Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Doctor Who: Kinda

Part One

“An apple a day keeps the, er…”

Were introduced to some impressive guest actors from the off; him off The Dam Busters, him off The Bill and her off The Liver Birds. The jungle, though not bad looking, admittedly has a slight hint of plastic to it, but it’s already clear that this story is going to be very good indeed.

We cut to the TARDIS where Adric and Nyssa are playing chess. What is it with foreshadowing and writers called Christopher? If that’s not enough, the Doctor responds to Adric’s querying of the wisdom of leaving the sonic screwdriver in some thingamajig with a casual “Why should we need it?” Nyssa, after her recent collapse, is to stay behind. That’ll be one less companion to work into the plot, then.

We cut back to our pith helmeted colonists and straight from the Doctor to Hindle- appropriate as their character traits as recently displayed- paranoia versus possibly foolhardy carelessness- could not be more of a contrast. There are lots of nice digs made by the script at the colonists’ mindset (Sanders casually notes that taking “primitives” hostage is “standard procedure”) but already it’s clear this is just background detail, not what the story’s going to be about.

Yet again, the Doctor and Adric are not getting on, another sign that the Doctor’s inability to display the authority and gravitas he’s become used to commanding is affecting his relationships with his companions. In fact, pairs of characters and their relations with each other are something of a feature of this story- Hindle’s paranoia causes Sanders to trust the Doctor and Adric pretty much to spite him, whilst Todd and the Doctor appear to establish quite a rapport, even flirting by the end of the story.

Tegan, meanwhile, falls asleep, and has a strange dream. The environment seems to be pretty much a sensory deprivation tank (probably as bad, if not worse, than the Mara’s messing with her head), and the only objects Tegan can see are chess-playing figures who deny her existence and some other bloke from The Bill.

Back in the land of the pith helmets, Todd offers the Doctor an apple in spite of the fact that, as Hindle says, it’s “forbidden”. Oh, and we’re told this planet is “Paradise”. Do you think there might be some sort of subtext here?

Good lord, it’s Adrian Mills! Anyone who hasn’t seen him on That’s Life (I have fond memories of being allowed to stay up and watch it on Sunday nights- ah, nostalgia…) can have no idea how weird it is to see him in Kinda. On a slightly OT note, after looking up some footage of him on a certain video site, I came across a reference to him apparently being the inspiration for Alan Partridge!

Part Two

“No, the trees have no mercy.”

“Ah yes, I was forgetting that.”

This Doctor is so obviously unthreatening to the crew of the dome that everyone assumes he’s harmless, except for the one madman. Who is now, of course, in charge, which changes the situation entirely- a brilliant cliffhanger.

We get to meet some Kinda who can talk: Panna, the blind wise woman, and her cute friend; and hear on the “Not-We” from their perspective. They give a box to Sanders, he opens it, and we cut to the next scene. There’s mystery as well as thematic depth and very well written character conflict here, and it all adds up to something very special indeed. The icing on the cake, though, and the focus of everything, is the character of Hindle, who is crucial to making the whole thing work, and Simon Rouse plays him perfectly. He gets all the best lines (And Doctor, be sensible”) and plausibly retreats into childhood as he becomes less and less able to cope with the world around him. He’s a dangerous child, though, wanting to sterilise a fifty mile radius with “fire and acid, acid and fire”.

Todd is delightful in other ways, wanting to escape because it’s “what one does”, and Nerys Hughes shows what a bloody good actress she is. The Doctor, meanwhile, is in an extraordinarily passive position, but it works.

Adric apparently betrays the Doctor yet again, but this time it’s an obvious ruse, and not a very good one at that. He only escapes punishment at Hindle’s hands because of Sanders’ return. But Sanders has looked into the box, and he’s not quite the same…

Tegan agrees to “be” the Mara, a kind of rape, and Janet Fielding is great as the Mara in Tegan’s body, which is more than can be said for Adrian Mills shortly after. Still, it odd that, in a story so supposedly Tegan-centric, she seems to get so little screen time.

Part Three

“It isn’t a game, it’s real! With measuring and everything.”

The Doctor opens the box… and aside from a short, psychedelic trip, not a lot happens, aside from confirmation that handle has no sense of humour. Still, he and Todd escape (odd how for once the Doctor spending a whole episode in a cell seems to present no problem whatsoever, just because this story is so damn good) and go in search of the figures from the dream. It doesn’t take them long to find the tribe, and a Trickster figure who seems to be some kind of parallel for the Doctor. But Aris, controlled by the Mara, turns the tribe against them, and they are quickly led to Panna before things get too nasty. The Doctor, a man who speaks, must obviously be an “idiot”!

We end with another trippy scene, full of images of hourglasses, metronomes and digital clocks approaching midnight…

Part Four

“You can’t mend people, can you?”

It’s revealed that Hindle and Sanders have been making a model capital city for “S14” indoors, because “Outside is for grown ups”. And Sanders’ cardboard people are indeed very good. Meanwhile, in true cargo cult fashion, the Kinda have made a version of the colonists’ body armour out of sticks for the Mara possessed Aris. But now it’s time for the endgame.

The Doctor and Todd return, to be greeted with a “Boo!” by Hindle from his “secret den”. But his childlike innocence turns to real menace when this doesn’t have the desired effect. It’s noticeable that it’s Todd, and not the Doctor, who persuades him to look inside the box.

The story then winds up, and there is a giant papier-mâché snake upon which I shall not dwell, for the same reasons I didn’t dwell on the giant rat in Talons. Nothing can spoil this story, not even Adric being a total git to Tegan for no reason halfway through this episode.

Well, most of the Buddhist stuff went right over my head, but I love this story. It’s a clear 5/5, and goes straight in at number two in my all-time list, displacing The Massacre and second only to City of Death.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Doctor Who: Four to Doomsday

Part One

“How can Earthlings have penetrated us?”

Oh dear, Terence Dudley. I didn’t enjoy his K-9 and Company script very much. But incredibly he’s managed to produce a real gem with this story.

We begin with a spaceship drifting through space like an Imperial Star Destroyer. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for Season Seventeen. Then we move into the TARDIS for a scene which, with three companions, feels almost domestic in its familiarity. Suddenly this TARDIS crew feels fully established, with Adric flying the Ship (he’s being shown a lot more trust by this new Doctor) and Tegan wanting to get back to Heathrow.

The Doctor leaves the TARDIS to explore, in a charming scene with the strange Monopticon- something which would have seemed far more sinister at the time than it does in today’s CCTV infested age. Instantly the new Doctor feels fully-established, and it’s clear he’s going to be great. Already he’s the Doctor. 

Unfortunately, the scenes with the three companions inside the TARDIS are a complete contrast to this. Tegan has a right whinge, really annoying me for the first time, while Adric takes his utter gittery to heights undreamed of as he announces that “That’s the trouble with women. Mindless, impatient and bossy.” This raises even Nyssa’s heckles; there’s a definite sense that this is the story during which she slowly comes to the settled conclusion that Adric is an utter pillock.

The Doctor dangles a spare key around in a moment that feels very low key post “New Series”. The TARDISeers disembark, watched by Monarch, played magnificently by Stratford Johns. He’s a great villain, with eminently quotable dialogue, right from the start. And there are plenty of opportunities for banter between him and the Doctor from the very start. Instantly this story feels fun in a way no story since The Horns of Nimon (or Shada) really has.

It’s 1982, and at last we get the first reference to punk rock in Doctor Who! Apparently the Doctor thinks that wearing safety pins is “barbaric”. Grr! Tegan, on the other hand, seems to prefer the Spandau Ballet look. How very contemporary. 

Meanwhile, further 80s pursuits abound as Adric plays Manic Miner in the TARDIS, bored with Nyssa’s company. Eventually he tires of such pleasures and appears before Monarch, to be heralded as “the boy who got his sums wrong.” Monarch’s dialogue in this scene is all somehow rendered hilarious by Johns’s performance.

After a pleasant chat Monarch dismisses everyone and sods off to have a look at the TARDIS. He is most put out at its refusal to yield to his instruments. Meanwhile our heroes meet the ships motley crew of “Earthlings”. It feels wrong for the Doctor to be describing them as such. And when Adric asks for someone to “pass the sodium chloride please”, clarified by the Doctor as salt, I’m reminded of the educational element of the early Hartnells, and in fact the whole script seems to have a Hartnellesque feel. Of course, it also reminds me of the unfunny Doctor Who “spoof” in the finale of Extras.

Part Two

“Ah, the flesh time!”

It’s odd to have a story which is carried along by intrigue rather than actual peril, but this is gripping all the same. We’re fed bits of information gradually, mainly through Bigon, and he’s an interesting character- rational, sceptical, much tried and rather depressed. We also get this Doctor’s first historical namedrop (Drake) and this era’s first big historical error, that the Mayans existed eight thousand years ago.

There’s more Hartnellesque educativeness with Bigon’s gratuitous mention of photosynthesis, and lots of bizarrely Blue Peter-esque cultural displays. But it all works rather well, however strange and unusual in style it may be for a Doctor Who story at this point.

The revelations continue, all relevant to the story, culminating in the hoplite surviving being stabbed to the heart and Bigon’s revelation that he’s not flesh and blood but in fact an android in the Android Invasion style. Again, no real threat to our heroes, but a magnificent cliffhanger once again.

Part Three

“The exchange of two fantasies, your majesty.”

Monarch “explains” the situation to Nyssa and Adric and, before our very eyes, Adric proceeds to leap headlong over a carnivorous fish of the genus Carcharhinus. At least in State of Decay his apparent betrayal was an apparent ruse; here, he is simply being an utter git. And possibly worse than anything is his cheap shot at Nyssa over the Master and her father, which just might be a bit of a sensitive subject.

Sadly, for the first time, Tegan starts to become annoying, panicking and trying to get to the TARDIS for no reason. Only the character’s third story and already she’s being written badly. Still, there are positive aspects to this; the Doctor’s failure to convince her reminds us that this Doctor has far less charisma or gravitas than his predecessor, something he finds frustrating, and this is already becoming a character point. Best of all, of course, is that Tegan hits Adric in the face and knocks him unconscious. I suddenly like her again.

The cliffhanger to this episode, with the Doctor about to be beheaded, is incredibly the first time any of the TASRDISeers are placed in any danger whatsoever. And yet the story has been intriguing, gripping and above all fun.

Part Four

“You may keep the pencil.”

There’s an allusion to the previous era as the Doctor is asked to turn out his pockets, a scene which symbolises that there are things which have changed (a cricket ball rather than a yo yo) but also things which haven’t (the piece of string is something I can imagine Tom carrying). The following scene, in which the Doctor admonishes Adric for being such a complete and total utter git, also throws light on what has changed. Tom wouldn’t have had all this trouble keeping the brat in line. But this apparent weakness of the Doctor actually works well in developing his character; old, wise, but cursed with a young and unprepossessing appearance which leads others to underestimate him. I’m sure there’ll be many changes but Davison’s Doctor seems fully formed at this point. Oh, and Davison was several years younger than I am now when he filmed this, which is in no way scary.

The whole stuff with the cricket ball in space is fab (sod the physics of it, it’s great!) and we get a satisfying ending with Monarch hoist by his own frog poison. 

I’ve always been extremely fond of Four to Doomsday. I know most other fans don’t feel the same, but this is the story which roused my fandom from a semi-inert state when I recorded it from UK Gold in 1997. My mate and I would quote reams of Monarch’s dialogue for weeks. Next week came Kinda, and I was hooked again for good. I was worried this viewing would spoil it for me and it wouldn’t be as good as before, but I should have had more faith. I don’t care that the history is dodgy or the plot doesn’t really make sense- this is the most fun I’ve had with a Doctor Who story since The Horns of Nimon. 5/5.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Doctor Who: Castrovalva

Part One

“I was forgetting, Nyssa- bioelectronics is your strong point.”

I think this is our first ever pre-titles sequence, and very nice it is too. Unfortunately there follows a lot of dull scenes involving running, security guards, irritating incidental music and Adric being particularly annoying. Suddenly, with a new season and a new Doctor, he’s become a lot more annoying. And then the Master gets him but leaves him on the ground in a trance to be collected by the others, Considering what happens later I can’t see the point of that scene.

With everyone aboard, the new Doctor disappears into the depths of the Ship while Nyssa and Tegan chat. It’s notable that Nyssa doesn’t seem at all bothered by the traumatic recent events, calmly dispensing technobabble as though she hasn’t a care in the world. Meanwhile the Doctor, perhaps recalling The Horns of Nimon, slowly divests himself of his scarf by turning it into thread to guide him through the labyrinth. Ooh, how very symbolic for our new Doctor!

There’s a brief conversation with Adric where it becomes clear he’s confused and has to be reminded that Romana’s gone. I think this is the first time we ever hear the phrase “console room”. There follows what might well be Tegan’s first ever exclamation of “Rabbits!” and our second look at the TARDIS BBC micro, which looks as if it’s now a permanent feature. Still, just as people today have digital radios that look like old wooden radios from the 50s, no doubt the Doctor is just using technology that looks retro in style but is in fact incredibly advanced. Er, right?

Peter Davison does a rather good Hartnell impression and a rather less good Troughton one, although it’s good to see the recorder again. All entertaining enough, but surely we ought to be getting round to quickly establishing this new Doctor? He gets a lot of screen time this episode but we still have little or no impression of what he’s going to be like.

Nyssa and Tegan discuss recursion, which foreshadows, of course, what’s to come. Nevertheless it comes across as awkward, un-naturalistic dialogue, something I’m picking up as a general feature of Bidmead’s scripts.

The TARDIS is apparently even more huge than we’ve previously imagined, so much so that the Master manages to kidnap Adric while he’s lost in the corridors. Happily, this means we won’t be seeing much of him for a while. Meanwhile, Nyssa and Tegan lead the doctor to the “stark simplicity” of the Zero Room- more foreshadowing. The episode ends with Nyssa consulting the TARDIS Wikipedia…

Part Two

“We’re playing Russian Roulette with the TARDIS!”

At last we get a small sign of Nyssa reacting naturally to the terrible things that have happened to her as she expresses her revulsion at the Master and switches off the monitor. Not much, but it’s something.

It’s notable that throughout the whole story, not just those featuring Castrovalva itself, the Master is essentially in control of reality itself as far as the TARDISeers are concerned. His control, through Adric, of block transfer mathematics (for which read magic) allow him to literally reshape reality. The surprising thing, if anything, is that his ambitions are so limited, pretty much focused only on his rivalry with the Doctor. This tells us a lot about his obsession with the Doctor, something which has gone to such lengths that it can hardly be considered rational. And it’s also a little odd that we will never see him using this power again.

“I’ll have to explain how to vent the thermal buffer” states the now bespectacled Doctor. How appropriate that this line will eventually be echoed in a much later appearance by this Doctor! And then we have the expected Pertwee impression. There are some great ideas in this scene, mind- the architectural configuration of the TARDIS can be redesigned from the control room, and rooms can be deleted to provide extra “thrust”.

Finally we get to the countryside outside Castrovalva, which looks strangely similar to the South of England. Odd, that. It’s amusing to hear Nyssa advising Tegan that “There’s a whole room full of clothes if you want to change.” Tegan won’t be following this advice for some time but, on the other hand, pot, kettle…

Oh, and I see Eric Saward’s name appearing in the credits as script editor. That’s surprisingly early. Still, I suppose it makes sense given that this was the fourth story of the season to be made.

Part Three

“I’m beginning to feel quite my old self. Or my new self.”

I very much like the gradual introduction of Castrovalva, and the gradual way it’s revealed that they are in fact friendly and apparently harmless. It’s good to see Michael Sheard again too. We get a nice series of scenes introducing us to the setting, marred only by the fact the Portreeve is so obviously played by Anthony Ainley- “Neil Toynay”, indeed! I particularly like the early signs of friction between Shardovan and the Portreeve- yet more foreshadowing. And, of course, the way everyone is instantly intimidated by Tegan!

“I know so little about telebiogenesis” admits Nyssa. I sympathise- I can well remember Wednesdays at school. Maths, history and physics in the morning, then double telebiogenesis in the afternoon. It never was my favourite subject.

The sequence leading up to the cliffhanger is brilliant (“Yes, well that’s democracy for you!”) and the concept of recursive occlusion is brilliant. It even hits you at the end that the sets actually look like the Escher sketch, which is great design.

Incidentally, I wonder if anyone at the time ever did an etch-a-sketch of an Escher sketch? Sorry…

Part Four

“With my eyes, no. But in my philosophy…”

It’s a nice touch how Shardovan seems so sinister right up until the moment we realise his secret is that he shares the Doctor’s suspicions. Appropriately, he ends up as the hero. And I love the scene where the Doctor uses the mirror and some chalk to demonstrate to Mergrave and Ruther that their entire world is a lie. It really is a great concept- space folding in on itself, the same point in space having multiple locations, and the inhabitants of Castrovalva being part of it. The revelation of the forged history is also brilliant.

I had to raise an eyebrow at Shardovan’s line “Why are all these women here? Is this a holiday?” Along with the fact that all the women in Castrovalva seem to be performing some sort of domestic task whenever we see them it seems that feminism has yet to catch on here.

The Master is unveiled and we get a suitable conclusion, although sadly the Doctor once again addresses his rival as “Master”, something he should never ever do, at least by choice.

Now, that’s more like it. The story takes almost two whole episodes to get going, but the final two episodes are superb. Finally Bidmead is able to turn his brilliant concepts into effective drama. 3/5 overall, but the average mark reflects the fact (well, opinion!) that it’s a story of two halves. Peter Davison was fantastic, but now I’d like to see a story with him actually playing the Doctor!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

K-9 and Company: A Girl's Best Friend

“Oh Doctor, you didn’t forget!”

Wow. Surely that’s the greatest theme tune / title sequence combo in all of recorded history? Classy, sophisticated, and in no way tacky or dated. Good to see that Sarah (great to see her again!) is a fellow Grauniad reader, although sadly she prefers the white stuff to a nice glass of red.

We have a new writer, Terence Dudley, and as per usual for the marathon I’ll try my best to pretend I’ve never encountered anything of his, before! I haven’t seen K9 and Company before, though, and it’s the last story in the whole marathon to be a first viewing. I have now seen everything. Exciting, innit?

We get a string of clichés to begin with; a coven of stock pagan human-sacrificing bad guys, we know the drill. Unfortunately anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man is going to suspect the whole village of being in on it, so there’s little in the way of surprising plot twists all the way through. So we get such vaguely familiar tropes as a Herne the Hunter figure, a goat, and worship of both Hecate and a Celtic goddess whose name I don’t recall- surely’ different pantheons? And I had to raise an eyebrow at the concept of an entire village practising the “old religion” in 1981…

We finally get to meet Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia. Unfortunately, though, we also get a lot of long, stagy, awkwardly acted drawing room scenes where all the characters seem to be based on Margot and Jeremy from The Good Life.

Still, Sarah’s fab as always, but the story relies rather heavily on her general fabness to carry everything else. This is pure telefantasy by numbers, not very encouraging for what’s supposed to be a pilot.

Oh, and K-9’s in this, isn’t he? Mark 3, so presumably constructed alongside Mark 2 as that seems the only opportunity for it to have happened. We get an interesting exchange between Brendan (surprisingly likeable; a sort of non-annoying Adric) concerning the Doctor: “Who is the Doctor?” “Affirmative.” It’s all gone a bit War Machines.

Overall it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. A plot which consists of a few well-known tropes working their way through in the predictable fashion, and establishing very little that would sustain a series, what with its very small regular cast and total lack of a direction to go in. 2/5.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Doctor Who: Logopolis

Part One

“I sometimes think I should run a tighter ship.”

We begin with what we assume to be the TARDIS, but it’s a real police box, in content. It’s surprisingly late for the show to be pulling this trick for the first time. But distracting from this somewhat is a “Take your litter home” sign placed right above a bin! We also get our first instance of the “not a real phone” situation. That worked quite well- perhaps it might be worth another go in, say, 24 years’ time?

Meanwhile the Doctor and Adric are wandering morosely around some part of the TARDIS we’ve never seen before, bedecked with gloomy tendrils of ivy which seem rather in keeping with the Doctor’s mood. The Doctor muses on the inevitability of entropy increasing on account of the Second Law of Thermodynamics… perhaps one of the more reactionary laws of physics? It is, of course, essentially what this entire season has been about, but it’s also a rather apposite metaphor for the Doctor’s fate. And, indeed, his mood.

We meet Tegan. And her Aunt Vanessa, who has a car with a choke, cos it’s 1981. Blimey, that reminds me of my early childhood, as Doctor Who is going to do rather often from now on. Anyway, Tegan wants to be an air hostess, and I’m sure she’ll get to London airport on time and definitely without anything bad happening. I like her- unlike Adric and, to get slightly ahead of ourselves, Nyssa, she has an actual personality.

The Doctor suddenly wants to repair the TARDIS’s “chameleon circuit” for some reason (it’s the first time it’s ever called that, right?), which apparently involves materialising around an actual police box and measuring it exactly so something called “block transfer computations” can be done on it. Fair enough, it seems to fit in with the story’s themes, but why is the Doctor suddenly doing this, exactly?

More continuity porn as we get another peek at Romana’s now deserted room and the Doctor refers to the fact the TARDIS has been stuck as a police box ever since it was in “a totter’s yard”. Apparently he should have waited for the “chameleon conversion” before leaving Gallifrey but “there were pressing reasons at the time”. Still, it seems he at least waited long enough for the TARDIS BBC micro to be installed.

One of the season’s more minor themes is referenced as the Doctor says that “The TARDIS and I are getting rather deter at these short hops.” But mainly it’s all doom and foreboding. Especially after the Doctor catches sight of the Watcher. Brrr.

Still, things soon perk up a bit as the TARDIS materialises around a police box which turns out to be another TARDIS. A bit of an homage to that rather fun and silly story The Time Monster then ensues as the Doctor and Adric walk from TARDIS to TARDIS, nicely balancing out the gloom and doom a bit.

There’s some more intentional but rather less successful comic relief thereafter as Tegan wanders into the TARDIS and asks to speak to the “pilot”. Er, why? Still, the cliffhanger’s a biggie: the Master’s at large. Which we, er, knew at the end of the last story anyway.

Oh, and it’s interesting that the Doctor only killed people by shrinking them in one story, Terror of the Autons, when he was Roger Delgado, but after The Deadly Assassin and now this it’s become a calling card.

Part Two

“I’ve just dipped into the future. We must be prepared for the worst.”

The Doctor has to jettison Romana’s room. How very symbolic. Now the Doctor’s even mardier than he was before, if that’s possible. Especially after her receives a message from Traken telling him that the Master’s escaped. How far we’ve come from the series’ origins- the Doctor is now receiving messages from the planet he just left. Apparently the Master knows exactly what the Doctor’s going to do because, bizarrely, “he’s a Time Lord- in many ways we have the same mind”. Er, is this an allusion to Gallifreyan telepathy or, as I suspect, is it just a lazy narrative shortcut?

Now the Doctor wants to “flush out” the Master by flooding the TARDIS. He’s now clearly gone beyond morose to suicidal. Poor Adric! Fortunately for the special effects budget, it doesn’t work. And the Doctor gets to have a proper chat with this Watcher fellow- a chat we’re not privy to, naturally. It doesn’t seem to cheer him up much.

We finally get to the much-heralded planet Logopolis, which in some bizarre fashion exactly resembles the video to David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. Tegan’s great during all this, demanding answers from the Doctor and actually intimidating him a bit. This elicits the only comic acting we see from Tom throughout this entire story, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

The Doctor, in another narrative shortcut, is expected on Logopolis, and indeed well known and trusted. They’re mathematicians who refuse to use computers (ah, traditional educational values!) and whose sums are capable of producing actual solid objects. More unexpected is the arrival of Nyssa, brought along by “a fiend of the Doctor.”

Part Three

“Our numbers were holding the universe together.”

The Watcher’s arrived on Logopolis. Ooh! Meanwhile, the Doctor’s in a spot of bother. Still, through a combination of Logopolitan ingenuity and the TARDIS mysteriously being much lighter than it was in Full Circle the problem is solved, but not before taking up half the episode so the plot can be rationed out more slowly. 

Still, this story may be overly serious by a long way and structured very oddly, but there’s no denying it’s crammed with great concepts. The conversation between the Monitor and Adric is great; the Logopolitans can’t use computers because their calculations affect the physical world and would therefore affect the computer. Only the living mind, for some reason, is immune. I’m not sure how all this works, but it’s great, a sort of Schrödinger’s cat as applied to mathematical calculation- a mind-blowing concept.

I’m still puzzled as to why the chameleon circuit needs fixing now, as you’d imagine the threat of the Master would be much more urgent. The bit with Tegan accusing the monitor of running a sweatshop is problematic too- it’s a nice character moment for her, but she doesn’t get anything like a satisfactory answer.
There’s something most effective and disturbing about the Master posing as Nyssa’s father- the fact he’s wearing Tremas’s body adds an extra level of cruelty and horror. But poor Nyssa’s day is going to get even worse…

The master has destroyed Logopolis, but knows not what he did, the plonker. Without Logopolis using its maths to open CVE’s into other universes to stave off the eventual heat death of the universe (there’s the ultimate in another theme of the season- procrastination!), our heroes are beset by the terrifying threat of entropy! Things are so bad that the Doctor and the Master are forced to work together. But not before the Doctor has a right whinge at his companions. He really is in a bit of a mood.

Part Four

“It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for…”

A whirl of activity, as everyone heads to the real Pharos Project on Earth to do some sums and save the universe. Oh, the drama. The Doctor addresses the Master as “Master” here, which feels very wrong. I can’t remember him ever doing that before.

Entropy completely destroys Traken, which is truly horrible for Nyssa. It feels quite wrong to me how much the script underplays the horror of this- surely Nyssa should be traumatised?

We get a lot of tiresome running from guards, and then it’s time for the Master’s cringeworthy “Peoples of the universe…” broadcast, followed by the kind of villainous cackling that is the aural equivalent of moustache-twirling.. This is pure unintentional silliness, and in no way a threat worthy of this great era’s final moments. Fortunately, the build-up to the regeneration, the old clips, the revelation of the Watcher, and the effect of the regeneration itself, are all wonderful.

Well, that had loads of great concepts in it. But it seemed very oddly structured, in a way which was very aesthetically displeasing for me. Bidmead’s good on themes and concepts, but his grasp of character is no more than functional, and he seems to have little conception of the narrative beats needed to make a story exciting. And where was the action here? The ideas were good, but unfortunately a lot of the fundamental elements of Doctor Who scriptwriting are absent. So Tom’s era, perhaps the greatest of them all, finishes on an anti-climax. It just scrapes a 3/5 for the ideas and the development of the themes.

As for the season as a whole… an average of 3.429/5, which places it third from bottom. That’s a surprise, as the E-Space trilogy earned three 5/5s in a row from me, and there were a lot of good things about this season. But ultimately I think there was just too much that was po-faced, and not enough excitement or humour.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken

Part One

“It surely does not become of us to mock the Melkur!”

So, Johnny Byrne, another new writer. It’s extraordinary how few of the old hands have been penning the scripts this series. The effect is that things seem very fresh but also a little disorienting. And perhaps also more of an obvious influence from the script editor than usual. But anyway, The Keeper of Traken

For the first time the Doctor and Adric are alone in the TARDIS and, surprisingly, it works very well indeed. With just Adric the Doctor is suddenly full-on sombre; we’ve seen elements of this tendency more and more over the season but without the influence of Romana and K9 it’s much more to the forefront. The relationship between the Doctor and Adric is also very much a father / son one, which makes the Doctor seem older and fits with the changes in his character. Adric is very accepting of the doctor as a father figure and, surprisingly, the two actors work very well together. Tom is excellent, of course, in portraying this most interesting piece of character development. But I must give credit to Matthew Waterhouse too. Anyway, The Keeper of Traken… 

We have an empire held together just by “people being terribly nice to each other”, something which isn’t developed any further than that. We also have the concept of good and evil apparently being things which objectively exist rather than being subjective judgements, to the extent that “evil beings are drawn to Traken where they calcify into “Melkurs”. All of which is, frankly, simplistic drivel which has no place in either the scientific world view or the general tone of Doctor Who. I don’t have any problem with Doctor Who being considered a children’s programme (it is), but the simplistic concepts behind this scripts come across as intended not just for a children’s programme but a rather patronising conception of one. All this talk of Traken’s “goodness” and its effect on “evil” Melkurs makes me feel as if I’m being talked down to. And good children’s television never makes me feel that way, even at 32.

The dialogue comes across as the worst kind of cod-Shakespeare, too. And our introduction to the characters via flashback as the Keeper introduces them is awkward and stagey, too, the characters’ dialogue being too obviously intended as exposition.

Still, nice line from the Doctor as the end as he and Adric, rather drearily, are about to be accused of some crime: “I wonder what we’ve done this time?”

Part Two

“Obey without question!”

Pretty much a second episode of drivel, really, and at the halfway point the story is on course for a 1/5. Still, Anthony Ainley is good as Tremas, it’s good to see Margot Van der Burgh (it’s been a long time!) and John Woodnutt again, albeit both wasted, and Kassia’s eyes when hypnotised evoke pleasant memories of Image of the Fendahl. I wonder who this baddie could be, hypnotising Kassia like that?

I must admit it all looks good, too, as has everything this season.

Part Three

“What can’t be cured must be endured.”

Fortunately from this point things begin to pick up, as the focus shifts from the awful concepts of the story, the dull guest characters and the dullness of the Doctor and Adric being suspected of nefariousness and locked in a cell. I like the way everyone has to bribe Proctor Neman to get him to do anything (at least there’s one snake in this paradise, then!). 

Nyssa is the other guest character of interest here, likeable, knows a lot of science-y things, brave and determined, but even she is far from a well-rounded character, as those traits pretty much describe her whole personality.

The focus on the action is bringing some entertainment into the story, though, and the cliffhanger’s great.

Part Four

“So, a new body. At last!”

One slight problem here- the two remaining consuls seem to accept the Melkur as the new Keeper, but surely by definition they’d see him as evil? Just because the pace is picking up doesn’t mean things have started making sense!

Interesting to see a mention of the second law of thermodynamics, and our good friend entropy. It’s almost as though something were being foreshadowed. Bizarre how this story manages to develop the overarching themes of the season with a genuine brilliance which is entirely lacking in the ideas behind the story itself.
I was much amused by the Doctor’s banging of heads with Neman and his two mates- shades of The Highlanders there. And also by our first sight of Nyssa building some kind of device in the TARDIS- quite possibly not the last time we’ll see something like this! But Nyssa, along with Adric, pretty much gets to save the day. How puzzling that she doesn’t join the TARDIS crew at the end…

Geoffrey Beevers is magnificent as the Master, with almost the perfect voice for villainy, surpassing Peter Pratt and probably second only to Gabriel Woolf. Shame about his make-up though, so much less graphic than in The Deadly Assassin! It’s great to see the Master again, although this story doesn’t really give us a great confrontation scene between him and the Doctor- something to be rectified shortly, no doubt. The Doctor’s also strangely slow to realise who he is.

The Master’s still after a new body, though, and just when the story seems to be over he goes and gets himself one. Poor Tremas…

Well, after the poorest start in some considerable time this manages to climb its way up to a 2/5 by competent action plotting, some development of the overarching season theme and some competent stuff with the Master. The whole concept of Traken is still rotten, though.

I’ll try and do Logopolis tomorrow. And judging by my notes it’ll probably break my record for word count for a four parter by a long way!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Doctor Who: Warrior's Gate

Part One

“Well, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

From the start it’s clear this story is going to be really well-directed, and in fact it pretty much looks fab all the way through, much as I appreciate the problems this caused in reality. It’s all very much like an art flick in look and style, with the two plebs at the start flipping the coin reminding me of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Gosh, what an original observation that was…

Interesting TARDIS scene, the conversation somehow managing to get away with talking about the I-Ching (“Astral Jung”!) as though it were serious science without seeming too new agey. That’ll be Bidmead then. I also like the way the Doctor’s old costume is still there on the hatstand- never noticed that before. Intriguing that the ethical problems with taking Adric away from his own universe, probably for ever, are brought up, although naturally this can’t be dwelt on. Let’s just hope it all turns out ok and nothing bad happens to Adric.

Blimey, the TARDIS doors are opening in flight! Have they checked the Fast Return Switch? The scenes of the alien creature (all right, we know it’s a Tharil) operating the TARDIS work brilliantly, essentially because of the effects and direction.

We get introduced to the ship’s crew- an array of interesting characters, seemingly grounded in a very earthy reality. In fact, this is a very lived-in future, as shown by the ship design as well as the crew’s behaviour. I think we have the first Doctor Who story to be influenced by Alien!

More good stuff abounds- the gateway, the strangely mediaeval, cobwebbed interior, the mystery of the Tharils. I haven’t a clue what it all means yet, but I like it a lot.

Oh, and Romana has just said to Adric “What if the Doctor and I went different ways?” Ooh…

Part Two

“And why believe Biroc?”

“Because he was running!”

Romana’s very serious, very Doctorish, in this story. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s arms are full of axe handles. Nice scene. Elsewhere, K9 pointedly addressees Adric as “Young Adric”, not “Master”. Nice touch. Well, all right, he calls him “Young Master” shortly before, but still…

We get some backstory from the Gundans- they were built by “slaves to overthrow an empire. What does this all mean? Does it have anything to do with the humans’ ship with its cargo of Tharils, reminiscent of the ships carrying slaves from Africa to the Americas? There seem to be definite themes developing; enslavement, randomness, time…

Part Three

“The weak enslave themselves, Doctor. You know that.”

Biroc keeps talking to the Doctor in riddles as they walk through a monochrome garden. It’s strange how relatively little happens during this story, yet it’s rendered compelling by the stunning visuals, poetic dialogue, and the fascinating characterisation of Rorvik and his crew, who remind me of people I’ve worked with.
We get a big revelation with the Tharil banquet in an earlier time period with their human slaves- so the roles have been reversed. In spite of all the non-linearness the basic plot isn’t all that complicated, surprisingly, although I’m still unclear on which side of the gateway the Tharil empire was.

Part Four

“The back blast backlash will bounce back and destroy everything!”

The dimensions are contracting, and it’s all because of the “dwarf star alloy” Rorvik's lot use for shackling the Tharil slaves on his ship. Things are looking rather grim, although Biroc doesn’t seem that bothered, content to spend his time thinking up riddles all day. I rather like him.

The conversation between the doctor and Romana in the TARDIS (“I like that, you’re improving”) is fascinating. On the surface it’s the same sort of banter they’ve always exchanged, but there’s a bitter undercurrent, confirmed by Romana’s “It’s a matter of supreme indifference to me”. It seems the Doctor and Romana have fallen out badly, probably at least partly because of Romana’s summons to Gallifrey and the Doctor’s reaction to it, but they’re getting on notably worse than they were in State of Decay. It’s a fascinating scene, with a lot hinging on whether or not you think they were an actual couple. I do.

Ultimately Romana gets a very brusque exit, pretty much confirming things were not good between her and the Doctor. She now has an heroic purpose of her own, freeing the Tharil slaves while presumably dodging Time Lord pursuers.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned this before but Rorvik is a great villain, and his last line is great.

5/5, then, a hat trick for the e-Space trilogy. This was completely unlike any previous Who story- allegorical, highly dependent on arty presentation, but also full of substance and things to ponder. Even Matthew Waterhouse gave me nothing to complain about this time around.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Doctor Who: State of Decay

Part One
“I take it you don’t get any strangers here?”

It’s so good to see Terrance Dicks’ name again. This is the first story to be written by a member of the old guard since, er, Terry Nation last season. And instantly we know this story is going to be splendidly retro- a mood which is gothic and Hinchcliffe-ish in every sense, dialogue which is rather more engaging that recent stories have shown, and an alien planet that looks uncannily like the South of England. We’re in safe hands.

There’s a village, a tower… and nothing else apparently. The mysterious lords exploit the peasants not only by means of their labour but by actually drinking their blood. Er, slight left-wing subtext, anyone?
Actually, that’s not true at all- the lords aren’t exploiting the peasants at all; they’re protecting them from “The Wasting”, so everything’s fine. It’s often said of this story that it’s never explained what the Wasting actually is, but that’s an outrageous slur. It’s clearly stated that “The Wasting is… The Wasting”.
This whole episode is a delight, from the sparkling dialogue between the Doctor and Romana, whose chemistry with each other never seems to suffer from whatever was going on behind the scenes, to that splendid fade from Autloc to some bats.

Adric’s scenes with the peasants consist mainly of him being an utter git, but at least these scenes perform a function in terms of exposition. It seems that all knowledge is forbidden, a theme returned to as the Doctor and Romana encounter the “Three Who Rule”. This is perfect not only as a nostalgic nod towards the gothic tone of a few years previously but also entirely in keeping with Bidmead’s Entropy Agenda. (Incidentally, the whole Entropy Agenda thing was first pointed out by Philip MacDonald in a splendid article he wrote for DWM many moons ago, which I heartily recommend).

Part Two
“If you need anything, there are guards outside the doors. Many guards.”

More greatness in the same vein here, even more atmospheric than the last episode, if that’s possible, but nicely leavened with humour. In short, just what Doctor Who used to be like, not that I have any problem with the last few series!

One of the best things about this story is Emrys James as Autloc, one of those splendid Welsh actors, like Philip Madoc, who make such great villains. He delivers his lines full-on, just the right side of that dividing line between hamminess and utter genius. He’s the best villain since Julian Glover.
There’s a nice pace of revelations too- the tower is the Hydrax, there’s blood in the fuel tanks…

Part Three
“I’ve never been a great one for swarming.”

No surprise that it’s Autloc’s intervention that resolves the cliffhanger, but I like the way his subsequent unsuccessful attempts to tempt the Doctor and Romana contrasts with his apparently successful attempt with Adric earlier. It’s also interesting to see the power dynamics of the three who rule- Camilla and Zargo may dress as the king and queen but it’s clearly Autloc who’s in charge. In fact, Zargo, the “king”, is shown to be the weakest of the three, asking at one point “Why am I still afraid?”
Watching these in context, it’s an absolutely massive bolt of nostalgia to hear the Doctor speaking once again of the hermit from South Gallifrey (ie K’Anpo), just as he used to do when he was Jon Pertwee. A very effective reminder that both Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were involved in this story. This scene is great for other reasons, though; it’s very funny, and the relationship between the Doctor and Romana is much more like it used to be.

We get lots of nice continuity porn what with the references to Rassilon and stuff, too. I had to smile at the Doctor’s “No, thank you, not Dracula”- I suspect a reference to this story’s somewhat tortuous production history as a result of a certain BBC classic adaptation! Even the fact the TARDIS seems to have a punch card computer thingy is only the second funniest thing in the episode after this…

Part Four
“It looks as though this is one time the goodies don’t win, after all.”

Once more we see an example of a disturbing trend which others have pointed out in this season’s threads (can’t remember who offhand, sorry!) where Romana effectively becomes the lead, doing all the heroic stuff, while the Doctor is sidelined finding stuff out. I like Romana a lot, and I thing that, being an equal to the Doctor, she works far better as a companion than the stereotypical ankle-twisting, question-asking rescue magnet. But the Doctor is supposed to be the hero of this show!
Interesting and, er, convenient that short hops are much easier in E-Space. Still, this is a satisfying ending, with the use of the tower as a bowship given just the right amount of foreshadowing. The villains get suitable exits- Autloc is allowed a great line (“Then die- that is the purpose of guards”) before the Three Who Rule proceed to go the way of Julian Glover in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s not badly done, at all.

Insufferable git though Adric is, at least his apparent betrayal seems to have been a bluff. But I can’t say I’m disappointed to hear the Doctor insist he’s taking Adric straight home! That, the last we’ll be seeing of him, right…?

Fantastic, a very high 5/5, just outside my top ten. This one makes me feel all nostalgic for the fairly recent past. And that’s two 5/5s in a row for the E-Space trilogy- surely we can’t expect a third?

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Doctor Who: Full Circle

Part One

“Well, of course I’m better than you. I’m an elite.”

Romana’s been summoned back to Gallifrey, which gives us an excuse for some references to Leela and Andred and the like. But Romana’s upset by this, and goes to her previously unseen room to be alone, the Doctor seemingly oblivious to how depressing the prospect must be. The Doctor’s attitude is that you can’t fight Time Lords and Romana will have to do as she’s told, and however much this may echo the end of The War Games it just feels wrong and out of character. Still, it’s in keeping with the Doctor’s subdued and sombre mood.

Gallifrey is not to be, though, as something odd happens to the TARDIS and, although they’re in the right coordinates and the scanner is showing images of Gallifrey, as soon as the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS they’re somewhere else, an alien planet much more blatantly like southern England than the usual quarry landscape. This is very good indeed, a uniquely mysterious situation as well as lots of character stuff. Oh, and the music is quite peculiar in the context of what’s gone before, but I like it. It sounds very much of it’s time now and unfortunately dated, but then things from twenty of thirty years ago always do. In another ten years’ time it’ll have receded too far into the past to be dated, much as the Sixties have, and instead become simply period.

The society and situation of this planet is sketched out with admirable economy in this episode, telling us everything we need to know while also holding back a lot of stuff to be revealed later on. We’re introduced to the Outlers, the Deciders, the concept of Mistfall, and the Starliner. Oh, and Adric, who from the start is quite badly portrayed by Matthew Waterhouse. Still, we get George Cole and James Bree (putting in a much less mannered performance than he did in The War Games) to make up for this.

Part Two

“How odd. I usually get on terribly well with children”

The Marshmen look quite good- yes, they’re obviously in rubber suits, but this is Doctor Who- but they look as though they’ve come from the Black Lagoon.

This episode keeps up the quality and increasingly makes it clear how well-plotted this is. Characterisation is good, too; I love the moment where Romana hands the knife back to an Outler- very Doctorish.

Revelations trickle out at an appropriate place; this is Alzarius, but the crew of the starliner supposedly come from Terradon. But there’s a great and terrible secret, known only to the First Decider.

K9 is once again beheaded (grr!) but Romana gets a fourth wall-busting line bemoaning his fate this season: “In fact, we always seem to be repairing him”.

Part Three

“These short trips don’t usually work.”

Nice cliffhanger- shame that this results in Romana being pretty much written out of the rest of the story, though.

We get some real bombshells this episode: the maintenance being carried out on the ship is completely unnecessarily as the ship has been ready to fly for centuries, but no one knows how to pilot it. It’s a nice reversal of a trope of the show to see the Doctor lambasting the Deciders for their duplicity and to see them implicitly accepting his criticisms. It’s becoming clear just how good this story is- when a third episode successfully manages to unfold more bits of the backstory at an appropriate pace you know you’ve got something unusually good.

Part Four

“We’ve come full circle.”

It’s unusual in Doctor Who for the final episode to be the best of a story, but for once this is the case. In a couple of nicely done early scenes we first see the Doctor holding back the Marshmen by exploiting their apparent religious reverence for K9’s head (pre-empting Return of the Jedi there?) and then we get an excellent scene between the Deciders in the library. There are Marshmen clamouring to get in and presumably kill everyone, yet Nefred prefers to spout management speak (“a holistic approach”) instead of doing anything, to Login’s disbelief.

The final big revelation, from Nefred’d dying words, is a corker; the ship’s crew are not descended from the original Terradonian crew at all, but from Marshmen (themselves descendents of spiders) who got in and killed them all, eventually evolving to their present form, reading the manuals and eventually coming to believe themselves to be from Terradon. Of course, even someone like myself with a pathetically arty education knows this isn’t how evolution really works, but there actually seems to be enough of the right kind of somehow sciencey dialogue to get away with it.

There’s a great moment where the two Deciders are about to press the button for the ship to take off but Garif can’t resist the temptation to procrastinate: “But you will agree, it does require some thought.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana now realise they’re trapped in E-Space, unless they can find a Charged Vacuum Emboitment™. And unbeknown to them, they have a stowaway…

Absolutely brilliant, which comes as something of a relief after the first two stories of the season. 5/5, in fact. At last we have a script that doesn’t feel like a script from the previous regime with all the humour taken out but instead does something new, and in that context the new seriousness starts to make a lot of sense. This is the sort of “proper” sci-fi that Doctor Who doesn’t actually do that often (it’s the first story since The Mutants that I can imagine being adapted as a “straight” sci-fi short story) and so it feels very fresh and new. And Andrew Smith seems quite a find, coming up with a great central premise and handling structure and characterisation very well indeed, albeit possibly with help from Bidmead. Perhaps the show might want to consider more scripts by fans in, say, 25 years time?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Doctor Who: Meglos

Part One

“He sees the threads that join the universe together, and mends them when they break.”

And here it is- drumroll please- the very last time during this marathon I’ll be watching a story for the first time! Well, apart from K-9 and Company. But that’s not technically Doctor Who and this is. So, the pressure’s on. It’s going to be a good ‘un, right? He asked, rhetorically. Smell that dramatic irony…

Anyway, an alien planet. A familiar-looking science v. religion subplot, which is fine as long as it’s going to be a bit of texture rather than the main focus. And then- OMG it’s Jacqueline Hill! Never have I been more pleased to see a guest performer. And she’s fantastic.

The whole thing between the Deons and the scientists is actually quite well done- the scientists are clearly right about everything, but they’re also insufferably arrogant and boringly dressed, while the Deons may be completely deluded about everything but they’re eloquent, with cool clothes and a poetic turn of phrase, hinting that their beliefs, however absurd, have given birth to a lot of great art and culture. This is a nice balance: the script sides firmly alongside science as you’d expect from Doctor Who, but still allowing its opponents to have dignity. Oh, and Jacqueline Hill is great as Lexa, and I probably wouldn’t have read all that into the situation if not for her magnificent performance.

Incidentally, the quote I used up at the top there made me grin, as I recognised it from somewhere in the text of Peter Haining’s 25 Glorious Years, a book which gave me a great deal of pleasure when I was 12. A less welcome recognition was the Doctor’s question mark lapels, which I noticed for the first time. I hope they get rid of them quickly, and don’t keep them around for, say, six years or something.

Things take a worryingly silly turn with the appearance of Meglos and a human, transported across the universe for some reason. Worryingly because, silly though all this is, it’s being played dead straight, which instantly feels wrong.

Part Two

“I thought for one awful moment you’d forgotten your lines.”

Also worrying is that it’s the start of part two and the Doctor and Romana haven’t even left the TARDIS yet. The whole chronic hysteresis is a mildly entertaining bit of filler, but it’s pretty much there to slow the story down so things can happen elsewhere. And it’s not the last time this sort of thing happens either.

Still, eventually not only does the TARDIS land but Romana actually changes her clothes. But things take an even more distressing turn, as Meglos disguises himself as the Doctor and it becomes obvious that the Doctor’s going to be accused of things he didn’t do. Oh dear! I really hate it when that sort of thing happens in a drama- it’s not tense or exciting, just frustrating. And, in this case, yet another means of slowing the story down.

Worse of all, Lexa’s means of sacrificing the Doctor is too similar to Underworld for comfort, what with the ropes being burned by flames, although actually that’s next episode. Still, let’s not get carried away- this story’s nowhere near as bad as that, merely the epitome of meh. Besides, Jacqueline Hill’s still in it and she’s still brilliant.

Part Three

“…Or is it this way?”

Whatever the faults of the story itself this is very well-made, again looking much better than anything from the previous couple of seasons. This is possibly the finest alien jungle since Planet of Evil. And Jacqueline Hill is great.

The bit with Romana tricking her captors into walking into the Venus flytrap thing is entertaining, but yet again it’s basically there to keep a major character away from the main plot while things happen elsewhere. And, come to think of it, the same could be said of the whole bit with the Doctor’s accusation and attempted sacrifice. Although at least we also got a cliffhanger out of that.

Part Four

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

Suddenly- too suddenly- everybody believes the Doctor again. And just as suddenly we’re all off to Zolfa-Thura. And Jacqueline Hill’s character is dead, albeit nobly sacrificing herself. Noooo!

Very quickly it’s clear what this story is actually about: Meglos wants to steal a Macguffin. That’s it. There are no underlying themes or anything, not even the science versus religion thing, which is far too perfunctory to count. It all ends just as perfunctorily, but Romana’s just been called to Gallifrey- perhaps not too surprisingly given how she came to be aboard the TARDIS. What’s going to happen now.

Well… that passed the time, I suppose. I mean, it wasn’t actively painful to watch or anything. But it was littler more than a Children’s BBC style generic sci-fi runaround, and it just wasn’t about anything.
It says a lot about this story that the “Earthling”, whose presence could have done with a bit more explanation, didn’t even have a name. To be fair, it feels as though this story was originally designed as a shape around which a lot of Season 17 type silliness was to have been fitted,-which I can imagine working, actually- but the new regime vetoed all that, leaving us with this odd beast of a story that refuses to have any fun with its own silliness. Still, Jacqueline Hill was in it, and she’s great. 2/5.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive

Part One

“Why can’t we do something constructive?”

It’s actually quite a shock to see a new title sequence after six solid seasons. Not to mention a new theme tune for the first time in fourteen! It all looks and sounds very much of its time. Not sure what I think of it yet. Not that it’s anything I’m not extremely familiar with, obviously, but the marathon does sort of put it all into context.

Anyway, the opening shot, panning across Brighton beach for about six hours, is quite bizarre. It’s not a bad idea in principle, but about half the actual length would have been quite enough. Personally it helps that I happened to visit Brighton earlier this year and actually recognise bits, but I imagine a lot of people back in 1980 would probably have… what did they used to say? Ah yes, tuned the television set to the other side. Not a good way to start a new series.

There’s clearly a new broom being wielded- the Doctor’s wielding (rather fetching) new clothes, Tom’s performance is being reined in, and what happens to K9 in this episode might just, at a pinch, indicate a teeny weeny bit of an anti-robot dog agenda. This scene might also be seen as symbolic- after the season-long holiday of Season Seventeen, suddenly holidays are no fun any more. What does this portend?

There’s talk of bypassing the randomiser and the general nastiness of the Black Guardian, all of which actually gives a sense of continuity to the regime just departed. And the Doctor and Romana are both the same as ever. There are many obvious changes here, but on present evidence the sudden change in this story is overstated. There’s a lot of new stuff here, but Spearhead From Space it ain’t.

Anyway, this story is all about Argolis, a sort of intergalactic Butlins with added technobabble. One of the Argolins, Pangol (you’d almost think this story was script edited by someone to do with computers…) is played by Inspector Grim himself, David Haig, but unfortunately it’s now the 80s so we have to put up with some rather dull boardroom scenes. It all looks very good, but underneath the story is little more than competent. I’m not sure what to make of the incidental music either, now that Dudley Simpson has been replaced by the Radiophonic Workshop.

Still, the middle eight’s back in the closing theme tune at least…

Part Two

“How long did the war last?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“As long as that?”

It’s an odd one, this story. The plot itself is sound, giving us a steady stream of revelations about things like the Argolins’ stability. There are good character bits too, like the relationship between Mena and Hardin and our knowledge that Hardin is actually lying to her about his experiments. There’s a nice scene where he confesses to Romana- he’s a believably weak yet sympathetic character.

And although this story has a sense of seriousness that’s been missing for a long time, there are still lots of examples of the type of humour that you’d expect from a David Fisher story, especially the visual gag of the Doctor’s scarf leading to a dead body (“Arrest the scarf then!”). It also looks very good indeed. But in spite of all this there’s something unengaging about this, and you imagine the kids must have been bored.

Part Three

“I’m sick of being old.”

It’s fascinating comparing Tom’s performance to the last few stories. He’s still playing the same character, with the same humour (and lots of funny lines, in spite of what people say) but still, there’s a bit more discipline to his performance, and his use of facial expressions in a serious way is better than it’s been for ages. He’s brilliant as the suddenly aged Doctor, with the shock to the audience being conveyed far more by his performance than by the make-up, excellent though it is. And we’re left to think this might be permanent.

Once again I’m not entirely sure why I’m not enjoying this more- the revelation that Pangol is the only young Argolin, born long after the war forty years ago, is a real twist- but there’s something fundamentally po-faced here, as though David Fisher’s script had had al the fun neutered out of it.

Part Four

“This time I must try to bring him up properly.”

That’s a very long reprise, uncomfortably so, in fact. But it’s an effective resolution to an effective cliffhanger, that our main human protagonist and his lawyer minion have been Foamasi, er, Mafiosi all along. But that also makes me wish I’d seen the fun Fisher originally had with this idea before Bidmead strangled it to death. Still, there’s one familiar fisher motif that’s in evidence here; the syndrome of the story ending right at the start of Part Four, just as in The Creature From the Pit.

Still, this time the filler that takes us to the end of the episode is actually quite good, and it’s been built up enough as a subplot to get away with it, just. And Pangol ends up with a second chance, getting to relive his childhood again. Good idea; they should give it another go sometime. Perhaps in, say, twenty-five years time? It’s a good ending to a story which looks great and has pretty much nothing wrong with it production-wise.

Overall, though, in spite of the fact it looks great, and deserved an awful lot of praise for looking as though it has a much higher budget than anything we’ve seen recently even though it probably hasn’t, already on his first story I have concerns about the direction in which Bidmead’s taking the show. Where was the fun? What was there for the kids to enjoy? 2/5.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Doctor Who: Shada

Part One

“One lump or two?”

“Two please.”


For the first time since Underworld, this is a story I haven’t seen (well, I’ve read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but…), leaving only Meglos left. And yet frankly I still don’t feel as though I’ve seen it, as there’s so little left, especially towards the end.

Still, this first episode is largely intact. After my comments on The Horns of Nimon I almost burst out laughing to see yet another story start with a spaceship in deep space. It’s an odd beginning, although the roman numerals on the screen are a nice touch. An then we’re off to Cambridge, where we meet Professor Chronotis, who unaccountably has the TARDIS is his study. I love the way this is left unremarked upon for ages, and then Chronotis just casually remarks that “I think someone must have left it there when I was out.”! We also meet Chris Parsons, clearly a prototype of Richard from Dirk Gently.

We then get the familiar scenes of Romana and the Doctor on the Cam, which seem odd in their original context, but soon they turn up at Chronotis’s college. In a nice touch, the Warden knows the Doctor from many previous visits. The scene with Chronotis in his study is hilarious, as is the notion that a Time Lord can quite easily spends three centuries as a Cambridge don without anybody noticing. We also get the funniest line in all of Doctor Who so far, as Chronotis responds to the Doctor’s mention of hearing a “strange babble of inhuman voices” with “Oh, undergraduates talking to each other, I expect. I’m trying to have it banned.”

The first episode judged on its own is an easy 5/5, in much the same way as City of Death. Sadly, it’s the only episode that’s anywhere near complete.

Part Two

“Two lumps, no sugar.” 

This episode introduces us to a load of brilliant sci-fi concepts of the kind we’d expect from the author of The Pirate Planet. A book that’s -20,000 years old, a sphere that steals minds, Chronotis beating his hearts in Morse code. And the dialogue continues to be great. Sadly, there’s a lot less footage here than there was last episode.

Parts Three to Six
And that’s as far as I can go with the individual episodes, as there’s so little that was filmed for the later episodes. I’m watching the video release with Tom Baker narrating the missing bits, and this works well, but I just don’t end up feeling as though I’ve come anywhere close to seeing Shada. I liked what I saw- lots of great dialogue and great concepts- but I just don’t feel competent to judge things like plot and pacing. I’ll give the story a 4/5 for Alinor, but that’s very provisional as I just don’t feel competent to judge. I’m feeling very much inclined to listen to the Paul McGann audio of this story after the TV Movie

As for Season 17, I’ve already rated it 3/8/5 if Shada’s not included. With Shada it leaps slightly to 3.83/5. But, much as I’ve never been much bothered about what’s “canon” or not, as there’s so little of Shada left I’m not much inclined to think of it as a full Doctor Who story. A shame, as judging by what we’ve got it could have been great.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon

Part One

“Weakling scum!”

We start with space, and a ship flying through it. It’s only by doing this marathon that I’ve realised just how many stories start in this way in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars!

It’s good to see Anthony Read back with a script of his own after his successful term as script editor, and interesting to see another tale based on Greek mythology after the failed experiment of Underworld. The ship is from the planet “Skonnos” (heh!) and its cargo is a shipment of people bearing tribute from “Aneth” (heh!). Most importantly, one of them is the lovely Janet Ellis. Mmmm.

Things go wrong on the ship after an ill-advised bit of tinkering from its captain, a character whose name I unaccountably failed to catch although he’s actually a fairly significant character. Oops. This is of course mirrored by a similar decision with similar results in the TARDIS. This time I remember the character’s name: the Doctor.

We’re introduced to the society on Skonnos and to its leader Soldeed, played splendidly by Graham Crowden, the link between his people and the Nimon. The Nimon promises that, once the sacrifices have all been made, he’ll give them the means to create a new Skonnon Empire just like they had in the good old days.

Most of the rest of this episode is taken up with problems on the ship, where the Doctor and Romana have to stop the gradual creation of a black hole. It’s all just padding really, and aside from introducing our heroes to the wet drips from Aneth it contributes little to the plot. But it’s all good fun, with great lines (“You just hold the gun steady. Don’t tax your mind” and, of course, “Lord Nimon! Lord Niiiimoooon! It is I, Soldeed!”) and great little comedy character moments such as the Doctor trying to exchange his sonic screwdriver with Romana’s. A great start.

Part Two

“He lives in a power complex.”

“That fits.”

I love the reaction to Soldeed this time around as he emerges from the portal to the Nimon’s lair with his usual guff about the Nimon speaking of many things, including the “great journey of life”. When challenged what it means he blurts out that “It’s a metaphor.” “For what?” comes the reply. Not only is this very funny, but it foreshadows the story’s eventual resolution.

As funny as all this is, it’s also very well-plotted, and although the character’s aren’t particularly well-rounded (not a criticism- this is a comedy) they’re well-written. I like Seth’s situation, forced to live up to a lie he told about being some kind of great hero who’s going to destroy the Nimon to avoid disappointing Teka. And the way the Nimon instantly sees through Captain Wotsisname’s bluster is well done.

But the dialogue is fantastic, self-referentially commenting on its own tropes in the scene where the Doctor lands the TARDIS on Skonnos. This isn’t that similar to City of Death, but like that story it’s an out-and-out comedy, and although it’s not quite as good it’s still bloody brilliant.

Part Three

“You meddling fool! You shall die!”

Romana’s great in this story, pretty much a second Doctor. But it’s the Doctor who gets to be silly- the scene with the red rag just had to happen in a story based around a bull! 

It’s nice how the horns referred to in the title are actually the antennae of the Nimon’s transmitter. This has something to do with creating a black hole so to enable instantaneous travel to another part of the cosmos. By now it’s clear the Nimon has an agenda of his own, yet Soldeed still thinks he’s in control, and there’s even a nicely placed scene where he gets to gloat on how simple the Nimon is to give the Skonnons something for nothing in the way that they’re apparently doing. But we get to see some other Nimon, and we’re told what the “great journey of life” actually is; the Minotaur’s chain of migration from planet to planet via the manipulation of countless Soldeeds.

Part Four

“Later, you will be questioned, tortured and killed.”

“Well, I hope you get it in the right order.”

We get to meet one of the aforementioned previous Soldeeds on a planet called “Crinoth”. Ha! I wonder what the planets before that were called? Sprata? Elphid? Alympio? Thibes? I’ll stop now…

We get a slightly implausible “Kill him… but not yet” moment as the Nimon capture the Doctor, but that’s ok in a story like this which basically (well, perhaps I’m overstating just a little, but…) existed to do in 1979 what TV Tropes is doing today. It’s a great ending, revealing that beneath the glorious silliness the plotting has in fact been magnificent. Seth finally gets to be a hero and Soldeed gets what is indisputably the finest death scene in all of recorded history. An absolute triumph.

Wonderful, a very high 5/5 and an entry into my personal top ten at number six. As for the season as a whole… well, I’ve never personally felt any pressing need to have an opinion on whether Shada is “canon” or not, so I’ll be including two scores for Season Seventeen, one with Shada and one without. The one I personally think of as being the “official” one will depend on whether I feel there’s enough footage in existence to judge Shada properly (I haven’t seen it yet). As for these five stories though, they score 3.8/5, a surprisingly low score for a season I’d always casually regarded as one of my favourites.