STORY: Torchwood Glasgow has discovered that something is up at Universal Web Systems. The Earth is in Danger, the Universe in Peril, it’s time to call in The Doctor.
REVIEW: With Downtime, we went back to the 1990’s. For the next review, let’s get a bit more current – Project Fifty is the brainchild of Bryan McCormack, inspired by the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, released as a twelve part between January and August, 2014.
McCormack, the writer, producer, director, editor and star, is a bit more mature than the average modern fan film maker, just under fifty himself, this year. On the other hand, he has some chops. He’s had an equity card since 1986, he’s written a book on acting, taken a university degree in screen acting, and amassed a reasonable body of work as a public speaker, stage actor, voice actor, etc. It was while attending the University of the West of Scotland as a mature student to study screen acting, that he got the idea for this project.
In his own words: “It was only the second day of the Induction, back in September 2012, that I suddenly realised that UWS Ayr had all the facilities and equipment you could possibly need to enable you to actually make a fan film. And then, when I discovered that there were other students [and more than a few members of staff!] who were also fans…”
That’s right: Two days into University as a mature student and he’s on it.
“Doctor Who – Project: Fifty started its production journey on Tuesday September the 18th 2012. That’s when I had the initial conversation with a fellow student, who was also a Who Fan, that sparked of the whole idea.”
That’s the story behind the story, basically: Lifelong Doctor Who fan and actor wanders into the resources and people willing to join him on his mad venture to play the Doctor, and away we go.
How is McCormack as The Doctor? Not bad. He’s a very restrained Doctor, he seldom smiles, his jokes are few and far between. He lacks the bombast we’ve come to associate with the Doctor through Tenant, Smith and now Capaldi, or for that matter, the Bakers or McCoy. If I had to find a BBC Doctor to compare him too, I’d say Ecclestone and maybe Davison. He has a quiet quality that he shares with them.
McCormack has large eyes and a grim set to his mouth and he uses that. His Doctor is a brooding man, radiating concern and sometimes a bit of trepidation. In his first scene, when he pokes his head out of the Tardis to look around, he gives the impression of a man nervously checking to see if it’s going to be shot off. In other scenes, McCormack is good at looking genuinely scared, which is actually a very good thing – it sells the seriousness of the situation to the audience. That’s a considerable accomplishment.
McCormack’s Doctor seems generally nervous, there’s an air of uncertainty about him, a pensive quality. Confidence bordering on arrogance tends to be a hallmark of the Doctor, and mostly, he doesn’t exhibit that. He’s most assured when confronting menaces directly, then the nervousness and uncertainty goes away – he actually grins when told there’s a monster on the loose, put Zodin in front of him, or a Time Vampire, or a Dalek, and suddenly doubt resolves, he knows who they are, he knows who he is, and he knows what to do. His Doctor is in his element when the monsters show up.
There’s less wit and humour to this version of the Doctor. Not much in the way of fun or funny lines, very little of the playfulness. It’s there, as when he casually discards an umbrella, or does department store announcements stepping into an elevator, but it’s got a sardonic quality. He plays with a yo yo at one spot, but you can see he’s thinking about something else.
He’s definitely not a Booth or Benedetti, inhabiting the role thoroughly and owning it. McCormack’s is a real Doctor however. He understands what makes the Doctor work, and he can express it, to the point of creating his interpretation. Not everyone gets that. So bottom line, a real Doctor.
As to the rest of the cast – well, there’s not many of them. Claire Mackie plays Helena Hamilton, chunky girl, Torchwood Agent, and de facto companion for most of the serial. She dies in the second episode, but then feels much better, and comes closest to having a realized personality. Rebecca Skinner plays Bex, a more traditional companion in that her role is mostly to ask the Doctor questions, most of which she does via mobile videophone. Elidh Weir plays Becky, who seems to be an alternative version of Bex, who shows up in person. Suzie Macari through the magic of superimposition, split screens and clever editing plays a legion of Time Vampires, she’s a hot chick, wears black, looks menacing, and that’s really all we need. Zodin, of course, is terrible.
Look, with a serial of a dozen, eleven minute long, episodes ending in cliffhangers, you’re not going to get Shakespearean characterizations. It’s a matter of hitting your marks, getting your lines done competently, and keeping things moving.
This shouldn’t be taken as disparaging. It’s an entirely competent, polished script. McCormack took it through five drafts, and apparently was willing to take constructive criticism and it shows.
On the other hand – it’s a twelve part serial. Jesus H. Christ. Collectively the whole thing weighs in at an exhausting 160 minutes, or over two and a half hours, give or take. The original series itself in its 28 year run didn’t dare to run 10 episodes or over more than a few times in its history. So McCormack is taking a huge risk at a serial this long.
Each episode of the serial runs on average 13 minutes. Now, there’s some duplication – recap, titles, credit. But still, even dumping the surplus, you’re still averaging maybe 11 minutes per, the consolidated work would probably run over two hours. Actually, thinking out loud, it might be interesting to watch the consolidated work all edited together to see how it plays (I think there might be something seriously wrong with me).
But really, a fan film running 12 episodes and two and a half hours, that’s asking a lot of the audience.
That’s impressive. That’s epic. That’s spectacular.
That’s also brutal.
This is taking a risk
Paradoxically, even though I complain its too long, I’m also complaining its too short. Eleven minutes, give or take. That’s not really much time to tell or develop your story and wedge a cliff hanger in. You may not get much more than a vignette. The Forgotten Doctor has this issue as well, but we’ll get to that. (The point is, that there’s no satisfying me.)
So McCormack has chosen a certain format for his story, this twelve mini-episode mini-mega epic. That choice drives and shapes the sort of story he’ll tell. Not a lot of characterization, not in eleven minute bites where you have to build to the next cliffhanger. Not a lot of room for extraneous stuff, lots of corridors and the walking about of in, lots of plot twists and cliff hangers, lots of walking in corridors, lots of running about, oh and lots and lots and lots of wandering around corridors.
Does it succeed?
Yes, and handily so.. It moves along steadily, it’s got a good pace to it, and the serial format means that even if the individual episodes are short, the story continually builds up to something. He manages to generate momentum and keep it building. It manages to surprise throughout. There’s places where the plot kind of twists off in a radically different direction that threatens to lose the audience, but it never quite falters. There’s nowhere that it actually drags. Because the episodes are relatively, short they’re easy to watch, and it’s very easy to watch the next one. Kind of like eating potato chips.
The story? I don’t want to get too far into it. For one thing, there’s a lot of plot going on, you need a lot of plot to sustain eleven cliff hangers, and there’s huge spoiler issues.
Basically, Torchwood Glasgow is investigating strange goings on at Universal Web Systems, their first operative gets chased through the woods and killed in the opening scenes, the second operative decides to summon the Doctor, using a distress signal that they filched from UNIT. The Doctor arrives and in short order discovers that someone has been sucking chronal energy from the fabric of space and time, and it all has something to do with the fact that everyone has been implanted with internet access chips.
From there, we get Time Vampires, Cybermen, Daleks, Zodin, conspiracies, time vortexes, dead companions, live companions, a light saber battle, another Doctor, an alternate universe, the fate of the human race every which way. Like I said, it moves along.
The script is also loaded with ‘easter eggs’ – it’s just chock full of in jokes, references, allusions to the show’s fifty year history. The target was fifty, but I think they went way past that.
It’s heavy on expository dialogue, but it has to be, and McCormack is a good enough director that he keeps it visually interesting – no small challenge, given that something like 95% of it is shot inside the Ayr campus building of the University of West Scotland. Physically, he’s got a small palette to work with, and he’s skillful creating his visuals. He’s got a strong visual eye that lets him make the most of his location, I can see how another, less gifted director would just make a drudge of it.
Being visually interesting is a key part of Doctor Who, and it could have gone very wrong here. But it didn’t. I’d like to offer compliments on the technical competence. That’s often a hit or miss thing with fan films. Producing a film of any kind is a huge amount of work, and it demands competency and investment in literally hundreds of production areas – props, sets, set dressing, make up, lighting, locations, continuity, composition, focus, acting, costumes, and so on. There are a thousand details you need to get right, and if you mess up one… Well, that’s the one that people notice.
Technically, this is amazingly polished. The image, as we’ve come to expect from 21st century technology is pristine, the sound mix is thoroughly professional, locations, lock offs. There’s nothing that jars or intrudes. In the whole thing, I spotted maybe one scene where the sound was off – too much echo in a stairwell.
It’s actually more polished than we realize – there’s several instances of splitscreen and superimpositions that are seamlessly edited and integrated into the narrative. We have the twins – Natasha and Natalya, Time Vampires, both played by Suzie Macari – who eventually morphs into a foursome. There’s shots featuring a dozen Daleks moving in different directions on two levels, all splitscreens and superimpositions of a single prop. There’s some nice morphing, a bit of digital enhancement here and there. I don’t think ever I’ve seen this level of proficiency or camera trickery done so ambitiously or seamlessly in a fan film, or even in a lot of commercial films.
Although almost entirely shot inside the campus building, he’s done a minimal amount of location work, and used it effectively. The opening shots are of a man running through Craigie Woods, on the Ayr University grounds. a woman having a conversation inside a car in the rain, the Doctor’s Tardis materializing outdoors and the Doctor strolling to the location. Very good choices, nice sense of place and transition, and by putting these scenes in at the start, he creates a wider world for the Doctor, even if he’s going to spend most of his time indoors. It’s always best to make a good impression on your audience early on, that carries you past a lot of flaws. Never lead with your chin, as boxers say.
The Ayr campus is a modern looking building. No ivey covered brickwork here. Instead lots of corridors, walkways and atriums, with those open interior spaces that Universities seem to be fond of. It’s designed to handle large numbers of people moving from place to place, or simply hanging out for periods of time – in functional terms, it’s half park, half mall, and half place of business. I think that this often gives University buildings a unique though consistent look and feel.
That’s not a bad sort of space to work in, and you’ll find a great many ‘on campus’ student and art films. It’s clean, well maintained, vaguely futuristic and formal. It can do double duty for a lot of modernist locations – offices, laboratories, corporate or government quarters, alien bases, etc. It’s usually close to your equipment, power outlets are close by, it’s accessible to your cast and crew, you can usually book hours when you have the whole thing to yourself, the lighting is stable (which is not something you can rely on shooting outdoors), you have an amazing amount of control over the space.
On the other hand, there’s minimal dressing that you can do, there’s a certain ‘guerilla’ film making quality, in that you only have the space for certain times, and you have to share it with others.
The result is that your film, or Project 50, takes on a certain look. Almost, but not quite, sterile; vaguely futuristic; striking in some ways – there’s some nice vistas and geometries of imagery, but empty as well. The hardest part is that it limits you – no matter where you go in there, mostly, it looks the same. You can try and jazz it up with different angles or locations, but there’s no concealing the underlying uniformity of the location, the fact that it’s all the same architecture and design.
Compare that, to the BBC show which makes a point of transitioning through different locations and sets, often several in an episode. Or compare that to the Wrath of Eukor where the lush Pacific rain forest is almost a character in the story itself, or the Timebase productions which consistently found impressive locations, or even Time Stealers and its excursions to Scottish moors or London streets.
Given that this was very nearly a one man project, I think he probably made the best choice available to him. Locations are grand and add a lot of production value, but shlepping an entire cast and crew and equipment around is a lot of extra work, and building sets can be a lot of extra work that can misfire so easily (Utomu!)
McCormack’s well aware that endless university corridors would be dull, so he employs a number of cinematic techniques to keep things lively, such as changing the framework of the image, and he wrote a script that would work to the location, a vaguely futuristic story of conspiracy and menace. He sticks almost all his outdoor work at the front, as I’ve mentioned, hoping that will carry him (it does), and he plays with his timeline.
Oh, and he managed to talk people into building a perfectly serviceable Tardis shell and console, so good on him.
So what’s it all add up to? It’s a very disciplined, very polished, very ambitious project that lines its targets up carefully, and basically hits them. Is it brilliant? Very close to it. Exhausting perhaps, and well done. I have no hestitation in recommending it.
In the larger context, there’s something a little sad. Project Fifty started off with a lot of ambition and high hopes. He set up a facebook page to promote it, there’s a web site. But the website is oddly incomplete, he was promising podcasts, a production diary, there’s the promise of thing that never materialized. I think that it turned out to be a lot more work, a lot more difficult and time consuming than he expected, and perhaps that stole time and energy away from other things he’d planned.
I don’t think he got the reception he was hoping for, it can be crushing to put so much work in and for people to not even notice, or to go ‘mm hmm’ for a moment and then move on. I dunno, maybe I’m just projecting. For me, it gives Project Fifty a kind of bittersweetness.