Review-O-Rama (Part 2)

NEWS: We are quite excited to see that Julian Bane has finally released part two of his cool new DW fan film Alternate Empire, which can be viewed here. Part one was one of those cases where a pretty sophisticated project just seemed to pop up on YouTube with no notice or fanfare, a welcome relief from the legions of wannabees who issue a press release on every breath they take (“the script is being rewritten for the third time and we’re currently looking for sixty-three actors to play all the roles and please can someone do a title sequence and twenty minutes of CGI for us?”), while the fan films they’re supposedly producing never seem to get finished. A terrific entry with some great location work and nice character beats, AE is shaping up to be one of the most interesting Who fan films in quite a while. Part three has been promised very soon, and once it’s been posted, we’ll do a full review of the entire project.

Likewise, the long-awaited A Survivor’s Triangle has finally begun a serialized run on YouTube. Written by and starring John Reid Adams, this intriguing-looking film has been in production since 2007, and we’re stoked that it’s finally seeing release. The first segment can be seen here, and the rest of the series will be released in roughly ten-minute chunks every Tuesday for the next nine weeks. We’ve been promised that an all-in-one release will be forthcoming once the series has concluded.

Our good pals over at Westlake Films in the UK have issued a higher-res version of their classic 1999 fan film Future Investment that will hopefully re-acquaint fans with this seminal project. Future Investment was one of the first fan films I downloaded when I started exploring the medium a few years back, an entertaining old fashioned production starring Kevin Hiley as the Doctor and Jonathan Miles as his trusty companion Jon. The new version can be downloaded here, and please explore the Westlake website for many more quality productions.

REVIEWS: As I mentioned last time, I will be happy to review Doctor Who-related fan films of any type on request, be they drama, spoofs, or documentaries. There are only a couple of rules: while I’m happy to promote any in-progress production, I will only review films that have actually been completed and released for public consumption. So while Episode 1 of your fan-vid may look spectacular, you’ll have to finish all the episodes before I’ll do a formal review. Also, reviews are limited to projects that have been undertaken by adults, or at least filmmakers in their late teens. I’m all for children getting out the video camera to be creative and make their own Doctor Who fan vids, but these are usually pretty unwatchable to grown-up eyes, and it’s neither appropriate nor of any particular interest to me to apply critical standards to them. So, adults only, at least in the purely chronological sense of the word.

PLASTIC TREACHERY (2010) Written Matthew Toffolo / Directed by Matthew Toffolo and Sam Merrell

The Doctor (Matthew Toffolo) lands on contemporary Earth, having tracked a stray Nestine globe which has wandered through space and finally crash-landed near a British university. Investigating with the help of young student Tasha (Samantha McLaughlin), he discovers that the Nestine has already formed an alliance with his old enemy the Master (Sam Merrell), who is posing as the school’s principal. The Autons (plastic-based servants of the Nestene consciousness, who appear in the form of store-window dummies) launch a brutal attack, and the Doctor scrambles to find a way to defeat them.

Despite the sharp digital photography, this is a very old-skool type production, and though it has many rough edges, it did make me smile, both for its nostalgic feel and for the obvious enthusiasm that went into its making. Rare among modern fan films, the makers of Plastic Treachery have opted not to use the usual “unknown future regeneration” of the Doctor, and instead cast this adventure during the tenure of the Fourth Doctor, played in the television series by the legendary Tom Baker. Given that pretty much any performance is going to suffer in comparison to King Tom, Matthew Toffolo nonetheless acquits himself quite well, doing a decent impression of the Fourth Doc’s mannerisms and personality, without it seeming like a silly impression. His braces and short-cropped hair (Baker was famous for his mop of unruly curls) do throw off the visual image a bit, but apparently (according to Toffolo on the Gallifrey Base chat boards) the low-to-no budget didn’t allow for a decent-looking curly wig.

With a fairly simple plotline, the film is too long at three 25-minute episodes, and there are definitely some filmmaking no-nos : most obviously, there are multiple jump cuts in the middle of what are otherwise continuous takes, as well as the framing of actors against a brightly-lit window so that they appear almost in silhouette. At times the Auton mask looks like it’s about to topple off the actor’s head, and Tasha’s friends (played by Hari Ramakrishnan and Rosie Wake) are a little too annoying to be endearing. Still, these are the kinds of growing pains any “first” production is likely to suffer, especially one produced with literally no budget, and are largely compensated for by the sense of fun surrounding the whole video.

Co-director Sam Merrell’s very Ainley-inspired performance is quite fun, and Samantha McLaughlin is completely adorable and fills out the companion role nicely. I like the way they’ve replicated the weird “smoke” effect of the Auton guns from the Jon Pertwee era, and Toffolo’s Fourth Doctor costume is terrific. It probably won’t make anybody’s “Top Ten” list, but Plastic Treachery is a good first effort, and a fun little fan-vid. Apparently the group are already at work on their second story, and I look forward to seeing it.

TOASTED (2010) Written & Directed by Calum Bob Weir & Louis Paxton

This amusing little spoof has some cogent commentary to make on the way the new Doctor Who series obsessively documents every single aspect of its production. Toasted offers up a one-minute DW fan film (in which the Doctor stirs his tea and watches his toast pop up, roll credits), and then about eight minutes of gushing “making of” material about how the epic fan film took two years to produce. Weir and Paxton are nicely deadpan/self-congratulatory, and Tyler Collins – an American – is an absolute hoot as a very un-British Doctor dressed in Matt Smith’s gear. Other highlights are the low-tech opening credits and everyone’s obsession with the new Sonic Screwdriver toy.

There’s not much more to say about Toasted — it’s a nicely-produced bit of fun, and you should definitely check it out!

MISSION TO THE UNKNOWN (2009) Written by Terry Nation / Directed by Chris Thompson

Micro-history lesson for the uninitiated: in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC, seeing no long-term commercial viability for past episodes of Doctor Who (this was before the video boom, largely), made a habit of erasing the master tapes of many classic episodes, in order to re-use them for newer productions. As a result, many episodes – and many complete stories – from the show’s first six years no longer exist in any visual format, although audio recordings remain for all, most of these taped off-air by fans during the initial broadcast of these episodes.

“Mission to the Unknown” is one of those missing stories, a one-episode fill-in show that first aired in 1965, and served as “teaser” of sorts to the upcoming epic “The Dalek Masterplan.” Unique in Doctor Who history, this story does not feature the Doctor or any of the regular cast at all, instead focusing on two space pilots who have crash-landed on the planet Kembel. They come to realize that it is a Dalek base, and that the Daleks are hosting a secret meeting to enlist allies in a grand bid to conquer the universe.

With the story lost to history, Belfast, Ireland-based fans Chris Thompson and Guy Taylor (who also produced the recent Thunderbirds short) took it upon themselves to re-film the story as a fan video, burnishing it with some very modern special effects. The result is interesting if not wholly successful, but it does show a great deal of enthusiasm and talent. Thompson and Taylor play the two space pilots, while Thompson directs from Terry Nation’s original script, and supplies most of the special effects. Like many fan films, the difference between slick-looking CGI elements and “filmed out in the woods” live action doesn’t always mesh completely, and the filmmaking is occasionally slightly awkward. One can’t help but notice that these astronauts are wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes — possible, of course, but not terribly likely given the futuristic setting. However, the biggest stumbling block is that the Dalek voices are over-modulated and very hard to understand – even with headphones on, I often had to strain to understand what they were saying, a fairly common problem with many fan-produced Dalek adventures. (I say we institute a rule by which all Dalek scenes must be subtitled.) Also, the CG Varga plant creatures don’t quite succeed; they’re a little amorphous, and it’s often difficult to tell exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.

Still, I like Mission to the Unknown a lot, both for its healthy ambition, and for the nifty idea of re-creating a “lost” story. Thompson’s CGI Daleks and environments are frankly gorgeous, and the digital grading done to make common forest locations look a little more other-worldly is very evocative. The re-creation of the alien roundtable cabal is pretty impressive, with a mixture of live actors and CG-based aliens. Thompson and Taylor are both pretty good actors, and while they may not win any BAFTAs, it never has the feel of a bunch of kids just running around in the back yard. It’s a quality production, and I’d love to see more Who-related stuff from this group.

JE Smith is a forty-something guy living in the wilds of Texas, USA, who loves Doctor Who and is contemplating making his own DW fan film in the near future.

  • art rhetoric

    Just watched ‘Plastic Treachery’, this is very good. Matthew Toffolo really nails down the 4th Doctor. He has done his homework as well as the ‘Baster’ actor.Very entertaining and not bad special effects. I hope this Team continues to create films.

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