Archive for the Season 19 Category

19.7 – “Time-Flight”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on September 17, 2014 by Review The Who

CW Series 19 - Time-Flight

To celebrate finally getting that dweeb Adric out of their hair, The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan plan a massive drunken knees-up at the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1951. So, of course, they land in contemporary Heathrow, where a Concorde flight has gone off course. 140 million years off course and the Doctor is the only hope of tracking it down. Sounds quite promising, right? WRONG.

Let’s not pretend we don’t know about the elephant in the room. “Time-Flight” is terrible. Davison’s worst story. Part of the shows 1980’s unholy trinity, along with “The Twin Dilemma” and “Time and The Rani”. Very probably the story that planted the seeds of Davison’s hasty departure from the show two years later. Some people might not hate it particularly, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone actually liking ‘Time-Flight”.

So what’s the problem with it? Well, let’s tackle the conventional wisdom on that bit first. According to Wikipedia, Peter Davison described it as a “very good story, but we had run out of money…the monsters were bits of foam.” And there’s a certain popular approach to Doctor Who appreciation that would agree with this assessment. After a “promising” first episode swanning around the glitz and glamour (by Doctor Who standards) of Heathrow’s Terminal One and aspirational supersonic aircraft, we end up in a dingy studio with a prehistoric landscape painted on the wall behind the actors, with The Doctor and friends being menaced by what I think are meant to be Lovecraftian “shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles” but in practice look like giant grey turds on legs. And that’s before we even get to this season’s SECOND unconvincing alien snake and some aliens that resemble ugly men in leotards spray-painted silver and then decorated by a four-year-old. The First Commandment of Fandom: thou shalt not look cheap!

Essentially, this looks disturbingly like Doctor Who as parodied by Victoria Wood in her classic “Terror of the Ming-Mongs” sketch and for some people that’s enough by itself to consign “Time-Flight’ to the dustbin of history. But I’m not having any of that superficial bollocks in my review. There are much worse problems with “Time-Flight’; if one of your family members walked into the room while you were watching it, they would instantly collapse into gales of derisive mirth. Peter Davison is a lovely guy, but he’s completely wrong on this one. This is not a good story and cannot be made to look like one no matter how hard you squint at it. The story is truly, madly, deeply terrible. What is it about? To a large extent, and to use a handy quote from the Ming-Mongs, “Search me, dear.”

For some reason it had seemed a good idea to allow Peter Grimwade – a talented director, you’ll get no arguments from me about that – to try his hand at writing a few adventures too. He is absolutely terrible at this, but presumably got his awful scripts in on time, so was evidently enthusiastically recommissioned. Let’s talk about what passes laughingly within the four episodes of “Time-Flight” for a “plot”.

As I’ve suggested, the one line pitch is rather good; Concordes were sexy back then, and a Concorde taking off in the present day and landing millions of years in the past is an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, beyond that point it feels rather as if Grimwade is just making it up as he goes along. Characters spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other about what might be happening, much as if the writer was still trying to work this out for himself. “Kalid” is only the worst example of this. Now, ostensibly, I sort of like Kalid. Having established ourselves to be on prehistoric Earth, we cut to an oriental sorcerer chanting weirdly to himself in his underground lair, his unearthly pallor and snaggle teeth retroactively strangely reminiscent of something from a Rob Zombie video. This really is the stuff that children’s nightmares are made of, and if the villain had been anything close to what he appeared to be, some kind of science-horror re-imagining of the Arabian Nights in other words, it might have turned out to be a classic adventure yet.

But as we all know from the cliffhanger to Episode 2, it’s just The Master in disguise again. I’m not the first person and I won’t be the last to bring up the question of why The Master was dressed up as a fat Asian magician while he was trying to recharge his TARDIS in the Stone Age – as far as I can tell from the script, he wasn’t even expecting The Doctor to turn up! The only logical explanation is that he was engaged in some kind of twisted sex game with one of his biddable Plasmatons, then heard someone coming in the front door and reckoned he might be able to style it out.

And it’s not as if The Master is interesting after the dastardly reveal of his true identity. Essentially he’s just trying to recharge a flat battery in the Pleistocene, at which point he’ll be on his way. How did he escape from being trapped in Castrovalva before this adventure? How will he escape from being trapped in Xeraphas with a lot of angry Xeraphins at the end of this adventure? These slightly interesting questions are never answered, in favour of the Doctor Who equivalent of breaking down by the side of the motorway and having to wait an hour for the AA to show up.

The Xeraphins themselves are fucking tedious, even given their short screen time, presented as being caught up in some internal power struggle between their good and evil side that we just don’t care about because they’re ugly men painted silver with stupid names like Anithon and Zarak. Why should be care that the bad Xeraphin who want to help The Master are gaining the upper hand over the good ones? It’s just the tired will-Adric-help-The-Doctor-or-do-something-stupid-instead question with a little bit less Adric in it. The answer is the same every time and, amazingly, the Xeraphin have even less interesting personalities than everyone’s favourite Alzarian.

Ah yes, “personalities”. For an adventure that boasts so many characters, it’s a shame that so few of them have one. For some reason it’s important that there are not one but three handsome Concorde pilots in uniform traipsing around with The Doctor, of whom only Captain Stapley is in any way memorable, mostly for his constant brown-nosing of The Doctor which is an obvious attempt to be invited back to fill Adric’s berth in the TARDIS for Season 20. Not on my watch, Stapley! Of the other half dozen or so named characters the only one I can remember anything about is Professor Hayter of the University of Darlington, whose brusque northern scepticism is I expect meant to be the comic relief, but in practice just means he wastes a lot of our time denying the possibility of things the audience knows for sure to be true. (It’s a well known fact that Hayter’s gonna hate.) Oh, there is one interesting thing about him with hindsight, which is that he has *exactly* the same dress sense as the Eleventh Doctor. What with the recent televised discussion about whether The Doctor based his appearance on people he’s bumped into in his travels, you’ve got to wonder…

With so many boring characters milling around there isn’t really any time for the regulars: Nyssa in a non-startling non-reversal of the entire season’s treatment of her, spends a whole episode having an asthma attack, and apart from not looking like an idiot for choosing to dress as an air hostess for a change, Tegan doesn’t have much to do either. In fact the companion who comes off best in “Time-Flight” is probably Adric…his ghost begging his friends to turn back or else they’ll kill him is a haunting moment and the thing I remember most about watching this story the first time round, as a 7 year old in 1982. Of course those “friends” decide within about five seconds to march resolutely through his screaming form. Fuck you, Adric.

As for The Doctor, poor old Peter Davison gets to spout truly industrial quantities of meaningless technobabble and look aghast at “plot developments” that don’t make a lick of sense. Following in the footsteps of “Earthshock”, he doesn’t actually do very much; it’s Stapley & co’s random thoughtless meddling with the TARDIS, not any agency of The Doctor’s, that saves the day mid-adventure. So all The Doctor really gets to do, in 4 episodes, is beat The Master’s TARDIS back to Heathrow and “bounce” him handily off to Xeraphas. Whoop-de-fucking-doo.

There are two really damning indictments to make of “Time-Flight”. One, it was obvious that Pip & Jane Baker watched this, thought “Hmm, technobabble plus random events…we could do this, let’s give JN-T a call!” The other is that it undoes the excellent work of “Castrovalva” in establishing The Doctor as an alien fugitive for whom Earth is just another hostile planet. If all it takes for him to take charge in 1982 is a swift name-drop of UNIT? Yawn. The best thing about the entire story is the cliffhanger at the end of episode 4 but, as we all know now, Tegan getting left behind was just a lie, almost as big and pointless as “Kalid”. So all we’re really left with is an adventure that’s just one dull, idiotic thing after another until the time runs out. No one in their right mind would ever choose to rewatch this. Not even as good as “Time and The Rani”. A worthless 3/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus


19.6 – “Earthshock”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on August 11, 2014 by Review The Who

CW Series 19 - Earthshock

In the latest episode of “Outnumbered”, we find poor harassed Doctor Single Dad on the receiving end of a full-blown strop from Petulant Pouty Son, who wants to know why his little sisters (Mouthy and Curly) are Dad’s favourites even though Pouty gets all the best grades at school. Can dad and son bond over defusing multiple planet-busting Cyber-stratagems, before Pouty carries out his threat to run away from home?

So here’s the million-dollar question: if an episode of Doctor Who is stylishly directed, well-lit, convincingly-acted, features a “classic” monster, clips of much-loved past Doctors and a major continuity event, is it automatically a good episode? Early 80’s fandom didn’t need too much persuading and were quick to hail Eric Saward as the second coming. After the high silliness of the Williams era, and then the remorseless innovation of Bidmead’s tenure, here was a writer who “got it”. Someone who could do Doctor Who the way it used to be done in the good old days.

Watching “Earthshock” now, I find it hard to believe that Saward wasn’t explicitly wooing fandom, whispering the sweet endearments into their ears that they desperately wanted to hear. Just look at Lieutenant Scott and his moustache! Beyond “being the competent leader of a group of soldiers”, the man has no distinguishing personality or backstory, just that facial hair. Remind you of anyone’s else’s upper lip in Who history? If Scott wasn’t a cynical bid to give DWAS members the warm fuzzies due to his uncanny resemblance to the Brig, then I’ll eat my UNIT beret. Sadly, girls, once he’s got you down the aisle and a ring on your finger you may find that the romance quickly fades…but we’ll get to all that in good time. For the moment, “Earthshock” is an exercise in fulfilling fandom’s whims, harking back to the “golden age” of Season 12 with its parade of returning foes, gritty tone and deadly peril for the TARDIS crew at every turn. Instant DWM season poll topper, not even a close thing. But is it any good?

Well, I think it’s rubbish.

The first thing that strikes me about this serial is how little actually happens for most of it. The big watchword is suspense. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, it’s of utmost importance that there’s a big reveal of the Cybermen at the end of the first episode, which means we get a whole 25 minutes of fooling about in caves with some really forgettable androids. Any viewer with half a brain cell will have instantly worked out that the scanner that, it’s stressed, detects only the heartbeats of “mammalian lifeforms” is not in fact a reliable indicator that the caves are free of hostiles, but we have to watch the soldiers slowly work that out for themselves. Is this interesting? It’s not obvious to me that it is.

One of the things Saward likes doing is having The Doctor suddenly getting really serious, like, whoa! the threats to the universe we normally face were one thing, but this Cyber-menace is on a different scale! We could be seriously out of our depth now, all the usual wisecracking is off the table guys. Peter Davison sells this brilliantly, because he’s a great actor, but it’s so unearned. The Cybermen have put a big bomb in a mineshaft, which gets defused. So they plan to hijack a crappy old freighter Beryl Reid is captaining back to earth instead. The Doctor has always defeated this kind of unimaginative scheme of the Cybermen before and we see a flashback to Tom Baker being rude about that fact in this very episode. So how come Saward gets to proclaim that the stakes are much higher than usual and strip the script of almost all fun and jokes accordingly?

Maybe it wouldn’t matter if he was a great writer of serious drama, but he just isn’t. The main plot is a nonsense; the Cybermen want to destroy an interstellar conference before it can sign a pact against them and this will put an end to galactic “unity”. Mmm, yeah, because the best way to stop people joining forces in a pact against you is to carry out a massively symbolic attack on all of them at once. And as for the rest of the script? Saward’s idea of plot progression is having people or Cybermen with guns entering rooms and opening fire every once in a while, crossing people off the cast list until one side has nobody left and the end of the story can be declared. The Doctor is stripped of any ingenuity whatsoever – his “solution” to the problem of the bomb is to cut some random wires and hope for the best. Tegan goes Ellen Ripley on us, hoisting around a massive gun and taking out Cybermen with it. The gold from Adric’s star isn’t enough to take down the Cyber Controller on its own… so The Doctor has to finish him off with another gun. This is everything that Doctor Who famously isn’t about and shouldn’t be about, and yet because it’s atmospherically lit or something it’s a “classic”. Sigh.

The Cyberman getting trapped in a solidifying bulkhead door idea may not be objectively big or clever, but it’s superbly directed to end up as an iconic moment that sticks in the memory: a real coup de Who. Chekhov’s Dinosaurs are educational and quite well done I suppose: we get a lecture about how the dinosaurs died out in a mysterious massive explosion in Episode 1, and a pay off in Episode 4. The other themes of the story are less impressive. The Doctor’s big line about human pleasures the Cybers are lacking – “smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal” – is so unpoetic a Cyberman might have delivered it. Compare and contrast that to the Seventh Doctor’s “burnt toast and bus stations, full of lost luggage and lost souls”.

And, surely the most unforgivable element of all, the ending for Adric is muffed. There’s a nice progression through the episode where Adric is repeatedly brave and brainy and useful, makes up with The Doctor and says he’s decided not to leave the TARDIS after all. Then the Cybermen use The Doctor’s “weakness” of affection for his companions against him – if he does not do as they wish they will “kill the girl”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the obvious denouement at this point is for affection and friendship to save the day, as Adric sacrifices his life to destroy the Cybermen for The Doctor. But he doesn’t, does he? He’s wrapped up in the puzzle of the logic codes and wants to be “right”. He doesn’t die for his friends at all, just from not listening to other people and his own intellectual arrogance. He doesn’t even divert the freighter’s course in the end, it’s just one more meaningless casualty to cap off an episode that’s been full of them. What a shame.

There’s one thing I really like about “Earthshock” and that’s that it exists in a completely non-sexist future where women get equal respect and status and the top two most senior personnel on a spaceship can be female. The episode doesn’t make a big thing about it, but it’s actually huge; and while I understand that Beryl Reid as a freighter captain may be an acquired taste, for me her witty and waspish delivery is the absolute highlight. The rest of the serial is an enormous credit to all the talented actors and production team members involved…and also utterly lacking in any of the imagination, intelligence and humour that make Doctor Who; no Love, just Monsters. Feminist Beryl saves this from the lowest grade but I’m still going to have to make an example of this horrible script. A joyless, gun-obsessed 2/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus

19.5 – “Black Orchid”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on May 21, 2014 by Review The Who


CW Series 19 - Black Orchid

It’s all gone a bit Downton Abbey as The Doctor arrives in 1925 to find himself embroiled in a life-or-death…cricket game, followed by a nerve-wrecking masquerade party in which his plucky companions are forced to…eat canapés and dance the Charleston. A small misunderstanding with the police is then quickly resolved. Maybe this time travel gig isn’t all bad all the time?

“Black Orchid” tends to be remembered these days for its singular claim to fame: it’s the only televised Doctor Who story in the past 47 years to contain no science fiction or fantasy elements whatsoever apart from the TARDIS and its crew. It would be nice, in the light of its production team’s obvious agenda to restore some of the spirit of the 60’s era, to think of it as the first historical since 1967’s “The Highlanders”. But it isn’t really even an historical. There are no well-known historical figures or events anywhere to be seen, nothing really that would provide the meat of a schoolchild’s history lesson. Which I think puts it in a category all of its own: really, an incredibly bold experiment in pushing the limits of the Doctor Who format.  And while its 45 minute length seems fairly unextraordinary today, let’s not forget that a sub-4-episode adventure had only been seen once since the 1960’s too. Here’s a story that’s fearlessly going to all sorts of places that no one in the 1982 audience could really have been expecting it to.

Terence Dudley, last seen writing the gloriously barking ideas-fest that was “Four To Doomsday”, seems here to be taking delight in subverting the audience’s expectations. The Doctor arrives at what appears to be a sleepy English railway station only to find a chauffeur waiting for him personally – surely a trap laid by The Master, The Dream Lord or some other foe? Something lurks in the bowels of the Cranleighs’ country house, kept out of shot and instantly identifiable by its heavy breathing as some kind of horrible monster. Nyssa is confronted by her doppelgänger in the person of Lord Charles’ fiancee Ann Talbot, which couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, could it? And yet if we think at any point we know how this type of thing inevitably plays out, our expectations will be cleverly dashed. At every turn, “Black Orchid” simply refuses to do what a Doctor Who story is supposed to do.

In fact, it doesn’t even do what a Season 19 story is supposed to do. In a deeply nonplussing way, given how shrilly Tegan has been demanding to be returned to Heathrow up until now, suddenly she’s decided she likes being part of the TARDIS crew and is willing to stick around for a while. And, wow, does this story benefit from this completely out-of-character change of heart. Freed from the obligation to act as though time travel is about as much fun as walking around in a pair of sodden woollen socks, Janet Fielding’s Tegan is allowed to have a whale of a time for a change: dancing, ordering herself screwdrivers and flirting with the English aristocracy. Meanwhile, The Doctor is busy showing off Peter Davison’s amazing cricketing skills and, thanks to the identical double plot line, Nyssa gets more to do than stand in the background quietly doing useful things that will advance the story when her TARDIS-mates finally get tired of hogging the limelight with their childish histrionics.

Speaking of which, Adric gets to be the fish out of water for a change here, semi-hilariously misunderstanding the nature of a “cocktail” (even the TARDIS must hate him if she’s failing to translate words just to spite him), sulkily refusing to dance and being called out for piggery as he heaps his plate high at the buffet. Yes, he’s a charmless teenage oaf here, but it sure beats him cockily asserting himself to be the smartest person in the room and selling out The Doctor “because Adric knows better” at the drop of a hat. In fact the idea of Adric being confident and Tegan ill-at-ease in futuristic scenarios and vice-versa in historical settings is quite an attractive concept for an ongoing series. If this TARDIS complement sticks around for a while, and we see lots more historical-type stories instead of the invariable science-falutin nonsense, maybe things will start looking up.

Of course we couldn’t have a story be entirely about the TARDIS crew having a relaxing weekend somewhere nice for a change. That’s actually against the law. The Doctor gets lost in a secret passage while wearing a rather fetching bathrobe; the monster in the attic borrows his masquerade costume, engages in some light manhandling and molestation of Miss Talbot and then disappears in time for The Doctor to be asked some very difficult questions about the trail of dead servants that appear to be wearing his metaphorical fingerprints around their necks.

And in its way, Act II of Black Orchid is as ground-breaking as the first. The Doctor is in quite a pickle now, but the lovely thing is that it’s all of his own creation. The Cranleighs, who know perfectly well that he’s innocent, are confident that our good Doctor will not be sent down for murder. The difficulties arise when it becomes clear that The Doctor is a mysterious impostor who lied and connived his way into a cricket match, a rather opulent party and the freedom to roam the Cranleigh house unobserved – the sort of thing we’re entirely used to The Doctor doing every week of course, but which, viewed objectively, make him seem likely to be a charlatan or crazy at best, at worst a thief or foreign spy. As the situation starts to appear more and more hopeless for our trans-temporal freeloaders, it’s clear that they’ve only themselves to blame!

But, beautifully, the episode wrongfoots us yet again. Just when we think The Doctor’s found a situation he might not be able to resolve, he resolves it – not by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow or blowing something up (the sonic screwdriver’s gone, mate…live with it) but just by being straight with people for a change. I’m a Time Lord, from Gallifrey, would you care to come for a spin in my TARDIS, Sir Robert? Sergeant? And the sky doesn’t fall, no one tries to detain him, or dissect him for science, or confiscate his time machine to reinvigorate the British Empire. The monster is revealed to be not a monster but a tragic tormented soul desperately trying to reunite himself with his beloved. And if the love triangle between the Cranleigh brothers and Ann Talbot is resolved a tad conveniently with his accidentally fatal fall as George startles away from a brotherly hug, at least it wraps up the story without needing to resort to pantomime villains and diabolical wrongs to be righted before the closing credits. Real life is regularly more complex and interesting than that. The adventure ends with The Doctor being handed a work called “Black Orchid” and promising “I shall treasure it”.

Doctor Who story that turns everything formulaic about the show on its head, that gives most of the regulars unusually fun things to do and that, at an economical two episodes long, definitely leaves us wanting more. This really is a treasure, and too good a piece of writing to be forgotten except as a footnote sandwiched between two more “eventful” hostile space alien extravaganzas. It may be the polar opposite of earth-shattering, but “Black Orchid” is a thing of subtle beauty and rewatchable forever. A smashing 8/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus

19.4 – “The Visitation”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on April 9, 2014 by Review The Who

CW Series 19 - The Visitation

An alien stranded on Earth decides that he would like to kill all humans and take over their world. Cliché ahoy!

Thoughtful, ideas-driven Doctor Who getting you down? Can’t make head nor tail of recursive geometry or Buddhist philosophy? Try new SAWARD®! SAWARD® kills 99% of vexing high concepts and pesky plot-accelerating sonic screwdrivers stone dead, leaving you free to enjoy your shambling rubber-suited aliens and belligerent mind-controlled yokels in peace. Or Michael Grade and the BBC’s money back!

So here we are, at the beginning of the end. After a season and a half of some of the most interesting and intelligent Doctor Who there has ever been, here is Eric Saward’s audition piece for the role of Script Editor: a position from which he will be able to completely shape the course of Whovian destiny, for better or worse. Oh, who are we kidding? It was all for worse. For much, much worse.

The sad thing is, I went into “The Visitation” spoiling for a fight. I wanted to be able to say “In your faces, viewers who were baffled by “Castrovalva” through “Kinda”, who rated this and “Earthshock” as the glorious highlights of Season 19! You were idiots to enjoy this! What the hell were you thinking?!” But these episodes aren’t even interestingly detestable. Dull, yes. Predictable, very much so. But also your typical, solidly made, visually quite attractive, meat-and-potatoes Who.

If you’re a small child or an adult not particularly invested in the show, you would probably have thought “The Visitation” is everything that Doctor Who should aspire to be. The pseudo-historical is pretty much the series’ classic format, something that no other show can do as confidently and which is, crucially, not hamstrung by the tinfoil spacesuits and wobbly polystyrene corridors that tend to plague excursions into the future. As a bright 7 year old I remember being absolutely rapturous about the Pudding Lane reveal at the end. For a 7 year old, that’s a genius plot twist. An event you learned about in school, brought to life before your very eyes! With aliens!

As it happens, the end of “The Visitation” is my first clear memory of classic Doctor Who – apart from The Five Faces season a few months earlier. Fortunately, the, um, Krotons had left such an indelible impression on me that, despite Davison’s best efforts, Patrick Troughton would remain “my” Doctor to the present day.

But here’s the problem with this story – hell, with all of Eric Saward’s stories; it hasn’t an ounce of poetry in its efficient reptilian soul. Saward remembers what he likes from his own youthful memories of Doctor Who and manages to enjoy both a bit of classical base-under-siege action in the manor house and also some yomping around in the woods pursued by scythe-wielding Hammer Horror peasants, for that time-honoured Hinchcliffian feel. The rest is just whatever is required to mechanically shuttle the plot and the regulars from A, to B, to C, to D. Even technobabble acquires a peculiarly joyless ring when it comes from Saward’s pen: “polygrite”, “soliton gas”, “tinclavic mines”. They’re exactly like Douglas Adams words, unleavened of any of Douglas Adams’ boundless sense of fun.

Let us briefly consider the supporting cast (for brevity is all they merit). There is the 17th century family that we meet for a couple of minutes at the start of episode 1, before they get ruthlessly eradicated by alien home invaders. Which would be all well and good if we were given time or reason to warm to them, such that the brutal injustice of their fate came as a hard shock. But really the dad’s an irascible old drunk, the son a puritanical prude, the daughter’s just a bit wet and it’s not as though any of them are even nice to their poor old servant Ralph. And then they’re gone and I for one find them impossible to mourn.

And beyond those four, we meet exactly one other character in the whole of “The Visitation” who is not a hostile alien or minion. Richard Mace, a florid Thespian turned highwayman – because, as we’ll discover repeatedly in the near future, Eric Saward likes his bad boys and antiheroes much better than he likes that boring old goody-two-shoes Doctor. Not that he does anything interesting with the fact of Mace being something of a rogue; the actor hints a few times that he might not be averse to occasionally making free with other people’s possessions in these straitened times, gasp! One suspects that Mace “coming good” and electing to stick around to fight the Great Fire of London is Saward’s idea of a complex character arc, even if by any other writer’s standards it’s paper-thin, motivated by pure whimsy. Still, at least The Doctor is impressed (as, again, he always will be by Saward’s charmless antiheroes), to the point of letting Mace keep a piece of anachronistic alien technology with the potential to change the course of human history.

A sudden horrible notion – maybe Mace went away with his alien control panel and founded a really early prototype of Torchwood. As if we didn’t have enough things to blame Eric Saward for…

Then there are the Terileptils, almost certainly the least inspiring “classic race of Doctor Who monsters” in the show’s history. They shamble about pathetically in rubber costumes in a manner liable to tick all the boxes of “real fans” who remember the Ice Warriors and the Yeti as being cooler than they actually were. They have the obligatory classic race quirk of being lovers of grace and beauty, where that is defined in practice as owning a really garish android that Liberace might have commissioned if he’d been in the murderous minion business. Of course, none of the Terileptils ever actually behave like sophisticated aesthetes in a bad situation. They are unilaterally rude, blustery and belligerent, displaying not the remotest compunction about wiping out humanity with bubonic plague in order to have a bit more elbow room. In other words, the worst kind of unimaginative, one-note Doctor Who monsters it’s possible to do.

TARDIS Regulars Watch! In keeping with the general sheen of watchability about this story, everyone acquits themselves well on this outing. Sure, Adric tries to offer the TARDIS to the Terileptils on a plate within seconds of them walking through the door, but we aren’t even surprised at this by now, it’s just what he has to do every other week, with his selling-out-the-Doctor Tourette’s Syndrome. Thanks to Peter Moffatt’s competent directorial instincts Adric doesn’t get to be Adric in a limelight-hoggingly dim and petulant way and that’s some kind of victory really. Nyssa continues to be quietly ultra-competent somewhere in the background (which marginally beats being sent off to bed for four episodes) while Tegan gets all the funny lines this time, rabbiting on about The Doctor being from “Guildford” and otherwise hilariously deadpanning her way through the interrogation sequence.

Davison’s performance as The Doctor is not obviously undercooked despite this being the first adventure he shot; the alarming part is the material Saward’s script gives him to work with, extricating his way from situations with wrestling moves instead of his brain, and “solving” a locked door conundrum with a gun and the words “I never miss”. (All the warning signs were here in plain sight, people! Why couldn’t you SEE?!) And, of course, “The Visitation” is famously the adventure where The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is finally retired for a decade or two. Decried at the time as a magic wand that makes life too easy for lazy scriptwriters, it is of course nothing of the kind – it’s a magic wand that stops The Doctor from ever having to resort to fisticuffs, firearms and endless tedious running around to solve his problems. The “Saward era” could never have happened so easily if it hadn’t been gotten out of the way.

It looks good, it feels “classic” in all sorts of ways, it puts Doctor Who back on track for people who maybe thought it had been getting a bit pretentious over the past year or two, and it’s as dumb as the miller’s horse. Fans didn’t realise how good they’d been having it in 1980-1; they may have lapped this up but they really did deserve better… and they were going to get a lot worse. On a purely superficial level this may qualify as an impressive and enjoyable story, but with nothing at all behind the curtain, I can’t justify giving it more than a disappointing 4/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus

19.3 – “Kinda”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on February 26, 2014 by Review The Who

CW Series 19 - Kinda2

Deva Loka, planet of the primitive Kinda, is being assessed for suitability for colonisation, but crew members venturing out into the jungle have not been returning. Could the natives be growing restless? Meanwhile, Nyssa’s cried off from the adventure with a headache, Tegan’s fallen asleep within five minutes and Adric continues to perfect his trademark turncoat moves by (possibly) joining the bad guys for the third time this season.

Doctor Who, let’s be fair, doesn’t always try any harder than it needs to. When it finds a good storytelling formula it quite often likes to wring every last drop out of it, be that formula “the base is under siege”, “The Master is up to his old tricks”, “a classic Hammer Horror film is reworked”…you get the idea. And generally the fans lap this kind of thing up: once you’ve hit on something that is sufficiently “classic” you can do whole seasons of it with only minor variations on the basic theme and they will ride high in the polls for decades to come. So there are definitely two schools of thought when something comes along at a bit of a right angle to the standard template. Some find mould-breaking stories like “Kinda” a breath of fresh air, a refreshing and stimulating change from business as usual. Others are horrified and insulted. What’s the point of “The Enemy of the World” when it fails to bring a monster or a base to the base-besieged-by-monsters season? Why does “Ghost Light” spend so much time being verbally clever at the expense of returning foes and stuff exploding? Boo hiss to anything like “Love and Monsters”, which dares to be meta and ironic and ask what it is that we love when we love Doctor Who.

There are a lot of fans, in short, who want the show to be as straightforward as possible.  Give us scary monsters, give us serious science fiction (n.b. must never send itself up), give us some soldiers shooting guns at aliens, give us some top-flight production values to minimise that tricky suspension of disbelief problem.  That’s all they ask.  Then along comes something like “Kinda” that withholds all this stuff, subverts the standard expectations, and it can make them… kinda angry. The annual Doctor Who Magazine poll at the time rated “Kinda” the worst story of Season 19 and indeed the first three stories of season 19 as its worst three stories. Yep, despite healthy audience figures, the cultured, thoughtful, ideas-driven Doctor Who that I’ve been largely raving about on this site was going down in some quarters like a lead balloon and “Kinda” the leadenest balloon of the lot.

Let’s talk about some of the aforementioned things that must be in Who for the po-faced Real Who contingent to be on board and how “Kinda” fails to deliver them:

SCARY MONSTERS: Reluctantly, the “real fans” do admit that you can’t actually just alternate Dalek and Cyberman stories all the time. It is, in fact, acceptable to leaven that mixture with the occasional Sontaran or Ice Warrior outing. Horrifyingly though, “Kinda” continues the JNT era’s trend of not only not featuring a 60’s enemy, but not having any kind of rubber-suited alien hoodlums at all.  In this one, the closest we get to some very-very-slowly-clomping-up-corridors menace is a dark force within the psyche called the Mara, who appears to have been the serpent in the garden of Eden, and is quite possibly also encoded in human DNA.  Well, actually, the real enemy is misunderstanding and miscommunication between left-brained versus right-brained, rational versus intuitive, basically benevolent opposing factions, but you try selling that to a humourless nerd without the help of a giant writhing rubber snake.

SERIOUS SCI-FI: “Kinda” is a heavily philosophical piece – author Christopher Bailey was exploring his ideas about Buddhism in it, though of course he then plonks the serpent from the garden of Eden into the mix so it’s clearly something of a smorgasbord.  Despite some promising initial space-dome-on-jungle-planet setup, nothing is solved with rayguns, polarity reversals or large quantities of explosives. A key revelation in episode 4 is that “the one thing evil cannot face is itself” and, as such, the Mara is defeated by dint of a circle of mirrors.  This may seem like small potatoes in the light of the 21st century show, where alien invasions are routinely defeated by love, faith, or singing, but at the time it was quite unacceptable for a storyline to be resolved by poetic metaphor rather than the all knowing technobabble.  

SOLDIERS SHOOTING GUNS AT ALIENS: Your typical reactionary Doctor Who fan likes a situation that’s pretty cut and dried, with clearly defined goodies and baddies, so we know who needs to win and lose in the last episode for the story to have been a success. “Kinda” presents us with a base under siege that isn’t actually under siege! The illusion of danger is entirely in the mind of the batshit crazy Hindle and the only real threat is of him blowing up 30 square miles of jungle as a security precaution. Meanwhile, the Kinda themselves are a race so primitive they greet extra-terrestrials with a jester who defuses tension through the medium of humour.  This kind of thing can’t be allowed to catch on: if, as Sanders says at one point, “we all [mean well], underneath it all”, how can we be expected to identify the nefarious baddies who deserve to be shot, electrocuted or dissolved in acid in episode 4?

PRODUCTION VALUES: There’s no getting away from it: a lot of the people who hated “Kinda” hated it because of the dramatic final showdown with the physically manifested Mara.  Yes, it’s a deeply rubbish giant pink plastic snake that does the scene no favours, but for crying out loud, it’s one scene.  It’s the Doctor Who equivalent of the old joke where the guy has done dozens of amazing things for his community, but his nickname is still based on the one time he shagged one lousy sheep who didn’t know when to keep it on the down low.  Three and a half episodes of genius ideas, astonishing performances and brilliant lines, but if you contain one lousy plastic snake…

I’ve tried to avoid analysing the details of “Kinda” too much in this review, as it’s about as close as a Doctor Who story has ever gotten to a poem, and might be better allowed to fly free than dissected under a microscope.  But it has one of the most living, breathing alien cultures ever seen in Who; a tour de force performance of descent into madness from Simon Rouse as Hindle; the unnerving, almost David Lynchian sequences inside Tegan’s mind, and a terrific libidinous Mara-possessed performance from Janet Fielding that exonerates her crimes in “Four To Doomsday”. Sure, it cheats in places: hiding Nyssa in the TARDIS so there aren’t too many characters needing things to do; never explaining the mystery of the missing expedition members; never really correlating the action inside the dome with the Mara’s machinations outside it; and resolving the Mara problem in a faintly disappointing way. But the good and interesting far, far outweighs any bad.

I could have listed great lines and mind-expanding ideas for 1000 words instead of writing this review. But I can sum up how good “Kinda” is with this one statement; it’s so good that even Adric is good in it. What a roll Doctor Who was on at this time, even if not everyone appreciated it. More fool them! A poetic 8/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus

19.2 – “Four To Doomsday”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Review The Who

DW Series 19 - Four To Doomsday

Attempting to travel to Heathrow Airport so Tegan can start work on time (clearly more important than seeing the wonders of the universe in a time machine), the TARDIS lands instead in a strange place populated by interpretive tableaux of ancient Greeks, Mayans, Chinese and Aborigines, where instructive lessons about photosynthesis, nanometres, cloisters and the conductivity of graphite lurk around every corner. Against all the odds this is not the pages of a Children’s Encyclopedia, but the spacecraft of the sinister frog-alien Monarch, who has dishonourable intentions towards planet Earth.

Go on then; let’s talk about Adric…

“Four To Doomsday” is, by most metrics, a pretty good Doctor Who story.  It sets up a well-above-averagely interesting science-fiction environment and then lets the TARDIS crew loose on it in a logically plotted way, not forgetting to include a few witty jokes. The sets are atmospheric, the guest actors of high quality and there isn’t even a Myrka, Magma Beast or rubber snake that might tarnish the reputation of an otherwise enjoyable story.  (Okay, if you really hate folk dancing, there may be a problem.) And yet it languishes in fan opinion somewhere between obscurity and active disdain.

So what’s the beef?  Well, perhaps you prefer your TARDIS crews to be likeable and act with a reasonable degree of maturity.  Should that prove to be the case then “Four To Doomsday” really isn’t a story for you. Mind you, a good 50% of the crew do very well; Peter Davison is new in The Doctor’s shoes but infuses all his dialogue with a slightly crazed and unpredictable gleam just beneath the charming exterior.  I was never a Fifth Doctor fan growing up but, returning to him now, I’m convinced that he is The Doctor.  Likewise, Nyssa does very well for herself, single-handedly deducing both the nature of the androids and a clever way of disabling them.  She’s basically the kind of companion that The Doctor wants to have with him in a tight spot.

As for Adric and Tegan? Oh dear…

Adric’s charm offensive (clue: one of those words is more appropriate than the other) begins early on with the quite incredible line “That’s the trouble with women; mindless, impatient and bossy.”  Admittedly Tegan is being a bit dim and annoying, to the tune of carping that she’ll be fired for not showing up on time for work – whilst standing in a FUCKING TIME MACHINE – but two wrongs don’t make a right. Honestly, we really don’t need an audience identification figure for nerdy, spotty, badly-dressed teenage virgins who haven’t a clue how to talk to females, even if there were probably quite a few watching in 1982.

And both of them compete to get more annoying during the course of the episode.  Adric, after an establishing scene in which his eyes fill with piggy greed at the idea of possessing Urbankan shape-changing technology, decides unilaterally that blatantly obvious homicidal black hat Monarch is a good egg, gleefully spills the beans about Time Lords and the TARDIS to the bad guys and pretty much has to be physically restrained from handing over the keys to the ship to his new best friends. Tegan, after going into gibbering hysterics at the mere concept of a human personality being recorded onto a microchip, flouts The Doctor’s very specific instructions to stay put where she’s safe and stomps off to the TARDIS, where she begins blubbering uncontrollably and throwing random switches on the console until it dematerialises.  Not only is this the kind of insane behaviour that could easily have condemned her and her shipmates to various agonizing deaths but, on the way to the ship, she crosses paths with Adric and proceeds to have a shouting match before knocking him to the ground, not looking back even though he’s banged his head and fallen unconscious.  Four wrongs… six wrongs… however many wrongs… really don’t make a right (even if this is Adric we’re talking about). Then there’s the weird thing in this episode where both Monarch and The Doctor repeatedly refer to the companions as “the children”.  The actors were all at least 19 (and Janet Fielding not much younger than Peter Davison!) when the story was shot, so what gives?

It seems to me that we’re experiencing a dissonance between how writer Terence Dudley must have been briefed to write for the post-Tom show, and how things turned out in practice.  It’s clear that there’s a big agenda in this new era of Who to return to the core values of the show, as exemplified by the first season of the Hartnell era.  Three companions (one boy, two girls).  A return to the loose story arc of “trying to get the Earthling companion(s) back home”.  A Doctor and companions who regularly don’t see eye to eye, after many, many years of completely biddable “assistants”.  An educational remit to the show – boy, does Four to Doomsday start to feel “educational” after a while.  The only way we could get much closer to the spirit of 1963 would be seeing the revival of a purely historical adventure as part of Season 19…  spoilers, sweetie!

But one thing that was never going to wash with fandom was making the companions explicitly “children”.  Ian and Barbara aside, the companions of the 1960’s are generally just overgrown kids.  Bright teenagers or even children in their late single figures could easily identify with these characters as “a lot like me, give or take a few years”.  Unfortunately, from John and Gillian through Romulus and Remus to Angie and Artie, when the kids really are plainly and unequivocally kids, the fans fly into a blind and murderous rage.  We’re happy to swear blind that the viewing pleasure of the young’uns is paramount, we’ll even let people call it a kids show, but God forbid it should actually start resembling a kid’s show, with actual kids in it.  This. Will. Not. Stand.

“Four to Doomsday” clearly thinks it’s a TV show for inquiring young minds of maybe 8-12 years of age.  And it’s writing the companions as if they had the identifiable emotional maturity of 8-12 year olds (paired with the bodies and aptitudes, curiously, of people twice that age).  Where have we seen Adric’s behaviour before in classic children’s fiction?  He is Edmund from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  Anyone who reads the Narnia books and doesn’t delight in the petulant turncoat tendencies of the Edmunds and the Eustaces of Lewis’s writing is… reading them wrong, in my opinion.  The characters who cause all the trouble are the best characters!

In many ways, a new era of the show starts here.  Previously, companions were around for pretty cynical reasons – The Doctor can’t pad out an episode rescuing himself from a cell and The Doctor can’t explain the plot to himself.  But suddenly we have companions who have found their way into the TARDIS organically, for realistic reasons.  They’re orphans (Narnia again!) and they’re clever but they’re damaged, they need piecing back together or looking after at the very least. When Russell T Davies took over the show two decades later, he addressed “the Adric problem” in his very first season.  What if the TARDIS crew took on a brilliant but arrogant and short-sighted companion called Ad…ahem…Adam, whose selfish actions began to give The Doctor a hard time?  Davies gives Adam short shrift, one strike and he’s out, see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya. And to me that’s an infinitely more dark and mean-spirited approach than we had back in Season 19.  I’m not heavily into the idea of The Doctor’s friends being some kind of morally superior elite who get gifted the wonders of the universe while those who don’t measure up are booted into the outer darkness.  Isn’t that even a bit…Tory?  Whereas the Fifth Doctor gathers around himself a little army of lost and confused orphans, takes responsibility for their care, refuses to give up on them even when they make his life impossible.  He’s like a father to these children and they aren’t even his.

Now that’s love. And that, for me, is very much The Doctor.

If you can get past the aboriginal dance routines and the constant primary-school didactics (“Could anyone pass the sodium chloride, please?” “Sodium chloride?” “Salt.”) and the kids being kids and driving their poor dad up the wall, “Four To Doomsday” is a strange and wonderful medley of science, history, humour and just plain weirdness that I have a hard time imagining coming into existence anywhere other than Doctor Who.  If Adric and/or Tegan really do set your teeth on edge then adjust downwards accordingly, but for me this comfortably merits a 7/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus

19.1 – “Castrovalva”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 19 with tags , , , , on January 8, 2014 by Review The Who

CW Series 19 - Castrovalva

Shortly after ceasing to be the longest-serving and best-loved TARDIS incumbent of all time, The Doctor is having the regeneration crisis to end all regeneration crises. A rest cure is called for, somewhere free of ambient complexity, namely the Dwellings of Simplicity, Castrovalva. But how simple can things possibly stay when The Master’s name is in the credits?

“…but the moment has been prepared for.”

There’s a strong argument for the Fifth Doctor’s debut being the most meticulously planned in the show’s history. With Tom Baker outgoing after a probably unsurpassed seven years in the role and an ambitious young producer determined to leave the 1970’s behind and make the 80’s his own, leaving anything up to chance wasn’t an option. A whole season had been given over to laying the groundwork for a new era, phasing out the old guard and leisurely introducing no fewer than three fresh-faced new companions. The “silly” humour of the Williams era was now verboten, to be replaced by smart, conceptual sci-fi. With an eye to the merchandising possibilities, The Doctor now would now wear “a costume” instead of “clothes”, prominently display a question mark brand and have at least one companion from an emerging foreign market for the show at all times.

Into this mix stepped Peter Davison, an actor cast to be as different as possible from those who had gone before. Controversially young to be taking on the role (at least at the time), his vulnerable, boyish persona was light years away from Baker’s indomitable avatar of anarchy. Whereas Baker somewhat resented sharing his limelight with even one companion, Davison’s tenure would be characterised by a TARDIS more crowded than at any time since 1965. “Castrovalva” even specifies roles for the crew; Adric becomes the Navigator, Tegan is the Coordinator and Nyssa is the, um, clever one.

And you know what? It works. “Castrovalva” fizzes with purpose. One of the most clued-up ever script editors, Chris Bidmead, was called back in to set the tone for a brainy, ambitious modern sci-fi series and he delivers in spades. Within the first minutes the TARDIS crew are working as an impressive team, with Adric playing his alien card as a distraction while Tegan steals an ambulance. A scene that also economically shows that this will not be a cozy, earthbound era: the Pharos Project’s guards are not differentiated from any other hostile intergalactic thugs in the show’s history.

Davison is often cited as the finest actor to take the part in the 20th century – though he himself would surely cede that title to his own hero, Patrick Troughton – and he certainly brings his A-game here. The production team had held “Castrovalva” back to fourth in the recording schedule to give the new lead time to perfect his performance (that “meticulous planning” thing in action, again). Through what is obviously the rockiest regeneration yet, Davison sells us on the extreme jeopardy of his situation whilst alternating between flashes of self-deprecating charm and steel, not to mention some pitch-perfect imitations of his 1960’s predecessors. Most viewers might have been missing “their” Doctor, but Davison offers a dazzling array of distractions from the loss of Tom.

When he’s not being wheeled around asleep inside a cabinet, that is. It has been suggested that the regeneration crisis is a supremely naff idea, that the last thing you want to do when trying to sell audiences on a new Doctor is withhold the main attraction, have him unconscious or not himself. This may be a fair point in general, but it doesn’t apply here. Having seven shades knocked out of him by his regeneration is not postponing our introduction to the Fifth Doctor – it’s the real deal. The most diabolical foes in the universe may have been so much water off the Fourth’s back, but there’s a new Doctor in town, and he’s not a superhero any more. If you cut him, he bleeds.

And of course, Anthony Ainley’s Master is back, for a third consecutive story, to be the enemy doing the cutting. A lot of trust was placed in Ainley; this makes three stories for three without “proper monsters” that his villainy and acting talents have to carry. To his credit, it’s only after 11 episodes of dastardliness (killing Nyssa’s sweet old dad and moving into his body, causing the heat death of most of the universe, tipping the Fourth Doctor to his death, locking the TARDIS on a collision course to the Big Bang, mocking up an entire alien culture as a trap – as evil maniacs go, he’s a real workaholic) that things start to go awry. Perhaps kidnapping Adric and chaining him up in a bondage web was where the cracks first began to appear, but animalistically ranting and raving while having to mime prying open the Zero Cabinet with a crowbar (when the prop doesn’t even have a crack for Ainley to work with) is far from the finest hour of a scientific genius who, The Doctor claims, “leaves nothing to chance”.

It’s a shame because, up until that point, the plot of “Castrovalva” is pretty much A-list. The first two episodes may be largely TARDIS-bound, but it’s fair to say that, despite the budget of tuppence, the inside of the spaceship has never felt as real (and slightly spooky) before or since. Locking the crew in a steadily overheating TARDIS on a collision course with the Big Bang creates a genuinely scary predicament, to which jettisoning a random 25% of the interior to generate thrust is a frighteningly tense solution. And this is before we even get to the part with an alien culture modeled on the artwork of M.C. Escher! There are more brilliant ideas in this four-parter than in the whole Pertwee era put together. Possibly.

Castrovalva (the place) may dismally fail the Bechdel test, but it’s otherwise beautifully realised. Director Fiona Cumming does a great job of switching the tone from folksiness to menace and back again every few minutes and the locals, including the inimitable Michael Sheard, revel in elegant, witty dialogue and some truly ridiculous hats. Mergrave placing his pharmacy at all four edges of the same map, and finding the implications thereof just beyond the limits of his comprehension, is as good a scene as Doctor Who has ever produced; and Shardovan, a being poignantly intelligent enough to have divined that his world and his very existence are a Flatlandesque sham, as great a character. If there’s a better exit line than “You made us, man of evil – but we are free!” from the last 50 years of this show, I’d like to hear about it.

Of the 11 stories that have introduced 11 Doctors to us, it’s understandable if a different one proves to be your favourite. You may like its incoming Doctor better, or the style of the era itself may be more your cup of tea. But I would staunchly defend “Castrovalva” as being the finest ever blueprint for a new Doctor and a new era of the show. If the Fifth Doctor’s tenure as a whole had lived up to its aspirations, it would have proven a golden age for the show.

“A civilization evolving out of tribal warfare into an ideal community… is a fiction.” In some ways “Castrovalva” is too good for us; it tries to re-imagine Doctor Who as a series bursting with ideas, Shakespearean in its dialogue and denouements, where the foe The Doctor must face each week could be something mind-expanding like mathematical recursion, rather than lumbering monsters in rubber suits. Alas, most golden ages are soon followed by a decline and fall but, while this one lasts, it’s an 8/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus