Friday, April 29, 2011

Creature From The Pit

'Creature From The Pit' is odd. I enjoyed watching it but there are moments when the BBC budgets & borderline silliness make it a bit awkward. In particular we have the Erato problem, but more on that later.

The Doctor & Romana II land on Chloris, a planet where metal is scarce; the Lady Adrasta rules with the aid of wolf weeds & there is a mysterious creature in a pit with whom it will turn out Lady Adrasta has previous. The Doctor gets dragged into things, as is his wont & Chloris will never be the same again.

It just about works because all the actors involved treat it with the requisite levels of seriousness. Even the chaps playing the Monty Pythonesque comic relief bandits don't go over the top. They're clearly escapees from a totally different television series but thei presence, whilst mildly irritating isn't crippling.

Credit to Tom Baker who is often criticised for 'silliness' but who manages to play his scenes with Erato as if he were dealing with a real alien creature rather than a gigantic glowing green testicle monster with an unfortunately phallic protruberence made out of weather balloons, wood & green paint. There's no way of getting around the fact that Erato is one of the series least impressive creations, at least when interacting with the cast. Nothing the director or cast does can distract from its glowing green bollocky nature I'm afraid.

Erato & the comedy bandits are the stories negatives, alongside the sudden switch of the Huntsman (David Telfer) from bad guy to good guy. This is the man in charge of the wolf weeds, which are rolling balls of vegetation used to hunt & capture Adastra's enemies. A man who we can assume has been responsible for one or two moments of "unpleasentness" in his time but with whom the Doctor seems happy to treat at the end. It just feels a little wrong.

However there are many positives include a lovely script featuring two of my favourite Doctor Who lines ever (although the final episode features large amounts of technobabble & a chunk of padding).

There's a wonderfully judged performance from Geoffrey Bayldon as the astrologer Organon, which would be worth buying the DVD for alone.

Myra Frances makes Lady Adastra a villainess with a crisp, cold bite & Eileen Way gives her excellent support as her right-hand woman Karela. Frances is particularly good as Adrasta starts to unravel a bit as her plans start to fall apart & her interactions with K9 are priceless.

Eileen Way appeared in the first Doctor Who story ever as 'Old Mother'. Here she is sixteen years later having hardly appeared to age. It's uncanny, but I digress.

Lalla Ward doesn't get a great deal to do in this story but does what she needs to do well, although she does seem to have come dressed for a wedding. That's not to say she doesn't look very fetching. I will stop there. This is a Doctor Who blog, not a Lalla Ward Fan Site & I'm in danger of getting carried away.

In the end this is an enjoyable enough story that teeters on the brink of silliness but just about stays on the right side of it helped mainly by a cast that doesn't let the ridiculousness of what they're doing affect their performance. There are far worse stories in Doctor Who but not many worse looking monsters.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

City of Death

Is there a more quotable Doctor Who story in existence than 'The City of Death'? Is there a script as witty or as much fun? Is this the perfect Classic Doctor Who?


We get a wonderful script - credited to David Agnew (a BBC pseudonym) but mainly written by Douglas Adams. A exceptional supporting cast: Julian Glover as Count Scarlioni aka Scaroth, last of the Jaggaroth is the main villain of the piece. He's intelligent & dangerously charming & Julian Glover is such an excellent actor that he manages to make Scaroth frightening without ever having to raise his voice. He's a master of delivering threats that sound like polite requests.

Then there's Catherine Schell as the Countess & a very beautiful woman...probably and Tom Chadbon is Duggan, a private detective with a penchant for violence against people & windows. The interplay between the Doctor, Romana & Duggan is blissful to watch, especially the Doctor's frustrating with Duggan continually knocking people out whilst in conversation.

Some might criticise David Graham as Kerensky, the Count's pet scientist for a frankly ridiculous accent* but he hits all the right notes in my book & the when the Count says that he can't believe that such a large intelligence can live in such a small mind he hits the nail on the head. Kerensky is a classic Doctor Who character, the scientist too focused on his work to ask - or perhaps care - about what that work might lead to.

[19/12/2013 Update: In fact the short conversation between The Doctor & Kerensky is a rather lovely little lecture on scientific responsibility. It's actually much more meaty than its tone might make you think.]

There are nice performances from people in minor roles to: Kevin Flood as Hermann the Butler is a masterclass in polite psychopathy. [Jeeves with a pistol] We even get a little appearance by the wonderful Peter Halliday as a bemused renaissance guard with cold hands. Not to mention the best cameo in Doctor Who history in the final episode when John Cleese & Eleanor Bron make a very minor appearance as art critics.

Then there's Paris. The first story filmed outside the UK & having the Doctor run around the streets of Paris, instead of London is nice, even if there's an element of 'Wish You Were Here' about making sure we see all the sights. Just to prove it is Paris. It does feel sometimes as if they we are watching 'guerilla filming' as some shots seem to have been done on the cuff, e.g. the scenes on the Metro in episode one.

I was going to say that the problem with that of course is that it makes the studio scenes seem a bit flat but it doesn't. The only scenes that don't really work in the studio are those in the cafe when a series of morose gun wielding fedora wearing grunts hold up the Doctor, Romana & Duggan without anyone raising the alarm. They are probably the only dud moments in the story.

[19/12/2013 Update : I think the thugs dress sense is based on a lot of French policiers from the 60s & 70s like Le Cercle Rouge & Le Samourai but I'm prepared to be corrected.]

Finally we have two pitch perfect performances by the leads. Tom Baker & Lalla Ward seem to be having the time of their lives, relishing being both in Paris & having a great script to work with. Lalla Ward in a schoolgirl outfit is also a pleasure, although whether the modern series would do this is an interesting point.

Tom in particular gets some wonderful scenes from his first meeting with the Count & Countess. One of the best moments is his cold dismissal of the Countess in the final episode where he talks about her 'discretion & charm'. It's quite nasty in its way, even though it is couched quite charmingly.

I've said before that there's no such thing as a perfect Doctor Who story & one can quibble about a few technical things, especially around Scaroth's 'big head' & disguises but frankly its like looking at a masterpiece & whinging about the frame.

This is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories of all time & borders on the magnificent at points. Apparently Doctor Who fans at the time didn't like the story. They thought it was silly, which just goes to show that no one is worse at judging Doctor Who sometimes than its own fans. It's actually a serious story, the fate of mankind is at real risk. It's just couched in a script filled with genuine wit. There's very little actual 'silliness', but lots of humour.
And that I like. So if you're a new series fan & you've never watched an old episode you could do much, much worse than dig this one out for a watch.

I don't think there's much wrong with this as a story & it joins The Romans, Power of the Daleks, The Web of Fear, The War Games, Inferno, The Curse of Peladon, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Robots of Death, Talons of Weng-Chiang & The Sun Makers as my favourite Doctor Who stories so far.

[19/12/2013 I'd stick to that judgement to some degree, although perhaps less so after this watch. It seems to me there's a gaping plot problem here, which is if Scaroth succeeds then he's surely creating a time loop. He goes back in time, stops his ship exploding & his people get away but if he stops his ship exploding he can't have been splintered in time and built a time machine in a 1979 Parisian basement. That means he can't have gone back in time to save his ship, which means his ship still explodes splintering him in time ad infinitum. This timey-wimey stuff isn't quite as straightforward as it looks.

But it's still great fun, eminently quotable & rather beautiful in its way. Whatever happens to Doctor Who, we'll always have Paris.]

Destiny of the Daleks

We kick off Season 17 with 'Destiny of the Daleks', written by Dalek creator Terry Nation. I have grown tired of Terry Nation's scripts over the course of this blog because it seems to me that having created The Daleks back in 1963 Nation got lazy. The best Dalek stories tend to be written by other writers.

However the additional input of script editor Douglas Adams helps breathe some life into this script. It isn't great but it isn't terrible either.

Perhaps the most controversial issue is the light-hearted approach to both Romana's regeneration & the Dalek's themselves. Yes, I think it is a shame that Romana didn't get a 'proper' regeneration story - something I suspect New Who wouldn't have missed out on - and it is a shame that it is such a throw away. In that sense it does make regeneration less 'significant' but the trying on of bodies bothers me less. I've justified it in my head as being some kind of projections for the Doctor to look at whilst Romana tries to get him to approve 'copying' Princess Astra's body.

[18/12/2013 Re-watch note - I notice Romana says she is 'regenerating' through this bit, not 'I've regenerated' implying it is an ongoing process not throwing away incarnations. I also note she refers to herself as a Gallifreyan not a Time Lord. I suppose that can mean something or nothing depending on your point of view.]

The piss taking of the Dalek's is less easy to justify. It undermines them as an enemy, not helped by the rather shoddy looking nature of the Dalek props at this point. In fact this is the point at which, picking up the banner from Genesis, the Dalek's become the muscle to Davros's main villain. They're dull & stupid robots in this story, as opposed to the devious creatures of previous stories. Everyone in the Doctor Who production office at this point seems to have forgotten they are semi-organic. It's Davros that the Doctor gets to pit his wits against.

[18/12/2013 I got more annoyed about this on re-watch. After all Terry Nation wrote both Dalek origins stories so he should KNOW they're not robots. They have, to quote Professor Jansen. 'an organic content'.]

David Gooderson plays Davros this time around, not Michael Wisher. This is a shame because there is something missing from Gooderson's portrayal. I can't put my finger on exactly what it is but it just isn't as sparky. It certainly doesn't feel as 'deep' as Wisher's.

[18/12/2013 And his feet are going like billy-o when he's moving about. Rather obviously]

The other 'enemy' in this story are the robotic Movellan's who I like because they're well designed (sort of disco ancient Egyptians if that makes any sense) & well played by Peter Straker, (the under appriciated but wonderful) Tony Osoba & Suzanne Danielle (although she is a bit more wooden than robotic).

[18/12/2013 There's an interesting story to be written about Movellan origins I think. But I'm a bit weird like that.]

There's also a smattering of prisoners. The main one is Tyssan (Tim Barlow) who doesn't get much to do except deliver the occassional piece of exposition early on & then run around a bit thereafter. Also in amongst the prisoners is a young David Yip (who later went on to play the Chinese Detective in the early-1980s: a series I have fond memories of but haven't seen since it was broadcast).

It's a surprising multi-racial cast for Doctor Who of this period with the Movellan's played mainly by black actors & the human prisoners being a cross-section of all races.

The plot itself is simple. The Dalek's have come to Skaro to find Davros. They need his help to defeat the Movellan's - with whom they've been stuck in a centuries long stalemate. The Doctor & Romana II arrive & hi-jinks follow.

This is the Doctor's first use of the Randomiser, which takes him straight to Skaro, which doesn't bode well does it. If the first thing your randomiser does is take you back to the planet of your greatest enemies I'd be tempted to unplug the thing & do a little rewiring.

Tom's good in this but I should give a nod to Lalla Ward (Romana II). I have a soft spot for Romana II from my childhood. Lalla Ward gives her all the right notes & is basically playing a female Doctor. Her & Tom clearly have chemistry to (although at what point they became an item off-screen I don't know). Anyway it works as a partnership.

So 'Destiny of the Daleks' is OK with the only downside being the Daleks themselves (as I've already mentioned) and the cheap looking nature of the corridors on the Dalek city. One of Season 17's problems - from my memory - is that it is the first time where Doctor Who's financial shortcomings really start to reflect in sets. But I might be being a little harsh as the Dalek control room looks pretty good - even if you can walk into it without any degree of significant hassle, which again undermines the 'threat' of the Daleks.

Perhaps the very definition of average Doctor Who at a time when even the average stuff was pretty good fun.

[18/12/2013 With additional quibbles I'll stick to that judgement.]

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Armageddon Factor

Alas the disappointment that was 'The Power of Kroll' is followed by an equally disappointing & overlong finale. The Armageddon Factor is pretty poor.

It drags. O heaven's it drags. Those interminable scenes between K9 & Mentalis; the endless circling of corridors; Merak & Astra-the pathetic & cow-eyed lovers & the Shadow's repeated villainous laughter. And there's a convenient time loop that allows us to watch the same scenes over & over again even after we've got the point so as to fill up precious time. It's like watching paint dry on a damp day.

I know all of that sounds harsh but the Key to Time started off so well but ended with a disappointing whimper. A season long story arc - something we are now more than familiar with in New Who - that was simply an excuse to link a lose series of adventures together & which is then thrown away at the end.

Twenty-six episodes spent gathering the Key to Time together in order to save the Universe by command of the White Guardian & the Doctor just breaks it all up when he realises that he's talking to the Black Guardian.

The Black Guardian hasn't even taken charge of events himself, instead he's left the Shadow to deal with things & as often is the case when subordinates take charge in Doctor Who this turns out to be a bad idea. The Black Guardian claims he has been expecting this all along. In which case why the hell drag us through all of that. Why not just wait until the Doctor's collected all the bits & then pull the Guardian swap? It's almost Master-ish in its ineptitude.

The Shadow is such a total idiot that his method of mind control requires sticking a large obvious thing on someones neck in a place where it can be seen. No cunning hypnosis, no circuits hidden behind ears...oh no. It must be a liquorice allsort stuck on the neck.

The White Guardian - perhaps lulled into a coma by the shear tediousness of the last six episode - can't even be bothered to turn up for a curtain call.

There are some good bits: the final segment being a person not an inanimate object; the insane military mindedness of the Marshall, which John Woodvine plays like a Shakespearean villain having a nervous breakdown; Drax (Barry Jackson) the wideboy Timelord with a London accent following ten years in Brixton prison I like. It's fun to see a Timelord who isn't an out & out villain, just a little dodgy.

Tom's a tad off the beat in this to. Like he's performing in a slightly different story to the rest of the cast. Mary Tamm looks lovely but you can see why she wanted to leave as Romana doesn't get a great deal to do. It's a bit of a waste of talent.

However I reserve the worst of my ire for poor old Ian Saynor's Marek who is supposed to be a surgeon but spends most of the story wondering around like a lost puppy but with less intelligence. It's not the actor's fault really, it's the badly written nature of the part. Lalla Ward does slightly better as Princess Astra (aka the Sixth Segment), especially in the final couple of episodes but that's because she's given more to do than Ian Saynor. Marek's not even two-dimensional but Astra is.

I'm being a bit harsh on this perhaps but mainly because it is such a poor end to a season that started off well. I can see this one gathering dust on the shelves for some time to come.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Power of the Kroll

The Kroll - It's Big

I'm not going to pussyfoot around here. This is pretty rubbish stuff, especially for a Robert Holmes script. It's definitely the dud of the 'Key to Time' Season so far.

There are some good bits: the scenes in the Suffolk swamps look good; Tom Baker & Mary Tamm put in good, solid performances & it has both Philip Madoc & John Abineri in it but whilst Abineri does the best with what he's given, especially as he's painted green! But Madoc's heart just doesn't seem to be in it. He's not even the main villain, which is such a waste of his talents. Instead that part is played by Neil McCarthy, who does a competent enough job.

I think the actors playing the crew of the methane engineering plant - yes, it's that exciting a location - are hamstrung by being asked to deliver chunks of explaination whilst conveying oodles of seriousness. What this means is there are far too many scenes of good actors shouting at each other, standing with their hands on hips & staring meaningfully at computer screens. It's a waste of all their talents really.

I should note that we get to see John Leeson - the voice of K9 - in the flesh as Dugeen (the liberal wishy-washy one of the methane engineers). He gets a nice death scene, shot by Neil McCarthy's Thawn & dying with a look of shock, surprise & disappointment on his face.

Thawn's a nasty piece of work. He's in cahoots with arms smuggler Rohm-Dutt (Glyn Owen) to set up the Swampies so he can wipe them out. He doesn't see the poor, green Swampies as 'civilised' & wants them out of the way so that they can get on with exploiting the resources available to him. But unfortunately he never quite gets above the level of boring minor psychopath.

The Kroll itself is a 140ft tall psuedo-Octopus. It's a brave challenge for late 70's Doctor Who & it doesn't quite work. Partly because of the poor split screen work when it is required to appear with others & partly because tentacles don't work in Doctor Who. (One day I'll write extensively on this but see 'Spearhead from Space' for another dodgy example).

The Swampies also illustrate another Doctor Who flaw. The use of nice BBC actors to portray the religious rites of 'primitives'. A gathering of Equity types painted green waving spears does not a convincing scene make I'm afraid. John Abineri plays the leader of the Swampies & does a sterling job considering how ridiculous he is made to look. There's an inate gravity & dignity to Abineri, which shines through even under a coating of green paint.

Basically it is a dull run around, flatly directed & featuring too many good actors given too little to do. There's a political story - about racism & colonialism - in here struggling to get out & as 'The Sunmakers' shows when Robert Holmes gets satirical he's sharp & funny. Maybe the problem is just that Kroll is too bloody serious, which makes it worthy but boring.

It is Robert Holmes's only real Doctor Who dud (although The Space Pirates isn't great either) it brings the momentum of the Key to Time season to a shuddering halt just before it's six part climax: The Armageddon Factor.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Androids of Tara

That was a wonderfully entertaining piece of Doctor Who fluff, although I believe the correct term is 'romp'. A highly enjoyable Doctor Who 'homage' to The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope with android doubles - as well as a Timelord one.

It isn't the Doctor who has a double on Tara. It is Romana who is the spitting image of the Princess Strella, which might not have mattered too much if it was not for the fact that she falls into the hands of the magnificently evil Count Grendel of Gracht (Peter Jeffrey) & becomes part of his nefarious plan to steal the Kingdom from Prince Reynart, the rightful heir.

Count Grendel has already kidnapped the real Princess Strella & is holding her prisoner in the dungeon of his quite beautiful castle. His original plan, assisted by his peasent engineer & apparent lover Lamia (Lois Baxter), was to have an android copy of the Princess kill the Prince on his coronation. This the Doctor foils & so the Count comes up with an alternative plan involving Romana, the Prince & a wedding. Followed by a funeral (of the poor Prince), another marriage (the Count to Romana/Strella) & a final tragic accident (to Romana/Strella) all of which machinations would make Grendel King. It sounds more complicated than it actually seems when you write it down.

Anyway the Doctor of course gets involved, stops the Count's plans & rescues everyone. Hurrah! Unusually the Count escapes, in a lovely moment on top of the battlements, running off to fight another day we can assume.

This script - by David Fisher - is quite lovely, even if the plot is basically that of the Prisoner of Zenda. It zips along with intelligence, charm & wit.

It's also quite light on special effects, which makes a refreshing change. It's location to helps create the right vibe for the story. It is filmed in and around the quite beautiful Leeds Castle (which is actually in Kent but let's not dwell on that) & makes the story feel a bit more vivid.

Alas there is a small blip. The Taran Wood Beast is a bit rubbish but as the poor furry thing only appears for about two minutes in episode one I can certainly forgive its slightly forlorn appearance.

The best thing about this story though is Peter Jeffrey who plays Count Grendel with sophisticated & underplayed menace. His threats, although clearly real, are made with Roger Delgardoesque coolness. He doesn't do much shouting & seems to be having a wonderful time, without ever charging over the edge into ham. This was Peter Jeffrey's second Doctor Who appearance, of course. He had been in 'The Macra Terror' with Patrick Troughton.

Peter Jeffrey - Magnificently Evil

Talking of returns it is also nice to see Cyril Shapps again in his fourth Doctor Who story as the slightly ineffectual Archimandrite. Unusually for a Shapps appearance his character doesn't get killed off, which is nice.

I should also give Lois Baxter a nod for her performance as Lamia. Lamia might be an android engineer but on Tara that makes her a peasent. This means that although her & the Count are lovers (or at least that's the obvious hint) she will never be his wife. There a depth to Lamia that makes her death in episode three appear a little cruel. In fact I'd go as far as to say the Grendel - Lamia relationship is one of the series sadder sub-sub-sub plots. It's barely in the text but it is there in the performances.

The stories good guys: Prince Reynart (Neville Jason); Zadak (Simon Lack) & Farrah (Paul Lavers) get less to do, as is the fate of the good guys. Although they are all perfect for their parts, especially Neville Jason who has the looks of a 30's movie star & is therefore perfect in what is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr role & Paul Lavers gets some nice business with Tom Baker in the early episodes (which includes cutting a chunk off of the Holy Scarf).

Tom Baker is good in this to. His eccentricities kept reined in but clearly having a ball. His long swordfight with Peter Jeffrey in the final episode is a nice nod to the Hollywood swashbucklers of yore.

Mary Tamm gets to play four parts: Strella, Romana & the android Strella/Romana. This would have been fun I suspect but I think the director missed a beat for whilst Tamm's performance as the androids is nicely different to her normal Romana performances, Strella & Romana are too alike. The voices are the same & Strella is basically locked in a cell doing needlepoint (or whatever) so doesn't really get too much to do.

It's a tiny bit of a waste really & with the Taran Wood Beast my only quibbles about what is in all other respects excellent fun to watch.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen - A Small Tribute

It’s hard to write this but Lis Sladen is dead.

How can it be that the death of someone who is a total stranger can make me cry?

It is because Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane Smith are a big part of my childhood and my Doctor Who fan life. Sarah Jane was the first Doctor Who companion I remember partnered with my first (and favourite) Doctor, Tom Baker. When I grew up and became a geek it is those stories from Season 12, 13 & 14 that I continued – and continue – to love. It’s my Doctor Who comfort zone. When I’m in a bad mood it is to those stories that I frequently return.

I recently re-watched them all again as part of my quest to watch Doctor Who from the first episode to last & they still hold up well and part of that is the relationship between Sarah Jane & the Doctor; between Lis Sladen and Tom Baker.

Sarah Jane was introduced as a new companion in Jon Pertwee’s last season. The character was given a strong start and a life away from the Doctor and UNIT. She was an investigative journalist. That gave the character depth but it was Elisabeth Sladen’s performance that made Sarah Jane such a good companion.

Barry Letts said that when he auditioned her she was the only actress that could convey fear & bravery at the same time but there was more to Sarah Jane than that and it was Lis Sladen that delivered.

So good was the performance and so strong the character that it was Sarah Jane that was paired up with K9 in K9 & Company and then much more successfully she returned to New Who with David Tennant in ‘School Reunion’.

Then came ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, which bought the character and Lis to a new generation of children and it can only be a tribute to how brilliant Lis was that she had created a character that she could still play with the same excellence 40 years after her first appearance.

Those are some of the facts & they can’t convey how much Lis Sladen meant to me (and to thousands like me). It’s inevitable as you get older that your childhood heroes pass away but it doesn’t make it any easier.

Lis Sladen will be missed and my thoughts are with her family.

I was going to watch ‘School Reunion’ but that last scene – the ‘my Sarah Jane’ moment – might be a bit too much tonight.

The Stones of Blood

It's Behind You!

The Doctor has a surprise for Romana, the third segment is on Earth. As Romana points everyone knows that the Earth is the Doctor's favourite planet but before the TARDIS materialises the White Guardian's voice reminds the Doctor to beware the Black Guardian. Getting the third segment of the Key to Time might prove more difficult than it appeared at first site.

There's a nicely British horror feel to the first episode: Druidic sacrifices, glowing stones & thumping heartbeats, eccentric ladies, a smooth Lord of the Manor & crows. Lots of crows. I like the cliffhanger to (or cliff fall). It's almost literal without being a dumb as the similar 'literal' cliffhanger in 'Dragonfire' (but I'm getting ahead of myself again).

The first episode also introduces us to the main characters: the eccentric Professor Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann); her assistant Vivien Fay (Susan Engel) & leader of the Druids, Mr De Vries (Nicholas McArdle). De Vries, it seems is the villain of the piece & when he clunks the Doctor about the head towards the end of that first episode it seems there is trouble afoot.

But as we discover De Vries is just a servant to the true villain, the Cailleach...or as she will eventually turn out to be Cessiar of Diplos, a murderer & escaped prisoner from a spaceship hovering in hyperspace above the Nine Travellers. Cessair has control of the Ogri, which are silicon based lifeforms dependent on blood to survive or bloody great big stones.

When de Vries fails to sacrifice the Doctor, being driven off by Professor Rumford & her bicycle it is an Ogri that turns up at the Hall & kills both him & Martha (Elaine Ives-Cameron). It almost does for the Doctor to but K9 drives it off (at some cost to himself).

Beatrix Lehmann is pitch-perfect casting as Rumford. One of those eccentric older ladies that British fiction is filled with but sharp, brave & with a nice throw away academic bitchiness. It's an excellent performance & for once Tom Baker gets out eccentriced by a fellow actor & is - in the scenes with Lehmann - a little calmer than he is elsewhere.

I should also flag up the nice work done between Mary Tamm & Tom Baker in episode two when Romana is rescued from the cliff by the Doctor who she thought had pushed her off the cliff in the first place. Mary Tamm's reactions seem spot on to me & so are Tom's responses, especially when back at the TARDIS he looks hurt when Romana is about to say 'you' pushed me off the cliff.

Praise should also be given to Susan Engel whose performance as Vivien Fey makes the potrait twist in episode three a genuine surprise. She goes from sausage sandwich making lady of Middle England to silver painted alien villainess without being unconvincing in either role. There are hints in the first two episodes - pointed looks etc - that there's something amiss but it is - or would have been if I hadn't seen this story at least five times - a revelation when she turns out to be the Calliach/Cessair.

There are some lovely moments throughout the story though: De Vries knowing the Doctor's name before he arrives; the crows sitting ominously on the TARDIS roof when Romana comes back from getting K9 back up & running; the scene where the two campers are killed by the Ogri & Professor Rumford's suggestion that she & the Doctor capture an Ogri in the name of science & the whole trial sequence in the final episode when the Doctor tries every legal trick in the book to save his own life & reveal to the Megara - who are bio-mechanical justice machines that look like sparklers & act like Judge Dread - what Vivien Fay really is.

The first two episodes are set on present day Earth & the only 'special effects' are the Ogri. We should be thankful that they aren't actors dressed up & waddling across the fields in unconving style. Instead they're fibre glass (I assume) glowy props. They're more convincing when looming about throbbing & pulsing than when zipping along the ground. However they do look a little lightweight sometimes but lack of weight is often a problem for me with CGI to so it doesn't cause too much pain for the viewer.

Perhaps this is also helped by the fact that this story is one I vividly remember terrifying me as a child. The Ogri haunted my nightmares for a while, which makes me fond of the buggers regardless of how impressive they look now.

Hyperspace is less convincing, although the ship itself looks OK, even if it is obviously a model. The interior is the classic brightly lit white corridor model beloved of Doctor Who throughout its history. It might have disappointed me if it wasn't.

This is the strongest of the three Key to Time stories so far. It's simple, neat & charming with the bonus of a memorable guest performance from Beatrix Lehmann that has to stand as one of the series best. I'd almost be willing to have seen an entire 'Professor Rumford Investigates...' spin-off.

A little gem.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Pirate Planet

The Captain: He Shouts...A Lot

So the Doctor & Romana head to Calufrax to pick up the second segment of the 'Key To Time' but after a bumpy landing they appear to have arrived on a totally different world even though it exists in the same place & time as Calufrax. This hunt for the Key to Time isn't going to be easy is it?

The Pirate Planet was written by Douglas Adams, whose work I adore. It bares some of the hallmarks of his other work, even featuring a couple of lines of his that crop up in similarish form elsewhere. This isn't a criticism. If a lines good use it as often as possible I say.

It's also filled with scientific bafflegap. Now whether the science stands up to analysis I'm unqualified to say but the Doctor's final episode explaination of what he is about to do to solve a rather large gravitational problem is a masterpiece of speedily delivered, scientific sounding stuff that might be nonesense. It sounds good though, which is half the battle & Tom Baker makes it sound perfectly 'right'.

There's a lot going on in this script: a planet that materialises & dematerialises; telepaths dressed like Hara Krishna wannabees - the Mentiads; time damns; a not quite dead Queen; a half-mechanical, shouty Captain with his robotic parrot (Pollyphase Avitron); streets paved with gemstones; flying cars; a people unwilling to ask questions out of fear & a lot of very stupid guards who can't shoot straight. So it can seem a little overwhelming keeping up with everything.

It just about holds together, even if it frays a little at the edges. The Doctor is at his wittiest & sharpest in this story, racing ahead of everyone - including Romana - to realise what's going on & how to stop it. This is one of those stories when the Doctor really does run intellectual rings around his opponents. It also allows Tom Baker to let the Doctor's righteous indignation out for a little run around for the first time in ages & Tom does appear to be having a lot of fun.

Mary Tamm gets some nice lines to but after Romana has been quite to the forefront of the action in the first episode & a bit she gets less proactive as the story goes on, which is a shame. There's a possibilty on the basis of this that Romana might end up suffering from Liz Shaw Syndrome (aka Susan Syndrome). We shall see.

Bruce Purchase does a great job as the shouty Captain. In the hands of a lesser actor the shoutiness would have probably collapsed into something hamtastic but Purchase keeps on the right side of the line. It reminded me of Brian Blessed when he was more than just a beard & a shout. The Captain gets a great line in curses to. I should have written them down for those moments when the use of a proper swearword is inappropriate.

Purchase is ably supported by Andrew Robertson who gives a lovely performance as Mr Fibuli, the Captain's obsequious right-hand man.

The other guest parts are a little bland & there's not much for them to get their teeth into, with the exception of Rosalind Lloyd as The Nurse. Who starts off as a background figure but gradually emerges into the foreground as the story rolls along.

The poor chaps that get to play the Mentiads don't get to do much more than stand around looking serious & pale.

Doctor & The Mentiads

The truth is there's too much going on in the story for every character in it to get something decent to do. It's certainly fun. It's intelligent & witty but just a little too busy.

It's not often I say this but The Pirate Planet is the sort of story that could have benefited from two more episodes to give all the characters & ideas room to breathe, even if the basic plot might be stretched to breaking point.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Ribos Operation

Are You Looking At My Hat?

We begin the 'Key to Time' season with 'The Ribos Operation'. The Doctor is alone, except for K9 Mark II, & contemplating a holiday.Unfortunately the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham) has other ideas...

The concept of the Guardian's is a new one. Beings superior to Timelords that seem to sit outside the Universe watching. There is no real attempt to explain what or who they are except that it is obvious that they are pretty powerful.

Tom Baker emphasises this not by showing obvious fear but by his scenes with the White Guardian like a naughty schoolboy. All yes sir, no sir & three bags full sir.

Being a script by Robert Holmes it has a double acts - The Doctor & Romana; Garron & Unstoffe & Graff Vynda-K & Sholakh & a decent level of wit, rather than flat out comedy.

The performances rise to the material to. Ian Cuthbertson's Garron, con-man & blagger, is played to perfection with a smarmy pomposity & pride.

His relationship with the younger, less cynical Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) is one of teacher & student with Garron keen to show Unstoffe the perils of honesty in a tough universe.

Garron is from Earth - Hackney Wick to be precise - but the Earth he comes from almost seems to be the Earth of the present day.

There's some amusement at his - & Unstoffe's - Somerset accents with the Doctor's line about 'perhaps he's a cricket scout...' being a favourite of mine.

The Graff Vynda-K (Paul Seed) is a borderline psychotic warrior prince with an over-blown ego & a tendency to shoutiness. His relationship with Sholakh (Robert Keegan), who is the Graff's long term right-hand man is deeper than the difference in rank might indicate.

In fact when Sholakh is dies you might feel their relationship is more than platonic. It certainly pushes the Graff right over the edge, driving him to remember battles past & he goes off to his shouty death calling for Sholakh.

It made me think of the relationship is between Achilles & Petroclus, although perhaps I'm reading too much into it & should get out more.

On the subject of shoutiness this story also features another Prentis Hancock performance. He's not the world's greatest actor Prentis but is reliably angry & shouty. I mention it as in passing as I'm developing a bizarre fondness for his occasional appearances, although (sadly) I think this is his last.

The other performance worth noting is Timothy Bateson's as Binro 'The Heretic'. Quite rightly people have commented on the scene between him & Unstoffe where Binro explains his theory about the lights in the sky being other suns, not ice crystals. It's almost totally irrelevant to the story but it is a lovely little two hander, played with real conviction.

It is therefore one of the more genuinely moving scenes in Doctor Who. It's a master class in showing how to draw emotion from something & someone without laying it on with an RTDesque trowel.

This is also Mary Tamm's first story as Romana, who has been foisted upon the Doctor by the White Guardian. The Doctor is not impressed & neither to be honest is Romana.

Romana is played as all academic smarts & ego versus the Doctor's more practical experience. It's nicely done, especially in the early TARDIS scenes & right at the end.

I suspect the long shot of Mary Tamm that introduces her, which runs from feet to head, is the nearest we've ever seen to a televised letch on Doctor Who.

It's certainly impressive. The costume looks great, as does Mary Tamm to be fair.

So as a first story of a season with one objective it does a excellent job.

Romana is in & nicely established; the Key to Time concept is explained (if not in great detail) & the scene is set for the rest of the season.

It's also obvious that we are continuing the tendency towards more humour & 'silliness' that began with Graham Williams's appointment as Producer. The script is filled with wit & there's some nice 'stuff' at the beginning of episode three between the Doctor & Garron in front of the Graff's firing squad, which I enjoyed but might have aggravated a few people who like their Doctor to be pretty serious.

There's definitely a divide between Doctor Who fans who like comedy & those who don't.

For example Donald Cotton is one of the series best Doctor Who writers in my opinion (up there with Robert Holmes & Douglas Adams) but his Hartnell stories used to be looked down upon somewhat for their high comedy level.

This 'Key to Time' Season & Season 17 that follows are often accused of going to far with this 'silliness' but I'll talk about this more as we go on.

O & some point I must write something about the Doctor Who tradition of hiding in plain sight. It's a glorious part of the series history, often overlooked & Episode One of the Ribos Operation features a superb example.

Watch it & see.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Invasion of Time

I have said before that there is no such thing as a truely perfect Doctor Who story.

Conversely there is not really a story without something praiseworthy, whether it be a performance, a scene here or there or even just a moment of glory.

Invasion of Time is one of those bad stories. There is some excellent stuff: Tom Baker's performance in the first three episodes when we are not quite sure what he is up to; Louise Jameson is great; John Arnatt does a fine, dry job as Borusa & Milton Jones as the oily creep Castellan Kelner & the cliffhanger at the end of the fourth episode is a good twist but...and this is a large BUT...fundamentally this story is absolute rubbish.

It's not just the pathetic Vardans who go from Northern Irish wobbly tinfoil floaty things to disappointingly average humanoids in silly hats & dull uniforms; it isn't the long haired, tribe of the week Timelord drop outs who live in a giant sand pit outside the Citadel; it isn't the dumb ineptness of the Castellan's soldiers; it isn't Tom's OTT silliness or talking to the camera; it isn't the silly run around inside of TARDIS that fills up a large chunk of the final episode & it isn't even the cockney panda Sontaran Stor (Derek Deadman) who seems to be able to talk only in a sinister whisper whilst failing completely to be anything but absolutely rubbish at conquering Gallifrey. It is all of these things & more.

However what makes this story truely awful in my book is Leela's departure. She's staying on Gallifrey because she's apparently fallen in love with Andred (Chris Tranchell). Now whilst I'll admit Andred is the nearest thing to a warrior that Gallifrey might have, he's still dripping wet. Also how - by Rassilon's Rod - do they have time to fall in love when they barely have a moment together that doesn't involve dashing down corridors. It's a shocker of a departure for such an excellent companion (& actress). In fact I'd say it is the worst companion departure in the series. Yes, even worse than Dodo's disappearing act.

Leela isn't the sort of character to go quietly off with the first bloke who flutters his eyelids at her. And yes I know I'm more annoyed about this than I should be but however you cut it this is a poor send off. I judge it unfavourably.

In fact I judge this story as a whole unfavourably. It's almost the only story I've watched in my odyessy so far that I've struggled to motivate myself to watch each episode. It's been like the Doctor Who equivelent of dentistry: necessary but unpleasent.

Are there worse stories in Doctor Who history. Possibly. But there aren't a lot & at six episodes in length it was a more drawn out disaster than any other Tom Baker story so far. Yes, worse than the Invisible Enemy. It's the combination of pathetic villains, weirdly accented & in Deadman's case woefully acted with the crapness of Leela's departure.

I'll miss you Savage.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Excuses, Hopes & Confessions

There's been no blo for a few days. There's reasons for this: distractions of real life cropped up & also my football team (Brentford FC) are at Wembley on Sunday afternoon playing Carlisle in the JPT final & my brain can only cope with one obsession at a time.

I also have a confession.

The next story up is 'Invasion of Time', a six parter & for the first time I've let negative fan vibes about the story put me off watching it, which is odd because up until now reputation hasn't effected my keenness to watch stories at all.

This time it has. Maybe it is just because it has coincided with additional life distractions or perhaps it is because I've watched this story before & am aware of some of its foibles.

Whatever the reasons, there is an 'Invasion of Time' block going on. It's scheduled in for Tuesday now due to the tribulations of my 'proper' life.

Meanwhile there has been lots of interesting new season Doctor Who stuff appear over the last week.

A proper trailer from the BBC & a different one for BBC America.

This is the BBC one:

This is the BBC America one:

These trailers (along with casting rumours & set reports) set the fan theorising into full whirlwind. The main issue, of course, is who River Song will turn out to be.

I've reached the point where I don't care anymore except that I don't want to find myself sitting there post-reveal feeling like I've been cheated.

There's been enough build up from Moffat to make me think he's confident in the character. Just don't be unnecessarily cheesy please.

My favourite bit of the BBC trailer btw is the 'fear me I've killed hundreds of Timelord's exchange'

Any way that's it for today. Tomorrow, Wembley Stadium.