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 and borderline silliness make it a bit awkward. In particular we have the Erato problem, but more on that later.

The Doctor and Romana II land on Chloris, a planet where metal is scarce. The Lady Adrasta rules with the aid of wolf weeds and 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 and 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 their presence, whilst mildly irritating isn't crippling.

Credit to Tom Baker who is often criticized for 'silliness' but who manages to play his scenes with Erato as if he were dealing with a real alien creature rather than a giant glowing green testicle monster with an unfortunately phallic protuberance made out of weather balloons, wood and green paint. There is 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 and the comedy bandits are the stories negatives, alongside the sudden switch of the Huntsman (David Telfer) from a bad guy to a good guy. This is the man in charge of the wolf weeds, which are rolling balls of vegetation used to hunt and capture Adastra's enemies. A man who we can assume has been responsible for one or two moments of "unpleasantness" in his time but with whom the Doctor seems happy to treat as an ally at the end. It just feels a little wrong.

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

There is a wonderfully judged performance from Geoffrey Bayldon as the astrologer Organon, which would be worth the entry price alone.

Myra Frances makes Lady Adastra a villainess with a crisp, cold bite and 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 and 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. 

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 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, which is credited to David Agnew (a BBC pseudonym) but mainly written by Douglas Adams. An 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 and 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 as Duggan, a private detective with a penchant for violence against people and windows. The interplay between the Doctor, Romana and Duggan are blissful to watch, especially the Doctor's frustrating with Duggan continually knocking people out whilst in conversation.

Some might criticize David Graham as Kerensky, the Count's pet scientist for a frankly ridiculous accent* but he hits all the right notes in my book and 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.

[Update: In fact, the short conversation between The Doctor and Kerensky is a rather lovely little lecture on scientific responsibility. It's actually much meatier 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 and Eleanor Bron make a very minor appearance as art critics.

Then there's Paris. The first story filmed outside the UK and 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 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, and Duggan without anyone raising the alarm. They are probably the only dud moments in the story.

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

Finally, we have two pitch-perfect performances by the leads. Tom Baker and 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 gets some wonderful scenes from his first meeting with the Count and Countess. One of the best moments is his cold dismissal of the Countess in the final episode where he talks about her 'discretion and charm'. It's quite nasty in its way, even though it is couched quite lightly.

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

This is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time and it 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 wit.

And that I like. So if you're a new series fan and you've never watched an old episode you could do much, much worse than dig this one out for a watch.

[19/12/2013 I'd stick to that judgment 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, and his people getaway 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 and 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 and the Daleks 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 throwaway. 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.

[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 Daleks 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 Daleks become the muscle to Davros. They're dull and 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.

[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'. Although on a re-re-watch the implication seems to have been that without Davros the Daleks went all robotic and eliminated their organic content altogether.]

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

The other 'enemy' in this story is the robotic Movellans who I like because they're well designed (sort of disco ancient Egyptians if that makes any sense) and well played by Peter Straker, (the underappreciated but wonderful) Tony Osoba and Suzanne Danielle.

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

There is also a smattering of prisoners. The main one is Tyssan (Tim Barlow) who doesn't get much to do except delivering the occasional piece of exposition early on and then runs 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 Movellans played mainly by BAME actors and the human prisoners being a cross-section of all races.

The plot itself is simple. The Daleks have come to Skaro to find Davros. They need his help to defeat the Movellans - with whom they've been stuck in a centuries-long stalemate. The Doctor and Romana II arrive and 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 and 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. She and Tom clearly have chemistry, 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.

[With additional quibbles I'll stick to that judgment.]

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Armageddon Factor

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

It drags. O heaven's it drags. Those interminable scenes between K9 and Mentalis; the endless circling of corridors; Merak and Astra who are the pathetic and cow-eyed lovers of the story and the Shadow's repeated villainous laughter. And there's a convenient time loop that allows us to watch the same scenes over and 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 loose series of adventures and 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 and the Doctor just breaks it all up when he realizes that he's talking to the Black Guardian.

The Black Guardian hasn't even taken charge of events himself. He's left The Shadow to deal with things and 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 and 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 someone's neck in a place where it can be seen. No cunning hypnosis, no circuits hidden behind ears...oh no. It must be a licorice allsort stuck on the neck.

The White Guardian - perhaps lulled into a coma by the sheer 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 Time Lord with a London accent following ten years in Brixton prison I like. It's fun to see a Time Lord who isn't an out and 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 and Mary Tamm put in good, solid performances and it has both Philip Madoc and John Abineri in it but whilst Abineri does the best with what he's given - especially as he's painted green! - 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 explanation 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 and 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 and dying with a look of shock, surprise, and 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 'civilized' and 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 pseudo-Octopus. It's a brave challenge for late 70's Doctor Who and it doesn't quite work. Partly because of the poor split-screen work when it is required to appear with others and 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 and does a sterling job considering how ridiculous he is made to look. There is an innate gravity and dignity to Abineri, which shines through even under a coating of green paint.

Basically, it is a dull runaround, flatly directed and featuring too many good actors given too little to do. There's a political story - about racism and colonialism - in here struggling to get out and as The Sun Makers shows when Robert Holmes gets satirical he's sharp and 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 the 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 Time Lord 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) and 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 and is holding her prisoner in the dungeon of his quite beautiful castle. His original plan, assisted by his peasant engineer and apparent lover Lamia (Lois Baxter), was to have an android copy of the Princess kill the Prince on his coronation. This the Doctor foils and so the Count comes up with an alternative plan involving Romana, the Prince, and a wedding. Followed by a funeral (of the poor Prince), another marriage (the Count to Romana/Strella) and 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.

The Doctor, of course, gets involved, stops the Count's plans and 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, and wit.

It's also quite light on special effects, which makes a refreshing change. It's location 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) and 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 Delgadoesque's coolness. He doesn't do much shouting and 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 peasant. This means that although she and 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) and 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 and is therefore perfect in what is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr role and 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 and 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 are nicely different to her normal Romana performances, Strella and Romana are too alike. The voices are the same and so 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. But this is just a quibble. This is a fun story to watch. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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 favorite planet but before the TARDIS materializes the White Guardian's voice reminds the Doctor to beware of the Black Guardian. Getting the third segment of the Key to Time might prove more difficult than it appeared at first sight.

There's a nicely British horror feel to the first episode: Druidic sacrifices, glowing stones, and 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) and the leader of the Druids, Mr. De Vries (Nicholas McArdle). De Vries, it seems is the villain of the piece and 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 and 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 aka bloody great big stones.

When de Vries fails to sacrifice the Doctor, being driven off by Professor Rumford and her bicycle it is an Ogri that turns up at the Hall and kills both De Vries and 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 and for once Tom Baker gets out eccentriced by a fellow actor and 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 and 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 and 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 portrait 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 and running; the scene where the two campers are killed by the Ogri and Professor Rumford's suggestion that she and the Doctor captures an Ogri in the name of science and the whole trial sequence in the final episode when the Doctor tries every legal trick in the book to save his own life and reveal to the Megara - who are bio-mechanical justice machines that look like sparklers and 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 unconvincing style. Instead they're fibre glass (I assume) glowy props. They're more convincing when looming about throbbing and 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 and 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

The Doctor and 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 and 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 bears 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 line is good then use it as often as possible I say.

It's also filled with scientific bafflegab. Now whether the science stands up to analysis I'm unqualified to say but the Doctor's final episode explanation 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 nonsense. It sounds good though, which is half the battle and Tom Baker makes it sound 'right'.

There's a lot going on in this script: a planet that materializes and dematerializes; telepaths dressed like Hara Krishna wannabees - the Mentiads; time dams; a not quite dead Queen; a half-mechanical, shouty Captain with his robotic parrot (Polyphase Avatron); streets paved with gemstones; flying cars; a people unwilling to ask questions out of fear and 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 and sharpest in this story, racing ahead of everyone - including Romana - to realize what's going on and 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 and 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 and a bit she gets less proactive as the story goes on, which is a shame. There's a possibility 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 and a shout. The Captain gets a great line in curses too. 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 and 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 and pale.

Doctor and 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 and 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 and 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, and contemplating a holiday. Unfortunately, the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham) has other ideas.

The concept of the Guardians is a new one. They are beings superior to Time Lords 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 emphasizes this not by showing obvious fear but by his scenes with the White Guardian like a naughty schoolboy. All yes sir, no sir and three bags full sir.

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

Ian Cuthbertson's Garron, con-man and blagger, is played to perfection with a smarmy pomposity and pride. His relationship with the younger, less cynical Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) is one of teacher and 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 - and Unstoffe's - Somerset accents with the Doctor's line about 'perhaps he's a cricket scout...' being a favorite of mine.

The Graff Vynda-K (Paul Seed) is a borderline psychotic warrior prince with an over-blown ego and 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 and he goes off to his shouty death calling for Sholakh. It made me think of the relationship is between Achilles and Petroclus, although perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

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 and 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 and 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 and someone without laying it on with a 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 and neither, to be honest, is Romana. Romana is played as all academic smarts and ego versus the Doctor's more practical experience (and ego). It's nicely done, especially in the early TARDIS scenes and 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 though.

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

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

It's also obvious that we are continuing the tendency towards more humor and  'silliness' that began with Graham Williams's appointment as Producer. The script is filled with wit and there is some nice 'stuff' at the beginning of episode three between the Doctor and 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 and 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 and Douglas Adams) but his Hartnell stories used to be looked down upon somewhat for their high comedy level.

O and 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 and Episode One of The Ribos Operation features a superb example.

Watch it and see.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Invasion of Time

I have said before that there is no such thing as a truly 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.

The 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 and Milton Jones as the oily creep Castellan Kelner and 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 and boring uniforms; it isn't the long-haired, tribe of the week Time Lord dropouts who live in a giant sandpit 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 and 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 and more.

What makes this story truly 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 is 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 and 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.

I judge this story as a whole unfavorably. It's almost the only story I've watched in my odyssey so far that I've struggled to motivate myself to watch each episode. It's been like the Doctor Who equivalent of dentistry: necessary but unpleasant.

Are there worse stories in Doctor Who history? Possibly. But there isn't a lot and 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 and in Deadman's case woefully acting with the crapness of Leela's departure as the rubbish cherry on an unpleasant cake.

And that's all I have to say about that.