Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Myth Makers

The Myth Makers is basically Doctor Who does Troilus and Cressida (with a half-happy ending.) The Doctor and crew find themselves landing on the plains of Troy during the final days of the ten-year-long siege of Troy by the assorted Greek* forces.

The TARDIS's arrival in the middle of a fight between Hector (Alan Haywood) and Achilles (Cavan Kendall) helps Achilles secure victory. The Doctor steps out alone and is immediately mistaken for Zeus by Achilles. After some badinage Achilles insists on taking the Doctor to meet Agamemnon (Francis de Wolf) who leads the Greeks. From there everything spirals out of control in Doctor Who style.

Steven pursues the Doctor. The TARDIS gets stolen by Paris (Barrie Ingham) and bought into Troy and from which steps Vicki. It's a dry run for the horse in a way and Cassandra (Frances White) warns of the impending destruction of the city. Alas, no one listens to Cassandra and her doom is to be a prophet who knows the truth but is never believed. The result, if some tales are believed, of her refusal to let Apollo have his way with her.

The Myth Makers is one of Doctor Who's funnier scripts. Hovering close to The City of Death in terms of comedy, but with a little less subtly. The humor is driven by both script and performances. With the exception of James Lynn's rather wet Troilus almost every actor in it is giving the script its due. Hartnell thrives on being surrounded by good actors doing good work.

It's a bloody shame then that none of The Myth Makers exists on video. I had to resort to a reconstruction that I found online. What that means is that I think we're missing out on a great piece of Doctor Who because it is pretty good as an audio/reconstruction but I suspect if we could see as well as hear the performances it would be one of the highlights of the Hartnell era (and of Doctor Who in general.)

There is also a massive tonal shift between the first three episodes and the final one. There's a lot of comedy in Paris being a vain coward, in Menelaus (Jack Melford) just wanting to go home bored with ten years of trying to get his wife back, of the Doctor's attempts to find a way to get into Troy without inventing the Trojan Horse before being forced to invent it after realizing his flight plan won't work and in Cassandra's constant dismissal at the hands of her family even as she rightly predicts the doom of Troy.

And we the audience know it is coming. Or at least should do. This is one of the best-known stories in literature, although unless you've read the Iliad, the Odyssey and/or the Aeneid the bloody nature of those tales might have passed you by. Homer** does not skimp on the bloody details of the death of warriors.  When Troy falls it will be bloody. Many of those nice people we've met, especially Priam (Max Adrian) are doomed to die.

There are hints at this in Ivor Salter's performance as Odysseus. Odysseus is a loud-mouth and a bully. He threatens the Doctor with death if he doesn't come up with a way to get inside Troy. It is Odysseus more than any other character in this that represents the dark and bloody truth. Odysseus is the only one of these characters who you believe is capable of cold-blooded murder. The rest of them seem too nice, too civilized and too trusting. Nowhere do you really feel the angry bloodlust that Achilles felt when he went out to kill Hector that comes from the original texts. Achilles is raging at the death of his friends (and lover?) Patroclus. He doesn't just kill Hector. He drags his dead body around the City of Troy in a rage until an utterly broken Priam comes to beg for his son's body back. There is none of that tone about The Myth Makers apart from what is hinted at by Odysseus and Cassandra.

The other problem with The Myth Makers is that once again a female companion falls in love with someone. Once again they choose to leave the TARDIS and go off into a time they don't belong. Vicki, who has taken up the name Cressida, has fallen for Troilus. This is, of course, one of the main plot threads in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida but the play has Cressida and Troilus meet before Hector's death. The play has a much darker fate for the lovers than Doctor Who, which pairs them off and gets them to head off with Troilus's cousin Aeneas (and a whole different set of adventures courtesy of Virgil's Aeneid.)  It's all rather nice but Troilus is as wet as a bag of rotting apples and Vicki never seemed the sort of woman who would just fall in love with the first handsome chap that was nice to her. So it all seems a bit sudden. But that might turn out to be a perennial Doctor Who problem.

So Vicki leaves. Steven, wounded in the final battle, is carried into the TARDIS by The Doctor and one of Cassandra's handmaidens, Katarina (Adrienne Hill) and the Doctor takes off before Odysseus can get his hands on the TARDIS. Steven is seriously ill and the Doctor needs medical supplies. So we leave the episode with a dying Steven, a worried Doctor and a confused Katarina (who thinks she is in Limbo with the Zeus.)

The thing is despite some of my criticism above I still think this is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. It's funny and witty. It's superbly acted by pretty much everyone involved including the main cast. It plays around with great literature and puts Doctor Who smack bang in the middle of it. So you should give this a listen. It is magnificent.

You should also read the Iliad and the Odyssey btw because they too are rather brilliant.

*They would almost certainly not refered to themselves as Greeks but we'll keep to that for the moment. This is a Doctor Who blog after all not a history one. Or at least not yet.
**Homer may or may not be a single person. It's likely that 'he' is just a name given to tales handed down from generation to generation orally until someone finally decided to write them down. The stories are probably older than the Greeks themselves reflecting their descent from horse riding warriors from Eastern European steppes, which Priam (Max Adrian) actually mentions in the episode. If you'd like to know more I recommend The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson.

Mission To The Unknown

Mission to the Unknown was broadcast on 9 October 1965. It's written by Terry Nation and directed by Derek Martinus. It is a single episode story featuring none of the main Doctor Who cast. It doesn't even feature the TARDIS. This is a Doctor-lite episode before these things existed. What the viewing public made of it at the time I don't know. I would have been waiting for the Doctor to appear all the way through and then...he doesn't.

To add to the weird floating nature of this episode the next story The Myth Makers makes no reference to it. The TARDIS crew find themselves outside the walls of Troy at this point and involved in the Trojan War for four episodes. It is only then that they stumble into the epic Dalek's Master Plan for which Mission to the Unknown is the taster.

We had been led into Mission to the Unknown at the end of Galaxy 4 when Vicki wondering what was happening on the planet below and we find ourselves there, looking at Garvey (Barry Jackson) who has woken up with a desire to kill.

It will turn out that this is the planet Kembel where Marc Cory (Edward de Souza) of the Space Security Service has been following up rumors of a Dalek build-up. Kembel appears to be a planet in the arse end of nowhere. It's unpleasant enough already but it turns out Cory is right and that the Daleks are here finalizing a conspiracy to conquer the Solar System. In fact, Kembel is the location of the conspiracy's meeting place and we get to meet the delegates from the Outer Galaxies who have joined in. It is a production mystery who each delegate actually is so I won't dwell on them for now but there's an attempt to make them look as alien as possible for a set of blokes in costumes. The picture above shows some of them. Enjoy.

Alas, Kembel is also home to the Varga plant. This unpleasant piece of flora/fauna is only found of Skaro so its appearance on Kembel is a dead giveaway that the Daleks are here. The Varga plant is surrounded by thorns that if they penetrate the skin slowly turn their victims into a Varga plant whose only desire is to kill. It's what had happened to Garvey, who Cory kills.

As the Daleks fan out into the forest to seek out Cory and his colleague, Lowery (Jeremy Young) the tension tightens effectively. There are Varga plants and Daleks hunting the two men as they look to launch a rescue beacon explaining what was happening on Kembel. This is one of those stories when you know that the 'good guys' aren't going to make it. Their sacrifice is so obvious they might as well have best before dates on their uniforms.

Lowery gets Vargaed and then killed by Cory. Cory is just about to launch the beacon when the Daleks find him and...

Meanwhile back in the meeting room, the delegates finalize their plans. It's all rather impressive and hints at the epic scale of what is to come. You also get the impression that Terry Nation has got one eye on a spin-off series for the Daleks and the Space Security Service. Based on this it might well have worked, although as this episode is missing from the archives it is hard to make an absolute judgment. It certainly sets up a fictional universe that could be further explored outside - as well as inside - Doctor Who.

As a one-off, it works well. The performances are good, especially Edward de Souza as Cory and I never really found myself wishing for the regular TARDIS crew to turn up, although I might have felt differently after a couple of episodes without them. We've become so used to the odd regular cast member disappearing for an episode here or there whilst they go on holiday that it doesn't feel as out of place as it might later in Doctor Who's history.

So it works for me as the one-off. There's a definite tension here and then it finishes at a point that leaves you intrigued about what is going to happen next, which oddly isn't the first part of The Dalek's Master Plan. O no. Bizarrely our next story is The Myth Makers. That's the decision that I find most odd in this process. I'm sure someone, somewhere has explained the thinking behind it but to jump from this to Troy for four weeks and then back to The Dalek's Master Plan seems weird to me.

I decided to do a separate blog on Mission to the Unknown after some thought because I wanted to keep it in its rightful place in broadcast order. I think it deserves a separate blog because it isn't part of The Dalek's Master Plan. It is a stand-alone story connected to what follows but it also stands alone.

I might be wrong about that but it is my blog. So my rules.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Barbara and Ian

One thing that re-watching the Hartnell years teaches you is that Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell) are one of the series finest companion partnerships. They last from An Unearthly Child to The Chase. Sixteen stories and - roughly - seventy-seven episodes. A not-insignificant chunk of Doctor Who that.

Ian and Barbara are teachers at Coal Hill School. Barbara teaches history and Ian 'science'. It is Barbara's curiosity about their pupil Susan, who seems to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, that leads them to a junkyard. It is from there that they are kidnapped by the Doctor and whisked off into time and space.

Initially, the relationship between the Doctor and his 'hostages' is naturally a prickly one. The Hartnell Doctor is a particularly grumpy take on the part, especially early on. Indeed even as late as The Reign of Terror, The Doctor is capable of throwing a childish tantrum that leads to him threatening to dump Ian and Barbara at their next landing place.

In the end, though it is the Doctor's relationship with Barbara and Ian that 'humanizes' him. They're there when he leaves Susan behind and when Vicki joins the team and their decision to leave in The Chase seems to make him genuinely upset and angry.

The Chase ends with a lovely little montage and scene of Ian and Barbara back in London. It is 1965, so they've got some explaining to do about their two-year absence. After all, in 1963 they disappeared and Ian's abandoned car will be found outside Totter's Lane. Now they're going to reappear.

Barbara and Ian are also - in my head canon - the first couple to travel in the TARDIS. Whilst they might not be together at the beginning it says something about their relationship that Barbara is willing to present Ian with her Susan issues and that Ian will support her. But by the time we get to the start of The Romans there is no way they are not an item. Perhaps it is wishful thinking but when they return to Earth in The Chase I think they're settling down together to a life of teaching and traveling. With some special project work with UNIT or Countermeasures under the watchful eye of Torchwood probably too.

Ian is played by William Russell, who had been the lead in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot back in 1956-57. Ian's initially more baffled by the TARDIS and the Doctor than Barbara. Perhaps his 'science' background makes it harder for him to face up to the TARDIS mucking up his long-held theories and knowledge.

If Ian's the same age as William Russell he's almost 40 when they stumble into the TARDIS, which means he might well have served in the armed forces during World War Two. If he's a little younger then whilst he might have missed World War Two he would definitely have done National Service, which could have meant front line service in one of Britain's handful of end of Empire conflicts. It would certainly explain his comfort with hand-to-hand combat and, as seen in The Aztecs, his ability to render a man unconscious with only this thumb.

Ian carries the main weight of the fighting - with the lovely exception of The Romans - during his time in the series and most of his stories feature a fight for Ian to get involved in. A lot of the time they aren't particularly well-choreographed until The Romans.

He's often asked to do little more than be stolid, heroic and determined and it is to William Russell's credit that he manages to make Ian seem like a real human being. On occasion, he gets to be the voice of reason and he's almost trustworthiness in human form. People - aliens or not - seem to trust Ian. He's sometimes the moral centre of the story, particularly before The Doctor starts behaving like the Doctor we know now.

If Ian is solid it is Barbara that really shines. Jacqueline Hill is magnificent as Barbara right from the off. It is Barbara that calls out the Doctor most often and in The Aztecs gets the chance to challenge the Doctor's view of time. Barbara tries to save the Aztecs from themselves but fails. It gives Jacqueline Hill a real chance to shine as she goes head-to-head with the Doctor and Tlotoxl. It is Barbara that challenges the Doctor in Edge of Destruction and who makes him apologize.

Barbara does suffer from being on the receiving end of the unwanted attentions of people like Vasor in The Keys of Marinus but she is rarely simply a peril monkey. Even in stories where she spends her time being captured and threatened there is always a strength to Barbara that makes her a model for other companions, particularly Sarah Jane. Barbara can be afraid and brave at the same time. She rarely backs down. Her attempt to bluff the Daleks in The Dalek Invasion of Earth is one of my favorite Barbara scenes.

I think both Ian and Barbara deserve to be better remembered by Doctor Who fans as wonderful companions. It helps that both are fine actors who take every decent opportunity they get to show what they are capable of and can help raise more average material to a higher level but for me, Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) is one of the great Doctor Who companions. I mean what is Clara if not Barbara with fewer cardigans and a little more unnecessary mystery.

I'd recommend The Aztecs to see Barbara at her best and The Crusade to see Ian doing his thang but for the story that shows both of them at their best and shows the strength of their relationship than I'd go for The Romans. But I'd pick The Romans as one of the highlights of the Hartnell era full stop.

The TARDIS won't be the same without them.

Galaxy 4

Galaxy 4, directed by Derek Martinus and written by William Emms, is a thing of averageness. Its plot is pretty straightforward.

The TARDIS lands on a planet that - it turns out - is dying. On that planet are two crashed ships. Aboard one are the Drahvins, led by Maaga (Stephanie Bidmead), a race of warrior women. On the other are the Rills, accompanied by their cute metallic servants named 'Chumblies' by Vicki. The Drahvins and Rills are at loggerheads. The Drahvins claim that the Rills shot them down and then killed one of them. But, for most of the first two episodes, we only hear the story of what happen from Maaga.

The problem with Galaxy 4 is that Maaga's nastiness becomes a bit too obvious a bit too quickly and as we find out more about the Rills the story falls into a pretty obvious parable about how the beautiful is not necessarily the good and the ugly are not necessarily bad. I suppose the main crime of Galaxy 4 is that it is just all a little obvious.

And that there's a lot of walking backward and forwards. It's a story that longs for corridors for people to wander up and down.

Again though it is hard to fairly judge Galaxy 4 as three of its four episodes are missing from the archive. It was four but episode three aka Airlock was found in December 2011.

Having that one episode did change my opinion of the story compared with my last 're-listen'. It certainly makes Stephanie Bidmead's performance as Maaga more three-dimensional than the audio-only might make you think. She gets a good speech, delivered almost down the barrel of the camera, which twists into something dark and sadistic. It does make me want to see more of the performances and again hammers home how hard it is to get a genuine view on a Doctor Who story when it is either entirely or mostly missing.

I flag this up now as we're heading into the parts of Doctor Who where there is more missing than exists. The re-discovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear is a case in point. Seeing The Enemy of the World made me love it far more than I ever did hearing it on audio only and not just because Patrick Troughton's performances are a glorious thing to see.

We finally also get to see what a Rill looks like. Sort of. But if we could find Episode 4 too so we can see them in their full glory because what is hinted at is a sort of be-fanged Jabba the Hutt, which is pretty good on a Doctor Who budget.

The Chumblies, on the other hand, are too cute and too slow for their own good. They are, at points, supposed to be threatening but it feels like being threatened by a passive-aggressive marshmallow as opposed to a 'new Dalek', which is what one fears were being aimed for here.

I don't think any of the main cast set the screen on fire at any point. Vicki isn't at her best here, Stephen is forced into the solid and staunch role vacated by Ian. The Doctor gets one or two moments but there's a bit too much aimless standing around for my liking, although I do love the fact that he completely and utterly fails to sabotage the Rill breathing apparatus despite a lot of semi-convincing faffing about.

So I'm going to stop here. There's not much else I can think of to say about this story, which is already evaporating from my memory. In its current state it is neither bad nor good but the existing episode three hints at a bit more depth, at least in performance, than I had previously noted.

Note: As @thejimsmith reminded me on Twitter just now one piece of excellence in Airlock is the flashback as the Rills tell their story of what happened on landing. It's done POV, which is unusual and effective. Particularly as we see Maaga's ruthless dispatching of one of her own soldiers.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Time Meddler

The Time Meddler is the final story of the second series of Doctor Who. Broadcast between the 3rd and 24th July 1965 it sees the full debut of Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) as a member of the TARDIS crew. It's not quite clear how he made it aboard but somehow, before the TARDIS dematerialized, Steven and Hi-Fi managed to get in, past Vicki and the Doctor.

Steven's a little cynical about the TARDIS, to begin with. Refusing to believe it is a time machine, even whilst confessing it is 'a little unusual'. Hartnell's interaction with Steven is refreshingly sarcastic. The little speech that ends '...that is a chair with a panda on it. Shear poetry dear boy." is a lovely bit of stuff from Hartnell. Hartnell's pretty good throughout this story actually bouncing off the various guest actors well, particularly Peter Butterworth's Monk. Although he blatantly gets a week off as in episode two we only hear the First Doctor but we never see him.

The TARDIS appears to have landed in 10th century Britain, although Steven remains cynical. Particularly when, after the Doctor conveniently arranges splitting up his party, he finds a wrist-watch on the floor. How can you get a wrist-watch in 10th century Britain? And who is the mysterious Monk watching from the clifftop and then lurking about in a comically sinister manner?

This story gets two mightily fine cliffhangers. The first is at the end of episode one when the Doctor reveals the phonograph & gets captured. There are modern appliances here in 11th century Britain. And the Monk seems to be in charge of them.

It becomes clear that the Monk is up to no good over the course of the story and that he is some kind of time traveler, perhaps one known to - or who knows of - The Doctor. It is the cliffhanger to Episode Three that is the best though. When Vicki and Steven enter a sarcophagus and find themselves aboard another TARDIS. Not only is the Monk a time-traveler. He has a TARDIS. This Monk is from the Doctor's home. A home that is still unnamed here. Nor are his race named. But still, that moment when they step aboard another TARDIS opens whole new vistas for the series and - perhaps? - takes the first little chip out of the question mark in Doctor Who?

The Monk is trying to change history. He seems to have a history of minor temporal crimes. Stealing art here. Playing little tricks there. Stirring the pot without trying to destroy the universe. In that sense, The Monk is no prototype for The Master. He's more the Doctor himself let off the leash. His plan in this story, which we shouldn't forget would involve the mass murder of Vikings, sounds like the biggest thing he's ever attempted. The first step in a plan designed to advance Earth's history so that Hamlet can be written by Shakespeare for television, not the stage. Although I think there's more too it than that. The Doctor calls him a Time Meddler, almost as if that is actually the title of a particular type of criminal from his home planet.

Peter Butterworth is excellent as The Monk. He's perfectly cast for mischief rather than nastiness. With The Master/Missy dominating the Doctor Who bad Time Lord list in New Doctor Who you do wonder whether the series could find a place for the (Meddling) Monk now. After all, The Doctor is more like the (Meddling) Monk now than he was in Hartnell's day. Big Finish has bought him back, played by Graeme Garden initially and then Rufus Hound, and I recommend you give them a listen if you get a moment. But alas I suspect the (Meddling) Monk has gone along with The Rani drowned in the Master/Missy shadow. But I digress.

The odd thing about this story is its tone. It is mainly pretty comedic but there's violence here. And then there's the rape of Edith (Aletha Charlton). Yes, the rape doesn't happen on screen. Obviously. But that is what is implied both just before and afterward. It's all a bit Game of Thrones. As if we need to establish that we're in a dark past by showing the horror that lurked there in England's green and pleasant land. It's really strangely out of place in the story, particularly as Aletha Charlton and Michael Miller, playing her husband Wulnoth play it really straight. When we see Edith afterward for the first time she is in genuine shock, although this being Doctor Who she seems to recover from her ordeal pretty quickly. It should be noted though that she is keen to be part of hunting down and killing the Vikings that did this to her.

The Vikings in this story have horned helmets. So I'm saying horned helmets for Viking is historically accurate in the Doctor Who universe modern historical belief be damned. This is Doctor Who. When the legend becomes fact. Show the legend.* Except the two Vikings -Ulf (Norman Hartley) and Sven (Donald Anderson - are a particularly cowardly pair by Viking standards.

Vicki and Steven get stuck together for most of the story and there's some nice material for Maureen O'Brien and Peter Purves to play off. It's a good first story for Purves but I do miss Ian and Barbara.

Hartnell is wonderful in this too. It's one of the best stories of the Hartnell era. You could definitely drop this in for people to watch who aren't fans and they'd probably enjoy it, despite the Edith issue so if you haven't watched it yet give it a go.

*To bend a quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallence

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Chase

I tend to try and be positive when writing my reviews on this blog. Where there is the benefit of the doubt I will find it but I am afraid I find The Chase a tedious mess. For me, it is the worst William Hartnell story of my re-watch so far.

It is not all bad. It really is not. But a lot of it is. Episode 3, for example, is the worst episode of Doctor Who since I began re-watching. I would show a non-Doctor Who fan any episode of The Web Planet rather than the third episode of The Chase, which features awful comedy, terrible direction and comedy Daleks. Terry Nation - and his estate - were (and are) known to frown upon writers who did not take the Daleks seriously but The Chase is a self-penned suicide note to the Daleks as a genuine threat in Doctor Who. From the moment one emerges from the sand - in a nod to the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth Episode One - making sounds of struggle and effort there's a problem with the Daleks. Add one stumbling and mumbling over its answer to a question and their inability to spot that their First Doctor robot doesn't look anything like the actual Doctor and here we have Daleks as robotic dustbins. One of the Daleks even mysterious throws itself overboard whilst scaring sailors. Whilst another stands and listens to Morton Dill (Peter Purves) rattle on 'amusingly' at the top of the Empire State Building without even apparently considering extermination. Morton Dill wouldn't last five seconds in New Doctor Who.

The plot of The Chase is pretty simple. The clue is in the title. The Daleks have a time-machine. They've tracked down the Doctor on the planet Aridius and try to kill him and the TARDIS crew there but they escape and the rest of the story is the Daleks chasing the TARDIS through time and space. Occasionally the TARDIS lands and tries to shake-off The Daleks before dashing off to the next place. This 'chase' takes in the top of the Empire State Building in 1966, the Mary Celeste, a haunted house in the Festival of Ghana and, finally, the planet Mechanus.

Aridius, which is a classic example of Terry Nation's unsubtle when selecting planet names. It's an arid planet. Therefore it is called Aridius. Except it wasn't arid initially. It was covered with water. Perhaps Aridius means 'Wet Sphere' in Aridian. Who knows. It isn't a big deal but it is one of those Terry Nation habits that just irritates me a wee bit.

The first two episodes are fine. Not the most exciting but reasonable. The third episode, as outlined above, is an utter car crash of awfulness. It's trying to be amusing but isn't. It's just plain stupid. The fourth episode is bizarre. The TARDIS crew themselves never know where they are. They make odd guesses, including the Doctor's really strange suggestion that they are inside the human imagination but it appears to be a castle out of fiction. Frankenstein's Monster is there. Dracula is there. There's a Grey Lady. There are bats. There's thunder. Then the Daleks turn up and start trying to exterminate everything but one of them gets a bit of a battering from the Monster. Whilst it is all a actually works for me better than Episode Three because the comedy in this episode works. There's a wonderful bit of work from William Hartnell for example when they first come across The Monster and it wakes up.

Then the TARDIS crew dash off and escape. Although they manage to leave Vicki behind. Yes, they leave Vicki behind. It just seems so unlikely, even in the rush and clutter of that fourth episode. Fortunately Vicki - although she's not at her best in this story - is made of stern stuff so she sneaks aboard the Dalek ship as it follows the Doctor. The Daleks are, of course, too stupid to notice. Even as she tries to contact the TARDIS via some kind of communications device.

Episode Four introduces us to the robot First Doctor designed by the Daleks to infiltrate the TARDIS crew and kill them. Alas in a bizarre directorial decision the robot looks nothing like William Hartnell, which isn't surprising as he's played by Edmund Warwick. Then they dub Hartnell's voice over him, before cutting Hartnell in at the beginning of Episode Five. Thereafter they use Hartnell or Warwick pretty arbitrarily. If I'm generous perhaps they thought that the use of Hartnell himself occasionally would make us forget that Edmund Warwick wasn't the real Doctor but fundamentally it doesn't work. At all.

By this time I was losing the will to watch more but fortunately, Episode Six introduces us to the Mechanoids, which are huge unwieldy octagonal golf-balls who have built a huge city, which looks lovely in model form and await human settlers. More importantly, we get introduced to Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and his mascot Hi-Fi, who is a toy panda. Steven has been trapped on Mechanus for two years but it doesn't take long for everyone to escape, the Doctor to start the process of burning down the city and an epic battle between the Mechanoids and the Daleks. The result the city is totally destroyed and the TARDIS crew escapes losing Steven in the process when he goes back for Hi-Fi.

Then we come to the best moment in the story. Ian and Barbara's departure. Yes, finally they're leaving using the Dalek time machine to go back to London, 1965. The Doctor is genuinely fuming and their argument along with Vicki talking him into letting them go is really well played. The fact that, apparently, Hartnell was genuinely upset at their departure definitely shows. Then we get a lovely bit of stuff as Barbara and Ian find themselves back in London before cutting back to the Doctor watching them. His, 'I shall miss them', seems very heartfelt. And thus it ends.

Thank heavens.

This has been a long blog by my standards. I think that's because I really don't like The Chase except for the fine departure of Ian and Barbara. I think Terry Nation's writing isn't great, the direction is careless and the Doctor robot is rubbish. As is Episode Three.

So I go back to my original thoughts. The worst Hartnell story so far. Alas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Space Museum

Like The Web Planet, but for different reasons, The Space Museum is a rather unloved thing. It also suffers from a similar problem to An Unearthly Child, which is that its first episode is unsettling and mysterious and ends with a fantastic cliffhanger. The other three episodes are considered therefore to be something of a letdown.

Rob Shearman does a fine job of defending aspects of The Space Museum in a DVD extra so I'm going to try and avoid making too many similar points to him. Mainly because he'll make those points better than I.

Unusually for a story from the dim and distant, black and white Doctor Who past it actually plays with time travel in a quite Moffatesque way. This is definitely a timey-wimey story and part of the story's glory is that the TARDIS crew are never quite sure if they're doing anything to rescue themselves from the fate that they see at the end of episode one. There are lots of arguments about whether it is better to do nothing or do something. Or if their fate can be avoided at all. And as we head into the conclusion of the final episode it does look like their four separate journeys have come together to ensure their doom. But it hasn't. Their interaction with others means that they come through unscathed. They're saved by others.

The TARDIS crew's arrival at the Space Museum, which is on the planet Xeros, is an accident. Xeros is part of the Morok Empire. Its citizens are slaves. Raised to adulthood and then shipped off to serve the Moroks.

The Moroks are a pretty pathetic bunch if truth be told. The Governor, Lobos (Richard Shaw), is a whinging dullard. Bored with his job Lobos longs to go home. Even though their home is also dull. The Morok Empire may have been great once but now it seems to have slipped into some kind of pre-collapse coma. Its soldiers are idiots and cowards. Its Commanders moan about their jobs and blame their underlings for failing to do what they've not been told to do. Its leader is the very definition of the banality of evil. To be honest he's not even evil. He's only obeying orders. He's another soldier doing his duty.

The Xerons themselves are a gang of black jumper wearing, hands-on-hips art students. Well, not art students obviously because they're about to be sent off to be space slaves for the space Empire of the Moroks. But quite frankly they've got the get-up and go of a bunch of office workers on the last working day before Christmas, but without the comedy jumpers. It takes Vicki, who is clearly bored out of her mind, to give them the kick up the arse they so desperately need.

Vicki is great in this story. She starts a revolution.

Which brings me on to a thing. Thinking about this story I realized that what Vicki also starts is a terrible massacre. Once she's broken into the armory and arms have fallen into Xeron hands they go off and raid the Morok barracks. Now based on their shoot to kill policy towards the Moroks we see them kill I don't think they just tied up the troops at the barracks. Every Morok we see after the revolution begins is murdered. So what hope for the Moroks in the barracks?

Obviously, the Moroks aren't nice. They're Imperialists. They invade planets, destroy everything on them, make the survivors slaves and then whack a ruddy great museum on the wreckage. At least the British Empire bought the loot back to London and built a museum there. Can you imagine if we'd built the British Museum on the smoking remains of Mumbai? So the Moroks are nasty but unusually the Doctor doesn't really do anything to stop the massacre. Or even consider it.

He does raise a question to Tor (Jeremy Bulloch) who, whilst taking a break from standing with his hands on his hips, is emptying the space museum of its exhibits and having them destroyed. He wants only creations of Xeros on Xeros, which sounds like the tiniest seed of fascism. The Doctor, at least, says 'don't abandon science altogether', which gets shrugged off by Tor. Have the TARDIS team helped replace a bunch of imperialists with a fascist anti-technology regime? Will Tor let this power go to his head?

Perhaps I'm taking it all far too seriously.

I think The Space Museum has some great comedy in it. I especially love the murder of Barbara's cardigan and the really rubbish Morok soldier - played by Peter Diamond who we last saw as Delos in The Romans - but there's also a delightful scene when the Doctor is being questioned by Lobos. Lobos is showing off about his machine, which will reveal what the Doctor is thinking by reading his mind. The Doctor proceeds to pop this bubble with a series of images that are clearly NOT what he's already thinking. The images are a bit odd it must be said but it is rather funny.

I wonder how much better this story would have been if a director like Christopher Barry had been allowed to run with it rather than Mervyn Pinfield. It does feel like it was meant to be funnier, despite my points about how murderous it might actually be.

So I rather enjoyed this unloved thing. Its four episodes flew by. I chuckled a few times it is true but I wonder if I was meant to chuckle more.

Hartnell gets some good moments in this story, as does Ian who gets to be an action hero again. Poor Barbara is a bit let down by events and her cardigan seems to be more important to the plot than her at points but Vicki is a joy.

And it ends with a cliffhanger into the next story. Never mind the Moroks. Here's the Daleks.*

*Yes, that is a painful, painful 'joke'. Sorry.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Crusade

The Crusade is the first story since Marco Polo which presents us with the missing episode problem. Only episodes 1 and 3 exist in the archive. So I went with the audio versions of episodes 2 and 4 that are on the Lost in Time Boxed Set.*

The Crusade is an historical. The TARDIS team arrives in the Holy Land as Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) and Saladin (Bernard Kay) are in something of a stalemate. War - or more war if we're accurate - is coming but Richard is tired and is looking for a way out. Into this adventure, the Doctor and friends stumble. Immediately Barbara gets grabbed by the villainous El Akir (Walter Randall). She manages to make an enemy of El Akir by pretending to be Joanna, Richard's sister. El Akir is humiliated before Saladin and wants to make Barbara one of his harem. Basically, El Akir is a horrible creep.

El Akir is pretty much the only genuinely nasty person in the story. He's been horrible before the Doctor turns up and would probably have been horrible if the Doctor hadn't turned up. We find this out when we meet Haroun (George Little) and his daughter Fatima (Viviane Sorel). Haroun's eldest daughter was taken by El Akir for his harem and then killed his wife and son. Before burning his house down.

Everyone else seems to be operating from the best of motives. Even the Earl of Leicester (John Bay) who becomes something of a thorn in the Doctor's side is a man trying to do the right thing for his King. He's a warrior. There is a fantastic scene in Episode 3 where the Doctor and Leicester go head to head over the King's plan to bring a peaceful end to this long, drawn-out war in the Middle-East by marrying Joanna (Jean Marsh) off to Saladin's brother Saphadin (Roger Avon). It's fantastically written, sounding like something from a Shakespeare history play but really well-acted by Hartnell and Bay. You almost find yourself sympathizing with Leicester as the Doctor piles on the insults. Leicester's riposte to the Doctor, pointing out that once the talking stops it is the soldiers that have to go and die. In some respects, it is a bit of a counter-argument to the Doctor's magnificent speech in The Zygon Inversion but I'm probably reaching a bit there.

As you'll have noted a lot of the actors playing Saracens have very English names. And yes, this involves some blacking up, which to modern eyes is uncomfortable but no one - with the possible exception of Ibrahim (Tutte Lemkow) who sounds a bit like he's doing a comedy Middle-Eastern voice but as the episode, he appears in is missing it is perhaps unfair to make that definitive judgment - plays their parts as anything less than sincere. Indeed Bernard Kay's Saladin is brilliantly played. You get a real sense of the great man here. But still, it is still a bit odd for the modern television viewer.

The strength of The Crusade is in David Whitaker's writing, which gives every performer a chance to shine. Julian Glover and Jean Marsh give fantastic performances. It shows that the quality of the writing helps raise the quality of performance. It's also well-directed by Douglas Camfield who manages to make something televisual out of a script a number of directors might have made very theatrical on screen.

Those people who have doubts about Hartnell's performance as the Doctor because they've heard tales of Billy fluffs should watch this story to show what he's capable of when given good dialogue with good actors to playoff. This is also Maureen O'Brien's best story so far too. Even if she is incredibly unconvincing as a boy - a problem that often crops up in cross-dressing Shakespeare plays now actresses play the women's parts as opposed to young boys as was traditional. She also slips in a line in her native Liverpudlian accent, which is very funny. William Russell is staunch and solid, which sounds like damning with faint praise but he's so consistent that you can easily take him for granted. Jacqueline Hill is magnificent as usual. Why she never comes up in the list of favorite companions more often is beyond me. She's strong, brave and moral. If the show has any kind of moral centre at this point it isn't the Doctor it is Barbara.

So to cut a long ramble short this is a rather good story, which I'd love to see in its entirety. A great script. excellently directed and well-acted by almost everyone concerned. Watch it if you get a chance.

*The quality of the print of The Crusade Episode One on the Lost in Time Box Set is very poor btw. There is perhaps an argument that The Crusade deserves a DVD release of its own. Cleaned up. But I suspect the current mob running the BBC's DVD team won't bother, which is a shame. Unless the missing episodes turn up somewhere.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Web Planet

I'm going to put my cards on the table straight away here. I love The Web Planet. I love it for daring to do something that, even now, Doctor Who would struggle to do convincingly: put the TARDIS crew down on an alien planet populated by giant insects. This is a genuine alien planet. These are aliens. They behave like aliens. They talk like aliens. They have cultures.

Yes, it's too long. But so are a lot of Doctor Who stories. Yes, Richard Martin's direction can be a bit careless but he does a fantastic job of wrangling actors and insects in the main. Yes, with modern eyes it looks ridiculous. I explained this story to my workmate Lucy, who thought it sounded silly. When I showed her a clip she said it was even worse than she guessed. I know The Web Planet isn't the first story I'd reach for if I was trying to convince a non-Doctor Who fan of the glories of 1960s Doctor Who but because of that you miss out on one the best Doctor Who stories ever made.

There. I've said it.

Yes, suspending your disbelief can be difficult but if you do you can wallow in one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories ever made. It reaches,  from the moment you step onto Vortis, for an atmosphere of genuine alienness. It's not just the impressive set but the strange flaring blurred camera work, which is deliberate. It's not just that everyone except the main TARDIS crew is effectively a giant insect or the weird soundscape. It's not just the movement of the actors, especially those playing the Menoptra, is inhuman or that those aliens that speak don't speak like human beings. They have rhythms of their own or, in the case of the Optera they speak in metaphor. It's all of these things coming together.

It's also a surprisingly dark story too. The end of Part Two as Barbara witnesses the Zarbi take off a Menoptra's wings is genuinely quite horrifying even if we don't see it happening. It's Barbara's horrified reaction - and Jacqueline Hill is brilliant here again - that tells us that what we're seeing is bad. The Zarbi deliberately cripple the Menoptra as punishment.

There's Vrestin's (Roselyn de Winter) conversation with Ian. When Ian asks what happened to the rest of the landing party her reaction both in terms of body language and the sound of real distress she gives off is really quite moving.

Then there's the nasty death of Nemini, the Optera who sacrifices herself to save Ian, Vrestin and other Optera from death by acid. It's a really unpleasant death but I suspect a lot of people find it difficult to take seriously because of the slightly comic nature of the Optera. For me though that made it worse. The Optera are harmless bouncing bugs. They'd be rather cute if it wasn't for their oddly metaphorical way of speaking and their leaders growling tones. And Nemini dies in that terrible way.

The Optera are descendants of the Menoptra who fled underground when the Animus arrived on Vortis. They bounce a lot and I've head-canoned this as their race memory of the moment just before their flying ancestors took off. It's a half-remembered attempt at flight.

The Animus is the story's big bad. It's a sort of tentacled parasite that speaks to people with a creepy voice, which occasionally comes via a large tube. At least when talking to The Doctor. It's not the most impressive effect, which the Doctor himself comments on. He refers to it as a 'hair-dryer thing'. It seems to have landed on Vortis, grown and taken mental control of the Zarbi (who are otherwise harmless and a little stupid) and then sucked the life out of the planet. It has plans to take over the Earth too in the end. It dwells inside something called the Carsinome so I'm assuming the Animus is a kind of cancerous parasite in writer Bill Strutton's mind.

The final sequence as everyone comes together to finally try and destroy the Animus is a bit confusing as people flail around confused by the light, the Animus's mental powers, and its tentacles but Barbara saves the day. I notice William Hartnell's acting at this point, when he is trapped in the Animus's tentacles, could be described as 'minimalist'. If we're being kind. And I am.

A brief sideline here to mention the First Doctor's ring, which seems to be a proto-sonic screwdriver. Capable of doing whatever a writer requires it to do for plot purposes. I suppose if the Doctor can have sonic sunglasses then a sonic ring isn't out of the question.

If you haven't watched this story you've also missed a rather brilliant speech from Jolyon Booth, as Menoptra Prapillus in Episode Five. It's rather beautiful and delivered as if it is a Shakespearean soliloquy. And I think that's also a key to why I love this story. It's that everyone in it is doing their damned best to treat it with all seriousness. They're either dressed up as giant moths, bugs or ants or interacting with giants moths, bugs and ants but no one is treating it as a joke. It's absolutely serious, which gives it weight.

I should also take a moment to applaud the set design, especially the Temple of Light, which looks amazing both inside and out. The Carcinome too, although obviously drapes at some points looks rather good and - again - feels genuine alien.

And in the end that's why The Web Planet is a work of wonder. It's the only Doctor Who story that genuinely portrays an alien world and alien races that feels genuinely like a 'real' alien world. It reaches for the stars. It's as ambitious as any Doctor Who story will ever be. I suspect you'd struggle to re-make it now even with all the technological advances since 1965. There isn't another story in Doctor Who that ever tries as hard.

It should be applauded for its ambition and for its seriousness. It should be admired for the performances of everyone in it who tries hard to make you forget that you're watching men and women in costumes. It has darkness and majesty. Is there another Doctor Who story out there that would have tried to film the Menoptra swooping into the Crater of Needles and the battle that follows.

I love The Web Planet. I love it a little more each time I watch it too. As I notice new things. So yes, warts and all this is a magnificent piece of Doctor Who.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Romans

The Romans is a lovely story. It has some tonal oddities. It balances (almost) farce with some genuine moments of darkness. It also features probably the first - and only (?) - comic death in Doctor Who. Poor old Tigellinus.

It is also a rare story that begins with the TARDIS crew having a proper holiday. They've been squatting in a wealthy Roman's villa. This is my own headcanon but if Ian and Barbara weren't an item before The Romans they definitely are by the time it begins. This is the episode to watch if you want to start shipping Ian and Barbara.

Because this is Doctor Who, of course, things have to get exciting. The Doctor and Vicki head off to Rome, discover a corpse and The Doctor gets mistaken for lyre-player Maximus Petullian. Petullian is supposed to be heading to Rome to play for Nero (Derek Francis). Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara get kidnapped by slave-traders, separated and then reunited in Rome. All roads, as the episode title has it, lead to Rome.

Poor old Ian gets the worst of the deal. He becomes a slave-rower on a ship that gets wrecked, threatened with the arena and forced to fight his friend Delos (Peter Diamond) and then has to avoid being captured long enough to be reunited with Barbara.

Meanwhile, Barbara is bought by Tavius (Michael Peake), who is Nero's slave buyer and ends up in Nero's palace as a servant to Poppea (Kay Patrick), the Emperor's wife. Nero falls for Barbara.* And she ends up trying to fend him off. There are some magnificent farcical chase scenes up and down corridors. I should stop here and comment on the excellence of Christopher Barry's direction, which makes the most of limited sets and for once the fight sequences look really good too. This is apparently because Peter Diamond, as well as playing Delos, was also a fight arranger and Barry Jackson who played Ascaris was also a stunt performer.

Ascaris and the Doctor have a rather comic fight, which Jackson, does a fine job of making the whole thing look pretty good, even if it is more farcical than martial.

The fight between Ian and Delos and then with the guards is probably the best fight in the series so far. It doesn't look like actors poking stuff at each other in slow motion. It's pretty fast and fluid.

Indeed so is the whole story. The Doctor and Vicki manage to miss Ian and Barbara during their whole time in Rome, even as they are literally feet apart. Farce requires clockwork precision, and within the limits of a BBC studio. Christopher Barry manages to make it work.

Derek Francis as Nero is delightfully over the top. He is mainly played as vain, foolish and decadent but there is one moment - post the Ian and Delos fight - where he shows a genuine cold-hearted nasty streak. It's the first Doctor Who story where the villains are played more for laughs than a genuine threat. Most of the serious threat comes from minor characters like Poppea, the slave-trader Sevcheria (Derek Sydney) or the Galley Master (Gert Klauber).

To cut this short I love The Romans. It's is an out and out comedy with occasional moments of darkness. My only quibble is the Doctor's apparent pleasure at giving Nero the idea for the Great Fire of Rome was a bit...out of character? But at least it gave us a nice gag in The Fires of Pompeii.

I should mention that Hartnell seems to be having the time of his life in this story. He plays comedy so well and writer Dennis Spooner gives him both action and lines to get his teeth into. It's fun watching the Doctor be Doctor-ish : diving in and running rings - mostly - around those who are trying to make his life difficult.

This is Maureen O'Brien's first 'proper' story and she's rather brilliant. She doesn't have to do the granddaughter stuff so she can watch the Doctor with a certain cynicism. She's got a lightness of touch too, which is perfect for the Romans.

I should note it contains Doctor Who's first deliberate double entendre made joyous by the way Jacqueline Hill plays it.

If you're thinking of dipping your toes into the William Hartnell era this wouldn't be a bad place to start because you can see what Hartnell is capable of when given a good script by a good writer overseen by, probably, the best director of early Doctor Who Christopher Barry. It's fun. It's dark. The main TARDIS team gets to be rather good. It feels rather like a New Doctor Who story in many ways.

*Jacqueline Hill is rather stunning here. I know that's a terrible male thing to say. But I've said it.

Susan : In the Beginning

Susan (Carole Ann Ford) was the Doctor's first companion and the first to leave the series. The Doyleist reason for leaving was that Carole Ann Ford didn't feel that Susan was the part she was promised it would be. And, watching her stories, you can see what she means. Only in The Unearthly Child and The Sensorites is Susan anything more than a slightly hysterical peril monkey. Too many writers treat her like a child - see the slightly uncomfortable 'smack bottom' line from The Doctor in The Dalek Invasion of Earth as the most egregious example.

The thing is she is supposed to be the child of an advanced civilization. There are hints of her having telepathic powers - which flower in The Sensorites - but which never get seen again. It isn't the best part for an actress, especially when hopes of something more have been wafted in front of your face.

Susan also seems to have always been less keen on the wandering lifestyle that the Doctor seems to enjoy. She wanted to settle down on Earth for a bit and go to school, even though she can't really be learning much - particularly in sciences - that she doesn't already know. She refers to wanting to 'belong' and when the Doctor talks about going home she seems keen. Perhaps keener than he is. It all comes to a head in The Dalek Invasion of Earth when she meets David Campbell and seems to have found a place and a person to 'belong', even though she is caught between her desire to stay in one time and place and her worries for her grandfather.

The potential for Susan was, alas, never realized.

The other issue with Susan, of course, is that she's created a problem for Doctor Who fans ever since. Because she's the Doctor's granddaughter, which implies a family for a character that, for a long time afterward, avoided any of the baggage of family. Until New Doctor Who picked up on it. Although we've still never seen Susan in the new series - despite Capaldi's recent pitching that as a thing he'd like to see. We've seen her, and her son, in Big Finish though. Used quite effectively.

Also, there's not just all the questions of relatives and sex that follow on from Susan's existence but the questions of her Time Lordness. Some people have tried to suggest that she's not really the Doctor's granddaughter but some kind of waif that he picked up and who calls him grandfather as some kind of sign of affection. That fails to take into account the talk of their homeworld and Susan knowing what Gallifrey...

Here's a clunking point with Susan. We've had to retrospectively question who she is because during her time in the series we don't get to know much about her or the Doctor at all. There's no real strong hint that they're not human beings. Even the line about her home planet in The Sensorites doesn't preclude them from being humans from the future. The TARDIS is clearly technology beyond the realm of current humanity but that doesn't mean much in a science-fiction series. There's no hint that the Doctor has two hearts or is capable of anything as drastic or impressive a regeneration. There are no Time Lords. This isn't the 'First' Doctor. This is just The Doctor. The only Doctor.

When Susan was created no one had any idea of what was to follow. So it is us as fans and those fans who now write for Doctor Who either on television, in novels or Big Finish that has created - or tried to create - theories of Susan.

So here's mine. I think there is a difference between Time Lords and Gallifreyans. Something - a ceremony of some kind (see The End of Time and the Untempered Schism) - is what divides the two. I assume this includes regeneration, which can also be in the gift of the Time Lords as we have seen in The Five Doctors and Time of the Doctor. It might not even be a natural process. So the Doctor fled Gallifrey with Susan before she'd become a Time Lord. The fact that when she appears in The Five Doctors she appears to have aged and that the same thing seems to apply in the Big Finish stories that she is in.

If she was a Time Lord - and could regenerate - then the Doctor abandoning her on Earth seems cruel. To both her and David Campbell. Unless he was intending to come back and pick her up at some point. But just keeps getting distracted.

Of course, there is the possibility that he picked her up in some unseen adventure and took her home finally. Or realizing the Time War was coming along hide her somewhere safe and out of the firing line. Or...

Theory on theory on theory.

And that is Susan's enduring legacy. The possibilities she represents. The stories she could be involved in.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Rescue

There's not a lot to say about The Rescue really. Its purpose is to introduce us to Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) who is lined up to take the place of Susan. The production team obviously felt that a teenage girl was an essential requirement.

So this two-part story introduces us to Vicki and gives Maureen O'Brien a chance to run through a whole range of emotions - from scared to happy to angry - and complete what is, essentially, a long audition piece.

Vicki is an orphaned survivor of a spaceship crash and a massacre on the planet Dido. Her only companion is the badly injured Bennett (Ray Barrett). They are stalked and threatened by the spiky Koquillion. It will turn out that there's more than meets the eye to this whole scenario.

Except actually, it all seems pretty obvious to me. The final confrontation between the Doctor and Koqullion is nicely done - and it is always lovely when a monster that looks like a bloke in a mask turns out to just be a bloke in a mask - but it is all a little signposted. And I've probably spoiled it for you now. Tut.

That's about it really. There's an apparently misunderstood monster called Sandy, which Barbara effectively misunderstands to death. But as I said this is all about Vicki.

And O'Brien is rather good on her first appearance. It's pretty obvious that they're not straying too far from the Susan model, which may be a problem further down the line of course. She gave enough to do to show that she's a good enough actress and there's a certain charming cynicism to her reaction to being told that the Doctor is a time-traveler and her reaction to the inside of the TARDIS is well-played too. The first new reaction we've had to the 'bigger on the inside' nature of the TARDIS since the first episode. So I'm expecting good things about Vicki / O'Brien.

Hartnell's rather good in this too. He gets a nice balance of comedy and drama. He also gets to be Sherlock Holmes-ish again, which seems to suit the First Doctor.

Alas, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell don't get a huge amount to do, for obvious reasons. Ray Barrett does a fine job too, along with Sydney Wilson as Koquillion. Sydney Wilson is the first example of a kind of casting that will become something of a tradition in the 1980s.

O, I should note that the model work is rather lovely.

Fundamentally though The Rescue has one job, which is to introduce us to Vicki in a sympathetic way. And it is a job it does very well.

The funniest thing though is comparing the relatively casual way Susan's departure is dealt with - one lovely speech at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and a couple of references in the first episode of The Rescue - versus the season-long, emotional trauma filled arcs of new Doctor Who. Susan was the Doctor's granddaughter for heaven's sake. Not just any old companion. Now the whole season would be filled with foreshadowing and the finale would be packed full of emotional triggers and tears.

It's a different world.

Which is good. You can't keep things from changing. Just ask Light.*

*I'm assuming people reading this blog will get that joke. If you don't go and watch Ghost Light.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

There are some great things in The Dalek Invasion of Earth but for me, it isn't quite as good as other people seem to think it is. And, heresy upon heresy, I prefer the Peter Cushing film version, which I have blogged about previously.

I think there are two things that give this story a punch that makes you overlook its flaws. Firstly the whole sequence of Barbara, Jenny (Ann Davies) and Dortmun (Alan Judd) escaping across a deserted London whilst dodging Dalek patrols have a real tension to them. The site of Daleks lurking about London's tourist sites has a real impact. The Daleks have always been a metaphor for the Nazis - which is why Doctor Who could never do a proper World War Two story* - and their gliding about the conquered London streets can't help but have that 'Britain conquered by Nazi Germany' vibe. [God, that was an ugly sentence. Forgive me. It got away from itself.]

I was going to compare it to 'It Happened Here', which was also made in 1964 so I'm not sure if it had any influence on this story. Perhaps it did.

The Daleks have marked various important sites with signs in that jagged Dalek alphabet as if there are buses full of tourist Daleks floating about London taking selfies and wanting to try fish and chips.

The second thing that makes this story mythical is Susan's departure and the Doctor's speech. Thanks to An Adventure in Space and Time and The Five Doctors that speech has come to have a weight above and beyond its place in this story. I actually find myself getting a bit teary when it begins now, which I never did the first time I watched it.

Susan is the first major cast member to leave and her departure is hinted at throughout. She meets David Campbell (Peter Fraser), a resistance fighter and they fall in love. How much of this is 'real' love and how much is Susan's desire to find one place and time to settle down in is moot. I don't want to talk too much about Susan at this point as I'm going to write a separate blog on her as a character and deal with some of the issues that this story raises. Looking back my memory of Susan's story is that this desire to return home or to settle down comes up often. In David, she's found that way out. Also, it points out the fact that Susan isn't a child anymore. She's becoming a woman, which might be problematic for the series going forward - which Elizabeth Sandifer explores in fine theory in her TARDIS Eruditorum and she writes it better than me.

Those are the two things that I think help this story have a better reputation than I feel it deserves but there's a lot of things that don't work for me.

A lot of Richard Martin's studio direction is...careless. How much of this is the fault of having too small a studio to work in and how much of it is his fault I can't say but look at how badly blocked out the end of Part 3 and beginning of Part 4 are. The Robomen and their bomb come almost within touching distance of the Doctor, Susan, and David whilst putting down their firebomb. It's impossible to tell whether the Doctor and Co. see or hear them until after the bomb is in place. And let's not even begin on the horribly badly written and directed disarming of the said bomb. It's ridiculously stupid. Then there's the Doctor and Tyler (Bernard Kay) hiding in plain sight as several Daleks glide past them the last of which is looking DIRECTLY AT THE DOCTOR.

I won't complain too much about the Slyther's appearance as this is 1964 not 2015 but its weird keening cry plays out over dialogue and seems to throw poor old William Russell a bit. Almost as if his director hadn't told him what to expect.

Actually I've just remembered another positive: The Robomen. Yes, their headwear is clunky but there's something rather horrible about them. Their sort of zombies...actually they're kind of remote control Cybermen. In fact there's something pleasingly bleak about various sequences, even as they are untidily directed. This does feel like a world that has fallen apart. People are dirty. The main cast get progressively dirtier and their clothes start falling apart, which I do like. I wish the series would remember that now.

Then there's the Dalek voices, which seem weirdly wrong and in one case it sounds like one of them is an utter idiot. It shouldn't annoy me but it does, especially when they are talking to each other.

I should add that most of the acting is great in this. Hartnell is rather good, especially when he starts to spot what's going on between David and Susan (although we could have done without the 'smack bottom' line.) Jacqueline Hill, who is regularly the best of the regulars, gets some good stuff. Her attempt to bluff the Black Dalek in the final episode being a fantastic sequence. She also gets to bounce of the hardened, cynical and scared Jenny well. William Russell is his usual solid self. Carole Ann Ford gets to leave on a high, although there's still a bit too much screaming and flipping out for my liking.

I could go on. And on.

In truth though whilst I enjoy this story - which I suppose is the main point of the thing - I can't quite see it as the brilliant story that (in my head) fandom seems to think it is. It has great moments but overall it is too long and too untidy to be brilliant.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Planet of Giants

Planet of Giants is an odd story. It was originally planned to be four episodes long but got cut down to three at the insistence of Verity Lambert who felt it was dull. Having watched the reconstruction - on the DVD - of episodes 3 and 4 I can only conclude that Verity Lambert was spot on. However, this is a review of what went out not what might have been.

As the TARDIS is about to materialize the doors open. This sets the Doctor into a tizz but seems to have done no real damage until after a bit of exploring the TARDIS crew realizes that they've been shrunk. They're only an inch high (and will turn out to be Private Eyes as well*). An ordinary English garden becomes a series of potential death traps. Except something is wrong. Everything in the garden is far from lovely. Every living thing they come across seems to be dead or dying. And that includes the man whose corpse lies across the path.

That corpse belongs to poor Farrow (Frank Crawshaw). Farrow was the man from the ministry (of Agriculture I'm going to assume) who was writing a report on DN6. DN6 is a new insecticide. It's the brainchild of Smithers (Reginald Barrett) bankrolled - to a risky degree - by Forester (Alan Tilvern). Farrow's worked out that DN6 is lethal to pretty much everything fauna, which means the good as well as the bad. It's world-ending stuff. Forester has committed too much to the project and has killed Farrow. Now he and Smithers must cover it up.

The TARDIS crew is dragged into this when - in order to hide from a cat - they dash about and Ian and Barbara end up hiding in a briefcase.

The rest of the story is spent watching the miniaturized TARDIS crew investigating, plotting and then organizing - indirectly to be honest - the arrest of Forester and Smithers. They're helped in this by the curiosity - or nose poking - of local operator Hilda (Rosemary Johnson) and slightly less curious Policeman Bert.

O and they're helped by Forester's stupidity. He tries the handkerchief over the phone trick to pretend to be Farrow, which Hilda sees right through. That makes her suspicious. She pokes Fred until he's willing to act and he walks in just as Smiths and Forester have been 'distracted' by the TARDIS crew creating a small bomb.

It should be noted that Barbara touches some DN6, which is slowly killing her. She manages to hide this fact for a while despite behaving very oddly. Both Ian and the Doctor notice the oddity but fail to act on it. It's only when Barbara passes out that the truth comes out. Fortunately, at the end of the story, everyone is returned to their normal size, which makes Barbara's dosage of DN6 less than lethal.

As I said. It's an odd story.

It looks magnificent. The work that has gone into the sets - sink, telephone, briefcase, and matchbox, etc - really makes it look like everyone has shrunk. The threat of surprisingly ordinary things such as cats and water-filled sinks is part of the fun of this story. As is watching the TARDIS crew work out how to escape and how to stop Forester.

They never know his name of course. They never interact directly with the villain. The story emphasizes how the difference in scale means that they are incomprehensible to each other. This isn't a whodunnit as we see Forester carry out his dirty deed but more of a 'how can we stop him getting away with it'.

It's hard to say much else about this really. The cast does a fine job. Susan is mostly OK, Barbara is plucky and brave, Ian is brave and steadfast and the Doctor is clever and grumpy. The interesting thing in this story is that the TARDIS crew makes a decision to stay and stop the DN6 problem, even though Barbara is sick. They feel it is their duty. It's a nudge towards how we see the Doctor and his team now.

It's not a bad story. It's not particularly exciting and, as I said in the intro, watching the extended 'restoration' just confirms that at four parts it would have been as dull as ditchwater. There's a lot of handkerchief action though. If you like that sort of thing.

Worth it for the great sets and props, including 'giant ants'.**

*Inch High Private Eye was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 1970s. Take a look at this intro here
**On that score you ain't seen nothing yet. There's Zarbi a-comin'

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror ends the first season of Doctor Who. It goes out between 8th August and 12th September 1964. It was, as the DVD extra, a somewhat troubled production with director Henric Hirsch, a refugee from the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, finding the process of making it somewhat stressful.

If you have the DVD it is well-worth watching the making of documentary btw to give you an idea of how difficult the production of Doctor Who could be.

It is William Russell's turn to take a holiday during The Reign of Terror but this is mostly smoothed over rather well through the use of pre-filmed sequences that are slotted into various episodes. The only way you would know is that they are on film and not video so have that slightly different look that was a feature of BBC productions until...well...until a point which I do not have the knowledge to tell you. It was such a feature that Monty Python uses it for it a sketch, which can be found here

But I am wandering off down country lanes of distraction, which is a neat way of introducing another fact about The Reign of Terror. It features the first outdoor filming in Doctor Who history as we follow The Doctor on his walk from farmhouse to Paris down some lovely French lanes - mostly in Buckinghamshire. It isn't William Hartnell we see because they wouldn't release him from rehearsals. So the First Doctor is played by Brian Proudfoot who spent some time shadowing Hartnell at rehearsal to get his walk right. To the annoyance of Hartnell himself apparently but it works well enough.

The Doctor is throwing a tantrum as this story starts and is going to drop Barbara and Ian off at their next stop, which he claims will be their own time and place. It turns out to be France during the worst period of the Revolution.

In traditional stylee the TARDIS crew is separated, captured and escape. Only to be captured again. And escape again. All they want to do, of course, is catch-up with each other and get back to the TARDIS but they get dragged into The Scarlet Pimpernel  (sort of) as Ian gets caught up in the search for mysterious British spy James Sterling*, Barbara and Susan get rescued by a gang of anti-Robespierre rebels and The Doctor impersonates a senior provincial official and tries to bluff his way to rescue his companions. There is, of course, a traitor in the camp too.

Barbara gets to be mildly flirtatious with Leon Colbert (Edward Brayshaw), which leads to a brilliant scene with her, Ian and Jules Renan (Donald Morley) after Leon's death. It's a short scene with genuinely meaty issues. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell are both excellent in this story. Again. It astonishes me how rarely we talk about Ian and Barbara in the list of great Doctor Who companions but they are a fantastic team and both actors generally give performances worthy of praise.

Alas, I can't say the same for Susan who is mildly irritating throughout this story. She's nervous and pathetic at points, which is a shame after The Sensorites showed you what the character could be and what Carole Ann Ford could do with the part when given a chance. The nadir being her unwillingness to flee the cart which they're being taken to the guillotine in because she's feeling a bit rough. It turns out that she's good a bad cold but that seems to be less preferable than being beheaded. It's a shame but Susan is a real drag in this story.

Hartnell is wonderful again. He's devious and cunning. He's grumpy and impatient. He gets to dress up in a ridiculous costume and pretend to be an important man. He has fun running rings around an overseer and the jailer.

The supporting cast is mostly pretty good, especially James Cairncross as Lemaitre and Edward Brayshaw as Leon.

This is, of course, a historical so it looks pretty good and there's you might argue this is the first celebrity historical in Doctor Who history, which will be a new Doctor Who staple. We get to see Robespierre, Barras, and Napoleon. It's a hangover of the series original brief to educate children as well as entertain them. It's not exactly a documentary, but then it isn't meant to be. It's supposed to be a fun adventure in a historical environment - with its tropes - that we are reasonably familiar with.

In that respect, it works pretty well. It is too long, but then most Classic Doctor Who stories feel like that compared to New Doctor Who but it has enough twists and turns to appeal. It's just a shame about poor Susan.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Sensorites

I write this blog about The Sensorites a couple of hours before I settle down to watch Hell Bent, which - as you'll know if you're reading this blog - is the final episode of Series 9 of Doctor Who and I am reminded that Peter R Newman's script contains a little speech from Susan, when talking about her home, that 51 years later still influences our image of Gallifrey: "It's quite like Earth, but at night the sky is a burned orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver." I think it is the first description of what will eventually be called Gallifrey in the series. 

One line in a pretty average Doctor Who story from 51 years ago that influences the look and design of Gallifrey to this day, which is a tribute not to the line itself but to the way Carole Ann Ford delivers it. Which is the first thing I want to say about The Sensorites. It gives Carole Ann Ford something to do beyond just behaving like a child. Susan is clearly struggling with her role here. The Doctor treats her like a child throughout. Indeed he's as patronizing as hell at points. And Susan puts up a fight against it. Here there are things for her to do. She has a telepathic ability that makes her useful for once. The Sensorites trust her because of it but all along the way Susan has to fight to be treated like an adult. The talk of her home and her line in the final episode about wanting to belong somewhere perhaps foreshadows her fate - or it would do if this was a new Doctor Who. I would write more about this but Elizabeth Sandifer in her interesting (and often pretentious) TARDIS Eridotorium does a fine job when he talks about 'The problem of Susan', which fundamentally is that at some point she's either got to grow up or leave. Read it. She's far better at explaining it than I am.

The Sensorites is a little slow. It suffers from having a wonderfully off-beat and creepy first episode, ending with a lovely cliffhanger and then dragging along mostly for the following five episodes. It doesn't help that a couple of plot points are daft - can Sensorites really not tell each other apart when they're not wearing their badges of office for example and how does the Sensorite get on the ship, remove the TARDIS lock and slide away without anyone noticing? In fact not noticing stuff is a problem throughout. The most irritating being Barbara and Susan missing a really obvious sign with WATER written on it in order that they can go in the wrong direction and get into trouble. It's really stupid, especially as in The Aztecs Barbara was sharp as hell. 

This whole story is a bit Barbara light actually as Jacqueline Hill slips off for a couple of week’s holiday, returning in episode six with a lovely suntan. It isn't that strong an episode for William Russell either who gets to be either tight-jawed impatient hero or ill. 

Hartnell though gets some lovely stuff. I like it when the First Doctor gets to play scientist-detective aka Sherlock Holmes, like in this story.  He's nicely belligerent, self-confident and grumpy to the Sensorites too. The Doctor's a bit obnoxious to Susan, as outlined above, which seems at odds with the character he will become. 

There's also a rather fine performance from Stephen Dartnell as John, the astronaut driven insane by - effectively - an overdose of telepathy. I found it genuinely affecting at points & it oddly reminded me of Simon Rouse's performance as Hindle in Kinda. He's the best of the guest performers. Lorne Cossette as Maitland is wooden and a bit lost, Ilona Rodgers isn't as wooden but still seems lost. They both seem to be suffering from that early 1960s British actor problem of not knowing or being able to adjust their acting from stage to small screen. 

The Sensorites themselves are actually rather well-designed facially. They're obviously men in masks but they're good masks and you wouldn't have to do much with modern prosthetic to create a new series Sensorite that didn't look too dissimilar to these. Their dinner plate feet were a mistake though, especially when they overlap each other. But they do feel like a race with proper culture, even if occasionally they deliver clunking lines to each other to explain things. I give you "Are their hearts on the left or right side or in the centre like ours."

Fundamentally I didn't think this was a terrible story just a bit drawn out and occasionally a little silly. It isn't one I'll rush to re-watch I will admit but it does have its moments. And it is a rare chance for Susan to get a moment in the sun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Aztecs

Yes, it has been a while since the last one of these.

So The Aztecs is pretty magnificent stuff. Historicals tend to stand the test of time better than the science-fiction stories. Nothing ages faster than the past's view of the future I find. Plus historical drama is a BBC specialty, even if Aztec dramas are few and far between.

For a production stuffed into a tiny studio Barry Newbery's design work adds real depth to the place even if, on occasion, the painted drapes look a little too obvious. The costume work to is rather lovely. Everything feels right, although I can't swear to the historical accuracy of the thing.

However, this is a Doctor Who story where the acting really shines. This is Jacqueline Hill at her most wonderful. Mistaken for a reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa she is determined to 'save' the Aztecs. She wants to ween them off of human sacrifice. She wants to change history. The Doctor is determined that she should not. There's a scorching argument between the two of them in the first episode. Both Hartnell and Hill play it with seriousness. It's one of Doctor Who's finest moments.

At the end of the first episode, just as a sacrifice is about to be made, Barbara steps in to stop it and makes an enemy of the High Priest of Sacrifice Tlotoxl (John Ringham). There are two performances in Doctor Who history that model themselves on Shakespeare's Richard III. There is John Ringham's in this story and Paul Darrow's in Timelash. John Ringham stays the right side of ham, even as you can see the influence. Paul Darrow is the hamtastic (and unintentional) joy of an unloved story. Tlotoxl is a devious spider scuttling about the place from the end of Part One trying to bring down the false goddess. His performance is a highlight.

A quick note though it is, actually, unclear if Barbara was going to act to stop the sacrifice because it is Susan who actually rushes forward to stop it and Barbara acts in her wake.

Barbara's actions throw a spanner into the works as Tlotoxl tries to get at Barbara through her servants. Ian is set against Ixta (Ian Cullen) who is the leader of the army. They are destined to fight three times before an end is made of things. Ian and Barbara get a nice scene too when the discuss Barbara's attempts to stop the sacrifice. It is Ian that points out that Tlotoxl is the standard not Autloc (Keith Pyott) the High Priest of Knowledge, who has befriended and belives in Barbara's divinity. Pyott also gives a lovely calm performance giving Autloc the air of a Church of England vicar. It will be Autloc whose faith ends. It will be Autloc who leaves for the wilderness. Barbara loses. History will carry on as before. The Aztecs are doomed. The Doctor though tries to reassure Barbara that in saving Autloc they have done one good thing.

One can argue that there's an interesting morality tale here about colonialism and the danger of positioning oneself as the 'great white savior'. There is a law of unintended consequences in this interference stuff. Barbara probably insures that Tlotoxl (and those that follow him) have more power than they might have done had she left things alone.

I should also add that Hartnell is brilliant in this. One of the sub-plots, based around his attempts to find out important information, is his dalliance with Cameca (Margot Van der Bergh). The Doctor finds himself engaged to her as the result of brewing up a cup of cocoa. The Doctor's response to this is played beautifully by Hartnell. The whole relationship is well-played. Cameca finds herself saying farewell to the Doctor who is genuinely upset at the leaving of her. There's a real sense of loss at the end.

Carole Ann Ford was - I think - on holiday for a couple of episodes of this story so her input is limited to a couple of pre-filmed sequences showing her refusal to kowtow to Aztec traditions. It's not Susan's most exciting appearance alas and she's probably the only regular that gets let down in The Aztecs.

So if you want to pick a Hartnell story this isn't a bad one to start with. It isn't pacy, but that's because most 60s Doctor Who is slow in comparison with modern television but it has loads of good performances, especially from Jacqueline Hill who really shows what she's capable of here and Hartnell himself.