Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baldrick's Cunning Plan...

Picture the scene - the dying days of the 1960s and Doctor Who is proving far more trouble than it is worth. The writers are trying to sue the BBC for showing the finished episodes, scripts are dropped halfway through casting, script editors and producers are joining and quitting like a conveyor belt fused with a revolving door. Worse, David Attenborough has told Terry Nation he can take his crappy Dalek spin-off and shove it up the dark side of Skaro, the Doctor and Jamie have quit, the long-awaited end to the Yeti trilogy has been cancelled and for six weeks the British public are tormented by the horrors of The Space Pirates while even TV Comic is ridding itself of Daleks, Trods, Cybermen, Quarks and even Jamie and the TARDIS.

There are vague promises that the next series will be cost-effective, adult, and hump the still-warm corpse of Quatermass to become gritty adult drama with soldiers, scientific bases, and creatures who influenced the development of mankind in the past and future - IN COLOUR!!! The BBC give the go ahead and 1969 is spent grabbing some guy from The Navy Lark, giving him scripts written for Patrick Troughton and hiding the police box prop in a carpark somewhere. Will it work?

...well, quite obviously it did.

But the BBC were convinced it would be a failure. By 1971, they believed, Doctor Who would be long gone. But what to replace it? Three suggestions were made to fill the Saturday evening family entertainment slot, and wouldn't you know it, they were all by the people who were technically supposed to be busy making Doctor Who with Jon Pertwee? Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks were planning Snowy White, which is so disturbingly similar in concept to Crocodile Dundee it's scary. However, no one was willing to put up with an Australian tourist coping with "civilization", and so all the effort went into what everyone was convinced would be an absolute winner:

The Incredible Robert Baldick!

Yes, a full-colour, earthbound historical science fiction series concerning a wandering Doctor investigating magic, aliens and thoroughly rotten foreign swines throughout rural England in his unique transportation of a metropoliton steam train! It was cheap, it had Robert Hardy as the main character and was written by Terry Nation and made by... other people who hung around Doctor Who a lot.

It was going to be the biggest thing ever!

Yet, for some reason, after going to such trouble to produce the pilot episode, it got shelved for the forseeable. Doctor Who didn't die off, but came back with avengance and Terry Nation came crawling back like a weak, spineless dog when America decided they weren't interested in cut-and-paste Man from UNCLE scripts with Daleks randomly inserted into them. Nation decided to toughen up, and the result was Blake's 7 (whose origins have more as a Dalek spin off than you'd expect).

The Incredible Robert Baldick was shown once to fill a gap in the schedules and never seen again. Indeed, I only discovered about it reading DWM (I was presumably desperate for distraction as the same issue had Nick Briggs taking over as the Ninth Doctor in the comic strip with the immortal words, "These shoes don't fit at all! A cravat? Whatever possessed me to wear a cravat?! WE SHOULD BE CELEBRATING!!") and now, thanks to the wonderful powers of bit torrent sites, I have caught a glimpse of the pilot episode of a show that - at the time at least - was considered as awesome-for-the-audience as RTD's entire output.


One dark and stormy night, the local Squire of a village sends a bunch of sideburned-and-bowler-hatted stooges out into the rain to search for a missing girl. Once the extras are out of the way, the Squire and the newly-arrived Vicar exchange exposition while refusing to look at each other. The Squire knows precisely where the missing girl is, as indeed do all the searchers... but they're searching everywhere else first, just on the off chance. The Vicar points out this rather stupid behavior, so the Squire decides to cut to the chase and head to the Ruins in the Wood where he fears the girl will be, but he's frightened to go on his own and the Vicar agrees to go and keep him company.

"That's where all the others were found," the Squire says darkly to the camera as he leads the Vicar in the opposite direction to the search party and within about eight seconds are in the middle of the woods, braving sleet and rain and howling winds and... Gregorian chants. "Listen!" croaks the Vicar, in what is rapidly becoming clear is a staggering lack of acting talent, "Can you hear it?" After a few moments of listening to the chants our retarded reverend concludes, "It's like... voices!"

Yes. Take the night off, Sherlock.


I feel I must stress that the script, while bare bones characteristic of Nation's hackwork (and I mean that in a GOOD way), is not being served by these actors. They can't act. Hell, it seems they can barely speak in complete sentences and even then in a monotone. It doesn't matter that it's a location shoot in a storm-lashed wood at night with creepy music if the actors sound like they've been lobotomized half an hour previously. It kills all the tension stone dead.

After concluding the chanting is very probably not the howling wind, said wind picks up which, on the bright side, prevents all concerned from speaking. As they wander deeper through the wood they finally come across a ruined cathedral. "What is it?" demands the Vicar over and over again. Christ on a bike, dude, it's the ruins! What do you think the ruined building is that you've walked to specifically to find "the ruins" could be? The Squire is apparently more concerned the Vicar has farted, for despite all the ozone the smell of "corruption" is easily detectable through the storm.

Supremely confident that they will find the girl, the depressing duo wander into the heart of the ruins, which takes them from location filming to videotaping a studio set. The Squire complains the smell is getting worse and then wanders off leaving the Vicar alone as a wierd thumping noise is heard (I'm not sure if it's supposed to be the rain on unseen windows or what) when suddenly something seems to snatch the lantern from the cleric's hand, leaving him scrabbling in the dark. In this he discovered the body of the missing girl, staring madly at the ceiling. Is she dead? Well, she's breathing so points off to the actress if so.

On that rather lame cliffhanger (wow, after telling us repeatedly the girl would be there, she is! And we have no idea who she is, why everyone was searching for her, how they even knew she was missing or why, if there's a habit of missing girls turning up at the crypts, they don't post a guard or something...) we cut to arguably the lamest title sequence ever. At least K9 and Company was interesting/horrifying to look at. We see a bored looking owl trying to outstare a ticking grandfather clock as Robert Hardy's attempts to do his tax return are interrupted as he notices a camera man looking at him. Not even anything approaching theme music.


On a bright a beautiful morning, our extraordinary Vicar is being ridden in an open coach to a country estate with paper owls stuck in the wrought iron gates, accompanied by some chipper music you'd normally expect to hear while the Goodies are taking the piss out of the upper classes. After a couple of days travel, he finally reaches the manor house where the irritatingly chirpy Baldrick (I know it's Baldick but it's easier to type, funnier to say and not so offensive) is making his live-in staff watch as he bullies two of his loser mates (who I dub Penfold and Spudgun) into creating a primitive telephone so they contact a railway station. Baldrick is, quite rightly, deeply concerned about the ringtone of this communications device and, even though HE seemingly designed it, can't be arsed to build the thing himself and quickly loses interest when the Vicar arrives.


The Vicar wrote a letter to Playboy about his experiences but somehow Baldrick got hold of it instead and invited the Vicar around to discuss it... assuming he can be more interesting that laying telephone lines, at any rate. After a monumental countdown (that only serves, rather cruelly, to wake up Baldrick's pet owl Cosmo) ends with a boring delay and a rubbish communique no one understands, Baldrick tells his mates to take the whole five-mile cable set up apart and get it to work properly this time! In the meantime, our hero wants to get ratted on booze with the Vicar, but thankfully abstains from this Chathamesque turn when the Vicar makes it clear for the first time he's not popped round for a drinking competition but to prevent further loss of life.


After five hours of chatting, Baldrick decides it's time to kick ass using his new telephone and his Tsar - a personal steam train Baldrick uses to Batman-style hack into public railways and takes all the druggery out of horseback. Given its origin as an armored train for a Russian ruler, I would have thought it would be called "Czar", but no. Baldrick, his stooge and the Vicar board the Tsar and marvel at its mobile laboratory/library/sleeping quarters and basically everything you'd have on a decent spaceship or time machine (did I mention Baldrick has only been referred to as "the Doctor" so far?). The Tsar hurtles out reality and into the netherrealms of CSO landscapes, and the Vicar reveals that despite her clear heaving bosom the lady in the crypt was dead, seemingly beaten to death by a super-strong attacker.


Baldrick's stooge is invited to come up with a theory... mainly so Baldrick can laugh in his face because the stooge hasn't heard the whole story yet. Bastard. The idea that this is the result of a wandering psychopath doesn't convince the Vicar, who knows there have been at least 43 similar occasions over the last 200 years and even more deaths unrecorded. Normally some poor bloke gets blamed for it, arrested and hanged, and then there's another death that invariably proves the deceased innocent.

With some more ridiculously chirpy and cheerful music, the Tsar returns to location filming and arrives at the Village of the Damned, where some curly-haired Jack the lad is being gang-based by some yokels convinced that he is the murderer. Heavy exposition flows with poorly-choreographed violence as we find this guy was actually dated the girl high above his station, was having a late night al fresco shag with her the night she died, but mainly the evidence against him comes from some short guy with a ridiculous moustache who squawks, "Yoo were luvvahs!" again and again until the ringleader is forced to punch him out for being unhelpful. Although not interested "in truth or lies", he's nevertheless interested in what this poor sucker has to say, not that it's very much. Yes, he was banging the girl, yes, he let her wander off into the haunted woods, yes, he actually hangs out in the haunted woods quite a lot...


Finally the ringleader concludes that the guy has been possessed by evil to murder the girl and, rather than say trying to release the guy from Satan's curse, wants to kill him. Well, since it didn't work the first 43 times, it might just work this time... alas, the guy simply headbutts his way to freedom. It's an attempt at a Monkey-Magic-style fight that's so utterly crap you can see people take a step back to allow the guy to escape before 'trying to stop him'. Our ringleader is horrified that the murderer is on the loose, rather missing the point that if the guy WAS a demonically-possessed serial killer, why the hell didn't he kill them all?

Meanwhile, the Vicar leads the Squire into the TSARDIS where he is disgusted to find Spudgun and Penfold are not the Doctor's companions but merely his gameskeeper and valet (pronounced "val-lett" here). With this Chathamesque snobbery established, Penfold makes it quite clear that although Baldrick is called "Sir Robert", everyone is under orders to call him "the Doctor" as he is qualified in practically everything. I am not making this up. He's even dressed as David Morrissey's Doctor.


The Doctor (as he is determined to be known) decides to head off with the Vicar and Spudgun to the crypt, even though darkness is due to fall, while Penfold and the Squire go to the library and research stuff in Latin. The Vicar intends to perform an exorcism but the Doctor warns him he's seen that film with Linda Blair and the things never go well. The Squire then mentions, apropos of nothing, that the guy (Seth) is being hunted by mobs who have the actually-incredibly-stupid-when-you-think-about-it idea he's possessed by Scratchman himself, and the Doctor realizes that they must find the truth before Seth is wrongly executed!

Approaching the ruins through the sunny woods, Spudgun starts to freak out at the lack of birdsong or evidence ANY animals live in the forest. They reach the crypt by sunset, which lacks the smell everyone was bitching about earlier. In about twenty seconds the Doctor discovers runes scratched into the floor where the body was found and just next to it a loose flagstone under which lies... DIRT!!!!


Meanwhile Penfold and the Squire are trying to inject more Quatermass into the plot as they discover that ruins are originally an abbey, and from the earliest records the Church has wanted SOME kind of place of religious worship in the woods and before that it was great for funky druidic sacrifice. On no accounts is this bit of countryside allowed to fall dark, and all holy men are to burn candles or do whatever necessary to ensure a light shines so night never comes. For Duvall Woods is a linguistic corruption of "Uvil" woods which... now brace yourself... is medieval English for "EVIL"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On that note we see Seth legging across brightly-lit countryside moors. About a minute of him running to funky church organ music, falling, getting up, falling again, looking over his shoulder, finally seeing someone, running away again...


But in the crypt the Doctor has dug up the skull of some dead dude who was stabbed in the head by a flint knife. Some caveman murder perhaps? But it's far too close to the surface to be millions of years old, is it? Just then Seth runs in and the Doctor, after doing a suspiciously familiar sounding "Don't worry old chap we're not going to hurt you" speech, twigs as to his identity since only a hunted man would run into a crypt in a haunted wood. But even Seth isn't brave enough to hang around here when night falls.

Night seems to have finally fallen and Penfold has found some important stuff in the oldest legends - a godlike being called Bodem who, despite the opinion of his own people, decided to take on the forbidden lands, declare them terra nullius and declare ownership. And he did this by sacrificing one hell of a lot of people, but this seemingly did not drive out whatever evil forces lived there, despite Boden's PR spindoctoring.

Seth and the Doctor exposit further - turns out the dead girl risked going through the woods for fear of getting a spanking from the housekeeper. So when she sheltered in the crypt from the storm, her pathological fear of physical beatings proved to be her undoing as something beat her physically to death. Oh, the irony. Spudgun escorts Seth back to the TSARDIS while the Doctor stays to watch the Vicar hold an exorcism. For a laugh. The Vicar retorts that the Doctor's archaeological dig would be sacrilidge and the Doctor retorts that the only people who ever talk about respecting the dead are invariably alive. Which shuts the Vicar up, and tells the not-Time-Lord to piss off and take his skepticism with him while the Vicar musters all his faith, all his belief, all his Chip Jamison impressions, and uses them against the evil in the crypt!

The Doctor, bored, sods off and has a crafty fag outside as the Vicar reads out the lord's prayer - but then that wierd thumping noise begins... guess it wasn't irrelevent atmos after all. An invisible force starts to flip through the pages of the bible, forcing the Vicar to adlib the rest of the rest of the exorcism as them drums they get louder... and then the bible suddenly bursts into flames! (Genuinely freaky that bit, as we see the pages slowly go brown then black before the combustion becomes visible...) The Vicar decides to stay and continue bluffing it, but finally snaps and freeze frames in horror! When the Doctor pops his head round the door, there's no flames, the bible intact and the Vicar weeping like a baby man that his faith is broken and the evil kicked his arse black and blue.

HOT OFF THE PRESS... ok, that sucked, I admit

Retreating to the TSARDIS, the Doctor tells Spudgun, Penfold and Seth that the Vicar may never recover from the realization his faith wasn't absolute. Penfold notes the Vicar hallucinated the crypt burst into flames and the Squire himself saw something horrific in the crypt, and it's odd that clearly different things occur to different people. The Doctor realizes (I assume) that whatever is in the crypt works, Mind of Evil like, on the fears of the poor suckers that end up there and gets his stooges to begin their midnight dig. There he bemoans the fact that they may have to dig "ten million years deep" but without the care and paleontological care the dig deserves. "There must be something that existed here at the beginnings of time, perhaps even before man," our non-Time-Lord broods, disturbing Penfold who weakly notes that all their teachings suggest there was absolutely sweet FA before man. The Doctor retorts that Penfold's creationist views will soon be going out of fashion in the way only a time traveller could (compare to Blackadder the Third wondering if alternative sitcoms will be made about his memoirs for a similar scene).


Penfold and Spudgun are strangely uneasy being in the crypt and it's not down to their mentor's blasphemy. "Not knowing is the root of fear, and there is fear here," our central character confirms before telling us of his life at the House of Lungbarrow where his pesky cousins once locked him in a cupboard and threatened to feed him to the great vampires. This left the Doctor with a lifelong phobia of being locked in confined spaces with cobwebs and spiders - ooh, it could almost be foreshadowing! Long story short, the Doctor thinks that the abbey is one massive stone tape containing the accumulated phobias of humanity, but as Penfold notes there has to be a beginning to all of this, there had to be some event that made people scared of this place.

Penfold then falls through the floor into a catacomb scattered with human remains. As you do.

The Doctor rescues him from the catacombs, which are steeped in pure evil mojo but - being a meddlesome fearless investigator, the Doctor isn't going to let the wierd heartbeat from beneath the catacombs put him off, and the trio return to TSARDIS for more digging equipment. But as they arrive, seemingly the next morning, they find a mob has broken in and trashed the place, kidnapping Seth and beating up the Vicar who tried to stop them. The Doctor and Penfold head off to rescue Seth, leaving Spudgun to hold the fort but it's too late as the lynch mob have moved to "lynch" part and Seth has been stretched out of this world. "Get out of here," the Doctor commands the mob icily, "for your lives." The unrepentant yokels, sensing a bit of Family-of-Blood-retribution might be involved, take the hint.


Penfold thinks the Doctor should tell the authorities, but that would merely get all the yokels executed as well and the Doctor is confident whatever evil shit is in the crypt is responsible for these vigilantes - they need to break the cycle of abuse, godamnit!! The Doctor is going to finish off Bodem's plan to drive out the evil, using some tar oil, nitro-9 and Greek Fire, and he's going to tackle this on his lonesome. Returning to the silent-cause-its-daytime catacombs, the Doctor digs at the source of the heartbeat and finds something he immediately and absent-mindedly pockets.

Emptying the explosive mixture into the dug hole, the Doctor prepares to strike a match when a strange whispering noise fills the air, and he notes a cobweb on his arm... both arms... all over him. It seems the Incorporal Asshole has decided to fight back and recreate The Web of Fear as the catacombs fill up with cobwebs and the sounds of children pleading for mercy. But the Doctor holds it together and lights the match, creating an inferno that distracts the Evil Force enough for him to have his ass saved by Penfold and the Squire. The Doctor reveals he let his skepticism fail him, just for a moment he believed in the evil mojo and that was how it was able to summon up his greatest fears and throw them at him, but this bit of pyromania has proved rather cathartic.

At the TSARDIS, the Doctor muses on what the Incorporal Asshole was - the ghost of something that died long ago? Or maybe some kind of freak manifestation of fear itself, which can be defeated by a rational mind? The Vicar agrees, since he was unaware he had a deep fear of fire, so when the force faked an inferno, it broke his faith which would otherwise have saved him, like the Doctor was able to rationalize his fear. The Squire concludes the yokels are such primitive chavs they would be totally lost in the terror and died, and is more concerned about what he is to tell them since he doubts any are intelligent enough to get an explanation. The Doctor dryly suggests a lecture against mass hysteria.

Anyway, the TSARDIS is ready to move and, after neatly circumventing any thanks or questions of where he'll go next, the Doctor ushes the Squire and Vicar out of his transport while he broods on the object he picked up out of soil millions of years old: a kind of personal organizer with wires and electronics, man-made before there was man. As Penfold boggles at the realization this bit of technology was somehow part of the Incorporeal Asshole, the Doctor is lost in thought: "Something from the past... or something from the future."


We then cut to the truly lame end credits, where - with bouncy music you'd expect from The House of Elliot - we get a repeat of the Vicar heading up the drive past the ridiculously elaborate gates of the Baldrick Estate in glorious sunshine as bland white credits roll. Produced by Anthony Coburn. Well, fancy THAT.

The End.

So... why didn't it make a series? Well, maybe because by the time it was finished, Bazza Letts was in charge and Doctor Who was a massive ratings success and Jon Pertwee WAS the Doctor. Presumably that's the main reason why, as I can't see any obvious reason the show wouldn't make a series. It's a pilot episode, of course, and has the awkward task of selling us the set up and a story in one neat package, and an audience who had seen The Daemons would most likely look upon this as the Doctor Who rip off it clear is at heart. It's also rather male-oriented, I notice. There are only three female characters, who only appear in one scene each, with no dialogue and one's dead. There's a lot of heavy exposition and some rather crap acting, and basically there's little plot beyond Dr. Baldrick getting told about this legacy of evil and then giving an explanation. Given, say, four 25-minute episodes, this basic plot could really have been explored but the deaths of Seth and Sarah are really quite tame - no one seems to care the maiden's dead, not even her boyfriend, and the classist angle where the locals are so thick and pigshit they've never pieced together the evil abby thing themselves is a bit hard to swallow. There's a pretty decent, albeit highly derivative, story to tell here but we get a fraction of it and, frustratingly, there's no one who can give a full explanation.

Obviously some alien gizmo was buried in prehistoric times that emphasizes emotions either by malfunction or design and it's affected local civilization... forever. That's not too hard to fathom, but what the hell causes the chanting? The smell of corruption? How did Sarah die if she was beaten to death when she was only afraid of being beaten, and none of the other illusions like flames or cobwebs are lasting? Why does setting fire to a pothole of oil defeat the Incorporeal Asshole? Why would the Doctor think it would? If the gizmo is the cause, surely it'll just cause terror and stuff in different places the Tsar goes? Apparently ensuring there is light keeps the evil energies at bay - is that just because the light keeps humans from being afraid and setting up a fatal feedback loop or what? And if all animal life was scared out of the evil woods forever, how come all the plants have died from lack of insects pollinating?

To be honest, if it wasn't for me being a seasoned Doctor Who fan and basic gist of this ancient astronaut stone tape business, I probably wouldn't have a bloody clue what was going on - was that, perhaps, why no one wanted this stupidly-named series? The only person to refer to the lead character as "Baldick" is the Vicar, and that's when he's being rude, and he is never considered "incredible". Indeed, he is shown to be quite absent-minded, often forgetting which door of the train to emerge from and ends up requiring a walking stick. He also completely forgets about the thing that is clearly the cause of the whole mess - did he think an anachronistic artifact at the heart of the "evil" was just a coincidence?

Nevertheless, Hardy is quite likable as the main character and it's painfully obvious Nation was writing a Doctor Who script. The similarities are stunningly obvious, to the point he clearly writes a scene where Penfold tells everyone to forget the lead character is a human aristocrat should be only referred to as "Doctor", even by his closest friends. If Doctor Who had ended with The War Games and then they'd showed this, I dare say everyone would have accepted without question that this Doctor was the face-changed exile marooned on Earth sans TARDIS trying to do what he was good at and pre-empt bits of history (like his 'improvements' on early telephonics and predictions about Darwin and evolution). Of course, if this really was Doctor Who, the Doctor would reveal to Penfold the gizmo was clearly alien and the story would end with a UFO landing or the crypt splitting open to reveal the owners and things would really kick off...

To be honest, I'm not sure if a series could have worked. Would it have been a string of these vague Hammer Horrors with the TSARDIS trio travelling to different isolated villages to defeat nebulous threats no one is clever enough to truly understand? How many mad scientists, devil worshippers or... actually I can't think of another cliche, ghosts maybe?... could the Incredible RB face down before things got boring? The owl does nothing, Spudgun underused and Penfold is only there to do the stuff the Doctor can't do to speed up the plot. The sheer awkwardness of doing all the train stuff would eat the budget, and this pilot is clearly cheap to start with and can't decide whether it's supposed to be terrifying or charming, jacknifing between "Aww, nostalgia for Victorian values" and "the evil in the darkness has been there before god - PREPARE TO DIE!!!"

All in all the biggest tragedy is that Terry Nation - having clearly "got" the whole Gothic ancient alien astronaut subgenre - didn't use this for Doctor Who instead of the hoary old cliches he threw at them until a very different Incredible Robert bitchslapped some sense into him. Can anyone truly think this plot was not deserving a fully-fledged DW remake rather than squandering resources on The Android Invasion?

A waste. A terrible, terrible waste.


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

It's amazing sometimes, isn't it, how many odd little shows get made? Of course, technically this wasn't made as anything other than a pilot, but still impressive.

Sounds like Terry was a borderline Doctor Who fanboy by that stage. Which I guess is understanable seeing as it made him rich so he knew it was a formula that worked..

Youth of Australia said...

Sounds like Terry was a borderline Doctor Who fanboy by that stage. Which I guess is understanable seeing as it made him rich so he knew it was a formula that worked..
Guess so. But the most enjoyable thing is this proves he could do pretty decent work on his own, sans Spooner, Whittaker or Boucher, WHEN HE COULD BE ARSED.

I might send you a copy, just in case I'm seeing all these similarities that aren't there. Speaking of pilots, I've got a late 90s attempt at a TV series about Cthulu with Paul Darrow as the guy in charge of an Anti-Old-One Organization. Kind of cheap and with the a rubbish CGI Cthulu, but it might have been worth pursuing. The choice of 1920s dance music as the theme tune was a bit odd, though...

Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

Well, I've never doubted Tezza, even if his characters can have a bad habit of expositing as opposed to talking. For me his B7 output shows he had a great mind for plots and how to use the format he had.

Paul Darrow battling Cthulu with 20s Jazz? I am in.

Youth of Australia said...

Well, I've never doubted Tezza, even if his characters can have a bad habit of expositing as opposed to talking. For me his B7 output shows he had a great mind for plots and how to use the format he had.
True. But I still don't buy the huge subtexts that are apparently there... I mean, this is the guy who wrote things like, "Yes, this is Vapuron, the planet of MISTS!" for crying out loud.

Paul Darrow battling Cthulu with 20s Jazz? I am in.
You bet.