“Man to Man with Dean Learner” (2007)

This is not a film but a TV series that I watched on DVD. It is basically a spin-off from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another TV series that only ran for one season, and features Richard Ayoade playing Dean Learner, a gentleman pornographer and shady businessman who is hosting a late night chat show from his luxury apartment. Each episode features a different guest, all played by Matthew Holness, with the guests being people who are part of Learner’s business empire.

It is mostly pretty funny (the episodes where the guest is Steve Pising (pronounced pissing), former Formula 5 world racing champion, and Merriman Weir, alcoholic folk singer, particularly so). But it also has that comedy of awkwardness where it veers off into disturbing territory. You do get the sense over the various episodes that behind his comedic affability Learner is a pretty terrifying individual who is not above homicide (references are made to the unfortunate demise of a former wife and to the accident Pising was not meant to survive after he left Learner for another manager).

Particularly unsettling I think was the episode where the guest is Glynn Nimron, star of Galacticops, particularly now that gender identity stuff has become the great issue of our times; the denouement of the episode is I think more disturbing than funny. And there is a shocking cruelty to the episode with Randolph Caer, an actor whose career was destroyed after Leaner forced him to appear in the unsavoury murder flick Bitch Killer. Nevertheless, I feel that the edginess accentuates the comedy and gives the programme a depth it wouldn’t have if it was joke-joke funny, so I recommend this highly to all readers.

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Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade) (British Comedy Guide: Man To Man With Dean Learner)

Where to start with classic Doctor Who?

Over on popular social media site Facebook, one of my pals said she was planning to explore the world of classic Doctor Who and I took it upon myself to recommend two stories by each classic Doctor as an introduction (one from each seemed simply too few). As part of my campaign to become a major force in Doctor Who fandom, I present my list here, with non-spoilery notes as to why I have picked them. If you are classic-Who curious, consider starting here. If you are already familiar with classic-Who, consider leaving comments berating me for my poor choices.

First Doctor
The First Doctor was played by William Hartnell, from 1963 to 1966. Initially the Doctor is almost anti-heroic, having basically kidnapped two school teachers and taken them with him and his granddaughter on his travels through time and space. At first it is the disgruntled school teachers who fulfil the more heroic roles required by the plot, but that gradually changes.

  • “The Daleks” – the second story from the First Doctor and the series’ first not set on Earth (in classic Doctor Who it was not unusual for stories to be set on other planets). This is notable for its introduction of the titular Daleks, whose massive popularity is said to have pushed the series in a more science-fictiony direction than originally envisaged.
  • “The Tenth Planet” – the last story from the First Doctor, as William Hartnell was retiring due to ill health (one of the episodes had to be hastily rewritten to explain the Doctor’s absence, as Hartnell was too ill to record it). The story introduces the Cybermen, who would go on to be the other one of Doctor Who‘s star monsters, and it ends with the astonishing twist of the dying Doctor transforming into someone else (something that is now unremarkable in Doctor Who but back then was a real “with one bound, Jack was free” moment).

Second Doctor
The Second Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton, from 1966 to 1969. The recordings of many of his stories were wiped by the BBC, so picking ones to recommend is not easy.

  • “Power of the Daleks” – this is the first Second Doctor story. As the title suggests, it features Daleks, as apparently the production team decided was a good idea to have familiar monsters while the audience found their feet with the strange new Doctor. Important caveat: all original visual recordings of this story were lost, but home audio recordings have been combined with new animation to recreate the story; if you fear animation this may not be the story for you.
  • “The War Games” – this is the last Second Doctor story. it goes on a bit (ten 25 minute episodes). At the start it appears to be a straightforward historical adventure set on the Western Front in the First World War, before we discover that something else entirely is going on. The story is notable for the first appearance en masse of the Time Lords, the Doctor’s own people, from whom he is estranged.

Third Doctor
The Third Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, from 1970 to 1974. Doctor Who is now in colour. Initially the Third Doctor finds himself marooned on the Earth, with UNIT (a military organisation whose members serve as helpful cannon fodder) providing a larger supporting cast than previously seen.

  • “Inferno” – the Doctor is drawn towards the Inferno project, where scientists are working to drill through the Earth’s crust to access the limitless stores of energy to be found down below. Things start to go very wrong, and thanks to an audacious plot device we see them going wrong twice. As well as the UNIT army types, this also features their scientific advisor, Dr. Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John), one of the great Doctor Who assistants.
  • “Terror of the Autons” For this one the Doctor is still stuck on Earth, but now he must deal with an attempted invasion by the Autons, plastic people animated by a malign alien intelligence (who later appeared in the first new Doctor Who story). Worse, the story introduces his great adversary, the Master (played by Roger Delgado), another Time Lord, an old friend of the Doctor, but also a psychopath seeking power and his own advancement. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a character from Northern Ireland.

Fourth Doctor
The Fourth Doctor was played by Tom Baker, from 1974 to 1981. The Fourth Doctor is my Doctor, as little me started watching the series with his first story. I find it hard to narrow his stories down to just two, not just because of my familiarity with them but because I genuinely think that the first three seasons of the Fourth Doctor are the highlight of the show’s entire history, with almost the entirety of the stories being all-killer-no-filler.

  • “The Seeds of Doom” – beginning in Antarctica before moving to rural England, this story’s themes of infection and transformation are reminiscent of both Alien and The Thing, both of which came out several years after this was broadcast. It also features one of the all-time great barking mad human villains.
  • “The Robots of Death” – this is set on an alien world where decadent humans have creepy art deco robots to do all the work for them. The Doctor lands on a sand miner, on which a small group of humans and their robot crew are extracting valuable minerals from sand storms, only the humans are being mysteriously murdered. The writing and characterisation is very strong in this one and the art design of the robots is also impressive. The story features Leela, the Doctor’s knife-wielding savage companion, impressively portrayed by Louise Jameson.

Fifth Doctor
The Fifth Doctor was played by Peter Davison from 1982 to 1984. My recollection of this Doctor is that he was surprisingly un-dynamic and spent a lot of his time being sad about how things turned out.

  • “Earthshock” – massive caveat, I have not seen since this since it was first broadcast, but I remember it packing a real punch and being packed full of what 2000 AD readers know as Thrill Power. The story features the surprise return of an old enemy (the surprise being somewhat spoiled by their appearance on the DVD of the story) and one of the more downbeat endings in Doctor Who‘s history).
  • “The Caves of Androzani” – the last Fifth Doctor story, this one was written by great Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes and sees the Doctor caught up in a complex struggle over between a corrupt plutocrat and a phantom-of-the-opera style robot builder of questionable sanity.

Sixth Doctor
The Sixth Doctor was played by Colin Baker from 1984 to 1986. It is a bit harder to pick stories from Colin Baker’s tenure as there are not that many of them (those three years include 18 months when the show was on hiatus). Also, the programme is somewhat on the slide in these years, with Colin Baker’s entire second season taken up with the frankly terrible “Trial of a Timelord”. But there is still some good stuff in there.

  • “Vengeance on Varos” – on the titular planet the apathetic population can watch live torture on their television screens and if they don’t like decisions by the planet’s leader they can vote to give him electric shocks. Meanwhile a creepy slug-like alien (played by Nabil Shaban, a fascinating character in his own right) is pushing the Varosians into an unequal trade deal. The violence in the story was controversial, despite the anti-violence theme of the story, but I suspect that by our standards it would look pretty tame.
  • “The Two Doctors” – the Sixth Doctor meets up with the Second Doctor! And they find themselves up against warlike aliens the Sontarans and some other gourmand aliens who have travelled to Earth in order to eat people. Somewhat unusually, the aliens land in Spain rather than in England. I think this one has a poor reputation, but I remember it as being an enjoyable romp.

Seventh Doctor
The Seventh Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy from 1987 to 1989. His tenure is the hardest for me to pick stories to recommend. For all that I still like his portrayal of the character, the stories he was given are generally poor and are marked by something of a collapse in production values. I have also seen relatively few of his stories in their entirety, both because I was at a stage of my life when watching television no longer seemed a priority and because they were not really worth watching. Perhaps I am missing some gems here, in which case I invite readers to point out my errors in the comments.

  • “Remembrance of the Daleks” – in a burst of metafictionality, the Doctor returns to London in 1963 just before the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who, only to find that the Daleks are trying another of their invasions. While perhaps the story is not the strongest, this is pretty atmospheric and features one of the greatest end-of-episode cliff-hangers.
  • “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” – I remember this as being set in some kind of strange alien circus and being a bit weird. Features clowns.

I hope you found that interesting, whether you are familiar or otherwise with classic Doctor Who. It has certainly piqued my interest in rewatching some old stories.

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The First Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and the Daleks (Randomwhoness: Revision, reversion and The Daleks (1963/4))

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967)

This is a four episode story from the popular TV series Doctor Who. In this one the second Doctor and his pals Jamie (Scottish) and Victoria (Victorian) land on mysterious planet called Telos and fall in with some space archaeologists, who are looking for the eponymous tomb of the Cybermen. Said tomb turns out to be some class of trap laid by the rubbish cyborgs, though even after a close watching of this story I am still unclear as to what the Cybermen were hoping to accomplish that could not have been accomplished by not entombing themselves. For all the plot problem, the story just about deserves its reputation as a classic of early Doctor Who, with the episode two cliffhanger of the Cybermen waking up and bursting out of their cells being one of the programme’s most memorable. The story also features the great stock character of Doctor Who, the human villain who thinks that by doing some kind of favour to implacable aliens they will assist him (usually him, though in this case also a her) in conquering the Earth; this always ends well.

Tomb of the Cybermen follows directly after Evil of the Daleks, in which said Daleks killed (nay, exterminated) Victoria’s father. There is a quite touching scene in this story in which the Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) talks to Victoria about grief and her memory of her father, referring obliquely to his own lost loved ones. In days of yore Doctor Who was primarily aimed at children, so I cannot but think this scene was intended as a comfort to any children who might themselves have lost family members.
The story also features Cybermats, which are kind of like rats that have been turned into animal versions of the Cybermen or something. I think they are meant to be threatening, but as is the way of such things they end up looking quite cute.
These days however Tomb of the Cybermen is often noted for its problematic racial stereotyping – Middle Eastern people are shifty while Africans (or the story’s one African) are muscleheads. And Americans are all “gee golly” etc., showing yet again the downpression and negative stereotyping white Americans must endure on a daily basis. I thought maybe the stereotyping was not the worst I have ever seen, but then I am notorious for my unwoke nature.

image source (Wikipedia)

TV: An episode of “Game of Thrones” (2017)

When I was on an aeroplane to Canada I took the opportunity to watch a random episode of popular TV series Game of Thrones to see what I could make of the plot. Of course, because I do not live under a stone I have some familiarity with what this programme is about, even though I have never seen a full episode. This one featured the Blondie Lady and her pals (who include the Short Guy) deciding to send a message to the Curley-Haired Guy, inviting him to join their gang. Meanwhile the Lady Who Shags Her Brother was rallying other people to fight against the Blondie Lady by warning them that, like her late father (probably a Blond Guy), she was some kind of mentalist.

There wasn’t too much in the way of gratuitous female nudity, though the Blondie Lady’s Assistant did get her kit off at some point. There was also an incident in which people on a ship were captured by pirates, I suspect for plot device reasons, while another guy had his skin cut off to save him from a repulsive disease.

It was all pretty dialogue heavy and focussed on people trying to form alliances and test each other’s loyalty. For me that was quite appealing, making it like an updated version of a classic BBC drama like I, Claudius. I can definitely see why people like this and may one day proceed with my plan to watch the very first episode of season 1 and then the very last episode of the final season so that I will know all about the Game of Thrones.

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The Blondie Lady, the Short Guy and some other people recreate their favourite U2 album cover (Guardian: Game of Thrones recap: season seven, episode two: Stormborn)