The Leisure Hive
August - September 1980
'His scarf killed Stimson!'
'Arrest the scarf then!'
Bit of a pre-amble first. Season 18 emerged, blinking into the harsh light of the 80s, into a changing world. Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that popular culture, with an emphasis on 'pop', had moved on. Going to the pictures was different, especially in the aftermath of that film in 1977 - and I'm not just talking about visual effects here. Films were being made in a very different way - faster editing, shorter scenes, an attention to sound design etc. It was all so much more kinetic. Technology was having a huge impact and this would filter down to the small screen too...
In music, the same was equally true. Production was slicker and faster, there was all that discussion about traditional musicians being replaced with banks of sythesisers and drum machines. Marketing the sounds of the future took a quantum leap with the advent of the pop video. Artists were trying to out-do each other with the flashiest looking video they could make. The aesthetics seeped into the minds of the public. Popular science, manifesting itself in the way of everything from the first personal computers through to the launch of the Rubik's cube, was fun. Yes, mathematics and logic puzzles were sexy. We were cooing over Mandelbrot's book on fractals in '82 and the first home video games like 'Pong' had gone mass market by '83.
And let's not forget, Doctor Who Weekly became a monthly. The fan archetype was emerging and the series was the subject of an escalating scrutiny. And a new producer arrived...
The future was here...
So let's look at Hive and consider the obvious changes first in light of the above. John Nathan-Turner certainly changed how the series looked by ditching the original slit-scan titles that had been in service since '74 and going for a rushing star-field look. And with the titles came Peter Howell's reworking of the theme. Was he right to do this? At the time, he was.
It was fresh and vibrant and the new arrangement worked. Nathan-Turner was obviously keen to tap into new music technology, after all...it was 'the future'. And therein lies the problem...it was 'the future' according to the '80s man in the street but 'the future' had a horrible knack of becoming obsolete very, very quickly and kept getting replaced by a series of 'futures' every six months! (Hello, Clive Sinclair...) It may have made economic sense at the time too but with the new theme and the incidentals all being handled by the stalwarts of the Radiophonic Workshop there is certainly more of a built in obsolescence in that glorious 1980s idea of the 'now'. Somehow, Delia's original maintained its unearthliness despite the odd tweak here and there along the way, but Howell stripped that away for me. And we were left with just the nice tune.
And the odd thing was...the big blockbusters of the day were all scrambling to get the LSO to do sweeping symphonies. Not a synthesiser in sight. Never mind, the kids on Top Of The Pops noodled away on their analogues for a time, so it sounded right for about eighteen months. Farewell, Dud Simpson. You were marvellous while it lasted. However, I do think, he'd lost his enthusiasm by Season 17. As a parting shot, City Of Death was great.
Briefly, a word about the new 'neon bar' logo. Even then it looked rather passe. It has pretensions to be futuristic with its joined up letters but resembles something from the pages of a 1970s issue of Look-In or the font Timeslip used to denote 'futuristic'. Yes, they needed a new logo but that one never really appealed to me.
And so Hive opens with the infamous tracking shot along Brighton beach. It's a tad indulgent, isn't it, and just as indulgent as those dreadful question marks the Doctor's sporting on his shirt. Nathan-Turner had a habit of putting aspects of the show into ruddy great quotation marks. Just in case you missed the significance. I blame popular cultural theory, myself, but I just think he's treating the show as a way of channeling his 'light entertainment' aspirations even here. Hence the Doctor's new 'uniform' - the idea of which will become more and more significant in the next ten years. But it's a lovely burgundy ensemble that Tom is modeling for us and, I have to say, it is an improvement on the 'I've just rushed in from rehearsals and popped the Doc's coat over me dirty shirt' look that Baker was giving us in the last season. He's a got a waistcoat and everything that matches here. Nice.
OK, so we've got change of music, titles, logo, the Doctor's look...new TARDIS prop...er...er...another annoying habit of the incumbent producer at this time was his 'shopping list' approach to the script-editor of the day. It's needed here because he has to change a number of the outward, cosmetic aspects of the show but it becomes an approach to making the show that really screws things up later. It's almost as if he's sitting in front of that gameshow's infamous conveyor-belt...'stay tuned!'...'stay tuned!' 'Didn't he do well?'
Talking of script-editors, Christopher Bidmead also starts his job at this point and he immediately homes in on the 'popular science' angle. His obsessions with Pythagorean mathematics and logic start here. And, to me, it's not entirely a bad thing. The philosophical and poetical nature of his obsessions do invest this season with running themes - the nature of change and decay, closed environments and systems, intellectual puzzles. He conjures dream-like landscapes into the series that weren't there before. Unfortunately, he gives the characters an awful lot of gobbledegook to say in the process. And it's not your normal faux gobbledegook. He's trying to put the science of the day in there and make it all sound 'consumer friendly'.
Hive is a very simple story. Reptile gangsters want to take over the planet Argolis and scupper the Argolins plans for a happy future. The Doctor and Romana turn up. It's not much to go on. There's a richer David Fisher story trying to get out but it's wedged in between the story Bidmead wants to tell and the story Lovett Bickford thinks he's directing. Plenty of visual fireworks going off, lots of mind-boggling babble about 'tachyonics' and a couple of reptiles disguised as humans inadvertently providing the Argolins with a solution to their demise. All fighting for a bit of your attention. You don't know which way to turn. It's confusing and, most of all, it's really different. I remember watching on first transmission and not quite knowing how to react.
Granted, it looks marvelous. After the longeurs of the Brighton beach scene, we're in the fast cutting, whip panning, hand-held environs of Argolis. But it looks unfinished and rushed and it isn't easy to keep up with. It does beguile you, though. There are lovely flourishes throughout, from the POV shots of the docking spaceships to the tracking shot with the materialisng TARDIS, a moodier lighting palette and a confidence with the effects. Yes, some of the scenes are unnecessary and don't add anything to the plot but it's the casualness of using these as a palette for background detail that makes a marked difference here. This is a million miles away from The Horns Of Nimon and so it should be.
And then Peter Howell goes a bit mad with his synthesisers. He's obviously so cock-a-hoop to be doing the incidentals that he just gets carried away and puts music over every scene. Annoying music that has a habit of telling you which scene has which kind of mood but it's also a rich synthesiser driven palette in its own right. But, put it down to experience. Hive is definitely all about trying things and screwing up. Unfortunately, the reptile villains of the piece, the Foamasi, are quite forgettable and aren't really villains after all. The close up shots of the creatures are good but the final reveal just doesn't convince. No better or worse than the Mandrells of the previous season. Another bit of a cock up.
In the middle of all this visual and aural bombardment, Baker, not only gets a new coat but gets aged- up in the make up chair and Lalla gets all the interesting 'sciencey' bits to do. They're both good, with Baker at his cantankerous, broody best as the aged Doctor. There's a physical melancholy here that echoes right through the season. Adrienne Corri and Laurence Payne each manage to get a respectable performance across but David Haig steals the show as the politicised Pangol. Love the camp Top Of The Pops video effects as he replicates himself in the Generator. Very 'Devo' meets 'Talking Heads'. Bickford ransacks the 'pop-video' aesthetic and manages to give this a visual tone all of its own. There's nothing else quite like Hive - despite its faults and incoherence - and clearly the series is trying to run before it can walk here as ambition gets the better of everyone involved. But its impact is important. There are more things here that they get right, just from a production view, than they get wrong. It's just a matter of confidence at this point.
It would be easy to say it's all style over substance but I think that's not the case. There are substantial efforts going on here and a determination to steer a different course and though it may not be a likeable story there are many aspects to admire as the series dons its 'futuristic' new clothes.
Are they the Emperor's new clothes, you may ask?
Nah, only the shirt with stupid question marks would qualify for that assignment.
DVD features include:
- Commentary - A very candid track from Christopher Bidmead, Lalla Ward and Lovett Bickford
- A New Beginning - Great 30 minute documentary looking at all the changes JNT made to the series. Essential.
- From Avalon to Argolis - Interviews with writer David Fisher and Bidmead
- Synthesizing Starfields - Little featurette about the making of the new title sequence for Season Eighteen. Interesting insight into Sid Sutton and Peter Howell's contributions
- Leisure Wear - June Hudson on costume design, including her take on the new cossie for Tom.
- Blue Peter - Coverage of the Longleat exhibition in early 1980.
- And Production Notes, Music Only Option (a superb Howell score), Photo Gallery
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who The Leisure Hive