Friday, September 30, 2016

The Macra Terror

The Macra Terror is fabulous and alas, doesn't exist in the BBC Archives. With the exception of a few short clips. So I watched this in 'Reconstruction Form'. I should pause here and say that the reconstructions have really helped me this time round. Last time I 'watched' these episodes I just relied on the BBC CDs. They do a good job but not as good as the Reconstructions. So, if you're going to embark on a similar exercise to mine go with a Reconstruction.

Written by Ian Stuart Black and directed by John Davies The Macra Terror is set on an Earth colony where all seems fine and dandy. People are happy, except there's something wrong. There's a dark secret at the heart of this paradise. People see things. Big, horrible things. Things with claws: The Macra.

But there is no such thing as The Macra.

One of those people who has seen The Macra*is Medok (Terrance Lodge). He is the first person the TARDIS crew meets and after a scuffle, end up capturing and handing over to Ola (Gertan Klauber) the large and unpleasant Police Chief. It's odd that a colony as apparently joyful as this one should even need a Police Chief and Guards but Medok is a criminal and needs re-educating. Medok's rage and accusation are seen as a sign of madness by the other colonists. They want him to be happy. But he's not.

The Doctor smells something of a rat and from this point, things begin to unravel for The Macra.**

Not before the colony tries to hypnotise the TARDIS crew into swallowing the colony's bullshit though. It doesn't work on Jamie or Polly. Jamie seems to resist it and Polly is saved by the Doctor. But Ben is brainwashed at which point Michael Craze puts in a fabulous performance. One little tweak I noticed is that the brainwashed Ben is posher than the 'real' Ben. Listen to how Michael Craze changes his accent and delivery. He betrays his friends but still manages to save Polly from the clutches of a Macra*** even as he denies their existence. It's a rather nice touch.

Troughton is magnificent. Again. His delight in mischief-making is a joy. I fear that I will repeat the phrase 'Troughton is magnificent' a lot in this blog.

I should also applaud Peter Jeffrey as Pilot. His first Doctor Who appearance. In the final episode in particular as he starts to throw off his conditioning he excels.

The story reminded me of The Prisoner, which I'm not the first person to suggest. Nor the last. The artificial jollity, the horrid music, and attempts to control the people that live in the Colony / The Village. The difference being that in The Prisoner the desire is for information but in The Macra Terror the Macra****want gas, which makes it seem less overtly political than The Prisoner (although the politics of The Prisoner are something one can argue about forever and ever.)

However, when the Doctor, Jamie, Polly and the Pilot are shut behind the solid door and the poisonous gas starts to come in one can't help thinking of The Holocaust. I've said numerous times in this blog that there is no way that Doctor Who can do a 'historical' Holocaust story. It's would either be too dark or too filled with false optimism but it can hint at or reflect that story. It normally uses the Daleks but here it uses the Macra.*****

Or perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

I was also oddly reminded of The Happiness Patrol by this story too.

It's hard to say much more about this story as I enjoyed it so much. It's so much easier to write blogs when you find things to mock. Or I find that.

Anyway The Macra Terror it's fab.

Watch it.

*There is no such thing as The  Macra!

**There is no such thing as Macra!!

***There is no such thing as Macra!!!

****There are NO MACRA!!!!

*****Forget what you have seen! There are NO MACRA. The Macra do not exist. [Exits blog dragged off by large claw.]

The Moonbase

It's hard to get away from the fact that The Moonbase is basically The Tenth Planet but without Z-Bombs and snow. Here we begin to experience what will become a staple of the Troughton era: the 'base under siege'.

An isolated group - in this case, the crew of the Moonbase - are cut off and menaced by a particular foe who in today's story are the Cybermen. They're led by a man. Often loud and sometimes on the edge of a nervous breakdown under the strain of his job and the weirdness of the threat. In The Moonbase, our esteemed leader is Hobson (Patrick Barr) and he's from the school of upstanding British men calm in a crisis and as likely to break under stress generations of television and film British fighting men. Indeed, Patrick Barr was the sort of casting that was perfect for the part after all this was a man who had played Joseph 'Mutt' Summers in The Dam Busters. 

Hobson doesn't suffer fools gladly but seems to take four random strangers arriving on the Moon in his stride, even if he does have vocal suspicions about what they're up to. He's particularly sanguine for a man whose crew have started to come down with a mysterious virus.

The Moonbase is home to 'the Gravitron', which is a thing that does something gobbledigooky with gravity that affects tides and thence the weather. My suspicion is that this is scientific bunkum but I stand to be corrected. 

The Cybermen it turns out want to seize control of the Gravitron and use it to destroy all life on Earth. To do this they've been sneaking into the Moonbase poisoning the sugar and generally behaving in an unnecessarily complicated manner. The reason for this is that the Cybermen are affected by gravity. In The Tenth Planet, it was radiation. Here, it is gravity. That makes no sense really. Everything is affected by gravity but I suppose the writer's needed an excuse for the Cybermen not to just walk into the Moonbase, kill everyone and operate the Gravitron themselves. It is the beginning of Doctor Who's long battle to undermine its own monster by making the Cybermen a collection of weaknesses tucked in a silver suit. They're also killed off here by Polly's cocktail of plastic melting stuff. 

They've also changed design - another ongoing Cyberman trope. No human hands, no hair dryer headwear and heavy weapons. Now they're men in silver suits. They're also supposed to be unemotional but, as in the tradition of the later Cybermen, this lot seem to be capable of gloating. They also wear fetching boots, which for some reason Morris Barry, the Director concentrates on. I've said in earlier blogs that the weakest point of a lot of Doctor Who monsters is their feet. This is as true with the Cybermen as with the Mandrels. 

All of this sounds like I didn't enjoy The Moonbase but actually, it flew by in an entertaining enough way. There's much to enjoy, especially in Troughton's performance, It's here he delivers one of the classic Doctor Who lines. The one about there being corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. It's not just a nice line but Troughton aces the delivery. 

This story sidelines Jamie for a little while by knocking him unconscious, which gives Ben and Polly a bit more to do. I particularly like Polly at points in this story but you get the impression that the writers don't know whether to make her a peril monkey or a bit more independent. The impression of Polly you get from The War Machines is that she's more the latter and, snobbishness aside, she was pretty cool-headed in The Highlanders.

Ben and Jamie get to have a mild macho moment, which we shall pass over quietly but based on this and The Underwater Menace I'm going to stick my neck out and say Ben and Polly are definitely a thing. Yes, I suggesting hanky-panky in the TARDIS. 

I haven't said much about Frazer Hines as Jamie yet but that's because I'm aware he's here for a while but he's settled in nicely. 

Other fabulous things in this story include Nils (Michael Wolf) who does a fine line in 'serious face'. His features set staunchly to show concern. Then there's Benoit (AndrĂ© Maranne) who is possibly the Frenchest Frenchman ever to appear in Doctor Who. Maranne is, at least, a genuine Frenchman because otherwise, he's only a string of onions away from maximum Frenchness. He's very good though Maranne, who carved a career for himself playing Frenchmen on British television for a good chunk of the 60s and 70s. 

So The Moonbase is fine. It's not brilliant but there's enough here - particularly Troughton himself - to keep you entertained. I have a feeling that tributes to Troughton's brilliance may become a common thread on this blog. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Underwater Menace

I have, over the years, developed something of a fondness for The Underwater Menace despite - or perhaps because - of its faults. It is, if nothing else, rather fun.

Directed by Julia Smith - one of the few women to direct a Classic Doctor Who story - and written by Geoffrey Orme The Underwater Menace  finds the Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arriving on Atlantis. This isn't the Atlantis of ancient Greece but a mid-seventies run-down religious Kingdom in hock to Professor Zaroff (Joseph Furst). Zaroff has promised to raise Atlantis from the sea but, as the Doctor wheedles out of him, his plan is simply to blow a hole in the Earth's crust, chuck a whole ocean through the whole causing the Earth to explode.

It's not the sanest of plans but Zaroff is not the sanest of men. In fact, he's one Lungbarrow short of a full set of New Adventures. However, it isn't the most satisfactory of motives either. But Joseph Furst gives it everything and puts in one of the most entertaining performances in Doctor Who history. His frenzied cry of 'Nothing in the vorld can stop me now' has gone down in Doctor Who history as being over the top but actually it is a moment of perfection because this is the point at which Zaroff's insanity now goes public.

To be honest, though I love Furst's performance BECAUSE it is over the edge. Zaroff's a man who has decided to blow up the entire world just to prove a point to...well...someone. He's clearly barking but has been hiding it from the Atlanteans. The Doctor's appearance is what finally uncorks his mind. How else do you play it? Imagine how dull this would be if Furst reigned it in.

The scenes between Troughton and Furst are fabulous, especially the one where the Doctor talks Zaroff's insanity out of him. It's another revelation of Troughton's brilliance. Whatever else is going on in a Doctor Who story we now have the magnetism of Troughton to watch. He seems so comfortable on screen in a way Hartnell wasn't always.

With three companions aboard it is hard for everyone else to get screen time but The Underwater Menace manages it reasonably well. No one needs to be rendered unconscious or kidnapped, although Polly almost gets turned into a Fish person.

Ah. The Fish people. Perhaps because I love The Web Planet so much I have a high tolerance for actors pretending to be ants or bugs or - in this case - people converted into 'fish' people by Damon (Colin Jeavons with furry eyebrows.) They look like people in costume and the scene where they go on strike having been goaded into action by silver-tongued Irishman Sean (P.G. Stephens) does go on too long and is too much of an extended mime scene to work properly.

Sean is something of a cliche but Stephens at least makes him an entertaining one. Other guest stars do a fine job, although Peter Stephens as Lolem doesn't quite work but I think that's because I've seen him as Cyril in The Celestial Toymaker recently and his voice was too Cyril for my own sanity. o & I loved Catherine Howe as Ara, the Atlantean girl who allies herself with the Doctor.

Yes, in the end, this isn't a Doctor Who story that I will claim is an under-appreciated masterpiece but it is a story I enjoy immensely. It doesn't really make sense but who cares. This is fun. So watch and enjoy.

NOTE: Although minus points to BBC for its lack of effort with the reconstructions of Parts One and Four. This DVD clearly bears the signs of being put out just to satisfy those of us who wanted to see the recovered Part Two. Too often the pictures and dialogue slip away from each other.


Monday, September 26, 2016

The Highlanders

The Highlanders, directed by Hugh David is the last historical story in Doctor Who until...arguably...Black Orchid. Written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis it follows the Donald Cotton model as it mixes some quite broad comedy with moments of threat, although unlike either The Myth Makers or The Gunfighters it doesn't suddenly take a massive tonal turn to the dark side as it reaches its conclusion.

Also, unlike The Massacre, it hints at the horror of its setting. Culloden was a brief and bloody battle. It lasted less than an hour and between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites were killed. The Duke of Cumberland followed up by putting the wounded to death over the following days. It wasn't pleasant, which is alluded to throughout The Highlanders but overall the tone of this story is lighter than its subject matter suggests. After all, it is rare for defeat, murder, slavery and cultural destruction to be treated like this. But then this is Doctor Who. And just as it would be impossible for Doctor Who to deal with the Holocaust directly, it is impossible for it to deal with the consequences of one of the last major battles on British soil.

This is Troughton's second story and he finds excuses to dress up and disguise himself often: as a Hannoverian Doctor called von Wer, allowing for another trot out of the Doctor Who joke and possible proof that the Doctor's name is really Doctor Who; as a washerwoman and as a British soldier. He's also obsessed with hats. But he's a delight to watch. The scene where he puts Solicitor Grey (David Garth) in the cupboard and then proceeds to bamboozle Perkins (Sydney Arnold) is a joy.

Polly actually annoys me a tad at points in this story. She's snobbishly rude to Kirsty (Hannah Gordon), which feels a bit unnecessary. Ben gets to be heroic and English, which means he's constantly threatened by all and sundry. Both of them are rather stupid at the beginning of this story demanding to go and take a look around thinking it 'might be Britain' even after a cannonball thuds into the ground nearby and there is the distant sound of gunfire.

This story also introduces us to Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines). Apparently, it was a last minute decision to make Jamie a companion but he joins the team at the end of this story and will end up staying with the Second Doctor all the way through his era. He's good in this: a fine combination of youthful bluster and feisty questioning. 

Basically, the TARDIS team blunders into the end of the Battle of Culloden. They're captured by fleeing highlanders, then (after a moment of Ben stupidity) are captured by English soldiers and about to be hung when Solicitor Grey and his clerk, Perkins, turn up and demand the prisoners be marched to Inverness.

Solicitor Grey, a dried up greedy git, is making cash by sending Jacobite prisoners to the West Indies as slaves, which he isn't supposed to be doing. He's in cahoots with Captain Trask (Dallas Cavell) of the 'The Annabelle'. Trask is from the Treasure Island school of seamanship and could have slipped out of The Smugglers.

Polly and Kirsty having been separated from the others then get involved comically with Lt Algernon Ffinch (Michael Elwyn). Lt Ffinch would be refered to as a 'Rupert' in modern British Army parlence. A posh officer who isn't necessarily the brightest spark but has the right upbringing. Polly and Kirsty capture him, steal his money and blackmail him to help them, although in the end...ah...well...that would be spoiling things. A bit.

Everyone ends up captured, then escaping and then helping other people escape whilst unravelling Solicitor Grey's plans.

The Highlanders is fun, light-weight (which is odd considering the ugliness of the history that is going on around it) and speeds by. Yes, there's possible one too many Troughton disguises. Yes, Polly is a bit of a snob but overall this is worth a watch (via Reconstruction obviously as it doesn't exist in the archive.)  It's does however cleanse the palate after the dark and devious The Power of the Daleks.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Power of the Daleks

We begin the Patrick Troughton era with The Power of the Daleks. It is written by David Whitaker and directed by Christopher Barry, who turn out to be a fine combination producing a fine introduction for the new Doctor but also one of the series great stories and probably the finest Dalek story ever.

This is the Daleks at their most devious. Using human being to get what they want, playing them off against each other until it is too late. Even though the humans themselves have been planning the Daleks make them look like amateurs. It is these Daleks we should use as the foundation for Dalek stories going forward. They're clever, careful and manipulative. Each different human they deal with is teased with a different prize. Lesterson (Robert James) with knowledge and then everyone else with power.

But I suppose I have leaped ahead of myself. What of the big clunking elephant in the room? What of the new Doctor? Well, he's certainly different to Hartnell. Ben and Polly aren't even sure that it is the Doctor initially and The Doctor himself doesn't exactly go out of his way to reassure them: he talks of himself in the third person for example. It's a bit too easy for us to take this in our stride all these regenerations later but it must have been a hell of a shock for viewers at the time. Indeed, it isn't even called a regeneration at this point. There's a hint it is something that the TARDIS does for - or to - him. It's all left nicely up in the air.

Troughton himself sails through all of this majestically. Without making a great deal of fuss he gives us an entirely different Doctor. This 'Second' Doctor is less cantankerous and more mischievous. He can be manipulative in his own way and he's certainly capable of being mildly irritating with his recorder and unwillingness to answer direct questions. But - to me - he immediately feels 'right'. This is a new Doctor but it is still THE Doctor. It takes Ben and Polly a little longer to feel like that with Polly coming around to him quicker than Ben.

And it is good for us to be in the company of companions we already know. They get to ask all the questions the audience wants to ask but they get less that brilliant treatment in this story. Neither of them really gets to do anything beyond ask questions and get captured. Although, right towards the end I did like the fact that Polly is genuinely distraught at the mass murder going on around them. Too often, and understandably, in Doctor Who terrible things happen and they go almost unremarked. Only rarely - here, in Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks to name a few - does it have a real impact on characters. The classic example being Rory and Amy's rapid adjustment to the loss of their child and hence - apparently - Steven Moffat's decision to make Heaven Sent, a Doctor Who story entirely about grief.

But I digress.

The new Doctor and team arrive on Vulcan, an Earth colony. They arrive at the same time as an Earth Examiner who is shot in front of them. A series of things then happen. The Doctor gets dragged into plots and counter-plots after being mistaken for - or allowing himself to be mistaken for - the dead Examiner. Most importantly he discovers Lesterson's work on a space capsule they found in the mercury swamps. Lesterson, brilliantly played by Robert James, has found the occupants of the capsule and they turn out to be...Daleks.

Despite the Doctor's warnings, Lesterson is played by both the Daleks and his assistant Janley (Pamela Ann Davey) who is one of the leaders of the rebels. Everyone runs rings around Lesterson who is too blinkered to realise what's going on until it is far, far too late. It's at that point that Lesterson breaks down. It's then that Robert James's performance is exceptional and his death scene is one of the best played and most pathetic in the programmes history.

Basically, there's a governor (Peter Bathurst) , his security chief Bragen (the coldly brilliant Bernard Archard), the deputy governor, Quinn (a staunch Nicholas Hawtrey) and some rebels. Everyone seems to be up to something, except the Governor who is being comprehensively out-thought and out-manoeuvred by Bragen. It's is Bragen who is our human villain. Indeed, at one point a Dalek even seems to take the moral high ground by asking of Bragen - who has just had it killed Governor Hensell - why humans kill other humans, which is perhaps a darker moment than expected.

Everyone is basically so focused on their own goals that they start to ignore the danger of the Daleks, even as they get more and more brazen. The Daleks offer themselves as 'servants', which each faction feels it can use differently. They ignore the warnings until the Daleks set off to massacre everyone. The massacre is shocking and dark. Once more the threat of the Daleks seems real. They're not amusing, they're bloody terrifying.

Fortunately, the Doctor manages to stop them by blowing up their power source, which does major damage to the colony's power grid too. This gives the Doctor a chance to skip off quietly before there're any awkward questions. Daleks defeated our new Doctor heads off into to sunset companions in tow.

It's really good, meaty stuff this with superb performances - Robert James and Bernard Archard being the best of the bunch. It's a great story with which to introduce a new Doctor as it pits him up against his oldest enemies straight away and by defeating them it 'baptizes' our new Doctor.

Troughton's superb too and I look forward to spending more time in his company. It is just a shame so little of his era exists on video. So I'll be relying on reconstructions a lot in the weeks ahead. And I look forward to re-visiting this in November when the animation comes out.

The William Hartnell Era

As a way of introduction, let me just say that this blog isn't going to be an in-depth analysis of The William Hartnell era. Or a detailed breakdown of the issues around production. This is just my personal analysis of the era. If you want detail then there are many other sources, from Howe-Stammers-Walker's excellent Doctor Who-The Sixties, biographies, and autobiographies of various stars and series like About Time and The TARDIS Eruditorum

I have, in fact, already written two articles about the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. The first for the Terrible Zodin fanzine and the second for Starburst Magazine so this is my third attempt and hopefully won't be too repetitive, although I can't promise that.

The obvious thing to note about Hartnell is that he wasn't really the First Doctor. He was just THE Doctor. Until those final moments of The Tenth Planet, there were no other Doctors to compare him to. He was the one and only. It's easy from the standpoint of 2016 to assume The First Doctor is The Doctor: the first incarnation of a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey with his two hearts and respiratory by-pass system. That he's part of a powerful and ancient civilisation, but that's obviously not the case.

In An Unearthly Child, you can't even be entirely sure he isn't human. There's no mention of two hearts. Susan says she invented the name TARDIS. There's no Gallifrey (until The Time Warrior), there's no powerful civilisation until The War Games but with the introduction of The Monk in The Time Meddler, we do discover that the Doctor is not alone. I suppose none of this matters except that Hartnell's Doctor isn't the Doctor we now know until almost the end of his time. He's certainly not keen to interfere unless he has to. He's cautious to the point of cruelty - The Massacre - about interfering in Earth's history.

Indeed right at the beginning he's almost an anti-hero but it is Ian and Barbara that gradually seem to draw him out into the light and by the time we get to The Smugglers the Doctor is refusing to leave a small Cornish village because he feels they owe it a duty of care - to steal a line from the Capaldi era.

Hartnell's performance itself is often more nuanced that he's given credit for. The talk of 'Billy fluffs' and his little ticks - the umms & ahs - reduced an excellent performance down to something of a joke. The thing is, based on the way television was made then, it is actually incredibly that there aren't more fluffs and when those little ticks are part of the way he plays the Doctor. I think we tend to assume that Hartnell was an old man at this point but he was 57 when he took on the part. The ticks are his way of showing the Doctor's age. It's a performance choice. It gets dangerously close to self-parody on occasions but only in the same way that Pertwee's neck rubs do.

Hartnell is a good actor supported by able actors as companions and I think he and his era are constantly overlooked. Hartnell often comes low down in the list of best Doctors and whilst I'm not all Colin Baker about these lists I think it is unfair. It's Hartnell after all that creates the Doctor. Everyone else builds on the strength of that initial performance. I think he suffers too from not being the Doctor in the accepted modern sense. He's more distant, sharper and occasionally annoyingly like a toddler when he won't get his own way but then modern Doctor can be like that too. After all, "What's the point in being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes." Hartnell's Doctor is less sympathetic - initially especially - than later incarnations but that's because he's meant to be a mystery. We're not sure whether we're supposed to trust him. In some ways, it isn't the Doctor who is the star of Doctor  Who it is Ian and Barbara. It is them we're following. It is them we are supposed to sympathise with. The Doctor is a mysterious figure lurking in the background. It is to Hartnell's credit that this initial portrayal moves nearer to the Doctor we now know as time goes by without losing his alien inner core.

There are issues with the First Doctor's era in terms of pacing and direction but that's the way television was then. If you're going to dip in don't binge watch it - unless you really, really want to. Watch an episode or two a day. Wollow in it. I found that watching it in order helps you get used to the pacing and structure. You get into the rhythm of it.

You also get to meet some of Doctor Who's best companions: Barbara, Ian, Vicki, Steven, Ben and Polly (although I think of them more as Second Doctor companions than first.) Excellent actors who set the standard for companions that will follow.

The Hartnell era also tries everything. Initially - with its pseudo-educational remit - the series seemed to alternate historical stories with science-fiction but gradually the science-fiction stories begin to nudge out the historicals. The historicals often stand-up the best from a production values point of view because nothing ages faster than science-fiction but the straight historicals aren't always seen as the most interesting. I'm biased on this. I'm a historian (or at least I like to think of myself as one) so I adore historicals because I like to dig around and find out how accurate the stories are, which is often not very. So my Top Hartnell stories list might be a bit skewed towards historicals.

But I love the fact that they try everything and pull stories together from all sorts of places. The Hartnell era is ambitious because they're still not quite sure what kind of television series they're making. So you can have The Web Planet and The War Machines, The Gunfighters and The Daleks Master Plan. There's no formula just dump the TARDIS in a situation/genre and let things roll.

Here is my Top Ten Hartnell's based on my arbitrary scoring system*. The Romans is top with 9/10. The other nine are 8/10.

The Romans
An Unearthly Child
The Daleks
The Web Planet
The Time Meddler
The Myth Makers
The Dalek's Master Plan
The Massacre
The Gunfighters
The War Machines

So please if you've not watched any Hartnell stories then do so. You'll enjoy it. I wouldn't necessarily want to force you into watching the whole era in order but I don't think you'd go wrong if you started with either The Time Meddler or The War Machines as tasters. They are, I think, the Hartnell stories nearest to new Doctor Who. Or begin with An Unearthly Child, whose first episode is genuinely one of the best pieces of television ever made. I like the whole story but others will tell you otherwise.

The key thing is do it your own way and don't let 'fan wisdom' tell you what to like and what not to like. You'll find your own path like me. I'm lucky - I think - in that I can find something to enjoy in every Doctor Who story. Even stories I don't like have moments. And it's meant to be fun. Not homework.

But please if you have dipped in give the Hartnell era a go. You might find it more fun than you think.

*For those who might be interest below is my utterly arbitrary scores for the whole Hartnell era:

An Unearthly Child 8
The Daleks 8
The Edge of Destruction 6
Marco Polo 7
The Keys of Marinus 5
The Aztecs 6
The Sensorites 6
The Reign of Terror 5
Planet of Giants 4
The Dalek Invasion of Earth 5
The Rescue 5
The Romans 9
The Web Planet 8
The Crusade 6
The Space Museum 4
The Chase 3
The Time Meddler 8
Galaxy Four 5
Mission to the Unknown 6
The Myth Makers 8
The Daleks' Master Plan 8
The Massacre 8
The Ark 5
The Celestial Toymaker 3
The Gunfighters 8
The Savages 6
The War Machines 8
The Smugglers 5
The Tenth Planet 7

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Tenth Planet

The Tenth Planet is the final story of the William Hartnell era. He is, from this point onwards, not The Doctor but the First Doctor. It is also the first story to feature the Cybermen and - arguably - the first proper 'base under siege' story, which is about to become something of a Doctor Who staple.

Let's begin with the Cybermen. Here in their earliest incarnation, they are a little lumbering. They're World War One tanks to the later World War Two tank Cybermen. They carry their weapons and they have still human hands, which is a creepy and effective touch that lets us know before we are told, that the Cybermen were once like us. They have weird sing-song electronic voices, which are delivered not by the actors playing the Cybermen but by Roy Skelton and Peter Hawkins. They actually sound very much like early voice synthesisers (and I had an Intellivision - Google it young people - that had such a synthesiser for the rather brilliant B-17 Bomber game. It didn't sound dissimilar to these voices, except with an American accent.) They're an effective new monster. The problem with the Cybermen will be that the television series can (almost) never make them as terrifying as the idea of them should be. I'm not the first person to say this but it is Star Trek: The Next Generation that does the Cybermen most effectively and it calls them The Borg.*

The other enemy the Doctor faces in this story is General Cutler played in fine shouty form by Robert Beatty. General Cutler is in charge of the Snowcap base and is clearly a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, there's a line from Good Morning Vietnam** that might apply but this is a family blog. Sort of. General Cutler is going to be the first in a long line of highly strung men who are psychologically incapable of running a bath let alone having authority over men with guns. Or ridiculous bombs. It doesn't help that Snowcap base is trying to save Cutler's son who has been sent on a suicide mission. Cutler goes so far off the deep end his death at the hands of the Cybermen feels like a rescue.

The rest of the cast do a fine job of being staunch and serious. It's supposed to be set in 1986 so it has an unusually international cast. Beatty is Canadian, John Brandon is an American playing an American Sargeant, Steve Plytas - a face familiar from British TV in the 60s & 70s - plays Wigner. Plytas himself was Greek but Wigner is non-specifically European (but based in Geneva), Alan White (Australian) and Earl Cameron (Bermudan) play the ill-fated occupants of Zeus IV and Wigner's office staff includes a gentleman in African dress (but who never gets to speak.) It makes for a nice change.

Then English actors fill up the rest of the cast. David Dodimead does a fine job as Barclay, the scientist with doubts about Cutler's decision making whilst Dudley Jones brings a certain amount of reality to the rather cynical and pathetic Dyson. There's only one really dud performance and that's Shane Shelton's Tito.

Michael Craze and Anneke Wills do a fine job too. Polly's courage when facing up to both General Cutler and the Cybermen is exemplary and Ben's pained response to killing a Cyberman is really well-played. However, Polly's courage is stretched to breaking point towards the end. They're a good pair, Ben and Polly.

This though is Hartnell's final story and I have come to praise Hartnell not bury him. He's excellent throughout this story - even though he was absent in Part Three due to illness. I said that The Smugglers was - possibly - the moment the Doctor becomes the Doctor that we know and love but here he is THE DOCTOR. He tries to warn Cutler what is coming and is ignored. He stands his ground and in the final episode he is simply brilliant. I'm going to say more about The First Doctor in another blogpost, which will be coming soon. What I will say here is that Hartnell is a far better Doctor than some people - who think only of Billy-fluffs etc - give him credit for. He's also carving out a part for the first time that others will pick up and run with. It's a part though that no one else has done. He isn't playing the First Doctor is William Hartnell he is just playing The Doctor. There are no others and by the end of his time in the part we have perhaps reached the point at which another actor can pick up and run with the part, taking it in new directions, without breaking it.

I should say that the story itself is mainly pretty good. It's tense, especially the end of Part 3. It's violent - for example, Cutler's attack on Ben - and it is packed full of edgy people on the verge of losing it. People are scared in this story too, which I like. Not everyone wants to be a hero and not everyone can be.

It's a fine ending to the Hartnell years and sews seeds for what is to come. We take regeneration for granted now. After all, there are twelve Doctors now but back in 1966 it must have been something of a shock. Particularly as Part Four ends with the new Doctor's face but not a word. We don't know what's happened but the Doctor has changed and the TARDIS had something of a spasm whilst it was happening. It certainly makes us want to see what happens next. Who is this new man and what's he going to be like?

Let's leave the last word to the Doctor himself:

"It's far from being all over."

*Big Finish, on the other hand, make exceptional Cybermen stories. You should give them a listen. Starting with Spare Parts.
**It is here should you wish to look

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Smugglers

Arr, it be The Smugglers: Doctor Who meets Treasure Island meets Smuggler's Bay.

I'm going to comment on one thing in this story that irritated me and just get it out of the way. People in the past weren't stupid. They might be less knowledgeable but that doesn't make them stupid. The inability for anyone to spot that Polly (Anneke Wills) is a woman is either a joke that doesn't work or an insult to the intelligence of the average 17th Cornishman. The fact that Polly is the only woman in the whole story makes it even more ridiculous. The theory appears to be that because she is wearing trousers she must be a boy. Really? REALLY? Have you seen Anneke Wills? You'd have to be Blind Pew to think she was a he. Even in trousers.

That is all I have to say on THAT point.

Basically, this is a classic case of the Doctor (and crew) stumbling into the middle of something without knowing what the hell is going on and then having to find out and sort the mess out before they're all killed by the bad guys. Of whom, there is quite a number in this story. Fortunately, most of them appear to be greedy, gullible idiots.

There's Kewper (David Blake Kelly), the Innkeeper who is in cahoots with The Squire (Paul Whitsun-Jones) smuggling silks, brandy and the like. The two of them are fooled by Captain Pike (Michael Godfrey) and his grinning, murderous crewman Cherub (George A. Cooper). Pike and Cherub arrived in this unnamed Cornish village on another quest. They are looking for Avery's Treasure, which they believe has been hidden by their ex-shipmate Joseph Longfoot (Terance De Marney). Longfoot is now Church Warden.

It is Longfoot that hands over a Pirate-ish riddle to the Doctor, which reveals the location of Avery's gold. Alas, Cherub kills Longfoot & decides that the Doctor needs to be kidnapped and interrogated. The scenes between the Doctor and Pike aboard Pike's ship are a delight. Hartnell does a lovely job of wrapping Pike around his little finger and then fooling Jamaica (Elroy Josephs) so that he can escape.

Meanwhile Polly and Ben (Michael Craze) have been arrested for the murder of Longfoot by the Squire, escaped using fake witchcraft to terrify a 17th century Cornish teenager, Tom (Mike Lucas), Polly gets re-captured by the Squire, Ben stumbles into and overcomes a man called Blake (John Ringham in good guy mode and therefore a lot less interesting than his last Doctor Who performance.) Polly and Ben are handed over to Blake as murder suspects and smugglers but Blake lets them go as he trusts them a little more than he does the Squire. With me so far? Good. All this coming and going leads up to an episode of betrayal, battle, and bloody murder before the Doctor, Ben and Polly can return to the TARDIS and flee.

One of the topics of conversation that Doctor Who fans have occasionally is at what point the Doctor becomes The Doctor we know now. There's a tendency to believe it happens in the Troughton era but I'd put an argument that it is in this story that the Doctor becomes the Doctor. Only six stories back the Doctor almost loses Steven in an argument about how The Doctor has treated Anne Chaplet. The Doctor was so anxious not to get involved that he is willing to throw Anne to the Catholic wolves (or to try not to think about it at all.) In The Smugglers though he says to Ben and Polly that he has to stay to prevent Pike and his men from destroying the village even at the risk of his own life. Indeed, his behavior shames the Squire. This, surely, is the moment the Doctor become the Doctor?

Hartnell is excellent in this, his penultimate story. He's sharp, smart and out-wits pretty much everyone. This is also Ben and Polly's first adventure with the Doctor as companions. Ben is the first companion that doesn't seem to want to be there. He spends chunks of time complaining about wanting to get back to his own ship. He also gets lumped with the refusal to believe the TARDIS is a time machine. But both Ben and Polly are independent and brave.* Ben can be a little shouty but Polly is brilliant, even if the whole 'boy' thing is ridiculous.

It's an enjoyable romp. It's a shame it doesn't exist in the archive as we're missing a large chunk of location footage, which would be nice to see.

Next up, the Hartnell era comes to an end with The Tenth Planet. 

*As the Eleventh Doctor said in A Good Man Goes To War, "They're always brave."

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Dodo Chaplet

Is Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) the Doctor Who companion given the shoddiest treatment? Her arrival is tacked on to the end of The Massacre in an attempt to give that story an ending that isn't as bleak as reality and her departure in The War Machines happens off-stage. She says goodbye to the Doctor through her replacements, Ben and Polly.

In between she starts off vaguely Mancunian - which is where Jackie Lane herself hails from - in The Massacre/The Ark before someone, somewhere has a fit of the vapours and Dodo goes all RP. She's got no background and no character. It's as if no one in the production team gave any thought to the character at all except that they wanted 'young woman'. As a result, you've got to say Jackie Lane does a fine job of the little she's given.

In some respects, Dodo reminds me of Mel, except without the showbiz baggage that Bonnie Langford brought with her, who is the other companion I think gets really shoddy treatment in the classic series. You can argue that Susan is also a companion that never quite lived up to her potential but at least she had potential. You can argue that Leela's departure is probably worse than Dodo's in that it really doesn't feel like the reward for either the character or the actress.* But at least Leela has a character for us to feel annoyed on behalf of. Dodo just is.

That's not to say there wasn't potential there, The Gunfighters shows what Jackie Lane could do when allowed to. The scene where she holds up Doc Holliday is funny and sharply played. In The Savages it is Dodo that smells a rat when being guided around this perfect world before she returns to the sort of slight stupidity that seems to be Dodo's default setting. The worst case being in The Celestial Toymaker. 

One shouldn't forget that Jackie Lane had to help Peter Purves carry stories when William Hartnell was being nudged out of the way by the production team. Whilst I think Purves does most of the heavy lifting (and has the charisma to be the 'leading man'.) Jackie Lane does her share. This is an odd time to be in Doctor Who with companions being suddenly shown the exit. The lack of sentimentality is the most shocking difference between this period of Doctor Who and New Who, where the series might sometimes err in the other direction.**

In the end, Dodo is doomed to be the least remembered Doctor Who companion. She appears in less than twenty episodes. She never gets a story where she really gets a chance to shine, although The Gunfighters is probably her finest hour. Then she's written out as if she had never been there at all. I suppose the fact that Jackie Lane never speaks about her time in the series contributes to that 'invisibility.'

There's nothing I can say here that is going to see a suddenly change that. Dodo's appearances in other media - books and Big Finish - are limited too, which means she's even more likely to be forgotten. Although Dodo's treatment in Who Killed Kennedy and The Man in the Velvet Mask could possibly make her the most ill-used companion***. As if writer's want to make up for her invisibility by treating her terribly in the hope that it would make her memorable. It doesn't work. Perhaps Big Finish could convince Jackie Lane to do a....but it still wouldn't help. Dodo is doomed to be forgotten.

I'm not sure whose fault that is but it certainly wasn't Jackie Lane's.

*In my head canon Leela goes down fighting in the Time War leading Gallifreyan troops against the Daleks. The nearest thing to a warrior that the Time Lords have to hand. That is a better end than marriage to someone she barely acknowledges in six episodes.
**I'm thinking of the many exits of Rose Tyler here. Mostly.
***Except possibly Peri. Discuss.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The War Machines

The War Machines is a really enjoyable story. It's unusual for the Hartnell era in that the Doctor has stepped into the contemporary world. This story, written by Ian Stuart Black, was broadcast between the 25 June and 16 July 1966. And it feels like it takes place around then too. London isn't quite swinging in The War Machines but a setting like the Inferno club is at least a beginning. As is the introduction of Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) as two new companions but more about them la...actually that's terrible writing, isn't it. It's as if I gave no thought to this blog at all before I started writing it.

Ben Jackson is a grumpy London sailor whose been left in the lurch whilst his ship has sailed off - with all his mates - to the Caribbean. He's a representative of all those actors that have started to appear on big screens, Michael Caine being the obvious example. He's Alfie in uniform with all his talk of 'birds'. Whilst Polly is the mini-skirted model-actress. If Ben Jackson is Michael Caine then Polly is Julie Christie. They're Doctor Who's nod to a changing world, which means poor Dodo is about to leave.

I've said in recent blogs that it is insulting how badly Hartnell has been treated but that's nothing as to the awful way Dodo gets written out. She doesn't even get a farewell scene. Her goodbye is delivered to the Doctor by her replacements. That's after she's been hypnotized and then bundled off to the countryside. It's no wonder Jackie Lane doesn't really want to talk about her time on Doctor Who but then she's not the first cast member to be bundled out suddenly in 1965/1966.

So the Doctor and Dodo arrive in London. The Post Office Tower - as was - is finished and it gives the Doctor the heebie-jeebies. It leads to the Doctor blagging his way into the company of key scientists working on a massive computer project: WOTAN. WOTAN is going to be the central mind in a worldwide computer network due to be switched on in a few days. The Doctor's blagging skills we don't see but in his novelisation of  the story, Ian Stuart Black has a little preview chapter where the Doctor seems to knock up some fake letters.

Everyone knows this isn't going to turn out well. WOTAN turns out to be HAL from 2001 with even more grandiose plans and the ability to take over the minds of various humans to carry out its plans. Basically, because it is a whacking great electronic box that can't move. It can, however, create War Machines to carry out its plans.

It also wants The Doctor on its side. Or, if we are exact, 'Doctor Who is required.' I'm sure no one at the time gave this line another thought but since then it has become one of those things that Doctor Who fans - Whovians if you will - argue about. I'm not sure this blog is the place to rehash the argument as I'm sure those reading it will already know what it is about. But, in brief, there is some discussion about whether the lead character in Doctor Who is called The Doctor or Doctor Who. For some reason, the latter is frowned upon (and don't even start of Dr. Who) when there is a certain amount of evidence from the early years of the series that Doctor Who is what he calls himself. In the end, it doesn't really matter and I leave you to make your own judgment on the subject. If you even care.*

Dodo gets hypnotised when hanging out at 'The Inferno', which is one of London's hottest nightspots. It's there we meet Ben Jackson for the first time. We meet Polly earlier. She's Professor Brett's (John Harvey) secretary. She too will get hypnotized. Thus preparing herself for life as a Doctor Who companion.

The bad guys fail to get the Doctor who works out Dodo's been 'turned'. He undoes the brain-washing and sends her off to the countryside to recover, Never to be seen again.

Thereafter the Doctor relies mainly on Ben for support, whilst Polly gets 'turned'. However, she's not quite 'turned' enough to want to see Ben killed. Oh. Spoilers.

We eventually see the War Machines in actions. They're big chunky boxes armed with fire extinguishers and massive hammers. The army can't deal with them but the Doctor manages to do so. The first War Machine's capture is slightly confusing (and in the novel, Ian Stuart Black gives a clearer explanation of what happens. Or an entirely different explanation if you like.)  The Doctor then captures a second War Machine in a tense sequence. At this point, the series is also using journalists and newsreaders to give the story scale in a way RTD would do later.

Indeed this is one of the Hartnell stories that could easily be turned into a New Doctor Who story with barely a tweak. You may, whisper it, think that it has already been done. It's called The Bells of St John.

I've been waffling on for ages now but that's because this is a good little story and one that I'd recommend to new Doctor Who fans wanting to dip into the Hartnell era as with its London setting, use of the army and Hartnell's Doctor-in-chargeness it fills surprisingly modern and is generally quite face paced for the period.

It sees Dodo depart and Ben and Polly join up.

It's rather lovely.

And that's all I have to say.

I think.

*Later we will talk about the UNIT dating controversy. Or not.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Steven Taylor

Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) made his first appearance in the final episode of The Chase as a prisoner of The Mechanoids. He escaped the destruction caused after the Daleks had arrived and managed - somehow - to bundle himself on board the TARDIS. His first 'proper' story is The Time Meddler, which also happens to be one of the highlights of the Hartnell era.

The Time Meddler dips Steven into the Doctor's world, which he is amusingly cynical about. Vicki, the Doctor and Steven team have a great chemistry and like a lot of the Hartnell era are often forgotten about of entirely when discussions about 'best' TARDIS teams pop up. For me, this is a great TARDIS team.

Alas, it was only to survive three stories: The Time Meddler, Galaxy 4 and The Myth Makers as Vicki leaves at the end of The Myth Makers in unconvincing style. The first of a run of people bundled out of the TARDIS with minimal ceremony and/or death. According to Peter Purves's autobiography, 'Here's One I Wrote Earlier' Maureen O'Brien (Vicki) was presented with the news that here contract wasn't being renewed with minimal finesse. It's a disappointing end to a fine TARDIS team.

Steven's next involved in the epic The Dalek's Master, a story that really demonstrates the danger of travelling with the Doctor, especially when face to eye-stalk with the Daleks. Steven survives unlike Brett Vyon, Katarina and Sara Kingdom. This story, filled with death, ends in a victory of sorts for the Doctor but the price paid is a terrible one. So the ideal situation to find themselves in next is Paris on the eve of the St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre.

Here Steven is pushed almost to mutiny at the Doctor's behaviour after a confusing and difficult adventure. It is important I think to note that Peter Purves is the lead in The Massacre. It is him that we see most of. The Doctor tops and tails the story but this is an episode of Steven Taylor's solo series. It's a lot of weight to put of Peter Purves's shoulders but he has the charisma to carry it off with aplomb. The sad thing is that the series can't have the courage of its convictions in the end and have Steven leave.

So the end cobbles together a scene that allows the arrival of Dodo to restore things to almost normal. Except that it doesn't. The production team is clearly tired of William Hartnell and each story after this, with the possible exception of The Ark found ways of pushing him out of the story. It means both Peter Purves and Jackie Lane have heavier weight placed upon them. It helps Steven to shine but poor Dodo flounders. It's not Lane's fault. It's the lack of character there in the first place.

The Celestial Toymaker seems to demonstrate that perfectly. It doesn't work because Dodo is stupid. Still, Peter Purves puts in another solid performance as he and Jackie Lane end up doing most of the donkey work in this story.

However, both Lane and Purves are excellent in The Gunfighters, which I'm glad to see Peter Purves enjoyed making. This is one story where I think you could see potential in a Steven, Dodo and The Doctor team, but it is doomed to never quite happen because like Maureen O'Brien before him, Purves was presented with the news that they wanted him out. His departure is at least a little more convincing that Vicki's (and I'll talk about Dodo's shortly.)

There's an implication - which non-television media plays on - that Steven is 'ready' to take on the challenge presented to him at the end of The Savages. It certainly seems a better fate for Steven than him running off with the first 'dolly bird' that takes his fancy. I'd like to think though that after things had been sorted out Steven once more went out into the universe. After all, this was a trained space pilot. In a different era, he might have been Captain Jack.

In the end Peter Purves's Doctor Who career isn't what he's best remembered for and it is easy to forget Steven's existence, especially as only 17 of his 45 episodes [I'm counting The Chase, Part Six btw] still exist in the archive. Yet, you could make an argument that Peter Purves kept Doctor Who ticking along whilst everyone tried to work out how to give William Hartnell the boot. If Peter Purves hadn't been so capable and charismatic performer this is the point where Doctor Who might have come to an end.

So, here's a rousing 'BRAVO!' for Steven Taylor and Peter Purves.

Now go & listen to The Myth Makers.