Reviews

Doctor Who

Ryan Vu

Doctor Who retains the old Who's oh-so-British irreverence, so it actually lives up to the appellation 'kid's show for adults'.


Doctor Who

Airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET
Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper
Network: The Sci-Fi Channel
Amazon

They don't make children's shows like they used to. No matter that this newest take on Doctor Who is ostensibly designed for young people. It comes to the States from the UK and from the past, and though updated by a writing team headed by Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk), it retains the old Who's oh-so-British irreverence, so it actually lives up to the appellation "kid's show for adults."

The premise is the same as ever: a mysterious time-skipping alien known only as the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) travels between history's hot spots via a '50s-style police telephone-box-cum-time machine called TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension[s] in Space), accompanied by a group of feckless Earthly companions. Hilarity ensues. The chief difference, aside from the bigger budget (note to purists: the special effects are still ridiculous) and switch to shiny digital video, is more of a desire to connect with the culture of the present.

The first episode, "Rose," offered a critique of consumerism in the form of an alien invasion by plastic. Attracted by the mess of pollutants in Earth's atmosphere, a giant blob-like "Nestene Consciousness" animated London's plastics in an attempt to get rid of all that annoying bio-matter. Naturally, the mall was the most dangerous place to be. The scene featuring hordes of eerily impassive walking mannequins wiping out London's buying class was definitely one of the best end-of-the-world scenarios around, combining both B-movie silliness and a genuine sense of the uncanny.

The relationship between Rose (Billie Piper), the Doctor's assistant, and her mother (Camille Coduri) exemplifies the series' new direction. With Rose suffering from youthful anomie and her mum floating about in a post-boomer haze, they took turns parenting each other. Rose's relationship with the Doctor is fully platonic, give or take a handholding or two. His equally non-sexual relationships with past associates could always be read as concessions to a prepubescent, socially awkward male audience: he was a mysterious recluse who wowed his beautiful female companions not with conventional sex appeal, but with superior knowledge, cleverness, and the promise of adventure.

At the end of Episode One, the Doctor coaxed Rose away from her weakling boyfriend (Noel Clarke) and into his time machine, the sci-fi nerd's version of a red convertible. His resistance to romance then seems an admixture of pride and angst. Though Eccleston's schizophrenic performance jumps back and forth from madcap glee to melancholy, he remains consistently nervous around the ladies.

Rose and the Doctor's second adventure, "The End of the World," was set up as the Worst Date Ever. Five billion years into the future, the universe's "filthy rich" are shuttled around in a corporate-owned space station for the purpose of viewing "artistic events," such as the demise of Earth. The episode took easy aim at the wealthy, such as the horrific Lady Cassandra O'Brien (Zoe Wanamaker). The "last pure human," she's had so many cosmetic surgeries that she's reduced to an uppity, racist sheet of translucent skin. She misrepresented both her species' physical appearance and culture (sending off Earth with a "traditional ballad" by Britney Spears), as, the episode implied, all people of wealth do.

If there was a whiff of undeath to such aristocrats, "The Unquiet Dead" gave us literal walking corpses, made so against their will. The third episode centered on bodies and their social consequences, adopting Victorian Gothic tropes. This followed on the first episode's focus on plastic and the second's on bodies as fashion. The third took us back to 1869 to show us that bodies are nothing but vessels, though no less valuable because of it. When Rose objected to the Doctor's decision to allow a group of alien spirits to occupy human corpses, he replied, "Why not? It's like recycling!" Both the empiricist skepticism of celebrity guest Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) and the pious supernaturalism of a servant girl (Eve Myles) were undercut by the revelation that the spirits were not angels or ghosts, but aliens, whose goals were completely, disturbingly understandable.

More than bodies, more than money or commodities, the submits that time is of most value. At the end of Episode Two, Rose bemoaned the fate of her planet: "We were too busy saving ourselves, no one saw it go." Rediscovering the value of her own life is ultimately what she owes to the Doctor. The few hints we get about his terrible past (he's the last of his species) undercut his pretense that he doesn't have one. As someone with no personal narrative, his can base his self-worth solely on helping others find and keep theirs. Not to "save lives" (how can duration be important to a time traveler?), but to rejuvenate them by, paradoxically, revealing just how huge the sandbox really is. What in some hands would only justify nihilism is in his a meaningful measure of value.

"Everything has its time and everything dies," said the Doctor at the end of one episode. Does the same logic apply to a Time Lord? The sprightliness and intelligence of this newest incarnation suggests that the long-running show will hang on at least a little while longer.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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