Tuesday, 14 March 2017

the 'Armageddon Factor' factor

I was watching ‘The Armageddon Factor’ recently and it was only as the story neared its conclusion, in perhaps the fifth or so episode, that I realised I could see something. Something I shouldn’t be able to see.

No, I’m not talking about the fact that one of the Shadow’s mute minions, a zombie-like creature from a distant galaxy, is wearing a sensible pair of Clarks brogues. And I’m not talking about any of the story’s special visual effects, modelwork , design or costuming. No, what I suddenly realised I could see was... the script editing.

This was a shock for several reasons.

First, the fact I was noticing it at all. Back when Steven Moffat was writing a short piece on ‘The Ark in Space’ for the DWM Complete Fourth Doctor Vol 1 special he waxed lovingly on the writing of Who being the ‘real’ special effects of the show... and he was right. What the characters said and did sparkled in our minds and imaginations sometimes even more than the purely visual stuff in the stories (robots, models, planets being blasted into minute fragments of polystyrene) that we could actually see. The writing was poetry. That, you’re meant to notice. But script editing... you’re not meant to notice that at all. In truth, ‘Script Editor’ should be a largely unknown factor, a quasi-mystical name in the end credits, who had something important-sounding to do with how the stories ended up on screen but you couldn’t, probably, actually define.

And yet... towards the end of this story, the joins, as it were, were showing. You could almost see the page of one script being cut-up and inserted into the middle of two pages from an older, slightly different draft of the original script. This happened in a couple of ways. For ages, the Doctor and Romana had been aware the Shadow existed on an ‘elsewhere’ that wasn’t either Atrios or Zeos, an “inbetween” that they visualised as the silent moving down of a hand between two objects. In model shots, this was revealed to us the viewer as a kind of space station, four egg-like pods connected to a central hub, hanging in space, concealed from the view of Atrios and Zeos.

And then in part 4 or 5, Romana and the Doctor start talking about “the Planet of Evil”... and neither character, nor any other character, bats an eyelid.

Huh? I actually had to pause the DVD and rewind it to check I hadn’t misheard something! And though I was able to quickly put the name into context, and realise they were talking about That Place Where The Shadow Lives, it was a little ‘bump’ in the viewing process that should really have been much more smooth.

The second was the presence of the Marshall in the second half of the story. Or rather his lack of a presence! I myself had actually been wondering where he had got to, as he opens fire at the start (I think) of part 4 but is... quite literally... forgotten about until part 6. Now admittedly there’s all that business with the time loop, but once the time loop is released, it takes Romana to ask, “Aren’t you forgetting something...?” for the Doctor to suddenly remember, oh yes, the Marshall! Now, is this technically a ‘mistake’, rectified by a clever gag? I’m unsure. To my mind at least it does smack of the writers setting up a particular threat, getting bored with it, writing a new part of the story and then remembering... or more likely being reminded... about the dangling plot string of the Marshall and his planet-destroying missiles. Like the ‘Planet of Evil’, what should have been a smooth transition was made into a bumpy ‘oh, yeah’ moment that briefly took me out of the story.

This is probably bound to happen, especially at the end of a very long story, itself the culmination of an entire season’s worth of build-up storytelling (i.e the entire Key To Time saga). But the second reason why noticing this was a bit of a shock was the fact it was the redoubtable Anthony Read in charge of the script editing.

In fan lore, Read’s role has never been as glamorous as, say, Bob Holmes’. Read seemed to get on well with Graham Williams and worked excellently on making the whole Key To Time linking concept ‘work’ on TV. His successor was Douglas Adams, who brings a dazzling and again much more visible influence to bear on the look, sound and feel of the series. But Read seems to trundle along happily, achieving remarkable results with little apparent fuss... quietly eeking out scripts from the notoriously deadline-shy Douglas Adams with one hand, and whittling down the bonkers ideas of Bob Baker and Dave Martin into something actually filmable on a BBC TV budget with the other.

In short, his very invisibility proved his excellence at the job.

But, we can forgive him some lapses at the very end of this wearying and trying season. Even in the modern BBC Wales version of Who, with a showrunner and teams of proofreaders and the like, script editing-type mistakes slip in. The most famous one off the top of my head is the whole “Change of plan, we don’t need the bomb” from ‘The Doctor Dances’... a holdover from an earlier version of the script where there was a plan involving the bomb in the first place!

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