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.


Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Terror of the Autons

Previous viewings - one

If pushed, I’d probably agree that Season 7 is streets ahead of the rest of the Pertwee era, but one of the great things about it is that it knew when to end, stylistically, before it got dull. With Terror of the Autons, the UNIT era becomes an ongoing story with the addition of recurring baddie the Master, Katy Manning joins the cast as the more traditional companion Jo Grant, shorter stories make a return and the revolving door of alien invasions commences. It’s like putting on a pair of comfort slippers – this is the first time in the new decade it feels like the production team are thinking long-term instead of taking it a story at a time.

Introductions first. If you’re going to be stuck on Earth it makes sense to have a singular returning villain, not just because it gives Jon Pertwee a chance to develop a rapport with someone his character will spar with regularly, but because it provides a get-out-clause for the writers, who before had to think up a variety of plots involving aliens that just happen to occur now that UNIT and the Doctor are around; if the Master being there makes sense, so does the presence of any monster of the week.

As a rogue Time Lord, possessing intelligence equal or greater than the Doctor’s, the Master is a credible threat. The thing about the character is that he shouldn’t work – Roger Delgado plays the role straight but the clichéd appearance – the goatee and black clothes – is pure panto. Yet somehow the writing and the performance overcome this craft a character who make perhaps the greatest impact of any single character since the Doctor himself. A classic creation.

In his debut story, the Master uses his power of hypnosis to influence the manager of a plastics factory, and send a signal to the Nestene enabling them to control their Autons on Earth, and eventually to invade Earth. The Autons don’t appear as much as they did in Spearhead from Space but their new look is creepy, with big smiling heads. Despite being an agent of a greater power, the Master is true villain of the piece. We follow his actions from his arrival on Earth to his defeat, and though we aren’t privy to his motives (not that they need much explanation), the fact that he leads the plot, with the Doctor always a few steps behind, allows him to dominate the story.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is upset over Liz Shaw’s decision to stay at Cambridge, and to make matters worse a new assistant is forced upon him, one who has none of Liz’s qualifications and only got the job through nepotism. The good thing about Jo’s first scene, where she wrecks the Doctor’s experiment, is that we share his frustration, but when soon afterwards the Brigadier gives the Doctor the task of telling Jo that her services are not required, and the Doctor hasn’t the heart to do so, I hadn’t yet accepted Jo, so would have been quite happy for her to disappear. Jo tries to prove herself capable by chasing her own leads in the investigation, but it usually leads to disaster, and though I liked her for her bravery and loyalty to the Doctor (which seems to be borne out of admiration), there were a few times when her screeching was down there with the worst of Victoria or Susan. Aside from vague hints of the deeper relationship that will develop between Jo and the Doctor, Jo’s debut is far from a success.

Onto the actual plot. UNIT is led to a radio telescope where some scientists have gone missing, but one of them turns up dead and shrunken, the work of the Master’s tissue compression eliminator. From there it’s back to UNIT HQ while the Doctor works out what to do next. A lead takes him to a circus which leads to a great cliffhanger of a policeman being unmasked as an Auton, and a shootout between UNIT and some Autons… then back to the lab. It never feels like UNIT or the Doctor are making any progress because after every setpiece involving them they’re left back at square one.

Fortunately, the Master’s part of the plot is interesting enough that it doesn’t seem to matter. His infiltration of Farrel’s plastics factory under the guise of Colonel Masters is fun to watch, mainly because of Roger Delgado’s performance. His Master always seems intelligent and dangerous, even when pretending to be a charming businessman. I like that Farrel Sr. withstood his mind control attempt, not just because it led to some scary monster doll scenes (about as scary as CSO can be, anyway!), but because I thought the fact that the Master wasn’t angry about it but rather quite impressed was a nice touch, and said a lot about the character.

The conclusion comes about rather abruptly – like I said before, the story has little sense of progression. The Doctor stops the Master from contacting the Nestene, but the Master escapes after some disguise trickery. Having stolen the dematerialisation circuit from his TARDIS, however, the Doctor knows he and the Master will meet again.

Terror of the Autons is greater than the sum of its parts. At four episodes, it’s just long enough that it’s curious pacing doesn’t get annoying. The Master, with his own theme music, is very strong villain, it’s a pity we don’t get to see him interact with the Doctor much here but Delgado still manages to carry the story. Perhaps the best thing about the story is its shock reveal moments – the doll coming to life, the shrunken scientist, the Auton policeman – this might not be Robert Holmes’s best work, but it does a good job of establishing what we’ll be tuning in for week after week as the Pertwee era continues, and dares us to miss it.

Horror quotient – Even growing up in 90s, I would have been terrified of that doll as a kid. The disjointed movement of CSO is far scarier than CGI, which looks cartoonish when done poorly. The Doctor’s quite scary in this too – he hasn’t been this grumpy since the days of Hartnell.
Comedy quotient – Difficult one. Pertwee’s gurning is hilarious.
Drama quotient – Robert Holmes is not a good drama writer. I can’t think of any moment of pure drama in this or any of his stories.

There is some element of disappointment – Jo’s debut suffers in a story that’s all about introducing the Master. But what an introduction! Not a great story, but a good one.


Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Previous viewings – many

Far from being limited to telling a narrow range of stories, the production team of the time has imagination on its side that’s seen it deliver an excellent Season 7, in fact so far in the Pertwee era there has been more story variation than in Season 5, where the Doctor had free reign of time and space. All the writers need is imagination and determination, give or take inspiration by Quatermass. Inferno follows the trend of trying to avoid an alien invasion without changing the setting and utililising UNIT, presenting us this time with a parallel universe, with twists on the characters we know (with the new larger cast probably being the reason we haven’t had a parallel universe story yet).

There are shades of the Troughton era, particularly Fury from the Deep, in the early episodes, where we are introduced to some characters, working for a drilling project which is supposed to penetrate the Earth’s crust to find a new energy source. Professor Stahlman is the arrogant top man, one of the best of the line of obstructive base commanders, because rather than simply a plot device to slow the story down, he provides antagonism for the early episodes, which are essential because they set the scene allowing us to spot the differences and similarities in the parallel universe later on. Also, his attitude and insecurity are a joy to watch – he’s threatened by even the presence of someone who will challenge him and prefers to assert his authority by demeaning them rather than responding to their actual opinions. He’s also unusual because until his death the only problems the base has to solve under his watch are ones he has created himself through his unwillingness to listen to anyone.

Other base personnel include Sir Keith Gold, a bureaucrat who repeatedly tries and fails to get Stahlman to listen to him, but always remains patient and friendly, a likeable character, as well as drilling expert Greg Sutton, a hardworking but down-to-Earth chap who is a little more prone to losing his rag, and Miss Petra, the assistant to Stahlman played quite unmemorably by Sheila Dunn. Fortunately it’s not too many people to get to know as the familiar UNIT crew fill out the rest of the cast.

I’ve been surprised by Jon Pertwee’s performances and particularly the characterisation of the Doctor in this season. He might later be angrier and standoffish before being softened by Jo, but in the company of Liz, he doesn’t need to extend an olive branch as she works more on his level. That’s how I rationalise it anyway. Here, the Doctor is using the drilling project’s nuclear reactor to experiment on the TARDIS console, hoping to get it to work.

The first two episodes see the story plodding along competently if unremarkably. Even though we haven’t got to the parallel universe bit yet, the story doesn’t feel like it’s lacking something, as we have a murder investigation, and a mystery of people turning green and burning anything they touch, alongside the rising tensions between the base personnel as the drill penetrates deeper and Stahlman refuses to take safety precautions, all enough to carry a typical Doctor Who story. The sound of the drilling never stops and it creates a feeling of unease because there aren’t any quiet, safe moments. And that’s just at the start, when the story is at its least intense.

The turning point comes as the Doctor activates the console as the drilling is accelerated. The Doctor and the console both vanish (as strangely does Bessie), reappearing the next episode in apparently the same hut where he just was. Something isn’t right. His sonic screwdriver fails to open the door and his equipment is gone. The Doctor drives Bessie outside but is shot at by soldiers including Benton, and has to evade them in a chase. Not many stories take a u-turn of this magnitude, and it always has me on the edge of my seat, this has the added bonus of being a u-turn that elevates an already good story into classic territory. Not that I put it all down to the mere presence of the parallel universe plotline, because the execution is flawless – we’re drip-fed revelations about this new world and provided with action and mystery in the meantime. It manages to increase the tension, and it’s not like the story wasn’t tense before. The Doctor does take a strangely long time to realise that he isn’t where he was, but it’s worth it for his amused and baffled reactions to the Brigadier and Liz’s “ridiculous getup”s.

The Doctor is captured and brought before the Brigade Leader, the Brigadier’s counterpart with an eyepatch (is that a British version of Spock with the goatee?). A Republic rules Britain and the Royal family have been executed, and the Brig and his men are overseeing the drilling project, which is more advanced here. What makes it compelling is purely cosmetic – I’m not bothered about the drilling or anything like that, I just want to see familiar characters behaving out-of-character, and the Doctor’s hilarious reactions as he denies being a spy and realises where he is, then tries in vain to explain himself. After the opening interrogation scene, most of the revelations are out of the way however, and we’re left with people facing the same problem they are facing in the real universe. It’s a bit disappointing actually because the first half of Episode3 was something of a rollercoaster and now things are almost back to normal, with the added handicap of the Doctor not being trusted and in a cell limiting the story. What started out as the best plot twist ever has got old fast.

The remainder of Episodes 3 and 4 see the pace starting to slow, but the writer and director desperately trying to maintain the atmosphere of the earlier episodes. The Doctor is interrogated by the Brigade Leader but stands by his story that he is from another universe. I can see the actors are enjoying getting the chance to play it a little differently than usual and are appropriately throwing themselves into the role – I’m surprised how hateable Nick Courtney can be when he tries – but after a while the questioning gets tiresome because it never seems to go anywhere, time just ticks by as the project approaches penetration zero, which the Doctor is desperate to prevent as it will have catastrophic consequences. The only thing that actually happens in Episode 4 is the Doctor escaping from his cell and reaching the control room, allowing us a cracking cliffhanger where he realises he’s too late to stop it and tells the staff to listen as the Earth screams out its rage. An intense performance by Pertwee, though he does have to shout to be heard over the noise of the drill. A great moment but it only disguises the fact that he doesn’t actually accomplish anything while he’s there.

With the parallel universe doomed, the characters react to the Doctor’s warning that they’re going to die, while he tries to get back to the TARDIS console and return home. I didn’t like Episodes 5 and 6 much, to be honest. Apart from the novelty of seeing the Earth destroyed and how different characters react to impending doom, it’s far too drawn out, over two episodes, and there’s some repetitiveness – Greg Sutton’s whole part in the story seems to consist of the same two arguments with Stahlman and the Brigade Leader, repeated over and over, just with more shouting each time. Sir Keith is dead in the parallel universe although I’m not sure why as I would have liked to have seen his reactions to events. Some interest was added by the Primords – the creatures people transform into when they touch the green slime the drill has picked up – but the story could have done without them and been better, by combining Episodes 5 and 6 and focusing on the human characters.

It’s almost worth it for the last parallel universe scene – the Brigade Leader threatening the Doctor at gunpoint, demanding that he take them all with him using the TARDIS console, followed by Liz shooting the Brig. I really felt the desperation of the characters, and their method of coping with certain death seemed believable.

Episode 7 is a strange one. The events playing out we’ve already seen, because they’re a repeat of the parallel universe events in Episode 4, with penetration zero approaching. The conclusion could be dramatically unsatisfying – the Doctor simply convinces them to stop drilling – no villains, no monsters save for the Primord Stahlman, and it’s something that’s over and done very quickly. To pad out the episode, the Doctor is incapacitated and delirious for quite a while, and the Brigadier suddenly obeys the orders of Stahlman and tries to keep the Doctor out of the control room. It just about works out because when the drilling is stopped it’s a huge relief, and I liked the last scene, where Sir Keith returns, having come close to suffering the same fate as the other Sir Keith, and the Doctor tries to use the TARDIS console again only to materialise in the rubbish tip. After an unremittingly tense story (or at least one that tried to be such) I enjoyed the lighthearted last scene, particularly as it’s the last we ever see of Liz.

Yep, Liz leaves, replaced by Jo in the next story after an off-screen departure. I’ve liked Liz as a character, but I can see why she was replaced – she’s too smart. I think if there is only one companion they should embody all the essential traits of a companion, while in Zoe’s case Jamie was there too, and two companions can share the essentials between them to provide the balance. I think this would become even more apparent if Liz has ventured to an alien planet with the Doctor, as much as I’d loved to have seen that.

Inferno… a Doctor Who classic? I would have said so the first time I watched it, all seven episodes in a row, the tension sustained to the end. Now, I see the better qualities of the earlier episodes, and the repetitiveness of the later ones. The best thing about the parallel universe and the characters is exploring how they’re different – if we’re going to see a traditional Doctor Who plot, I want to it to be with the characters I know and love. I found myself delighted whenever it cut back to the normal universe because I could see what the characters I actually cared about were up to. I still liked the parallel universe plotline, but the novelty didn’t last long.

Horror quotient – Season 7 is a strange one to judge, especially coming after the Troughton era which was pure behind-the-sofa television most of the time. There’s plenty here that could be scary, but it’s not presented to scare, it’s presented to be dramatic, which is different.
Comedy quotient – A few moments, but nothing big.
Drama quotient – Now you’re talking! This story probably has the longest stretch of dramatic tension in any Doctor Who, barely letting up till the end. It’s probably the reason so many fans love it.

A great story, but the parallel universe plotline doesn’t stay interesting for long, certainly not four episodes. The repetitiveness and the shouting gets annoying after a while but there are just as many understated, reflective moments that make it worth it.


Monday, 7 September 2009

The Ambassadors of Death

Previous viewings - none

The seven-parter is an interesting creature. For all my complaints about the padding in some six-parters, I've never noticed any in their longer cousins. For whatever reason, they just seem to tell richer stories, with deeper themes, more developed characters and unusual structures. I think it's true that the longer the story, the more experimentation becomes a necessity, because the beginning, middle and end will be much further apart than in a four-parter. This is good, because I like stories that stand by themselves in Who catalogue.

The Ambassadors of Death is certainly unique. Its length owes to its keeping the viewers guessing about who the villains are and what threat they pose, both the nefarious human characters as well as the aliens. A reason this is frustrating is because on first time viewing, going so long without knowing what's going on, my expectations constantly subverted, gets tiresome after a while. It's only when the story is over that I reflect on the whole story and notice the subtleties of the earlier episodes, admist the twists and turns that seemed like padding at the time. This is not a wholly satisfying approach, because once we know what's going on, there are only a few minutes left, leaving me little time to savour it.

David Whitaker returns. I approve, not just because of his Who credentials but he seems a particularly good fit to the Season 7 style; the dare I say it more adult style of the show, with a companion who is a fully rounded person and the shady human characters. Unfortunately Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s rewrites leave me wondering what Whitaker put in and what came from them – I trust that the scripts were unusable without the rewrites but in this case I think there was too many fingers in the pie. So do the writers’ ideas gel together? I’m surprised how well it flows actually, but then Terrance Dicks is a good script editor. His is the voice I can hear the least when I watch, but I imagine he was mainly worried about just getting a workable script into the studio.

The plot sees the return of a recovery probe, sent into space to investigate the disappearance of a British spacecraft. However the astronauts, who have been replaced in their spacesuits by aliens, are captured by a group of people, only to escape and kill people by touching them. What we soon learn however is that the aliens are ambassadors who are being controlled by the group, led by General Carrington, to sully public opinion of the visitors and encourage military action against them. I like the fact that this isn’t an alien invasion… to an extent. Going down the human villain route is tricky because in such a long story you need a strong sense of menace to keep the interest. Without that, we’re kept guessing until the end, when Carrington surrenders. This is to the story’s detriment; despite enjoying the exploration of how humans would react negatively to friendly aliens, the point would have been better made if we had someone who was willing to die for his beliefs and who was a clear-cut villain from at least the midpoint of the story.

The story begins in a British space centre. The influence of the Apollo missions is clear as despite the TV-scaled set and few actors the scenes of probe launches and communication with outer space is handled a lot better even than in The Seeds of Death only a year ago. That and the inclusion of a TV news reporter makes these scenes more interesting to watch than they would normally be.

Of course, UNIT and the Brigadier are hanging around, but the Doctor isn’t, being more concerned with repairing the TARDIS, what to him is a simple space mission not worth his presence. When a strange sound is heard, the Doctor realises it’s a communication from an alien race and decides to go to the space centre. As usual, the Doctor simply barges in, taking it for granted that the Brigadier will apologize on his behalf and authorise him. When a response to the alien message is sent from a nearby warehouse, UNIT are out in force to investigate, followed by a shootout in said warehouse, resulting in the capture of a culprit.

The first episode crams a lot in. It’s not often we get such a big action scene at the beginning, and the action in general in the story is probably my favourite aspect of it, they’re especially well directed by Michael Ferguson and hold interest even if the Doctor isn’t in them.

Happily, just when I thought the story was just spoiling me early, there’s an even bigger action scene in the second episode as UNIT are intercepted while transporting the recovery probe to the space centre, which results in the probe being stolen by the unknown perpetrators – until the Doctor takes it back in a hilarious sequence where he convinces the thieves to help him movie Bessie, and traps them to the car. Moments like this define the Third Doctor for me; his humour works in a different way from his predecessors but when it’s there it’s just as funny.

Unfortunately, my earlier fears about getting all the good stuff early isn’t entirely unfounded. With the action over, it’s revealed that the men who took the probe were under orders from General Carrington, who despite being from the army has been instructed to keep UNIT out of the loop because it’s a British matter. Now they team up, giving UNIT access to the astronauts, who had been removed from the capsule when nobody was looking. However, ANOTHER group of rogues shows up and kidnaps the astronauts, so we’re back to square one. Although this makes sense at the conclusion, as I was watching I thought this was a tedious twist, they’d have been better building on the threat already established (Carrington, who clearly is up to no good) than introducing a new one, even if they turn out to be one and the same. Also, the pacing slows from that of its first few episodes, as apart from the capture of Liz, not very much happens until Episode 5, when the Doctor goes up to space in a second recovery capsule.

The trouble with a story like this is that it’s interesting, but not very fun. At this point, I actually want the alien ambassadors to go on the rampage, but what we get instead is Liz escaping capture… only to be re-captured by Taltalian, a scientist who works at the space centre. I’m used to escape-recaptures, but they usually at least accomplish something leading to the eventual solution, this doesn’t, it’s just padding. I did like the character of Dr. Lennox, right from the moment he appears he seems like the most defeated person you could imagine, who continues working for the apparent head of the rogue group, Reegan, simply because he has nowhere else to go, having lost his social standing and respect in the scientific community. That he decides to take a chance and tell all to UNIT isn’t a surprise, but his death before he gets a chance is, mainly because it comes at the point where the story is gearing up towards its conclusion anyway, so I would expect UNIT to be homing in on the perpetrators. For a brief moment, the story was all about him as I felt his terror and doubt as he waited in the cell to speak to the Brigadier.

With the knowledge that the real astronauts are still in orbit, the Doctor goes into space and reaches Mars Probe Seven. The aliens in the spacesuits have been attacking and killing people on Earth, but after meeting more aliens, the Doctor finds out that ambassadors were sent to Earth following an agreement between these aliens and humans, but the ambassadors’ actions are not of their own doing. As I’ve said, a novel direction for the story to take, and it does lead to a good last episode as Carrington is revealed to be the man behind the whole scheme, but he believes he’s doing his moral duty by persuading the government to destroy the alien spaceship. My complaint about this is that as a seven-parter I feel it comes across as rather tame. The action is well integrated into the story but still seems like it’s there to make up for the fact that at its heart the story does not need any action. The low-key presence of the villains, some of whom have to co-operate with UNIT and some of whom hide away for the most of the story, combined with the fact that the aliens in spacesuits, destroying with every touch, would make for a scary Doctor Who story in its own right, is disappointing.

Some of the story’s best bits are non-plot related parts though. The music for one – it must be about the strangest Doctor Who score I’ve ever heard, and all the better for it. I’m surprised the UNIT theme didn’t become a regular. Even though he didn’t do much, Ralph Cornish was a good character. The shift between colour and black and white wasn’t one of these good things though, and likewise I hated the *TWANG* in the titles – main titles followed by the cliffhanger then more titles gets annoying after a few episodes, just play the episode already. Then there's Liz being captured for what seems like forever, another negative.

Despite my complaints, I feel the good far outweighs the bad, and the story it tells is worth telling.

Horror quotient – Interesting. This is a story where we’re initially supposed to find the alien ambassadors scary, but then reminded that we’re not supposed to. The real appearance of the aliens is a genuine shock though.
Comedy quotient – Some irrelevant humour, such as the Doctor’s “sleight of hand” (magic in Doctor Who!), and him and Liz jumping forward in time at the TARDIS console. The rest of the humour is more subtle.
Drama quotient – The story’s strong point. If it were shorter, it would have more impact, because it would probably mean the loss of some plot points which were pointless, including making Carrington’s deception a double cross instead of a triple cross.

It starts off by promising an entertaining romp about alien invaders, but then delivers a story that while more interesting, is less fun. A cracking story, nevertheless a disappointment.


Sunday, 6 September 2009

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Previous viewings - few

(Yes, it's Doctor Who and the Silurians, not The Silurians, production trivia is just that, trivia)

As Terrance Dicks is so fond of saying, this story was borne out of a desire to avoid the usual invasion of Earth or mad scientist scenario (did they ever do a straightforward mad scientist story? Robot might be the closest). Having monsters who aren't really monsters, but rather intelligent beings who happen to be reptiles, and who are native to Earth and want it back, is a fantastic alternative, because it opens up some political and moral issues in how they're dealt with. Even after seven episodes I think there's more mileage in the idea than is allowed for in the time available.

Malcolm Hulke writes Doctor Who and the Silurians. His is a very distinctive writing style - it always feels like he's trying to say something with his Doctor Who stories with his thoughtful depiction of aliens and in this story particularly how humans would react to aliens beyond the usual shock or fear. At times, it seems he is not writing an action/adventure at all, but something far more character-driven where any action is a natural consequence of the situation the characters have been placed in. For some reason he tends to be given the longer stories too, which fits his talent for writing epic but managing to keep it about the characters.

Is this what people want though? It's not the most exciting approach to a story - some early pure historicals like The Aztecs and The Crusade did something similar but the longer stories always seemed to be your more typical monster invasion of Earth extravaganzas, and with good reason. I'm not complaining, I loved those historicals I mentioned, and I love this.

The Doctor and Liz are summoned to Wenley Moor to help investigate power failures at a nuclear research base which is built into some caves. It's surprisingly difficult to pinpoint where Jon Pertwee nails the character of his Doctor and decides to play it that way until he leaves the role, although it's definitely somewhere in this story - in Spearhead from Space there were moments where I felt the role was written for Patrick Troughton, but as more familiar Third Doctor trappings show up, that has faded. Here we get our first proper glimpse of his less than flattering view of humans and the military in particular, which given his exile on Earth is an integral part of his character IMO, and while at the beginning of the story the Doctor is somewhat flippant that soon passes.

Just to note also, we have Bessie! How can anyone not love Bessie? That car has more personality than some of the companions.

The story doesn't exactly have me on the edge of my seat in the first episode, first of all we're back in the studio with the familiar colour videotape, which is a comedown after Spearhead from Space being handed its atmosphere on a plate, and secondly the power failures at the station aren't the most interesting problem. The Doctor becomes interested in a crazed worker who has seen something in the caves and is now making cave drawings in his hospital room. One could call the pacing here slow, but I prefer to think of it as relaxed - slow implies that it should be faster, but there's something to be said for a story that doesn't rush to introducing the monster, allowing time to establish the human characters while setting up the plot points that will be developed later. It's never boring because as the Doctor gets interested, so do the viewers.

The key base personnel are the resentful Director Lawrence, played by stalwart Peter Miles, plus the friendlier Dr. Quinn and his assistant Dr Meredith. Lawrence is yet another variation on the irrational base commander but here his behaviour seems understandable as it's not only the Doctor but UNIT interfering with his operation, quickly bringing it to a grinding halt, and he is at least co-operative at first. Peter Miles excels at playing unlikeable characters and Lawrence ranks as among the most unlikeable, with an irritating obsessive edge to him thats probably too lacking in humour. Quinn I liked more but it's too obvious that he's the traitor.

Believing the problems to originate in the caves, the Doctor goes down there himself to investigate and is attacked by a dinosaur in the show's first CSO nightmare. However, the creature backs off when it's called away by someone else. After a brief UNIT incursion into the caves, one of the reptile creatures escapes and goes missing in the countryside. This is definitely padding - at the very least the search for the missing Silurian plotline is allowed to run on too long, taking up nearly two whole episodes, but it's not like that's the only thing that's happening - one of the good things about the UNIT format is that there tends to be lots going on at any one time. While the Doctor does his own thing, the Brigadier and his troops are out somewhere else, and the screentime is shared between the various parties.

The Doctor notices Quinn's suspicious movements and realises he has taken the wounded Silurian captive. I was surprised that Quinn was killed off but in retrospect it was a good move because first of all he had to die, and if he survived beyond the reveal of the Silurians en masse, he would have been on borrowed time and that could have tedious. The Doctor has correctly guessed that the Silurians aren't your typical monsters, and that any attack of a human has been because of a perceived threat. The turning point for the story is the Episode 3 cliffhanger, where the Doctor is confronted by the Silurian in Quinn's cottage, resolved by a friendly greeting from the Doctor, which the Silurian seems to listen to until he's scared off. It's a turning point because it's where the Doctor turns from investigator into peacemaker, as his main priority becomes preventing a war between humans and the Silurians in the caves.

Unfortunately, both sides seem to be against him. Having discovered that a large contingent of Silurians are waking up in the caves, the Doctor warns UNIT not to attack them, but the discovery of Quinn's body and the capture of Major Baker, plus the attacks so far, suggest the Silurians are dangerous, which is enough for everybody to support destroying them. For some reason, it's slightly uncomfortable to watch what is essentially the Doctor committing treason by warning the Silurians about the UNIT attack - it's been a long time since we've had reason to question whether the Doctor is morally right, or even naive. It's not a situation we often see the Doctor in, and I was struck by how much more three-dimensional a character the Doctor seemed as a result. He's never seemed less like a superhero, and it's brilliant.

After being captured in Episode 4, the Doctor spends most of Episode 5 negotiating with the good Silurian, who is a rare example of an alien who looks like a monster but gets characterisation and seems like a nice guy. The ancient inhabitants of the Earth, the Silurians want their planet back, but the good Silurian is receptive to the Doctor's suggestion that they inhabit the areas of the planet that are of little interest to humans. There's a sense of inevitablility to the outcome of this story because the Doctor's proposition is obviously not going to happen, but like the arrival of the Time Lords in The War Games, I can't help hoping that somehow we get that happy ending, even when I know we don't.

Obviously, there's a bad Silurian, who plots against the good Silurian and develops a virus intended to kill the humans, which he infects Baker with and allows him to escape to spread it. The Doctor is allowed to go free to try to contain the virus, but it's too late. Viruses in TV shows are usually restricted to a quarantined area, and for a while here it seems as though the worst has happened as the virus spreads overseas before the episode is out. I don't think this is padding because as the main 'bad' thing the villain does, it was needed, plus it justifies the Brigadier's later decision to destroy the Silurians and allows for some neat city location filming, which I always love (I think an effective studio-bound story is generally harder to pull off that something with plenty of location work).

The final action set-piece sees the Silurians attack the base (finally!) but the Doctor solves the problem by tricking the bad Silurian into thinking that his people must re-enter hiberation to protect themselves from the radiation from a reactor overload. Episode 7 is the most action-packed and action is welcome, but some reason it seemed shoehorned in, because a finale has to have lots of action.

As the story ends, the Doctor hopes to wake one Silurian at a time to make negotiations easier, but the Brigadier decides to destroy them while he has the chance, blowing up their entire network. It's a pity that we don't see the repercussions of this at the Doctor and the Brigadier's next meeting but that's probably beyond the remit of a family show and what we got did make a suitable ending for the story. Despite my noting that we're expected to take the Doctor's side, I'd say it only goes so far as to establish that fundamentally he is right - practically, the Brigadier's solution is the only solution. The Doctor's final line, "...but that's murder!" gives this viewer food for thought as the credits roll.

There are a few things I've not mentioned. First of all, the music! What was Carey Blyton thinking? The strange percussion sounds do their best to detract from the drama of this story, and is the sole thing responsible for this not being up there with Marco Polo. It's so distracting. Also, despite not having much to do here, Liz was better than in Spearhead from Space, and I prefer her new look to her old one.

All things considered, good show.

Horror quotient - As a deviation from the norm, the monsters aren't really monsters, but they still look like monsters. Less discerning children who don't pay attention to the plot might have been scared, or perhaps confused.
Comedy quotient - It's going to hard to get used to not giving the easy answer of the Doctor. There wasn't much going on here on that front.
Drama quotient - We're back to the times when drama was the highpoint, and I love stories like that. Mac Hulke scores his biggest hit.

A thoughtful, well-written story which manages its length particularly well. The Doctor hasn't been this interesting a character since 1964.