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03 March 2012 @ 03:44 pm
The Randomizer: Logopolis  
A while back a super secret Doctor Who mailing list I was one (whose denizens have now mostly moved to an even more super secret Doctor Who mailing list) had a weekly "randomizer" where one Doctor Who episode was picked at random, we all watched it, and then discussed. The result was actually quite interesting. So when it stopped we decided we might as well do something similar ourselves and Logopolis was the first story out of the hat.

There were two things I thought I knew about Logopolis: a) that it was clever in a "hard SF" way and b) that Matthew Waterhouse was rubbish.

Logopolis's central conceit is that mathematics, being the manipulation of abstract structure, can also (if sufficiently advanced) create concrete structure. Furthermore, given that the heat death of the universe is the loss of structure, mathematics could be used to prevent this. Those aren't completely stupid ideas, and in Dr Who terms they are a lot more abstract than the kind concepts to which the show normally appeals. That said they aren't really any more "Hard SF" than most Who fare: the laws of thermodynamics are going to have a big problem with them and just having the Doctor mention said laws with a grave looking face doesn't mean you've got anything like a consistent theory there.

What kills any notion that the story is clever though is the realisation of these ideas, which is simply dire. Despite the fact the first third of the story is primarily devoted to TARDIS-based scenes consisting entirely of earnest dialogue, I think the audience could be forgiven for being deeply confused about the connections between mathematics, structure and entropy that the script is playing with. The visualisation of the concepts is horrible. Entropy is demonstrated mostly by falling masonry and occasionally by things just vanishing for no adequately explained reason. The use of mathematics to generate structure by reams of little old men in mud huts chanting and manipulating abaci (as magical incantations, in fact). We never actually see any structure being created.

Then there is the watcher, some kind of future echo of the Doctor's incoming fifth incarnation. The watcher seems to have no role at all in the story beyond hanging around looking portentious. As far as I could tell there was no connection between him and the whole mathematics, structure, entropy stuff. I'm sure the watcher was an attempt to create a tragic and doom-laden atmosphere but the rest of the story is suffering from the 80s ills of an over-lit studio and cardboard acting and any atmosphere he may bring to the story is squandered.

As for Matthew Waterhouse, well, he's borderline competent which sounds like a criticism but that actually means he's acting about half the rest of the cast off the screen including Janet Fielding as Tegan who I'd expected to be the strongest of the three companions* but was, in fact, the worst, delivering almost every line as if it needed to be projected across a crowded theatre. Anthony Ainley's performance as the Master is perhaps the oddest piece of acting in the story. I would say that he's actually quite good any time he isn't laughing - it's a shame therefore that the script calls on him to do nothing except giggle maniacally for the first two episodes.

As I suspect is clear, I was hugely disappointed by the story. It is agonisingly slow, almost nothing of any note happens until halfway through the second episode. The acting is poor and the direction is pedestrian. I'm not surprised that Tom Baker was pleased to leave.

Of course, despite my dismissive reference to the underlying ideas above, the concept of mathematics creating structure via "block transfer computation" has had a lasting legacy, at least in the fan-lore of the series. It is, by some way, the more interesting of the underlying concepts and is incredibly useful if you want to put a scientific spin on otherwise magical powers. I really, really wish Logopolis, as the story which introduced it, did the concept more justice.

*I actually have no idea why I expected this. Neither Sarah Sutton (who played Nyssa) nor Janet Fielding have had much acting work (not counting Who spinoffery) since they left the show, but Sutton has had rather more than Fielding has. Waterhouse, on the other hand, has had a moderately successful theatrical career. He also gains serious brownie points for always appearing remarkably cheerful about the dire reputation his performance has gained among the show's fans.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/62571.html.
reggietatereggietate on March 3rd, 2012 05:42 pm (UTC)
I was under the impression Matthew W had sunk without trace after Who :-) Nice to know he didn't. He was a bit of a tick on the set, so I've heard, but perhaps he pulled his socks up afterwards - he was only a youngster, after all.

I haven't seen Logopolis for years, probably since it was first broadcast, but I do have the novelisation, which I quite liked, if I recall. And I think Logopolis had its moments, in spite of everything you point out (and I'm sure you're mostly right).

It's a Christopher Bidmead story, isn't it? Whatever happened to him?
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 4th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
The interviews I've seen with Waterhouse, he's basically said "yes, I was rubbish and arsey with it, but it was my first job of any kind" which is refreshingly honest for an actor.

I think I saw Logopolis in the early 90s, but it was all in one go (which watched this spread over four evenings) and in the company of a big group of Who fans and I suspect that obscured a lot of the pacing problems. I think, at the time, I'd also seen a lot less older Who and so was more inclined to excuse its pacing problems on the grounds that "telly was slower in those days". I've also read the novelisation but don't recall much about it - however it wouldn't surprise me if it would work much better on the printed page than on screen - very little of it is particularly dynamic, and what there is was rather poorly executed - it might work much better in a more cerebral and less visual medium.

I think, though I'm not sure, that Chris Bidmead is now a technical writer - *check on wikipedia* OK apparently he's a computer journalist, writes for PC Pro and the like.
reggietatereggietate on March 4th, 2012 04:35 pm (UTC)
I have the advantage of being Who fan almost from birth - I wasn't quite three when it started, and I'm assured by my Mum that we watched it from the first episode!

At least Matthew W isn't ashamed to own the fact that he was in it - unlike Josette Simon and Glynis Barber in Blakes 7. It's not as if either of them have anything to be ashamed of in their performances. JS was about sixteen, straight out of acting school, and her inexperience shows at times, but she still does a reasonable job, and is lovely to look at. There are worse shows she could have started out in.

Possibly CB's frustration with the execution of his ideas led to him abandoning sci fi telly. I seem to remember from DWM he was rather a difficult sort.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 4th, 2012 04:52 pm (UTC)
I grew up with it too, but I find it difficult to match "at the time" perceptions to current ones, especially when it comes to pacing and I missed Logopolis at the time.

A lot of old Who is slow to modern eyes even when I don't recall it being so as a child. But I think Logopolis is particularly slow-moving and static, even given the constraints of the time, something I suspect was less obvious to me in the 90s. But compared to stuff being produced only a few years earlier under Philip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams this still looks slow. B. thought it might be budgetry constraints (there don't seem to be many extras on show and the sets are pretty minimal) and, obviously, setting a lot of your story in the TARDIS with the Doctor just talking to his companions is cheap, if nothing else. If we're lucky parrot_knight will happen along, because I suspect he has a better grasp than I do of the financial constraints the show was facing at the time. I do recall something about Jon Nathan-Turner employing first time writers and directors as a budget control mechanism - occasionally he struck lucky with people like Graeme Harper who directed The Caves of Androzani but I suspect, more often than not, inexperience showed.

CB wrote several stories for Who after he left as script editor, but his actual term as script editor was only just over a year, I think and I don't off-hand recall what decided him to leave. It would be interesting to have a rewatch of all his stories but my intuition is that his ideas involved abstract and surreal imagery. TV can do that very well on small budgets but only if your directors and set designers aren't trying to be too literal and again, I suspect his ideas suffered in the hands of inexperienced directors.
reggietatereggietate on March 4th, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Ambitious ideas and Doctor Who were 'ere uneasy bedfellows! :-D

I seem to recall Logopolis being pretty slow, though I have some vague memories that I quite liked its strange atmosphere at times, and of course it was somewhat overshadowed by the whole Tom Baker departure thing, and I was very fond of Tom's Doctor.

One of the problems with Who at the time was the Beeb never really took it as seriously as it deserved, particularly money-wise. And there did seem to be that whole overlighting the sets thing going on far too much, which of course exposes the cheapness of some of them even more. It was a flagship show in many ways, yet produced on a shoestring budget. And wasn't there some overspend on an earlier adventure, the one where the Doctor briefly turns into a cactus? The Leisure Hive.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 4th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
I think the BBC had and continues to have an uneasy relationship with popularist entertainment. It's increasingly been under pressure to produce output that is both popular and yet, at some level, something that could or would not be produced by commercial channels. I think that had at various times led it to a sense of embarrassment about it's popular shows.

Meglos is the cactus one, but The Leisure Hive might well have been a budget overrun. It's another high-concept story and was the first shown in the season, so was probably made before any financial cracks started showing.
reggietatereggietate on March 4th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're right, I'm getting the two mixed up. I'm pretty sure Leisure Hive put a strain on the budget with its elaborate costumes and sets, and this may well have had a knock-on effect later, as you say.

Who always suffered from being produced by the Children's Department (how archaic that sounds! *g*) Miracles were often wrought with very little, because the people working on the show really wanted to do a good job, and it was a show which obviously had room for creative ideas in costuming and set design by its very nature, but so often it wasn't given the support to realise these ideas properly.

It's a real shame the Beeb weren't able to see it as the asset it was. When you think about it, Doctor Who is a pretty unique series, virtually impossible to copy.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on March 4th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC)
I'm not parrot_knight, but I recall that Nathan-Turner got a budget increase relative to the previous season (Graham Williams' last). A couple of particularly glossy stories aside, I've never felt the money showed on screen much, although fan opinion is against me here. I think Logopolis looks particularly cheap, although not quite as bad as Meglos. Logopolis certainly suffers from coming at the end of the season, as do a lot of late seventies and early eighties stories.

I've never heard about Nathan-Turner's use of new writers and directors being budget control; the version I heard was that it was a way of getting a fresh perspective on the programme which he felt was getting stuck in its ways.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 4th, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
The problem with half-remembered things you probably read in DWM sometime in the 80s...

That said "getting a fresh perspective" sounds like spin to me, I'm sure now I'd assume it meant that either he'd fallen out with most of the established writers and directors or he couldn't afford them.

We're watching Masque of Mandragora at the moment and, whatever the comparative budgets, Masque definitely looks like more has been spent on it.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on March 4th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
I re-watched the loose trilogy of The Keeper of Traken/Logopolis/Castrovalva a couple of months ago and was confirmed in my existing opinion that it basically amounts to:
nice ideas and imagery, pity no one could find a plot hold it together or characters I could actually care about. That's probably a little unfair as all the stories have something good about them, but not really very much and I don't understand why they are so highly rated by fandom. It may have something to do with being seen as not being like the Graham Williams/Douglas Adams style of story that preceded them.

I felt Castrovalva was marginally the best of the three and benefits from being seen soon after Logopolis. The philosophical ideas (solipsistic, so you may recall from when I used to blog why it appeals to me) are married to the plot better, but only in the second half, after a lot of technobabble and padding and Evil Laughter. Christopher Bidmead laid out his thoughts on Doctor Who in a massive three-part DWM interview many, many years ago. It was extraordinarily interesting and coherent, and if he had actually achieved what he set out to do, he would probably be my favourite Who writer/editor. As it is, Castrovalva parts three and four probably come closest to it, that or Full Circle (which he only edited).

All that said, there is a school of thought that your eight year old self should have the casting vote on Who and my eight or nine year old self thought the novelization of Logopolis was amazing, so what do I know decades later?
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 4th, 2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
I should go back and re-read your reviews. I'm sure I read something, somewhere, at some point which deconstructed Bidmead's work and suggested that, broadly speaking, he understood no more about science than your average Who writer, he just drew his technobabble from maths and computer speak, rather than from physics and engineering. I think that's unfair, especially in the light of his later career, but I also don't think his concepts are as innovative and mind-blowing as fan-lore likes to make out.

I don't really recall the novelisation of the Logopolis but I suspect I had a similar experience with Warriors' Gate which is much superior in book form (where I first encountered it) and of which I am unreasonably fond, as a result.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on March 4th, 2012 09:04 pm (UTC)
I'm flattered that you want to re-read my reviews, but since I made my blog private, you won't be able to find them online, except for a handful that ended up on other fan sites. If you want, I can easily copy and paste some of them into an email for you, though.

I could not understand the novelization of Warriors' Gate at all (age nine or ten) and was pleasantly surprised when I finally saw the TV version to find it more comprehensible, not to mention stylish - it's one of my absolute favourite stories (inasmuch as I can pick favourite stories!).