Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Doctor Who: in defense of "Delta and the Bannermen"

The third of five maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. The first, "Terminus," can be found here; the second, "The Ark," here.


"In the end it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you. You have to be exactly who and what you want to be. Most everyone is floating along on phony public relations... and for what?! Appearances. Appearances don't count for diddly. In the end, all that really matter is what was true, and truly felt -- and how we treated one another. And that's it."
-- Julia Sugarbaker, Designing Women

*****

Once upon a time, at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, at a holiday camp in South Wales, a boy named Billy spied a woman named Delta -- and it was love at first sight. And that evening, before they'd even had a chance to speak, he serenaded her from the dining-hall stage with a suitable new standard, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" And later that night, he stood outside her door, a bouquet of flowers in one hand and slicking back his hair with the other, and opened it, only to discover --

-- she was an alien. With a scaly green baby. Just hatched from an egg.

And he didn't care.

It didn't matter that they came from different backgrounds. It didn't matter that she had a child. It didn't matter that -- as he soon learned -- she had a troubled past, or that merely being with her put his life in jeopardy. She was his chance at happiness.

So he grabbed it --

-- and they lived happily ever after.

"Delta and the Bannermen" is from Sylvester McCoy's first season: you know, the one everyone hates. The one that's too silly, that's the worst Who season ever, that's an embarrassment to mankind -- blah blah blah blah blah. The following season, script editor Andrew Cartmel implements the eponymous Cartmel Masterplan, and the show gets darker, and fans get happier, and I have trouble sitting through a single serial. I am not a fan of McCoy's second two seasons: I don't think the darker Doctor plays to McCoy's particular strengths at that time, and for me, a Doctor who knows most of the answers going in, but keeps them from companions and viewers alike, makes for a set of unsatisfying stories. None of the stories in McCoy's last two seasons crack my Doctor Who Top 75, and for that I am a pop-culture pariah and laughing-stock -- but I grew up gay in the 1960's, so I have learned to embrace my outsider status. My favorite McCoy is "Delta and the Bannermen," the most heady and romantic of interstellar love stories.

"Delta and the Bannermen" is set in a fairytale Fifties, one that never existed: where humans are intrigued, not spooked, by the weird and the unknown. It's a world without famine, without pestilence, and without pastels -- where everything swirls in primary colors: fire-engine reds and royal blues and lemon yellows. It's an imagined era when rock 'n' roll blared over every PA system, where there was a Vincent motorcycle in every garage, and where anything -- no matter how improbable -- seemed possible. It was, in our world (the "real" world), a time when gritty comic book heroes like Batman were suddenly fighting monsters in outer space, where films like Forbidden Planet were firing our imaginations and spawning a host of galactic B-movies with self-explanatory titles, from Devil Girl From Mars to I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Outer space had become commonplace, and "Delta" understands that. It imagines a world where people don't expect alien visitors, but aren't surprised by them either. In writer Malcolm Kohll's version of the '50s, that tour bus that broke down nearby might well be a form of alien transport; the new girl in town could be a queen from another galaxy; and that funny man with the umbrella might just be a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

No one's nonplussed by the presence of alien intruders in "Delta." When Billy offers to help fix the alien tour bus, thinking it's just an average vehicle, here's how it goes down:

Billy: I've never seen an engine like that.
Murray: Yes, it's a Helstrom Fireball. Capable of warp five in a good tail wind.
Billy: What exactly is it you want me to do?
The Doctor: Well, you see that navi-pod? It needs to be unbolted so we can replace the broken crystal.
Billy: Right.

And he gets to work. No questions asked. Later, the owner of the holiday camp, told by the Doctor that he has to clear the site before Bannermen warriors move in, has a moment of skepticism, but a ready, reasonable response: if your fantastical story is true, show me your spacecraft. And once he sees the TARDIS, the notion of clearing the camp becomes secondary to the more pressing question: "Couldn't we take it for a bit of a spin?" Humans from all over are drawn into the "Delta" drama -- a pair of aging American agents, a batty beekeeper, a girl with a leather jacket and a boy with a bike -- and they all take it in stride.

And because the humans take everything in stride, the thornier events in "Delta and the Bannermen" carry weight. Folks misremember the serial as purely lightweight, but there are an awful lot of fatalities: two executions in Part 1, the bombing of a busload of tourists in Part 2. The death-toll is just below that of a standard Saward -- say, "Resurrection of the Daleks" -- but it's precisely because the surrounding events are so benign, and the people so trusting, that the violence has impact. The Saward slaughter-fests inured you to violence; it was so persistent, and the worldview so bleak, that you grew numb. You expected violence on Varos; in "Delta," the deaths are shocking because they don't belong there. "I don't just kill for money -- it's something I enjoy," the Saward-esque bounty hunter informs the Doctor, just before he attempts an assassination -- but he's at a freaking holiday camp. He's spouting fanatical dogma in a storage locker that houses the sheets and pillowcases; the contrast is what makes it effective. We expect a certain degree of slaughter in most late Classic Whos, but not at a Welsh holiday camp.

"Delta" is about worlds colliding, just like the setting itself, where families of all walks of life come together. On the surface, it's about a Chimeron Queen and her Bannermen pursuers bringing their battle to Planet Earth. But there's also a wonderful visual clash: between the gaudy holiday camps and the pastoral post-war landscapes they were overrunning. And the duality is there in the soundtrack, too: at one point, Delta describes the music emanating from her daughter as "part song, part war-cry," which of course is how adults in the 1950's viewed rock 'n' roll.

But it's the love story that counts, and here "Delta" short-circuits all "clash of culture" conventions. When Billy discovers that Delta is from outer space, he doesn't question it. At no point does he express regret, concern or disbelief. Billy fell for Delta at first sight; what she is doesn't matter to him. There's no fear, no uncertainty, no second thoughts. When he enters the room, and sees her with her alien child, he doesn't bolt or flip out; on the contrary, she's the first to speak, and calmly: "My life is at risk. I'm going to trust you, and I think you deserve a full explanation." Those are their first words to each other, and Billy dutifully sits and listens. "I'm the last Chimeron queen," she continues. "My planet is right now in the grip of the invaders. My people are dead." And Billy has no questions: that explanation works. Delta suggests they take a walk, and they go on their first date.

Every revelation Delta comes up with is met by the most untroubled of responses. When Billy notices that the child is aging quickly into adulthood, he teases, "Oh, you're a bit of a heavyweight, aren't you?," the way you'd talk to a baby who's just learned to grip your thumb, not a toddler aging twenty years in twenty minutes. As he hunts for the perfect spot for a picnic, Delta explains, "The most rapid growth occurs in the lymphoid state. She'll double her size and her weight in the next few hours" -- and Billy nods and lays down the blanket. Nothing fazes him, so all of Delta's exposition -- which should be deadly -- is turned on its ear. His responses, as if the details were commonplace, is what makes the love story magical.

Delta: If I can get the hatchling safely to the Brood planet, then I can take my case to judgment. They will then send an expeditionary force to get rid of Gavrok and his Bannermen.
Billy: Well, I'll do whatever I can to help, Delta.

...as if he's offering to fix a flat.

It's daffy in concept, and its ebullience infuses everything. "Delta" is light on its feet, and so is McCoy. He maneuvers his trademark umbrella like a third arm: piloting the TARDIS with the tip, snaring a scarf with the hook. The buoyancy of the story unleashes McCoy, but unlike the nuttier bits in "Time and the Rani," these seem wholly in character: this Doctor is master magician, mime and gymnast rolled into one, and he has to be, to stay one step ahead of the Bannermen. (At one point, he vaults onto a moving motorcycle with the ease of an Olympic gold medalist.) "Delta" is full of chases, across beautiful Welsh countryside overlooking the sea, down dirt paths as cows and goats scramble out of the way -- all to the tune of Keff McCulloch's mock-rockabilly score -- and McCoy always seems to be leading the charge, effortlessly.

McCoy's lightness of touch is infectious; even director Chris Clough's work, typically heavy-handed, is buoyant and bubbly, and he's aided indelibly by the great art director John Asbridge, in one of his first assignments. There's something magical about a Who shot entirely on location, and "Delta" is gorgeous: the settings lovingly chosen, adorned and shot. The holiday camp, as noted, is all in primary colors: yellow buildings with blue doors. (The manager wears a bright red blazer; his employees are in yellow dresses, and yellow jackets with vertical red stripes. The shiny blue box has never looked more at home.) But once we hit the Welsh countryside, it's vast expanses of greenery, backed by an ocean and a lighthouse -- it's heavenly. And as we flip from one setting to the other with dizzying delight, from the artificial happiness of the holiday camp to the airy reaches of its surroundings, it's a visual treat that brings fresh rewards with each re-viewing.

And underscoring it all are the intoxicating sounds of rock 'n' roll in its infancy. "Delta" is not merely a feast for the eyes, but for the ears. If Mark Gatiss's "Sleep No More," with its grating overuse (and misuse) of "Mr. Sandman," has made you want to avoid '50s music forever, then "Delta and the Bannerman" will woo you back, because the sound, and all that comes with it -- the fashion, the attitudes, the language ("see you later, alligator") -- are spot on. The campers are awakened to the chirpiness of "When the Red, Red Robin" and soothed to sleep with -- yes -- "Mr. Sandman." The Bannermen fall prey to a literal honey trap to the sweet strains of "Lollipop." In the end, in a cunning piece of plotting, the camp's PA system (and wax from the beekeepers' bees: you have to be there) proves pivotal in defeating the enemy. And in the closing moments, as a celestial girl-group intones McCulloch's "Here's to the future/Love is the answer," to a thumping 6/8 beat, Billy and Delta's dream of a new life seems tied to that baby-boomer sense of belonging from which rock 'n' roll sprang.

I won't pretend "Delta and the Bannermen" is perfect. There's one line of dialogue that's awful ("A poignant reminder that violence always rebounds on itself" -- poor McCoy looks pained having to say it), and one camera shot that's confusing (a sudden cut to a real police box that's meant to set up the era, but proves disorienting). Sara Griffiths as Ray, the girl with the unrequited crush on Billy, was a last minute replacement (she's very early in her career), and she's perky-strange; her inflections are so extreme, it's like she worked with a bad vocal coach. ("First you go high, then you go low.") The two American agents aren't well-woven into the action till the end, so they feel mostly extraneous, although one is played by the great Stubby Kaye, of Guys and Dolls fame (he introduced "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in the original Broadway production), so I'm unlikely to complain. And although I like Don Henderson as the leader of the Bannermen, his raw-meat-eating antics seem totally at odds with the tone and tenor of the serial.

But the rest of cast is splendid, and Belinda Mayne as Delta (she had been considered for Romana 1, and you can see it) is more than that: she's spectacular. She has the bearing of a queen, the warmth of a mother, and the stoicism of a soldier. And even at age 33, she doesn't seem a mismatch with David Kinder, who plays Billy and seems a good ten years her junior. David Kinder has the bronze hair and tanned skin of a '50s teen idol, with James Dean's brand of sensitive masculinity thrown in for good measure. Billy starts as a lovesick puppy, the grease monkey with the heart of gold; by the serial's end, he's matured, accepting responsibility for Delta, her child, and the life they'll share together. He makes a move that's both reckless and wise, infusing himself with Chimeron DNA and in effect turning himself into (yup: no kidding) a Hybrid. ("I'm not a Chimeron, but if I'm to come with you, then I have to become one," he tells her, again incredibly sensibly.) In any sane serial, you'd expect Delta to continue out into the galaxy, on her quest for survival, and Billy and Ray, the childhood friends, to find love. But "Delta" is that one wonderful pseudo-historical fluke with its head firmly in the clouds. The homespun couple turns out to be the mismatched one; the real love story is between the human mechanic and the alien queen. At the end, Delta and Billy, dressed in white, take off in their battle-cruiser for the Brood planet, and everyone -- the Doctor and Mel and Ray, the beekeeper and the American agents -- waves them goodbye, as if they're just typical newlyweds pulling away in their car. It's a fairy-tale romance for the space-age set, and it's enchanting.

In my essay on "The Ark," I noted that a lot of the best Who stories are allegories. I won't lay claim to "Delta and the Bannermen" being allegorical, but as to its having a "message": oh, yes -- and I've always been surprised that it doesn't register more with the Who community. Because the Whovians -- who are constantly called upon to defend their utter devotion to a show about folks traveling through time and space in a blue box -- understand, better than pretty much any other fanbase, that you don't choose what you love; it chooses you. You shouldn't have to make excuses for your passions. Things are what they are. Things happen as they happen. Billy thinks he's found the perfect girlfriend, except it turns out she's an alien queen on the run. And that's fine. It doesn't change anything. Ultimately, we're defined by two things: who we are, and who we love. And "Delta and the Bannermen" says, you don't have to apologize for either.


Up next: "Death to the Daleks".

2 comments:

  1. I agree that season 24 is better than people say and Paradise Towers is a favourite of mine. However, while I like Delta's script I find it a flat production, mainly as Chris Clough was a very ordinary director for the show. Seen now, it showcases McCoy's Doctor well (this, Paradise Towers and Greatest Show use his version best), Ray is fun and the music is great. I quite like Don Henderson - he obvious loved being in DW.

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    1. I see that I never responded to this comment -- I am so sorry. I too am no Chris Clough fan; for me, he's the last in a long line of second-rate Classic Who directors who got used again and again. But I think he does fine work on "Delta." Maybe the location shooting kept him on his toes; maybe his matter-of-fact directorial style was well-suited to this particular script. But I do like his work here, and nowhere else.

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