Saturday, 31 October 2009

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos

Part One

“When did they last show anything worth watching anyway?”

Now that’s much more like it!

I’m intrigued about watching Philip Martin’s other work after seeing this again. Anyway, we begin with a topless Jason Connery chained to a wall in a nod to the ladies, and as he dodges a laser beam we see that he’s on camera. 8.28 in the Big Brother House and Jondar is dodging laser beams. How prophetic.

We cut to our fantastic Greek chorus of Arak and Etta, whose lines are all brilliant. The first words spoken are “Not him again”! I love this kind of postmodern stuff, especially when done with wit as it is here. They have the right to vote, but this is democracy without liberty, including freedom of speech as Etta makes very clear, much more akin to voting for a reality show than a government. This is grippingly contemporary and already feels like satirical science fiction at its best.

Nabil Shaban as Sil is also superb, the perfect Thatcherite villain for the ‘80s with a great look and played quite brilliantly. And his Yoda-isms I love. His opening scenes with the Governor- Martin Jarvis, also brilliant- is also gloriously satirical in its way, as we learn that the torments of political dissidents and criminals in the Punishment Dome are not only broadcast to the population but are to be sold throughout the galaxy. “Are they really disturbing, these videos you sell?” asks Sil, making explicit the “video nasty” theme said to be behind the script.

If that’s not enough great concepts already, whenever the Governor loses a vote on one of his decisions he’s immediately subjected to a burst of cellular disintegration that can kill him! Already the nightmare of the previous stories feels very different. Oh, this is dark, even cynical, but it’s done with wit and, importantly, purpose.

The Governor survives to this time, to the disappointment of Arak, who reminds me of a number of taxi drivers I’ve known. The Governor needs a crowd-pleasing policy quickly, and an underling called Bax comes up with the answer; a particularly entertaining method of execution for Jondar. “I’m sure the video of his execution would sell” he notes.

We’re introduced to Areta and her oh-so-‘80s hair, as she reveals to us the rather intriguing back-story of the planet; originally a prison colony, it is ruled by a caste descended from the original prison officers. Another brilliant concept.

Meanwhile, after intermittent scenes of moping a\bout in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Peri finally arrive on Varos, in desperate need of the Zeiton 7 it produces. Jondar’s televised execution is being televised and, wonderfully, the TARDIS materialises on camera; the scenes in the punishment dome are being watched by the entire population of Varos, who thus become identified with the viewer. “I like that one, the one in the funny clothes” notes Etta.

I think my love for this episode was finally confirmed by Peri’s line “All these corridors look the same to me” as she and the Doctor run down the exact same set they’ve already run down several times. But even better is the cliffhanger, in which the governor usurps the role of the director: “And cut it… now!”

Part Two

“We’re free!”

“Are we?”


“What shall we do?”

The acid bath scene is often criticised but personally I see little wrong with it; the Doctor isn’t responsible for anyone’s death and I’m more than prepared to forgive the little quip in the circumstances.

The Doctor, Jondar, and the ex-guard whose name I didn’t catch are to be hanged, and Colin Baker excels in this scene. “Do you always get the priest parts?” he enquires of the man who is to give him the last rites, in a brilliantly witty bit of self-referentialism. Oh, and the deity being appealed to is the “Great Video”. I love this script.

The Doctor, declaring truth on Varos to be a “very flexible commodity” speaks on the gallows of Zeiton 7 and how it is in fact worth a lot more than Sil and his Galatron Corporation masters are telling the Governor. This proves rather fortunate, as it turns out the hanging was a mock execution, and the Governor is now suspicious of what Sil has been telling him.

Peri and Areta are to be transmogrified into a bird and a reptile respectively, so the Doctor and Jondar immediately seize some guns and engineer a hostage situation in order to escape. If there’s one thing this marathon has taught me, it’s that I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Doctor using firepower if it feels right, and this is one of those times.

The Chief, unfortunately, is able to engineer a coup against the Governor and insist upon a compulsory vote, which will inevitably result in his death by cellular disintegration. The Governor’s appeal to the Guard to spare Peri and himself ultimately fails, but shows he has faith in the Doctor.
The ending is neat and satisfying, with the Doctor even getting away with an atrocious pun (“I think he needs more than water, Peri, eh?”

It’s quite a relief, after the worst start of any Doctor’s tenure, to see a Colin Baker story that comes up trumps. Not one of the very best, perhaps, but easily a 5/5.

Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen

Part One

“I suddenly feel conspicuous.”

So, now we’re beginning a new 45 minute format, eh? It’ll never catch on. We’re also getting a new writer, apparently, in the shape of Paula Moore.

We begin with the new Doctor being very different from his predecessor- after procrastinating about it ever since Logopolis he’s finally getting around to repairing the Chameleon Circuit. Apparently he’s still a little unstable, which is worrying. This regeneration has been drawn out far too much.

Lytton’s back, still stuck on Earth, planning a heist alongside characters played by Brian Glover and an unmasked Terry Molloy. But mostly we’re just watching the Doctor and Peri hanging about in the TARDIS for ages before they land. They seem to bicker a lot, too. Still, they eventually land, in 76 Totter’s Lane. In spite of the Doctor’s claim that “This looks familiar”, it bears absolutely no relation to the junkyard seen in An Unearthly Child. It hasn’t got a roof for one thing. 

The Doctor and Peri are trying to trace a distress call from an alien being broadcast from Totter’s Lane in 1985, observed by those two policemen from Resurrection of the Daleks. Oh, and the TARDIS is changing it shape in scenes which I think we’re meant to find amusing. But it’s not just Totter’s Lane; this scene alone features a bewildering and self-indulgent excess of fanwank; not only does Peri recite the name of several past companions for no particular reason, but we’re told that the Terrible Zodin was “a woman of rare guile and devilish cunning.” And that’s only the beginning.

You can probably see already that I’m not hugely enamoured with this story, but I’ll defend it for one thing; for all the bickering between the Doctor and Peri it’s obvious that neither of them really means it and they actually come across as quite affectionate with each other, especially through body language. It helps that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have good chemistry.

A Cyberman shockingly appears in the sewers- and is immediately shot dead, oozing green, er, ooze. This is a highly appropriate intro for the Cybermen in a story which shows them to be disturbingly easy to kill. We discover that Lytton made contact with their ship behind the dark side of the moon- all very The Invasion

It’s nice that cybernisation gets a mention, but then the fanwank continues; the Cyber Controller and Telos are mentioned, and suddenly we switch to an escape attempt on the part of a couple of slaves on Telos- and to be fair the location is a fair match for the Telos we saw in Tomb of the Cybermen. Our two escapers, Stratton and Bates, are very hard-boiled style characters, almost to the point of being characters in a script by Eric Saward. But of course that cannot be, as this story was written by Paula Moore. Definitely.

The Doctor and Peri find Russell, and there follows an amusing scene in which the Doctor and Peri get the gun off him, and the Doctor seems to tell Peri to shoot him. Oddly enough, I don’t have a problem with this in spite of my increasing unease with the tone of the programme. The Doctor’s clearly bluffing and the thing’s carried off with charm and humour- it’s the absence of these things, after all, that have been my main concern with recent scripts.

Russell, it seems, is an undercover copper, and so he joins the Doctor and Peri in venturing into the sewers.
Meanwhile, on Telos, Stratton and Bates seem to be killing Cybermen with the greatest of ease whenever they stop bickering for long enough to do so, while the Cyber Controller directs things. For some reason the rather rotund Michael Kilgariff has been pointlessly recast in the role, in spite of the fact that both here and in Tomb his entire body in covered, and in the earlier story he didn’t even provide the voice. The result of this is, of course, that a certain softly pronounced “c” in the line “It is a fact, Controller” becomes a moment of comedy gold.

The Doctor kills a Cyberman with a sonic lance (guns and the Doctor again!), unfortunately attracting their attention. As the Doctor and Peri return to the TARDIS, accompanied by Russell, who shows the customary lack of surprise at its dimensions for this era, they are attacked by Cybermen…

Part Two

“I can understand why they call them tombs.”

The Doctor queries the Cyber Controller’s survival and is told that he was “merely destroyed.” Er, yes. This begins a running theme of this episode; ridiculous plot points and fanwank references revealed to us by dull and often long-winded exposition. We get detailed references to The Tenth Planet and Tomb early in the episode which must have been utterly alienating to the casual viewer.

The Doctor, Peri and Lytton are stranded and, separately, all make contact with the planet’s indigenous Cryons, played by the likes of Sarah Green, Faith Brown and Esther Freud, all unrecognisable. The Cryons actually look great and, with their groovy hand movements, dignity and wit, are the best thing about this story.
It seems that Lytton was in fact working for the Cryons all along, which of course means he is an entirely a good guy and the fact that hitherto he’s behaved like a total arse in no way diminishes his unambiguously heroic status.

Anyway, the Cybermen want to prevent Mondas from being destroyed, so they’ve travelled back in time to 1985 so that they can use Halley’s Comet to destroy Earth, thereby saving Mondas. This is utter fanwank; the series is now becoming sufficiently self-referential that it’s eating its own tail. What on earth would the casual viewer have made of this?

Still, at least it fundamentally makes sense. Aside, that is, from a couple of tiny little flaws, such as the reason for Mondas’s arrival back in 1986 was that they needed Earth for its energy, and the question of whether the Cybermens’ survival is really served by changing history for the benefit of a completely different bunch of Cybermen and wiping out centuries of their own history.

There’s a nice scene where the Doctor wonders why the Time Lords haven’t sent an agent to help after he warned them earlier, only to realise that he is the Time Lord agent. Sadly, this is soon followed by a discussion of why the Cryons are helping him. As even the script points out, they stand to benefit from the Cybermen changing history as their planet would never have been invaded. The explanation that “The Cryons have accepted their fate” doesn’t really cut it. As for all that frozen explodey stuff that’s being kept in the cell- aaargh!

Things get even worse. I don’t mind violence as long as it’s not done in the service of an overly grim tone, but the scene where Lytton’s hands are crushed is utterly repellent. How was that allowed to get through? Also poor is the Doctor’s statement that the Cybermen “have only one weakness- they respond to the distress of their own kind”. I think, given the number of Cybermen we see being killed in this story, that his mathematical prowess may have deteriorated somewhat since Castrovalva.

More bad stuff rounds out the story; Bates, Stratton and Griffin almost reach the Cybermen’s control centre only to be killed at the last moment- very cynical. The TARDIS is suddenly stuck as a police box again with no explanation whatsoever. And the scene with Lytton begging the Doctor to kill him is just wrong.

Terrible, just terrible. The plot makes no sense, it’s unremittingly grim, the tone is all wrong and it’s all substandard fanwank anyway. 1/5. The nicest thing I can find to say about it is that at least it’s better than Underworld.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma

Part One

“Take care not to blow their hearts or minds.”

So, is this story going to equal its illustrious predecessor? Take a guess…

Right from the start there are reasons to doubt the wisdom of introducing a new Doctor at the end of a season, however good an idea it may seem in theory. Castrovalva, shown after an unusually long gap, made effective use of the regeneration as a pre-titles sequence; here we get nothing of the kind, being thrust straight into the aftermath. And then there’s the lack of a wider change in the programme’s style to go with the new Doctor; most notably there are only minimal changes to the title sequence.

The opening scenes are hardly encouraging. Annoying, badly-acted twins; poor sets and costumes; patronisingly poor dialogue. The whole set-up reeks of “this’ll do, it’s only kids’ TV”. And yet…
The scenes concerning the Doctor’s regeneration and Peri’s reaction feel very different from these scenes, presumably as they were handled by Eric Saward rather than Anthony Stevens. This isn’t to say that this aspect of the programme is without its own serious faults, which I’ll come to in a minute, but the ridiculous stuff with Jaconda, giant slugs and space police feels like something from a different and much poorer programme than the scenes in the TARDIS.

The new Doctor is arrogant and overbearing, very, very different from his previous incarnation, which “had a sort of… feckless charm which simply wasn’t me!” This sort of dialogue feels very fresh and different after the last three seasons, but if toned down would actually be quite in keeping with the broad outlines of the Doctor’s character as portrayed with Hartnell, Pertwee and Tom Baker. I also like the obligatory wardrobe scene. It’s a brave move to give the Doctor mood swings and make him unlikeable but I actually think it works quite well- at this point, that is. There’s a line that hasn’t yet been crossed, and we’re not too far outside the tradition set by Robot and Castrovalva.

The scenes outside the TARDIS continue to be atrocious- from the costumes of the space police to the woman playing the police commander to the dialogue (“and may my bones rot for obeying it!”). But inside the TARDIS that line is crossed with the Doctor trying to strangle Peri. This goes beyond mere unlikeability to actually undermining the viability of the new Doctor in his first episode. The Doctor should be erratic, certainly, and arrogance, even extreme arrogance, has always been there in his character. But, as good old Terrance Dicks is often fond of saying, the Doctor should never be cruel or cowardly. In this episode he is both.

Oh, and the twins' put-upon dad is Gharman from Genesis of the Daleks.

Part Two

“It worked. It actually worked!”

Whatever the huge mistakes in the script’s characterisation of the Doctor, Colin Baker is never less than great, and there are some encouraging signs in this episode, such as the new Doctor’s apparent fondness for literary quotation. Unfortunately he also has to be persuaded to save Hugo’s life, and has another fit of cowardice as he and Peri encounter some Jacondans, trying to blame everything on Peri. This sort of characterisation is just unforgivable, and comes close to actual sabotage of the character.

Back to the plot, the Doctor recognises Edgeworth (a brilliant but utterly wasted Maurice Denham) as his old Time Lord drinking pal Azmael, and there’s some discussion of how crowded this “deserted asteroid” seems to be getting. Which is unfortunate, as it highlights what a huge coincidence it is that the Doctor and Azmael to have arrived there at the same time. Also a ridiculous coincidence is that Hugo, trapped in the hugeness of the TARDIS, somehow manages to track down the power pack to his gun from its hiding place.

Part Three

“The sound of giant slugs!”

To Jaconda, then. Hugo’s temporary addition to the TARDIS crew gives us one amusing line (“Lieutenant!”), but I seem to recall this was ad-libbed, which must be true as it’s far too good to have been scripted. The Doctor has another rant of self-pity, but at least from this point on his erratic behaviour doesn’t stray into cruelty or cowardice.

More silliness occurs: Mestor looks ridiculous and Edwin Richfield is wasted in the role; all the stuff with moving the planets about is deeply silly; the twins get awful lines like “Why do you like to play the man of mystery? It’s a role you play very badly?”- the irony being, of course, that Denham is acting them both off the screen.

Part Four

“Our genius has been abused!”

As soon as the Doctor points it out, Azmael immediately realises that the whole guff with the planets is obviously stupid, apparently. Gah! Please make it stop! The Doctor subsequently works out that Mestor intends to cause a supernova courtesy of Jaconda’s sun, which will disperse the slug eggs across the universe. So, er, two small planets falling into a star will cause a supernova how, exactly?

The conclusion with Azmael sacrificing himself to kill Mestor, who’s taken over his mind for some reason, is embarrassingly poor, but at least Colin Baker continues to impress in the confrontation scenes with Mestor. Peter Davison, like Troughton, had been playing the Doctor as a part, while Colin Baker is more in the larger-than-life tradition of Pertwee and Tom Baker, but it feels to be getting this type of Doctor back again. I just hope he settles down.

Well, obviously that was a 1/5. Embarrassingly poor, although the fact it was entertainingly bad means it scores better than certain other stories.

As for Season 21 as a whole- well, it’s the worst yet, as I rather embarrassingly seem too be saying every season at the moment! And at 2.857/5 it’s the first season I’ve ranked below 3/5 on average, in spite of the fact it contains two stories I rated 5/5. That feels a bit awkward, as I’ve never felt any particular dislike for the last two seasons, but that’s how the stories rated!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani

Part One

“I can take an insult. I just don’t want to be shot.”

Let us rejoice! Robert Holmes is back after six long years! May there be public holidays and dancing in the street! Never before have I squee’d so much at the name of the writer at the beginning of a story.

We begin with a great location and a bit of exposition- we’re on Androzani Minor, the smaller of two double planets and somewhat prone to mud-bursts- but the dialogue also serves to cement the relationship between the Doctor and Peri with admirable swiftness, considering they hardly know each other at the end of Planet of Fire. The Doctor and Peri potter about for a bit and Peri falls into some stuff. Still not to worry; as the Doctor says when he helps Peri up, getting a bit on his hand, “It’s probably quite harmless.”

The dialogue between the Doctor is great, well-written but with a real lightness of touch. The tongue-in-cheek riff about celery and gases in the praxis range of the spectrum is great stuff and perfect Holmes. But there are other characters, of course; this being Holmes, there are gun-runners in the shape of Stotz, Krelper and some red-shirts. There’s the over-promoted and out of his depth General Chellak, who looks the part but lacks confidence, relying heavily on the “advice” of his deputy, Salateen. And finally for now there’s Morgus, a deliciously evil corporate big-shot. 

All these characters have depth, charm (however nasty some of them may be!) and good actors playing them. They’re also all recognisably (with the addition of Krau Timmin, Morgus’s underling), ahem, “Holmesian double acts”. And as such they’re interesting characters to see in the series at this point, with Eric Saward as script editor and cynical mercenaries the new house style for guest characters. But while this set of characters may seem to fit this house style superficially, being a bunch of cynics all out for themselves, it’s all done with a wit and sense of fun reminiscent of an earlier era when, well, Robert Holmes used to write for Doctor Who.

I love John Normington as Morgus- particularly his speeches to camera! But his motives are also deliciously apparent in his reactions to various “tragic” events imparted to him by Timmin. He makes a great pantomime villain to contrast with our tragic villain, Sharaz Jek, of whom more later.

Graeme Harper makes a particularly impressive debut- there’s a great moment, following the Doctor and Peri’s capture by Chellak and their being paraded on a screen before Morgus, where we cut quickly between Morgus, the Doctor, via a screen, and Jek in turn watching Morgus through a scene. Impressive too is a later short scene involving Jek where we see a series of dissolves.

The later scenes consist of essentially of preparations for the Doctor’s and Peri’s execution, but these scenes further develop the characters and the world: Chellak believes the Doctor but is powerless to save him, underlining what a weak character he really is; the method of execution is to be “death under the red cloth”, a detail which imparts some local colour; Peri waits for her death in the cell, scared but impressively dignified, and extremely well played by Nicola Bryant. She doesn’t blame the Doctor for her predicament.

Hang on- so “Morgus said that Spectrox was the most valuable substance in the universe.” No he didn’t! But I’m nitpicking, and I’m doing that because there’s not an awful lot wrong with this episode.

Morgus meets the President, and there ensues another scene which nicely and economically develops character whilst engaging in some world building at the same time. Apparently Spectrox extends the human lifespan, and the war against Jek is to wrest control of the supply from him. But the President’s starting to go wobbly…

A flawless first episode. The master is back!

Part Two

“You have the mouth of a prattling jackanapes. But your eyes tell a different story…”

The Doctor and Peri are apparently shot, and Morgus and the President return to their discussion. Morgus is closing camps in the west, rendering his workers unemployed and so liable to slave labour in camps- which Morgus owns and is constructing more of in the east, so swapping waged workers for slave labour! How deliciously evil, and also how very ‘80s. I suspect Robert Holmes may not quite have been an ultra-Thatcherite.

The Doctor and Peri are, of course, alive, if not well, rescued by Jek, who starts to perv over Peri from the moment he meets her. Nicola Bryant plays Peri’s freaked out reaction to this very well indeed. We learn a lot about the mysterious masked Jek here; he wants Morgus’s head. My, and Morgus seemed such a nice chap to me.

We also meet the real Salateen, who in a brilliant piece of writing bursts out laughing before explaining to Peri and the Doctor that “You’re dying!” It seems that they’re suffering from Spectrox toxaemia, the only cure to which is the milk of a queen bat which lives in an area with no oxygen and guarded by fearsome beasts. The Doctor, being the Doctor, resolves to just escape and go and get some! Holmes writes for Davison’s Doctor with absolute perfection on his first go, easily as well if not better than all of his predecessors. And the great thing is, I suspect, he achieves this by just writing the Doctor as he always has and to hell with who might be playing him!

We end with a splendid rant from Morgus over his appearance, the Doctor leading an escape but being rendered unconscious, and Salateen moving off with Peri. The closing scene shows the Doctor about to be attacked by the, er, fearsome magma beast.

Part Three

“I owe it to my friend because I got her into this. So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now.”

The real Salateen arrives back at Chellak’s HQ, and proceeds to reveal to Chellak what a complete and utter twonk he’s been, with the robot Salateen having ensured Jek’s known of his every move for months. Fortunately, the real Salateen is now on hand to “advise” on what to do.

Jek abandons the Doctor to the gun-runners, who want to “interrogate” him back on Major. And if that’s not bad enough, he’s now entering the third stage of Spectrox toxaemia! But even while held captive in Stotz’s ship the Doctor has the effect of a catalyst on the plot; Morgus, now revealed to be the gun-runners’ mysterious supplier, becomes paranoid at the appearance of the Doctor, and begins to think the President may be plotting against him. So, in a brilliant scene, he casually assassinates the President! Just to finish the scene, he casually remarks to Timmin “And have the lift maintenance engineer shot.”

Jek is notably cagey with Peri about his complicity in abandoning the Doctor to Stotz’s mercenaries, and in his guilt he lashes out by having another bit of a rant. These scenes work brilliantly, with both Bryant and Christopher Gable playing their parts to perfection.

But the cliffhanger- surely the Davison Doctor’s greatest ever moment?

Part Four

“What’s happened?”

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”

The Doctor crash-lands the ship, escapes, and begins an epic chase from Stotz and co- nothing’s going to stop him from saving Peri’s life. Fittingly, this often passive Doctor gets to be truly heroic throughout his final episode; battling against overwhelming odds to save his friend from the dangers he himself exposed her to. After an epic chase, he seems to be caught, but a mud-blast saves him; from now on the mud-blasts become increasingly frequent, mirroring the frenetic series of events that follow.

Stotz and co return to their ship to find- Morgus, here to lie low in case he’s under suspicion and wanting in on the Spectrox. But once again the tables are turned as he speaks to Timmin on screen; Timmin has betrayed Morgus, he’s a wanted man, and even his fortune has been seized! Now that’s bloody good plotting from the esteemed Mr Holmes.

More stuff happens; Chellak closes in on Jek, Morgus and Stotz agree to go on and split the Spectrox between them, and in another brilliant twist Stotz walks back and guns down his former comrades.

It’s fascinating seeing Jek’s hold over Peri weaken throughout this episode- with Peri now very ill, he can no longer terrify her. There’s a great moment where, following Jek’s tussle with Chellak, Peri sees Jek’s face, screams, and then Jek falls to his knees and wails. Suddenly it is she who seems to have power over him. Indeed, as the Doctor arrives Jek is as helpful as he can be as the Doctor resolves to collect some bat’s milk.

We end with Stotz shooting Jek, the android Salateen killing Stotz, Jek killing Morgus, and Jek finally dying in the android Salateen’s arms! But finally the Doctor carries Peri through the mud-blasts back to the TARDIS, although not without spilling some bats’ milk on the way. There’s enough for Peri, but the doctor slumps to the ground, asking “Is this death?”

This is possibly the finest regeneration sequence so far, better even than Logopolis. The doctor only says he “might” regenerate and it “feels different this time.” But we get a nice montage of companions- fittingly, the Fifth Doctor’s dying word is “Adric”- and a brilliant use of the Master, and then… it happens. And doesn’t it look great! Colin Baker gets a fantastic first few lines as we cut to the new Doctor’s face over the closing titles…

Not only is this a 5/5, but it’s taken the top spot from City of Death. Ridiculously good, perfect in all ways.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Doctor Who: Planet of Fire

Part One

“For our people to survive, we must have faith.”

Another script by Peter Grimwade, a writer with a decidedly mixed reputation. But it’s a positive start; filming in Lanzarote allows the programme to create an alien planet which looks very different. We’re instantly introduced to the cultural and religious fault lines of Saudi Ara- er, Sarn, with a conflict between Timanov (Jason King!) and his belief in the god Logar, and a new generation of sceptics. Sadly, this aspect of the plot is rather perfunctory as there is no real hint of any cultural hinterland to this religion beyond what is requited by the plot, but this is more or less acceptable given that this turns out not to be the main aspect of the plot.

The Doctor’s a bit upset over the circumstances of Tegan’s departure, but it’s notable that when Turlough asks if he missed Tegan he only replies “Well, we were together a long time.” I still maintain that the Doctor never particularly liked Tegan but just put up with her out of politeness!

Amazingly, Kamelion pops up again. I’d quite forgotten about him. And Turlough sabotages the TARDIS to prevent the Doctor hearing about a distress signal from his home planet of Trion. Well, well, well! I’d quite forgotten about Turlough’s sneaky tendencies, too, but even at this late stage it’s all quite in character- another reminder that in an exception from the norm the scripts generally develop the character superbly. Although I’m not sure how this fits in with his apparent wish to return home back during The King’s Demons.

We’re introduced to Peri and her guardian Howard, both of whom have absolutely 100% convincing American accents. They have a bit of an argument, the upshot of which is Peri taking off most of her clothes so she can go swimming. Mmm. Following which Turlough decides to keep his shirt on while swimming for some reason.

More plot stuff happens, as Turlough and Malkon both turn out to have a “chosen one” symbol on their arms, the TARDIS ends up on Sarn, and Kamelion turns into the Master…

Part Two

“I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can!”

Kamelion’s wearing the Master’s body but the real Master is here too, watching from behind a screen just as he was during The Keeper of Traken. Kamelion can’t maintain his form after mental pressure of Peri, but instead of turning back into his normal form he becomes a silver version of Howard, which is much cheaper.

We see the Master’s TARDIS again, and there still see to be a few light bulbs that need replacing. Lots of stuff happens which is entertaining enough- the planet’s going to blow up, the equipment kept underground is probably from Turlough’s father’s ship- but it all feels like a bunch of set pieces in search of a plot.

Part Three

“Gullible idiots!”

Full marks for finally getting Turlough to ditch that awful uniform, but the Doctor’s question mark braces are quite the fashion faux pas.

It turns out that Turlough and Malkon are probably brothers. This is an excellent departure story for Turlough, penned by his creator. I particularly like the scene with the Doctor warning him that if he holds back anything important then their friendship is at an end- in this situation more than any other Turlough has to choose between his natural deviousness and his decent side. 

The plot’s all over the place again this episode- the Doctor wanting to materialise around the Master’s TARDIS a la Logopolis, a healing flame a la The Brain of Morbius- but froth though it is it’s enjoyable all the same.

That’s quite a cliffhanger- the Master’s all little!

Part Four

“Leave us in peace. We wish to die with our faith.”

So, Sarn's a prison planet to which Turlough’s family were dispatched for being on the wrong side. It’s a little cursory, perhaps, but at least Turlough gets an origin. Apparently Trion has agents on every civilised world, including “an eccentric solicitor in Chancery Lane”. We finally learn that Turlough’s first name is Vizlor and that for him the English public school is “the worst place in the universe”.

Kamelion asks the Doctor to kill him, is a faintly embarrassing scene that reaches for pathos but doesn’t quite manage it as the prop was sadly never very mobile or suggestive of a personality. Timanov’s dignified exit is rather more effective. And as for the Master’s demise- well, that looked rather permanent. I feel absolutely sure that in the unlikely event we ever see the Master again we can expect a full and detailed explanation of his survival.

Turlough, it seems, is no longer a political prisoner. His leaving scene is most satisfying in terms of his character arc; in returning to Trion to face his responsibilities he’s finally grown up.

Peri, meanwhile, has been welcomed aboard…

That was entertaining enough, if a little slight. The plot was a little disjointed, but it was all good fun and Turlough got a good exit. A solid 3/5.

Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks

Part One / First Bit of Part One

“You’re pathetic.”

“That too.”

The opening scene, with the sudden appearance of the time travellers, the policemen, Rodney Bewes, and the casual shooting of the tramp, is fantastic. This is all down to Matthew Robinson and the location, however; this story is a mess, for reasons which are mainly down to Eric Saward’s script.

There follows a brief diversion to a spacecraft which looks very much like something from Star Wars from the outside, where lots of Saward’s trademark hard-boiled dialogue happens, much of it involving Rula Lenska. It’s a prison ship- hmm, I wonder, in this story with “Daleks” in the title, who the prisoner could possibly be?

A time corridor draws the TARDIS to the bit of London round Tower Bridge, and my, how that has changed since 1984!

Meanwhile, on board the ship, Saward demonstrates his admirable ability to come up with such naturalistic dialogue as “You fear attack?” and “Your bile would be better directed against the enemy!” The crew are attacked by a bunch of Daleks and… win. Perhaps not the most orthodox way of making your baddies seem threatening. Still, the zapped Daleks, with the visible mutant things, look just as impressive as when last seen in The Five Doctors.

Things turn around, of course, as we get to see a rather cool shot of a Dalek exterminating three people at once, and the Dalek Supreme turns up for the first time since Planet of the Daleks.

The Doctor and co have found Stein, some soldiers and the source of the time corridor, but Turlough seems to have found his way through into the ship. Disappointingly, the Daleks’ doors don’t make their customary noise. Can it be that we’ll never hear that sound again?

The prisoner- it’s Davros! And the Daleks’ gas weapons are making people’s faces go all minging! And the Daleks’ human underlings are dressed up as Daleks in a way that looks very silly! It’s all kicking off!
I remember seeing this on its original transmission. And yes, we did play at Daleks in the playground that week.

Part Two / More Stuff From Part One

“My vision is impaired, I cannot see!”

The way the Doctor and the soldiers deal with the Dalek that’s just teleported down to Earth is all exciting and well directed and that, but these Daleks are a bit easily killed, innit?

Still, I like Terry Molloy’s ranting take on Davros. He’s no Michael Wisher, but he’s a step up from the ranting-by-numbers of David Gooderson. I love his apoplectic reaction to being told by Lytton that the Movellans won their war with the Daleks, and that they’re plagued by a deadly virus. The Daleks are reviving him to find a cure, but little does he know the Dalek Supreme has no intention of keeping him around once he’s achieved that aim. Oh, and that’s Leslie Grantham playing Kiston, who’ll be hanging around Davros for the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, in London, the Dalek mutant thingy is on the loose, and everyone’s all worried. We get a false alarm that turns out to be a cat- I might be jumping to conclusions here, but do you reckon Eric Saward might have seen Alien at some point? Still, it’s good to see the Doctor joining in with trying to shoot it, using that gun the colonel so kindly gave him earlier. Saward is so good at not neglecting this gun-toting aspect of his character.

We hear Davros has been frozen for ninety years, conscious for all that time. Blimey. And Stein turns out to be a Dalek agent. Oh dear.

Part Three / First Bit of Part Two

“Why am I so excited? It’s the last thing I’ll ever do!” 

I think it’s the bit at the start of this episode where Stein reveals to the Doctor that the Daleks are planning to use all these duplicates that it becomes apparent that the plot’s a complete mess. This story isn’t just about the Movellan virus and reviving Davros- oh no, the Daleks have all sorts of ill-thought-out plans on the go. And without any real plot or theme, this story essentially consists of hard-boiled Saward-scripted characters shouting and shooting at each other for ninety minutes.

I like the scene where the Professor urges Tegan to leave while she stays behind to lie to the Daleks. Never in the field of television drama has any character been more clearly going to die. I’m reminded of a certain sketch from The Mary Whitehouse Experience here.

So, the Daleks are planning to use duplicates of the Doctor and his companions to assassinate the High Council on Gallifrey? I think this is the point where the plot jumps right off the edge of a cliff. Although of course in recent years it’s acquired a certain possible relevance to the Time War. 

Turlough’s ended up with Rula Lenska & co, as they attempt to blow up the ship. Turlough’s far from enthusiastic; I think it’s here that I can safely say that “There’s nothing we can do!” is now his actual catchphrase.

Part Four / More Stuff From Part Two

“I can’t stand the confusion in my mind!”

Suddenly the TARDISeers are all reunited, a sign that suddenly the plot has to start moving so everyone has to be in place. We learn that those mysterious cylinders on earth are the Movellan virus, although there seems to be absolutely no reason for them to be there of all places. And the Doctor sets off to kill Davros. Well, nothing can possibly go wrong there then.

In fact, this whole sequence with the Doctor setting out to execute Davros pretty much symbolises something very wrong with Saward’s vision of the show, something which has lain dormant for some time but is now being foregrounded more and more. Now, Earthshock was stylistically similar to this story, if a hell of a lot more coherent plot-wise, being hard-boiled, violent, and fast-paced. And I liked it. Season 19 was hugely varied in the different styles of its stories, no doubt because of the influence of two script editors, and in that context it was good to see this type of story. But in the context of this season that’s no longer the case.

I don’t read other people’s reviews [on the message board thread this was posted on at the same time as the blog, as with all of my Who reviews] until just after I post my own on to the thread, so I’ve been reading them almost a month after they were first posted and in ignorance of anything posted more recently. But I’ve noticed that in some of his excellent recent reviews (and very possibly in others I haven’t read yet), Nuallain has mentioned a running theme running through this season of the Doctor’s optimism versus the harshness of the universe. And this story seems to be where this contrast reaches a peak, and simultaneously where it becomes clear that Saward’s vision of the show is exposed as very, very wrong. Because the whole scene with the Doctor failing to execute Davros reeks of contempt from the author for the main character of the show. We’re being invited to sneer at the Doctor’s optimistic world view, and instead accept that the world is a cynical, nihilistic place. This is deeply wrong, and undermines the values of the show. I’m reminded of Alan Moore’s public regrets over what happened to comic book superheroes after Watchmen. It’s now become horribly clear that Saward does not like or understand what Doctor Who is about, and has no interest in its central character.

Anyway, ranting aside, it’s odd that Davros doesn’t mention at any point that the Doctor looks different. But the scene soon fizzles out, with most of the rest of the episode consisting of various characters shooting each other dead. Lots of dead bodies are on display. There are now two opposing Dalek functions, both of which are gruesomely destroyed by the Movellan virus. Davros is apparently hoist by that pesky old petard of his, and Stein blows up the ship and everyone on board. Lovely. Lytton and his two policemen friends walk away at the end, though. Sequel, anyone...?

It seems that, for some reason, Tegan doesn’t think that all this death and killing is her idea of fun, and she stays behind on Earth. Odd, that. It’s an effective and moving exit, with Tegan and the Doctor parting on unpleasant terms.

Awful. The plot was all over the place, the Doctor was shown as ineffectual and the whole thing felt like a cynical dismissal of all that Doctor Who is supposed to be about. I agonised long and hard about whether this deserved a 1/5, but eventually decided the direction was good enough to move it up to a low 2/5.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Doctor Who: Frontios

Part One

“We’re at war.”

“Really? With whom?”

“Well, that has yet to be determined.”

Christopher H. Bidmead again! After not enjoying his previous efforts I wasn’t particularly expecting to like this one much. I couldn’t have been much wronger. I’m still confused as to how the author of Logopolis and Castrovalva can be responsible for such strong plotting, gripping suspense, witty and naturalistic dialogue, and brilliant characterisation. I doubt it’s Eric Saward’s influence, frankly, so I’m left scratching my head. But I liked this. A lot.

Still, one thing hasn’t changed from Bidmead’s earlier efforts; the sheer imagination on display in his choice of story title.

We begin in the TARDIS, where Tegan has actually changed her clothes for only the fourth or fifth time ever. My, what a short skirt she’s wearing. Anyway, the TARDIS Acorn Electron flags up a warning that they’ve drifted too far into the future- perhaps beyond Gallifrey’s “present”? Anyway, it’s forbidden for Time Lords to travel there.

The planet in question, Frontios, seems to be entirely populated by former crew members of Imperial Star Destroyers, judging by the uniforms everyone is wearing. I spent pretty much the entire story half expecting Darth Vader to walk into shot and asphyxiate random characters but, at last, it was not to be. And everything on the planet beyond a few sets seems to consist of obvious matte backgrounds. None of this seriously harmed the story though- it’s script and acting that matter and in this story both are on song.

The Doctor gets involved, naughtily, and for the first time ever (?) puts on his glasses. His development into a more assertive, traditional Doctor is instantly apparent and his charisma, as much as his obvious knowledge and usefulness, instantly get chief scientist Range and his daughter Norna firmly on his side. That sort of thing wouldn’t have happened in previous seasons. It’s an extremely welcome development.

We’re introduced to the basic situation; a colony in a precarious situation, at war with an unseen power, and retreating into authoritarianism in its increasing desperation. We’re also given clear introductions to the characters, all of whom have memorable traits- I particularly like Plantagenet with his line in pompous cod-Churchillian speechifying at the drop of a hat.

And that’s quite a cliffhanger, the TARDIS apparently destroyed…

Part Two

“I think this joke’s gone far enough.”

The Doctor’s about to be shot, but the quick-thinking Turlough retrieves the situation by threatening everyone with the deadly hatstand. But the best thing about this scene is its subverting of expectations; when the Doctor insists that if Plantagenet won’t see reason he’ll just have to shoot him, Plantagenet… agrees.

A few succinct lines from Range to Tegan further underline the direness of their plight; constant death and a sense of panic are causing this society to unravel, and desertion (by “rets”) is increasing. And then there’s the “deaths unaccountable”. Meanwhile, Norna and Turlough establish that the late Captain Revere forbade all digging and that “the Earth is hungry”. That’s how to build up suspense!

Bragen’s still apparently paranoid, but the real sense of threat is no longer coming from him but underground. We see Plantagenet drawn beneath the surface and various characters venture underground, where there lurk some odd looking woodlice monsters. This terrifies Turlough, who starts to mutter about “Tractators”…

Part Three

“Frontios buries its own dead.”

The Tractators look very rubbery, the bottom of the costume is very unsatisfactory, and I can’t understand a great deal of what they say. But none of that stops this story being great- it’s all about the script and performances.

Mark Strickson is once again excellent in portraying Turlough’s mental breakdown, and once again the character gets some decent development- the character’s been quite well served so far. And it’s not just good character stuff that helps make the padding often necessary in a part three serve a useful purpose; the scene with Bragen and the looter, where the looter leaves only to be immediately attacked for his food makes a powerful point about human interdependence. Admittedly, though, it starts a minor plot thread which doesn’t really go anywhere. 

The story quite awesomely turns our expectations on their head as Range’s apparent show trial at the hand of the paranoid Bragen quickly metamorphoses into a council of war, and Bragen is revealed to have secretly been quite aware of what’s been going on but suppressing it for understandable reasons of morale. Suddenly we see the character, and everything he’s done so far, in an entirely different light.

Turlough, having been traumatised by the memories that have been unleashed, nevertheless resolves to join the others underground, an extremely brave thing to do. This is a pivotal moment for the character. After all, when we first met Turlough back in Mawdryn Undead he was shown to be a coward, a liar, even a bit of a bully, and quite willing to make a pact with the Whoniverse’s very own Mephistopholes. He may redeem himself a little by proving incapable of murder or betrayal but he’s still not a particularly agreeable character by the end of Enlightenment. And even these redeeming characteristics take the form of inaction, and so are themselves a form of cowardice.

Turlough has continued to be a bit of a coward ever since, always the first to suggest returning to the TARDIS at the sign of serious danger, or to insist that there’s nothing that can be done to help others. But the Doctor’s positive influence is having a gradual effect, and here for the first time he’s taking a brave step in facing his own very real fears in order to help his friends. A corner has been turned, it seems.
The cliffhanger is quite horrific in a body horror sort of way, although probably more so if you haven’t seen Voyage of the Damned

Part Four

“Don’t mention it!”

I love the scene where the Doctor tries to pass Tegan off as an android to the Gravis, but “the walk’s not quite right.” Is this really the same Bidmead whose attempts at humour in Logopolis and Castrovalva fell so spectacularly flat? 

This story is so good, even the traditional Davison “showing off the TARDIS scene” is great. So good, in fact, that I’ll even discreetly gloss over the fact that the Tractators' plan is to, er, steer Frontios around the galaxy. Nothing to see here. Move along.

The Doctor quite unambiguously saves the day for once by cleverly tricking the Gravis into re-assembling the TARDIS through reverse psychology, causing the Gravis to fall asleep in exhaustion. And we end on a cliffhanger.

Wow. I wasn’t expecting something that good. This is my third 5/5 of the Davison era after Kinda and Enlightenment. It’s not quite up to the standard of those two exceptional stories, but in a sense it’s even more wonderful; while both of the other stories were one-offs, very different from all that surrounded them, this is very much of the Davison style, but done perfectly.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Awakening

Part One

“You must stop these war games!”

It’s Polly James! And it’s the seventeenth century, apparently! Oh, it isn’t. It’s some war games. That sounds a bit familiar.

The TARDIS lands in England, in 1984, with all three TARDISeers wearing the same clothes they had on last story. For once the TARDIS has ended up where it was supposed to. And yet, by an incredible coincidence, there are bizarre and sci-fi tinged goings-on, er, going on. The war games are getting out of hand, the slightly doolally Sir George (the mighty Denis Lill!) refuses to allow anyone to enter or leave the village, and Tegan’s plot convenience-friendly grandfather’s gone missing. Oh, and some bloke from yer actual 1643 has turned up, complete with comedy Mummerset accent.

Hang on, that village square looks familiar- could this have been filmed in the same place as The Android Invasion?

For all the talk of the mysterious legend of the Malus, the threat here is so evidently low-level and human that I started to wonder why no one just simply used the prominent red phone box in the village square to call the police. But then the Doctor goes inside the church and starts explaining things- the Malus came down in a space ship! Some of his stuff came from the Tinclavic mines on Raaga! (Hello to The Visitation!) He’s, er, awakening!

Polly James becomes quite possibly the first person on Doctor Who to scream in the perfect pitch to lead into the closing titles. Oh, and said closing titles show her character’s full name to be Jane Hampden, a nice little reference to her probable ancestor John from this Civil War themed tale.

Part Two

“I’m being bullied, coerced, forced against my will.”

So, Turlough’s captured, and bumps right into Tegan’s grandad. How convenient.

Tegan looks, er, different in her May Queen outfit. I think at long last she’s wearing something which looks even worse than that air hostess uniform. Oh, and she’s going to be burnt at the stake. How nice.

I must admit the Malus looks good. And threatening too- after all, the Doctor is forced to allow three people he’s just met, in the form of Jane, the Colonel and Will, into the TARDIS and he never ever does that these days.

It all seems to end rather slowly, with the Doctor destroying the Malus by means of some technological hokum while he holds Sir George at bay while talking at him. And then there really are loads of people in the TARDIS. How very characteristic of its era. We finish up with a debate on the relative merits of ale and tea, which are without doubt the two finest liquids in the known universe. With the exception of a nice glass of red, obviously.

Well, that all looked very nice, but not a lot happened really. The plot was very slight and not a lot happened character-wise. This seems pretty much the epitome of 3/5. Come to think of it, none of the two-parters have particularly impressed me much aside from The Rescue, and that only worked because it was basically a character piece.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep

Part One

“It’s lethal to marine and reptile life.”

My initial impressions are, firstly, “Johnny Byrne again! Nooo!” and, secondly, that I can actually remember when this first went out on its initial transmission. I was six. I distinctly remember rushing home from swimming lessons in time for episode two.

The early scenes give us a very white looking underwater base which, for all the criticisms of its being overlit, is actually quite effective; its harsh industrial quality gives the story loads of atmosphere just as well or better than the dark corridors of Earthshock. We also meet the Silurians early on- they’re back! Their glowing lights and metallic voices are an annoyingly pointless change from their original appearance, but they certainly both look and sound good. I just wish they didn’t keep dumping us with expository dialogue too obviously there for the viewers’ benefit: “For hundreds of years, our Sea Devil brothers have remained entombed.”

The TARDIS still looks new and shiny, Turlough is still a bit sneaky and the Doctor still seems to doubt he’s really all that brave. The TARDIS computer screens seem to have progressed from a BBC Micro to an Acorn Electron, too. Oh, and Tegan has changed her clothes again. Neither of the other two has bothered though.

There’s lots of intrigue on the seabase, with Maddox the nervous young bloke and obvious skulduggery underfoot with Solow (Ingrid Pitt!) and Nilson. It’s 2084, there’s a cold war underway and it’s all shaping up to be a good old-fashioned base under siege, except with a base commander who seems an unusually sensible chap. He’s a bit hard-boiled, perhaps, but not excessively so considering Eric Saward’s still script editor. I know this story’s not much liked, but I’m rather enjoying this.

Crikey, the Doctor points out the hexachromite gas. I’m sure there must be a reason for that scene. I wonder what it is?

The cliffhanger’s a bit naff (although the portrayal of Turlough as still a bit unheroic is a nice touch) but at least the Doctor acquits himself well in a fight, almost to Pertwee standards, in fact. I’ve been watching these stories with BlueLionSven’s “putz factor” in mind, and usually I tend to find it pretty high, but this story for the first time seems to show Davison’s Doctor with pretty much no more putz qualities than his predecessors had. Is this going to be part of a trend?

Part Two

“Oh dear. It’s the Myrka.”

This is still pretty good, And actually quite exciting. Plus we finally get to see the Sea Devils again, who look so much cooler in their new samurai outfits than those crappy old string vests. Apparently this Icthar bloke is the sole surviving member of some Silurian “Triad” which we’ve never heard of before. Oh, and I love the darker, green-tinged lighting in the Silurians’ base, which makes a nice contrast from the equally harsh whiteness of the humans’ domain.

There’s some suspicion of the TARDISeers on behalf of the occupants of the Seabase, but this is understandable given their political situation and is never allowed to become annoying, playing out as it does entirely through action. As soon as the TARDISeers come to become interrogated, the TARDIS is immediately found to corroborate their story, getting the potentially tiresome suspicions out of the way in a plausible manner so the actual base under siege stuff can actually start. That’s actually very good writing. From Johnny Byrne. Who’d have thunk it?

The Silurians attack, and the Doctor recaps his stuff from back when he was Jon Pertwee about the Silurians being an “honourable” race who only want to “live in peace”. Except that in this story they’re, er, not. Of which more in episode four.

We finish with the Myrka, which is indeed probably the worst monster in all of Doctor Who ever. But I’m still not going to let one bad monster spoil my enjoyment of a story which I’m finding surprisingly good.

Part Three

“The Myrka has been destroyed!”

An exciting episode of pretty much non-stop action begins with Turlough pulling a gun on the seabase personnel to save the Doctor and Tegan. This is a good moment for him and good development of the character, an example of how his default cowardly nature can be overridden by his basic decency. There’s also a nice moment for the commander afterwards, who responds pretty calmly by simply getting Turlough to help defend the bulkhead he’s endangered. No commander of a base under siege would have been so reasonable back in Season Five!

Solow’s death by karate kick provides a bit of comic relief, reminding me of how serious this story is. I think it works without humour just this once, though. The Davison era so far has been a bit humour-lite for my taste, but for this story at least the seriousness works.

Part Four

“You’ll get no help from me, Silurian!”

Turlough prepares to escape by means of, er, a ventilation shaft. Naturally. Clich├ęs- helping Doctor Who stories out of plot difficulties since 1963.

So, the Doctor’s apparently met Icthar before. It’s clearly supposed to have been during Doctor Who and the Silurians, as dialogue indicates the Silurians / Sea Devils have only awoken twice before, but this can’t be the Old Silurian, as he died, and it can’t be the Young Silurian as his personality doesn’t fit. I can only assume there was another Silurian the Doctor only ever encountered off-screen.

It’s a nice touch once again for Turlough that he wants to just return to the TARDIS but is shamed into helping. This kind of genuine struggle of conscience is making him a very interesting character.

The Silurians are by now taking about outright genocide of humanity, speaking of a “final solution”. Yet the Doctor is still upset at the thought of killing them, and behaving as though there were some sort of moral equivalence between them and the humans. But this is utter pants. Unlike previous stories the Silurians want to cause the genocide of all humanity, while the humans merely want to eliminate those specific Silurians proposing to annihilate them, none of whom are civilians. Seems pretty clear-cut to me.

Still, this is a well-paced and exciting final episode, and the ending is effective, with the TARDISeers surrounded by corpses and the Doctor opining that “There should have been another way.”

Surprisingly good, a solid 4/5. An exciting, action-packed base under siege which stands up surprisingly well to its Troughton era predecessors.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

“Wonderful chap. All of them.”

It’s great to see Hartnell again, even if only for a brief yet well-chosen clip. I like these pre-title sequence teasers- perhaps they should be brought in permanently at some point? 

Meanwhile, there’s a new, very 80s-looking, considerably less battered TARDIS console which the Doctor has knocked up very quickly in the short time since The King’s Demons. Tegan’s changed her clothes again and Kamelion is presumably off playing the lute somewhere off-screen.

Our heroes are visiting the Eye of Orion, in North Wales, the most tranquil place in the universe. And for once, nothing bad is going to happen, oh no.

We cut to the First Doctor, played by Richard Hurndall, walking about in a garden and getting taken away in a black triangle. This black triangle thing may well be simple but it actually works very well. And Hurndall at least looks the part. Also interestingly, he’s observed on screen by a mysterious gloved figure who seems to be moderately talented in painting miniatures.

Meanwhile, a newly re-moustachioed Brig is chatting with Lieutenant Carstairs from The War Games either before or after a big UNIT reunion. Along comes Patrick Troughton, and it’s such a joy to see him again. Interestingly, he says of the Brig’s replacement that “Mine was pretty unpromising too”, indicating he remembers the events of The Three Doctors, and that opens a whole can of worms.

Their conversation is a key example of a great awkwardness that pervades this story though; these are two old friends who haven’t seen each other for ages, and yet the words they’re given to say acknowledge this in only the most perfunctory way, as there can be no deviation from the plot in a ninety minute story containing as many elements as this. It’s an inevitable consequence of the very nature of this story, but that doesn’t make it feel any less awkward. The characters, most of whom are fondly-remembered figures from the past, are just treated as pawns there to serve the plot and given little opportunity to display the qualities we loved about them in the first place. And this tendency will get more and more awkward as the story progresses.

At least the scene with an obviously older Pertwee getting kidnapped by the black triangle thing driving around in Bessie doesn’t display these faults, even if only because there are no other characters for him to interact with. Unlike Troughton, this is his first ever return to the show, and it’s a particular delight to see him again. And it’s obvious from the very start that Terrance Dicks gets a particular kick out of writing his dialogue (“Great balls of fire!”)

The pattern’s established by now as we get a quick scene with Sarah and K9 and a clip from Shada, and then the focus moves to Gallifrey. Sadly, the familiar tropes of the Gallifreyan ruling caste have become completely formulaic by now, but at least in a story where they’re no more than a minor element this is less irritating than it could be. Still, it’s hardly encouraging that the annoying Castellan from Arc of Infinity is back again, or plausible that Borusa has regenerated yet again. Still, their desperate employment of the Master is a damn good idea, clearly showing just how desperate the situation is, and Ainley is wonderful here. Interestingly, he’s offered an entirely new regeneration sequence. This has huge implications. Equally as interestingly, he states that “A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about”, which arguable gives a bit of credence to some of the more intriguing theories about his motivations…

Hurndall, appropriately, has been transported to an area very reminiscent of the Dalek city on Skaro. He meets Susan, of course, and again we have the awkwardness of there being little time for dialogue which does not advance the plot. Surely these two would have something to say to each other, particularly given the circumstances of their parting? Still, the Dalek looks fantastic, and the mutant inside the shell is extremely impressive. This scene is where we learn all this is happening in the Death Zone, North Wales, Gallifrey. Although hearing Susan saying the word “Gallifrey” doesn’t feel quite right.

There’s some unintended hilarity as Pertwee ostentatiously rescues Sarah from falling down a very slight slope, and then more unintended hilarity as Sarah’s intended line that the Doctor changed to become “all teeth and curls” is nabbed by Pertwee, thus ensuring it makes no sense whatsoever. Still, it’s great to see the two of them together again and their chemistry is great.

The first and fifth Doctors meet at last, but again the necessity of there being no time for dialogue which doesn’t advance the plot has awkward consequences. Surely the fifth Doctor and Susan must have things to say to one another? Again, though, this sort of awkwardness is inevitable given the number of elements to be fit inside ninety minutes.

Possibly the highlight of the whole thing is Pertwee’s arrogant dismissal of the Master’s claims that he wants to help. The sheer rudeness on display is magnificent, and I’m willing to bet that this is the part Terrance most enjoyed writing. Pertwee is splendid here too, of course. Oh, and the bit with those bolts aimed at the Master, setting bits of the undergrowth on fire, is my first definite memory from watching Doctor Who on original transmission (I was six) although I’d been watching it for a season or two by this point.

Sadly, Hurndall isn’t particularly good. It isn’t that he’s so unlike Hartnell- he was quite right to try and interpret the character himself- but that he overdoes the abrasiveness so much as to be unlikeable. A lot of the time he delivers his lines in a way which is actually sinister, the worst offender being “Well, well, well, so two of them made it. I wonder what happened to the other?”

On the other hand, the Cybermen deliver their lines in a way which is most entertaining- my personal favourite is “Ah!” closely followed by “I have found the ones from the TARDIS.” They also get bonus points for causing Susan to sprain her ankle.

This is all zooming past- the Raston Warrior Robot, “No, not the mind probe!”, a sadly hard to see Yeti- betraying a masterful skill at plotting from Terrance Dicks who, for all the problems inherent in such an artificially fast pace, has managed to work all these disparate elements into a coherent plot while giving everyone enough screen time. It’s an admirable achievement, even if the result nevertheless suffers under the weight of all the elements which needed to be included. Particularly admirable is the way that Davison, the incumbent Doctor, is allowed the starring role in being the one teleported to the Capitol to investigate who’s really behind it all.

The whole chessboard trap, in which a second group of Cybermen are dramatically killed, is good fun, however much the stuff about pi is extremely silly and the Master seems to just walk straight across the first time. It’s just a shame that Hurndall is again so unlikeable.

It’s good to see Liz and Yates again, even if they are illusions, and even better to see Jamie and Zoe, even though continuity is shattered into a thousand pieces by the fact that the Doctor remembers that their memories were wiped. Apparently in between this and his enforced regeneration he was able to nip to the UNIT farewell party to chat with the Brig. Perhaps, at a stretch, the Time Lords offered him a last request off-screen and he’s being allowed the one short trip before being brought back and summarily regenerated. Or, er, perhaps not. But I say again: Season 6b? Pah!

Hurndall, Pertwee and Troughton all get to meet up briefly for the climax while a load of companions mill about at the back. Their interactions are great, if disappointingly brief. And it’s odd to see the Brig greeting Sarah with “Miss Smith, isn’t it?” even though he’s got to know her quite well, particularly during Planet of the Spiders.

Borusa’s revelation as the villain, his eventual fate, and the appearance of Rassilon himself are all brilliantly done, and the final scene of the Doctor once again running away from his own people in a rackety old TARDIS is utter genius. And so is the story. It may be too fast-paced for the characters to really interact in the way fans would have dreamed about, the direction may be dodgy at times, but what’s not to love about this? 4/5.

Doctor Who: The King's Demons

Part One

“He’s said to be the best swordsman in France.”

“Fortunately, we are in England.”

Crikey, forced to watch a story on video again. Doesn’t seem to happen very often these days.
Terence Dudley again… oh dear. It’s the middle ages, and we begin by having a series of mediaeval tropes paraded before us- the travelling tyrant king; the feast; the challenging to a duel by the dropping of a gauntlet; the joust. Then the TARDIS lands.

Two quite astonishing things happen regarding our heroes early on in the story. Firstly Tegan has actually changed her clothes, and secondly, our heroes unaccountably fail to recognise that Sir Gilles Estram is being played by Anthony Ainley and thus is obviously the Master.

Gerald Flood is excellent as the king, especially as the part he’s playing is somewhat more complicated than it at first appears. The sets and locations are also fab. Of course, the best thing about it is the king’s song. Still, the whole thing feels a bit dull and pointless.

The cliffhanger made me laugh out loud. This is the second time in a row that the return of the Master has been heralded by “So you escaped from…”

Part Two

“Mediaeval misfits!”

There’s something a bit embarrassing about the “Arise, Sir Doctor” scene. Still I’m sure it’s just a one off and it’ll never happen again.

The Master’s plan is just to meddle in history. As the Doctor says, it’s “small time villainy by his standards” and more reminiscent of the Meddling Monk, although of course Terence Dudley’s scriptwriting pales in comparison to that of the great Dennis Spooner. Oh, and he has Tegan flying the TARDIS again.

The Doctor and Master get a rather stagy confrontation scene which makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the Master’s motivation and which consists pretty much entirely of toe-curdlingly embarrassing dialogue. Still, at least we’re introduced to Kamelion, who at least looks rather good.

After a rather contrived ending, Kamelion joins the TARDIS crew for some reason. No doubt we’ll be seeing him all the time now. And after a brief interlude of the Doctor being nasty to Tegan (he really doesn’t like her, and I’m actually starting to feel sorry for her), they’re all off to the Eye of Orion.

Oh dear. That was a bit of a mess. I’ll be generous and give it 2/5 for looking good and being well performed. But the script was awful.

As for the season as a whole, it doesn’t get very good marks either at only 3/5, the worst score so far. Aside from the excellent Enlightenment, only Mawdryn Undead really managed to impress me. I’m hoping for better next season. But first, a bit of nostalgia…

Friday, 16 October 2009

Doctor Who: Enlightenment

Part One

“The rigging’s no place for a coward like me.”

Chess in the TARDIS at the start reminds me of the previous regime but, of course, there’s no K9 and the tone is quite different. It’s hard not to see the black and white pieces as symbolic of the Guardians. It’s also hard to resist reading into the fact that Turlough’s playing white and Tegan’s playing black, although what this might signify I’ve no idea.

The TARDIS’ power is being drained by a rather weak-seeming White Guardian who has been much diminished from the days of The Ribos Operation, to the point that he’s taken to wearing a bird on his head. Beaches and cocktails are a distant memory.

Interesting that the Doctor doesn’t see Turlough as reliable and charges Tegan with communicating with the White Guardian- I tend to see this as judgement of Turlough’s character rather than any specific knowledge of what he’s up to at this point, but rather that the Doctor has understood both Turlough’s shifty nature and that he’s well-meaning underneath it all.

The Doctor and Turlough emerge on to an Edwardian sailing ship and acquaint themselves with its crew, who are oddly unable to remember coming aboard. Meanwhile Tegan is enticed outside by the creepy and mysterious Marriner. But we’re soon introduced to Captain Striker and the TARDISeers are reunited for a meal which supplies what I think is only the second “Brave heart, Tegan” ever.

The cliffhanger, of course, is mind-blowingly brilliant, and this is the perfect opening episode, piling mystery upon mystery.

Part Two

“You’re a Time Lord. A lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?”

The yacht’s crew wouldn’t dream of using their advanced technology to cheat at the race in which they’re competing, as they “observe the spirit as well as the rules of the race”. Aside from the minor fact it’s taking place in space it’s being treated entirely as a race between ships involving marker buoys. Which just so happen to be planets. Striker’s ship is seen rounding Venus, meaning he must be a Bjork fan. I mean, Venus as a Buoy. Boom boom. Oh, and the prize is “enlightenment”.

There’s lots of clever writing here. Our brief sight of the Greek captain alerts us both to the fact that the different ships are from different time zones and also that the Greek captain, in a nice bit of foreshadowing has an anachronistic red jewel on his sword. Meanwhile, we’re interested to the concept of the Eternals and their dependence on “Ephemerals” to be truly alive. They are gods in all but name, capricious and fickle as were the Olympians, treating humans as toys whose lives mean nothing because “Ephemerals have such short lives in any case. But these ideas are developed far more effectively in the relationship between Tegan and Marriner than in any expository dialogue.

Turlough gets some superb material this episode, being condemned to everlasting life on the ship by the Black Guardian for his failure to kill the Doctor and then appalling the Doctor by betraying a confidence about the expected mutiny. He’s being significantly better written here than in either of the previous two stories, with Strickson providing a performance to match, and as a result the cliffhanger has real weight.

Part Three

“I had no idea ephemerals could be so entertaining.”

Turlough’s picked up by Captain Wrack’s Buccaneer, and he’s now drinking in the Last Chance Saloon in more ways than one. Sadly, in spite of the required personnel being present, we don’t get the appropriate musical accompaniment.

It’s great seeing inside another ship, greater still that it’s a pirate ship, and utterly surreal (in a good way) that the ship is commanded by Nurse Gladys from Open All Hours. Although of course her towering and triumphant vocal performance of a certain ballad is of course the crowning moment of Lynda Barron’s career. Wrack the character is great, and even Leee John’s… unusual performing style is not out of place in these surroundings.

There’s a fascinating moment as mariner says to the Doctor that “Your companion is a very beautiful woman” and the Doctor replies “Is she?”, further ammunition for my theory that the Doctor doesn’t actually like Tegan and only keeps her around because he’s too nice to just turn her off the Ship.

Part Four

“Your mind is divided, confused, hard to read sometimes. But one thing is clear in it always- greed!”

There’s an interesting conversation early on between Tegan and Marriner in which Tegan misunderstands his fascination as love whereas he only wants “existence”. And we’re still being given a lot of these nice little character moments right through the final episodes even with all the plot threads to resolve. This is a bloody brilliant script.

Turlough seems to betray the Doctor by denouncing him as a spy to Wrack and insists on staying behind on the Buccaneer. Yet the Doctor still has faith in the boy, hoping that he intends to prove himself by doing so.

Tegan and the Doctor realise that the tiara is Wrack’s focus for her weapon, and the Doctor smashes it into tiny bits, which results in nothing aside from Wrack briefly re-enacting the final scene from The War Games

But shortly after that he saves the ship from destruction, and heads over to the Buccaneer to assist Turlough. We see two figures thrown overboard, who Tegan assumes to be Turlough and the Doctor. It’s clear from Marriner’s reading of her thought that the Doctor’s dislike of her is not reciprocated, although I don’t see anything in this story to indicate she has any sexual feelings for him as has been suggested in the past.

We end with both Guardians and Enlightenment, a prize to be awarded to a bunch of innocent immortals, which apparently consists of knowledge of good and evil. I’m sure there’s some kind of allusion here but I’m not sure what it is. I’m a bit confused by the Guardians’ dialogue though- I thought it was established in The Armageddon Factor that they represented chaos and order rather than good and evil? Perhaps I’m going too far with that- the Black Guardian was certainly described many times as “evil” in The Armageddon Factor- but chaos and order are much more interesting as concepts.

The Doctor and Turlough win, the Doctor declining his prize. Turlough’s share is forfeit to the Black Guardian under some sub-clause of his deal. Turlough ultimately redeems himself by choosing the Doctor’s life instead of Enlightenment, his conscience thus winning out over his greed. The Black Guardian is defeated by this, and Turlough’s contract is terminated. “Enlightenment was not the diamond” says the Doctor. “Enlightenment was the choice.” Utterly superb stuff.

Well, we’ve waited twenty years for a script by a woman and the first one goes straight into my top ten. 5/5. The finest story since Kinda and only the second truly great story of the Davison years.