The Seventh Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Season Twenty Four
Paradise Towers might be genius or it might be a Dr Who disaster. It is most certainly the bastard love-child of J.G. Ballard and William Golding, which perhaps explains both its success and its weakness.
The TARDIS swimming pool has been leaking, so the Doctor jettisoned it, leaving Mel nowhere to swim. Against his wishes, she persuades him to travel to Paradise Towers, an enormous self-sustaining high rise tower block built by the great architect Kroagnon. She wants to swim in its idyllic pool. The Doctor isn’t interested in a relaxing holiday. “That’s the trouble with young people today,” he muses, “No sense of adventure.” Little does he know…
Paradise Towers is a housing estate out of control. The passages and open spaces are a dilapidated clutter. Graffiti is scrawled on the walls. Trash lies everywhere. It is dark. It is smelly, rat infested and falling apart. While exploring the Tower’s cavernous insides, the TARDIS twosome are captured by a gang of vicious young women calling themselves Red Kangs. These feral creatures speak a curious patois language mixing English with techno babble and baby talk. They give themselves names associated with ‘things’ not people: Bin Liner, Fire Exit and Air Duct. They have been conducting ongoing gang warfare with the Blue Kangs and Yellow Kangs and spend time terrorising the Tower’s inhabitants, called Rezzies, and avoiding the Nazi-like security police, known as the Caretakers. The Doctor is intrigued by how a sophisticated society could have gone so wrong, reverting to its most basic natures. Even the residents, all plump, elderly women, have taken to cannibalism to survive. Poor Mel, suckered in for tea and crumpets like Hansel or Gretel nearly gets roasted for dinner. Only the unexpected intervention of a homicidal waste disposal unit saves her shrill pair of lungs to scream another day. Mel pairs up with cowardly soldier, Pex. When war broke out on the planet [it might be Earth, the world isn’t named, although Kroagnon is mentioned as being a 21st Century architect so it might be] Pex hid in the cargo hold of a child evacuation ship to avoid the draft. On arrival, the girls rebelled against the female residents and turned rogue. This may have been because of child abuse; it isn’t made clear although one Rezzie mentions they’d not treated the Kangs well. It’s also interesting there are no boys in the Kangs and one wonders if men of all ages were required for the war effort, to be grown as fighters in the future from a young age. This would certainly sit with the fascist overtones of the Caretakers, who the Kangs have also carried on battling as they scavenge for food and supplies in the carcass of the Tower.
The Doctor is captured by the Caretakers and learns that the servo robots have started malfunctioning and are indiscriminately killing Kangs, Residents and Caretakers alike. While watching a video brochure for Paradise Towers, he is reminded that Kroagnon designed Miracle City, which had its own horrific history. The spirit of Kroagnon has been absorbed by the Tower’s self-aware computer system and wanting to live in splendid isolation, it takes over the Chief Caretaker’s body through cordoelectroscopy [yeah, I didn’t either…] and starts to remove all flesh from its building. From homicide to genocide then. The Doctor draws all the warring parties together and the uneasy alliance combines to fight back.
There is much to admire in this ambitious adventure, which weaves elements of well-known science fiction into its narrative and doesn’t shirk away from its nightmarish intentions. Youths going native has been touched on many times in many programs, but Dr Who has never addressed the theme so forcefully. Making the Kangs all females adds an extra, almost chilling dimension to the story, as they display the same warlike tendencies as Golding’s air-wrecked schoolboys do in Lord of the Flies. The idea of sugar and spice and all things nice simply doesn’t exist in the Tower and the actors who portray these ferocious, hostile and mean looking girls don’t let us forget it. The fact they call their deadly activities ‘games’ only reinforces the terror.
So too the cannibalistic Rezzies, led by Judy Cornwell’s sympathetic Maddy, but best presented in the folksy, overweight couple Tabby [Elisabeth Spriggs] and Tilda [Brenda Bruce] who have become fat on a diet of humans. When not eating girls, they prefer rats; a half-eaten carcass sits on a dinner plate during one scene. Best of all is fresh, juicy looking Mel and the moment the young traveller recognises their intent recalls films as grisly as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is a suggestion in the opening two episodes that the Tower computer, Kroagnon’s spirit, is eating the corpses, but this later seems to be refuted as Kroagnon only wants to ‘eradicate’ flesh from his building, not consume it.
This revelation finally turns the Caretakers against their Chief. Rather like Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopian future in Brazil (1985), Paradise Towers is a world mired in regulations and pointless exposition. Caretakers do not have names; they share numbers and locations. They have clear, defined aims, to retain order, to remove graffiti and to ensure the smooth running of the high rise. Clearly these proto-fascists have been slipping, but they can’t see it, blinded by their reliance on a rule book jammed full of protocols and codewords: Regulation 327 Appendix 3 Subsection 9 is applied to executions; the XY3 is the standard waste unit; Floor 245 Sodium Street Corridor 75 has an emergency supply of pest control explosives; Regulation 13 Appendix 2 concerns final conversations. This latter is a brilliantly executed dialogue during which the Chief Caretaker attempts to interrogate the Doctor, but instead ends up being interrogated himself.
Sylvester McCoy is superb in the scene, demonstrating his incarnation’s wit, intelligence and sleight of hand all at once. He’s equally good in the sequences where he confronts the energetic Kangs – making them calm down by tasting the sugary Sodafizz drink had a touch of irony to it – and he’s brilliantly comic being frustrated by a series of broken 21st century audioarchitectonicalmetrasyncrosity machines [that’s a wall-mounted telephone to you and me]. McCoy isn’t quite a revelation in this serial – he set his stall out well enough in Time and the Rani – but he certainly reinforces his take on the Doctor, never more so than when opposing Kroagnon. He accuses the great man of shoddy workmanship: “The Tower exhibits your usual failing as an architect: not making any allowances for people.”
However, comic actor Richard Briers is appalling in the dual role of Chief Caretaker and Kroagnon. He simply isn’t an accomplished enough dramatic actor to impersonate the nature of evil. He plays it for laughs instead. Briers is probably the very worst of the worst villains and sadly brings the production to a crashing stop every time he’s on screen. It’s a horrendous casting choice. I can only think of William Squire’s Shadow [The Armageddon Factor, Season 16] who has such little impact. Brier’s stooping, waddling zombified Kroagnon seems inspired by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but he can’t avoid looking rather helpless. Not even the Kangs, or the child-age audience at home, would be scared by this. Briers’ version of the walking dead arouses obvious suspicion among the Caretakers, who decide it might be a good moment to form new allies. Well, that and the murderous intent of the Cleaners.
These servo-robots do the serial no favours either. I was reminded of WOTAN’s War Machines way back in Season 3. Like those, these are singularly ineffective. Writer Stephen Wyatt originally imagined humanoid servo robots, as in The Robots of Death, and quite frankly he’s got it right and John Nathan Turner has got it wrong. The army of Robotic Self-Activating Megapodic Mark 7Z’s are crap. Just crap. They are the kind of invention I’d except to see on a genuine children’s show, something created by a dotty scientist uncle, played for laughs, making tea and biscuits and causing havoc in the home. This was 1987, for goodness sake! The world of science fiction had moved on so much further than metal boxes with claws and drills. The idea of the Tower fighting back has real possibilities and the moment the two ladies get dragged through the waste disposal unit was terrifying by its inception. We’ve learnt what these deceptive old women were about. Their demise has all the futuristic possibilities of a Woodsman chopping up the Big Bad Wolf. Here, sadly, it’s ridiculed in the telling. The effects guys simply can’t conjure what’s required to genuinely thrill an audience. You yearn for the building to have really come alive, mechanical arms popping out of walls, floors swallowing people, etc, but I suspect the budget would never have stretched to that.
[Point of urban myth order: Mel finally makes it to that swimming pool and takes a well-earned dip only to be attacked by a robotic pool cleaner; apparently this scene resulted in a drop in primary school aged children taking up swimming. This may or may not be true, but it’s fun to think it might be.]
The budget elsewhere seems well-spent and congratulations are due to designer Martin Collins and costumer Janet Tharby. The claustrophobic, decaying corridors and apartments are matched by the characters tatty, homemade clothing; even the Caretakers look as if they’ve been wearing their uniforms for decades. Director Nicolas Mallet keeps the thing moving with some drive even when it is getting patently ridiculous. Unfortunately synth maestro Keff McCulloch’s incidental score is too loud and intrusive again, and one suspects a little too poppy. Perhaps he’d only watched the scenes with Bonnie Langford in them. Mel is much too cheerful given the circumstances she finds herself in and the relationship that evolves between her and the ridiculous, posturing weakling Pex is a failure all-round.
Could they, should they, have made Paradise Towers more dramatic and overtly serious? Perhaps. It certainly touches on themes of urban decay and societal breakdown as well as the dangers of totalitarianism, genocide and crazy computers. Dr Who has visited these topics before, but never in such a ghoulish setting. I’m going to give credit where I think it’s genuinely due. The serial does have severe problems and they permeate throughout. It becomes tremendously uneven. Richard Briers does a disservice to the show and to himself. However, Paradise Towers is also ingenious, thought provoking and intellectually terrifying, utilising an identifiable modern setting to create an alien and frightening environment. It’s worth recalling that the serial did provoke some negative feedback from the Viewers and Listeners Association regarding its violent content and maybe an even less humorous interpretation of the story’s horrors would have proved too much for kids at Saturday tea time.
I’m not a child. I enjoyed it. Paradise Towers has a lot more to offer than Richard Briers doing a hammy Adolf Hitler impersonation. Almost genius:
3 from 5.
Season Twenty Four
DELTA AND THE BANNERMEN
Dr Who does Hi-De-Hi.
Anyone living in the U.K. in 1987 would be familiar with the antics of the long running situation comedy Hi-De-Hi set at Maplin’s Holiday Camp. The mid-eighties was also a time of nostalgia tinged movies like Back to the Future, so you can see where the inspiration for this car crash of an adventure came from. The problem I had with it – and reading several critical analysis of the episode, it really does seem to be only me – is that the execution of whatever nonsense was supposed to be occurring was so haphazard, so unintelligible, so played for ill-placed humour from scene to terrible scene, that I gave up attempting to follow it. Instead, I simply gazed in astonishment at the sheer ineptitude of what I was watching. It was only three episodes long but felt like seven hours. I actually had to stop watching before the final part and go for a walk; all the forced hilarity had worn me out. I almost expected Ruth Madoc’s Gladys Pugh to sashay in with a sexy “Hello, Campers!”
The story kicks off with a rather impressive laser battle which in hindsight seems to belong in a totally different adventure. The Chimeron Queen, Delta, is fleeing the Bannermen, who are on a mission to wipe out her race. Not sure why. Didn’t care. She flees in an iron grey space ship carrying a cradle which appears to contain a silver egg. Next scene, after all those lasers and intrigue, the TARDIS lands at an unimaginative looking space port and we meet Ken Dodd. Yes. Ken Dodd. He of the Diddy Men and tickling sticks. Stunt casting? Did I care? Not a lot. He’s procuring tourists for a time trip to Disneyland. Seriously. The writers had the whole universe to play with and that was the best idea they had for a galaxy renowned holiday resort. What did I think? No imagination, that’s what. The ‘bus’ is attacked by the Bannermen because Delta is on it. The Doctor saves the day, but the ‘bus’ – which is a transmogrified space liner – lands in Wales, at the Shangri-La Holiday Camp. Yep. It’s Butlins, Barry Island. The heavy Welsh accents, whether real or imitated, simply make the piece sound insulting to Welsh people. Everyone is ridiculously chirpy, even in peril. From here on in, I simply didn’t have a Scooby-Doo in the universe about what I was watching or why I was watching it.
There is a bad guy, over egged by Don Henderson. There is a loud and annoying soundtrack packed full of 1950s songs. There is the ugliest baby you’re ever going to see. There is the most preposterous romance in Dr Who history [“I can’t condone this foolishness,” says the Doctor, worried about cross-breeding between intergalactic races, “but then love has never been known for its rationality.” The best line in the whole tale and I waited a long time for it]. The climax was fair. There’s a couple of Americans. A beekeeper. Even a horde of Yellow Coats; had the Dr Who crew raided the Hi-De-Hi wardrobe? At no point did I have any indication I was supposed to take this seriously. Now, I know science fiction can have a humorous side – look at The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and if Dr Who wants to use satire, irony or good old-fashioned wit to make a socio-political point – as it did in the preceding serial Paradise Towers – I’m all for it. But getting your cast to jump about with abandon and act the consummate prat doesn’t make it good sci-fi, it just makes it silly sci-fi. And this was silly with a big fat capital ‘S’.
I never want to see this again. Never:
½ from 5.
The TARDIS lands on Iceworld, a galactic supermarket ruled by a seemingly eternal dictator, Kane, a man unable to exist outside of his cryogenic lair. This isn’t explained very well in the serial and as a starting point to my review, it’s worth noting that not a lot is explained very well at all in Dragonfire. However, putting aside the gaping holes in both narrative detail and sensible behaviour, the serial is genuinely diverting. Physically, it looks grand. It’s quite exciting. There’s an excellent villain. He meets a horrific end. There’s a competent cast all-round, just. The music is at last properly tuned to the action. There’s even a half decent monster, and that says a lot.
Ian Briggs was a first time writer for Dr Who and he conjures an interesting mix of science fiction as fairy tale and horror. Firstly, the monster is referred to as a Dragon and is said to be guarding a fantastic treasure, the Dragonfire crystal, lost somewhere inside the bowels of Iceworld. Kane has blackmailed Sabalon Glitz [the returning Tony Selby] into retrieving the crystal; for centuries Kane has been searching for the one map which will locate the crystal. As luck [or no luck] would have it, Glitz won the very thing in a card game. Mel seems overjoyed to meet the scurrilous bugger, which is a startling turn, but he’s less enthused with her. Glitz seems instead to have an off-on relationship with a sixteen year old waitress known as Ace. This stroppy teenager is actually called Dorothy and was whisked away from twentieth century Earth [Perivale, to be precise] when a chemistry experiment went wrong and caught her in a time storm. I’ve given up counting the number of different methods humans and other beings have discovered for time travelling. The show lost its sense of proportion on that subject year’s back, but you do wonder why Ace – and indeed Mel – had to be from 20th Century Earth at all. Zoe wasn’t, nor Leela or Susan and they were excellent companions.
Actress Sophie Aldred is too old to play a teenager. She was 26. She gives it a good shot, but the poor woman is hampered by a series of appalling ‘street-tough’ catchphrases which are neither tough nor street. There’s always a problem when adults write teen characters; by the time they’ve caught up with the jargon, the youngsters have moved on. Such is the case here. Ace sounds like the oldest teenager in space. She’s a dab hand with Nitro-9 though and likes blowing stuff up, so I suppose she’s kinda cool. Maybe. I’m not sure. The jury is out for me.
[Point of Ace order: in Ian Briggs’ initial drafts, Ace and Glitz were meant to be an on-off item and references were made to their sexual relations. Producer John Nathan Turner quickly excised that from the script. As is turns out, Ace abandons the scurrilous one for the quirky charms of the Doctor. It’s delicate Melanie Bush who seems to like a bit of rough. At the story’s end, she ditches the TARDIS for Glitz’s new marketing venture on Iceworld. Never saw that coming.
[Mel’s departure does seem to be done in something of a rush. Everyone seems to be talking about travelling to Perivale, but would it still exist? We first met Glitz on Ravalox [see The Mysterious Planet] thousands and thousands of years in Earth’s future. According to that adventure, Perivale and the rest of Earth was destroyed by solar flares. Hmm. Maybe Ace has whipped up another time storm.
[See what I mean about details?]
Anyway, while Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion – oh, sorry that’s Ace and Glitz – want to search for the Dragonfire, Kane is keeping his evil eye on developments. He’s got his hooks into Ace already, tempting her with power and glory, but she can already blow stuff up, so why does she need the Twelve Galaxies? Ah, the simple girl. The Doctor and Glitz search for the crystal, Mel teams up with Ace, cue one of the worst cliff hangers in Dr Who history. It’s not really a bad idea to have the Doctor hanging off a cliff and confronting his doom, but the execution of the scene shows a distinct lack of clear thinking from the director. The resolution is equally stunted.
We do eventually meet this fantastical Dragon, which is where the horror element begins to click in. This creature is a biomechanical alien whose skull contains the crystal which will power Kane’s space ship, currently disguised as his regal cryogenic domain sitting atop Iceworld. The Dragon is excellently designed, taking as its inspiration the drawings of H.R. Giger, who fashioned the Alien for Alien. The similarities are very obvious, but much the better for it. The real problem with the Dragon isn’t the slightly underwhelming size of the thing, but its purpose. Three thousand years ago the leaders of the planet Proanon banished Kane to Svartos, an ice world. It seems somewhat remiss of them to provide him with the capabilities to create a cryogenic facility as well as leaving both the lock and key and the escape tools buried underneath him. You wonder how many fake maps have been sold to Kane and how many intrepid deluded explorers have been eliminated hunting for it.
Kane is played by Edward Peel and he’s very good, completely believable as this futuristic Dr Phibes, a man eternally pining for his one true love, Xana, while seeking revenge on those who murdered her. Like Phibes, like vampires, he retreats to a coffin to sleep where he dreams of his lost desires. And also like Phibes, when all hope is gone, suicide becomes his only salvation. This scene was perhaps not given the pathos it deserved, but Kane isn’t a sympathetic villain like Sharaz Jek or Guy Crawford; he’s so despicable we want him to die. And die he does, in a melting pot special effect of some gruesomeness.
Anything else? The most impressive thing for me was the set design, all shimmering and sparkling shades of white. Very frosty. The model work and SFX were more than passable too. As the climax approaches, Kane orders the population of Iceworld evacuated onto Glitz’s space ship, the Nosferatu, which he then detonates, killing the inhabitants of his ‘world’. This was immensely brutal and, while many Dr Who villains have attempted forms of genocide, I’m not certain we’ve ever witnessed such an enormous loss of life on the show. Again, rather like Kane’s demise, not enough time is given to such a heinous act. I felt too that the curious recurring motif of a little girl lost in Iceworld needed narrative exploration; her position is never given any importance – unless she’s Dragonfires’s version of the cat in Alien or maybe she’s a reinterpretation of Newt from the sequel Aliens? Given how the last few minutes evolve, I expected Mel to pick the poor orphan up and adopt her, rather like Ripley, but it turns out the girl’s mother is still alive. No one else on Iceworld is. The little girl is the last person we see; I wonder what happened to her?
Perhaps I should leave the final words on Dragonfire to Sylvester McCoy, who’s quite charming again, ably switching from near slapstick to deadly serious to playfully intellectual – the scene where he discusses philosophy to distract a guard was pure magic – all the while seeming to both protect and admonish his companions. Mel’s departure leaves him in something of an emotional and intellectual black hole:
“That’s right, yes, you’re going. You’ve gone for ages, you’ve already gone, you’re still here, just arrived, haven’t even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.”
3 from 5
Season 24 improves on the disaster of Season 23. It has a couple of thought provoking adventures to add to the usual duds and both Paradise Towers and Dragonfire go some way to correct the obvious damage. Sadly, Captain John Nathan Turner alongside First Mate Colin Baker has steered the ship into such a huge iceberg the end feels inevitable already. Any decent moments are merely a stay of execution. We are watching the orchestra playing its final notes before being swamped by the cold tides. God it’s a sad sight.
While the Sixth Doctor was hampered by his dress sense, the Seventh suffers an insurmountable scheduling conflict. Transported back onto Monday nights, Sylvester McCoy’s run was pitched against an all-powerful enemy called Coronation Street. Now, that’s a battle Dr Who simply can’t win. And he didn’t. Ratings hardly stretched past five million. If the BBC didn’t care what happened to its fabled sci-fi series why should anybody else? Viewers didn’t tune in and another nail shudders into the coffin, or to continue the sailing analogy, salt water is being rubbed into wounds.
McCoy’s an okay Doctor. He displays a decent grasp of the character as the audience might expect it, yet adds his own insights. He’s a trifle manic occasionally, but that might be a directing or scripting issue. The production values have gone up which is a good thing, but the production team can’t create a decent monster for toffee. Bonnie Langford’s Mel Bush fails to make any impact. I can offer no extended opinion on her contribution to the series. She reminds me of Dodo Chaplet, who also graced the show for a paltry handful of stories and left in a sudden unlikely rush without ever seeming to have found a niche to inhabit. Some commentators consider Tony Selby’s Glitz to be a surrogate companion. He’s certainly got a better case than Sara Kingdom, but this is clutching at straws, trying to make him an interesting character when he isn’t. After Peri’s galivanting off with Yrcanos and Mel’s preference for the rugged unwashed, you wonder what these poor delicate women have done to deserve such unsuitable bed mates. I’m going to stop thinking about it.
Luckily, Sophie Aldred’s engaging Ace is still around to blow things up, so fun may well ensue. Let’s hope so because on this evidence, huge improvements are necessary to drag Dr Who out of a deep watery grave.
REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS
Dr Who returned for its twenty-fifth season in October 1988, two months before its actual anniversary on 23rd November. Debut Dr Who writer Ben Aaronovitch grew up watching the show and he’s delved into the far past and tipped the time travellers out of the TARDIS and into London, 1963. Coal Hill School and 76 Totters Lane to be precise: exactly the locations of the original opening episode. Nice touch, but not so unusual. We’ve been here before as recently as Attack of the Cybermen. That was a fortuitous accident. This visit seems to be entirely preordained. As the story progresses, it transpires the Doctor wasn’t an exile from Gallifrey after all, but a rebellious Time Lord with a masterplan to defeat the Daleks, one which – through a line of poor scripting – he appears to have planned from the very birth of Time Lord history.
Let’s just stop there a moment.
From when? The Doctor explains to Ace the function of a coffin-like gizmo called the Hand of Omega. He tells her very specifically: “when we” engineered it. But he’s speaking about Rasillon and Omega, those great heroes of Time Lord legend. The Doctor should say “they.” He corrects himself and clarifies the slip by saying “the Time Lords.” This doesn’t close the matter down. McCoy is so slippery in his delivery, it is difficult to understand his intent, or that of the writers. Are they really suggesting the Doctor was present during all these great innovations? Are they really drawing a curtain over our accepted Time Lord history? Are they attempting to make the Doctor into as powerful a cosmic legend as his [once?] forebears? The idea is startling and – for this viewer at least – unsettling. I understand that a long running series needs to innovate and negotiate changing times and cultures, but this revelation, or potential revelation, alters the fundamental nature of the Doctor’s being. In fact, it does more than that: by the end of the episode, the Doctor has essentially erased the whole protracted twenty-five year time line of the show.
Let me explain.
When we met the Doctor and Susan Foreman in the opening episode of An Unearthly Child, the suggestion is given that they are not of planet Earth, most noticeably through the wonderous TARDIS time travel spacecraft. Throughout the earliest stories, and fairly consistently right up to Peter Davison’s Fifth incarnation, the audience is treated to the Doctor roaming seemingly at random through the universe, meeting and beating enemies on far distant planets as well as defying constant invasions of Earth. He always needs to investigate his opponents, always struggles to overcome those odds, sometimes to his death and regeneration. Eventually, the Doctor reveals he is from a race of godlike beings called Time Lords. He has stolen, or ‘borrowed’ a TARDIS and ‘escaped’ his home world to journey across the universe, making him a renegade. Sometimes he refers to himself as an exile, presumably a self-exile, and he would be prosecuted on his return to Gallifrey. Indeed, in The War Games, he meets such a fate. While we’ve never known exactly the Doctor’s personal history, we have been drip fed goblets of information throughout the one hundred and fifty plus adventures.
The Doctor attended the Time Lord Academy and majored in thermodynamics. One of his contemporaries was fellow renegade the Rani and it has been hinted the two were once romantically inclined, although this seems to be only from the Doctor’s side. Another contemporary, or near contemporary, was the Master. They may be brothers; the evidence doesn’t prove or disprove this. Drax, who was in the same faculty, didn’t pass the rigorous examination procedure and did not ascend to the rank of Time Lord. He too chose to roam the universe as a sort of time travel expert for hire, preferring the danger of mercenary life to being servile and living outside the Capitol. The mysteries of time are bestowed on a Time Lord by the High Council. They must be earned. The Doctor must have received his, possibly with the guidance of his mentor K’Anpo, who took up residence in a monastery on Earth. One of the Doctor’s old professors, Chronotis, also settled on Earth, Cambridge to be precise. So, it is no surprise the Doctor ventures to our planet when in self-imposed exile.
The audience has also been taught much of Gallifreyan history, or myth, if you like. In short, the solar engineer Omega discovered how to harness the power of a collapsed star. His experiments led to the development of the Time Lord’s unending power, known as the Eye of Harmony and captured in a chamber beneath the Gallifreyan Panopticon. It also led to Omega’s own physical banishment into a world of antimatter. Omega would twice attempt to re-join the physical universe and be twice thwarted by the Doctor. Rasillon, a near contemporary of Omega, perfected time travel and the transcendental qualities of the TARDIS. For this he isolated the Time Lord’s symbiotic nuclei, known as a Rassilon Imprimatur, enabling a secure method of time travel. The Amplified Panotropic Computer Network contains copies of the biometric data of all Time Lords; so anyone who steals the data can themselves adapt the principles of time travel. [Several people have stolen it or tried to: the Andromedans, Mawdryn’s race, the Sontarans; others have been given it or aspects of it as a dubious gift, like the Minyans.] The histories of the Time Lords can be accessed via the Matrix, which is a component of the A.P.C. Net. All time capsules are linked telepathically to each other, to the Time Lords and the Matrix through the A.P.C. Net and by the power of the Eye of Harmony.
The Time Lords have self-appointed themselves as ‘Guardians of Time’ [my phrase] and refuse to tolerate interference in the natural order of the universe. This came about following a series of disastrous forays into other galaxies, such as the war with the Great Vampires or the plight of Minyos. There have always been rebels, including Morbius, whose behaviour as head of the Time Lord High Council led to civil war. However, their ‘guardian’ role has come with strings attached and while they preach non-interference, when it suits them the Time Lords will act to protect their interests and sometimes those of other worlds. The Doctor has frequently become their unwilling agent; useful because he is not ‘officially’ a Time Lord so the powers that be can always deny any involvement.
I am summarising because to give a full account of Time Lord mythology would fill a book. In fact, I believe it has; please refer to Steve Tribe’s A Brief History of the Time Lords, ISBN 9780062666864. I freely admit some of my summary may not be entirely accurate. However, accuracy wasn’t a concern either for producer John Nathan Turner, writer Ben Aaronovitch and script editor Andrew Cartmel. Remembrance of the Daleks introduces us to the Hand of Omega, a Remote Stellar Manipulator. This coffin-sized piece of solar engineering is a replica of the machine Omega utilised to collapse a sun, destroy a galaxy and gather the resulting black hole. I’d like to say again: it is the size of a coffin. It levitates, which is even more bizarre, and changes the properties of physical matter. The Doctor appears to have a master and servant relationship with the coffin, ordering it about and treating it like a long-lost child. Which in a way it is, because the Doctor abandoned the Hand of Omega in a Coal Hill funeral parlour, November 1963.
Let’s pause on this for a moment.
The Doctor openly states that he deliberately left the Hand of Omega on Earth. He wanted not to hide it but to use it as bait for the Daleks, who he knows wish to capture the Hand to increase their rudimentary use of Time Corridors [see Revelation of…, Evil of…, Day of and The Chase, among others]. The Daleks plan to eliminate the Time Lords and become the sole overseeing universal power. Or rather Davros plans it. The crinkly old warped one is back again. Confusingly he’s disguised as the Emperor Dalek, which is odd because I was fairly certain last time out Davros was an enemy of the Supreme Dalek. Are not the Emperor and the Supreme Daleks on the same side anymore? Davros clearly escaped the explosion of the Dalek spaceship at the end of Revelation of the Daleks, but why would he relocate to Skaro? The Daleks didn’t want him there. It’s where his enemies reside. So, what has happened to make him superior once more? The last few years and stories involving Dalek history have become as confusing as those containing Gallifreyan history. Additionally, if the Doctor was planning on hiding the Hand of Omega and then using it to his advantage before we ever met him, why then in The Daleks has he no idea who the titular monsters are, how they function or what their weaknesses are. He’s not heard of the Thals either or Skaro. Now, he could be deceiving us – remember he deliberately sabotaged the TARDIS – but why bother to put himself and his companions through such hideous chaos? And one of them is his own granddaughter. Is Susan ignorant of the Daleks and the Doctor’s plan? It makes no sense that the Doctor has all along had the ultimate solution to that and every following Dalek adventure because he has already hidden it on Earth in 1963.
I digress, but it does once again call out the lack of overall Dr Who knowledge displayed by the writing team who admirably want to attempt something different but clearly have no clue how to achieve it without trampling on everything we’ve seen before. They can’t even spell I.M. Foreman correctly. [They spell it Forman, which it wasn’t in 1963 or in 1985.]
To frame the Seventh Doctor’s era, script editor Andrew Cartmel, a young man in his first position of authorial and editorial power, decided to alter the intrinsic nature of the Doctor. Fans refer to this notion as the Cartmel Masterplan. No longer will the Doctor be a universe wanderer, fascinated by the road to the stars and the alien beings he encounters. Instead he has become a galactic special agent of his own making, even, dare I say it, a supernatural one. The Doctor’s intellect has never been in question, but there’s something else creeping under Sylvester McCoy’s genial surface. This is best exemplified in a very fine scene where he discusses problem solving with a Jamaican café owner:
“Every great decision creates ripples. Like a huge boulder dropped in a lake, the ripples merge or rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.”
What exactly is he talking about? What decision is he reaching? There’s an obvious subtext in the adventure which revolves around discrimination, specifically racism, a topic still very relevant in the U.K. in the late 1980s [and dare I say it, today]. Ace finds and removes a notice pinned to the window of Mrs Smith’s boarding house which reads: ‘No Coloureds.’ Mrs Smith’s son is Mike, a soldier with the Special Military Science Unit, a badly executed forerunner of UNIT. He’s also a member of the Association, led by George Sewell’s fascist politician come rogue businessman Ratcliff, a man imprisoned for his extreme Aaryan beliefs during the Second World War. Bitter and angry, but also incompetent, the Association is in league with the Renegade Daleks to aid their quest for the Hand of Omega in return for unbridled power. George Sewell is clueless in this. So is Dursley McLinden as Mike. In fact, other than Sophie Aldred, who most of the time provides a watchable and searching turn as the boisterous companion Ace, all the performances are dreary. The most interesting acting turn is Jasmine Breaks ‘Girl’, a little blonde poppet who turns out to be a mesmerised Dalek captive, her immature, unpolluted mind the exact illogic required to master the Dalek battle computers, turning their war fleet into an intuitive force rather than a rational one. Breaks is very good. Her story arc refers us neatly back to the Dalek-Movellan War of Destiny of… and one assumes this Dalek innovation came about after the Space Virus which ravished their race.
However, the Doctor, who would not have known of this development in the accepted time line, seems remarkably aware of it. He’s very aware of everything about the Daleks. Only the reveal of Davros surprises him. The subtext of racism suits a Dalek adventure. Let’s be honest, they are the Nazi Party of the galaxies and Davros is their Hitler, come back to lead them to all-conquering glory or an inevitable doom. The Doctor recognises this, and understands the café owner’s contemplative words on slavery, but he’s not really interested in writing this universal wrong. No; he’s come back to finish the ripples of a job he started twenty-five Earth years and one hundred and fifty adventures ago.
Procrastination isn’t the half of it.
Twenty-five years? He’s been almost killed numerous times, endured six regenerations, a banishment, two trials which might have ended in his execution and goodness knows how many other dangerous incidents and all the while he intended to return to Coal Hill School and 76 Totter’s Lane. And what is his ultimate aim? Hold your breath: galactic destruction. Now, let it go.
No. I can’t.
The Doctor has always shown a decisive streak when necessary. He’s always tempered this with a belief in communication, coexistence and the ability of good to triumph over evil. This was never more clearly stated than in Genesis of the Daleks when the Doctor paused before activating the plunger on the bomb which would eliminate the Daleks before they even existed:
“Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word ‘Dalek.’… But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.”
This famous statement, delivered by Tom Baker at his brilliant best, is fundamental to our understanding of the Doctor and his morals-bound conscience. Yet here, Cartmel undermines every facet of this complex balance between good and evil that the Doctor lives and tortures himself with. Cartmel has no control over his vision either, confusing when he should clarify: at one moment, the Doctor refers to the Daleks as intelligent salient beings and appears to mourn the army’s destruction of a troop of the marauding pepper pots. This is the same Doctor that two episodes earlier used Ace’s Nitro-9 bombs to blow up a Dalek! This is the same Doctor who has plotted for twenty-five Earth years to activate the Hand of Omega and present it to the Daleks in full knowledge the Remote Stellar Manipulator will destroy Skaro’s sun, wipe out the its solar system and incinerate in a single second the lives of every Dalek, Thal and whatever other civilisations and beings exist in that galaxy! The Doctor, the audience’s barometer of right and wrong, the figure of compassion and understanding, has just become the single greatest mass murderer in science fiction history!
It’s shocking and shockingly sorrowful.
I felt insulted that the production team should treat my hero – yes my hero, I am an audience member too and I can claim a right to the Doctor as much as anyone – as a genocidal uber-criminal. What on Earth, on Gallifrey, or on Skaro were they thinking? Did the team not understand anything about the Doctor’s personality, his history, his trials and tribulations? Did they really believe an audience would accept this?
Apparently they did, and the five million who watched it and numerous multitudes of fans who have analysed the story over the decades, clearly disagree with me. Remembrance of the Daleks is consistently voted one of the Top Ten Classic adventures or one of the Best Ever Top Twenty stories. That, in my opinion, shows a distinct lack of comprehension about the Doctor as a character and the show as a slice of relevant science fiction. Remembrance of… undermines everything I have been watching for the past two years on playback. Two seasons ago, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor was on trial for genocide. Now, Sylvester McCoy has committed it.
Let’s draw a line beneath my ire.
[to be continued...]
Apparently this post is 3585 words long and that is well over the post limit. It is also some serious Dr Who dissatisfaction...
Season Twenty Five
Remembrance of the Daleks
The show is well made. The special effects are really special. I loved the Dalek-eye view of the action, which reminds us of Schwarzenegger’s Predator. The futuristic sets are fine. I even enjoyed the fat-head of the Emperor Dalek, despite it bearing no resemblance to the original. The synth heavy soundtrack sounds as if was written by New Romantic maestros Blancmange. There are a couple of blatant plot holes which shouldn’t exist. For instance, the Doctor states he wants to destroy the Dalek transmat machine, but it takes him an age to do so, leading to the arrival of a Dalek advance task force. There is no reason for the story to take place in 1963. It is a convenience which allows the writer to introduce a series of vignettes that echo the original opening episode, including a metareference to the show itself when a television announcer says: “This is BBC television, the time is quarter past five and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series Do…” On this outing, he ought to introduce Doctor Dolittle in Space. Some of the references completely passed me by. For instance mention is made of ‘Bernard’ who is part of the British Rocket Group; this tags Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment, another popular BBC sci-fi of the fifties and sixties. Many commentators cherish these nuggets, but they do nothing for me. It’s tired, unimaginative and exclusive writing, pandering to those in the know at the expense of the casual viewer. Dialogue in particular should be driven by character and relevant to the action, if it isn’t, and lines like these are not, they serve no purpose and should be ditched.
There I go again.
The representation of Coal Hill School was excellent, although Jasmine Breaks’ Girl seems too young to be in high school. Ken Trews’ costumes are evocative of the early sixties. Designer Martin Collins recreates Ian Chesterton’s science classroom in great detail. There’s a lovely moment where Ace picks up a copy of The French Revolution, the same book Susan Foreman read. It does seem somewhat unlikely that the Dalek transmat is sited in the school’s cellar. Cue more levitating Daleks. The adventure is held together by Sophie Aldred, who offers a much better imagining of Ace than she did in Dragonfire. She’s proactive, sympathetic, empathetic and displays a restless vitality which suits the explosive nature of her character’s physical attributes. She’s the most active companion since Leela. Aldred spars well with McCoy. There’s a beautifully comic scene where she’s driving an army vehicle very badly and reacts to the Doctor’s complaints by shouting: “If you can do a better job, you drive!” Next shot: he is. Director Andrew Morgan displays a deft touch with the material when he can.
The relationships between the characters don’t work. The story is rushed to the point of confusion. The most frustrating aspect is how the Doctor ingratiates himself so quickly into a tight-knit military force. This isn’t UNIT. He is a completely unknown quantity. It doesn’t prevent him arriving at a moment of crisis and quickly becoming a fulcrum of decision making and action. Nobody properly questions him in the manner they used to accuse Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker. It’s unbelievable that he gains everyone’s trust so easily. Sensibly, Ace queries why she’s never heard about the Dalek invasion of 1963. The Doctor passes it and other invasions off as ‘human deception’ – but this again is a writing convenience and shows up the stupidity of the serial’s location and setting. Given John Nathan Turner’s penchant for bringing back old characters, you’d think he’d have thrown in the Brigadier again and set it during the UNIT era.
There’s another misstep when Mike Smith makes a pass at Ace, who appears to respond with enthusiasm: “Blimey! Your confident!” she grins. Two minutes later her hopes are dashed. This seems rather cruel of the writers who have forgotten Ace was introduced to us as being sixteen years old. There’s even a suggestion she’s already slept with Mike [Ace appears at breakfast wearing a dressing gown, hair unkempt and smiling broadly at the blonde hunk]. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here. I don’t mind that she’s interested in men – why shouldn’t she be? – but this more mature and instinctive emotional behaviour doesn’t ever work well in Dr Who. We saw it a little with Ian and Barbara, Ben and Polly, Jo Grant’s infatuation with Cliff Jones, Tanya and Leo’s dalliance in The Wheel in Space, but generally ‘sex’ isn’t done in the Dr Who universe. Even the central and important romance in Delta and the Bannermen was chaste.
Let’s stop now.
I don’t like Remembrance of the Daleks. I can’t fault its obvious qualities but nor can I forgive its slack betrayal of the Doctor:
2 from 5.
is it possible The Doctor who left the Hand of Omega behind in 1963 era London was not Hartnell doing it in "real time" but McCoy going back in time to before his predecessor first met the Daleks? So that Hartnell could use this gadget, if he somehow accidentally stumbled upon it? That doesn't really make sense either, but might explain away why Hartnell and Susan never heard of Daleks before.
Also the Doctor's attitude to Daleks may have changed since the First Baker gave that famous speech. He has had more experiences since then to harden his attitude. In 21st Century episodes, The Doctor speaks about Daleks with disturbing prejudice.
Its not just this story though that seems to change The Doctor's whole history. In all of McCoy's final season I got the feeling he was now more of a Gandalf type character, patiently waiting millennia for his moment to act while the little people mistake him for a harmless fool (which makes Earth = Hobbiton)
I appreciate your lengthy summary of what we have learned so far about Time Lord history and technology. Those paragraphs alone are a great reference. By this point, there were novels of all-new adventures weren't there? as well as the annuals and other tie ins? Had the fan community been able to put together the clues as you have? Thinking of comic books, for example, its usually the fans who sort this stuff out. The creators don't care as much as the fans, but then come to really on fan research and theories when they need to make the fictional universe more internally consistent.
Real World motivation: I can see for a 25th anniversary show there might also be a temptation to hype it with a "This Changes Everything" type twist, especially when the show is desperate to survive. They've done that more than a few times with the 21st Century show.
@caractacus potts You have an interesting theory regarding the Doctor's future / previous time travel exploits - journeys we may never have or ever will be witness too. Could that be the nature of time travel itself? one has to ask. In my defence, poor as it may be, I am not looking past what I have viewed on screen since I took up the re-watch in January 2021. It is all speculation. As far as I am concerned, when I am reviewing the above story, and others like it, my comments, praise and criticisms are based on the information provided to me by the series itself, the past adventures and any previously mentioned 'unseen' adventures.
In Remembrance of the Daleks, the Doctor very specifically says he left the Hand of Omega in Totter's Lane Funeral Directors in 1963; no one there recognises him - so the implication is it must be a different Doctor. Now, if you want to subscribe to the Doctor-as-an-omnipotent-being theory, you can do whatever you want with your timeline - it really doesn't matter, because he's alwasy going to understand the past, present and future. After seeing these outcomes once or twice, the theory loses its sparkle [if it had any] because any tension around the monsters or villains dastardly universe threatening plan just isn't a threat anymore - we know the Doctor has it sussed. It makes for a heartless experience in my opinion. I ought to stop though, lest I spoil any of my future reviews...
For info on the novels, I refer you to the Seventh Doctor's continuation series, known as The Virgin New Adventures:
Virgin New Adventures - Wikipedia
You'll notice many familiar names crop up, such as Terrance ****, Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch, David Banks and even Russel T. Davies. The series didn't actually start until after the Classic Series concluded. I have never read one, so I have no idea what they revolve around other than what I have gleaned from fan sites.
I also refer you to The Virgin Missing Adventures series for 'unseen' stories featuring Doctor's 1 to 6:
Virgin Missing Adventures - Wikipedia
These are Virgin publications because Virgin Media bought out Target books and thus obtained the licence to publish Dr Who related literature from the BBC. Again, I have not read any of these novels and if I have referred to them, it is information garnered from other sources.
Glad you're enjoying the reviews.
so the all-new adventure novels didn't start until after the series ended. That makes sense come to think of it, like happened with Star Trek. Create an alternate product for the fans when the tv network wont pay for anymore episodes, keeping the cult alive until one day the tv series finally gets revived. ...But I guess what I was really wondering, is how much effort had the fans at this point (or the shows creators) gone to mapping out a consistent backstory based on all the often contradictory clues given over 25 years? Was anybody actually keeping track at the time?
Reason I'm thinking maybe McCoy went back in time to leave the thingamajig in 1963 London is: there's an early Tom Baker episode where he arrives on a planet, and sees his own face carved into a mountain like Mt Rushmore. He's been there before. But as Tom Baker. Yet he was relatively new in the part, it wouldve been more logical if it was one of his first three faces he saw on the mountain. Seems generally once they cast a new Doctor, all newly revealed past adventures happened to this latest incarnation, they really only acknowledge the Doctor had previous faces when there's a Three Doctors type teamup. This happens in the new episodes too (thought there's one funny gag where Matt Smith goes to show his ID to someone, and it turns out to be William Hartnell's library card)
This is a quote from the Fandom site, and is a point I made in my review on page 7 of this thread, if it helps- which it probably doesn't:
The story does not explicitly explain when the Fourth Doctor repaired the Starfall Seven's computer. The novelisation suggests that the earlier visit to the planet of the Sevateem took place during the story Robot in the moment when Sarah sees him begin to leave in the TARDIS, suggesting that the Doctor actually left in the TARDIS and returned to UNIT so quickly that nobody realised that he had ever gone, with the Doctor's still-addled mind due to his recent regeneration causing him to forget the whole trip. This was not derived from any information given in the televised version.
So of course, it would be possible that McCoy's Doctor visited London 1963 before he met Ace, but he doesn't mention it. He does though suggest he left a coffin behind and with hindsight Hartnell's initial appearance in a black suit with a cane and cape suggests a funereal air. Basically, it is open to debate isn't it. My feeling is there wouldn't be any point in the Seventh Doctor specifically returning to Coal Hill 1963 just to deposit the Hand of Omega there. Yes, it would make sense to leave it somewhere he is familiar with - but in that case surely UNIT H.Q. might be a safer bet?
Of course, given this is a 25th Anniversary adventure, we all know the real reason the writer dumped the Doctor in London 1963: a nostalgic glance back at the show's origin. The story doesn't gain anything from being set in a recent historical time, if anything, it confuses the Doctor's personal history even more.
THE HAPPINESS PATROL
Doctor Who meets Bertie Bassett.
The Happiness Patrol is considered a cult classic by many Dr Who aficionados. This gloomy story paints a futuristic picture of a world without sadness. It was filmed during the tail end of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and there’s a lot of subtext about the oppression of workers, the matriarchal society, the police state, the underclasses and capital punishment. It can only be subtext because most of the action and dialogue is hopelessly enigmatic and doesn’t deliver any of the promises it sets out in the opening exchanges between the Doctor and Ace, when she insists the planet Terra Alpha is “Too phoney; too happy” – ironic in itself as it is neither – and the Doctor has heard rumours that the planet is in some sort of trouble.
[Point of Cartmel Masterplan order: since when has the Doctor ever heard any news about any planet during his personal timeline? Where and when did these rumours start? Did the Doctor watch a galactic news channel or have the Time Lords dispatched him with all haste – doubtful as nothing here is related to time travel or time meddling – or is he now a free agent, having finally finished his genocidal plans for the Daleks?]
The early scenes have a genuine sinister air and we are intrigued by the notion of a society where sadness has been outlawed. Ruling ironically by fear is Helen A [a decent stab at a Thatcher ‘impersonation’ by Sheila Hancock]. Her Happiness Patrols deal in gloopy death. Terra Alpha is not a pleasant place. The world is suitably drab and empty. Viewed today, when people’s every word, action and twitter post is subject to analysis, where governments insist people tow a certain line [there’s a football World Cup taking place as I write whose authorities have threatened disciplinary action for criticising the tournament and its organisers] and where individuals are castigated for not being positive about their country, family, career, etc., The Happiness Patrol’s underlying theme appears to be years ahead of its time. There is certainly a sense of the absurd breaking out, which McCoy’s Doctor reinforces several times throughout the adventure with his trifling and petty intellectual digressions, dialogues and conversations which often turn intentions on their head. He was particularly good confronting Trevor Sigma from the Galactic Census Bureau. Unfortunately, the script is rushed all-round. People appear and disappear and reappear without enlightenment and it is left to the Doctor to deliver a series of speeches to explain what hasn’t been seen. He doesn’t discover anything very much about Terra Alpha that he doesn’t already know, including the origins of the indigenous mole-like ogres, the Pipe People. The Doctor appears to be ready primed for invoking a revolution. I prefer my Doctors to do some rudimentary dirt digging. Still, it’s fair to say I was reasonably impressed for twelve minutes.
And then I was introduced to Kandyman. There is no way to describe this cheerful, yet psychopathic kitchen appliance robot except by calling him Bertie Bassett. This weird humanoid liquorice all-sort scrapes every kind of barrel and keeps on scraping. I can’t see any reason why anyone would consider this ‘monster’ to be anything but a calamity. I’ve read reviews where critics have cited Kandyman as genius: that he appeals to adults who see the humour in death by sweets, and terrifies children by being a sweet that kills. Neither is the case. Kandyman’s intentions won’t terrify children. He’s caustically amusing, intentional and not, which negates all potential tension and horror. Worse, this ‘robot’ appears to have both a symbiotic nature and a human personality, which as we know machines do not.
I can’t tell what writer Graeme Curry’s original aim was with Kandyman, but I’d be stunned if it was this. Somewhere, someone is taking the proverbial. Kandyman undermines immediately any sense of satire or political deep-thought which might be present simply because he’s so ham-fistedly ridiculous. Alexander Pope wrote about town mice and village mice to exemplify the chasm between societies; Pope’s satire is intelligent, witty and prevalent. The Happiness Patrol and the Kandyman is ludicrous, dull and extremely one-note, a bit like Earl Sigma’s blues harmonica.
“Happiness is nothing unless it exists side-by-side with sadness,” says the Doctor. I beg to differ. I was extremely sad to watch this and I got no happiness writing this review:
1 from 5.
I was very disappointed with Remembrance Of The Daleks. I was expecting some interaction with Ian and Barbara and Susan.
I’ve now finished the original run (including the 1996 movie) and the last few series, in the main, have been weak, to say the least.
Yet another veil of tears falls into the bucket of sadness that is latter day Classic Dr Who.
Silver Nemesis is an exceedingly poor immediate remake of Remembrance of the Daleks. It features Cybermen, Fourth Reich Nazis, a Tudor era Lady and her manservant, two mute gun-toting assassins, a meteorite, the living metal validium, hocus pocus black magic time travel, an enormous Cyber fleet waiting to launch an invasion, lots of gunbattles, Ace fighting Cybermen with gold coins a la David and Goliath, lovely scenery of Arundel standing in for Windsor, a brief cameo from Courtney Pine, an even briefer cameo from the late Queen [not really, one of her many impersonators] and the Doctor acting very strange indeed.
It’s crap. It really is.
Episode one premiered on 23rd November 1988, exactly twenty-five years to the date of the original episode of An Unearthly Child. How far this great science fiction series has fallen can be revealed by watching the two episodes back to back. The 1963 episode is interesting, well scripted, well-acted, tense, confrontational, mysterious, even frightening, the characters are well-drawn and the climax is gripping. Not a single one of those elements is present in the 1988 version of Dr Who. Kevin Clarke, the third consecutive debut Dr Who author, simply hasn’t a clue how to manufacture a coherent story. The action is nonsensical and jumps around all over Windsor and through different eras of time with barely a moment of explanation. Character development is zero, unless we’re going to mention the Doctor’s sudden mysterious unexplained past, which has been creeping inexorably through the last few adventures. Hence, the Doctor doesn’t care what’s happening because he’s already thought it out, once he remembers why he set the alarm on his pocket watch. Kevin Clarke pitched his story idea off-the-cuff during a prospective interview with John Nathan Turner and the results show.
As if it wasn’t bad enough having the Time Lords invent one weapon of mass destruction, they get to do it again, and the Doctor gets to hide it again and again he hides it on Earth. This time it’s a bow, arrow and statue made from validium, a living metal. So we’re kind of in Greek myth territory here, Galatea and Pygmalion and all that. Except we’re really not. We are floating around on a metaphorical lake of galactic dog poo. There is simply too much going on to hold the attention of this viewer and none of it makes any sense. This Silver Nemesis thingamajig was created by Omega and Rasillon as the ultimate weapon of destruction. “It should never have left Gallifrey,” shrugs the Doctor, “but it did.”
Yeah. I expect you nicked it, like you did the Hand of Omega and that malfunctioning TARDIS. Initially, I enjoyed Sylvester McCoy’s interpretation of the Doctor, but I’m growing to dislike this smug, secretive, snidey little version. Not so much your grouchy grandfather as your shady Uncle Ernie. He’s horrible. Never answers a straight question with a straight answer. Never explains what he is doing, intends to do and – worse – what he has already done. That strange sorceress from the past, Lady Peinforte, has got his number:
“Have you ever wondered where he came from, who he is? – The statue told me – Has he told you about Gallifrey, the old time, the time of chaos?”
‘Old time’? Where are we? Narnia?
This is another instance of the [in]famous Cartmel Masterplan rearing its ugly head. The issue I have with this ‘plan’ is that it changes the fundamental presence of the Doctor. Had this ‘cosmic avenger’ character been noticeable from the very start, I could run with it. But revealed so late in the show’s lifetime it just stinks of intellectual desperation, as if the production team felt they simply must attempt something, anything, to demonstrate how clever they are, how they can evolve and remould Dr Who into something they consider is artistically beautiful. Oh, wait, so we are watching Galatea and Pygmalion…
Ace sums it up with the final line: “Professor… who are you?” Who indeed:
THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
“Now welcome, folks, I’m sure you’d like to know, We’re at the start of one big circus show, There are acts that are cool and acts that amaze, Some acts are scary, some act in a daze, Acts of all kinds and you can count on that, From folks who fly to disappearing acts, There are lots of surprises for the family In the Greatest Show in the Galaxy, So many strange surprises I’m prepared to bet, Whatever you’ve seen before: you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Thus commences the Ringmaster’s Song, a prologue to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a surreal masterpiece of science fiction that remembers all the ingredients which make Dr Who such a compelling show. Instead of resorting to stupid sweet wrapper monsters, Time Lord tomfoolery and daft time travel scenarios which take oodles of explanation to not explain anything, author Stephen Wyatt manufactures a slice of intense, psychological horror, set predominantly in and around a circus ring. What the closing serial of the 25th Season does so well is remind us of the childhood fears we consigned to the dustbin of infancy; it dresses them up appropriately for adults to understand the metaphor and for actual children to visit their own preconceptions, specifically about magic, circuses, clowns and, more noticeably, death…
“Things don’t just vanish,” says the Doctor while Ace searches for her rucksack, throwing past companion’s old clothes into the control room. She appears wrapped in Tom Baker’s scarf. However, it also appears people do just vanish…
The universe famed Psychic Circus, the self-proclaimed Greatest Show in the Galaxy, has taken up residence on Segonax. A troupe of mysterious clowns patrol the perimeter seeking two escapees – Bellboy and Flower Child – members of the Circus. Self-propelling kites guide them to their quarry. The pursuit is conducted in a silent black hearse. One of the hunted, Flower Child, is caught by the robotic Ticket Inspector who rules a psychedelic bus; for her misdemeanours, she disappears…
The Doctor and Ace are offered invitations to the Circus through a junk mail robot, which materialises inside the TARDIS and offers an open challenge to Ace, claiming she is scared of clowns. This becomes a recurring theme in the story which doesn’t quite hit its full stride because the narrative is overtaken by the intense psychological play offs between the characters…
Segonax is a strange almost unoccupied world. The only inhabitant other than the Circus people appears to be a weary Stallholder, tired from the constant flood of tourists seeking the Circus. She seems only too happy to exploit them, however…
I was instantly reminded of the faux hospitality provided by Tilda and Tabby in author Stephen Wyatt’s previous effort Paradise Towers. Peggy Mount’s rather unsightly character seems to suffer similar poor taste in clothes and cloying attitudes. There’s a wonderfully erudite moment when she lists and rues every style and variation of tourist, ending with “…and doctors.” We think she might have been expecting him, but it’s more likely she’s overheard Ace and the Doctor talking and is reinforcing her evident dislike. Sylvester McCoy’s slanted glance certainly suggests so…
The Doctor and Ace encounter the crazy Hell’s Angel motorcyclist Nord, before stopping for afternoon tea with Captain Cook, the famed intergalactic explorer, who has come to witness the miracles of the circus. His young assistant Mags appears to be his slave, although he insists she is his ‘companion.’ The parallels or not with the Doctor and Ace are clear to see. When Mags is attacked by some dormant hardware half-buried in the quarry, Ace and the Doctor spring to her assistance but Cpt Cook merely sips his tea. An old colonialist of the Victorian era, he exhibits a demeanour so calm and superior, he becomes as unreal as Colonel Blimp. The Captain’s only master is his own soul. Mags, an inhabitant of the planet Volpana, hides a secret which later manifests itself with devastating consequences…
When the Doctor and Ace finally reach the Psychic Circus, a faint scream can be heard. Ace wonders whether they should proceed; the Doctor cajoles her into it. The screaming continues…
The Circus is attended by only three people, a family who sit almost motionless and pass judgement on the entertainment. It’s like Britain’s Got Talent, only with disappearance – death – as the reward. The Circus ring and its maze of tents is brilliantly realised. The warren of canvas tunnels leads to a series of time portals, one that reveals a cave inhabited by the hallucination of an eye – the same eye which adorns the ancient stone walls of the circus entrance. Another portal eventually leads to the enemy within…
The Circus is managed by the Ringmaster and Morgana [Rico Ross and Deborah Manship, both excellent]. They in turn are in thrall to the triplicate audience, who will punish them if they fail to produce a constant flow of amusements. The Eye appears in Morgana’s crystal ball, watching the images she conjures. Bellboy has been recaptured, but refuses to cooperate. A janitor, called Deadbeat, watches proceedings with a sly gleam in his eye. Nord is joined by the Captain and Mags to await their turn in the ring…
The Stallholder, Captain Cook, Mags, Bellboy, Flower Child, the Ringmaster, Morgana the Gypsy, Deadbeat and the villainous Chief Clown are familiar in their disparity. It is the fact they seem completely unrelated to each other which makes them corelate, for this is not only a psychic circus, but a psychic dreamlike phenomenon. I was reminded of those black and white adventures The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber, which both took place in an environment of surreal wonder and curiosity, where reality blurred with unreality. In the former story, the inhabitants were trapped in the Toymaker’s world, unable to escape except by playing his fatal games, much how the circus folk here have given themselves over to fantastical unforgiving overlords. The latter story took place in an environment of pure fantasy, where fiction was made real; and here it is the fiction of entertainment, the world of the circus, of dexterity, sleight-of-hand, wizardry and cerebral confusion. These unknowns become an impending horror. This brilliantly blends Dr Who science fiction with the non-sci-fi world of horror films, specifically those set in or around a circus. They provide a rich vein of material…
The Seven Faces of Dr Lao is probably the most surreal of cinema’s forays into the circus, and the idea that the big tent can lead to adventures beyond the real world certainly has standing. It is utilised to good effect here, as the watching audience turn out to be ethereal beings who feed off entertainment. Hammer’s Vampire Circus featured a distinctly creepy carnival; and here the alien Mags transforms into a wolf much how an acrobat became a black panther in the more gory forbear. Carnival of Souls bore a dreamlike, grasping torment; while Stephen King’s It featured as its main antagonist the clown Pennywise, a good reason to be scared of these painted pranksters. Above them all of course is the Todd Browning’s haunting Freaks and while Dr Who doesn’t venture down the obvious avenue, the cruel, vicious nature of the circus itself is brought solidly, believably to the fore by director Alan Wareing. His camera revels in the deep, dark shadows and sudden light, he emphasises the gypsy influence and the craving scuttling nature of the clowns, particularly the black and white Chief Clown, who appears to have taken over the show with reticent speech, minimum effort and maximum reward. Ian Reddington is marvellous in this role, his body movements in particular suggestive of a balletic grace beneath the comic exterior and demonic interior. The reason for the Circus’ slow decline is never quite revealed, but the suggestion is that Morgana’s own skill as a spiritualist summoned the Gods of Ragnarök out of their enchanted arena and into the world of the Psychic Circus…
Ragnarök is a Norse prophesy. Various translations call it the End of Man, the Fate of the Gods or the Fate of Mankind. At the end of time, a huge battle takes place in which all the gods are destroyed and from the ashes of battle, a new lifecycle begins. Here, the Gods of Ragnarök are not so dutifully self-destructive. Their stone-like effigies suggest they’ve existed for time immemorial and will continue to exist. The Doctor, who had no time for circus games when visited by a junk mail robot, realises it is only through the same illusoriness of magic and entertainment that he can thwart their rapacious appetites, allowing his allies to reunite a potent medallion which will banish the Gods back into their realm…
The clowns themselves turn out to be sophisticated androids designed and orchestrated by Bellboy, one of the original escapees. These deadly creepy, completely silent robots are the antithesis of what we would expect of a cheerful clown. Ace, usually unafraid and energetic, becomes withdrawn and at times terrified by the unjocular entertainers. On learning from Bellboy that they are purely mechanical, she gains strength and spirit, and manages to out-clown them. At the same moment Ace is prising the truth from Bellboy, the Doctor is prising the last vestiges of humanity from Deadbeat, who it turns out is Kingpin, the circus founder. Bellboy sacrifices himself in a scene of highly orchestrated terror, enabling the others can escape…
The Captain turns on everyone, thinking it will save his life, but his own confidence is his undoing and Mags at last revolts against her master, although she has to invoke a horrific lycanthropic transformation to do so. This moment of change is handled expertly by the makeup team headed by Denise Brown, who work miracles with little. So too the cameramen and editors, who ensure the werewolf remains just the correct side of scary without ceasing to be family friendly. I’m not sure we’ve had scenes quite this blood curdling since the days of Philip Hinchcliffe. Again, it is a testament to the writer that notions of fairy tale and horror can be inserted with depth and some sympathy; Mags is not a horrific creature even if she looks it and Bellboy’s loss is keenly felt…
The sets are brilliantly spare. Exteriors were filmed in a real quarry in Dorset and the old-fashioned stalls, windbreakers, bivouacs and buses that we see early on serve to disorientate us, but are not forgotten towards the climax, when they too serve a purpose. The show tent is a simple affair, made even better by the canvas tunnels and the CGI infused landscape shot – a huge neighbouring planet blotting the skyline. There really was a sense of wonder and also, as with the quarry scenes, a feeling of disorientation. Remarkably, the sets were constructed in a real tent in the Elstree Studio’s car park; exposed asbestos had been discovered in the studio itself and the premises had been shut down. The ingenuity of designer David Laskey must be applauded. So too Rosalind Ebbutt’s expert costumes. The music, from Mark Ayres, doesn’t shy away from the obvious barrel organ motifs, but he incorporates them vividly into a mystifying mirage of sound which never interferes with the dialogue or the action. The score succeeds in its understatement…
There are a host of excellent performances. Leading from the front is Sylvester McCoy who shakes off the weird stoic facial expressions he exhibited when delivering forbearance during the last few stories. Here, he’s got that cheekiness back. The puns work. The intensity is taken down a notch. This time we are on the discovery with him, not standing back waiting for his explanation. He interacts brilliantly with Sophie Aldred, whose Ace is equally good, and the scene where he coaxes life back into Deadbeat’s eyes was quite joyful, something the slightly sinister Doctor of Silver Nemesis wouldn’t be able to do. T.P. McKenna must get a mention for his pompous Captain Cook. Jessica Martin’s Mags was touted as a possible companion, and rightly so. She is outstanding and interacted brilliantly with Ace and later the Doctor, as well as for and against her master Cpt Cook. While I figured out her secret fairly quickly, it would have been well hidden from most of a younger audience. Perhaps the only duff note is struck by the starry-eyed circus fan called Whizz Kid, played by Gian Sammarco, who had recently been impersonating Adrian Mole. This character really does feel as if it has dropped in from The Celestial Toymaker…
Goodness, this was splendid entertainment.
[Point of Cartmel Masterplan order: during the final confrontation between the Doctor and the Gods of Ragnarök, he says he’s been “fighting you all through time” which comes across as one of those enigmatic statements to be taken whatever way you want. Personally, I prefer to ignore the ‘masterplan’ – at least for this story – as it doesn’t seem appropriate. For instance, when exactly has the Doctor been fighting the ungodly trio? We never saw it before. I expect the he’s speaking metaphorically, about ‘all’ evil entities.
[Mind you, it doesn’t help when Ace makes similar assumptions: “It was your show all along, Professor.” In fact, occasionally throughout the story, Ace is hinting she’s becoming suspicious and / or intrigued by the Doctor’s personality; this springs from her own fear of clowns and an imperfect relationship with circuses, something the Doctor wants to challenge. These trifles sit badly within an otherwise outstanding script.
[Commentators have mentioned how the Doctor appears to display prescience, often citing the fact he is juggling at the start of the adventure; the suggestion being he is preparing for the climatic confrontation. This is over elaborate. Speaking as a writer, it is fairly obvious Stephen Wyatt introduces the juggling scene in episode one so that when the Doctor performs magic tricks in episode four, we are not surprised. There is no foresight here, just very good writing.
[Incidentally, Sylvester McCoy couldn’t juggle and had to practice. His magic show was choregraphed by Geoffrey Durham, a member of the magic circle known as the Great Suprendo.]
After all the disappointments of the first three stories in Dr Who’s Silver Anniversary Season, there finally appears to be redemption. I might be overmarking this story, perhaps because I was so relieved to have something worthwhile to watch, but I genuinely thought this was a fantastic, tantalising piece of science fiction which pits adult characters into a child’s world and watches how they confront the evils lurking behind the infantile frivolity…
5 from 5
Producer John Nathan Turner didn’t want to produce Dr Who for this long. He really didn’t. He fancied himself on Bergerac or some such. The Beeb didn’t trust him. He also had a fairly rotten working relationship with the ‘powers that be’ while fighting the Dr Who corner. Turner considered that were he not in place as producer, the executives would have used his defection to end the show. He may well be right. To pit the channel’s prime sci-fi show against the nation’s most popular soap opera looks like a statement of intent: kill it by low ratings. Hardly fair. The budget squeeze cannot have helped much either. Basically, from Season 23 onwards, the show was doomed. It was only a matter of time…
So, I’ll avoid mentioning JNT again. Instead, let’s focus on script editor Andrew Cartmel and his infamous Masterplan, which as far as I can tell is no such thing. This young man, as good as straight out of university, came with a fresh approach: a wish to make the Doctor a more complex character than the white knight we’ve been used to. Doctor Who has always had tinges of grey, but Cartmel wants to stain the whole persona with charcoal and grit. He’s going about it in a subtle enough way that the general, casual viewer wouldn’t notice. The fanatic may well appreciate the change, perhaps enjoying the abrasive edges and soothsayer phraseology Sylvester McCoy is asked to provide. And in a way, looking at things thirty plus years down the line, the change in our hero’s personality doesn’t bother me that much, it’s the nature of the stories and the cavalier way Cartmel destroys the fundamental goodness of the Doctor which really rankles. I can take a few rough edges and welcome them when delivered appropriately; we had them as far back as William Hartnell raging and accusing in the opening episode. If Colin Baker’s interpretation was a step too far, McCoy’s more taciturn point of view feels right at home with an intrigued and intriguing alien space traveller. Most obviously, Cartmel has the Doctor assuming titles which we’ve never heard before: “I am the Doctor, President elect of the High Council of Time Lords, Keeper of the Legacy of Rassilon, Defender of the Laws of Time, Protector of Gallifrey.” He’s never shown much interest in any of these roles unless it suited his peculiar purposes [see The Invasion of Time, The Deadly Assassin and The Trial of a Time Lord, in particular]. Additionally and unfortunately, in this celebration season the Doctor also kills off two arch enemies [thousands or possibly millions of them] with barely a shrug of his diminutive shoulder. I can’t accept that. The kindly Second Doctor and the conscience stricken Fourth and Fifth just wouldn’t tolerate it. It simply isn’t Dr Who cricket. Only the initial, unstructured stories of the Hartnell era and the uncompromising human nature of the UNIT adventures allowed this kind of slaughter, and even then it was questioned and often prevented. There’s not a whiff of protest from anyone in this era.
The less said about The Happiness Patrol the better.
Thankfully, the season ended on a relative, and for me an unexpected, high. I’ve only ever watched a few McCoy adventures, and many of those were unfinished business. My opinion of them is very low. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was, for me, the absolute late flowering of Dr Who. While it may lack the solidity of some of the more famous adventures from the seventies [The Deadly Assassin, Planet of the Daleks, The Seeds of Death, etc] it packed a lot more of punch through originality and ingenuity, both in scripting and staging. The acting, subsequently, went up a notch or two and the whole production felt important, intelligent and stylish. That hasn’t been said by me about many a serial for some time.
If the Silver Anniversary Season eventually disappoints, it isn’t the fault of its finale. The root cause had set in far earlier than that and was seated on the right hand side of the grand master. Oops, I said I wouldn’t mention him…
DOCTOR WHO – THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE (1989)
In March 1989, a few months before the official Dr Who television show recommenced for its twenty-sixth season, the BBC licenced the staging of this theatre extravaganza which brings Doctor Who back on stage for the first time in fifteen years. According to some scribes, producer John Nathan Turner was involved in the show, but it doesn’t feature on his Wiki page and there’s no mention of him on the official listings, which I obtained from a very comprehensive website. He may have offered some advice, I guess; the show certainly has the hallmarks of a JNT botch job.
The biggest positive was the casting of Jon Pertwee who became the first official Doctor to join a film or stage spin off. Tom Baker had earlier become the first to record his Doctor, both on vinyl and for the radio. Pertwee brings some much needed gravitas to a show lacking any. The script was by Terrance ****, who knows his Dr Who. His effort is perfunctory and covers all the necessary bases, injects a trifle of humour and a few neat contemporary asides. The best of these has the Doctor confide to his assistant that “I’ve fought monsters and villains all over the universe but that woman [UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] terrifies me.” The director was Carole Todd, who does efficient work and would continue in this vein of sci-fi rip-offs by helming the extremely successful rock-musical Return to the Forbidden Planet a few years later.
The plot concerns an attempt by the Daleks to kidnap an American Envoy, thus throwing Cold War peace talks into disarray and distrust. The Daleks, with their secret agent Karl the Mercenary, wish to provoke a nuclear war which will annihilate Earth and leave it open to easy conquest. Karl is utilising a troop of renegade Cybermen and they kidnap the envoy from Number 10, a nightclub where the young singer Crystal is performing. The TARDIS lands at the wrong Number 10, but Mrs Thatcher has all the answers anyway and sends the Doctor on his mission. The delay means he’s too late to prevent the kidnap, but with his assistant Jason and the comely Crystal, the Doctor sets off in pursuit.
Evolving a little like The Chase, the Doctor visits Altair III, Bar Galactica, Revolutionary France, an eerie laser-world of song and even Skaro before defeating his enemies. There is some grainy online footage of the show and, in a sort of pantomime fashion, it’s fairly good – or fairly risible; you can take your poisons how you want them. The sets can’t be too credible as they had to be transported week-by-week around the country, starting at my local theatre in Wimbledon on 23rd March 1989 and finishing in Eastbourne on 19th August. Half way through the tour Pertwee was taken ill and Colin Baker replaced him. It was distressing though to read some fan feedback that suggest the Pertwee shows were well-attended, while the Baker performances were neglected. One wag mentions a matinee to an audience of five. Baker, though, showed his gratitude and some humility by chatting to all five attendees and answering questions about the show. As I have remarked before, for all the on screen faults, Colin Baker relishes his time on Dr Who and his place in its mythology.
The new companions don’t quite work. It isn’t clear why Jason has to be a French nobleman, other than the obvious suspense created by hijinks in Robespierre’s Paris. I was impressed with Rebecca Thornhill’s singer Crystal, who shows more intensity and empathy that a hundred Bonnie Langford’s. Some childish fun is provided by Zog, a dog-like creature known as an Aldeberian. Judith Hibbet deserves some praise for her turn as Madame Delilah, swishing her whip at the assorted aliens who frequent her domain, Bar Galactica.
Among the brood at her bar are a Draconian and a Vervoid. This sequence has echoes of the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars and is probably the most accomplished in the whole show, despite some dreadful hand-to-hand combat. Delilah flatters and seduces a reluctant Doctor while Jason and Crystal rile the aggressive locals and get mixed up in a bar fight. After this, the show becomes rather humdrum and re-enacts scenes and plot threads we’ve seen before on Dr Who, from Day of the Daleks, The Chase, The Reign of Terror, Evil of the Daleks, etc, etc. The strangest element of the production is the introduction of a few song-and-dance numbers which sit awkwardly next to the sci-fi antics. Thankfully, the Doctor doesn’t sing although something tells me Colin Baker would have enjoyed an aria or two.
For what it is, Dr Who – The Ultimate Adventure is alright. If you really do want to witness it, or some of it, you can follow the links below. The first one features Colin Baker’s performance, Act 1 only. The second is a complete recording of a Jon Pertwee show, but the filming is very poor. I’ve also included a link to the very good website which explains almost all you will need to know about this stage production.
The Ultimate Adventure - Doctor Who Stageplay
Season Twenty Six
During the opening episode of Battlefield, the Doctor studies a lone broadsword sized scabbard hanging on the wall of a hotel’s saloon. He’s warned by the blind patroness, Elizabeth, that it emits an unseen force. Intrigued the Doctor touches it, and remarks it is hot; then it becomes cold. Elizabeth likens it to breathing. Much initial emphasis is placed on this ancient artefact and the mystery of its hidden pulse. Then the scabbard is promptly forgotten for the rest of this tedious four part serial. Shame, as Brigadier Bambera might say.
In fairness, Battlefield isn’t terrible, it just isn’t terribly good. Writer Ben Aaronovitch returns from tanking the Daleks in Remembrance of… to dishing out the same treatment to Thomas Mallory’s King Arthur and company in this misplaced sword, sorcery and sci-fi epic. It doesn’t help we already saw a couple of Tudor nobles strutting around the Home Counties with barely a glimmer of local interest in Silver Nemesis. The same trick is attempted here as a whole platoon of rampant swordsmen running amok, all kitted out in battle armour with vicious rapiers and destructive laser guns. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be anybody living in the quiet village of Lake Vortigern. Good thing too. Not only are these grey plated soldiers roaming loose, but so are the villainous Morgaine and her son Mordred, their blonde adversary Ancelyn, a doddery archaeologist, a rebellious teen, a UNIT platoon, a couple of world destroying nuclear missiles and, of course, the Doctor and Ace.
The production makes good use of extensive location shooting around sunny Rutland Water and the look of the serial is very accomplished. Even Martin Collins’ interiors are a step up from the norm: there’s a hidden space ship whose control centre is suitably fantastic with its huge angular ceilings and dark depths. I can’t fault the photography of all this gleam and gloom. Anushia Nieradzik needs a slap on the wrist for the tacky one-dimensional space knight costumes though. Apparently these were cost saving outfits, but that only calls into question the ingenuity of the production team. It is a fair criticism of the BBC that in an era when programs were far more expensive to produce than twenty years previous, they really didn’t believe in Dr Who enough to invest the finances. In a serial like this, which wants to suspend our disbelief, that shows, and shows obviously and badly. However, miracles have been worked before and I question why these knight costumes were considered acceptable attire for humanoids from another dimension.
We know they are not simple time travellers because Morgaine [a rather good Jean Marsh, returning after twenty-three years for her third role on Dr Who; see The Crusades and The Dalek Masterplan for the others] describes herself as “the Sun Killer, Dominator of the Thirteen Worlds and Battle Queen of the Spraaks.” It is only made sporadically clear that she occupies an alternative reality from which Arthur, our King Arthur, escaped. The mythology of the Knights of the Round Table then, for a brief moment of our time, became the transplanted battlefield for Arthur and Morgaine and Merlin.
Ah, yes, Merlin. Odd one that. When the time travellers first encounter Ancelyn, he mistakes the Doctor for Merlin. He seems to recognise him, although he later admits his visage has altered. Most curiously, Ancelyn then reels off a list of facts about the Doctor, including the dimensional paradox of the TARDIS. He is certain this boater-hatted scurrying little man who rolls his ‘r’s is the genuine Merlin. The Doctor doesn’t think so, until as the story progresses his DMA, voice print and craftiness pepper the landscape so often he realises he must be Merlin – but in the future. This Doctor / Merlin is laying pieces of a puzzle for the Seventh Doctor to interpret enabling him to thwart the nasties and save planet Earth yet again.
I struggle with this.
It is obviously part of the Cartmel Masterplan, to make the Doctor a more devious, less palpable character. They even changed his suit jacket from a lovely French grey to a grim tan leather brown to emphasise the change. But this particular plot twist breaches the fundamental laws of time and turns the whole story into a nonentity. It doesn’t matter what happens because the Doctor, in his future life, has predetermined what will happen in his past. Both are inextricably linked, yet one cannot know what the other will do – they still have self-determination – so for Merlin’s future plan to succeed everything has to be preordained. And we know Merlin’s plan must have worked, because the Seventh Doctor is here – called by a remarkably powerful distress signal – as is Morgaine and UNIT, including Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. However, for Merlin to be around to orchestrate it so far in the future, even if it was in a parallel dimension, he must have succeeded in Battlefield. Hence, from half-way in, the story ceases to have any suspense. The Doctor has even written an explanatory note to himself; how tension killing is that?
The plus side is to have Nicholas Courtney back as the Brigadier. He’s come out of retirement specifically because the Doctor’s been called in. Courtney spars as well with Sylvester McCoy as he did with Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and probably better than with Peter Davison. Courtney’s presence across Dr Who is always welcomed; it’s such a pity writers began to see his character as a figure of fun. Aaronovitch and director Michael Kerringan sensibly return the Brig to his stoic soldiering roots. The new head of UNIT is Brigadier Winifred Bambera. She fronts up a much more multinational United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, and a couple of hints are dropped that back in the Pertwee era it wasn’t a solely British preserve. We never saw that, but the retrospective nod to political correctness was nice. UNIT is also a cross gender taskforce, which is a good development too. They shoot and blow stuff up just like the old days, and with just as little success. The original Brigadier has a moment of heroism which his character always deserved and we at last get to meet his wife, Doris, played by the still beautiful Angela Douglas, who graced a slew of Carry On comedies in the late sixties, usually as Jim Dale’s girlfriend. Quite where she was in Mawdryn Undead, when the Brig took a sabbatical teaching at a boarding school, we’ll never know.
The plot bends and twists itself in all sorts of knots and you get the impression that Aaronovitch hasn’t thought the full implications of his plot through. He jabs in these Arthurian topics, replays scenes and rivalries – like Ace withdrawing Excalibur from a stone and Mallory’s perception of chivalry – but hasn’t got a clue where to take them. Whatever the intent for Morgaine to go chasing Arthur through a dimensional time vortex was, it gets lost in some crazy scheme to blow up the world, first with a mystical creature called the Destroyer of Worlds, then with a stolen nuclear missile.
The Destroyer resembles Tim Curry’s Darkness from Ridley Scott’s 1985 extravaganza Legend. It is a quite impressive mask and costume, but this is a very lame monster. The Destroyer inhabits the same realm of fantasy as Azal the Daemon, an all-powerful devil god imprisoned and waiting to flex his mighty muscles. He isn’t so mighty and is easily bested by a few well-aimed silver bullets. This god-monster doesn’t even grow to giant size like Azal. Frankly, The Daemons, to which this story shares a similar grounding – archaeological dig reveals space craft, reveals monster, UNIT saves the day – did it much better.
UNIT were also involved in the Master’s plan to set off Britain’s ultimate nuclear weapon, the Thunderbolt missile. They foiled that too [in The Mind of Evil]. Here, the Master is replaced by Morgaine, but it is the Doctor who prevents nuclear calamity. To do so, Sylvester McCoy gives an impassioned speech to the embittered queen as the countdown clock ticks to zero, finally putting the seal on his interpretation of Doctor Who:
“All over the world fools are poised and ready to let death fly. Machines of death, Morgaine, screaming from above, of light brighter than the sun: not a war between armies or a war between nations, just death. Death gone mad. A child looks up at the sky. Its eyes turn to cinders. No more tears, only ashes. Is this honour? Is this war? Are those weapons you would use? Tell me!... Put a stop to it, Morgaine, end the madness!”
A bit of pacifism creeping into the world of Dr Who for the first time in ages. The Doctor’s plea is very astute, touching on Morgaine’s role as a mother as well as a strong, wise and fair ruler. We know she has the capacity for compassion for she restored Elizabeth’s sight in exchange for that scabbard. It seems unlikely UNIT H.Q. will be able to confine Morgaine and Mordred for long, but that’s where they go.
It is sad to report that part one of Battlefield has the lowest recorded audience figure of any Dr Who episode at 3.1million, which underlines its appeal as nothing more than a tame exercise enlivened by a few nasty surprises and a sterling turn from Nicholas Courtney. So, all hail the Brigadier!
The now defunct BBC website The Doctor Who Episode Guide rated this as one of the most inventive, densely structured and ultimately rewarding adventures in Dr Who history. The Discontinuity Guide is equally full of high praise. The television critic for The Independent newspaper reported it as one of the show’s best ever episodes. On the opposite side of the coin writer and critic John Kenneth Muir considers it one of the show’s weakest and most poorly executed serials. I’m with Mr Muir.
Ghost Light is a miserably constructed slice of Victoriana given a supernatural theme and then a science fiction spin, one with so many false leads and micro-clues to fathom the story becomes completely impossible to appreciate. What is happening, why it is happening and who everybody it happens to are constant gnawing questions. Add to that a Doctor who seems intent on psychologically punishing his companion by forcing Ace to confront her past in the most heartless manner possible, and you really have an unsettling and insultingly cackhanded experience.
Writer Marc Platt had never written a professional word before he concocted this mess. His previous job was in the BBC archive department. No wonder he makes his chief protagonist Josiah Samuel Smith a renowned collector and evolutionist. He’s also Dracula, Charles Darwin and Lewis Carrol rolled into one. He’s actually an alien whose space ship resides beneath Gabriel Chase, a manor in Perivale, 1883. One hundred years later, a delinquent thirteen year old Ace will burn this house down, believing it is haunted. The Doctor, in his twisted wisdom, decides to take her there to confront the evil she sensed.
I have a problem with this.
How does he know? What clue has Ace provided that something alien and evil resides underneath the house? Where is his formative evidence? He pitches up seemingly as confused as Ace, meets a deluded explorer who makes allusions to The Lost World by Conan-Doyle while parading like Allan Quartermain from King Solomon’s Mines. There’s a demented housekeeper a la Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and something nasty in the basement, like Jane Eyre’s crazed Mrs Rochester. There’s a neanderthal in a butler’s outfit, spouting Shakespearian style garbage like Caliban in The Tempest. There’s also a couple of giant insects wearing butler’s outfits. A comatose policeman. A vicar sprouting chimpanzee hair. An old crone with withered hands but rather healthy looking cheekbones. Spooky servants who all tote revolvers. A plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. An evil angel who looks about as threatening as a bus conductor.
Speaking of buses, apparently the Doctor hates bus stations. They are full of lost souls. That’s the sort of ‘sentences leading us nowhere’ we get in this abomination of a story. The dialogue is so heavily laden with subtexts and hidden meanings it is a turgid experience attempting to decipher it. Marc Platt is on record as describing all drama being “more satisfying if not handed to the viewer on a plate.” It is certainly true that good drama should allow us to use our imagination, but to create a puzzle and not provide the answers to all the questions you raise is lazy and ultimately unsatisfying. By example I will mention a snuff box which emanates radioactive light. Why does this happen? What is its purpose? How does it occur? That’s three questions to which there is no answer. Platt never explains how the alien space ship ended up underneath a mansion house either.
Apparently, most of the cast didn’t have clue what was happening. Comprehension is blurred further by pretentious and inappropriate dialogue. When street-level Ace starts using terms more suited to George Bernard Shaw or the neanderthal can pontificate more coherently than the local vicar, you know there are problems. The literary allusions don’t help. There are more fantasy fictional reference points than in any previous adventure. The fact they are so easy to spot isn’t perceptive writing, it’s crude, unsubtle and sluggish. Exactly how the actors were supposed to deliver decent performances is beyond me. Thus, to a man and woman, they do not. And don’t even get me started on the two stupidest rogue’s schemes in Dr Who history. How exactly does killing Queen Victoria result in Josiah Smith taking over the British Empire? He’d have to exterminate the whole extended royal family to achieve that. Queen Victoria had nine children, so that’s a lot of discriminate slaying. Anyway, a successful assassin would have instantly been killed in retaliation, that’s assuming he could even get close to the famously reclusive Queen. Hopeless.
Then we have the strange ethereal alien being called Light. This is quite possibly the most ineffective and unthreatening monster the Dr Who team as ever created. He’s a ghost, basically. I remember way back in The Stones of Blood, the Doctor encountered the biometric lawgivers, the Megara. Those flashing, bobbing, bubbling points of light were a far better version of a ‘ghost’. This one looks as if he’s escaped from an old episode of Flash Gordon. The writer doesn’t even explain him / it adroitly. When Light zips around the mansion seeming to appear and disappear at will, Ace asks “How does he travel so fast?” The Doctor delivers some petty convoluted reply when surely all he has to say is: “He’s travelling as fast as light.” Just hopeless.
Apparently, this being had come to Earth millions of years ago to carry out a survey of all living species, but it didn’t bank on evolution starting or on a stroppy underling deciding to entrap him for centuries in his space ship. Finally awakened from slumber and imprisonment by an over excited Ace, Light finds the world of 1883 too confusing to catalogue. Far simpler then to wipe out every being on the planet. What kind of scientific survey is that? Just bogglingly hopeless. When this ‘angel’ is defeated he handily vanishes into the walls of the building, waiting to scare the pants off any adolescent who ventures into its ruins. Can’t he just die? Why is he hiding? Is he as scared of human society as Ace is of ghosts – and clowns, come to that? Is Marc Platt going to bother to inform us? No, of course he isn’t. That isn’t satisfying enough for him.
If there is a viable explanation for this eighty minute plodding pile of putrid poppycock, I defy anyone to find it, or even hear it. The music is so loud and the dialogue so over-elaborate and badly recorded it was sometimes impossible to catch what anyone said. I had to keep rewinding and then I’d scratch my head again and go: “Huh?”
Plus points? Sophie Aldred looks nice in a dress. She’s very good in this one, displaying vulnerability confronting her fears and getting short with the Doctor for forcing her to do so. Frankly he deserves it, the bounder. Very well designed, although the Doctor’s ugly brown jacket is the same shade as the teak boarding in the mansion so Sylvester McCoy is mostly identifiable by his pale mugging face.
Ghost Light was the last serial made for the Classic Series of Dr Who, although it wasn’t the last to be transmitted. In my opinion, and having only watched it once, not the recommended three or four times, it is a severely disappointing, shallow end to a great and innovative science fiction series. Ace aside, this was appalling television. I feel I ought to say something charitable, but I also feel as if I am in mourning:
THE CURSE OF FENRIC
The Curse of Fenric, like its immediate predecessor, is a confused and not entirely successful attempt to confer upon Doctor Who articles of faith, loyalty and predestination, three interconnected but not entirely conjunctive subjects.
The story’s main problem is exactly the same issue I encountered watching Ghost Light: explanation. I had the distinct impression writer Ian Briggs – or more probably script editor Andrew Cartmel – has decided that faster is better. Hence, the adventure speeds along at a frantic pace and it becomes virtually impossible to decipher every nugget of information provided – and there is an awful lot in almost every single scene, dialogue or deed. It also gives rise to the fear that the story itself has been edited beyond repair. The continuity is flawed. The narrative is unclear. The tension dissipates. The director and editor prefer to zip from scene-to-scene in a hectic whirl of action rather than pause to gather momentum. This becomes extremely noticeable in the climatic episode where only a handful of scenes stretch beyond thirty-seconds. Coupled with the writer’s [writers’?] constant refusal to clarify anything, and worse, introduce story elements without adequate elucidation and you really have a difficult viewing experience.
So, what’s it all about?
The TARDIS lands in England, 1943, at a top secret navy base near Maiden’s Point. This is a fictional location, but Whitby is mentioned, so it could be on the north-east coast. The Doctor has some urgent business with Dr Judson [Dinsdale Landon] who has developed the ULTIMA machine, a forerunner of modern computers. He’s obviously a character inspired by Alan Turing and the ENIGMA codebreakers, but Judson’s mechanical contraption has been designed with a dual purpose: codebreaking and assassination. The camp commander, Millington, has lured a Soviet attack squadron to the base intending them to steal the ULTIMA. Inside the machine is a dastardly, deadly gaseous bomb which when released will poison the atmosphere of Moscow, killing millions. Exactly why Millington is concerned with the Soviets is never made clear. Nor is the reason he inhabits an office bedecked with Nazi memorabilia. Nor is the significance of the public school photograph which shows Millington and Judson wearing the same old school ties. Nor the dragon-bowed longship skulking beneath the waves of Maiden Point. Nor the priest who recites sermons to empty churches. These are just five examples of a plethora of dead-ends concocted by the writer [writers] to confound and confuse. This technique rears its head from the earliest scenes when the Doctor clearly states he intended to visit the Navy base but never explains why, despite being asked several times. This will become a recurring character trait as well as a narrative problem. Ace smacks the metaphorical nail on the head when she grumpily declares: “Don’t bother listening to me, because I’m a mere mortal.” I felt exactly the same. Later she openly confronts the Doctor, insinuating he’s manipulated the whole adventure for some perverse entertainment of his own, mostly at her expense; “You never tell me anything!” she shouts. We’ve not had a companion yell at the Doctor for many, many years. Stephen Taylor in The Massacre springs immediately to mind or the Brigadier in his earlier abrasive incarnations. It’s quite startling and not entirely effective, chiefly because it comes at a point of high crisis rather than during a moral conflict.
This is odd, as the show itself seems at least in part to be concerned with morality, about whether it can ever be justified to slaughter innocent people to resolve a war, be it through air raids, atom bombs or chemical weapons. Equally odd is the Doctor’s sudden ethical stance on such matters. It never bothered him when he wiped out Daleks and Cybermen. The Doctor’s position is now more akin to that taken by his forebears. This oversight displays the lack of joined up thinking by the writer [writers] who ought to do better. The constant swaying pendulum of the Seventh Doctor’s moral conscience isn’t aiding anyone’s enjoyment. Instead it is attempting to provoke interest through deception and ambiguity. All very well, but a writer [writers] must be consistent even in contradiction. The principles under discussion are not ambiguous, so to allow your central character to enact genocide twice, but reject it a third time doesn’t make sense. Unless of course, he wants to prevent it to enable the greater good which he knows will come – in which case he ought to say so, as the Fourth Doctor does in Genesis of the Daleks. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor doesn’t even bother to tell us exactly where he’s landed the TARDIS, so we’ve got no hope of that.
Indeed, the writer [writers] inject a multitude of disparate elements of science fiction or horror into the adventure in an attempt to bury the central moral core, which only rears its intellectual head again at the very end in a muddling, static climax. Having set up a pseudo sci-fi version of The Eagle Has Landed, Ian Briggs then throws in a whole host of phenomena which only serve to further befuddle. The Curse of Fenric touches on so many possible themes it can’t do any of them any kind of literary or televisual justice. Was I watching a discourse on the morality of warfare? Was this a tacky spy drama about double-crossing a Cold War enemy? Was it a vampire story? Was it an eco-thriller? Was it an investigation of Ace’s background? Was it a traditional Dr Who monster mash? Was it a Norse fable? Was it an attack on evangelical religions? Was it designed to raise awareness of women’s rights? Was it a treatise on the definition of modern faith? Was it a rip off from John Carpenter’s The Fog? Or Romero’s Night of the Living Dead? Or Hardy’s The Wicker Man? Or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal? Or Aladdin and his Magical Lamp? What was the purpose of the mist? Who wrote the runes? Who were the Haemovores? Where did they come from? What is their aim? Who is Fenric? When did this evil entity meet the Doctor? Is this the culmination of the Seventh Doctor’s mysterious universe and time spanning battle with unknown evil forces? Yep, you guessed it, it’s all of these and probably even more. There is simply too much shoved into this narrative to make it work either as a thrill a minute actioner or as an intense psychological drama.
The worst offence, as I have mentioned before, is the lack of any coherent explanation. Take these lines from Ace. She’s attempting to distract a Navy patrolman using her womanly wiles. “I’m not a little girl anymore,” she tells the Doctor; glad she noticed because for the first two episodes Ace’s whole demeanour resembles that of a spoilt kiddish adolescent. Her seduction technique is quite possibly one of the most curious speeches ever delivered by a character on Dr Who:
“There’s a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my clothes... Have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light… We’re hardly moving yet... Sometimes I travel so fast I don’t exist.”
How on earth is this going to distract a hotblooded young soldier? The lines are clearly inserted as a meditation on Ace’s experiences in the TARDIS, yet they are spoken at a totally inappropriate moment. This isn’t a seduction, it’s a conundrum.
In fact the conundrums go deeper than Ace’s emerging womanhood. Fenric is the name given by Vikings to an ancient evil created at the dawn of time [Ian Briggs has bastardised this from the Norse god Fenrir]. Apparently, Fenric met the Doctor in third century Constantinople where they played a game of chess. Defeated, Fenric was banished into a shadow dimension which appears to be encapsulated by an ancient flask trapped in the wall of St Jude’s Church. How any of this happened is not explained. The audience has to take a tremendous amount of detail on trust and through second hand reportage. It’s an exceedingly lazy and time-cutting narrative exercise. In the old days of Pertwee and Baker the writers and producers would have sent the Doctor there, like Douglas Adams did for City of Death or Robert Sloman for The Time Monster. All we get is Sylvester McCoy gabbling his rolled ‘R’s and various monsters speaking in hissing riddles. Anyhow, the flask was bricked up in the church wall by fleeing Vikings who landed in England following the sack of Constantinople. Fenric’s essence has been influencing the local population, whose women carry his spore [somehow] and one of whom turns out to be Ace’s grandmother, suggesting Ace is unruly because of this malevolent psychic etymology. Meanwhile another evil being, a Sea Vampire of immense power named the Ancient One, has been pursuing Fenric across the centuries. He has also met the Doctor, sometime in the far future. Both evil entities recognise the Doctor to be a Time Lord. The Ancient One appears to be historically, psychologically and inextricably tied to Fenric, who summoned him via a Time Storm. Not very well though, as it has taken seventeen centuries for them to finally meet. Fenric has also been attempting to lure the Doctor back to another game of chess by creating modular Time Storms. His revenge motive seems slim. We discover the chemical explosion which blew Ace to Iceworld was a result of a Fenric Time Storm; so too the black magic of Lady Pienforte in Silver Nemesis. The Doctor has spotted these incongruent clues at every stage and has been working gradually up to this final conflict. When the Doctor reveals to the Ancient One that his destructive powers will reduce the Earth to a primordial soup, the vampire takes it upon himself to battle Fenric. One evil sacrifices itself to destroy the other.
I’ve condensed the plot because it really is too stupefying for adequate explanation. If I have left anything out – and I expect I have – I won’t apologise. That’s the responsibility of the writer [writers] who refuse to explain their characters’ motivations and intentions from the opening scenes until the very end. There really is a sense of undue curtailment. The story needs far more clarity than what we have here. Whole sections are taken up with a lapsed priest rediscovering his faith [game show host Nicolas Parsons, rather good among a cast of mostly failures]. Another series of scenes involves Ace’s bond to a baby girl, which she comes to realise is her mother. [It took her long enough, I twigged it the first time they met.] This is a needless relationship and I didn’t accept it for a moment. At the very end, reflecting on her misplaced emotions, Ace decides to take a cathartic swim in the sea. Earlier she’d refused to bathe, citing the activity as boring. The act is clearly a supposed moment of rebirth, but it is hopelessly derivative and doesn’t gel with the Doctor’s incomprehensible musings about the nature of time.
The Curse of Fenric is very well regarded in the Dr Who community. Fans enjoy the deeper, mysterious character revealed in the Seventh Doctor’s makeup. They also cite the antagonistic relationship between the Doctor and Ace as a great forward step for the companion / hero dynamic. But we’ve seen both these elements already during William Hartnell’s incarnation, if perhaps not laid quite so bare. Unfortunately, the script cannot do this dynamic justice, being monumentally haphazard, almost unintelligible at times. The breakneck speed of proceedings refuses to allow us to live the character’s emotions; instead they are punched at us without respite or thought and our submission comes not from emotional exhaustion but by physical and restless fatigue. This is a very difficult adventure to watch and comprehend.
On the plus side, The Curse of Fenric was filmed entirely on location and has a cinematic leaning not seen since Spearhead from Space or those expensive latter day Tom Baker flops The Leisure Hive and Warrior’s Gate. Sadly the weather didn’t cooperate and there’s a lot of tramping about in mud. The genuine interiors seem too pokey, but overall the camerawork is deft and virulent. For once, the incidental music is very good:
If The Curse of Fenric began with hints to The Eagle Has Landed, the opening episode of Rona Munro’s Survival invokes memories of Val Lewton’s Cat People. It then morphs into a strange feline reimagining of Planet of the Apes, throws in the Master for good measure and ends on a moment of cod philosophy for the Doctor and Ace.
Survival is probably the most deserving serial of the 26th Season, but that really isn’t saying much. The standard of adventure by now was pitifully low. The saving grace of the season isn’t the Doctor, it is his companion, Ace. Across these final four outings Sophie Aldred has been allowed to explore Ace’s deepest emotions and the darkest recesses of her history. This slow reveal of her hidden psyche is welcome and one that the revivalists took note of and incorporated into the makeup for the Ninth Doctor’s initial companion, Rose Tyler. The results were exceptional there, slightly laboured here. Aldred isn’t given enough truly invasive scenes for her character to shine; she has to display her inner turmoil by her own intuition. Sometimes it works, at others the effect is over earnest. Some lines hark back to the previous adventure and I suggest they were inserted to allow script editor Andrew Cartmel to continue his Masterplan: “I felt I could run faster, like I could smell the wind and feel the grass under my feet and just run forever.” Hmm. Indeed. While the attention to character is most welcome in a series that in general has never wanted to bother, the mixture delivered in this curious hybrid adventure doesn’t quite work, perhaps because overall it feels like two adventures in one.
Firstly, there is the mystery of the marauding cats in Perivale. The Doctor has landed the TARDIS in London 1989 so Ace can catch up with her ‘old gang’. He’s bored. She’s mystified to discover all her friends have disappeared. The Doctor thinks a howling black cat is responsible. He’s right. The beast is a Kitling, a being similar to the Mara. Created and bred from the minds and hands of human colonists in the far future, the Kitlings have taken on tremendous mental powers, absorbing energy from the dying planet causing its demise to accelerate. These powers [somehow] allow the cats to transport themselves at will around time and the universe. Meanwhile the ailing human population are gradually transforming into Cheetah People, humanoid felines who hunt and kill for pleasure. So Cat People psychological horror gives way to lurid Apes-style sci-fi with a touch of Looper. The mix doesn’t really work. As usual, there seems to be an inability for anyone on the production team to recognise the hole they’ve dug. They just keep on digging. While there are certainly interesting themes being presented, in particular the feral instinct of human beings, the constant time and world jumping confuses both narratives and becomes a tiresome cop-out device. This used to work well in the days of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, when swapping between places and planets had visual and narrative purpose. It was exceptionally well-realised in Inferno and The Three Doctors, less so in The Time Monster, middling in Planet of the Spiders. By McCoy’s era, there’s a sense of déjà vu, as we’ve witnessed this kind of event too often for it to be of any interest – most recently in the season opener Battlefield. Far better to have chosen one angle of entry and stuck with it. My money is on the Cheetah People and the Kitlings.
It’s never made entirely clear how the Master ended up on the barren, wind ravaged planet, other than the knowledge that John Nathan Turner wanted him there. He appears to be minus his TARDIS so one assumes this story takes place following his purported demise in Planet of Fire. Quite where that leaves his cameo in The Ultimate Foe I am not sure, although that could have been the Master of the far future, for the Valeyard was the Doctor’s alter-ego from his twelfth regeneration. [Are you following this?] However, this immediately again calls into question the timeline of the Doctor / Master conflict as the Seventh Doctor would know he must not kill the Master lest he prevent the outcome of his past and future reality’s Time Lord trial. [Still getting it?]
To quote Leonard Hofstadter in The Big Bang Theory: “This is just Hot Tub Time Machine all over again.”
So, let’s forget the messing about with time and the problems with timelines and just settle back to enjoy Classic Dr Who’s final moments. I must be honest and say I did quite enjoy this three part story. The Earth bound sequences tended to drag and veered towards the vaguely comic. They sit awkwardly beside the epic adventure on an unnamed, mauve skyed, quarried alien planet. While the Cheetah People are not quite the menacing monster they could have been, their dialogue certainly delivers the goods, the hissing, spitting vocals in particular chilled. It might not have been the writer’s intention to have furry cat costumes, but at least we can see and appreciate the differences between before and after. Very good effects and costumes aid all the scenes on the Cheetah planet, which felt genuinely alien, like those muddied valleys in Colony of Space or Death to the Daleks. Director Alan Wareing, lucky enough to be filming entirely on location again, gives the planet a barren, arid sweep. Apparently during rehearsals the cat-cast were using closely observed feline actions and expressions; this particularly strengthened the physical relationship between Ace and Kara, a Cheetah warrior, subtly suggesting a lesbian undertone. The furry cat mask makes their relationship more brutal, based on the hunt and a lust for blood. This works well for me. As Ace takes on elements of the Cheetah genome, she begins to exhibit the awareness and emotions of a cat, most noticeably in her heightened senses and then a yellowing of the eyes. Ace’s transformation is far better than the one Colin Baker attempted when infected by Androgum blood in The Two Doctors. Sylvester McCoy’s less dramatic transformative moments hint at the Doctor’s rarely seen Gallifreyan weaknesses.
Anthony Ainley’s Master shares a similar propensity to the planet’s effects. He’s changed beyond recognition even if he’s facially the same. He wears a Pertwee-esque frilly shirt and black suit and has canine teeth which seem to bulge his cheeks and chin. Those special effect dentures didn’t fit too well. The plus point is Ainley’s Master, now half Time Lord, half Cheetah, suddenly seems far more intimidating and deliberate than he ever did before. He’s taken to philosophising with his allies and victims alike, which I rather enjoyed. It is curious he turns to the Doctor in a moment of need, as if the two really are linked, possible brothers in possible arms.
The idea that all races, human or alien even Time Lord, can evolve and develop and take on aspects of other beings is a scientific curiosity the serial never quite deals with. The biological aspects don’t interest the writer so much as the psychological ones. There is a lot of talk about the hunt, the kill and the blood, how the constant fighting between colonists led to the Kitlings seizing and transforming the minds and bodies of the humans. It’s an angle I would have preferred to have seen explored in more depth. The appearance of the Master, well revealed for a Part One cliff-hanger, muddies the water too much. We become concerned with a battle of will between the Doctor and his old nemesis, not the fate of the humans and the Cheetah People. As usual with these latter day tales, the air becomes too muddled. At the end, with Master defeated and abandoned on a dying planet, a Cheetah warrior suddenly appears on Earth to take back Kara’s corpse. This seems unlikely, given their planet was about to be torn apart. If they were going to teleport, you rather fancy these cat people might launch a proper invasion. Not so.
Instead, having battled his foe in too short hand-to-hand combat, the Doctor returns to a grieving Ace, juggles his hat off her head and says: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, the sea is asleep and the rivers dream, people are made of smoke and cities of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.”
This closing line was written and recorded when it became apparent the show would not be returning for a 27th Season, if at all. It’s a pleasant little monologue which underpins some of the Doctor’s tribulations over the past twenty six years while still adhering to the recent phenomenon of a divine Doctor, a man in touch with his past, future and present. That might still be a step too far for this viewer, but Sylvester McCoy delivers it with a true and trusted hand and whatever the merits of the adventure as a whole, I can at least thank him for that:
It’s difficult to sum up a quartet of adventures for which I have little love and there is very little love for Dr Who Season 26 in this heart. This isn’t solely the fault of these four stories, but more an accumulation of feelings that have built up over the past few weeks as I struggled to complete my Classic Dr Who marathon. Starting way back in Season 22 when Colin Baker’s over eager egotistical version of the Doctor rampaged across my screen, I was quite taken aback with the sudden drop in the show’s standards. Storylines, credible plots, believable characters, sympathetic heroes, realistic sets, decent scripts and enthusiastic acting were the bread and butter of Dr Who for so many years that when these ingredients began to deteriorate or disappear completely, the foundation of the pie sank faster and faster. Once the rot set in, it was very hard to shake off and only occasionally did the chefs in the kitchen get the feast correct: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy are a poor return for twenty-two adventures. The fact there are so few escapades deemed worthy [IMO] of more than two stars tells the story. Barely a third of the stories over these five years can be considered average or above. Compare that to any other Doctor’s era or five year span and you can see the difference. The Pertwee era is comparable in length yet features an astonishing twelve above average serials – exactly half his output!
There could be many reasons for this gradual decline. I’ve mentioned already the uninspired producer, John Nathan Turner, who I believe knew he had outstayed his welcome but was trapped by his own behaviours into staying put when he and the show needed fresh ideas and challenges. I could also cite the BBC top brass, who made it abundantly clear they detested the series and wanted rid of it. I could also raise the question of the suitability and experience of the screen writers, who were deliberately recruited with prejudice: producer and script editor intended the series to showcase new and different writers. While I applaud the opportunity offered to original scribes – and new blood is always required in a long running show to prevent sterility – some of their work simply hasn’t been acceptable. There seems to be a conscious attempt to entwine each story with the same idiosyncrasies: time meddling, time travelling, a monster from the past, a guest star, an irrelevant earth-bound setting, a slide towards humour, confusing plots with incomprehensible dialogues. When darkness and anger and death have raised their heads, the effect has often been to lampoon the show and make light of serious themes [Paradise Towers and Mindwarp are the obvious examples here]. Too often in Sylvester McCoy’s era the actions of the Doctor have appeared callous and out of character. His treatment of Ace, a very capable companion, borders on the abusive as he constantly forces her to confront substantial inner demons identified with a difficult personal history. Colin Baker on the other hand was simply a bully full stop, verbally and physically. McCoy’s interpretation is more subtle, so you don’t notice it, but it is there: the way he’s often filmed standing over Ace or seen to hector like the Greek philosophers of old; his refusal to acknowledge her eminent input, to explain or to reassure; his constant questions to which he already has answers he will not reveal. Everything becomes a complicated game to the Seventh Doctor – games he’s been aware of for all his nine centuries, it appears – and this deflects us from identifying with the hero of the show. Instead, naturally we gravitate to the victim: Ace [or Peri, as it was before] and the show’s emphasis alters. Curiously, the bubbly Mel Bush is the only companion who seemed able to cope with these two egocentrics, being not averse to a bit of tough and rough, hence she runs off with that galactic pirate Sabalon Glitz.
I’m not addressing the current season very well, and that’s indicative of its poor standing. In many circles, the four stories are considered ground breaking, stretching the format of Dr Who to a less logical and more complicated and confrontational place. This may be true in essence, but the result of this influence [let’s use jargon and call it the Cartmel Masterplan] is to muddy the water of a successful, unwavering and healthy format. Dr Who did not need wholesale changes. In fact, I welcome more interest in a character’s background and origin; making people real is what good screenwriting should do. We need to empathise with Ace and the Doctor and we want to understand the motivations of the supporting cast, even if they are only with us for a few short moments. This was how writers such as Robert Holmes, Chris Boucher and Louis Marks, Terrance ****, Brian Hayles and Malcolm Hulke, even as far back as John Lucarotti and Dennis Spooner won us over: their stories had a swish of panache about them which told us quickly and in minute detail the charisma of, the inspiration behind and the strength and weakness of an individual. We learned so much about people in the first fifteen or so years of Dr Who. As the series progressed this attention to detail suffered, first under excessive mirth, then under a regime of cost-cutting which prevented adequate investment, lastly with a troupe of writers unable to convey character in succinct fashion so interested are they in the machinations of horrendously twisted plots. Writers need time to hone their craft and perfect their stories. Cramming so many new and relatively unskilled pens at the task provided less coherence and consistency. Season 26 is, along with its immediate predecessors, tremendously uneven and because of this it is very hard to appreciate.
I suspect repeated watching might help draw out some of the goblets of character insight or story progression enamoured fans celebrate. My problem is whether I would want to, so distressed was I to watch the four stories presented here. Almost to an episode they are charmless, witless and nonsensical. These multi-layered efforts often feature good stories screaming to be released from one another – most noticeable in the two world’s narrative for Survival, but also in the Knights versus UNIT debacle of Battlefield and the multiple story arcs in the cat’s cradle of Fenric. There is also a recurring sense of déjà vu. There’s no excuse for an experienced producer like John Nathan Turner to consistently repeat mistakes he’s already made. Yet time and again he does just that: the Doctor goes back to Coal Hill – Ace goes back to Perivale; the Doctor destroys the Daleks – the Doctor destroys the Cybermen; the Master returns from certain incineration again and again and again; car crash guest stars; Earth stories, Earth stories, Earth stories; time meddling, meddling, meddling; you name it, the topics and themes and action recurs over and over. It turns the show into a tedious bore.
In defence of Sylvester McCoy, while he isn’t very likeable, I like him more than the fuddy-duddy of Patrick Troughton, whose lack of authority always annoys me, or the rasping, grasping antics of Colin Baker. McCoy’s hemmed in around Peter Davison’s coat tails, peering curiously at his surroundings while setting his own agenda. Given better, more structured stories, he would be a brilliant, inquisitive Doctor, yet he rarely has the opportunity to shine. Ace is a good counterfoil, but she has no decent competition. Sophie Aldred certainly grabs the opportunity to make Ace an interesting, nuanced and more modern ‘young’ companion. It is a pity her character’s backstory is shovelled rather haphazardly into the narratives of Fenric and Ghost Light, where there is enough going on without putting her woes on show. Ace’s inner conflicts are better presented in Survival where her psychosomatic nature is intrinsically linked to the story not simply being present during her unfolding past.
There are signs things might be settling down after a few stodgy years, but the BBC took away any attempt to capitalise on the medium cool success of Season 26 by suspending the show. Dr Who was never officially cancelled. They simply stopped making it. Fans pined for a comeback for several years before contenting themselves with novels, adaptations and comics which first further embellished the history of the Seventh Doctor and then expanded the accepted universe of his predecessors, not always with the best of results.
For me, by 1989, I’d already ceased watching Dr Who. Until this run through, my most recent full length viewing had been of Paradise Towers in Season 24. I was playing in a pub darts team by then and we practised on Monday nights. I simply stopped being interested. Viewing figures had rarely topped five million – half of what Peter Davison achieved for his third season – and in five short years Britain’s flagship sci-fi show was off air. I remember at the time thinking it was about due, not because I didn’t admire the show, but because I didn’t admire the ’89 vintage. When I did catch an episode, I was taken aback by how shoddy the production values appeared; how low grade the effects seemed; how dull the stories were; how harassed the actors performed, running everywhere and overacting; the whole thing seemed to stop being sci-fi and turned itself into a frigid pantomime of a children’s show. It wasn’t being aired at a time when kids could appreciate it [7.30pm] nor was it solid and dramatic enough for adults. It couldn’t capture either audience, so it only caught dedicated fans, who either loathed it [like me] or loved it [probably like chronicler Ian Levine].
There was a little light at the end of a long tunnel, but that wouldn’t come about for another six years. Come 1990 and the dawn of a new decade, Dr Who was to all intents and purposes dead and resting in Gallifreyan peace.
Edit: forgot the pictures:
Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace
PROPOSED SEASON 27 (1990)
Before the show was put on indefinite hiatus, the team behind Dr Who had embarked on pre-production for a fourth Sylvester McCoy season. Ben Aaronovitch shared duties with Andrew Cartmel, allowing each writer to pen a serial as well as script edit. John Nathan Turner, that immoveable object, was still the series producer. I took the following details from WikiFandom.
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
IMO: The Doctor and Ace are on a aid vessel transferring grain to the stricken worlds of the universe. Ace is revealed as the ship’s pilot and the Doctor as its Chief Medical Officer. They are undercover, investigating disruption to the aid convoys by the insect-like Metatraxi. Actress Lysette Anthony had been recruited to play a new companion, Kate Tillings. The TARDIS once again had three time travellers for an entire season.
BLOOD AND IRON
Writer: Andrew Cartmel
IMO: A UNIT story featuring the return of Brigadier Bambera.
Writer: Edward Young
IMO: Another reworking of the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None.
Writer: Marc Platt
IMO: This adventure would see the return of the Ice Warriors and be set in London 1968 and on Mars. Ace would depart, although it is unclear how.
SEARCH OUT SCIENCE – SEARCH OUT SPACE (1990)
A kid’s television show on all things sciencey. The Doctor turns up as the quiz master of challenging questions about the nature of the universe. Ace and K9 are on hand to deliver some much needed clues and a presenter called Cedric acts like a prat.
Bizarrely, K9 appears to be travelling with the Doctor and Ace – so is this K9 Mark IV? The game show goes awry when K9 inexplicably gets a question wrong and is catapulted towards the sun. The Doctor saves the platinum pooch and Ace answers the trick question to save everyone from incineration.
Nothing much going on here. A bit of educational fun for the very young. Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and John Leeson all partake. There are some clips online, but I can’t be bothered to post the links as it really isn’t worth it.
DIMENSIONS IN TIME (1993)
Children In Need, a charity fundraising television show which has collected millions of pounds for good causes since its inception, was in its infancy in 1993. Noel Edmonds hosted, utilising his Crinkly Bottom House Party set and Mr Blobby stooge. For a humorous take on Dr Who, a special swifter than swift couple of episodes were stitched together by John Nathan Turner based primarily around Eastenders’ Albert Square but also visiting Greenwich and the Cutty Sark.
Written by Turner himself in conjunction with David Roden and transmitted in 3D there’s a whole host of fun to be had spotting Doctors and Companions, Monsters, Villains and Eastender cast members. The plot isn’t worth the paper it was printed in, but everyone knows that. The Rani has caught the Doctor in a time loop and Tom Baker’s Fourth incarnation pleads with his fellow Doctor’s to come to his assistance: “She hates me!” he implores, “She even hates children!”
Messer’s Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy acquit themselves with some aplomb, with tongue in cheek, but as befits the whole legacy of the series, a steely seriousness in their eyes. William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton had both passed away, but are included as holographic heads and Tom Baker refers to them as “the grumpy one and the flautist” which is quite amusing.
Among the market stalls we can spot these companions in order: Ace, Mel Bush, Susan Foreman, Sarah Jane Smith in her infamous Andy Pandy outfit, Nyssa and Peri; in the second episode Liz Shaw, Mike Yates, the Brigadier, Romana II [inching her way past Grant and Phil Mitchell before being dragged into the Queen Vic pub by an angry Rani – Lalla Ward looks absolutely terrific, very classy and sexy, I barely recognised her!] Victoria Waterfield, Leela, K9 and finally back to Ace.
The villains are chiefly the Rani [Kate O’Mara tearing the screen up] and her companion Cyrian, played by a young Samuel West. The monsters released to cause havoc in Albert Square are so numerous I couldn’t catch them all. I saw a Cyberman, an Ogron, that weird dog thing from The Happiness Patrol, Sil the Mentor, a Sea Devil, a Vervoid, a Time Lord in full regalia and even Zog from the stage show The Ultimate Adventure.
Although outside of the Dr Who series itself, the two episodes reached audiences in excess of 13million, making them the second and third highest rating ever achieved by Dr Who. A specific fundraising phone poll was conducted to see which Eastenders cast member would save the Doctor. Nicola Stapleton’s teenage tearaway Mandy Slater won. £101,000 was raised. Stapleton would have made a decent companion herself, I reckon.
Dimensions in Time was broadcast in two seven minute episodes on 26th November and 27th November 1993 a few days after Dr Who’s official 40th Anniversary. It was great to see Carole Ann Ford reprising her role from that very first episode of 23rd November 1963 – she has remained one of my favourite companions throughout the show’s history – and some actors returned to characters they would never have stooped to had this not been a charity special. Overall though it just a bit of fluff.
Watching it for the very first time, and having partaken of every episode of Classic Dr Who over the previous two years, Dimensions in Time has a nostalgia tinged melancholy to it, despite the comic banter and the charming interplay between all the casts, Dr Who and Eastenders alike. It really does feel as if we’ll never see the like of it again. I almost wished they could have made McCoy’s final couple of seasons a bit more like this; he in particular seems suited to humour. I was reminded of Season 17 when Douglas Adams upped the comedy element, not always with satisfying results, but I do remember always being entertained [well, okay, perhaps not always…].
I wondered if the BBC – or I suppose John Nathan Turner himself – along with his script editor and master planner Andrew Cartmel – hadn’t missed a trick by allowing the series to decline into bleak inward looking psychological science fiction. Dr Who does seem to work better and the participants enjoy it more when it mixes drama and humour to bind the narratives.
You can watch the two episodes as well as some of Noel Edmond’s introductory banter here:
There have since been further Dr Who Specials on Children in Need, but none during the Classic Era.
The Eighth Doctor - Paul McGann
(a.k.a. Dr Who: The Movie)
(a.k.a. The Enemy Within)
“It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy, the Master, was finally put on trial. They say he listened calmly as his list of evil crimes was read and sentence passed. Then he made his last, and I thought somewhat curious, request: he demanded that I, the Doctor, a fellow Time Lord, should take his remains back to his home planet Gallifrey. It was a request they should never have granted.
“A Time Lord has thirteen lives and the Master had used all of his – but that never meant much to him. So, I stowed his remains safely for the voyage back because even in death I couldn’t trust him. In all my travels through space and time, and nearing the end of my seventh life, I was finally beginning to realise that you can never be too careful.”
This short prologue is narrated over the opening scenes of Doctor Who, a 1996 television movie produced under the auspices of Fox Television. It starred Paul McGann as the eighth incarnation of the Doctor, takes place entirely in San Francisco and was filmed entirely in Vancouver, Canada. That the movie manages to retain any resemblance to the original classic British sci-fi series is worth applauding. That the movie occasionally veers some way from its forebear is worth a sage-like nod. That the movie doesn’t quite succeed is a little disappointing, but it isn’t for want of trying.
There is plenty of action and mystery, a good if slightly cartoonish villain, a companion of some interest, a plot of the usual nonsense which I could just about follow, and production values which far outstrip anything the good old penny-pinching BBC produced between 1963 and 1989. Best of all there is a strong performance from Paul McGann as the Doctor, a man much more in tune with his Earthly predilections. In fact, we learn from this incarnation that while he has all the Time Lord physiognomy – i.e. two hearts – he was blessed with a human mother. I didn’t see that coming. This comes as a surprise to the Master as well, forever burying the rumour that these eternal enemies are brothers.
This should bother me, I feel; yet it doesn’t because over the course of watching twenty-six seasons of Dr Who, I’ve learnt not to be surprised and also learnt next-to-nothing about the Doctor’s past life. There have been snippets, but most of these have been from his late adolescence, about his mentors, lecturers, universities, friends and enemies. The only reference we ever had to his family was a granddaughter, named Susan Foreman, whose real name probably wasn’t Susan Foreman and whose familial origins were never effectively explained during her time in the TARDIS or afterwards. For example, no one ever asked William Hartnell’s Doctor: ‘What happened to your wife and children?’
At least now we can understand why the Doctor displays so much passion and compassion for all things Terra Alpha and indirectly why it didn’t bother him to leave his granddaughter there; perhaps she never attended the Gallifreyan Academy, never graduated and thus was not granted the full powers of a Time Lord, such as regeneration [see The Armageddon Factor], making her more human than Gallifreyan. It also more readily explains the Eighth Doctor’s moments of sudden affection for Grace Holloway, a cardiologist who sets him right after a difficult regeneration. We saw the First Doctor dally with Cameca, an Aztec lady [see The Aztecs], but we’ve never seen him kiss a woman. It happens three times in Doctor Who.
You’d think this would bother me, but it really doesn’t. I have a vague recollection that Louise Jameson remarked she thought it was fairly obvious the Doctor was sleeping with his female companions; while this might be true of her and her immediate successors – Romana’s I & II – I’m not sure it applies to Ace, or Peri, or Nyssa, or even Polly or Sarah Jane Smith. Bubbly Jo Grant might welcome the attention and Jon Pertwee would have fitted in with the frilliness of her glam rock early seventies fashions; Liz Shaw could provide some intellectual pillow talk. I’m digressing. The point is, here it feels appropriate. The Doctor is alone. There is no companion in evidence. He’s been travelling alone for some time, one feels. When we meet him during the early scenes, Sylvester McCoy, looking older and disillusioned, is sealing the Master’s ashes in an iron casket using his sonic screwdriver. He reclines on an armchair, feet up, eating jelly babies, reading The Time Machine and listening to a recording of In A Dream. This looks and feels like a lonely man. When the vinyl record skips on the word ‘time’ he doesn’t recognise the significance – odd for such a prophetic Doctor – and when it happens again, he seems unprepared for the consequences. The eventual regeneration brings forth a younger, virile, good-looking Doctor, six-foot tall, agile, intense yet light-hearted. Latching onto the first person who can ably assist him, it seems entirely appropriate he bends towards physical interaction. The most obvious reason it hasn’t happened before is the inappropriateness of the women. Before Liz, they were all attached or too young. When Tom Baker’s youthful version appeared, a viable tutor / student relationship had already been established between the Doctor [i.e. the Third Doctor] and Sarah; breaking that bond would have disturbed the show’s character dynamics. After Leela and Romana, it was back to young girls again, or women with hefty personal issues. Grace Holloway is the first well-rounded unattached appropriately aged human individual the 900 year old Time Lord has come across since, well, since Cameca.
Writer Matthew Jacobs does an adequate job of marrying the fan expectations with introducing a new show to the uninitiated. It’s fair to say the opening voice over is a tad shaky. It tells the audience a lot of useful information, but it comes very early and very fast. By the time the adventure is half over you’ve forgotten everything you heard. So, when the Seventh Doctor regenerates into the Eighth, the director – and possibly the writer – have our hero Time Lord swaddled in a hospital gown and mortuary cloth, rising literally from his death bed in a cloud burst of smoke and light: it can only be interpreted as an allusion to Jesus Christ. The religious overtones don’t stop there. A confused Doctor wanders into some of the deserted and abandoned basement storeys of the hospital, spies his reflection in broken glass and falls to his knees in exasperation. “Who am I?” he yells to no one in particular, although people might think he’s asking the question of God – or the television executives who want to confuse us and Paul McGann.
While the adventure’s basic narrative is fine, albeit a trifle confusing every-so-often, the writer – or director – can’t resist the temptation to remind us we are watching the same Doctor as the other Seven. McCoy’s appearance clearly isn’t enough; many American viewers would only have recognised Tom Baker or Peter Davison, if any at all. Hence, we see a sonic screwdriver, a yoyo, a pocket watch, a medallion-shaped TARDIS key and a bag of jelly babies. The key was last seen [I think] in The Android Invasion. There’s a fun little scene where we learn the Doctor keeps a spare key in a secret panel above the TARDIS door. I rather like this idea, and it’s fun to think how many times the Doctor’s companions have hung about thinking they could never gain entrance to the TARDIS when all along the key was at their fingertips. It might also inadvertently explain how a rejuvenated Master gains access to the time capsule, an event which quite shockingly is never explained. [The producers noticed the continuity error in post-production and decided simply to ignore it and hope everyone else would too. No, sorry, you’re wrong there; we noticed]. And on the subject of the Master, it was good to once again have the Time Lord arch-enemy able to hypnotise and coax people to his will. Going a step further back, McGann’s Doctor steals clothes from a hospital orderly’s locker and spends his first hours barefoot, exactly the same way Jon Pertwee spent most of the early episodes of his debut Spearhead from Space. Their clobber even looks similar; McGann sports some rather dashing Wild Bill Hickock attire, which cuts him out as a heroic, but controversial figure; clever that. His toe tag reads John Doe, but when he was initially booked into the hospital he was listed as John Smith, the same name Pertwee used to avoid obvious intrusive questions. Going even further back, the First Doctor’s diary reappears, a 900 year diary to be precise.
There is though, a tendency to repeat the errors of the Cartmel Masterplan from Seasons 25 & 26, where the Doctor began to have divine omnipotence. Several times he offers words of warning or guidance regarding other character’s futures. Initially this was well disguised. Paul McGann’s Doctor persuades Grace Holloway of his non-human nature by declaring: “As a child you dreamt you could hold back death. Don’t be sad, Grace, you’ll do great things.” This is an ingenious line, reinforcing his faith in her ability; a deduction he has made from studying her house and belongings. However, when the Doctor starts telling complete strangers their fortunes, the character trait quickly becomes tiresome. If he can tell the future, he would know if the Master’s plan succeeds or not, so why is he bothering? Oh, yes, because he knows he succeeds. It’s a real problem all this clairvoyance.
After a critical timing malfunction, the Seventh Doctor has landed on Earth. He steps out of the TARDIS and into a gang war in San Francisco’s Chinatown on December 30, 1999. Shot, he is rescued by a gang member, Chang Lee. The casket of ashes has been broken and the Master’s essence has fled the TARDIS in the guise of an opaque, ghostly serpent. This spirit takes over the paramedic who escorts the Doctor to hospital. During surgery, cardiologist Grace Holloway attempts to perform a routine bypass which proves fatal to the Time Lord. Her superiors want to cover up the death of the mysterious two-hearted patient. The Master wants the Doctor’s body; he needs to fuse with it to continue living and regenerating. This must be specifically because they are Time Lords, I suppose, something like that Rassilion Imprimatur they spoke of back in The Two Doctors, for while the Master can take over another being’s body [see The Keeper of Traken], the receptacle simply doesn’t last him very long. To perfect a transfer, the Master needs a Time Lord body fused by the unleashed power of the Eye of Harmony which resides at the core of the TARDIS. This can only be an extension of the power of the Eye, as that is held on Gallifrey beneath the Panopticon [see The Deadly Assassin]. However, because the Doctor is half human, the Master needs a human imprint to open the Eye, and hypnotises Chang Lee for the task. This seems unlikely, but it is probably best to let it pass, unless we get too confused. Following his regeneration, the Doctor pieces together the Master’s plan and realises he can reverse the power of the Eye by introducing the stabilising element beryllium into the TARDIS power source. It so happens San Francisco’s Institute of Technological Advancement and Research is launching a beryllium stabilised atomic clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the turn of the millennium. The Doctor and Grace race to the institute to steal the beryllium, save the Earth and defeat the Master.
[Point of TARDIS order: it is curious that once the Seventh Doctor’s voyage to Gallifrey is interrupted, the time ship should land at this precise location and time, almost as if the old girl is anticipating the Doctor’s needs. I commented before on the TARDIS’ ability to locate dangerous and unjust situations for the Doctor to solve and it appears she is one step ahead of the game once more, placing our hero exactly where he needs to be. Is it the Doctor who is clairvoyant or the TARDIS via the Matrix who anticipates the future turn of events…?]
There are elements of humour which lighten a rather dark mood. Eric Roberts' Master kits himself out in leather and sunglasses and to all purposes resembles a T1000 Terminator. The high speed chase through San Francisco resembles the motorcycle pursuit in T2: Judgement Day. The Master has a side line in humour as straightlaced as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, although his flaming green eyes are something of a giveaway to his devilishness. The Doctor’s sleight of hand was fun, so too some of his verbally dextrous attempts to explain who he is and what he is doing. “Temporal physics, Grace, it’s all to do with interdimensional transference,” says the Doctor, only for her to reply: “That would explain the spatial displacement” as they glance around the enormous TARDIS interior. The moment where a police motorcyclist races into and promptly out of the TARDIS was a moment of genius which could not have occurred with the weeny little BBC sets.
The TARDIS interior has been dramatically remodelled and very fine it is too. While there had been prior attempts to increase the visible size of the spaceship [most notably in The Invasion of Time] nobody has attempted to reinvent the TARDIS in such a radical way. I loved the huge cathedral-like spaces, the windows and temple-like structures. The Eye of Harmony is contained in the Cloister Room, the bell tolling, the power source buried beneath a rotating giant eyelid, light and mist shadowing its unfettered supremacy. Disappointingly, the console room seems to be littered like a cabinet of Victorian curiosities and the operating column itself looks very manmade [spinning dials and miniature television consoles, for instance], while the organic looking rooms are fashioned to be tremendously believably alien. However, that difference does allow us to believe Grace could rewire the console column as it is clearly a very elementary piece of equipment. Strangely, the stuck chameleon circuit is referred to as a cloaking device, which it isn’t. That’s a very poor steal from Star Trek and would be fine if the writers understood the difference, but they don’t. On a more positive note, another cute touch was to show the time capsule’s date counter speeding through the Rassilon Era into the Humanian Era. They really did want to drop those Time Lord references into the telling.
We drop back to Christlike interpretations again by the climax as the Doctor is chained up like the Messiah on a cross and hitched to a mind probe which resembles a crown of thorns. The religious angle feels a bit tacky by now; the show rarely commented on Earth’s real religious philosophies and these moments don’t gel with the twenty-plus other years where the subject was diligently avoided. It’s a credit to the performers that they don’t dwell on it either.
Paul McGann really is good as the Doctor. It is a great loss that he wasn’t given an opportunity to continue in the role. He would, I feel, have made an important contribution to the show’s legacy. As it stands, he’s a footnote, although his kind of effortless, charming virility is much preferable to Colin Baker’s in-your-face obnoxious version. Eric Roberts cuts a fine figure of evil as the Master, although he becomes a caricature of his own making by the end of proceedings. Daphne Ashbrook sparkles well with McGann, but isn’t quite so assured when not being the Doctor’s reluctant, if capable, sidekick. The fact she doesn’t join him on his adventures opens the door to more short term companions who would no doubt have been more involved in the action from the get-go. Yee Jee Tso is a disappointment as Chang Lee. Overall, the support cast is competent without being given enough substance to warrant anything more,
Of the back room team: writing [Matthew Jacobs] a positive half-tick; direction [Englishman Geoffrey Sax] tick; photography [Glen MacPherson] tick; production design [Richard Hudolin] big tick; costumes [Jori Woodman] tick; editing [Patrick Lassier] tick; music [John Debney] half-a-tick, a dodgy theme tune is his downfall. If anything, the production outdoes itself and presents an unforeseen problem: that the show looks better than it is.
Eventually, whatever the perceived merits of Doctor Who are story wise – and a slew of original Eighth Doctor novels suggest it was heading somewhere worthwhile – I can’t shake off the feeling I’m watching a very expensive, efficient update which shows me what I want to see, but doesn’t tell me anything new, different or perceptive. The adventure is slightly hollow, the characters too quickly bundled in and away, and by the bitter end it doesn’t feel any better than the resolutions we came to expect in the 1980s. Worse, while the Doctor is present, it is Grace who ultimately saves the day and him, so our hero is in debt to the human race from the off. It isn’t good enough for a producer / writer / director to paint your hero and then remove the heroics from him.
Doctor Who is okay. It boosted great ratings in the U.K. but the poor stateside showing confined Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor to an unending series of ‘what if’ questions. A bold, satisfying, but ultimately flawed attempt:
3 from 5
Stephen Dorff’s Master kits himself out in leather and sunglasses and to all purposes resembles a T1000 Terminator.
Actually, Eric Roberts played The Master.
I commented before on the TARDIS’ ability to locate dangerous and unjust situations for the Doctor to solve and it appears she is one step ahead of the game once more, placing our hero exactly where he needs to be.
Without going into spoilers this aspect of the TARDIS is mentioned in the episode The Doctor's Wife.
Overall a great write up of the TV Movie. I wish we has gotten to see more of Paul McGann.
Oh my God, how embarrassing is that? All that hard work trying to get my details correct for these reviews and I fail at the final hurdle ! Maybe it was wishful thinking or perhaps Dr Who has finally beaten me down...
Duly corrected. Don't worry about spoilers, I'm not intending to review the rebooted series any time soon...
In fact, I really screwed up that post - I didn't even entitle it with "The Eighth Doctor etc" Still, all corrected now.
I thought Paul McGann was excellent as the Doctor, I’ve always thought of him as the George Lazenby of Doctor Who - a one time appearance leaving a legacy of unfulfilled potential to be the best ever in the role.
Doctor Who fits in well with the perceived timeline of events for the Doctor which started way back in 1963. It probably fits better than most of Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker’s nostalgia tinged enterprises. Canadian producer Philip Segal, a devoted fan and ex-pat, had wanted to make a new Dr Who series for several years. Rival projects from Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment curtailed his initial efforts, but once he obtained the licence from the BBC, he raised a $5m budget from Fox Television, Universal, BBC World Wide and the BBC in the hope a good enough pilot would lead to a ten-part series. Given the investment, you’d think it would have been worth Fox at least making half a go of it. Foreign sales would have recouped the investment twice over, I fancy. Still, in Hollywood and US TV Land, money is the biggest denominator, ratings the integer and profit the largest fraction that counts. Sadly for Paul McGann, he never got the opportunity to develop his Doctor past this one initial outing.
I’d like to thank him for briefly returning the world’s favourite Time Lord to the living room and for delivering a solid, warm and likeable interpretation of the Doctor. After the dreary darkness and desperation surrounding Seasons 22 – 26, it is a relief to watch something that entertains unreservedly and yet still manages to feel like relevant science fiction. Best of all, it wasn’t embarrassing. There are no shaky walls. No dodgy effects. No silly monster costumes. Even the script, while hamstrung by a half-baked plot, doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence. It felt like a product designed for fans and the curious alike. It aimed itself at the middle ground, was mature and intellectual enough to be of interest without losing sight of a childish glee in action, character and humour which always propels a good story. There was no need to laugh at its poor production values and excuse them as being ‘of their time’ or ‘cheap and cheerful’. The adventure has genuine verve and the attention to visual detail is far beyond anything witnessed previously on Classic Dr Who.
What it lacked was a driving force from the producer’s seat. Segal’s vision seems to be one of continuation and consistency, which I applaud, but he’s not provided the necessary sucker punch to get his audience talking. The Master, however Eric Roberts played him, was never going to be a memorable villain. His self-indulgent scheme doesn’t affect in the way an invasion by marauding silver suited Cybermen or Autons disguised as shop window mannequins would surely have done, producing a higher visceral response from audiences. Indeed, when the BBC finally rebooted Dr Who, Russell T. Davies chose the Autons for precisely that reason.
Doctor Who, and dare I say it, even Paul McGann is just a little too safe. The television entertainment world had moved on a lot since 1989, and Dr Who was looking past its best by then already. It had a lot of catching up to do and this adventure doesn’t quite catch up enough to draw the Doctor effectively into the late nineties.
The rather good Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor:
after all your issues with 80s Doctor Who rewriting history, I'm surprised you liked the Americanised half-human Doctor so much!
Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor does reappear during the Matt Smith era. actually in a promotional "mini-episode" called The Night of the Doctor, which shows his regeneration into the previously unseen War Doctor, played by John Hurt (Eccleston refused to return to the role, so we still haven't seen the regeneration that produced the Ninth Doctor). McGann also recorded a series of audio-adventures.
@Westward_Drift is right to mention The Doctors Wife as dealing satisfactorily with the recurring questions about the TARDIS's behaviour. If you just wanted to cherrypick one episode from the Moffat era thisd be a good one, one of two episode written by Neil (The Sandman) Gaiman.
Speaking of Moffat, youre not done yet are you @chrisno1 ? theres at last one more 20th Century Doctor Who
...played by Rowan Atkison!