Wednesday, March 30, 2011


So...this is Underworld is it?

Ah, Underworld. A story with a dodgy reputation based mainly (from what my aged & addled mind can remember) on the over-use of CSO making it look rather cheap & nasty.

In truth it isn't as bad as its reputation suggests.

The story is pretty much a Whoed up version of Jason & the Argonauts with a team of Minyan's led by Jackson (James Maxwell) on a quest to recover their lost race banks from a lost ship, the P7E. The Minyans it turns out were given a technological leg up by the Time Lords long, long ago but it all went horribly wrong. The Time Lords were driven out & the Minyans destroyed their own world. It was the fate of Minyos that led the Time Lords to introduce their policy of non-intervention.

Episode One is pretty good. The Doctor's arrival is greeted with some concern by Jackson & lots of shouting by Herrick (Alan Lake). The other Minyan's are Orfe (Jonathan Newth) & Tala (Imogen Bickford-Smith). They've been on their quest for one hundred thousand years apparently & looked a pretty tired bunch. It turns out though that Minyan's can regenerate...well actually it is more of a rejuvenation. There's none of the complete physical change that comes with Time Lord regeneration. They just seem to be younger versions of themselves.

There are some nice design touches too: the shield guns; the Minyan ship interiors & exteriors. There's also the rather lovely 'pacifier', which I wish we'd seen more of. The effect it has on Leela in particular is amusing.

The rest of the story isn't quite up to the standards of Episode One as the Doctor & Co find themselves wondering CSO caves; dealing with a rag-taggle bunch of 'Trogs' whose wetness rivals the Xerons & coming up against various guards, Seers & finally the Oracle. It's not entirely clear what the Oracle is but it seems to be another in the long line of sentient computers - P7E's computer perhaps - having a metal breakdown. The Seers are robots.

Again praise must be given. This time for the costume design, which is pretty imaginative (with the exception of the Trog's rags & the Minyan's silver spacesuits). The Seers in particular are a bit on the unusual side design-wise. It's a visually interesting story in many ways.

The CSO - usually known as 'blue screen' these days - isn't quite as awful as I'd expected it to be. It doesn't quite work but it doesn't look horrifically awful often.

One of the times it does look bad is when the Doctor, Leela & Idas (Norman Tipton) are drifting down a zero gravity tunnel. I'm afraid to say that whilst both Louise Jameson & Norman Tipton are doing their best to look like their feet aren't touching the ground Tom Baker kind of slouches his way down. It's very Tom but it doesn't help make things look convincing.

There's no great performances. Alan Lake's Herrick is a bit Brian Blessed for my liking, Norman Tipton's Idas is weedy & wet (a bit like Cordo in the Sunmakers but he never quite breaks out of the wet), James Maxwell & Jonathan Newth don't get a lot to do but heroism & Imogen Bickford-Smith gets to be pretty & heroic.

How much of this is down to the stress of making a story is a moot point.

We often forget, sitting here thirty years plus later, that when this story was made UK inflation was c.15%. That meant that budgets set at the start of seasons were sucked dry by the spiralling costs that came with such high rates of inflation. It tended to affect the final stories of seasons in particular (where there was less room for manoeuvre). So when it became clear that the budget for Underworld couldn't stretch to cave sets then the production team was required to do some lateral thinking & then make extensive use of a technique we now take for granted in film making (CSO/Blue Screen) to cover for the fact that the budget wasn't there. It doesn't quite work but you've got to admire the effort.

In the end it's not the first Tom Baker story I'd reach for & I enjoyed it more than I did 'The Invisible Enemy' (which is enjoyable in a different way) for example so it's probably reasonable to suggest that if you haven't seen it or you've been avoiding it due to its rather unfortunate reputation that you dig it out a take a look for yourself.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Sun Makers

Nobody understands! Business is business!!

The Sun Makers is brilliant. It might all be tower blocks, corridors & slightly over-large rooms with flashing lights but this is a work of Robert Holmes at his best.

The script balances semi-regular peril for the main cast with adult cleverness, including sneaky references to P45's. (On the other hand you could argue it's a magnificent two fingers at HMRC written by a man facing a rather large tax bill)

Basically The Doctor flexes his revolutionary muscles & brings down a rapacious corporate imperialist regime keeping the human race in tax slavery on Pluto in less time than it takes to cook a Christmas pudding. From the moment he & Leela prevent Cordo (Ray McReady) from throwing himself off the roof in despair at his inability to pay his father's death taxes the Doctor is rolling along in anarchist joy.

Leela to, with her billigerent honour, gives heart to a people kept in slavery by a combination of ridiculous taxation, an atmosphere filled with a drug to keep people suppressed & the employees of the company desperate to drive profits.

As usual a good script brings out some excellent performances but I think there are two highlights.

Firstly, Richard Leech's pompous, obsequious & egotistical Gatherer Hade. Hade's a bastard child of all those Pertwee era bastions of smuggery that are the British Civil Service. It's a performance that borders on pantomimesque but stays mostly on the right side of ham. It is helped by his costume, which makes him look like a giant humbug.

Secondly there is Henry Woolf's olegious Collector, who heads up the Company's operations. He's a nasty little squit. All chrome dome & gurgling. It's his voice, which reminds me a bit of Sil, that is the highlight. It's high-pitched & whiny. It's snide, nasty & when he needs to be pathetic. It's not naturalistic but pray how else would you play a sentient seaweed that's taken on human form.

There's a lovely moment when he's confronting the Doctor where he reaches across a strokes Tom's voluminous curls that is beautifully timed.

I should also note the appearance of Michael Keating as Goudry. Keating, of course, is better known as Villa in Blake's 7. Villa was always my favourite character in Blake's 7 so it's nice to see him here.

What's great about a lot of the characters in this is the way their encounters with the Doctor & Leela seem to wake them up from their slumbers & get them ready for revolution. It helps of course when important parts of the infrastructure are looked after by two blokes. This being late 70s Doctor Who I'm afraid the baddies look shockingly understaffed.

But the Doctor's a whirlwind of revolutionary leadership here interfering like it is going out of fashion.

It's an eminently quotable script to, almost as witty as City of Death (but not quite & I must stop getting ahead of myself).

This is also the first story that feels Graham Williamsy. There's less violence, less horror & more wit.

I imagine at the time it was the sort of story fans whinged about for being 'silly', forgetting for that Doctor Who did virtually out & out comedy with The Romans or the Myth Makers.

What it does do though is make one realise the importance of actors playing it straight. The Sun Makers works because everyone acts as if they are in something serious. The minute actors start playing silly buggers because the story seems silly is when things go to pieces.

Anyway I could waffle on all day about this. I'm so looking forward to it coming out on DVD. I hope it is given the full treatment it deserves. It never really comes up high on the list of great Doctor Who stories this but it should do & it was even better this time round for me than the last time.

In fact I could quite happily watch it again now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Image of the Fendahl

Alas Poor Skull

I'm a big fan of this story, always have been & I suspect I always will be.

Chris Boucher, who wrote the rather excellent 'Robots of Death', has created another pretty good story. It's not quite as wonderful as 'Robots' but I'll put that down entirely to the slightly pointless trip to the Fifth Planet in episode three, which is essentially pure padding.

Nonetheless I love this story. It feels like a real horror story. With a bit of editing & the cliffhangers removed it would make a nice British horror flick.

The strong cast - Denis Lil as Fendelmen; the gorgeous Wanda Ventham as Thea; Edward Arthur as Adam Colby; Scott Fredericks as Max Stael (who is the megalomanic lunatic of the week); Geoffrey Hinsliff as Jack Tyler...oh & please be upstanding to give a bumper round of applause to Daphne Heard as Ma Tyler.

It is one of my favourite ever performances in Doctor Who. Whilst the accent might be pure Mummerset the performance is so good you find yourself wanting more scenes with her in. It's a gem.

Fendahl is unusual as Doctor Who in that a lot of scenes don't involve the Doctor or Leela at all. Instead it is the guest stars play off of each other driving both drama & plot. It feels unlike a Doctor Who story at all in some ways.

Everyone but Colby also gets a moment when the horror of what is happening - or might be about to happen - dawns on them.

Thea, when talking to Adam in the lab; Doctor Fendelman when he tries to persuade Max & Co not to go through with their actions & Max himself when he asks the Doctor to pass him the gun. For Fendelman & Max this realisation ends in their deaths. For Thea there is a different fate. She gets to flit around painted gold turning people into Fendahleen.

She's Behind You!!

I'm not sure whether the Fendahleen work or not. I remember as a six year old being absolutely terrified with the cliffhanger to Episode Three but it looks less terrifying now. This I'm going to put down to old age & cynicism. It perhaps needed to be a wee bit slimier. This is the classic example of the fear coming more from anticipation & hints than the final sight of the creature.

Even now though it didn't really effect my enjoyment of the story, which is anchored in the acting & the words rather than special effects.

In fact as I've worked my way through these stories it slowly dawns on me that it is the performances & the words that have always been the appeal to me of Doctor Who. There might be a lot of technobabble & futurebabble. There might be occassional moments of blandness & stupidity but if you get a script with intelligence & wit combined with actors who deliver on the performance front, even when faced with the silliest & stupidest special effects then you get something wonderful. The special effects have never really mattered. It's nice when they're done right & when they look great but it was never about that.

It's about the Doctor & his friends saving the Universe with wit, charm, style & the minimum about of violence necessary.

I should also pay homage to Tom Baker & Louise Jameson again. Tom's great when displaying what I can only describe as intellectual power. Taking control of a situation through words & explainations. Making people listen to him by force of character alone.

Louise Jameson does a great job of keeping Leela from becoming a cipher. There's some lovely scenes between the two of them throughout. It's a nice Doctor & Companion relationship & it is a shame it wasn't to last much longer.

So minor quibbles aside I love this story. It's one of the handful of stories that I watched as a child that I can still watch now with that childish spirit.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Invisible Enemy

K9 Takes A Bow Wow

This is the first story with a Graham Williams touch. It's the beginning of the era of 'imaginative silliness' which will probably reach its heights (or depths depending on your point of view) in Season 17. I shall not leap too far ahead of myself though.

'The Invisible Enemy' is one of those stories that fan lore labels as not particularly good, possibly awful.

I'm not sure that's entirely fair. I think there's a lot of good things in this. It's pacey, the first couple of episodes work well & 'contact has been made' makes a nicely creepy catchphrase. The idea of a nasty virus sitting out in space waiting for a suitable species to infect is also quite nice. As is the quest inside the Doctor's brain until...until...the Nucleus of the Swarm appears.

Now I've got a high tolerence for dodgy special effects but (& it is such an easy target) that big bloody prawn that appears at the end of Episode Three & lasts through Episode Four is flipping ridiculous. It's up there with the Magma Beast & the fact I think it is possibly the worst monster in Doctor Who history.

It worked better as an idea than an actuality.

I've talked before how the legs (or walks) are often the big dodgy factor with Doctor Who monsters but the Prawn can't even walk! Inside poor old John Scott Martin is flapping claws like a good 'un but he's having to be pushed around by a couple of actors.

Even the Zarbi can walk!

They do try & fob it off by giving the Doctor a good line about the creature struggling with its new size but it doesn't help because in the end: it an IMMOBILE PRAWN.


There's also a couple of moments where a lack of...time...or even care is on display, perhaps the most notorious being K9 blowing up a bit of wall that's already obviously cracked. Apparently this was because they wanted a re-take but it's a pretty shoddy job.

It's moments like that where Doctor Who's reputation for cheapness were born. In fact I think Doctor Who's budgets, whilst tight, weren't so much the key problem. Lack of time - which I suppose is a symptom of lack of money - is the main problem.

Old Doctor Who seems to have been made under a great deal of time pressure & when you're dealing with a programme containing lots of special effects that lack of time leaves you open to having to just put up with whatever you get. Especially if a director is more focused on the actors, not the effects which is what Derrick Goodwin - who directed this - was appearently.

It's reflected in some slightly 'stringy' model rocket work. The make-up given to the 'contacted' isn't brilliant either. In particular Michael Sheard's Hitler moustache, Dennis Healey eyebrows combination grabs the eye.

It's nice to see Sheard again though & his performance as Lowe is up to his usual standards.

The other nice performance in this is Frederick Jaeger's Professor Marius. Head of the Bi-Al Medical Foundation & creator of K9.

Ah, yes this is K9's first story. How could I forget. The first thing you notice is what a noisy bugger K9 is. His motors whirr away & he bumps along quite nicely. It's a sweet little thing but what brings K9 to life is John Leeson's excellent vocal performance. K9 sounds like a fusspot academic who despite being a robot develops a nice line in smart-arsery.

Back to Frederick Jaeger. It's an indication of the difference in stories & in producers that he's played more light-heartedly than Jaeger's Professor Sorenson in Planet of Evil. The line about whether K9 was properly 'TARDIS trained' wouldn't have got near a Hinchcliffe story (neither would K9 I suspect).

Even with all those criticisms & the STUPID PRAWN THING it's still rattles along nicely. I know that my six year old self didn't let the effects get in my way so it shouldn't be dismissed entirely out of hand. It is however probably the least effective story since 'Revenge of the Cybermen', which by Tom Baker's standards so far makes it a bit of a dud.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Horror of Fang Rock

It's Not Easy Being Green
Season Fifteen kicks off with a delightful little 'base under seige' story, 'Horror of Fang Rock'.

There's a new producer with Graham Williams replacing Philip Hinchcliffe but Holmes is still script editor & this does have the feel of a Hinchcliffe & Holmes era story as it's played pretty straight as a tea time horror story.

On an early 20th century island there is a lighthouse. The story starts when Vince (John Abbott), one of the three lighthouse crewmen spots a shooting star.

The other two are Ben (Ralph Watson in this third Doctor Who appearance, this time without badger wig but with an impressive moustache) & Ruben (Colin Douglas), whose a old-fashioned, superstitious sort of cove.

Alas the shooting star has bought along a nasty little green testicular blob that starts the nastiness by bumping off Ben. It is, of course, at this point that The Doctor & Leela, off-course because of fog, arrive. In traditional Doctor Who style they are temporarily - in this case incredibly temporarily - suspected but the arrival of a luxury yacht, which smashes into the island.

There are apparently only four survivors: Harker, a crewman (Rio Fanning);Lord Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey); Colonel Skinsale (Alan Rowe) & Adelaide, Lord Palmerdale's secretary (Annette Wollett). These four have problems of their own.

Gradually, one by one, the occupents of the lighthouse die at the hands of the nasty green blob. It's a 'base under siege' story par excellence whilst also being a distorted reflection of 'The Sontaran Experiment'. Like the Styre in 'The Sontaran Experiment' our Rutan is a scout from a ship testing the Earth waters - so to speak - before the rest of its fleet arrives. The Doctor hopes that by destroying the Rutan scout & his mothership then it'll scare off the rest of the fleet.

It's a claustrophobic tale, which I remember terrifying me as a child. Even now though it keeps up a sustained level of tension throughout.

The characters involved, even the minor ones, are well-played. Some are sympathetic: Vince in particular (whose death upset me a lot as a kid & still made me a little sad now) but Harker to.

Some are unsympathetic: Lord Palmerdale who is described by Leela as 'the cowardly one'. He's a nasty little capitalist on the make. Skinsale to is an MP on the make but we are made to like him before his greed is responsible for his death. Adelaide is played as an excellent counterpoint to Leela. She flaps, screams & faints. No one seems to have much sympathy for her. Leela slaps her, tells her to be silent & the Doctor shouts at her.

A round of applause to for Colin Douglas's Ruben, especially for the horrible look of glee he has when, as the Rutanised Ruben, he moves in to kill people.

Ruben The Rutan

In fact the Doctor's a grumpy sod in this story. Stories of its production seem to indicate that Tom & director Paddy Russell did not get on & that the atmosphere stank. Tom seems to be channeling that into his performance. He's very intense throughout & on occassions borderline terrifying. Or he would be if you were stuck in a lighthouse squeezed between him & a glowing green testicle.

Louise Jameson excellent again to. I've really warmed to Leela as a companion & she interacts brilliantly with Tom. She also still has a nice fire to her. The scene at the end when she celebrates killing the Rutan by taunting it being a particularly interesting little moment, although the Doctor doesn't approve naturally.

Are there any faults? A few quibbles, Adelaide's death is confusingly directed; the blob's climb up the lighthouse looks wrong & the Rutan mothership is a pretty cheap effect but none of these take anything away from another good, solid Doctor Who story.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Talons of Weng-Chiang

Sherlock Who & Leela Doolittle
Ah, another piece of high quality Hinchcliffe & Holmes Doctor Who has zipped past. As a six parter its pace is slightly more sedate than usual but it never feels particularly slow.

This is Doctor Who as Sherlock Holmes meets Fu Manchu. It's a homage to both - including casual Victorian racism about 'those devilish' Chinese - set in the foggy East End of London Town. Where old ladies watch the peelers drag rat-nibbled corpses from the Thames & the man with the twisted face lurks amongst the opium dens. Where women are disappearing mysteriously from streets leading to rumours of Jack the Ripper's return & the music hall rules. With it's Daisy, Daisy singalongs & propostrous perambulation introducing incredibly inventive acts. It's the Victorian London of a thousand stories: both written & filmed. It's got an atmosphere you could cut with one of Leela's knives.

It also has a thorny issue of the 'Chinese-ing Up' of a white British actor (John Bennett) to play Chinese peasent cum oriental magician Li H'sen Chang. Bennett's good, especially in the moment where the Doctor & Leela come upon him dying in the foul rookery that was Weng-Chiang's base. It feels a little uncomfortable to me because I do wonder whether the production team could have looked a little harder to find a Chinese actor capable of playing the part. This is 1977 we're talking about. However I may be over-reacting to something. It doesn't effect my enjoyment of the story much but I would love to know how a Chinese person watching this would feel.

As I said Bennett does do a good job & he's not the only one. There's a fine pair of perfect performances from Christoper Benjamin as Henry Gordon Jago & Trevor Baxtor as Professor Litefoot. Jago is the owner of the theatre & fond of elongated words with a tendency to mild cowardice. Litefoot is a pathologist with a thick skull, some experience of China & a bit more bravery than Jago. Kept seperate until Episode Five they make a fine couple. So fine that Big Finish have done two series of adventures for one of Doctor Who's most three dimensional character pairs given life through the excellent writing of Robert Holmes.

Holmes is often talked about the best writer of Doctor Who & with something like Talons you can see why. There's a decent plot, a dash of technobabble & futurebabble, wit & intelligence. There's quotable lines. It has nutrition for the mind so what's not to like.

The main villain of the piece is Magnus Greel, a time-travelling war criminal from the 51st century with a skin problem & a Peking Homonculous for company. Greel is played by Michael Spice (last heard of as the voice of Morbius in Brain of Morbious) & is one of those Doctor Who villains driven to the edge by their situation. He stays just the right side of hamminess except one or two scenes of unnecessarily manic 'bad guy' laughter.

The Peking Homonculous (Deep Roy) is first introduced to us as Li H'sen Chang's ventriloquists dummy.

There's something creepy about vent's dummys full stop. Just see either 'Dead of Night' (a brilliant piece of portmanteau British horror from the 1940s) or 'Magic' starring Antony Hopkins to prove my point. When the vent's dummy turns out to be a homocidal robot with the cerebral cortex of a pig that makes it even more horrible.

The Horrible Homonculous

Tom Baker is again great in this being enough of a Sherlock Holmes to convince someone to let him have a shot at playing the part in a television adaptation, which did not go well. Tom's a wonderful Doctor Who but a little chaotic to be Holmes I think.

Louise Jameson also does another lovely job as Leela as she is dropped into a world she doesn't understand. She's a sf Eliza Doolittle & she gets some great comedy scenes with Litefoot, including a lovely little moment at the end involving a discussion about how many sugars a lady should have in her tea. She also gets some proper action sequences. She also gets chased by a giant rat in her underclothes. I have mentioned them let me just say that yes, the giant rats are not the most convincing of monsterous creations but director David Maloney generally does a good job of hiding the worst of their 'men in suitness', although not totally.

We'll gloss over those damn rats though as a minor quibble in a story with many exceptional qualities & well worth a watch if & when you get the chance.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Robots of Death

I have said before that there is no such thing as the perfect Doctor Who story but 'Robots of Death' is as near you can get. A thing of beauty: in performance, scripting, design & direction. I have to admit that this has always been one of my favourite & most watched Doctor Who stories, although it has been a while since the last time I watched it. It was possible, like with 'The Deadly Assassin' that I might find it disappointing this time, but I didn't. This is Doctor Who at its finest.

Whilst the basic plot is a Doctor Whoed version of an Agatha Cristie murder mystery the script itself is filled with little moments of wit & cleverness. There are also hints of a world beyond the Sandminer, with talk of Kaldor City (later developed by Big Finish), 'the founding families' etc. The characters to appear to have had lives before the Doctor appears & the survivors may have lives afterwards to. All of which adds layers to the story.

It is also well acted. Tom Baker is excellent in this, dealing with an interrogation by Commander Uvanov (Russell Hunter) with aplomb & dismissing Borg's (Brian Croucher)bluster with one of the series great put downs. Louise Jameson to does sterling work as Leela, dispensing the wisdom of her tribe whilst helping Toos (Pamela Salem) with her injury. Also worthy of mention is the scene between Leela & Poul (David Collings) after Poul has lost his mind.

Credit should go to Collings for his portrayal of Poul, especially after his breakdown. But Russell Hunter's Uvanov is also excellent. He gets a broader pallet of emotions to play with than is often the case with the non-leading roles in Doctor Who. He also manages to carry off a ridiculous piece of headgear without looking the remotest bit uncomfortable. Uvanov is a man who has made it the har way. He's not a member of the Founding Families like Zilda (Tania Rogers) & occassionally his feelings about this (& his dreams) come to the fore.

David Bailie as villain of the piece Taren Capel is a nice change from the shouty over-emotional villains of some stories. Determined to free his brother Robots from slavery to humans his 'physical & verbal precision' (as the Doctor points out) shows his roots: raised by robots as a child he thinks of himself as one of them. It's Stockholm Syndrome writ large.

The robots themselves are beautiful designed, almost art deco in look & are voiced with marvellous cold precision by Miles Fothergill, as SV7 & Greogry de Polney, D84.

Actually the robot 'class system' is a nice touch to. There's D-for Dumbs, V-for Vocs & SV-for SuperVocs. Dumbs don't speak & do most of the chores. D84 is an investigator in disguise, alongside Poul.

Their emotionless but lyrical voices & lack of body language do make them genuinely disturbing when they turn against their human crew. Poul, after his breakdown discribes them as 'walking dead', which seems a good description to me. However that doesn't stop D84 having a personality of sorts & his 'death' is actually surprisingly affecting.

By the way "Please do not throw hands at me" is one of my favourite lines of dialogue in Doctor Who ever.

I have found whe writing this blog that it is harder to write adequately about the stories you love than the stories you don't like. It's easier to me negative than positive; to criticise than to praise. So you'll forgive me if I'm struggling to explain precisely why this story is so brilliant. It is almost the first story I'd reach for to show newbies how great Classic Doctor Who was & is.

There are quibbles but they are so minor as to be irrelevent. If you haven't seen this story then you should.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Face of Evil

Leela - No Janis Thorns Allowed
So having left Sarah Jane for a solo adventure on Gallifrey we are introduced to Leela (Louise Jameson), a child of the Sevateem. A savage & a hunter. Although we shouldn't assume she's stupid. She's got three excellent qualities: a taste for sarcasm, courage & an open mind. The pre-Doctor arrival sequences emphasise that however backward her upbringing Leela isn't stupid.

Also the relationship between Leela & the Doctor seems to click from the start. It certainly helps the story that the Doctor isn't on his own.

This feels not too different to 'The Planet of Evil'. It's a jungle, a base under seige (or in this case a village under seige both physically & mentally) & some invisible enemies. The difference is that there's been a real attempt to sketch out a society here. One that has an existence when the Doctor isn't there.

It might not be civilisation as we know it but the myths & religion make it feel alive. As a result the site of a handful of British actors clad in loincloths isn't as awkward as it sometimes feels - I'll talk about this a little when we get to the Power of Kroll.

The link between the Sevateem's religious rituals & the technology of their spacefaring ancestors is also nicely done, which becomes even more fun when as the story moves along we meet the Tesh & understand more about what has happened here after the Doctor's previous (unseen) adventure.

The fact that the Sevateem (Neeva, the High Priest included) mistake the Doctor for the 'Evil One' is one of those initially a pretty traditional moment of dropping the Doctor into a situation where he gets the blame, gets peoples trust and then wins. But this theory gets neatly turned upside down at the end of episode one when we see the Doctor's face carved onto a large cliff. It's a nice little twist & an unusual cliffhanger.

Although my favourite cliffhanger is the one that finishes episode three when Xoanon, who isn't a God as the Sevateem think but a poor, mad computer suffering from the Doctor's previous attempts to help, reacts to the Doctor's life shattering appearance by screaming 'Who Am I?'. It's creepy & mildly upsetting.

This is one of those Doctor Who stories where the villain isn't really villainous at all, just a child driven insane. A new life-form going through an extended birth trauma. It's experiments on both the Tesh and the Savateem aren't nice but the truth is that Xoanon is genuinely insane, something to which the Doctor has contributed. Unusually & indirectly the Doctor really is 'The Evil One' in this story.

The Big Stoney Face of Evil

There's some nice performances but I'll flag up David Garfield's Neeva - after Louise Jameson - as the pick of the bunch. There's some nice work from other actors to but they have less to do, although a little praise for Mike Elles as 'little' Gentek, the Tesh whose moment of mild panic at the prospect of losing to the Sevateem gets a rebuke from Jabel (Leon Eagles) the Captain of the Tesh.
Yesterday I said that 'The Deadly Assassin' was a mild disappointment. Well today 'The Face of Evil' proved to be a pleasent surprise. Much better than I remember, some lovely performances & whilst insane computers aren't the most original idea it is translated to the screen in an interesting & creepy fashion.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Deadly Assassin

Nice Collar Doc
Well, well, well here's a turn up for the books. This is something of a surprise. It isn't quite as good as I remember it. In fact I'd say this is the first disappointment since Tomb of the Cybermen in my journey through broadcast Doctor Who.

I should say that it isn't terrible. It's just a meh story. All mouth & no trousers.

I've been trying to put my finger on why. Perhaps it is that Tom on his own doesn't quite work. In fact the problem with this story is that Tom doesn't really interact with anyone to any great degree. The main villain & he are kept seperate until virtually the end of the story, instead he gets to fence with Chancellor Goth for most of it. It's an oddly 'cold' story.

This is only the second time we've seen Gallifrey. In 'The War Games' it seems a sterile, clean sort of place. They'd be no dust here. But this Gallifrey is less impressive, more a culture in decline than the pinnacle of galactic civilisation.

I think it is fine to reflect its staid dullness by casting older actors in the majority of the roles & the Doctor's comments about their technology not being quite as sophisticated as they think it is reflects that. This is a planet in stagnation & you can understand why the Doctor (& others) wanted to flee the place & do something more fun instead.

It takes this & 'Invasion of Time' before the Timelord's change their interior design to something more akin to an office in an industrial estate somewhere in the home counties. Now though the design is good. It's ill-lite, seagreen & tacky. However the Timelord's costumes, with the skullcaps & collars, look fantastic. When they get dressed up it is a reminder of past glories.

What I do take exception to is the claim that they'd have lost their knowledge of a Black Hole underneath the Panopticon. To lose understanding of some things is one of the sadnesses of history but to lose a Black Hole smacks of deliberate stupidity. It is as if Holmes wanted to take the Timelords down several pegs. After all it is this story that gives us the arbitrary twelve regenerations issue, as well as Rassillon & his various knick-knacks.

Then there's also Runcible (Hugh Walters). I don't mind the performance it is just the character seems a tad unnecessary. Who is he broadcasting to & why? I also think Robert Holmes could have stretched himself a bit beyond C.I.A as the initials of the Timelords Celestial Intervention Agency. It's a tad unsubtle. Why not just the Intervention Agency.*

The scenes in the Matrix are tense enough & notably odd, although quite why Goth needs to be so theatrical about the process is beyond me. If I were the Master I'd be telling him to get on with it & stop faffing about with the clowns & biplanes.

Ah, Goth. I've no idea why the production team went to such lengths to disguise Goth. Much as I like Bernard Horsfall's performance it is pretty obviously him, despite the croaky whisper. A croaky whisper he takes on board when he's talking to the Master who ALREADY KNOWS WHO HE IS! Why is he bothering then? Why?! So the big reveal in Episode Three is a bit of a damp squib to be honest.

By that point your also starting to ask questions about why the Master drags the Doctor into this in the first place, except to make his own life difficult. Wouldn't revenge on the Doctor be easier once you've seized control of Gallifrey? As I've said before its no wonder the Master gets through his regenerations so quickly when he's this idiotic.

However the Master's appearance is brilliantly horrible & bordering on the genuinely horrific. I'm surprised they managed to sneak this past a tea time audience. It's no wonder Mary Whitehouse got her knickers in a twist. It's not just the look, it's the healing scab stickiness of the look. It's not nice. Peter Pratt does an excellent job, trapped behind a mask to use his voice to give life to the performance. This is definitely a Master on the edge of a nervous breakdown. There's certainly more connection between the skullfaced Master of this story & John Simm's new series lunatic than between Simm & Delgardo or Ainley.

The Master Not Looking His Best

In the end though this story isn't quite up to the standards of my memory. Yes, it has some strengths but also lots of niggling weaknesses. In the end its fun but not the stone cold Classic I remember it to be - or that fan lore might lead us to believe.

It does however define the Timelords & Gallifrey for the forseeable future.

*I quite like the idea of the Intervention Agency. I may run off & play with it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Hand of Fear

The Hand - Fear It!

Ah, the Hand of Fear. This is Sarah Jane's last story - Five Doctors excepted - in Classic Who. How do they reward her? They get her to dress up as a female Andy Pandy! Why? Poor old Sarah Jane. Over the course of her time as a companion she's been hypnotised, shot at, tied up, molested by Condo, threatened, arrested & taken over by a Giant Spider. But that's not enough, no. Now they make her dress like an toodler.

Sarah Jane's a good companion. Yes, she has a tendency to wibbly-lipped weeping at the merest hint that the Doctor might be dead but she's brave, feisty & a damn fine journalist. You can see why she'll end up in her own series. There aren't many Doctor Who companions you can imagine doing that, even popular ones like Jamie. They need the Doctor but because Sarah Jane was given a life outside UNIT from the get go, which allowed her to drive her own stories she's got the strength to carry on a fictional life away from the Doctor.

This is down to a combination of good writing & perhaps most importantly Liz Sladen's performance. Barry Lett's said that one of the reasons he cast Liz was because she could do 'fear & bravery' at the same time, which is actually one of Sarah's key strengths. We know she's afraid, sometime terrified, but she - just about - holds herself together so that she can help her best friend, The Doctor. Liz worked well with Jon Pertwee but with Tom the companion-Doctor relationship reaches something of a peak in my opinion.
This is the relationship by which all Doctor-Companion relationships are to be judged. Well, in the Classic series anyway.

Liz is great in this to. Childlike & sinister when she's taken over by Eldrad. This is emphasised by some good directorial choices by Lennie Mayne, especially in Ep 1 as she approaches the Nuton Power Complex. It's all nicely creepy.

Rex Robinson makes his third Doctor Who appearance, this time as Dr Carter. No silly wig this time but he does get to wield the infamous fake spanner in order to attack the Doctor. Last seen in the hands of vegetable militant Harrison Chase.

Glyn Hughes plays Professor Watson, head of the Nuton Power Complex & does the best with what is potentially a role with all the three-dimensionality of Bod. I might be wrong here but I think the phone call to his family as everything looks likely to explode around him might be the treacliest moment in Classic Doctor Who up to now.

I do like the cleverness of Eldrad - the villain - reconstituting himself copying Sarah & coming out of the Nuclear Reactor as a female, played very well by Judith Paris. She's subtle & devious, which is a bit of clash with Stephen Thorne's shouty bullying male Eldrad. As Sarah says, I prefer her to him.

Eldrard also gets one of the most undignified exits of any Doctor Who villain ever. However I won't spoil it for you too much.

And then the Doctor gets the call from Gallifrey - or Gallifree as Tom seems intent on pronouncing it - so Sarah's got to go. Aw.

It's a lovely little leaving scene, apparently worked out between Holmes, Hinchcliffe, Sladen & Baker. It's sweet, it leaves a lot unsaid & makes the me feel just a little sad. It's played to perfection to by Tom & Liz. It's subtle stuff but one of the nicest scenes in the programmes history. It also proves that you don't need to lay emotions on with a trowel to actual affect people.

There's one major piece of silliness involving the RAF - using stock footage as used in Seeds of Doom - firing some kind of nuclear bomb into a nuclear power station as a way of stopping a creature that we've already established thrives of radiation. Never mind the ridiculousness of the fact that driving about five miles away seems to be a 'safe' distance from the site of what is about to be the first nuclear bomb dropped on British soil.

Whether that kind of quibble stops you enjoying the story is entirely up to you really. I know some people can't stand plot holes but I'd say there's rarely a Doctor Who story without one of them, if analysed deeply enough.

In the end this isn't up to the standards of Season 13 or Masque but it has its moments. It is also a lovely farewell to a fine companion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Masque of Mandragora

Sarah Jane Looking Lovely
Season Fourteen kicks off in the same excellent style as Season Thirteen finished.

There's no doubt that the Hinchliffe-Holmes production team have the knack of producing excellent stories, Tom & Liz Sladen have formed a wonderful partnership & there's a real confidence about the series.

I also have a soft spot for pseudo-historicals, which build on the BBC's understanding of how to make good period drama & rarely age quite as badly as pure sf stories do. It also benefits from a lot of location footage in and around Portmerion, although that does make some of the catacomb sets look a bit obviously artificial. But fundamentally the Portmerion does feel more Renaissance Italy than a series of sets in a small studio would do.

The main villain is the Mandragora Helix, which seems to be an aggressive will-o-the-whisp but there are layers of sub-villains: Hieronymous (Norman Jones), an old school astrologist & top man in the Cult of Demnos & Count Frederico (Jon Laurimore), a wannabe Medici with the eyes on his nephew's Dukedom. Finally, we have the Rossini (Antony Carrick), the Count's Renaissance thug.

Said nephew Duke Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) is a man with his eyes to the future, a dreamer & frankly a bit wet. He's like Hamlet without the oomph. However he's backed up by friend Marco (Tim Piggott-Smith in a frankly unconvincing wig) who is Horatio to Giuliano's Hamlet.

The Renaissance setting pits Hieronymous' pagan world view against the rationality of Giuliano. The Mandragora's attack on Earth at this place & time is a deliberate attempt to hold back human progress.* This being Doctor Who we are automatically on the side of Giuliano. Interestingly despite being Renaissance Italy there is no talk of the Church, we only see the Cult of Demnos.

A lot comes together well in this story: script, location, design and performances.

Norman Jones hasn't put a foot wrong in any of his three Doctor Who appearances but I think Hieronymous is his best. He makes you feel how angry & bitter he is when his beliefs are mocked. Mandragora is his chance of vengeance & power.

Jon Laurimore's Count Frederico is also a fine performance of barely restrained nastiness & renaissance deviousness. Laurimore also LOOKS the part. Have a look at paintings or statues of some of the Renaissance Italian nobility & they have similar faces.

This kind of face

The good guys to are well played. Armstrong's Guiliano is wet but he's had power thrust upon him early & he is uncertain. This is a man who thinks too much. In the cut & thrust of Italian Renaissance politics you can't see him lasting long without a bit more decisiveness, which is provided by Tim Piggott-Smith's Marco.

Tom Baker gets some great stuff to do & there's a lovely little scene between him, Liz Sladen & Armstrong where Guiliano asks him if he's a scientist. Watch out for it. It's worth it for Liz Sladen's soundless line.

My only quibble & there must be one is the ending is a tad...glib but then Doctor Who's eternal problem is how to end all this jeopardy in a way that doesn't leave you open to accusations of deus ex machina or just plain cheating. It's hard to do.

It's on DVD so there's no excuse not to watch it.

*What Count Scarlioni & Azal would make of this we can only wonder. All those attempts to drive mankinds development forward & some fizzy lighty thing comes along & tries to ruin it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Seeds of Doom

You know, Doctor, I could play all day in my green cathedral.

Season 13 finishes on a high with 'The Seeds of Doom' thankfully, with the Doctor and Sarah taking on the Krynoids and Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley), a millionaire with a plant fixation.

It is a simple tale of human meet pod, pod turns human into plant, plant tries to destroy mankind. The fate of the two characters who get turned into Krynoids: Winlett (John Gleeson) and Keeler (Mark Jones) is pretty horrible. Not disimilar to what happens to Noah during 'The Ark in Space'.

Alas Poor Winlett

In the case of Keeler the change is more horrific because we've got to know the character a bit, with his lack of courage & unwillingness to do violence. That's combined with Chase's morbid curiousity. He want Keeler to change & he wants to watch.

In fact Tony Beckley's Harrison Chase is one of the best bits about this story. He's a plantaholic, posh & totally bonkers but to Beckley's eternal credit he never quite crosses the boundary into silliness, even when given some barmy dialogue.

Harrison Chase - He's bad

He's also well-supported by Scorby (John Challis) his violent sidekick & Hargreaves, the Butler (Seymour Green amusingly). Challis in particular gives a good impression of an unpleasent, violent & self-centred bastard with Scorby who when Chase's insanity becomes obvious & the Krynoid goes berserk is forced to side with the Doctor. You almost want Scorby to make it to the end of the story but he's just been too much of a bastard for Doctor Who & it is his destiny to die.

It's actually a surprisingly violent story. The Doctor himself gives Chase's chaffeur a mighty fine right-hook - the second Baker's Doctor has thrown; Scorby slams the Doctor down; people get composted or threatened with composting via a large unpleasent piece of machinery & Chase shapes up to punch Sarah (which happens off screen but the implication is pretty clear & nasty). Sometimes it feels more like an episode of 'The Sweeney' than Doctor Who.

Oh & Chase uses one of the world's most obviously fake giant spanners to knock someone unconcious, which is delightful.

Douglas Camfield's direction is great except one thing. He makes the mistake of filming the feet of both the almost Krynoid monster - which is an Axon costume re-used and painted green fact fans - & the larger beastie when it attacks Dunbar (Kenneth Gilbert), the Doctor & Sarah.

One day I shall write a long treastise on why feet are the biggest weakness in Doctor Who monster design but for now let me just say it is better to film pretty much everything except the obvious shoes or waddling feet of some poor actor. It's only a minor quibble I admit in a story that is well-paced for a six parter (the only one in Season 13 thankfully) & well-directed.

The scenes in the house in the last episode with the plants threatening to break in through the window & roof feel tense enough & I had a flashback to watching this as a small - I would have been 5 - child because the scene where the vines smash through the window whilst Sarah is watching had the chill of recognition.

I was genuinely terrified then. What on Earth were my parents thinking of, letting a 5 year old watch this! Fortunately my Mum would always reassure me, as I peaked through the crack in the door, that 'it was only television' so that probably makes it OK.

I should also give credit for two other performances. Firstly, Michael Barrington (as Sir Colin Thackery) whose an amusing change to the usual Doctor Who civil servants because he's friendly, polite & gently witty. Secondly Sylvia Coleridge as painter Aemila Ducat, a sort of cross between Lady Bracknell & Miss Marple but with bohemian additions. There's a lovely scene between Barrington & Coleridge in episode four, which was one of the highlights for me even though it does nothing much to advance the plot.

What more can I say. It's yet another brilliant story in a Season filled with them. If you're introducing yourself to old school Doctor Who you can't go wrong with any of Season Thirteen (even Android Invasion is fun if you forget the eye-patch).

A brief piece of post-review good cause plugging folks. This is an auction site to raise money for post-Earthquake Japan. There is going to be some Doctor Who/Torchwood links - I note Paul Cornell for example is offering the chance to be a walk-on character in his new book. Please have a look at what's there. I know us Doctor Who fans generally have a broader cultural life than a lot of people give us credit for so there's bound to be something there you might wish to bid on.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Evening Stuff

Due to excess alcohol consumption, a long lie-in and the need to finish my two articles for I have got a bit behind on the Who watching. The Seeds of Doom is now rescheduled for tomorrow.

It looks like Season 6, Part 1 will begin on Easter Saturday, which is 23rd April but that's not been properly confirmed by anyone yet. I remain undecided about whether I'll review the new stuff as it goes out or not. I think I'll decide nearer the time.

What the impending arrival of the new series does do is lead to an explosion of spoilers, rumours & internet theorising. I try and avoid spoilers as much as possible as I think it makes 'live' watching a bit less fun. With Facebook, Twitter and YouTube alongside the old school press leaks and a Radio Times that has an odd willingness to spoil thoughtlessly this dodging of spoilers is slightly harder than it used to be.

That's not to say I'm not averse to a bit of theorising or wishful thinking myself. I can discuss who River Song might or might not be with the same relish as the next geek but I don't want to find out the truth before I watch the episodes.

Actually I don't mind some spoilers. The general stuff, like "The Zarbi are coming back" is fine but not the more specific twists like "River Song is Kate Bush from a parallel universe", which make watching an episode a bit of a waste of time.

So tell me nothing. Even if I ask.

It has dawned on me that my blog contains tonnes of spoilers if you haven't watched old Doctor Who stories but I'm working on the assumption that it doesn't matter too much if you leak the ending of a Tom Baker story, although I have tried to avoid any sneaky and impressive twists where I can.

So 'Seeds of Doom' tomorrow brings a close to Season 13, which I have to say is battling away with Season 7 as the most consistently good since the series started. Then I'm on to Season 14 and we're in the stories I watched at the time & for which I have something of a soft spot. But then I like 'The Web Planet' and 'The Horns of Nimon' so my taste has been questioned.

The Brain of Morbius

Season 13 chugs on in its horror influenced way, churning out excellent story after excellent story. The consistency of this season, with its increased fear quotient, makes Season 13 the best season since Season 7. Even the 'dud' story, The Android Invasion, has its moments.

'The Brain of Morbius' is the darkest of them all, so far. It is a Doctor Whoed up version of Frankenstein complete with a mad surgeon pinging about a lightening struck castle & lab in Solon (Philip Madoc). There's a dumb Igorish servent, Condo (Colin Fay) & a terrible pot pourri of a body lying on a slab waiting for a suitable head. Add a brain in a vat of green bubbling gunk, a dash of floaty mysticism in the Sisterhood of Karn & an elixir of life and what's not to like.

Throw in the Doctor and Sarah whose arrival on Karn might be a Timelord skullduggary and give the brain a name, Morbius. That's a recipe for Doctor Who excellence.

Morbius (voice by Michael Spice) was a renegade Timelord whose army of scum and mercenaries were defeated on Karn. Morbius was supposed to have been atomised after his defeat but Solon snuck off with his brain & has spent all his time since stitching together various body parts in order to make a functional, if aestetically unpleasent, body for Morbius. All that's missing is a suitable head. Enter The Doctor.

The Doctor's apparence on Karn however raises the suspicions of Maran (Cynthia Grenville) the grumpy leader of the Sisterhood. She thinks he's been sent by the Timelords to steal the elixir of life, which is a convenient by-product of their Sacred Flame. Her right-hand woman is Ohica (Gilly Brown) who does a lot of over-emoting & starry eye work. The Sisterhood will be sacrificing The Doctor to their flame.

Pseudo-religious rituals never look quite right on Doctor Who. There's something inately am-dram about a bunch of actors stuck in a small studio giving it the full cultist. So the Sisterhood's nicely choreographed dance around the Doctor's pyre to be complete with some sybillent chanting is quite good, if still a tad unconvincing. Cynthia Grenville though is marvellously cranky as Maran.

Poor old Sarah gets a bit of a rough time in this story: threatened, tied-up, blinded, rudely accosted by both a brain in a jar & Morbius' artificially with headed body. After this you'd think the Doctor would take her somewhere for a nice rest. Liz Sladen certainly gets to run through the emotions in this story, including the now regular 'Doctor's death' scene. Funnily even the Doctor says that she keeps doing that. By now, if I were Sarah, I'd assume he was alive & well until definitive proof were offered.

He's behind You!

Philip Madoc's Solon is an excellent take on the mad scientist with just the right amount of hammery. He's never too over the top, just walking a fine line. The script gives him some great lines, especially his scenes with the dim but dangerous Condo.

There's some genuine scenes of horror in this story, with the two darkest being when Sarah stumbles on the moving headless body in Solon's lab & when Condo is shot. There's blood, which is the first time I think we really see 'real' violence. I'm not sure whether the unreality of Doctor Who makes violence more or less shocking. I certainly feel that blood or no blood Classic Doctor Who is much more violent than its present day counterpart.

Quibbles: The Doctor is a bit stupid in a couple of scenes, e.g. the whole shake hands with Morbius moment; Maran's death scene is a little odd because she somehow gets herself into the cubbyhole where the Sacred Flame burns, even though it looks tiny; & the throw away scene in the mind bending contest that implies there's been earlier incarnations of the Doctor. However quibbling about continuity in a series where the hero travels around in a time machine messinf about with history seems churlish.

This is another excellent story in a wonderful season.

This nice fan trailer is a good intro:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150

Peter Cushing IS Doctor Who in 'Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150AD'

You know it may be sacrilegious but I enjoy the film version of this story more than I do the Hartnell television version. It eliminates some of the padding, although the main plot: Daleks try & dig down to Earth's core in order to turn Earth into giant spaceship & the Doctor stops them is still as daft as the original. Piloting the Earth through space I ask you. What kind of dopey idea is that?

It's also got Bernard Cribbins in it, a sure sign of quality playing Special Constable Tom Campbell. I don't know about you but if I'd been RTD I'd have been seriously tempted to name Cribbins' character in 'New' Who 'Tom' just for the shear mischevious hell of it. This is probably why it isn't a good idea to put me in charge of flagship BBC programmes.

Cribbins - Sign of Quality

Also both Ray Brooks and Andrew Keir put in rock solid performances as David and Wyler respectively.

The special effects hold up pretty well, except the rather obvious model shot right at the end; Roberta Tovey as Susan isn't actually that irritating as child actors go; the Daleks move at a quite a lick when they need to. They also look pretty impressive compared to the television version, perhaps it was the colour. The story as a whole moves with pace, even if the plot is as daft as I've already mentioned

I first saw this in a hotel in Tenerife at approximately the time Meglos was being shown in 1980 & I saw it on the BIG SCREEN at the lovely Duke's cinema/theatre in Lancaster when I was at University so I've get a bizarrely warm fuzzy feeling about this film, more so than the other Dalek movie.

It also has the first - and shortest - Doctor Who appearance of The Madoc, which adds to it appeal in my opinion.

The Madoc & Some New Friends

As for Peter Cushing himself, he's not really playing the same character as the television Doctor. He's more avuncular than Hartnell, more 'grandfatherly', which is perhaps not a surprise as Rebecca Tovey's Susan is a child unlike Carole Ann Ford's television Susan. It's not bad, it's just not that Doctor-ish. Personally I prefer Cushing when he's fighting vampires or making Christoper Lee into the Monster.

Still it's all good clean fun so definitely worth catching the next time it's on the telly.

The Android Invasion

This is an oddity. It's a story which for two episodes is quite brilliantly atmospheric, creepy and bizarre and then for the last two episodes becomes something of a bog standard Doctor Who runaround. Fundamentally though it is let down by an eye patch.

Yes, you heard me an eye patch. Specifically the eye patch worn by Guy Crayford (Milton John). Crayford is the British deep space astronaut who out of gratitude at being rescued by the Kraals is working with them to help invade Earth. So convinced of their beneficence is he that he believes everything he is told. This extends to believing chief Kraal baddie Styggron's explanation for his rescue. Styggron rebuilt Crayford, apart from one eye which mysteriously they could not find. Accordingly he wears an eye patch. You with me so far? Good.

Except it is a trick. Crayford was hijacked. There is no damaged eye. Underneath the eye patch the eye is fine. Let me repeat that UNDERNEATH THE EYE PATCH THE EYE IS FINE. Crayford is such a Muppet that throughout his stay with Styggron he's never once looked under the eye patch. Would you not, out of morbid curiosity, want to look? Does he sleep with the eye patch on? WHY IN THE NAME OF ALL THINGS CREATIVE DOES STYGGRON EVEN DO THIS. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

On discovering his eye is fine Crayford realise he's been betrayed by Styggron. His reaction, possibly driven by the realisation of his own total and utter stupidity, is to go Mano a Mano against Styggron and die.

This isn't the only stupid thing about the eye patch. O no.

When he's returning to Earth Crayford's eye patch is on video screen in the control centre for all to see and at no point does anyone go..."Hang on, is that an EYE PATCH?" No, it passes totally unremarked, which is also BLOODY STUPID.

I'm sorry to dwell on the eye patch so much but it is the sort of idiotic thinking that makes me want to smack people around the head with spoons.

The ridiculous thing is that The Android Invasion is a good entertaining Fourth Doctor romp with some nice touches: the mysterious figures in space suits; the empty village; the pub that comes to life on cue; the scene when the Doctor fronts up the android replica of Sarah; the sinister coldness of the Android replicas of Benton and Harry; the scene where Sarah realising that she's talking to an android replica of the Doctor is confronted by an android replica of herself emerging from its cocoon. All of that is great.

The Kraals, a sort of grumpy rhinoceros type creature, look good to, although Roy Skelton's Chedaki is slightly distracting as Skelton seems to be doing a prototype Zippy from Rainbow voice.

Marshall Chedaki Reporting For Duty

But it's all undermined by that BLOODY EYEPATCH...actually not just the eye patch.

There's one other gaping piece of idiocy. Styggron has been preparing a virus to wipe out mankind, it's virulent and effects Kraal's to apparently. It's supposed to last three weeks then disappear. Yet when Styggron lands on a bottle of the stuff in a smallish room containing the Doctor, Sarah, Harry and Colonel Faraday (Patrick Newell) it kills Styggron (mainly because he rolls his face around in it) but does no harm to anyone else. At all, which seems a bit flipping odd.

The dumbest thing of the lot this is still quite fun if you don't stop to think about it too much...especially not that BLESSED EYE PATCH

Another Day...Another...Oh

No proper episode blog today. Tut, Tut. Life got in the way unfortunately, as it will.

I did manage to get the first two episodes of the Android Invasion in but the rest will wait for Friday, alongside The Brain of Morbius and The Dalek Invasion of Earth Movie...a great fan trailer for it is here:

Both Morbius and Dalek Invasion are, of course, part of The Madoc article prep. I'm seriously considering organising a summer Madocfest...find a pub, gather some likeminded geeks & pay proper homage to The Madoc. Any takers? Or just me...answers on a postcard.

Anyway more story specific stuff tomorrow but before I go there were two addendums I wanted to make to previous blogs:

Revenge of the Cybermen - I was quite down on this story, which is fine but I failed to credit one thing. The scenes inside the real caves - Wookey Hole I believe - looked great, particularly when the silver of the Cybermen was contrasted with the brown-black of the caves and shadows.

Pyramids of Mars - One thing I did like and again failed to mention was Dudley Simpson's excellent score, which added to the atmosphere. Some of it is available - was (?) - on a Silva Screen album called 'The Pyramids of Mars'. It's a collection of Simpson's music from Doctor Who put together by Mark Ayres from the original scores if I remember rightly. Not sure if it is still available but well worth a listen if your that way inclined.

I would like to thank whoever drew my attention to this excellent Pyramids of Mars list-article but their comment was, alas, anonymous:

It contains some good material for geek discussion.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Pyramids of Mars

I suppose there's no such thing as a 'perfect' ten out of ten Doctor Who story. No story that is without some quibbles but 'The Pyramids of Mars' is pretty near to perfection.

The quibbles are mainly centred on the final episode, which is padded out with some Exillon City style games inside the Pyramid of Horus but this doesn't make the story less entertaining.

It might be described as one of the most horrific Doctor Who story yet whilst the number of actual deaths are small - and only one is actually entirely on screen - they are all painful. Two of them, those of Dr Warlock (Peter Copely) and Lawrence Scarman (Michael Sheard), feel horrible, even if we don't see them. Peter Copely's fear is nastily real and Michael Sheard's plaintive: "Marcus, you're hurting me" just before we cut away is quite heartbreaking.

Lawrence Scarman's death might be the most affecting death seen in any Doctor Who story and the Doctor and Sarah's contradictory reactions too it are superb. The Doctor, his mind on the bigger picture, casually rolls Lawrence's corpse over whilst Sarah is upset and angry at the Doctor for not being 'human', something that the Doctor points out he isn't, obviously.

In fact I don't think there's a dud performance from any of the cast, even poor old George Tovey as Clements, the poacher who gets the on-screen death, is real enough.

Peter Copely's Dr Warlock is magnificently posh and argumentative in his scenes with Namin. He's also one of the few actors to play wounded as if it really hurts and he plays his pre-death scene with enough conviction to make it as genuinely horrific as it would have been with blood and gore, if not more so.

Bernard Archard's Marcus Scareman is actually quite terrifying. The short scene where he struggles to shake off Sutekh's control just before he kills Lawrence is a brilliant two hander between him and Michael Sheard.

Sheard himself is wonderful. Lawrence is a fussy, frightened little man but loves his brother to a suicidal degree. You get the impression from his performance that he was a put upon chap, perhaps standing in his brother's shadow. It's lovely work, probably Sheard's best performance in Doctor Who.

Kudos should also go to Gabriel Woolf as Sutekh. He's never seen. It's just his voice but the malevolence he conveys makes Sutekh possibly the series most genuinely scary villain up until now. He's given some great lines to by the writers. (It's credited to Stephen Harris but was the combined work of Lewis Griefer and Robert Holmes apparently).

The dialogue at the end of episode three and beginning of episode four where a clearly frightened Doctor is made to abase himself and Sutekh threatens him is magnificent and played with conviction.

Tom Baker and Liz Sladen also seem to rise to the occassion bantering off each other in amusing style at one point but the aforementioned scene around Lawrence Scarman's body is probably the highlight. That and the nice little scene in the TARDIS early on. It also must - well, not must but can - be said that Liz Sladen looks particularly lovely in this story.

I've not said much about design or direction but to me this is a Doctor Who story that thrives on a great script being delivered by good actors. Yes, it looks nice. I like the idea of the Mummy's not be the embalmed corpses of horror films but instead they're the robot servants of an advanced civilisation.

So quibbles: Sutekh looks more convincing in his mask than with it off, there's some gratuitous use of the insides of a thermos flask and the final episode is a bit padded out. That's it. O and where did Sarah learn to be a crack shot? But that's definitely it.

This is, in my view, one of the almost perfect Doctor Who stories. It is also really quite horrific for something shown at a tea-time on a Saturday with its mixture of Egyptian mythology and science-fiction.

If you haven't seen it (and I've got to ask why) then see it. It's out on DVD.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Planet of Evil

So Season 13 continues with another fine story, although not quite up to the standards of 'Terror the Zygons'.

The TARDIS picks up a distress call and the Doctor and Sarah arrive on a planet that turns out to be Zeta Minor on the edge of the known Universe. A Morestran geological expedition led by Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger) has been investigating minerals on the planet to use as a source of energy for their dying sun. Unfortunately something has killed off pretty much the whole expedition, except Sorenson.

The Doctor and Sarah arrive just as a military mission from Morestra, led by Salamar (Prentis Hancock) and Vashinsky (Ewen Solon) who are a sort of young, shouty chap and old gentleman combination, does.

This sets them up for the blame as is usual in Doctor Who. How many times does the Doctor's first encounter with other characters in a story come as he is bending over a dead body. It's lucky no one has shot him on sight before.

Anyway the Doctor and Sarah are initially suspected, then unsuspected when it turns out that the creatures are anti-matter beasties. However after the Doctor drops down a large hole like the Alice following the White Rabbit and talks to whatever it is that is in charge a deal is struck. The Morestrans can leave Zeta Minor if they don't take any of the Professor's minerals with them.

This obviously doesn't go down well with our Proessor Sorenson, who as is often the case with scientists in Doctor Who thinks his theory - or his reputation - is so important that he loses sight of the danger he and others are in.

It turns out that the Professor has been infected with anti-quark radition and is in danger of becoming a monster. The Professor thought he had it all under control, having created a medical solution but alas it is not to be. Sorenson goes off on a monsterous rampage. He is, the Doctor explains, 'antiman'.

By this point Salamar has become even more shouty, goes right off at the deep end and goes hunting for Sorenson himself with a neutron something or other. I have to say this story does contain a fantastic amount of pseudo-scientific gobbledigook, which must have been a right mouthful for the cast. Well mainly for Tom Baker who has to say most of it. Anyway Salamar's decision is a bad one. He dies but not before making antiman Sorenson more dangerous.

The Doctor zaps the real Sorenson with a gun - yes, the Doctor uses a gun in this story and gives Salamar a rather impressive right hook - takes him to Zeta Minor, drops him and his samples down the big, deep hole.

Sorenson is returned, unharmed but forgetful. So the Doctor drops a subtle hint that he has abandoned his line of research into anti-matter and is now working on using the kinestic force of planetary move...SEE...ment as a power source. The End.

It's no bad. The jungle set for the surface of Zeta Minor is impressive. In fact it is far more impressive than the rather mediocre sets for the interior of the Morestran spaceship, which is bland. I'm glad to see the Morestran's are another one of those races who put whacking great signs up on doors so that you know what's in each room, just in case you need say...the FORCE FIELD STORAGE ROOM.

Tom Baker and Liz Sladen are great in this. Liz gets to do another 'oh no the Doctor's dead' scene, which she's great at but do we really need one every story.

The thing about Tom Baker's Doctor is that the combination of the voice, the big eyes and the clearly bonkers brain makes him seem like an alien. Tom's Doctor is almost the only Doctor whose reactions and responses are written (and played) to seem non-human. It might only be a line here or there but it is enough to make him strange, even if it is in BBC tea-time sort of a way.

Frederick Jaeger's performance is lovely to. The way he plays Sorenson as man in shock or distracted by the weight of what's on his mind before the reveal that he's infected (and has known about it for some time) is wonderful. He isn't a villain really, he's just another in a long line of people in Doctor Who that thinks the end justifies the means.

Ewen Solon does a nice job giving Vishinsky a bit of spirit and backbone but a round of applause for Prentis Hancock's totally hamtastic performance as Salamar. His increasing madness is reflected by shouting even more than he did initially. Without Prentis's top grade hammery the Morestran's would be notorious for being one of the dullest races in Doctor Who history...with the possible exception of the Xerons, which is odd because one of them is the mighty Michael Wisher.

Actually there is a bizarre throwaway in the first episode when Sarah steps out of the TARDIS into the Morestran spaceship and has trouble breathing. Salamar says something about her being an 'oxygen' breather gets the air changed and nothing is said about it again. They don't have problems breathing this new Earth-type air. It's just a bit odd.

Anyway it's a solid Tom Baker Doctor Who and that makes it pretty good I say.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Blog in Search of a Story

Today I've been watching 'The Power of Kroll'. This is because I'm writing an article for The Terrible Zodin fanzine on the Doctor Who work of The Madoc.

This means there's no individual blog today. I'll save my opinions on this story until it's rightful place in Season 16.

Tomorrow I'll be back on track with 'Planet of Evil', which should be fun.

I'm also watching 'The Web Planet' in preparation for more articles for The Terrible Zodin. I am trying to explain why this story is a work of staggering genius.

I find it a bit weird now jumping between Doctors and Seasons. The one 'advantage' to watching Doctor Who in order is that you can get used to the vibe of a particular production team.

I certainly found watching Hartnell more fun as a result because I found myself getting used to the glacial pace of most 60s television. It also meant that the jump to colour at the start of the Pertwee season had a real impact.

It'll be even more of a shock when Matt Smith's second season starts, which rumour has it will be on or around Easter which time I shall be in the midst of Peter Davison's first season, if things go according to my hideously complex plan.

Anyway that's it for today.

Tomorrow...we meet on the Planet of Evil. Danger: Prentis Hancock.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Terror of the Zygons

"Oil? An emergeancy? Ha! it's about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn't make sense."

So we've arrived at Season Thirteen. Tom's got his first season behind him. Hinchcliffe and Holmes, as Producer and Script Editor, are in total control. Season Twelve's scripts had been commissioned by Letts-Dicks and whilst Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor was obviously totally different to Jon Pertwee's the tone of Season Twelve was not hugely different to that of the Pertwee era. This was about to change.

'Terror of the Zygons' is magnificent. There's no other way to describe it. That makes it hard to blog about. It's much easier to be scathing about bad stories than to do justice to good ones but 'Terror of the Zygons' is one of those Classic Doctor Who stories that burnishes bright more than 30 years after it was made. Yes, the Skarasen isn't the world's greatest special effect but it isn't the worst either and the Zygon's are an wonderous piece of design work from James Acheson: half-human embryo, half-octopus.

The Zygons whisper, rather than shout. They're not without a sense of humour and they can transform themselves into human beings. Why they've never been bought back to the series I don't know.

The Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane have returned to Earth in response to a summons from the Brigadier who has been called to Scotland to investigate the destruction of several North Sea oil rigs. He is HQ'd in a pub in a village called Tullock.

It turns out the attacks on the rigs are being carried out by the Skarasen, a cyborg water creature controlled by the Zygons. The Zygons have been lurking at the bottom of Loch Ness in a spaceship for several hundred years as the result of damage and the Skarasen is their food provider - it's 'lactic fluids' apparently - and their weapon.

Using their ability to change shape they have taken the places of several locals, including the Duke of Forgill himself (John Woodnut), his large beared servent Caber (Robert Russell) and Sister Lamont (Lillias Walker), a local nurse with a view to taking over the world, transforming it into a suitable environment for their fellow Zygons to settle as it turns out the Zygon's home world has been destroyed.

The Doctor eventually gets on board their ship, releases the human prisoners and blows it up. Broton, the chief Zygon, disguised as the Duke is planning to have the Skarasen attack an energy conference on the Thames, killing various big wigs and demonstrating their power to the world. Demands will follow.

The Doctor & UNIT track Broton to the conference where they shot him dead and the Doctor feeds the Skarasen its homing device, thus saving the world and sending the Skarasen back to Loch Ness, the only home it has ever known.

There's some great moments in this story. The cliffhanger to episode one where Sarah is on the phone to the Doctor from the hospital where Harry is injured. In mid-conversation Sarah is attacked by a Zygon and screams. It's one of the series all time great cliffhangers.

Then there's the Zygon-Harry's attack on Sarah in the barn and its subsequent death, which is quite chilling and tonewise very different to the Letts-Dicks era.

UNIT are quite effective in this story to. They look military for once, something Douglas Camfield the director always seems to be able to do effectively. When they're out in the woods hunting down the Zygon that killed Angus the Landlord the whole thing feels right. Lillias Walker is also spectacularly sinister as the Zygon-Sister Lamont. There's something chilling about her appearance in the neat, pressed nurses uniform and she's got a mean stare on her.

The model work for the Zygon spaceship is quite magnificent, especially its destruction.

We say farewell to Harry Sullivan at the end of this story as the production team, quite rightly, realised that with a younger actor as the Doctor Ian Marter was not being used effectively, which is a shame because I quite like Harry.

What more can I say...except get it out on DVD 2Entertain and everyone else should buy a copy and give one to your friends. This is Doctor Who at it's best, edging away from the comfortable Letts-Dicks era and into something much darker.

A universe of terrors awaits.

Update, 30/07/2013 after re-watching on DVD.

I think I stick to most of the above. I'd add that John Levene puts in one of his best Benton performances in this story I think. There's a couple of quibbles: how come the Doctor is suddenly an expert in organic crystallography & Zygon technology, why doesn't Broton realise the Doctor's freed the Duke & most importantly why does Sarah almost get the Doctor killed lurking about in the doorway when the Doctor's told her to go & get the Brigadier?

It's also a shame to see Harry Sullivan depart. I thought Ian Marter added a nice chemistry to the Fourth Doctor's first season, which I'll miss going forward.

And we won't see the Brigadier for a while either, which is a shame too, but the Doctor begrudgingly helping makes more sense to me than the Third Doctor's name dropping establishment figure.

I still love Tom Baker. I still can't watch his era with anything approaching objectivity but you know I'm not going to apologise for that. Tom Baker's Doctor is the reason I'm a Doctor Who fan & when I'm depressed or tired it's Tom Baker's era that I reach for to cheer me up. So if you don't like the Tom Baker era or you don't think Tom is 'Doctor-ish' then we'll have to agree to disagree. Even though you're clearly wrong.

In terms of the Fourth Boxed set I quite like it. Yes, it's a unnecessary luxury but the box is lovely contains a letter from Tom Baker, a Tom Baker photo, a 5" action figure of the Fourth Doctor in immediate post-regeneration Pertwee clothes (although it's hard to do velvet in plastic so actually the Fourth Doctor looks more like he's wearing Eccleston's leather jacket), a Fourth Doctor's Sonic Screwdriver (which makes noises). It's a bit plastic if truth be told but it'll do for me. I've got a Fourth Doctor Sonic Screwdriver. Woo-hoo.

There's also some lovely picture cards of Tom's companions, although it's sad to realise how many of them have passed away.

The Terror of the Zygons DVD is the vanilla release but does the job. There's also a DVD with a new c.30 minute interview with Tom Baker, which is nice & is quite lovely about us fans and the audio of 'Genesis of the Daleks' (with Tom's narration). I've still got a battered old cassette version of this somewhere, which I can't listen to, so it is nice to have a replacement.

So buy it if you've got the money to spare or you're an insane completist. Like me.