Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Time Meddler

Previous viewings - many

It must be difficult for an established series to recover from the loss of two cast members who were an integral part of the lineup. Susan leaving was a turning point, but Vicki was clearly a substitute for her, at least on paper. Steven Taylor is nothing like either of the companions he replaces: he's more physical than Ian and more fallible. We know very little about him except that he comes from the future and seemingly had no loved ones to leave behind. In many ways this lack of backstory is a bad thing; how we perceive a character depends on how they're acted, how they're written and what we know of their background. What distinguishes Steven from the average Joe space pilot of his time? Peter Purves is a skilled actor and is largely responsible for Steven being a successful character, but there are few character traits written for the character except that he is loyal, smart and brave in about equal measure.

As the story begins, it's quiet in the TARDIS as the Doctor and Vicki miss their friends and the Doctor asks Vicki if she wants to leave too. At this point Vicki is really growing as a character and I'm glad she's still around. The conversation is interrupted by a noise, it's Steven stumbling into the control room. There are echoes of An Unearthly Child in Steven's doubts about the TARDIS being a time machine but it's also totally different from that as we are laughing with the Doctor, whereas his dismissal of Ian and Barbara in the first story seemed callous and almost sinister. We also get a re-introduction of the story's basics (what TARDIS stands for, why it looks like a police box), which makes this a good 'in' story for new viewers. Already, I'm loving the dynamic between the new TARDISeers, it's different from what went before, and Vicki now seems like a veteran traveller along with Steven the sceptic and the absentminded Doctor.

However the TARDIS's arrival in a coast in what turns out to be 1066 has not gone unnoticed. A mysterious monk is listening to the travellers from behind a rock, and seems very interested in what he's hearing. With the Doctor's discovery of a Viking helmet and some Saxons discussing the new arrival. Those who think they know Doctor Who will guess that this is a pure historical, and there have only been two this season so far so it makes sense. Although this season has been experimental, most of the ideas were never used again, not true of this story's innovation: the pseudo-historical, a period piece with a sci-fi twist. However The Time Meddler isn't so explicit. The plot concerns one alien, disguised as a Monk, who has the opposite approach to time travel from the Doctor; while the Doctor defends history, the Monk enjoys changing it.

The way the plot unfolds is atypical. The Doctor goes off on his own to explore, leaving his two companions to do what they want, arranging to meet back at the TARDIS later. The Doctor hears some curious sounds coming from a monastery and goes off to investigate, while Vicki continues to try to convince Steven that they have travelled in time, but there are mysteries they find a modern wristwatch a man dropped. The pacing is slow, and very little actually happens, but rather than be boring it seems to build an atmosphere of ambience.

The Doctor is absent from Episode 2. He has been absent before, but it is handled best here. He discovers that the Monk is using a gramophone to broadcast the sound of monks chanting, to disguise the fact that there is only one Monk. The Doctor spends the second episode imprisoned in the monastery after falling into a trap. It's all so quiet - Steven and Vicki get captured then set free by the Saxons, the Monk spies on a Viking fleet which soon arrives and attacks the Saxons, but none of the incidents are treated as spectacle, rather they are treated so they don't ruin the ambient mood of the story.

By the end of Episode 2, Steven and Vicki find the Doctor has escaped from his cell. The Doctor wastes no time in continuing to probe this mysterious Monk who clearly doesn't belong in 1066, and what his interest in the Viking fleet is. As he confronts the Monk, Hartnell and Peter Butterworth spar wonderfully as two opposed, but nonviolent foes. The Doctor unmasks the Monk's plan to destroy the Viking fleet, changing Earth history, and he has already changed history using his TARDIS - he's a Time Lord. This is a surprise, but the lack of incidental music slightly diminishes the impact a revelation like that should have. However, by this point the Monk is less a villan and more of a rogue. He is the least malicious enemy yet, in fact he probably wouldn't hurt a fly. This makes him a wonderful enemy for the First Doctor - there is a lot of comedy in Hartnell's performance but he is more of a talky Doctor than an action Doctor.

There are a few things that make this story so good. The ever-reliable Douglas Camfield directs, and he gets the feel of the period right, despite there being few indigenous characters and most of the story taking place in a forest and a monestary. The show never looks low budget under his direction. Though the Vikings don't make much of an impression, the Saxon characters do - Wulnoth comes across as an Everyman and the way he is quiet and rational despite his leadership role is something I liked. Edith, played by Alethea Charlton, veteran of An Unearthly Child, is likeable, first through being helpful to the Doctor and his companions then correctly suspecting that the Monk isn't who he says he is. I felt bad when she was attacked (and raped?) by a Viking, as despite her limited screentime, I was already invested in the character.

However the standout performances come from William Hartnell as the Doctor and Peter Butterworth as the Monk. As I said, as characters they're diametrically opposed, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them arch enemies. Butterworth plays the Monk with charm and wit, almost enough to make me side with him! Plus Hartnell gives one of his best performance as the Doctor. Free of the darker aspects of the character that were included in the first season, the Doctor integrates comedy with a wonderful sense of deceptive absentmindedness. We know the Doctor is clued up, but he seems to enjoy playing the bumbling grandfather role and Hartnell can do both brilliantly. He has reigned in the comedy excesses of The Romans and has hit a perfect pitch here. I really hate seeing his Doctor low down in favourite Doctor polls, or worse, judged as the "crotchety Doctor" by the first few episodes. Here, the writers have found the perfect villain for this Doctor, and I really don't know why the Monk only returned in a bit part in one future story.

The TARDISeers reunite for their next adventure... and their next season. Despite this being his first proper story, Steven has only really interacted with Vicki, but he will get plenty of chances to interact with the Doctor in future stories. I preferred Ian and Barbara, but this story is so good that I don't miss them anymore, so it's done it's job.

Horror quotient - Some moments that should be shocking or scary but aren't treated as such. Edith's rape, the Viking attack. The story is eerie throughout but not enough to be scary.
Comedy quotient - This is also a funny story. We know the Monk is dangerous, but he is a conceptually funny character, and probably a more welcome return than the Master (later on).
Drama quotient - One of the first times that comedy and drama are blended to perfection.

I used to like The Time Meddler, now I love it. The best story of Season 2.


Friday, 19 June 2009

The Chase

Previous viewings - one

The Dalek Invasion of Earth established the Daleks as the main Doctor Who villains (and lets face it, at this point there wasn't much competition), enough to make their sudden reappearance at the end of The Space Museum a successful cliffhanger, and probably the first fanwank moment in the series. Given the Daleks have already appeared this season, this might lead to them being overused, but a familiar enemy doesn't necessarily mean a familiar plot, and this is like nothing we've seen before.

The title pretty much sums up the plot. The Daleks aren't bent on galactic conquest this time, they just want to exterminate the Doctor and his companions, which means a chase through space and time, with multiple destinations, planets and setpieces which serve no purpose other than to prolong the showdown. The plot is really no more complex than this, we don't know why the Daleks want to destroy our heroes or if it's anything to do with them foiling their earlier plans. Equally surprising is the lighthearted nature of the story; its a romp and doesn't try to hide it. Most characters react to the Daleks with fear, but viewers are not entreated to feel the same way - a stuttering Dalek, an attack on them by Frakenstein's monster, Morton Dill mocking them, a far cry from their extermination of the defeated human race in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. However, as I noted in my review of that story, Richard Martin's direction diminishes the Daleks' effectiveness, so a comedic turn could well fare better than one of their more 'important' outings.

The story has Terry Nation written all over it (no, I don't mean in the opening credits). It's a story that expands its length by expanding its setting. Even within each setting, there are subplots that serve little purpose. We start off with the TARDISeers getting excited about using the time-space visualiser, a kind of television that can see through time. Glimpses of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and the Beatles are delightful as we so often see the travellers working to return to the TARDIS it's good to see them chilling out when they actually get there. It's lame, of course - Ian's old fogey dance and Lincoln's weird accent - not to mention why would they get so excited about seeing historical events when they can actually visit them? Overall I liked this section of the episode. In any other story it would be a complete waste of time, but here it works because there are so many other brief setpieces in the story this seems like just another one of them. And it's entertaining!

The story starts proper on the planet Aridius. The travellers are given more time than usual before being alerted to any danger, because the viewers already know the Daleks are on their way. I've come to accept the dynamic between the regulars doesn't have that unifying bond the original group had, it's much more casual, but it works terrifically here with the Doctor and Barbara sunbathing outside the TARDIS and the Doctor singing (the Doctor has come a long way since An Unearthly Child!), while Ian and Vicki go exploring the desert and laugh about the things they find. Barbara sees the Daleks on the Time-Space Visualiser, and goes off with the Doctor to find their friends. Ian and Vicki have found a trapdoor and are being attacked by tentacles. While the Daleks guard the TARDIS, the travellers are rescued by the Aridians, native to Aridius (some clever planet naming by Terry Nation ).

The plight faced by the Aridians - hand over the Doctor and his companions or be exterminated - first of all doesn't seem like a usual Dalek demand, as they would just blunder in and exterminate everybody usually, but it's hard to feel sorry for the Aridians because they haven't been developed beyond all acting sad and we would rather they be exterminated than our heroes. Unfortunate but true. A timely attack by the native Mire Beasts sets the travellers free and they flee in the TARDIS, pursued by the Daleks in their time machine.

The Aridius portion of the story was odd. It never felt like it was going anywhere because it was entirely about the Daleks vs. the TARDISeers, with the incidental oppressed pathetic natives tacked on. This feeling persists because the plot is so thin. What would make a story like this work is the journey leading to the capture being filled with interesting destinations. The first was on the whole disappointing, but then it was the most prolonged.

"Flight Through Eternity" starts off on the Empire State Building in 1966 with our first glimpse of Peter Purves, not playing companion Steven Taylor but Southern tourist Morton Dill, who laughs in amazement at the TARDIS and the Daleks. Sorry to say I found him to be miscast in the role, he wasn't funny and didn't look stupid enough in a scene that was way too long and where the humour fell flat from the word go.

As the chase continues, the Doctor wants to confront the Daleks in an open space, which is equally impossible aboard their next destination, a sailing ship, where Barbara stupidly insists on going out to explore. I think this exposes one of Terry Nation's flaws as a writer - he has a good feel for the characters, but also tends to write them out-of-character when the plot demands it. A minor altercation ensues resulting in Ian getting whacked on the head (again!) and the TARDIS taking off just before the Daleks arrive. There were finally a few laughs to be had, although it was at the Daleks' expense, as the ship's crew got terrified and jumped overboard at the mere sight of the Daleks - weird when you think about it because a few moments ago an idiot had reacted in the completely opposite way. However, I liked the reveal of the ship's name - the Mary Celeste (kudos for getting the spelling right!).

The story improves as we land in the human mind - or so the Doctor and company think, as they experience some weird sights and sounds in a haunted house. It does have a little of what The Keys of Marinus suffered from - interesting places, but given more time they could be even more interesting, however as it's revealed at the end that this is only a festival that disappointing feeling dissipates. It's a failed attempt to be a bit scary in a funny story, but the scarier it tries to be, the funnier it is, because it's so naff. Plus the Daleks finally catch up with the TARDISeers, only for Vicki to be left behind, leaving her to hide in the Dalek timeship and catch up with her friends later. It does stretch credibility that nobody would notice the TARDIS has taken off without Vicki, and again if it weren any other story it would stick out like a sore thumb as a WTF moment.

And so we're taken to the planet Mechanus for the final showdown in episodes 5 and 6. Its a planet of killer plants and giant robots, and the Doctor has built a machine to use against the Daleks (pity he didn't keep a few more around in later stories). The Daleks have built a robot Doctor to infiltrate the TARDIS crew, which alternates between being played by William Hartnell and an actor who looks only vaguely like him. I know my excuse of 'it's okay because it's a lighthearted story' can only excuse so much, but this doesn't bother me a great deal. It does make it difficult to suspend disbelief, because there seems very little that isn't. It's what the robot was trying to do that isn't clear - all he does is attack Barbara then fight against the Doctor, and it isn't hard for the companions to figure out which is the real Doctor. All in all, this is a worthy subplot, if a little baffling.

This takes us to the big (well, maybe not) finale, with the Mechanoids appearing and instantly doing a better job to ensnare the regulars than the Daleks have done in five episodes. The Mechanoids are giant spherical service robots which turn out to be preparing the planet for a colonisation plan that never happened. A robot race is a good match for the Daleks, because while the Daleks are villains, they are just robots, so we don't care if they go out in a blaze of glory while destroying the Daleks, who they think are interfering with their mission. It's all very convenient, and strange that the Doctor isn't involved in the Daleks downfall, but I like this ending. It's still a struggle to escape the city alive given its altitude, but give me this over the more common quick fix solutions any day.

Peter Purves returns to the series in the role of Steven Taylor, who may seem incidental at first, but he becomes a companion in the next story. This time he makes a better impression, with his charm and enthusiasm making Steven instantly likeable.

My favourite part of the story is Ian and Barbara's departure. The Daleks have been destroyed, so their time machine is up for grabs. The Doctor is furious that they would risk death to get back to the 1960s, but it's a real character moment for the Doctor as he's clearly hiding that he doesn't want to lose his friends. The possibility of getting home has suddenly come up and he thinks he might never see them again. It's every bit as good as Susan's departure, but the clip of the Doctor saying goodbye to Susan is so overplayed I'm a bit sick of it, whereas I had only seen this farewell once. Ian and Barbara are by no means overjoyed yet - they still face the risk of using the Dalek time machine, but once they realise it's worked, and they're in 1965, it hit me - Ian and Barbara are leaving, and I don't want this to be the last I see of them. The homecoming picture montage was cheesy but it's good to see the two character gets what they've wanted since the first episode. I will miss them.

...And the Doctor and Vicki watch it all on the Time-Space Visualier. Aw, what a nice moment.

Horror quotient - Some brief scary moments, and I mean brief.
Comedy quotient - Okay, it's a comedy story, but many bits aren't funny, and if they're intended to be, they don't work, but this story is full of the charm I associate with the classic series I'm inclined to give it a free pass for the misses.
Drama quotient - Ian and Barbara's farewell.

It's a load of setpiece strung together, some average, some great, but none terrible. It's quite uneven in places, but get better as it goes, which leaves a satisfying taste by the end.


Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Space Museum

Previous viewings - one

There are two ideas in The Space Museum I like, the destination being a space museum for one, and the 'time track' business for another. It's about time (no pun intended) something was done with the time travel aspect of the show beyond different periods being visited. The story has a fair go at these two concepts, with varying levels of success, but curiously despite being far more interesting than yet another revolution by oppressed Thal-esque natives, they fade into the background to allow that to eat up most of the screentime.

The Space Museum is built on a fascinating premise; a fault in the TARDIS results in the Doctor and his companions arriving at their destination before they've arrived, and getting a glimpse of the future, where they end up as museum exhibits. The rest of the story then sees them trying to find out how they end up like that so they can avoid it. The first episode is the pre-arrival one, with weird timey-wimey stuff happening, and it's the only episode of the story that doesn't seem run-of-the-mill.

In the TARDIS, the travellers' clothes change suddenly and Vicki's spilled drink unspills itself. Clearly the story can't wait to get started, and I'm certainly intrigued early on. I'm also thrilled to see the group stays together for the duration of the episode, and we get to see some general exploration of surroundings with no cast except the regulars, as so happened often in the first season but has been lacking since Vicki joined. However, this new group doesn't work as well as with Susan, though it's nothing to do with Vicki - Ian and Barbara have pretty much completed their character arcs; they're seasoned travellers, the fact that they are cut off from their home is rarely addressed, they get on well with the Doctor who has softened into the bumbling grandfather figure. Without that edge that made the original team so engaging, the new group is only as interesting as the things it encounters.

Fortunately, the best is yet to come. Into the space museum, and the weird events continue. The museum itself quite disappointingly doesn't have much on show, except an empty Dalek casing (which later gives us the best moment of the story when the Doctor hides inside it), but it's eventually revealed to be a military museum so I guess that's forgiveable (but still a shame). We see the travellers ignored by the Xerons and they can walk through objects - just when we think we're in store for a same old, same old "ghost person" story (unless it was novel in 1965) that element of the story is almost immediately shut down and the travellers see themselves as exhibits, along with the TARDIS, then the past catches up with them as they can now be seen and their footprints suddenly appear outside. This puts the lid on one of the best Episode 1's yet, and certainly the best sci-fi one besides The Daleks. Of course, after that the story does go all same old, same old but that's beside the point.

So then the troubles begin, as there are three episodes left and as the Doctor quickly explains all the mystery that has been built up, and all that was interesting. We have yet to find out how the future they glimpsed will happen of course, but aside from that this is now just another story.

What really lets The Space Museum down is that after a promising start it develops into a typical revolutionary story we've already seen several times, and does nothing new with it. It's not quite so boring as the one in The Web Planet, and thankfully is half the length, but it's way too easy. After being separated from the others, Vicki meets a few Xerons, native to Xeros, which has been taken over by the militaristic Moroks. A few conversations is all Vicki needs to assess the situation and come up with a plan to break into the Moroks' armoury and use their own weapons against them. I know Doctor Who is a low budget show and often tries big ideas with few resources and few people, but they should at least try to be realistic. The Xerons may be wimps, but Vicki's plan is naive and it shouldn't work, yet it does, and very easily.

Elsewhere, the Doctor is captured by the Moroks and tricks their mind reading computer in one of the story's best scenes. It shows off the Doctor's funny side and his dismissal of the narrow-minded military, but it still leads to his imprisonment for a whole episode because of one of William Hartnell's many holidays. Ian and Barbara get little to do either and might as well not be there.

The final part of the story does improve, because we're getting closer to the point where the Doctor and company might or might not be made into exhibits, and the revolution is in full swing so there's plenty of action. Soon, all four are captured, and all seems lost, but they have already set into motion the Xeron revolt which sees the Moroks off. It's a good episode to the story because despite the implausibilities in the plot it manages to build some momentum and excitement, which had been lost for a few episodes. The Daleks suddenly showing up in the last minute, giving chase to the departed TARDIS, is a great moment, and I think it would have been better if the explanation for the TARDIS jumping a time track was tied in with the Daleks. However, it's the first time for a while I've wanted to start watching the next story right away.

The Space Museum is a good argument for the length of seasons in the 1960s being too long - it feels like filler and retreads story ideas that have already been done. The writers would have been well holding back the premise set down by the great first episode until they could integrate it with a story that would continue its good work.

Horror quotient - Not that kind of story.
Comedy quotient - Once again, the Doctor is the comedy highlight. Season 2 was defintely the comedy Doctor season. The Doctor hiding in the Dalek casing and fooling the thought computer by thinking about an old bicycle are the standout moments. Why is the rest of the story so uninspired when these bits are so good?
Drama quotient - I get the feeling the Xeron revolt is supposed to be dramatic, but they don't convince as real people, partly because of an awful makeup job done on them, with their weird high eyebrows.

The Space Museum promises so much, but delivers so little. Not a total disaster, but it could have been a lot more.


Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Crusade

Previous viewings - few

The only Season 2 victim of missing episodes, The Crusade follows the new pattern of four-part historicals that will last until the genre is phased out. It's also a return to the more serious historical seen in the first season, which is just as well, as we're into the second half of the season and I'm gasping for something of the calibre of Marco Polo or The Aztecs to take away the bad taste left by The Web Planet.

The Crusade reeks of excellence. Set during the third crusade in the 12th century, it's very a well written and literate script, intense, captivating performances and powerful moments. It follows the now-familiar convention the TARDIS crew staying behind because one of them is missing, and Barbara is kidnapped alarmingly quickly here - mere moments after she steps out of the TARDIS, which did seem somewhat contrived. However the story has already made a positive impression; in the first scene we're introduced to two central guest characters, King Richard and El Akir. Richard and his men are a welcome British presence in an historical story, and show that they are in good humour despite the foreign setting. The Saracens use the opportunity to launch a surprise attack and kidnap who they think is the King, along with Barbara. Propelling viewers into the story with an action sequence in the first few minutes is a technique commonly used in the new series, but it is rare for the classic series and I'm not sure I like it, it only makes it seem as though the TARDISeers can't catch a break wherever the TARDIS takes them. However, this does set us up for an unusually fast-paced story, which was desperately needed at this point.

Once the attack is over, the Doctor realises where and when the travellers are, and concocts a plan to aid Richard and the sole surviving wounded knight, hoping that Richard will help get Barbara back. This is really the extent of the travellers' plight in the story, give or take some escaping/recapturing of Barbara, and although there are some subplots involving the historical characters, this is a paper thin plot. It's true that The Aztecs centered around getting past a wall, but everything that happened in that story moved that overall plot forwards. In The Crusade, the best material, such as Richard's plan to marry his sister Joanna to Saracen king Saladin's brother Saphadin in a bid for peace, are stories that, however well written and acted, scarcely involve the Doctor or the companions and could work just as well without them. It's perhaps the biggest victim of a common criticism levelled at the pure historicals - there is no drama because you know any proper historical events aren't going to change. There is drama of course, loads of it, but it does seem as though that the scenes in Richard's court have the Doctor and Vicki doing little more than sitting on the sidelines and watching the plot unfold rather than being part of it.

However, the writing and acting are good enough to make up for it. What strikes me about The Crusade is that it doesn't take sides, and except for El Akir, gives all of the guest characters good sides and bad sides. Saladin is reasonable and intelligent, while plotting against his enemies, and Richard is by turns a heroic leader willing to make concessions for peace and a selfish man unwilling to listen to anyone else's opinion if it differs from his own. Even the comedy shopkeeper character turns out to be a thief.

A superb subplot involves Barbara escaping from El Akir and ending up with Haroun ed-Din. With Ian knighted and on his way to find Barbara (William Russell had time off so barely appears in the story), and the Doctor and Vicki not up to much, Barbara gets a larger role than normal. Her scenes in Episode 3 are excellent. Haroud's family have been killed by El Akir, and he intends to kill El Akir for revenge, but leaves Barbara his knife, asking him to kill his remaining daughter and herself if they are found, because they would have worse deaths at the hands of El Akir. Barbara is struck as she realises the horror of her situation, and ends up giving herself away so that the daughter isn't found. I think it's material like this that Jacqueline Hill was hoping for when from the series, rather than being chased around by Nero. It's disturbingly gritty for Doctor Who.

The corresponding scenes in Richard's court are equally brilliant. The Doctor praises Richard for his peaceful solution, which is challenged by the Earl of Leicester, who prefers to fight. In the last few stories, the Doctor has been in a fairly jovial mood, but here is is deadly serious as he realises he might have got too involved and wants to get out while he still can. However, he has made an enemy of the Earl of Leicester, who gives away Richard's marriage plan to Joanna, and she refuses to co-operate, leading Richard to accuse the Doctor and Vicki of telling Joanna. These scenes are among the finest in the story, and the dialogue is more classically written than usual, almost to a fault; it's not just that the Doctor is hardly involved, because the new Doctor-lite episodes are the same, but that it's a purely historical problem that doesn't even concern him. At times I feel as though I'm watching an historical dramatisation. Why doesn't the Doctor just return to the TARDIS and wait for the others?

Questions like these are asked again in Episode 4, when suddenly it becomes all about the TARDISeers again as they try to reunite and get back to the TARDIS, which is weird, because it leaves the historical plots unresolved, when the story had spent so much time on them. Am I expected to read a history book to find out how it all turned out? Bizarre. Yes, I usually end up researching the period depicted in a Doctor Who historical anyway, but not to find out how the plot is resolved!

Anyway, I'm picking too many holes. It's a great moment when Sir Ian tricks the Earl of Leicester into giving him custody of the Doctor and Vicki, then all four escape to the TARDIS for their next adventure, and The Crusade was a satisfying story, certainly worthy of its predecessors in terms of characterisation and acting, with the dialogue arguably working at a level above.

My only gripe at this point in the series is Vicki. Apart from a few moments in The Rescue, we haven't seen the new TARDIS crew operate as a team the way the group did with Susan, and Vicki hasn't had much to do at all since The Rescue. Susan may have grated at times, but at least she had stuff to do. I know Ian and Barbara are on their way out soon anyway, and Vicki's relationship with the Doctor has been developed best, but we should be seeing more of them interacting together.

Horror quotient - Not so much visual horror, but some grim ideas do come up in this story I can't imagine doing so in many family shows.
Comedy quotient - The Doctor's exchanges with the shopkeeper are the comedy highpoint of this story, but once the Doctor starts worrying about political intrigue he's back to serious again.
Drama quotient - One of the most dramatic stories ever. All of the actors are given something to sink their teeth into, and they all do a good job.

Gratuitously clever in places, but ultimately good writing is good writing. A classic.


Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Web Planet

Previous viewings - one

Every era has its token turkey, which is used as a yardstick for how not to do Doctor Who. Tom Baker's era has Underworld, Davison's has Time-flight, McCoy's has Time and the Rani, and Hartnell's has The Web Planet. However, no matter how little I enjoyed The Web Planet the last time I watch it I always look forward to it. It might be because it's a First Doctor story, but I think it's because it's failings are very visible and make it difficult to suspend disbelief, rather than anything to do with story or acting.

The Web Planet has the TARDIS visit the planet Vortis, which looks a bit like the moon but is inhabited by giant ants and talking bumblebees. To hell with the budget! However this isn't the only reason this was a brave idea for a story. Regardless of the fact that a story can theoretically take place anywhere in space and time, there are a few settings we can safely assume we'll never see in Doctor Who, because it's aimed at a family audience and sci-fi is a hard sell. People want to see things they can identify with and understand, otherwise you're putting up an obstacle between the programme and the viewers that you need to work extra hard on to break. The Web Planet not only puts up a few obstacles, it seems to go to some trouble to alienate the viewer. The wonderful dynamic between the TARDIS crew is hardly there past Episode 1 as our heroes are divided. Vaseline on the lens makes it hard to even see. The aliens not only look alien, their speech is slow and soft and their movements are odd. There's a line between experimenting and baiting the viewer to switch off, and this story crosses it.

There are good things about this story. The first episode is one of them. Hot on the heels of the superb The Romans, the TARDIS has been drawn to a mysterious planet by an unknown force. The planet is everything it should be - unsettling, eerie and creepy (and the planet set itself impresses through the story, even if the same section ends up standing in for various parts of Vortis). For once, some of them stay in the ship, as there's no need for all of them to risk their lives. Despite an awful fluffed line by Hartnell that almost causes William Russell to break character, it's all good until we see the Zarbi, the aforementioned giant ants who actually work the best of the aliens in the story. The ant suits are fine, given the budget, but the sound they make seems more like something I would expect from a toy version of them, and they look silly when they move as it draws attention to the obviously disguised human legs. As the story progresses, the Zarbi suits start creaking, which really gets embarrassing after a while.

Anyway, that first episode, which I'm probably going to focus on as I prefer to be positive. This has the most character interaction of the episodes, and we see more of the wonderful Doctor/Ian relationship that is often sidelined in favour of the Doctor/Susan (or Vicki in this era). Hartnell and Russell have good chemistry and by this stage they're no longer fighting for dominence, but the Doctor still somewhat absentmindedly mocks Ian for his inexperience when it comes to space travel, such as the incident with the tie at the pool of acid.

The end of the episode creates several cliffhangers and sets up a few mysteries. Barbara's arm is being controlled via her bracelet, leading her to walk towards the pool of acid, while Ian and the Doctor return to the TARDIS, which is being bombarded with funky Zarbi noises. With Ian trapped in a web, the Doctor finds the TARDIS is gone! Despite this being quite a ropey story, I think this is an excellent cliffhanger and leaves me optimistic about the rest of the story, despite reservations which will soon develop into cries of "please God make it stop!" by the time another few episodes have rolled around.

The resolution of the cliffhanger is total cheat. The TARDIS is dragged to the lair of the Animus, the villain of the piece, while the trap that ensnared Ian is totally forgotten about as he and the Doctor meet up and ditch their special breathing jackets (which I had rather liked, for the change from the norm) and are surrounded by Zarbi. For once, the Doctor is totally at a loss as to how to communicate with the aliens, leaving us uncertain whether they are actually threatening; all they seem to be able to do is stand around making noises. Barbara is taken by the Menoptra, human-sized bumblebees who seem to like waving their arms around while talking.... very... slowly, supposedly to make them more alien but I wonder whether the writer was keeping in mind that he had six episodes to write and the same story with Menoptra talking normally would only last three. The thing is, the Menoptra don't actually look terrible, but they're an idea that was never, ever, EVER going to look good. It's representative of the budget failures of the story that don't even provoke laughter, but bewildered looks.

The Menoptra's way of speaking was so distracting that by the end of each sentence I had lost interest in (and even forgotten in some cases) whatever they were saying at the start of the sentence. I felt for Jacqueline Hill in this scene, as she looked embarrassed and it's when I'm watching the Menoptra scenes that I'm trying to pinpoint the exact moment where Hill decided to quit the show.

What's left of the Menoptra after an attack by the Zarbi (hahahahaha!) are taken to the Crater of Needles (cool name) along with Barbara, to feed the Animus. I'm reciting the plot here, but it's really Doctor Who by-numbers, and quite predictable, it just takes a (very) long time to go anywhere. This sets us up for Barbara's Episode 3 absence.

More promising is the introduction to the Animus, mainly because the Doctor seems almost as bemused about the aliens on Vortis than the viewers, though it's unclear whether this is a sign of Hartnell struggling with the material he's being given. The Animus, an out-of-sight creature who talks to the Doctor via a communications device, is controlling the Zarbi and is concerned about a Menoptra invasion. The Menoptra were expelled from Vortis by the Animus. None of this is very interesting, and for a story that struggles to convince visually, it really needed a great script to sell it. Aside from the Doctor calling the communications device a "hairdryer", it's very boring.

As the story progresses, very little actually happens. The Doctor and Vicki stay with the Animus, as they try to foil its plans from within, while Ian escapes and meets a Menoptra called Vrestin, who tells him more about the calamities that have befallen the races of Vortis since the Animus arrived on the scene. However somewhere between the end of episode 3 and the start of episode 4 the story sinks below the point where it could have been salvaged. This is because of two things, the first of which is the Optera, the least well realised of this story's aliens (and as I've made clear that's a real achievement). They're little people jump around and shout, and push the story into the direction of an amateur stage play. By this point, it's impossible to take anything even remotely seriously and I'm genuinely wondering what the production team knew they were making complete rubbish and gritting their teeth until it was over, as I was.

The other problem is the utter tedium of it all. For the first time in the marathon, I had to rewatch an episode I'd just seen as my attention had wandered. Ultimately this only prolonged the awfulness as it was no better the second time. Perhaps this could be regarded as the point I failed the marathon; I let the rest of the story play, only half-paying attention, as I just didn't care anymore. Memories of the excellent The Crusade were coming back to me, and I was looking forward to making a start on that.

Unfortunately, nothing happened to redeem the story at it winded down. The Animus was defeated, everyone was happy, the regulars returned to the TARDIS. The weird thing is, although this is probably the worst Doctor Who story ever, I will again look forward to the next viewing (as long as it's at least a year away of course), because it's main problem was that it was boring, so perhaps if I work on my attention span I will find more to enjoy.

Horror quotient - Yes, it was horrific.
Comedy quotient - The Doctor was good in this, even though Hartnell is out of his depth. At times, it seems the Doctor is aware how naff everything is and I like that.
Drama quotient - The first episode, before the assortment of aliens descend on us, is the best by far, and free of the rest of the story, is a cracking Doctor Who episode in its own right. There is no drama throughout the rest of the story.

Past Episode 1, The Web Planet is so bad, I almost lose the will to live when I watch it.


Monday, 15 June 2009

The Romans

Previous viewings - one

Arguably the first step in the phasing out of the historicals (sigh), The Romans is the first story which isn't concerned with historical accuracy, if at all, which somewhat goes against the 'educational' remit of the series at this point. It's pretty gutsy of Verity Lambert to follow the addition of a new cast member with two highly experimental stories (this and The Web Planet) - both have successes and failures, but in different areas. But then both are nothing alike.

It's AD 64 and the TARDIS crew is having a (very) well deserved holiday in a villa. I wish these more casual scenes had happened more often, it makes the characters seem more real to converse for a while and let us get to know them instead of diving straight into the plot. At least it should be - the Doctor is amazingly camp, and at times doesn't seem like the Doctor at all, Ian and Barbara are unusually flirty with each other (although personally I loved this). Funny that Vicki, the new character, is the most in-character, and I liked that she wanted to move on as she wants to go on adventures in the TARDIS, unaware that the rest of them haven't had a chance to relax since they started travelling.

Part of what I like about the early part of this story is that I don't know where its going. There's no mystery, the TARDIS isn't inaccessible or broken down, in fact we have the Doctor and Vicki heading off to Rome just because they feel like it. The way the plot unfolds is a delightful change from the norm, and its very carefully done considering it branches off with some subplots treated more seriously than others. Ian and Barbara are captured by slave traders and separated as they begin their lives as slaves, quite a horrific prospect (although I suspect by now they're used to dealing with horrific prospects), while the Doctor and Vicki find a dead lyre player who was supposed to play for the Emperor Nero, who is written here as a purely comic character impossible to take seriously. Once he is introduced, the story turns into a farce, but aside from the Doctor's giggling fits, it's credible as a piece of drama until then, and it's less jarring to cut from Barbara being sold as a slave to the Centurion blasting the assassin for not killing Pettulian than anything involving Nero.

As the plot unfolds, we learn the Doctor, in the guise of Pettulian, is supposed to kill Nero. However the plot is only there because there has to be a plot. In the remaining episodes we're treated to Nero lusting after Barbara and chasing her around, near misses between Barbara and the Doctor and Vicki, who don't realise that the other is nearby, while the Doctor investigates a conspiracy in Nero's court. So is it funny? This isn't normally important but given historical accuracy is out the window, as is drama, it's the only pertinent question remaining. Some of the humour fails - Jacqueline Hill isn't so good at the comedy, I have to say, and Nero chasing her around is embarrassing. As a result, Poppea just seems pathetic for plotting to kill Barbara. Anything involving the Doctor generally works, and the way he gets out of giving himself away by playing the lyre terribly is very funny.

In the meantime, Ian misses out on the action, with another subplot that leads to Rome, as he gets shipwrecked and ends up training as a gladiator with Delos. It's quite odd to see Ian sidelined so much, only to coincidentally meet up with everybody later, but we've already had many similar Ian subplots, and done better, that this seems to be only there to include him in the story somehow. The best part of it was seeing Ian and Delos having to fight each other after forming a friendship, but the drama of this is somewhat undermined by the farce of the scenes surrounding it.

The machinations of the conspiracy plot against Nero are still interesting despite not being treated seriously. Tavius is a good character, and I liked that despite initially seeming like a good samaritan he turned out to have good points and bad points about him. Tigellinus only had a bit part but I see there's been lots of discussion about him, but I don't know much about this period in Roman history (or any period actually) so perhaps that's why the historical inconsistencies don't bother me. In fact this has been such a sore point with some that I'm wondering if I'm being unfairly lenient towards it.

The conclusion is quite weird. The Doctor gives Nero the idea to burn down Rome so he can build a new one. Nothing is really resolved, Nero just burns down Rome while the TARDIS regulars leave and return to the villa, with a nice moment where the Doctor laughs at Ian and Barbara thinking they've been there doing nothing all that time. It's a satisfying end to a story where the plot wasn't really that important anyway.

One of the main things I didn't like about this story was that despite it being Vicki's first proper story as a member of the TARDIS crew, she didn't really have anything to do and being separated from the regulars the new dynamic between the regulars didn't have a chance to develop, and being paired with an out-of-character Doctor only made things worse. She just seemed to tag along with the Doctor laughing at his antics.

The Romans is a hard story to come to a conclusion on. It's a story that could have worked while also tying in with what we know of the period and being played straight, but I'm an advocate of the show trying new things and this was new at the time, and arguably is still unique. I like funny, and although not all of the humour works, the funny bits are really funny, and since it's a comedy, that's enough for me. As long as the show doesn't go there too often!

Horror quotient - What's horror?
Comedy quotient - The funniest story yet.
Drama quotient - The drama suffers, but it's not a dramatic story.

It seems to be marmite on this board, and I do see why others hate it. I think it's a bit too hit and miss to be a classic, but this is my favourite of the season so far.


Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Rescue

Previous viewings - few

Conceived as a two-part "filler" story to replace Susan, this is the most insubstantial Doctor Who story yet, but at only two episodes it's better to take it easy.

The story opens and we meet Vicki, the new companion. Vicki elevates the story with her presence, and it's weird that she does because it's pretty obvious that she's a replacement for Susan. At least Vicki differs enough from Susan, and most importantly doesn't seem to be much of a screamer, that viewers will wonder in retrospect what there is to miss about Susan.

However, introducing Vicki isn't all there is to The Rescue, the story is intriguing enough to keep viewers engaged in its own right. The simplistic (but worthy) plot centres around the criminal Bennett, who has committed mass murder to prevent authorities on Earth from finding out he committed a single murder. Yeah, it boggles the mind, but it holds together well and unfolds slowly and in the form of a mystery: the mysterious and dangerous Koquillion, who stalks the crash survivors Bennett and Vicki. The fact that Vicki is at the centre of events and not the older Bennett signals that either Vicki is important or that Bennett is up to no good.

The TARDIS scene is well handled, with the Doctor inadvertantly asking Susan to open the doors. However I felt about Susan, she was part of a great TARDIS crew dynamic and will be missed, and her relationship with the Doctor is probably the main thing that the character has the edge in over Vicki. The Doctor's somewhat odd behaviour at the start of the story can be attributed to the loss of Susan too, as he leaves Ian and Barbara to have a look around outside while he stays in the TARDIS. William Hartnell really knows his stuff by this point, and is constantly reminding me why he's my favourite Doctor. The way he handles humour so effortlessly, the grandfatherly charm he gives the Doctor during his chats with Vicki, his attempts to control his anger when he confronts Koquillion, are all excellent. If there's one problem it's that from a marathon perspective it's hard to take this one guy seriously when the Doctor's just thwarted a Dalek invasion of Earth.

The only real misstep in this story is the need for a cliffhanger, resulting in the Doctor and Ian finding some traps in the caves and then getting away from them and on with the plot as soon as the second episode starts. It works, but is unnecessary.

With the regulars on the lookout for Koquillion, they meet up at the crashed spaceship, where Bennett refuses to see anyone and Vicki has already met Barbara. It was quite distasteful to see Barbara shoot Vicki's pet and have Vicki mad at her for the rest of the story, it did add another layer that I would never have expected to Vicki's character, but seems tacked on to make us sympathetic to Vicki in a way we never did with Susan. Indeed, Vicki does come across as quite the victim throughout the story, albeit a victim of circumstances rather than a pathetic victim.

The story has a good ending. The Doctor for once gets to face down the enemy himself with no help, although we the existence of the Dido survivors is a bit of a cheat. Afterwards, Vicki accepts an invitation to join the TARDIS crew, and it was quite cool to watch somebody new react ot eh TARDIS for the first time. Most important, I'm left eager to see the next adventure to see how the new TARDISeers work together as a unit and how Vicki will react to time travel.

The Rescue allows the show to get its feet back on the ground after the epic previous story, and the smaller scale works as a contrast to that story. The fact that the plot holds together well and VVicki makes a positive impression are bonuses.

Horror quotient - Move along, nothing to see here.
Comedy quotient - I just love the humour in the Doctor's character. William Hartnell is hilarious in this story, and in fact probably gives one of his best performances here.
Drama quotient - The fact that Bennett committed mass murder seems quite shocking, but is brushed under the carpet. I feel suitably sorry for Vicki. There's nothing too heavy here though.

It aims to introduce a new companion, but is enjoyable as a story in its own right. There are a couple of holes in the plot and there doesn't seem to be a lot of substance to it, but for what it is, it's a cracking little slice of Who.


Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Previous viewings - many

The Daleks are back! And it's about time...

You know, the more I think about it the more I realise how much this is like a new series finale. It's got a large-scale invasion of Earth, Daleks, a slightly cluttered plot, and a surprisingly suddenly climax followed by a rather sad companion departure. I'm guessing this story could be one of Russell T. Davies's favourites? Like those, it's ambitious, but unlike those it was blighted by some unfortunate production mishaps, and his horrifically dated when watched today.

Terry Nation starts off the story with his usual tropes - a slowly unfolding plot starting with the regulars exploring their surroundings, something preventing them from entering the TARDIS, and Susan hurting herself. Because she's Susan and can't go off on her own without suffering some kind of catastrophe. The first episode is excellent, however, and the fact that they're on Earth, and in a non-historical setting, makes viewers sit up and pay attention. They're wondering the same things the Doctor is - why is London deserted? Why is everything so quiet? Why do Ian and Barbara so readily assume that they're in 1963? It's incredibly effective, and despite his sometimes simplistic characterisation (especially of Susan) he is good at clarifying the plot for viewers' benefit, without it seeming as though the characters are stating the obvious.

This and the following scenes in the warehouse are the best part of the story (with one probably obvious exception). They're mysterious and tense, and the plot is engaging as it unfolds. When the post-2164 date is revealed, it is quite a shock, not just because it's unexpectedly futuristic, but because this is something Doctor Who hasn't done before. After this, the atmosphere of the story efficiently builds up with David leading Susan and Barbara to an underground station, with us getting more glimpses of a post-apocalyptic London in the process. I like that instead of explanations we're getting out expectations subverted, leaving us unsure what to expect. However, Ian and the Doctor start the story proper when the Robomen descend on them and a Dalek rises from the river!

Ah, the Robomen. I wanted to like them, I wanted them to be convincing (scary was too much to expect, probably), but the more times I see this story the less I do, and it's a pity as they're sort a precursor to the Cybermen - humans the Daleks are using to do their bidding via brainwashing. Not quite as horrific as the original concept behind the Cybermen, but pretty gruesome all the same. But where the Cybermen went right these went wrong. Instead of th feeling that these are people who have lost their minds to the Dlakes, they just seem rubbish. Their headgear looks like Poundshop space helmets, and they speak like they're just a bit retarded. The design work is ineffective enough, but they are also too easily overpowered and the headgear is quite fragile and seems to fall off when they're pushed. Part of what made the Cybermen good was that we would get glimpses of the humanity they'd lost, with the Robomen we get so much that they just seem like humans who are sleepwalking. They drag down every scene they're in, and kill any hint of atmopshere of tension dead.

There are many good elements in this story, but they're fighting against insurmountable odds to break through the story's failings and really shine. The resistance group introduces us to Dortmun, Tyler, David and Jenny, all interesting enough characters, and well portrayed by their actors, but try as I might, I can't imagine people being so scared of wobbling 1960s Daleks. The voice actors haven't yet settled on the iconic Dalek sound so they sound a bit off, which is hard to get used to. These problems didn't seem so obvious in The Daleks, for whatever reason. I'm no director, bt I think Daleks are probably a struggle to direct effectively because they are really just boxes with people inside. With good direction they rise above that, but somehow here they just seem like... boxes with people inside. It's a combination of factors that make this outing a failure for them - their dialogue is either to OTT evil ("we are the masters of Earth" is given a suitably bwahaha evil delivery) or too human. I think people sometimes forget that the Daleks were only designed to work in one story, their first one, and their city was designed to complement them.

The best scene in Episode 2 is the Doctor's escape from the cell, as it showcases the First Doctor at his best - he's clever and likes people to know that, and he's dismissive of the guy who gives up without a fight.

The next big setpiece is the attack on the Dalek saucer using Dortmun's dud bombs. There is a question about whether the regulars will reunite and find a way to escape, but the attack itself is a confusing mess of smoke and Dalek guns firing. I'm starting to think the problem might be with Richard Martin's direction, the sequence - given the Daleks almost massacre the humans - should be where the Daleks assert their supremacy. This doesn't happen, as when anything is visible through the smoke, we just see humans running and throwing bombs they already know don't work, and trying to knock over a Dalek, which is a definite no-no as far as making them convincing goes as an overturned Dalek just looks like a prop.

However, despite all this negativity, the Dalek stuff has been entertaining so far, in a crappy sort of way. Viewers soon have to contend with the absence of the Doctor. I've really come to appreciate Willliam Hartnell's portrayal of the Doctor in the last few stories and to be without him for a long stretch in a pivotal Dalek story really makes the story suffer.

The story sags as it goes in some odd directions. Barbara, Jenny and Dortmun dash through London, for seemingly no reason other than to pad out the episode and get some cool location work on-screen with a chance to see Daleks at familiar landmarks. Actually, that's really cool, but it is allowed to drag on for too long. Dortmun's death is easily the highlight of Episode 3, and again makes me hope that the story is turning itself around. Ian is trapped in the Dalek saucer as it travels to Bedfordshire, and Susan goes through the sewers with David. Susan, I'm sorry to say, disappoints in her last story, mainly because Terry Nation just does not know how to write for her. In his scripts, she regresses to a hysterical screaming little girl. It doesn't ring true that she and David would fall in love with each other unless spending time with only each other for company is all it takes for two people, however dissimilar, to fall in love. Hints are dropped that Susan would want to stay, with her musing about building a new society, but at this point her character arc is plausible only in that the prospect of Susan leaving is appealing.

The second half of the story starts with typical Terry Nation padding: laboured journeys, with every step presenting some kind of obstacle, as everyone heads to Bedfordshire to the heart of the Dalek mining operation. Despite the awesomeness of Barbara running over some Daleks in a fire engine, and the Doctor refusing to kill as his life is not immediately threatened (and correcting someone who calls him "Doc" instead of the preferred "Doctor"), Episodes 4 and 5 are a sea of mediocrity. Ian and Larry encounter the "terrifying" Slyther, which fortunately is kept off-screen as much as possible, and stumble across Dalek mines, and Barbara and Jenny are turned in to the Daleks by a nasty woman who takes their food. These things take an awful long time to happen and it seems as though Nation is prolonging the inevitable by adding a series of unnecessary steps the travellers have to go through before they reach the Daleks. The Doctor is on form, fortunately, as he works out why the Daleks are on Earth, and insists they dare to stop them.

The finale, dear oh dear. One thing has struck me about the Daleks so far, and it's that they've not been very clever in this story. They're manipulated by Barbara into letting her into the Dalek control room, and she works with the Doctor, who has now reached the same place with Susan and David, to turn the Robomen against the Daleks using a microphone they find there. It leads to a nice montage of Robomen smashing up the Daleks, a moment it would be hard not to love, but it's far too easy, and makes the Daleks look ridiculously stupid.

With all of this wrapped up quite early in Episode 6, the rest of the episode focuses on Susan's departure, and as the first companion to leave, and the Doctor's granddaughter at that, it deserves such a large chunk of the episode. William Hartnell plays the scene best, as the Doctor slowly realises that Susan is on the verge of growing away from him, and he decides to give her the push she needs to overcome her guilt at leaving him. However I feel about the credibility of Susan and David's relationship being built up over the story, and Susan as a character in general, it's hard not to be sad as the Doctor tells Susan he's locked the TARDIS doors and refuses to let her in. His speech is good enough to clear the Doctor of seeming like he's abandoning his own granddaughter and is actually acting in her interests. And the saddest moment of all comes, the TARDIS vanishes, with Susan standing next to it. She hardly looks thrilled, but as she walks away with David, there is sense that the series will never be the same again.

Drama quotient - Some effective horror, the sewer scenes especially, with the threat of human attackers seeming weirdly scarier than Robomen or Daleks. For the most part, however, any attempt at horror is laughable.
Comedy quotient - This does quite nicely set us up for the Dalek comedy in The Chase. Perhaps the producer realised the Daleks weren't being used effectively as in their first story?
Drama quotient - Plenty. Dortmun's death is very well done and is the Daleks' shining moment in the story. They're totally threatening here in a way they just aren't in the rest of the story. However, they're mostly singular moments like this, rather than sustained or part of an action setpiece. For the first time (and certainly not the last), the story relies on viewers' fond memories of the Daleks from a previous story to carry this one.

The beginning and the end are good, the rest has a few shining moments, but it's otherwise padded and very dated.


Friday, 12 June 2009

Planet of Giants

Previous viewings - one

A 'shrunken TARDIS crew' story was bound to happen sooner or later, it's an obvious idea for sci-fi writers who want to do something different other than have an exciting setting. Even though it's already been done, it wouldn't surprise me if the new series revisits it, as I think it could do it well.

Thats the key to this story - it really has to be done well. Clearly the production team put a lot of effort into Planet of Giants, even dropping an episode to tighten the pace a bit (though knowing that had to be done didn't fill me with confidence before watching this the first time!). It's the original TARDIS team in their penultimate story, launching the second season instead of the planned first, they've gone through all the character development of the first season. It's the shortest story since The Edge of Destruction, a story that proved shorter doesn't mean better. So how did Planet of Giants fare?

Meh. It by no means dreadful, but considering it had a premise that should give it a headstart in the entertainment stakes, it's fairly pedestrian.

Okay, analysis time. I'll forgive the problem coming about the doors opening mid-flight (I wonder how script editor David Whitaker missed that considering he wrote The Edge of Destruction, where it was a pivotal plot point). I like the Doctor still wearing his cloak from the last adventure. Anyway, I think the scale issues aren't the problem with the shrunken aspect of the story, the design work is very good, what ruins it is very rarely do I feel the shrunken scenes and the normal size scenes are connected. Despite the same plot thread running through them, I almost feel like I'm watching a Doctor Who story intermixed with scenes from some crime drama. It was a good idea to have something low-key and contained as the threat, but although it would require a bigger budget I think I would have preferred something slightly bigger in scale, and something that continues to be a threat once the TARDIS crew are back to their normal size.

Many of the story's flaws are minor, and most involve characterisation. To my surprise, none of htem seem particularly horrified at the prospect of being an inch tall, or in seeing giant bugs. YOu could pin this down to having seen so much in their travels already, but that doesn't explain why they tend to show more fear in the face of the more ordinary dangers of the historicals (compre Susan here to in The Reign of Terror, for example). However, I'm probably one of the few who would complain about that, and I wasn't really bothered. The 'tiny' scenes in the garden, while not exactly setting the world alight with their brilliance, stay interesting throughout.

Meanwhile, in the real world, a shady businessman called Forester murders scientist Farrow who is against the development of insect killer DN6. I liked this part of the story best, in a Doctor-lite kind of way. It's setting up an enemy and a goal for the TARDISeers other than getting back to their normal size - and a primary goal, at that. How noble. Forester is determined that the DN6 project goes ahead, and this sets in motion a plot that for once takes about the correct number of episodes to be resolved.

When the action moves to the house, and splits up the TARDIS crew, we're back with the initial teams - the Doctor and Susan, and Ian and Barbara. I've noticed that the writers have been reluctant to use these pairings since The Keys of Marinus, and it's good to see them again, but I was disappointed that the opportunity wasn't taken to give Ian and Barbara a moment to reflect together how the show started as their story. Instead, they carry on with the plot so you could swap Barbara for Susan, or Ian for the Doctor, and it wouldn't make any difference. For characters that are so different, this should not be the case. I was also disappointed that Barbara first of all got herself contaminated by DN6 then didn't tell Ian about it. She must have known she would have to tell him eventually.

One of my favourite moments of the story was the tiny TARDIS crew trying to use the telephone. Hilarious and daft, just as Doctor Who should be!

The plot continues with Forester's plans slowly going wrong, even without the TARDISeers interference. Scientist Smithers realises DN6 is lethal and withdraws his support, and the phone being off the hook has got the telephone operators attention. Even though at the climax, the point where the two different 'worlds' collide, they still felt disconnected as Forester is gassed by the miniaturised Doctor. I did like how the Doctor defeats him, and the way everything worked out made sense, but despite the faster pace of the last episode, this wasn't a terrible fulfulling story. Aside from the flaws I've mentioned, Planet of Giants suffers by seeming so ordinary. It has a good premise, but aside from that, if I had to say what I liked about this story, my answer would be.... very little.

Horror quotient - Louis Marks evidently decided this wasn't a scary story, though there was a golden opportunity to make this a real classic if he had went in that direction. Perhaps they were already planning The Web Planet and opted not to push the 'giant bug' angle?
Comedy quotient - A few inevitable laughs because of the premise.
Drama quotient - Usually when there's not much horror there is more drama to make up for it, but there wasn't much of this either! It was the strongest aspect, especially in the normal size plotline.

Good, solid, reliable Who about sums it up.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Reign of Terror

Previous viewings - one

And so the first season ends, not with a flashy sci-fi extravaganza as you'd expect, but with a pure historical, which is great news as the others were classics.

Cleverly (or by chance) set up with the book Susan was reading in An Unearthly Child, we visit the French Revolution. It's not a period I know much about, and give this story has more of an action/adventure edge to it than its predecessors of the genre, I'm still hazy on the details. This is less a story that invites viewers to be enthralled by the characterisations and dialogue, but more the plot, which once we get to Paris is like a ride back to the TARDIS, a fun ride with plenty of twists and turns.

The first two episodes are focused on the TARDIS crew. Carrying on from The Sensorites, the Doctor is in a bad mood for flimsy plot reasons, enough for him to force Ian and Barbara out at the next place the TARDIS lands, and he's confident that he has landed in the right place and time. When he's wrong he makes excuses - I liked him saying how close it is in the grand scheme of things. Apparently at this point in time the Doctor isn't able to determine when and where he is from inside the TARDIS, which is a ridiculous flaw. However, it's forgiveable as it leads to quite a nice first episode as the travellers investigate a farmhouse, looking for clues as to when they are. I think it's quite eerie that the things they encounter - some woods, a farm - are dateless and give them no clues. It's not like when they're in the TARDIS about to step into the unknown, they're in the unknown already.

The way the action builds up is interesting. Within a few minutes, the scenary changes from the relative safety of the interactions of the regulars to a battleground of revolutionaries, with all but the Doctor captured, two guys shot dead, plenty of historical exposition and period detail, and the threat of death. This happens a bit at a time, with nothing happening suddenly, but it feels like more of an inconvenience than plot development. Yet again the travellers are separated from the TARDIS, though this time physical distance is the reason as the action moves to Paris. Then we have the best cliffhanger in the series yet - the guards set fire to the farmhouse, with the Doctor still inside. The danger feels very real and for a while there seems to be no hope for the Doctor. It is allowed to run on too long, but it's still a cracking cliffhanger.

I'm glad the TARDIS crew remained optimistic about the Doctor's chances of survival - I hate TV shows where one of the characters is presumed dead and the other characters mope around even though viewers know they're fine. The Doctor gets a fine solo subplot, his journey back to Paris on foot, with the series' first location filming. This story is reputed to be William Hartnell's favourite story, and its easy to see why. Hartnell always seems more comfortable in the historicals, he uses humour too, which he's good at, and for once he gets most of the action. The scene with the digging workmen didn't quite seem as funny as intended though, with the Doctor whacking the boss seeming in quite bad taste, and completely at odds with the Doctor's usual behaviour at this point. Very jarring.

Forget The Aztecs, this story has the coolest costumes ever. The Doctor trades his costume for the clothes of a Regional Officer, adopting a guise which sees him at his comic best. One of the things I miss the most from the pure historicals are the period costumes the TARDISeers wear. I'll make that Reason to Bring Back the Pure Historical #59.

Ian, Barbara and Susan don't fare so well, not only in that they're scheduled for execution by guillotine, but their subplot is less interesting. We've already seen the characters captured before (in An Unearthly Child - Susan ever refers to it) and this does nothing that didn't do better, except maybe the inclusion of comedy from the inept jailer. Susan is in a weird mood throughout the story, and in fact they could have given Carole Ann Ford two weeks off during this one instead of The Aztecs given how long she's under lock and key by herself. Rather than hysterical, Susan seems depressed, which I prefer in comparison. With three good Susan stories in a row, could the next one spoil it? Barbara is her usual practical self, but the Susan/Barbara jail scenes are boring, not least because we know they're not going to die.

William Russell takes two weeks off and appears in some film inserts in his own jail, where he meets Webster, who kickstarts a plot that will become relevant later.

The plot thickens later on, as Barbara and Susan and (very luckily) rescued en route to the guillotine and we're introduced to some counter-revolutionaries, who aren't very interesting. The fact that one of them turns out to be a traitor surprises, but I never really cared much anyway. Ian lets himself out of the jail cell, again because of the solitary jailer's stupidity, and catches up with Susan and Barbara. The ineptitude of the jailer gets wearisome after a while because it stretches credibility that so many escapes wouldn't result in him being guillotined himself.

The machinations of the revolution are interesting, but they're never enthralling like in previous historicals. There are no standout guest performances this time either, so what I was most interested in was how they were going to reunite and get back to the TARDIS as the Doctor seemed to be getting himself into all sorts of unexpected trouble because of his guise. Another official, Lemaitre, seems to border between cleverly leading the Doctor into trouble because of his suspicions that he's not who he says he is, and being as inept as the jailer as the Doctor so obviously doesn't have a clue what he's doing. Either way, the Doctor is sidetracked in his attempts to find his friends and is forced to meet with Robespierre himelf to discuss his territory. As demonstrated even better by The Romans later, the First Doctor under pressure gives rise to some of his most hilarious moments, as here he bumbles out of giving himself away. The way Hartnell plays these scenes is curious, he leaves viewers wondering whether the Doctor is even aware of the extent of the danger he is in.

With Susan and Barbara tricked into being captured again (this story is not one to show to someone who thinks the classic series is all capture/escape/recapture), everyone is shocked when the Doctor agrees to interrogate the mysterious new prisoners. At this point, I had given up on the jailer being a credible character, he's now pure comic relief as the Doctor tricks him into releasing Barbara and Susan and making it look like his fault. However, it all seems to backfire as the plot reaches its conclusion and Lemaitre finally turns on the Doctor and makes him lead the way to the counter-revolutionaries base. Lemaitre being the James Sterling that Webster was looking for was really surprising, certainly more surprising than the plot twist with Leon Colbert, and is a huge relief as it seems to tie everything up in a non-coincidental way.

The final episode sees the downfall of Robespierre thanks to the TARDISeers giving more than they should to help Sterling. Even though technically the story has gone on longer than it should, it's so entertaining that more is welcome, even if it consists of nothing more than the travellers getting sidetracked on their way back to the TARDIS for the greater good. For one thing, this means the ending isn't rushed like in many stories of Season 1 (weird given the length of some of them) and gives all the plot strands time to come to a natural end.

Horror quotient
- Not horror as such, but there are a few scares, like the fire, the dark cell, the threat of the travellers getting their heads chopped off. Pretty gruesome.
Comedy quotient - Writer Dennis Spooner definitely has comedy leanings, but seems to be reining himself in here. The Doctor is the comedy standout and the subplot of his taking on another identity foreshadows The Romans, when the comedy is even more blatant.
Drama quotient - Not as dramatic as previous historicals, but that isn't really the point of the story. It's an adventure.

It's not of the quality of Marco Polo or The Aztecs and could probably have used a good villain, but this is a fun story to end the season on.