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.

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