recordings of the exorcisms, reputedly extremely disturbing to listen to, but they do not feature on the track, with Belam saying that he did not want to make the track into a piece of lurid exploitation; instead you get what sounds like a sober recounting of the case’s grim facts.

The track does make for a bit of a contrast with the others on the album. With the rest of it there is the sense of the paranormal as being almost a bit of fun, good for a thrill but with the knowledge that in real life it’s all harmless nonsense. But with “Anneliese” you are confronted with the danger of the paranormal, not the danger that non-existent demons and ghosts will claim their victims, but that people will fall into believing this kind of bullshit and act out accordingly.

Buy the album here. Read back on Martin Belam’s tweet-through of it here.


Subsonic Eye Nature of Things (Bandcamp, download)

It’s the Singaporean shoegaze sensations! Someone in Frank’s APA (musical paper of record) was bigging them up and so I resolved to investigate. Since then I discovered that Subsonic Eye are not the super-obscure outfit I thought they were, but are actually somewhat well known: not well known enough to have a Wikipedia page but they have received coverage in the NME and other media outlets.

I think they might be more dreampop than shoegaze (more like American indie of the late 1980s rather than something from the Thames Valley), but that’s not a criticism. A jaded cynic might sneer dismissively about this record being derivative and lacking in a radical new approach to music, but I won’t be having that kind of talk. If this is derivative, it has done a good job of being derivative of good music, and there is a likeability to this record that for me is something you can’t get with straightforward pastiche rock.

There is a song about one of the band’s cat.

Check this record out if you like nice things. It might be my album of the year that isn’t by a solo female artist.

Buy the album here.


Angeline Morrison and The Ambassadors of Sorrow “Ophelia” (Bandcamp, download)

And it’s Angeline Morrison again, this time with a track that presents us with the last thoughts of Shakespeare’s Ophelia as she floats away to her watery death. It’s dreamy and wistful rather than miserable, perhaps thanks to Ophelia’s somewhat confused mental state.

But it here.


A Ritual Sea “Because You Hate To Care About” (Bandcamp, download)

More gothgaze action from Dublin’s popular gothgaze act. I think this might be a taster for the album they are due to bring out later this year. I am looking forward to that as I think there might be a cumulative appeal to their music that individual tunes do not match.

Buy it here.


LoneLady Former Things (Spindizzy, vinyl)

Before 25 June 2021 I had neither heard nor heard of LoneLady, this being the name under which Julie Campbell of Manchester records. But on that day there was one of Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties for this record, which was being released on that day, and Martin Belam among others was bigging it up so I decided to give it a go. And it’s a brilliant piece of work, vintage-sounding synths, occasional guitars and Campbell’s edgy vocals combining to create a collection of disconcerting floor-fillers. There is a definite Manchester classics of yore sound to it, but it still feel very contemporary. This is another of my three albums of the year (so far) and I am looking forward to seeing her play live here in October in a concert that will definitely take place.

Buy it everywhere that good records are sold, or from here.

That’s it for now, part 4 to follow at some stage in the future.

images:

Subsonic Eye Nature of Things (Bandcamp)

LoneLady Former Things (Bandcamp)

My Music of 2021: part 2

In response to massive public demand I am listing all the new 2021 music that I have acquired since the start of the year. You can read part 1 here.

A Ritual Sea “Desire Lines” (Bandcamp, download)

An annoying thing about the Irish gothgaze sensations is that there is a distinct lack of consistency about how they spell their name. Sometimes it is A Ritual Sea, but sometimes it is ARitualSea, and sometimes it is A.Ritual.Sea. This irks me so much that sooner or later I will crack and demand on social media that they pick one form of their name and stick to it over all media. I am looking forward to them finally releasing an album, which apparently they have recorded for a record label. And indeed to their playing live again as I think they work best in that context. In the meantime I make do with these individual tunes.

Buy it here (but note how even on that one page the band’s name is given in two different ways).


Angeline Morrison “Circular Waltz” (Bandcamp, download)

Angeline Morrison is one of my Unthanks singing weekend buds. She makes a lot of music, on her own, with her bands the Ambassadors of Sorrow and We Are Muffy and with the bloke from the Rowan Amber Mill as Rowan : Morrison, and others. She has a great voice, is v cool and her weirdo folkie aesthetic is very appealing. I should do a deep dive through her work for you sometime but for now there is just this track, described by one commenter as “Not so much song, more rather spell”, for it is a hypnotic evocation of someone circling as they wait forever, perhaps under an enchantment.

Buy it here.


United Bible Studies Cave Hill 2: Divining Movements (Bandcamp, download)

United Bible Studies apparently started life as some kind of avant garde improv outfit who used to bang CD cases together as percussion instruments (I did not see this myself); this so incensed one of my friends that he vowed to never see them play live again, muttering angrily about “cargo cult improv”. Since then however they moved in a more droney-psychy-folkie direction. They have also seen such a revolving door of band membership that it is hard to keep track of who is in the band at any one time. The two most permanent members these days seem to be David Colohan (a founder member I think and possible last man standing of the original line-up) and Alison O’Donnell, most famous for her membership of legendary Irish folk rockers Mellow Candle. Like Angeline Morrison, I should probably provide you with a big trawl through the by now quite large amount of United Bible Studies stuff that I have acquired, but for now I can report that Divining Moments, a sequel and companion to their Cave Hill Ascension, is another of those contemplative vaguely spooky atmospheric records. Fill under edgy chill out maybe.

Buy it here.

United Bible Studies Cave Hill 3: West Kennet Ascension (Bandcamp, download)

This one was apparently recorded partly on site at such famous places of legend as Wayland’s Smithy and the West Kennet Long Barrow. It seems a bit more song-based than the previous record, but it’s still weird folk. But then isn’t all folk a bit weird?

Buy it here.

The Anchoress “Show Your Face” (piano version) (Bandcamp, download)

So I suspect in an effort to make saps like me pay for the same thing over and over again The Anchoress released this alternative version of a song from her album, teasing that she might ultimately do this with all of them. On The Art of Losing this was an electronic borderline electropop tune but here, as you might guess from the parenthesised words above, it is pretty much vocals and piano accompaniment. One for the completists perhaps, but also a great opportunity to ponder whether this or the electronic version of the song presses your buttons more.

It seems to no longer be available.

Angeline Morrison and The Ambassadors of Sorrow “Bright Blessings” (Bandcamp, download)

It’s Angeline again. This is a droney-spooky-folky tune (the only instrument credited is a shruti box), to the extent that you could imagine her showing up on United Bible Studies record. She describes it as a blessing in the form of a song, but it is an eerie blessing, or at least the kind of sad blessing you might give to a loved one as you part, knowing that you will never see them again.

Buy it here.


Marissa Nadler Instead of Dreaming (Bandcamp, download)

I think some of my Frank’s APA buds were singing the praises of Marissa Nadler. Thus I found myself downloading this album of covers. Why did I go for the covers album and not any of the other records she has on Bandcamp? I’m not sure. It’s not like this has a load of my favourite tunes on it and I think I only recognise two of the titles (‘Moonchild’ (King Crimson, not Fields of the Nephilim) and ‘Nothing Else Matters’).

It’s an appealing record, with goth-adjacent Americana-esque production centred around Ms Nadler’s dreamy vocals. A lot of it sounds like the kind of thing that might appear in the soundtrack of a David Lynch film. The standout track for me might well be the aforementioned ‘Moonchild’, which like Chromatics ‘Into the Black’ has me thinking I really ought to listen to more of both the original artist and one doing the cover.

Buy it here.


v/a Below the Radar 36 (The Wire, download)

A perk of a Wire subscription is that you get to download these compilations.But you know the way I say that the Wire Tapper compilations can be a bit like a pleasing avant-garde aural wallpaper where it’s all very enjoyable but nothing particularly stands out? Well this is bit like that too I fear. But the fault may lie with me for failing to listen to this set closely enough, as putting it on while typing this reveals some fascinating tuneage, like Malvern Brune’s hypnotic “Sulfur Sands” or the gentle klanging and vocals of Laure Boer’s “Soleil ├ębloui”.

Subscribe to The Wire here.

images:

United Bible Studies Divining Moments (Bandcamp)

United Bible Studies West Kennet Ascension (Bandcamp)

Marissa Nadler Instead of Dreaming (Bandcamp)