Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Sea Devils

Previous viewings - many

It's nice to know that I'm not completely out of step for once. Of all the Pertwee serials so far, it was felt that Doctor Who and the Silurians had the most mileage for a sequel, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Considering the roots of The Sea Devils, it certainly does it own thing; consider this the more action-driven cousin of its predecessor, swapping the intelligent Silurians for warlike Sea Devils, caves for the sea and moral ambiguities for a more clear-cut good vs. evil battle. About the only thing carried over is the terrible soundtrack.

Returning to pen this sequel to his successful original is writer Malcolm Hulke. In many ways, he is the wrong person to write this story, with his penchant for character and ideas-driven stories showing through here, in a story which is really about action and style, with the coastal setting and Navy involvement setting the tone much more than the monsters themselves or the Doctor's dilemma, and which is best when it diverges from the original. I'd almost go as far to say that if the Sea Devils were a typical alien invasion force rather than an offshoot of the Silurians, this story would be all the better for it.

Thats not to say that I didn't enjoy this. It may lack the depth (pun not intended) of its predecessor, but it has a lot going for it that ...and the Silurians doesn't. For the first time in ages, its the present day but UNIT aren't helping out. Instead, Captain Hart is commander of a Royal Navy base, with the use of boats and submarines putting a whole different spin on the action scenes than the norm. This gives the military scenes a freshness to them that we haven't seen since UNIT was introduced. Then there's the return of the Master, with him coincidentally (!) locked up close by the Navy base following his capture in The Dæmons. Then there's the Sea Devils themselves, a widely remembered monster due to some impressive design work, even if they sound a bit generic.

Episode 1 begins with the Doctor and Jo visiting the Master in prison. The irascible Colonel Trenchard is the warden of the top-security prison which has apparently been set up solely to keep the Master under lock and key (what would the taxpayers say?). The Doctor and Jo are let in to see the Master as they're not convinced any prison is escape-proof for the Master. The Master claims to be a changed man, and apparently satisfied the Doctor and Jo leave.

For some reason, these scenes didn't sit right with me. It's just so contrived; the Doctor leaving the Master in an Earth prison is hard to fathom, when he has the option of handing him over to the Time Lords or dealing with him himself. The Doctor chats with the Master, laughing and joking with him like he's his best friend who hasn't tried to destroy the planet a few times. It's there to hammer home the fact that they were once friends, but it's at the expense of the Doctor's integrity and the reality of the scene - consider how unforgiving Pertwee's Doctor is to anyone else. At least Roger Delgado is back and he's as great as ever.

The rest of the episode is more plot-based, with the Doctor and Jo heading to the Navy base to help with an investigation of missing submarines. The Doctor doesn't even bother to show his credentials as he asserts his authority to the base personnel, using sheer charisma to gain access and blunder his way to the top. Pertwee does this very well. Of the personnel, Captain Hart does a good job of filling the void left by the Brigadier, being a good foil to the Doctor in the few scenes they have together, and Edwin Richfield brings a lot of empathy to a role that doesn't receive much characterisation in the script. By the end, I'm crying out for the UNIT family, but for one story this setup works fine and the base here at least has one prominent woman in authority, even though she doesn't get to do much.

The first episode ends with a usual monster reveal, as the Doctor and Jo are menaced by a Sea Devil at a rig. The problem with this is that Pertwee stories aren't monster-driven. They like to take their time to set the scene and let the plot unfold slowly, with the monsters coming out in force very late on. So after this Sea Devil is injured and runs off, the Doctor, Jo and a survivor of an attack are rescued and we don't see any more Sea Devils (and again it's only one!) until the end of Episode 3. What a tease! Just a cheap thrill, really, and a bad pacing problem, because when we get back to the base and the Master subplot we're left feeling like we're missing out on something more exciting than what we're getting.

I'm as big a fan of Delgado's Master as anyone, but there's no denying that Episodes 2 and 3 see the story dancing around on the spot. Having seen the Master infiltrate the Navy base, the Doctor and Jo return to the prison, where he is apparently still imprisoned. The Doctor discovers that he has hypnotised the entire staff, so.... he engages the Master in a swordfight, while some music consisting of strange farting noises plays. The cliffhanger of the Master throwing the knife is good, but what should be a big heroic moment for Pertwee's Doctor is undermined by randomness of it all. The Doctor is a bit cocky in this scene, seemingly enjoying the fight because he finds it fun. Episode 3 is the story's weakest, consisting entirely of the Doctor tied to a chair while Jo breaks in and rescues him.

The second half of the story sees it vastly improve. As they're chased by a Sea Devil rising from the waves, the Doctor and Jo cross a minefield, with the Doctor blowing up mines with his sonic screwdriver. Sure, he's using a gadget rather than his wits, but this is Pertwee's Doctor we're talking about, and as action scenes go, I found this far more effective than that ridiculous swordfight. It doesn't stretch credibility that the sonic screwdriver can be used for this purpose.

As in Doctor Who and the Silurians, the meat of the story lies with the Doctor's attempts to broken a peace between the terrestrial race and the humans. Or rather, that part of the story anyway. The Doctor is captured by the Sea Devils and tries to convince them to cease hostilities. The Master is also present and warns them that humans can't be trusted and are quick to violence. Since there is far less time devoted to these scenes than in Silurians, they can do nothing more than briefly rehash some of the key ideas, avoiding the moral issue almost entirely. It also suffers by having action scenes taking place all around it, with the Navy mobilising under the orders of Private Secretary Walker, who takes on the role the Brigadier did in the previous story. The key difference here is that Walker is presented as a hateable character, with no redeeming features; he shows up at the base with orders to settle the situation, and seems to view the preparation of his breakfast and the bombing of the Sea Devil base as equally urgent, showing no consideration for the kidnapped Naval officers or the Doctor. The Brigadier was a good choice to be the one to quash the Doctor's peaceful plans in Silurians because he was a good guy who the Doctor trusted.

This all sounds like it's a big comedown from Silurians, and intellectually it is. However this is not an intellectual story. The Sea Devils are more monster-ish than the Silurians. They do monster-ish things like invade the base and attack in number. While the latter portion of Silurians involves the Doctor working away in the lab to find a cure to a Silurian plague, The Sea Devils is pure action. It had to be, too; the heavy use of location work, all manner of different Naval vehicles trotted out and terrific direction by Michael Briant give the story an aura of authenticity. The studio scenes early in the story were to its detriment; now we're mostly outside and it's all about action and atmosphere.

Having failed to negotiate with the Sea Devils, the Doctor is forced to work with the Master to build a device which will wake other colonies of the creatures. The Doctor turns the tables by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow (what a rubbish catchphrase - it's hardly clever to use the same tech solution to every problem), blowing up the Sea Devils instead. The Master then escapes using one of his disguises.

Despite my misgivings and my preference for Doctor Who and the Silurians, I really like The Sea Devils. It has action in abundance, but the action is authentic and well directed, almost cinematic. The Sea Devils are iconic, while the Silurians are merely creative. The Master is along for the ride, and the Doctor and the Jo are gelling perfectly. I would have preferred it had it been four episodes, and a different soundtrack, but they're a given.

Horror quotient - The music works against the Sea Devils, because it's just silly. And so obtrusive.
Comedy quotient - With the Doctor it's hit and miss. Hits include his defiant claim about being a personal friend of Nelson, and Hart's reaction. Misses include anything to do with the Master in this story - the 'best buddies' routine is just awful.
Drama quotient - A damp squib compared with Silurians. But then, it makes up for it in other areas.

Doctor Who and the Silurians it ain't, but it's a good action-packed yarn with a decent monster.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Curse of Peladon

Previous viewings - one (Episode 1), none (Episodes 2 to 4)

Yeah, weird one that - last year, pre-marathon, a new classic Doctor Who story was a big event, but I just couldn't get into it. I think part of the reason is that it's a type of story that's difficult to get right - a studio-bound political parody, with neutered Ice Warriors and hardly any action. I noted it had a decent reputation, so come marathon time I approached it optimistically.

The Curse of Peladon is another story that seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from Star Trek. In the future, delegates of the Federation come to planet Peladon to make a decision over whether to admit the planet to the organisation. King Peladon is in favour, while his aide Hepesh is against it. The story revolves around the admission of of Peladon to the Federation and a possible plot to kill the delegates. The Doctor and Jo land in the middle of this and have to take on the roles of the Earth delegates, hoping to investigate and discover the truth behind the events. Outer space diplomacy, ugh. Is there is a worse thing to base a story around?

Brian Hayles is back to write - I guess he wouldn't have the Ice Warriors appearing otherwise, even though they're good guys this time - and he seems to agree, giving over plenty of time to character moments, away from the main action. King Peladon strikes up a friendship with Jo, who he believes to be a Princess, with their relationship effectively getting its own subplot (a rarity for Doctor Who), and a lot of thought has gone into making the delegates interesting characters, both visually and personally. Most of them should be terrible, but they somehow work; Alpha Centauri is a squealing one-eyed cactus, Arcturus is an alien head in a jar and then there's the Ice Warriors, who are just bizarre in a non-threatening context; their scaly look and hissy, heavy breathing sound are all indications of villainy, which helped them in The Ice Warriors but which is a bit out of place and even quite funny here.

As the TARDIS has fallen down a mountain, the Doctor and Jo seem stranded and have no choice but to enter Peladon's palace, as the outside is inhospitable. These scenes putting the location in context are excellent; if nothing else it explains why they stay indoors. After joining the action, a statue falls and nearly kills them. Hepesh warns them that it was a statue of their god Aggedor, and this is a sign that the diplomats are not wanted on Peladon. This encourages the Doctor to stay and settle the crisis.

I think the problem with The Curse of Peladon is that it takes a while to get going. This is one case where a first episode that mainly establishes the characters and setting before introducing peril at the cliffhanger doesn't work - the only groundwork laid by the first episode is bringing the Doctor into the action and arguing about diplomatic policy, and there isn't much drama in either. Further, the Doctor seems to take it for granted that he'll eventually get the TARDIS back, even though it fell quite a long way. Perhaps I just miss the days when getting back to the TARDIS was pivotal to the resolution of the story, it seemed truer to the Doctor's character somehow. Especially considering he's in a position where he might need to make a quick getaway (as indeed he does at the end).

The Doctor quickly finds himself accused of attacking Arcturus by removing a vital component, which Jo is found with after finding it in the Ice Warriors's quarters. The Doctor is locked up but released into some tunnels, where he ends up in Aggedor's shrine. Naturally, he is found there and his execution is immediately ordered for his sacriliege. A tense cliffhanger.

Fortunately, the resolution promises action - King Peladon gives the Doctor an alternative - a fight to the death with the King's Champion. Episode 3 is a strange one, apparently gearing towards the story's climax with both the story's major action scene (the Doctor's fight) and the disclosure of the villain (Hepesh). Hepesh offers the Doctor a way out, leading him instead into the path of the beast Aggedor, which is very real. He hypnotises it but Jo shows up and scares it away. Jo, you stupid girl. The fight itself is pretty good, though in my head I was comparing it to its counterpart in The Aztecs so thats not a great compliment (the enclosed, royal/political nature of the story meant The Aztecs was in my head throughout the story - perhaps that's why I'm hard on it).

After winning the fight and deciding to spare his opponent's life, Arcturus shoots the Doctor, but the lead Ice Warrior shoots him first. As Hepesh runs off, it's revealed that he and Arcturus were working together to stop Peladon joining the Federation, with Arcturus reaching a secret agreement with Hepesh to trade for Peladon's rare minerals. This apparent resolution at the beginning of the final episode seems to come at the wrong time - the only thing thats left to do is capture Hepesh, something that should only take a minute or two. The fact that it's dragged out until the end of the episode turns out not to be the disappointment that it could have been - in the intervening time the Doctor goes to find Aggedor again to confront Hepesh with it, and as a desperate Hepesh tries to control Aggedor, he is killed by the beast. How neat for the plot.

It's hard to come to a conclusion on The Curse of Peladon. I wasn't keen on Jo's subplot with Peladon - David Troughton was clearly trying very hard in the role but he comes across as quite an inexperienced actor, and Katy Manning oversells Jo's conflicted emotions. It's wrong, wrong, wrong, and a pity because Jo is great in the rest of the story. Jon Pertwee gets to flex his singing voice, and pulls off something I doubt many other Doctors could. Ultimately, out of all the studio-bound dialogue-driven stories, this isn't one of the best; the characters fail to come alive (although Alpha Centauri is hilarious) and thus the whole thing sort of flounders. At four parts however, it just about works.

Horror quotient - When the Ice Warriors are the good guys, you know where the story is leaning. It is quite atmospheric, though.
Comedy quotient - Pertwee gets a chance to be daft, even with the threat of execution looming.
Drama quotient - I didn't care much about the diplomacy plot, and was ambivalent about the conspiracy plot. It chugged along fine otherwise.

A solid story, if a tad boring, and certainly no better than average.


Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Day of the Daleks

Previous viewings - none

Talk about starting the new season with a bang! The universe's most fearsome pepperpots are back after an astonishing five-year absence to scare a new generation of kids with their deadly sink plungers - okay, so they're probably the same kids as before, but it's certainly a new generation of Doctor Who, one that has successfully broken away from the past such that, coupled with the lengthy absence of the Daleks, makes it quite seem quite groundbreaking seeing the Pertwee Doctor and UNIT facing the show's biggest icon of the 60s.

Which makes Day of the Daleks quite an oddity. You'd think that with the Daleks being gone so long the producers would aim for a "typical" Dalek story, one that shows them in all their glory as people remember them at their peak. A consequence of Louis Marks's story originally being written without the Daleks in mind is that they're shoehorned into a rigid plot which doesn't leave much room for the Daleks to make much impact. Dalek stories have always been special - longer than four episodes, containing a big confrontation with the Doctor and usually being a turning point in the tenure of a companion or two. As a Dalek story, it feels lacking because they feel like guests in their own story, half-heartedly integrated into a story that worked perfectly without them. And indeed, the Daleks are probably the story's weakest aspect.

Fortunately, the rest of the story is very strong. We finally leave the Master behind as UNIT investigates a diplomat who has seen a ghost - though he later denies it. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo see future versions of themselves in the TARDIS, indicating a stitch in time. He and Jo stay at Sir Reginald's house while he is away at a conference, and soldiers from the future arrive to kill the diplomat, as they believe his death will prevent the disastrous future they come from. Yep, Doctor Who predicts The Terminator.

I do love time paradox plots, because they nearly always have twists. They're sci-fi's answer to murder mysteries - the universe is the victim, and the hapless protagonists are the killers. The Doctor is dropped into a situation to break the cycle of destruction. We're drip-fed revelations here, with the true nature of the plot saved until near the climax, but the surprise appearance of the Daleks (well, they're in the title, but you know what I mean) and plenty of action keeps things zipping along until the Doctor realises that by killing Sir Reginald the soldiers will be responsible for the very war they are trying to prevent. Perhaps because of the faster-than-usual pace of the story, I was caught up in the action and didn't see this coming, even though in retrospect it's totally obvious.

The future we see here brings back memories of The Dalek Invasion of Earth - desolation, Daleks and survivors trying to fight back. It's an atmospheric setting for what little we see of it, and in a way it's a shame that the story gives so much time over to the scenes in the present day because we sacrifice something different for something familiar. Further, the majority of the future scenes are set in the control centre, where the Daleks discuss their plans to recapture the soldiers. The Daleks have... odd.... voices - calm, almost polite! It feels like after getting the voices pitch-perfect in the Troughton Dalek stories, we're back at square one and it's jarring. To an extent it makes them not even seem like proper Daleks. They certainly don't act like them - working with the Ogrons and allowing future humans to live if they are useful. They don't even rant about their superiority and the plot isn't about exterminating or destroying, it's about preserving and saving, which is just so un-Dalek. To have a story with the most unique and distinct alien creature ever created for Doctor Who and make them seem so bland is quite a feat.

The conclusion sees the the Ogrons and a few Daleks travel to the past to kill the soldiers, and thus protect their own history. In the open air, away from claustrophobic sets the fact that there are only three Daleks is difficult to hide, and they're anything but scary. The Ogrons are cool though - convincing looking, and believable and simplistic brutes, which is all that's required of them. Certainly a step up from the Robomen. As UNIT holds them off, the Doctor evacuates the house of a Chinese delegation and one of the soldiers blows it up with the Daleks inside.

Day of the Daleks is a story that's better than I give it credit for. The Daleks are undeniably a let down, but putting them aside, there's little to complain about. The pacing is quite unusual for the series, and for once the story doesn't linger in one place or plot point for long, and there aren't many Pertwee stories you can say that for. It would make a nice new series two-parter with very few changes.

The other good thing about it is the characters. For once, Pertwee is at the top of his game - whether that's because he is having a good time making it, or because the Doctor has finally grown out of Season 8 grouchiness, I'm not sure, but it allows his Doctor to be more playful, which is fun. Jo gets lots to do, both opposite the Doctor and the Controller, the main guest of the story, who bonds with Jo to trick her into revealing the location of the soldiers, but who later betrays the Daleks who had kept him alive because he was one of the privileged few. As dim as Jo is sometimes (okay, a lot), most of her idiotic moments come about from her trying to help the Doctor, so if nothing else her heart is in the right place, plus Katy Manning is likeable in the role. UNIT seems quite out of place in this story, as their only job is to set up the conference part of the plot. It's almost a shame that present day has to mean UNIT in this era as this is a story that could have done without them and devoted more time to exploring the future setting.

All in all, jolly good show.

Horror quotient - The Daleks are probably at their least scary here. A story should be created around the Daleks, but here they're bolted onto a time travel story that doesn't leave much room for Nazi allegories and moody lighting.
Comedy quotient - Hmmm.... can't think of much. Though I liked the bit where the Doctor knocks out the soldier then sips his wine. Very James Bond.
Drama quotient - Bits and bobs. For the most part the story moves too fast to savour the drama and horror of the Dalek-run future, as The Dalek Invasion of Earth does. Then again, we've been there and done that, so maybe it's not such a bad thing.

It's probably the only time I'll say this, but here we have a classic story.... but then the Daleks show up. I love the Daleks, but some stories are better without them, and this is one of them. They could at least have got the voices right!


Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Dæmons

Previous viewings – none

The Dæmons is a story I’ve wanted to see for ages. From the way it’s described, I had it pegged as the better cousin of The Claws of Axos – the UNIT Family era in all its coziness, but done right. Sitting snugly at the end of Season 8, it’s a five-part story by Robert Sloman, with heavy input by producer Barry Letts, so we can expect mild exploration of a topical issue. It all sounds so very The Green Death.

Doctor Who isn’t hard sci-fi by any means, in fact things like the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver are more magic than science, so it could come off as a bit cheeky for the show to address the magic vs. science issue, putting itself firmly on the science side, noting that anything remotely supernatural can be explained away by science. It’s in keeping with the character of the Doctor and something the show has implied throughout its existence, but never has the realm of the supernatural been dismissed so readily, and at times none too subtly, in such a manner that the Doctor might as well be speaking directly to the camera. There was perhaps no other way to do it, but it comes off as quite patronising and even agenda-setting.

The story itself is great though. The first episode packs a lot in, establishing the village of Devil’s End (yeah, it had to be called that, didn’t it?), and establishing the plot via a BBC news report investigating the excavation of the Devil’s Hump, with the same device used to introduce us to the guest characters, namely local witch Miss Hawthorne, who warns the archaeologists not to open an ancient tomb which has been discovered. The reporter is a clever plot device as it puts us in the know very quickly, as a real news report would, via a completely irrelevant character we don’t have to know or care about (notice how he vanishes when the Doctor arrives). The setup required is minimal.

The UNIT crew are lazing around as the Brigadier is away, and the Doctor shows off his remote control device for Bessie. He sees the TV and rushes to Devil’s End to stop the tomb being opened, arriving just too late and getting blasted when it’s opened, while at the same time the Master (again!) chants somewhere in some robes. In this story, the Master is trying to summon Azal, a Dæmon with immense power whose spaceship is in the Devil’s Hump. He hopes Azal will grant him immense power (ooh, original!), and the “magic” aspect of the story is nothing more than the Master’s usual mind control tricks and his use of the telekinetic energy from the villagers chanting to summon Azal. Of his stories so far, the Master is least restrained in this, at his most unhinged, spending most of his time chanting, which gets boring after a while. This doesn’t hurt the story but the Master has been a great asset to the stories so far, and it’s weird for Delgado’s presence not to significantly improve things. However pivotal his role, he feels peripheral.

The Doctor is knocked out for most of Episode 2, with most of the action falling to Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates, who head for Devil’s End after seeing things going wrong on the TV (weird that they seem to be the only ones concerned about it considering it was on national television). They find some unfriendly villagers and a concerned Hawthorne, who teams up with them. Miss Hawthorne is a strange one – she’s a witch, and is more than willing to challenge the Doctor about his stance on the supernatural, but when she does, she’s shot down. Thanks to a good performance by Damaris Hayman, she’s likeable and retains her dignity, so she never comes off as foolish, and fortunately she is not written as the humourless quack you’d expect.

UNIT tries to enter the village in Episode 3 but can’t get past a barrier which burns anything which tries to enter the town, even from above. This was quite a cool plot twist, because there were some funny scenes of the Doctor trying (and failing) to advise UNIT’s alternative gadget man, unable to pass through and fix the problem himself, and of the Brigadier’s patience wearing thin as their attempts to penetrate the barrier fail. Also, it kept UNIT out of action, keeping the focus on the village and the villagers, allowing us the scenes in Episode 4, where the Doctor is kidnapped during the May Day celebrations, where the people under the Master’s influence try to burn him alive (what a great cliffhanger that would have been! Surprising they pass up the opportunity). Miss Hawthorne warns them that he is a great wizard, and demonstrates his powers using trickery. When released, he gives an obligatory lecture that science is the answer, not magic, before setting off to save Jo, who is to be sacrificed to Azal.

And then it all goes so wrong. In Episode 5, we get the hilarity of the Brigadier’s “chap with wings” line – which I never got but seeing it in context makes all the difference – but the climactic scenes of the Master summoning Azal are ruined by a pretty rubbish resolution, of Azal deciding to destroy the Doctor until Jo steps in and demands that she be sacrificed in the Doctor’s place. Unable to comprehend the notion of self-sacrifice, Azal destroys itself, blowing up the church and the plot. I can only assume the writers were totally stuck on how to resolve the story because Azal’s nonsensical demise comes out of nowhere, surely a (I hate using the term but it fits) deux ex machina. It’s not even as if there wasn’t time left, or the crisis was unsolvable. Very weak, and such a shame for a story that had been very good up to that point.

It’s the inverse of The War Games – the conclusion makes the whole story suffer. That’s not to say there isn’t loads of great stuff in The Dæmons – the characters and themes are solid and it’s very atmospheric. If you like the UNIT family, everything you like is here, and it’s nowhere near as shabby looking as in The Claws of Axos. The regulars look like they’re having a great time, and there’s loads of action. A season in, I’m finally getting the rapport between Pertwee and Katy Manning, building on Colony in Space rather than going back to the relationship in her earlier Earthbound stories. The final scene especially underscores this – the Master is finally captured, so lets all dance and be happy.

So... Master Season isn’t the master of seasons. But at least Doctor Who feels like it’s in a good place, vibrant and imaginative.

Horror quotient – Even the Master fears Azal, getting a cliffhanger to himself as it menaces him (what’s that about, anyway?). For the first time since Troughton left, Doctor Who has a right to call itself scary for reasons intended, rather than because the CSO is dodgy.
Comedy quotient – I’ve mentioned a few favourite moments. With the increasing emphasis on comedy with the Brigadier (he joins the action because he’s worried about his helicopter?), we lose some of the believability of the man as a military man of some importance, but it works in this story.
Drama quotient – Plenty of this too. The tension is deflated by the crappy conclusion, but until then it’s a solid story.

Like a lot of Pertwee stories, everything works well, but it lacks that certain oomph that classics are made of, and is held together by charm. The conclusion is a big disappointment, though.


Saturday, 12 September 2009

Colony in Space

Previous viewings - none

It's the story that heralds a return to time and space... but Colony in Space isn't a return to anything else we're familiar with. In fact, there's as much new here as there was in the first UNIT story: it's the first of the Earth Empire subset of stories that seem to crop up a lot in the Pertwee era, it's among the first to give us a future setting but make the primary threat to the human protagonists in the story other humans rather than aliens, who sit on the sidelines until near the end (it is written by Malcolm Hulke after all). Sad to say, it's also one of the first to have a rather tedious premise.

The Doctor is showing Jo the TARDIS when the Time Lords whisk them away to the planet Uxarieus, much to the Brig's surprise. It's a great start the story never quite lives up to - we get a glimpse of the Time Lords discussing the Master and a doomsday weapon, which seems to promise some scope to the adventure which never materialises, and for the first time in what seems like forever we have a companion reacting to the TARDIS. Jo is unique in that she’s experiencing the rite of passage that all new companions experience, but she’s not a new companion. We already know her, and we’ve seen the world she occupies – sure it’s fantastic, but the Doctor’s been there to guide her and she understands him, and that’s enough. It’s only when what she thought she knew about him is thrown into doubt that she gets scared. The marathon also puts into context the Doctor’s frustrations at Jo wanting to deprive him of his first visit to an alien planet in ages, and how he feels at conceding after a quick look around. So I get both viewpoints, and a good idea of the warmth between the characters.

I'm too used the convention of Doctor Who plot unfolding to hold the action-free first episode against the story. In the UNIT era, this has become a rare convention, so how do viewers feel when episode after episode ticks by and the story remains focused on dialogue and a dispute over land? Certainly, Colony in Space seems somewhat ashamed of itself, with the first two cliffhangers featuring what looks like a monster but what turns out to be a mining robot.

Fortunately it establishes a strong set of characters, with some old faces from old stories turning up, not that I’d ever have realised it without looking at the cast credits because they’re a capable bunch; the group we’re introduced to first are the colonists, who came to the planet a year ago but have had difficulty farming the area. John Ringham plays Ashe, leader of the colonists, who is intelligent but determined man who is instinctively non-aggressive and accepts the Doctor’s aid. He doesn’t get to do much but he’s a sympathetic character and has an everyman quality that means we’re on his side. Also at the colony are the obligatory more aggressive one Winton, who fills his role but does little more, and Mary Ashe, who is someone for Jo to befriend, at least at the start, although the presence of Gail from Corrie takes me right out of the story whenever she appears.

While investigating two deaths, the Doctor encounters Caldwell, who works for the IMC mining company who have arrived on the colony to mine it. The Doctor quickly determines that the miners have been trying to scare the colonists away. Apart from the benevolent Caldwell, none of the miners come to life as characters, serving only to throw a spanner in the works to facilitate the plot.

Then there’s the Primitives, cheap-looking aliens who live in a tacky city... but coming after the Axons they certainly do their job fine by comparison. At least the aliens are a good idea – a faded empire whose secrets lie in their city, but who themselves have turned into lobotomised, silent drones. For all its faults in the realisation, it stands as an interesting contrast to the rest of the story but somehow also fits right in. The tiny one is creepy though. The Doctor makes a brief trip there to rescue Jo, and they’re allowed to leave on condition they never return.

The story gets a well-needed shock moment when the Adjudicator arrives to decide which of the Earth parties has the right to stay on the planet, and it’s the Master! (Something that would have been a lot more surprising if the Master wasn’t a series regular and his presence hadn’t been mentioned in the teaser.) Any reason for Roger Delgado to show up is fine by me, and at least here it’s in a totally different setting from the norm, and he gets plenty of scenes with the Doctor. For the first time, we see the inside of the Master’s TARDIS, and it’s just like the Doctor’s except with more equipment in the control room. It might be foolhardy to treat the Master as a real character and not a caricature, but while writing can sometimes let the side down I think that Delgado has shown that he can at least keep the Master above panto villain level (no easy task, I’m sure), keeping him a credible threat and a man who, while clearly insane, doesn’t show it by putting on a performance.

When the Master rules in favour of the miners, and pretends to be interested in helping Ashe with his appeal, on the basis that the presence of the primitive city makes the planet a place of historical interest that shouldn’t be mined of its natural resources. The Master forces the Doctor to accompany him to the city, with Jo trapped inside the Master’s TARDIS and able to be killed at the touch of a button. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the last couple of episodes are fast-paced, but they do deliver more tension and excitement than the previous four. We finally get a battle between the colonists and the miners, and the Master outlines his plan to access the dormant doomsday weapon left by the civilisation on Uxarieus, as he hopes to use it to rule the cosmos. I know this is usual Master stuff, but Delgado’s restrained performances seem at odds with the more insane speeches he is required to give. It’s a good moment for the Doctor though as he is delighted when the lead primitive decides that the weapon should be destroyed so the Master isn’t able to follow through his plan.

While this is happening, we’re led to believe that the colonists, having been forced to leave by head miner Dent, have tried to take off in their ship but blown up. This was a great plot point as it briefly made me believe that the writer had done something very daring – but when it turned out that Ashe had sacrificed himself it wasn’t a disappointment. The plot resolves itself very neatly, with the colonists overpowering the IMC men in a surprise attack, and the future looking bright for them with the destruction of the city that was responsible for their crops failing.

Colony in Space isn’t without its faults – it’s still quite a slow-paced story that however diverting isn’t actually about anything interesting – but coming after eight UNIT stories in a row, watching it as part of a marathon is a joy. True, the Master shows up yet again, but the story would have suffered if he hadn’t. All you need for a good Doctor Who is a strong set of characters, decent villains and a strong performance by the lead. By now, you kind of know what you’re getting with Jon Pertwee, there is little variation in his performances but they’re always good. For a great Doctor Who story you need more, but this has the essentials and no elements, aside from the pacing, particularly let it down. Quite underrated.

Horror quotient – The Guardian, perhaps? Or the primitives in general. I’m never going to be scared.
Comedy quotient – Mac Hulke is generally a non-comedic writer. Under his pen, Pertwee’s Doctor came into form as one of the most serious and that trend continues here. The comedy is subtle and limited to the odd line.
Drama quotient – The subplot of Jo’s introduction to life in the TARDIS disappears after the first couple of scenes, which is a big disappointment. Again, apart from the odd scene, there isn’t much drama to get out of the colony plot, and even less from the Master’s latest diabolical scheme. I expected more from the writer of the finest Pertwee story yet.

A story which benefits greatly from being watched in a marathon, Colony in Space doesn’t have much to offer the casual viewer but it’s unfairly maligned. If there’s a more exciting story to be told about an argument over who gets to own a quarry I’d like to see it.


Friday, 11 September 2009

The Claws of Axos

Previous viewings - many

What is Doctor Who as people remember it? I mean the general public, whose memories of the classic series, if they have any, are hazy recollections from childhood. It’s not uncommon for adults to mock TV shows they liked when they were young to show how much their tastes have matured. In the UK, Doctor Who is a frequent victim of this phenomenon, and even though I’m a fan of the programme, I can’t deny that occasionally it does deserve it. For the first time in the marathon (black and white did wonders for the atmosphere of the early stories), we have a story that exactly fits the bill for those who remember Doctor Who for its cheap-looking monsters, wobbly sets and terrible acting.

Thats not all that’s familiar in The Claws of Axos. The plot is ripped from half a dozen other Pertwee stories – an alien invasion, with the twist that the aliens pretend to be benevolent to gain a foothold. This is mixed with the usual UNIT escapades with pompous officials on the sidelines, and the Doctor making sarky comments. Staying as close to the basic Pertwee formula as possible, with little to recommend it over its contemporaries and a budget looking lower than ever, can the essentials of what made the era successful at the time carry this story?

The plot is rather thin. An Axon ship lands on Earth near a power complex in England, and the Brigadier leads a team inside, where they meet the Axons, a shape-shifting race that take on the form of gold-skinned humanoids when talking to humans and spaghetti monsters when attacking. Despite an interesting idea behind them, the Axons suffer because they’re an attempt to get the best of both worlds – they’re scary faceless monsters of the type kids loved in the Troughton era, and they’re also individual, reasonable aliens like the Silurians. Neither depiction of the Axons is used to its full potential, and they come across as forgettable.They’re certainly not helped by the realisation of the aliens, the gold aliens are fine except I don’t know whether that’s supposed to be skin or clothes, but the spaghetti monsters – it’s monsters like them that give the classic show a bad name. Looking and moving like men in giant bean bags, they render the whole thing a laughing stock. They’re used sparingly, but frustratingly whenever they do appear it seems to be at one of the story’s key moments.

The Doctor is immediately suspicious of the Axon’s gift of Axonite, which will cure world hunger. He convinces the local scientists to study Axonite before it’s released to the government, but he’s captured by the Axons, who want to time travel to extend their feeding stock (despite them already possessing the Master’s TARDIS). Aside from a few scenes, mostly opposite Roger Delgado, Jon Pertwee lacks the charisma and presence he usually has, and for the first time in a Pertwee story I am not understanding the Doctor’s motivations. He just seems to flit around from plot point to plot point with little purpose, and it’s disappointing as Pertwee so far has been a revelation, surpassing my expectations.

As civil servant Chinn tries to get his hands on the Axonite, securing an agreement to limit its use to the UK, the Master brokers a deal with the Axons to ensure that the rest of the world finds out about the secret deal, but upon his release from Axon capture, makes his way to the Doctor’s TARDIS, hoping to escape in it, leaving Earth to the Axons. I have no complaints about the Master’s return, in fact if anything Roger Delgado should have been in more stories. He always delivers a performance far above what the role deserves. I like that in this story he gets a chance to interact with the regulars more, rather than just hypnotise people and take on disguises. His scene with the Brigadier is a particular highlight – the Master is forced to help destoy the Axons to save the Earth, but his plan will sacrifice the Doctor and Jo. The Master is hilarious in this scene, enjoying the Brigadier’s discomfort at having to work with him. Good cliffhanger, too, until the silliness takes over again.

The final episode is the best one. The Doctor agrees to leave Earth with the Master, but instead takes him to the Axon ship in his now-repaired TARDIS and dupes the Axons into thinking he’s giving them time travel when he’s actually trapping them in a time loop. Any scene with Pertwee and Delgado sparring is wonderful, and while this doesn’t disappoint, it’s a pity that the Doctor has to pretend to go along with the Master’s plan, if only because it means they aren’t arguing; it certainly feels like a big moment from the marathon perspective for the Doctor to seemingly get a working TARDIS back, even if I know in advance that he isn’t going anywhere with it.

The Claws of Axos is a middling kind of story. The bad about it is appalling – aside from the stuff I’ve mentioned, there’s Bill Filer and his “accent”, the same old Dudley Simpson music (though there is some good stuff too, particularly in the first episode), spaghetti monsters (okay I did mention them, but thought I’d do it again because they’re REALLY bad), the caricatured Chinn, and Jo hardly doing anything (she was great in The Mind of Evil!). Certainly compared to Liz by this point, Jo hasn’t really justified her presence beyond Terror of the Autons.

And yet, it has a certain quality. As I noted earlier, there’s a familiarity about it, but the familiarity of a favourite pair of slippers. If you’re a fan, it’s safe to say that budget doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan of the Pertwee era, everything you like is here, even if it’s not the best examples of its type of story. Unspectacular, but a good watch.

Horror quotient – Don’t do that. Seriously, don’t do that.
Comedy quotient – A rather lighthearted story and that’s a good thing. I hate when things take themselves too seriously – the quality isn’t always there to support it. Only the Doctor himself is a bit humourless, although he’s funny in the last scene. A galactic yo-yo!
Drama quotient – There’s another attempt to drag politics and morals into Doctor Who, and this isn’t one of the best stories to attempt it. Any hint of drama is lost under the low-budgetness of it all.

Not a favourite, but at least it has a sense of humour. Certainly no better than average though.


Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Mind of Evil

Previous viewings - none

For some reason, this is a story I expected to like. I've heard it described as a throwback to Season 7, but with the Master. If you're going to watch a Pertwee story, that's a damn good combination. Then there's the return of black and white, always good for adding atmosphere, a pseudo-political plot with no monsters, and the return of Don Houghton as writer, so I'm expecting a fairly mature story of the sort I'm now used to in this era. Excited enough?

It’s justified, but only to an extent. I’m relieved to see the pitfalls Houghton fell into when writing Inferno are avoided this time, namely the tedious repetition and padding. However, I’m not convinced the plot was sufficiently thought through.

Following Terror of the Autons, the Master is trapped on Earth because the Doctor has the dematerialization circuit from his TARDIS. The Master’s scheme this time doesn’t involve helping the latest invading army of monsters, rather he has concocted a scheme himself, aiming to fire a missile at a World Peace Conference, using prisoners from Stangmoor Prison to hijack the missile from UNIT. This is all fine and dandy, but it’s not six episodes worth of story.

Whether because Houghton wants to provide a context to the various elements of the plot, or because he liked the idea of seemingly unrelated storylines coming together at the conclusion, a lot of screentime is devoted to the Conference early in the story, with UNIT providing security giving our characters reason to be there. Also, the Master, under the name of Professor Keller, has invented the Keller Machine, a device used on criminals to cure them of violent impulses, which piques the Doctor’s curiosity, which explains his presence at Stangmoor at the start of the story. Although enjoyable, for the sake of plot it’s a pity they are included because we can’t just visit these places, things have to happen there that contribute to the plot, and for the most part they’re superfluous. They only don’t feel like it at the time because I expect them to be explained. It might be silly of me to expect the Master to concoct a scheme that makes sense, but this comes across to me as an attempt by the writer to make a shorter story longer.

Putting plot logic aside, this story is far from a failure. It doesn’t quite feel like Season 7 – swapping Liz for Jo makes all the difference, though Jo’s ditziness is very toned down from Terror of the Autons. At Stangmoor Prison, Professor Kettering demonstrates the use of the Keller Machine, until it goes wrong. I was quite annoyed with the Doctor in this scene – making rather loud snide comments to Jo seemed quite Troughton-esque, and I’m not sure Pertwee carried it off without seeming rude. I think of him as one of the most serious Doctors, who very rarely jokes around. I didn’t comment on it much but he was the same in the previous story – he comes off as quite angry and rather bitter. Strange to think that losing Liz seems to have annoyed him more than his actual exile (although he is friendlier to Jo here than before).

Trouble is brewing, however. Two deaths occur – a guy is mauled when alone, and a man drowns without water, both drawing on their greatest fear. Even though it’s obvious what caused them, it follows the typical ‘setup’ formula common to first episodes, ending with a good cliffhanger of the Doctor almost becoming a third victim by imagining himself in the exploding planet in Inferno. At this point, it can go either way, but it’s a decent episode.

From there, however, the World Peace Conference plot is introduced, and the Doctor is called away, leaving the Keller machine investigation in the (in?)capable hands of Jo. Unbeknown to UNIT, a member of the Chinese delegation, Chin Li, is being controlled by the Master, and she is used to kill the Chinese delegate, stirring up trouble between the Chinese and the Americans, before going missing. What I like about this subplot – aside from being quite novel for Doctor Who (although common in spy stories) – is that it reinforces the believability of UNIT as a real organization. For once, their interests and the Doctor’s are separate, and it takes a lot to pique the Doctor’s interest, as he’s become used to concerning himself only with extra-terrestrial events. Plus for some reason it’s weird to see the Master interfering with ordinary Earth politics.

Unfortunately, as I said before, it’s a lot of time devoted to something that, although interesting, doesn’t matter. The Master wants to stir up relations between American and Chinese delegates to set the scene for the firing of the missile, but it just feels weird to seemingly completely abandon a subplot that’s been the main focus of two episodes only to justify it by implying its importance at the conclusion. Out of the two main settings – this and the prison – this is the more interesting and this is where the bulk of the story should have been set.

With the Master’s hypnosis of Chin Li discovered, she becomes co-operative, so the Doctor returns to Stangmoor while UNIT transports a missile to be destroyed. Jo and scientist Dr Summers (the ever-reliable Michael Sheard) have been besieged by rioting prisoners led by Mailer, who has been working with the Master thinking him merely as a shady inventor and businessman who he can manipulate. Here, the story hits a snag – the Doctor is stuck in a cell with Jo for most of the rest of the story, and seemingly every cliffhanger involves the Keller Machine almost killing the Doctor until he’s rescued at the last possible second. It’s quite an action-lite tale, with the two main setpieces being the theft of the missile and the conclusion, and neither is very exciting. Part of me suspects that the reason this story is one of the least discussed of the Pertwee era is that most people’s lasting memory of the story is the Doctor and Jo being stuck in that cell for what seems like an eternity.

Captain Yates gives chase after the UNIT taskforce is attacked by the prisoners and the missile taken. He is then captured himself and questioned by the Master. UNIT retake the prison and the Brig marches off with a taskforce to take on the Master, but the Doctor offers the Master a chance to reclaim his missing circuit in exchange for not firing the missile, although the Brigadier doesn’t like the idea, encouraging the Doctor to come up with an alternative: using the Keller machine as a weapon against the Master. The conclusion, like many of the era, contains plenty of running around and shooting, but isn’t particularly memorable. I did like the last scene of the Master phoning the Doctor to gloat about having a fully functional TARDIS though, and the Doctor bemoaning his continued exile.

By the end, I’m not sure what The Mind of Evil is supposed to be about. It’s place in the ‘Master arc’ is to allow the Master to turn the tables on the Doctor after being tricked in the previous story, and give the pair another chance to spar, but there isn’t much of that. The Keller Machine is invented by the Master as a tool for killing people – what happened to the Tissue Compression Eliminator? It’s very lucky too that the Doctor finds a way to use it against the Master.

What I look out for in Jon Pertwee’s performance at this stage is the ever-developing chemistry between Pertwee and Katy Manning. They’ve already come a long way since Terror of the Autons, and it helps that the Doctor seems to have forgiven her for not being as qualified as Liz, however that could be because Jo’s part in this story was written for Liz – as much as I love Jo, leaving her to handle the Keller investigation herself was hard to swallow, and her managing it well was even more so. I’m also really liking Sergeant Benton, who had a bigger part in this story than usual, his own subplot actually, with him messing up by losing Chin Li then trying to redeem himself. He was clearly having a great time being in charge of the prison, too.

All of this aside, it’s too flawed a story for me to score highly. I think there was a worthy Doctor Who to get out of the idea of the Keller machine, and of the Master trying to pit countries against each other, but putting them in the same story has done them both harm.

Horror quotient – The Keller machine cliffhanger is overused, but is never scary anyway. Nope, no killer dolls or man-eating chairs here.
Comedy quotient – The Doctor and the Brigadier are making for quite the unintentional comedy double-act. I’m still waiting for the Brig to lose it and punch the Doctor though.
Drama quotient – Drama depends on a plot flowing well, which this doesn’t. It starts off well, but the disappointment takes over by about Episode 4.

An entertaining story but one that could have been better with more action and less plodding around.