Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara

Part One

“Do you mind not standing on my chest? My hat’s on fire.”

We start with the Doctor and K9 playing chess, as in The Sun Makers, and once again the Doctor contrives to leave the game unfinished once he knows he’s losing. It’s a good scene, but in the context of the marathon it’s a little disturbing to see the seemingly oblivious repeating of something so recent. Never mind though- this first episode is a good ‘un.

Arguably it’s more than a little out of character for the Doctor to have a “day off” at a time like this, although the character has been moving more in that direction lately. Still, I can’t dispute that it’s all well scripted and performed. But if looked at as a commentary on the Doctor Who format itself (as pretty much everything about this story is) it definitely works. On a similarly format-subverting note, Romana finds the first segment within just a minute or so.

I have to admit the monster is… unfortunate. In fact, it’s suddenly quite noticeable that there’s been a distinct lack of monsters this season so far, and the only two proper ones we’ve seen- the Shrivenzale and this one- have been notoriously bad. Could this be why the budget seems to be stretching further this season than last, because of a deliberate cutting back on the monsters?

Peter Jeffrey, on top moustache-twirling form, makes a great entrance as our villain (boo! hiss!) Count Grendel as he “escorts” Romana to his castle, while the Doctor becomes acquainted with Zadek and his unnamed swordsman underling in a rather amusing scene. I particularly love the bit where he briefly grabs the sword to examine it and then immediately hands it back.

We’re given a brief précis of the plot so far; Prince Reynart must appear at the appointed time to be crowned king, but Grendel wants him killed first. But he has plans to avoid this, involving an android strangely similar to those in the Android Invasion. Is this originally Kraal technology perhaps?

This is a fascinating world, where everything looks mediaeval on the surface but technology lurks, suitably embarrassed, in all sorts of corners, as this is a society where engineering is the work of peasants. A great concept, and also a great excuse for doing The Prisoner of Zenda as science fiction. I’d better put my hand up here and confess I’ve not read the novel and frankly have no particular intention of doing so, but I love the occasional asides: “Well, it has been done before.”

Part Two

“Don’t be so tediously heroic, my dear fellow!”

Picking up from where we left off, there’s an exchange early in this episode which pretty much sums up how brazen the script is about its debt to Anthony Hope: “There is a secret passage.” “Ah! I thought there might be something like that!” Wonderful tongue-in-cheek self-referential stuff, of course, but let’s take it a bit too literally for a moment- how come the Doctor’s so aware of the rules of the fictional genre he’s in? Is this planet what it seems, or could it be a part of the Land of Fiction or some such place?

We get to meet Princess Strella, played by guest actress Mary Tamm, and get to hear about the rather tragic situation between that cad Grendel and poor Madame Lamia. Apparently she has the hots for him as he once did her “a certain courtesy”, but as he is a noblemen and she a mere peasant she hasn’t a hope. Instantly the audience sympathises with her, even though at no point in the story is she very nice.

We get to see Cyril Shaps again as the Archimandrite, which is nice, and also get a little backstory; two centuries ago a plague decimated the population (I love it when I can use the word “decimated” with complete accuracy) and that’s when androids started to be used to replace people. Not exactly the fullest explanation I’ve ever heard!

Part Three

“It’s funny. They always want you to go alone when you’re walking into a trap. Have you noticed that?”

I love these kinds of episodes; it may be one of those part threes where the plot takes a week off to wait for the conclusion and the time just gets filled up with loads of capture and escape scenes, but frankly who cares when it’s this much fun? I loved the scene where K9 slowly cuts a door in the tent so he and the Doctor can escape- the flip side of so many old Terry Nation Dalek stories!

We get some actual poignancy too here though as Lamia’s story comes to an end. She knows Grendel’s just using her- she’s not stupid- but “That is better than nothing”. And when she’s killed (I think the only character in the story to die), Grendel barely notices.

In other news, most of the episode is taken up with the elaborate springing of Romana from Grendel’s clutches, only for Grendel to restore her to said clutches at the end…

Part Four

“Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”

I love Grendel’s silly and convoluted plan- Romana, posing as Princess Stella, Marries King Reynart. Raynart meets with an unfortunate and tragic accident. Grendel marries the widowed Romana, masquerading as Princess Strella. Romana, that is, not Grendel. Grendel is now prince consort. Romana, still posing as Princess Strella, meets with an unfortunate and tragic accident. Her grieving widower is now king. Phew!

A great conclusion, with all the usual fun, a great exit for Grendel, and even a swordfight. Still, poor K9!

A wonderful story, a very high 5/5. Loads of postmodern humour with almost everything being a commentary on the programme and the genre it’s currently pasticheing. The uber-Graham Williams story. One caveat, though: much as I love this kind of thing, I can understand why some people don’t like the amount of violence that’s getting inflicted on the fourth wall this season. I love it unreservedly, but I can understand how too much of it would threaten the integrity of the programme. Still, we can probably sit back and safely enjoy some more of this sort of thing until that point gets reached. Say, the rest of this season and all of next?

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