The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker
“Does everyone run from the taxman?” asks Leela.
Dressed up as revolution story, The Sunmakers is a cleverly disguised comic satire on taxation. The TARDIS lands on Pluto in the far future. Man has abandoned Earth and colonised the ninth planet in the solar system – apparently there is now a tenth, Cassius; the producers were not to know Pluto would be recategorized a dwarf planet by 2006. To sustain life, six ‘megropolis’ cities have been built, each with an in-station fusion satellite, a fake sun; yet the whole population lives inside enormous habitation structures and toil below ground extracting mineral wealth from the mining complex deep beneath the planet’s surface. Other, lower classes, work as maintenance and subsistence crews which support each urban centre. The operation is managed by an all-seeing, all-powerful Company, and the upper classes are their employees. The overseer is the bald headed, Scrooge-like, scrimping Collector. Along with his representative Gatherer Hade, the Collector is taxing the population to the hilt. The civilisation is a fictional example model of economics gone mad.
“Taxes are the primary consideration,” states the Gatherer, and the show outlines the craziness of the system from the very beginning as a poor labourer, Cordo, attempts to pay his father’s death taxes. He settled on a high specification funeral and has been saving for years, only to find the taxes have increased, and a whole list of extra fees and fines are added, including 50% compound interest on unpaid taxes. Much to his dismay, Cordo [an excellently nervy Roy McCready] has no option but to acquiesce. His feeble objections are met only with the stony-glint stare of the Gatherer. Richard Leech gives a wonderful, overblown, supercilious interpretation of a wretched overlord. You really do believe tax collectors could be like him, all rules and percentage points. It’s not Gatherer Hade’s fault the work unit didn’t read the bulletins during his three-hour rest periods. Cordo is ordered to work continuous shifts to clear his debt, but can’t pay the taxes on the Q Capsules he’ll need to keep him awake. Not the Gatherer’s problem.
Cordo attempts suicide, but is prevented by the Doctor and Leela, who accidentally land the TARDIS on the roof of Megropolis One. “You need a wily accountant,” suggests the Doctor. Once again, Leela’s hunting skills pay dividends. She detects the air conditioning’s curious perfume in the atmosphere and, later on, when confronted with a group of indecisive rebels, she goads them into action. Louise Jameson is excellent in this adventure, all drive and courage and righteous anger. Jameson’s always better when she’s invited to play Leela as the savage, not as the stereotypical companion. It doesn’t matter that she can’t fathom the logistics of the tax system – hell, no one can – for here she’s called on to be a fighter and a revolutionary, which better suits her nature. “The people should rise up and slaughter their oppressors!” she cries like some futurist Karl Marx.
In a world where every movement is considered an effort to defraud the Company of money, the Collector and his cohorts have added a pacifier into the air conditioning. Leela smelt it. K9 detects it. The Doctor learns about it from Bisham [David Rowlands, another smart role]. This is PCM, pentocyleinicmethylhydrane, imbibed with every breath by the multitudes. The Company employees take special tablets to nullify the effects. Meanwhile the remainder of the population are turned into anxious, subservient mules. PCM, of course, is the financial shorthand for Per Calendar Month. Robert Holmes’ audacious screenplay references the tax, finance and benefit system throughout the adventure; even the corridors are named after tax forms, like P45 or P60. His writing works on two levels. He satirises taxation and exposes the myth of super-monopoly capitalism, but also reminds us that humans always have a right to basic personal freedoms, which are denied here and fought for by a small army of dissidents that has taken root in the abandoned lower levels.
The Others operate like something out of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist. They live in barren dungeons, out of sight of the sophisticated camera tracking system, and thieve for a living. They’re taken to arguing, talk a great game, but are a disorganised rabble stymied by inaction, even though they are no longer susceptible to the PCM. They don’t take kindly to the Doctor’s larks; he’s easier to slay than the Company. This potential victory appears to satisfy their lusts, but it’d be a small win and won’t bring down the Company. Their leader is the agitated scoundrel Mandrel. William Symons plays him in the best Oliver Reed fashion, all rolling, bulging eyes and thunderous intent. He’s weak in purpose, though, and we see it, several times. It is the fortitude of Leela, the Doctor, Bisham and a rejuvenated Cordo which reawakens his revolutionary zeal. You do feel Mandrel perhaps ought to be more akin to Fagin, creepy and slippery, but that might place him too close to Henry Woolf’s Scrooge impersonation as the Collector, pouring over his calculator and whining. Woolf is brilliant, a snivelling, acid tongued little weasel, whose visually been modelled on Thunderbirds’ arch villain, the Hood. Witnessing Leela being subjected to a Steamer Execution, he twitters: “This is the moment when I get real job satisfaction!”
Black humour enshrines the story like the cloak surrounding the Gatherer. This facetious, crawling man of many words gets his comeuppance confronting some dissidents on the city’s roof. “Work units are forbidden to see the sun. It’s too good for them!” he remarks. Gatherer Hade soon finds out just how good sunlight and fresh air really is and he’s summarily flung from the rooftop like a shop dummy [it is a shop dummy]. This moment of rebellion and murder is quite startling in Dr Who. People have died before, but rarely at the hands of a baying mob and rarely so graphically. The Doctor wasn’t present, and may have prevented it; he spends many moments stopping Leela from killing people. His attempts at civilising the savage don’t seem to work and she leads the revolt with all the verve she can muster.
The revolution story breaks out quite early, about half-way through episode 2. It’s a Dr Who default position, but in this over-monied world the ideals of a socialist uprising feel quite pertinent. It’s a little disappointing such a clever interpretation of the human financial infrastructure gone wrong has to be perpetrated by an alien. The Collector turns out to be a disguised Usurian, a seaweed-like creature with eyes. We never see its natural form. Just as well after the last couple of dodgy monsters. The Usurians have forsaken military conquest for rapacious greed. Commercial imperialism is their mantra and economic power their sword. It’s a cop-out by Robert Holmes to blame an alien; mankind could just as easily have created this maddening civilisation.
Everything works out for the best. Among the multitude of witty, ironic, caustic repartee and run-around action sequences, there’s just about time to admire the dark photography by John Tiley which utilises Camden Town tube station and Imperial Tobacco’s Bristol factory to good effect as Megropolis One’s locations. Tony Snowden’s interior designs, when we see them, are reminiscent of brutalist, almost Babylonian architecture, placed as they are against enormous black backgrounds. Everything, even the Gatherer’s mahogany desk, is enormous. His costume is a little odd, but I can forgive that. Pennant Roberts directs with some flair for a change.
A final word on K9, the little robot dog who first featured in The Invisible Enemy. He was neatly written out of the previous adventure [the first of many repairs] as it had been scripted before his inclusion as a companion. Here, Robert Holmes provides the metal mutt with plenty to do. He doesn’t interfere with or slow down the action or dialogue. His attributes are utilised effectively for the benefit of the story. He tracks the Doctor like a beagle, he blasts opponents with his laser, he rescues his mistress, he even inadvertently leads the Company to the Others. He’s very much an extra companion and, in this incarnation, I like him a lot. John Leeson’s voice is a peach, especially when K9 is admonished for being disobedient.
The Sunmakers was Robert Homes’ last serial as script editor. He would continue to write screenplays on-and-off for Dr Who for several years. Fans should be indebted for his contribution to the show in the years 1974 – 1978 when he, along with Philip Hinchcliffe, stretched the amorphic science fiction material into a frightening ecosphere of monsters, mad men and horrific consequences. Dr Who has seldom been better.
Thank you, Robert Holmes:
4 from 5.
The Doctor is well-known for interfering in the world’s he visits. The Time Lords forbade this practice with good reason. In Underworld, we learn the Doctor’s ancestors favoured the planet Minyos and assisted in its rapid technological development. The Minyans came to see their benefactors as gods, but resented their power. Eventually, the Minyans violently expelled their ‘gods,’ leading to a civil nuclear war which destroyed the planet. After this debacle, the Time Lords vowed never to interfere in another world’s development, or history, again. This is an orderly piece of Gallifrey’s history and throws up an instant tension between the Doctor and the crew of the stricken star ship The R1C: four Minyans on a mysterious one hundred thousand year Quest.
Underworld is best at its beginning. The TARDIS is on the edge of a galaxy, the edge of everything, witnessing the birth of a planet within a spiral nebula. To avoid being sucked into its centre, the time ship materialises on The R1C, itself being hurtled into the swirling asteroid field. The Doctor prevents the ship’s destruction, but its crew, led by the solid Jackson and the arrogant Herrick, are so intent on their quest they cast danger and death to the universe and follow the faint signal of a second star ship, The P7E. Trapped inside the nebula, the ship’s weight creates a gravity field and The R1C becomes engulfed by thousands of boulders. The moment where the blast shields are lowered to reveal a wall of igneous rock was a tour de force which really ought to have climaxed the opening episode. It doesn’t because Underworld is so short, each episode barely mustering twenty minutes of original material, the production team had to pad the episode out a little.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin were instructed to deliberately fashion a story based around the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. To that end, the writers have given Jackson and the Minyans a quest with a prize, in this case two golden cylinders containing the Minyan race banks. Technology must have been good on Minyos: the human race bank featured in The Ark was an enormous undertaking, this one looks like it’s come from Woolworth’s. The Minyans have also developed a form of cellular rejuvenation, probably from the Time Lords. The crew members have each rejuvenated over a thousand times. The huge rejuvenation chamber was suitably impressive. I enjoyed these little touches and insights, including the numerous names alluding to the Greek legends: Jackson / Jason, Herrick / Heracles, Tala / Talus, Orfe / Orpheus, Minyos / Minos, R1C / Argosy, P7E / Persephone, Hedes / Hades, there’s even a Sword of Damocles and an Oracle. Sadly this latter is another supercomputer with dreams of megalomania.
[Star Trek featured its own slightly batty Oracle in the season three episode For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky. I put in this titbit of data just so I could type that ridiculous title.]
The adventure goes badly awry once The R1C has made its spectacular crash landing on the soft surfaced planet. The P7E is buried at this new ‘underworld’s’ core. The legendary Persephone suffered a similar fate, so if you know your legends, you can really enjoy this. The ships are duplicates [a production cost saving device] but it’s not clear where the Oracle came from as The R1C doesn’t have an all-singing-all-controlling computer. A bad oversight from the writers. There’s also a couple of hilarious baddies called The Seers of the Realm of Hedes who are basically two evolved humanoid robots whose heads have been replaced by astronaut helmets. They look as if they’ve escaped from King of the Rocket Men or Mick Jagger’s movie Ned Kelly. Bloody terrible, really bloody terrible. Like the computer, there’s no explanation who they are and why they are there. First time script editor Anthony Read ought to do better.
Naturally, there’s a revolution afoot. Trog miners, the descendants of The P7E crew, are shovelling radiation packed rocks into a composter which fuels the barmy computer. Nonsense, naturally. The Doctor, Leela, K9 and Herrick do their best to ensure revolution succeeds and the Trogs escape with the true Minyans, naturally. There’s a lot of running about in caves and a lot of Star Wars inspired laser battles, naturally. Some of the model work is really good and Richard Conway’s SFX are impressive. Impressive that is, until we have to talk about the colour separation overlay. This FX technique already looked dated in 1978 and while it isn’t the disaster many contemporary critics claimed, neither is it the achievement more modern observers insist. The success of the technique is scratchy at best. There are too many noticeable errors to make the cave and tunnel scenes believable. Characters often seem to be suspended in thin air or treading through rocks not over them. CSO was used extensively because of the prohibitive cost of creating tunnel sets. To save the story at all, producer Graham Williams asked the geeks to film all the underworld scenes in CSO. A bold decision, but one which I have to question, given the technique’s lack of consistent success when previously deployed.
The muddled CSO is disappointing because so much of the other effects work is very good, although the exploding papier mâché planet needed a rethink. The camera work is consistently, appropriately dark, but no one takes credit for that. Performances are universally average. Only Alan Lake’s muscular Herrick, who displays all the egotism, anger and energy expected of a Heracles, comes across as remotely interesting. Dick Coles’ designs aren’t up to much, which is worrying considering he’s only got one star ship to deal with. For an action orientated serial, the whole enterprise feels tremendously inert. You can only blame director Norman Stewart for that; his work’s as flat as the blank screens he filmed all the CSO sequences on.
[A little side point regarding James Bond: the Doctor, Leela and Idas infiltrate the Oracle’s control centre by crawling through a ventilation duct, much how OO7 accesses Dr No’s reactor room.]
Underworld doesn’t deserve it’s generally poor reputation among fans, but nor is it very worthy. The mythological context and the initial ambition of the story is brilliant, but it goes downhill so fast it’s like watching one of the prophetic sky falls suffered by the trog workers: everything just keeps caving in:
2 from 5.
THE INVASION OF TIME
Tom Baker’s performances as the Doctor have always trod a fine line between erratic genius and borderline mania. He’d begun to slip into the latter too often in this season, note his enormous shifts in tempo and manner when dealing with Leela, particularly from Image of the Fendahl onwards. He’s frequently so over the top, you wonder if he’s trying to scene steal, having recognised he’s met a performer in Louise Jameson whose character and personal ability have met or bettered his own. This offhand and tempestuous attitude pervades The Invasion of Time and makes the six-part finale to Season 15 a very difficult watch. No wonder Miss Jameson decided to quit after a paltry nine adventures. She must have detected where Tom Baker’s ego was taking the show.
No one’s helped by the storyline of this return to Gallifrey which is hopelessly convoluted and doesn’t warrant close inspection should you find too many faults in it. Suffice to say The Invasion of Time is an all-round calamity. Written quickly by producer Graham Williams and script editor Anthony Read, the screenplay never does justice to any of its ideas and instead spends pages, minutes, trying to poke fun at the show. It’s badly designed, badly cast, woefully acted and features three insubstantial villains, the conniving Castellan Kelner, the tin-foil shaking Vardans and a Sontaran storm force, led by a stunted cockney. The Doctor spends most of the adventure acting very odd, annoys everyone with his slapdash humour and enjoys breaking the fourth wall.
It was nice to see Gallifrey’s orange skies [see The Sensorites] but Leela’s trip outside the Time Lord Citadel was a waste of an episode. She achieves nothing there except to learn that some Time Lords get pissed off with peace and tranquillity. At the end of the adventure Louise Jameson’s fearless savage decides to stay behind and start homemaking with Andred, a hopeless Citadel guard among many hopeless Citadel guards. Love springs both eternal and unexpectedly: the two had barely passed a glance before this turn of events. Miss Jameson had requested Leela be killed off while saving the Doctor, which would have made a fine exit for this noble warrior and given the Doctor’s parting words “I won’t forget you, Savage” some emotional impact. As it is they only desperately mimic his farewell to Sarah Jane Smith.
Somewhere in this mess is an adventure of invasion and repulsion, but it takes ages to materialise, remains entirely masked in mirth and repeats itself for the Vardans and the Sontarans. Latterly there’s a long winded chase around the TARDIS which seems never to end. ‘Tension killing’ describes it well, although director Gerald Blake, in addition to not controlling his star, has forgotten to introduce any atmospheres of suspense and danger. Still at least we got to see John Arnatt’s rather fine Chancellor Borusa – he appears to have regenerated – and we meet out first Time Lady, the elegant Rodan, played with some icy indifference by Hilary Ryan. Her brief spiky scenes with Tom Baker anticipate some of what we might get in Season 16.
If you want to learn more about the history and legends of the Doctor’s home world, I refer you to investigate the relevant websites as I certainly couldn’t fathom anything from this six-part catastrophe. The Invasion of Time is a lower than low point for the Fourth Doctor:
1 from 5
The Fifteenth Season of Dr Who is one of peaks and troughs. No serial quite touches the brilliance of the previous year’s offerings, yet it begins with much fruitfulness. Unfortunately, there are some errors of judgement late on in the run which skew quality towards the very poor.
Initially, despite a new producer, not much appears to have changed in the Doctor’s world. He’s still fighting monsters in vaguely gothic situations and the storylines are blatantly nicked from other sources, with the miniaturised Doctor and Leela of The Invisible Enemy the prime culprit. Things alter dramatically half-way through the season, and with The Sunmakers producer Graham Williams seems to have found his niche, blending social commentary with science fiction and a fair dose of good humour. This serial appears more and more original the older it gets. Compared to almost everything which came before it, except perhaps those satires on Imperial Rome and ancient Greece way back in the Hartnell era [see The Romans and The Myth Makers] The Sunmakers makes great hay while also including incisive political comment. Sadly, after this revelatory tale, spiralling production costs meant a switch to a couple of poorly scripted and badly designed adventures which lack almost all the tension and attention to detail we’ve been used to during Philip Hinchcliffe’s production tenure. New script editor Anthony Read needs to tone down the laughing monkeys because there seem to be a lot of them in the wings.
While Tom Baker has always been watchable, he’s out thought by Louise Jameson, whose Leela is a far more interesting character. She makes the warrior Sevateem engrossing and sympathetic. When called into action, she can be dynamic and brutal. When asked to play the stooge, she compliments the Doctor with sharp, simple questions with no need to quip a smart reply; he tells it, she accepts it. When needed to she’s also shown compassion and understanding, particularly of the old and suffering. The Doctor, by contrast, appears to be verging on the inane and we only have Tom Baker to blame for that, although I’d have to question whether the directors are giving him too much leeway. Sometimes he’s quite deliriously hamming it. Luckily Baker’s performances are generally held in check by the supporting cast. This is particularly true in Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl, where occasionally Baker seems to be acting in a completely different show. By The Invasion of Time everyone’s given up and the whole company joins in the lead actor’s japes with some revelry.
Season Fifteen comes out as just about average. It remains to be seen how the revamped production team will cope, both with a new direction and with an egotistical looking star.
THE RIBOS OPERATION
Generally referred to by fans simply as The Key to Time Season, Season 16 kicks off in ethereal fashion with the Doctor summoned by a superbeing known to him as the White Guardian. This colonial Colonel Sanders lookalike is played by Cyril Luckham, sitting cool on a cane love-chair while sipping crème de menthe. His benign appearance belies the tough interior: should the Doctor refuse the task before him, his punishment is “Nothing. Ever.” The implication is not lost on Tom Baker, who suddenly turns very serious. The White Guardian has sensed an approaching moment when the balance of universal forces is so unsettled the known galaxies could plunge into eternal chaos. To restore parity the universe must be temporarily ‘stopped.’ The power for this exercise can only be found in the Key to Time, a perfect energy cube which maintains the equilibrium of time itself. Its six segments are scattered and hidden throughout the universe as its power is too vast for any one being to possess. One assumes the White Guardian is powerful enough to resist whatever allure it has. The Doctor is tasked with recovering the segments and uniting the Key. He is also warned about the White Guardian’s antithesis, the Black Guardian, who may be seeking the Key for his own nefarious purposes.
This is not a new storyline for Dr Who. It featured prominently in the Season 1 groaner The Keys of Marinus, with an almost identical narrative. Terry Nation’s quest encompassed a mere six episodes. This one however extends to a whole six adventures. Terrance ****’ stage play Dr Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday of 1974 also featured a series of keys which formed a weapon of galaxy destroying force. There are no new stories in sci-fi, just new ways of telling old ones.
Reluctantly the Doctor accepts this mission from one half of the Ying and Yang type demi-gods. On threat of death, or incarceration, he’s not been given much choice. The Time Lord President volunteered him and also sent him an assistant, the lovely Romanadvoratrelundar, Romana for short. We are introduced to this strident, provocative young woman via a spectacularly sexy slow crawl zoom up her legs, torso and bosom, to the quizzical expression on her lovely face, fleshed out in a beautiful slinky tight ivory white ball gown. Romana’s kitted like Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and the outfit is complete when the Doctor presents her with an enormous ostrich feather coat. I’m not sure Dr Who’s ever had such a glamourous companion. Even Jo Grant’s nights on the town with Mike Yates looked more as if he treated her to a few pints in the Ship and Shovel, Charing Cross. This is full blown bling, American Bar, Stafford Hotel, Mayfair.
I like Romana. Actress Mary Tamm is gorgeous to look at, bossy, smart and out performs Tom Baker at every turn, spinning asides and subtle put-downs as quickly as he does. “Before I met you,” she pipes, “I was willing to be impressed… but you’re suffering from a massive compensation syndrome.” The cheeky little minx. Ten minutes in his company and she’s already compared the Doctor’s inflated ego to his deflated manhood, the TARDIS may as well be his Lamborghini. She’s matched him from the off, noting he scraped through his Academy exams, and considers him old at 759. She’s only 149 and fresh out of college. Ouch, that’s a tad creepy. Good thing this Time Teenager has got bags of attitude.
Apparently Hilary Ryan’s Rodan from The Invasion of Time was neither a test run for Romana nor an intended direct replacement for Leela, but script editor Anthony Read surely had a hand in shaping Romana’s character as the two are remarkably similar in style and countenance. Some observers feel Mary Tamm plays it too stately, a little snooty, but I like that: she is after all attempting to upstage the Doctor, who himself is a conceited preening peacock. The twosome are engaging, challenging and never, ever dull. This kind of thespian magic doesn’t happen often. The dialogue and physical nuances between the Time Lord and Time Lady [or is it just Time Lords these days?] crackle like a joyful Hollywood screwball comedy. Their interplay is remarkably fine considering they’ve only just met. It’s Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell [he’s off-balance, she’s not] or Tracy and Hepburn [watch how she diffidently brushes her hair as they spit barbs at each other] or Rock Hudson and Doris Day [they cheekily catch each other’s eye and snatch a smile as they sneak out of a jewel depository]. They don’t dance though, so it isn’t quite Astaire and Rogers. Writer Robert Holmes loves his double acts and he’s hit on another here.
In fact he’s created another three. Down on the planet Ribos, tricksters Garron and Unstoffe are attempting to con their way into a fortune using a lump of jethryk and a set of fake mineral surveys. Jethryk is a valuable rare element without which space warp would be impossible. Their victims are the deposed tyrant Graff Vynda-K and his henchman Sholakh. The Graff plans to launch an invasion of his former empire and considers the possible wealth provided by Ribos to be his route to success. He enters into a protracted bargain with Garron to buy the planet. But Ribos isn’t actually for sale and, because of the Doctor’s interventions, Garron’s plans begin to unravel badly. So too for the Time Travellers: the lump of valuable jethryk turns out to be the first Key to Time.
Holmes’ triumvirate of double acts, one realistic, one comic, one tragic, are like three sides of a Jacobean triangle. The Doctor and Romana try their best to remain optimistic among the pessimism, always seeking the best, most sensible solution to their problems and everyone else’s. Garron and Unstoffe provide broad humour, master and servant, scallywags all, sci-fi’s version of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, one taking advantage of the other, both entirely interdependent. Meanwhile, the Graff and Sholakh are a tragic villain and his noble henchman, a King without a Kingdom, a volatile dictator losing his political dog-fight, exiled and insane, both men destined and foretold never to survive the catacombs. The sheer verbal dexterity of Holmes’ screenplay lifts potentially barren scenes into something far more eloquent and impactful. Here, on the wintery landscape of a dark-aged planet, exist real people with all the mores and fears we recognise. The script acts like series of small vignettes as we learn in scene after scene after scene and in incredible detail about each character’s background, his ambitions, conflicts and vices. We are fed scraps of information about Ribos and its solar system, its geography, history, economics, societal and religions structures, the alliances, empires and wars which surround it. The Doctor asks leading questions – while Romana gleans her data from Bartholomew’s Planetary Gazetteer, a sort of Bradshaw’s Guide to the Galaxy.
There’s even time for the introduction of a Fool, Timothy Bateson’s Binro, a scientist who believes Ribos isn’t flat but round and that the stars are not Ice Gods but other suns. Like Galileo, he’s been ridiculed and branded a heretic. Meeting the kindly Unstoffe confirms Binro’s personal belief and, charmingly proves the adage that the greatest lesson learnt is to know even fools can speak the truth. Sadly, the revelations come too late for Binro. This short sequence drives home the ancient battle between science and superstition. Ribos is an exceptionally backward society, believing in black magic and a warring pair of sun and ice gods. Garron says they won’t develop into a third-grade civilisation for thousands of years. Their belief system partly derives from the planet’s enormous elliptical orbit which ensures thirty-two-year seasons, winter then summer. They are dressed in clothes and inhabit quarters which resemble Eisenstein’s representations of 16th Century Imperial Russia from Ivan the Terrible, itself an inauspicious and unsavoury time. [In fact the props were borrowed from the BBC’s recent production of Anna Karenina.]
As if that isn’t enough, the producers are invoking another familiar old story, that of Peladon and its superstitious elite. The old wintery castles, shamans, a recessive society whose paltry fortune comes from mining its abundant minerals, caught in a galactic war – ah, the reminiscences of the Third Doctor’s travels in Curse of… and Monster of… are too alike to be an accident. Peladon was one of the best imagined worlds created by the Letts / **** production team and this minor homage only shows up just how imaginative it was. Ribos even has catacombs patrolled by a mysterious beast!
Wrapped around all this gloominess and ruminations is a breezy crime caper about stealing jewels, mistaken identities, escape and chase. Like the best capers, the villains are intense and straight faced and the heroes smart and sassy, the comedy flutters neatly between them. If Robert Holmes, or Anthony Reed, occasionally dips too far towards the latter – this is especially true of the manner in which the Doctor and Romana wriggle out of potential peril – it’s excusable because they’ve provided a wonderful roster of people and given them such beautiful characterful dialogue. George Spenton-Foster directs with some skill.
The adventure climaxes in the catacombs, where between avoiding monstrous lizard-like Shrivenzales and squadrons of soldiers, the Doctor, Romana and K9 snatch back the jethryk, and prevent the Graff’s crazy revenge plans. It’s has a slightly unseemly ending which fits in well with the generally tawdry nature of the people: the Doctor deliberately plants an explosive device on the Graff’s person, resulting in the man’s death. The Graff may be going insane, but the Doctor’s rarely acted so ruthless. When you consider how often he used to stop Leela from killing people, you wonder what shifted the Doctor’s priorities. To see the all-powerful Time Lords, the voices of reason, stoop to the level of the con man and the dictator, the comic and the tragic, is very disheartening. Meanwhile, Iain Cuthbertson’s garrulous Garron lives to con another day.
The Ribos Operation is a splendid start to the Key to Time Season and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The emphasis on humour is slightly over-pitched and the violence, when it arrives, is either off-screen or low key. There is a significant change in atmosphere from the previous few seasons, a lighter touch on a broad scope. It remains to be seen if this new standard can be maintained.
This opener is not quite a great story, but it does very, very well indeed and, to be honest, I think I’m already in love with Romana:
I understand Jodie Whitaker is stepping down as the Doctor. So who would you like to see as the next Doctor Who?
Richard Ayoade, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, Martin Freeman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson? Someone else? (I've been reading up a little bit on the subject ...)
Thanks for the interest @Number24
This thread is specifically about the Classic Series. I think there are some other threads on the forum for 'new' Dr Who. Since you ask, though, as I don't watch the rebooted series I couldn't give a chuff who payed the Doctor. I'd prefer a man. I'd prefer someone relatively unknown. As I say, I don't watch it anyway, so what the hey...
The return of Doctor Who (SPOILERS) - Page 60 — ajb007
THE PIRATE PLANET
Writer Douglas Adams is rightly famous for his radio series, novels and television show The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is often forgotten he began his career as a sketch writer for Monty Python, one of only a few outside the Python’s themselves to be credited as a Flying Circus author. His initial high profile exposure to the BBC wasn’t with Hitch Hiker’s but with Dr Who. The ground-breaking radio series was still in development when, on recommendation from producer John Lloyd, Graham Williams commissioned Adams to write an adventure for Season 16. The result was The Pirate Planet, a story heavily edited by Anthony Read which began filming simultaneously with audio recordings of Hitch Hiker’s. The subsequent popularity of both shows led to Adams’ being appointed to the production team of Dr Who, but we’ll discuss that later.
The Pirate Planet is an unusual and not entirely successful adventure. The overriding instinct of both author and producer was to make Dr Who fun. They certainly do that and the witty, knowing and cultured dialogue is one of the pleasures of the story. What it lacks is a plot anyone can understand, buried as it is beneath reams of technobabble which are inconsequential at best. Briefly then, a genius space engineer known as the Captain has hollowed the core of the planet Zanak and created enormous materialisation engines which he uses to smother other smaller worlds, completely absorbing the energy force of every molecule of material, yet retaining the mineral wealth, which has made the Zanak population rich beyond their imaginations. Each captured planet is reduced to a tiny husk of enormously dense matter held in statis, the release of which would form an enormous black hole. All the energy is siphoned away from the dead planet to sustain the crumbling, ancient tyrant Queen Xanxia. The Doctor and Romana wanted to land on Calufrax, but instead arrived on Zanak, having materialised at exactly the same moment as the Captain’s planet gobbling pirate ‘ship.’
There’s an awful lot more to the absurdly clever plot than that, but I’ll not go on should I, like the writers and one thinks the actors, tie myself in knots. First off, opening impressions are grand. The alien civilisation – which may not be human as they have no knowledge or ancestral connection to Earth – hasn’t grasped what to do with all the riches the Captain bestows on them. They still live in troglodyte looking cave houses and wear the sort of toga outfit the Dr Who designers of yore loved. They are a universally bland bunch, but live in a city of flowing designs, the houses and streets a hybrid of an Andalusian white village, Matera’s sassi and Dr Caligari’s Cabinet. Jammed above them is the Bridge, a looming technologically advanced, but very similar looking, black palace where the Captain plans his galaxy spanning crimes.
The Doctor makes no headway with the locals, getting more and more agitated. Romana’s better equipped for small-talk. “She’s prettier than you, Master,” explains K9, which reveals uncommon astuteness for a computer. These early scenes continue the fine rapport between Tom Baker and Mary Tamm established last time out. I’d venture Douglas Adams makes their relationship even spikier and so amusingly droll you wonder if you’re watching the correct show and not some progressive sci-fi sitcom. Tamm is brilliant, very accomplished. For example, when reading the TARDIS manual and poking fun at an indignant Doctor, there’s a beautiful moment when she inclines her eyes, rolling them sideways, showing just the right amount of discourteous ridicule to her travelling companion. Later, having deliberately got herself arrested, she’s as fascinated as the Doctor would be by the Captain’s broken dematerialisation circuits. Nothing fazes her and she doesn’t even spoil her tight white denims, despite hiking about in mud and rain. When the Doctor finally makes it to the Bridge, he’s disappointed to find Romana’s not in any peril. The proposed rescue becomes a combined undercover investigation and escape, which disappointingly gets repeated towards the climax when a perfunctory revolution story takes over. Never mind, the ruse of turning off the linear induction corridor to thwart their pursuers was hilarious and worth an admission fee alone.
Bruce Purchase’s Captain is a wonderful, overblown creation. Part-cyborg, he’s missing an arm, both legs and half his face. That doesn’t stop him bellowing with impatience and hostility. He is a caricature, but Purchase allows him to emerge from the bluster with some dignity, his homicidal traits just held in check, his pontificating allied to enough humour to dampen the seeds of his genocidal mania. The bionic parrot was a hoot and the laser battle between it and K9 was head shakingly bizarre. The metal mutt reappears after several minutes with the bird in his ‘mouth.’ The Captain’s familiar to us as a Bond villain type: he has the lair, he has armed guards, a henchman, a woman, drive, ambition and a genius competency which when allied to his crazed plans makes him both a subsumed despot and a worthy rival. At one point he even cuts off his lair with the immortal “Seal the bridge” as if he’s only just emerged from The Spy Who Loved Me. The Captain’s testy relationship with Andrew Robertson’s Mr Fibuli recalls Captain Hook and Mr Smee; and in the best pantomime tradition, when the latter is killed even the cold-blooded Captain shows remorse. It’s interesting that the Captain is as much a pawn as the unfortunate Zanaks, held in thrall to the old queen, whose body is being molecularly reconfigured as his nurse, played by Rosalind Lloyd, a well-hidden twist.
By the time that reveal comes, the story has got too complicated for its own good. Earth is threatened, for no sensible reason, and a strange psychic brotherhood, the Mentaids, are roaming the countryside, Romana in tow. At one point, astounded at the Captain’s miraculous space hopping invention, the Doctor cries: “What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?” He can ask, and somewhere, I think there was an answer. It’s too complex to care. This is one of the few Dr Who adventures where I really did just go along for the ride, accepting the fundamental science fantasy premise for what it was and not caring how the problems discovered were resolved. Like most of the cast, I was having too much fun.
It all ends in a bit of a rush, which hints at the cuts made to the screenplay. Jon Pusey’s designs were sound. Pennant Roberts isn’t doing anything spectacular as a director and there’s a refreshing lack of physical action, a few gun battles accepted. I was somewhat disturbed by the second Key to Time being revealed as the whole planet Calufrax. Had the Captain’s pirate planet not absorbed it, the White Guardian’s tracer / converter certainly would. The Doctor never once considers the implications of the potential murder of millions, so I assume Calufrax was uninhabited. It wouldn’t sit easily on his conscience otherwise. Although, given what later occurs in Season 16, you wonder if this wasn’t a clue to some future misfortune.
An entertaining ride, especially along the linear induction corridor:
3 from 5.
THE STONES OF BLOOD
A lot of commentators enjoy The Stones of Blood, considering it a perfect example of what Dr Who does best. If they mean provide a ludicrous monster and ally it to a nonsensical and ill-explained plot, then they’re about correct.
The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Romana to Earth, Cornwall in fact, to the stone circle at Boscawen-Un. This is a real place, but the budget obviously didn’t stretch to Cornwall, so instead they went to the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. The outside location work is very good and there’s lots of it, both night and day. The interior sets too are better than average. A cluttered cottage for the dotty Professor, Emilia Rumford, and a large stately hall for the urbane Mr De Vries, head of the British Institute of Druid Studies. These two peculiars inhabit a wonderful gothic landscape and episode 1 builds with a genuine atmosphere of devilish mystery among polite society, all blood sacrifices, stone circles, local legends, Celtic myths, sherry and cigarettes. The Druids worship the Cailleach, goddess of war, death and black magic, and believe the roost of roving ravens are her all-seeing eyes. Not so. The goddess is Cessair of Diplos, a galactic criminal. She’s currently impersonating Vivien Fay, the Professor’s assistant.
Cessair escaped her prison cell, which is suspended in hyper-space, and for amusement she pops down to Earth and scares the locals with her accomplices, the sarsen stone Ogri, a silicon based lifeform which feeds on blood. I assume she’s merely enjoying herself because no one explains what she is doing, what the basis of her crimes are or what her criminal nature is like. Of course, she also possesses the third segment of the Key to Time. The Ogri are one of the stupidest monsters Dr Who has ever come across. Local legends attest the stones move, but the damage they cause hulking about the countryside and smashing up other people’s property would be extremely obvious. I mean, come on, huge walking stones sucking the life blood out of holidaying campers? Really? [This last scene is one of the crudest in the show’s history as a man emerges from his girlfriend’s tent shirtless and buttoning his trouser fly. We know what you’re doing ! ]
I’m jesting because there is so much wrong with the middle section of this story. The monoliths go crazy and the Doctor and Romana get trapped in hyper-space with the maddeningly calm Cessair, who is now, for some reason painted in glittering grey silver. Susan Engel tries, but she’s a poor woman’s Eldrad [see The Hand of Fear]. As the action moves to the intergalactic prison ship – a huge, gleaming, white, soulless vessel – the Doctor inadvertently releases the Megara, biometric enforcers of the Galactic Charter: judge, jury and executioner. They were meant to be trying Cessair, but the pair of legal experts have been trapped for 4000 years while she’s been on all these bloodthirsty jollies to Earth. There’s still no explanation about what’s happening, why she’s a criminal or why the Megara have to be imprisoned as well as the other inmates, who are all dead. For his crime of opening a cell, the Doctor is sentenced to death and the climatic episode is a protracted legal debate between the Megara, Cessair and the Doctor, raising questions about the legitimacy of a logical, computer based justice system, which clearly isn’t fit for purpose. The scenes are not very tense, played mostly for satire. Trials crop up a lot in science fiction, most long running series have had at least one, and this is another of many in Dr Who, and most of them crooked. By coincidence the first was way back in The Keys of Marinus, also the template for The Key to Time Season.
The Doctor seems to practice law better than he studies physics: he describes hyper-space as another spatial dimension and he admits he doesn’t understand it, which is a first. K9 does, though. The end of the story is rushed and no one bothers to explain anything. If they do, it’s provided so fast you miss it. First time writer David Fisher struggles to convey tautness, excitement or sense and the whole finale is a flunking mess. All the notable, forbidding horror-style touches of the opening episode, the ravens, the blood on the stones, the druids, the mystery of the standing circle and the Cailleach, is thrown out in favour of a dreary space-age Judge Judy. I do like the Megara’s twinkling-light appearance, which shows much more inventiveness than the granite Ogri. Sadly, they and most of the rest of the adventure only reinforce a suspicion the humour quotient is rising.
[Point of order: at the climax to part one, Romana is pushed over a cliff edge by the Doctor. It isn’t really him but Cessair / Vivien Fay, who uses the shape shifting ability of the Key to Time to appear as the Doctor. This scene was edited so we never see the assailant, apparently because Tom Baker thought this would be too upsetting for children. This demonstrates how far the show has fallen from the highs of Season 12, 13 and 14, where the whole basis of many a cliff hanger was to shock and intimidate and worry the audience, children or not. Indirectly, it also reveals how the star was beginning to influence the direction of the series in general.]
Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, except perhaps for this audience. Even as kid, I remember thinking this was a preposterous story. Among a female heavy cast, itself unusual, Beatrix Lehmann’s Emilia Rumford has all the best lines and the most to do, interacting brilliantly in turn with first the Doctor, then K9 and lastly Romana. It’s good to have a dotty Professor who is also sensible. She’s a delight among the darkness, especially episodes 2 and 3 which take place almost entirely at night. Mary Tamm gets a recap of what the Key to Time is [useful for the audience to play catch up] and wears two lovely outfits. The Doctor has no time for fashion, but I think everyone agrees her six-inch open-toed high heels were not suitable for Boscawen Moor. Still, not as impractical as Sarah Jane’s bikini on Exillon [see Death to the Daleks.]
The Stones of Blood is Dr Who’s one hundredth adventure. By coincidence it was being transmitted during the week of the show’s fifteenth anniversary. A scene had been written during which Romana and K9 celebrated the Doctor’s birthday, cake and all. Producer Graham Williams vetoed this segment and thank goodness for that, I’m not sure I could have taken much more forced frivolity:
2 from 5.
THE ANDROIDS OF TARA
David Fisher’s second consecutive adventure is heavily reliant on plagiarising Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda. Handsome princes, beautiful princesses, fairy tale castles, black-hearted counts, some marvellous climatic swordplay and a handful of duplicate robots make for an entertaining but inconsequential story.
Unlike the previous three adventures, Romana discovers the Key segment early on, and all on her lonesome, the Doctor having gone fishing. The key’s virtually an irrelevance. Tara is another technologically sophisticated planet which operates a feudal society. ‘Peasants’ seem to be scientists, but are not valued highly, despite being the makers of anatomically correct androids. They appear to be a dying breed and the androids, while realistic, are unreliable. This feels like an opportunity missed by the writer, that the regal classes of civilisation are reverting to barbarous behaviour because their automatons, and their creators, are fading fast into history. Tara’s population was reduced to a tenth by a plague and these lifelike robots were created to carry out labour in the place of humans. Romana is the spitting image of Princess Strella and the evil Count Grendel mistakes her for an android double. He’s plotting the downfall of the future king, Prince Reynard, and has the real princess secretly held captive. Meanwhile the Doctor is employed to repair an android of the prince to distract Grendel’s assassins at the coronation ceremony.
There’s plenty of twists and turns revolving around mistaken identity, cross and double-cross, light-hearted action and some heavy-handed humour. Peter Jeffrey, returning to the show after more than ten years [see The Macra Terror] makes a grand impression as the scheming Count. His relationship with his robotics scientist Lamia [Lois Baxter] has a festering adult undercurrent unusual in Dr Who. She’s besotted with him following a one-sided love affair, but he’s moved on, obsessed by power, and dangles the glimmer of marriage so she continues to build his androids.
Lamia is the only person killed in a serial low on bloodshed, but high on inconsistency. It ponders for the most part, looks pretty and rushes to a climax. The extended sword fight between the Doctor and Grendel encompasses much of Leeds Castle, which stands in for the imaginary Castle Gracht, and once it gets going proves one of the best hand-to-hand combats the series ever featured. Good production values work in the serial’s favour. John Walker’s photography in particular shines. Costumes are good too, although Mary Tamm sports a horrendous self-designed outfit for a couple of episodes. She also gets to play four roles: Romana, Strella and both their doubles. Romana’s usual slightly cocksure manner has some of its edges brushed off in this one as she’s constantly being kidnapped. The Doctor’s too busy playing kingmaker to notice, except when he mercilessly clubs her robot double to explosion.
[Point of order: Tom Baker carried out this episode ending cliff hanger, but refused to complete a similar one in The Stones of Blood. He’s as inconsistent as the quality of this season.]
There’s nothing wrong with The Androids of Tara, but it’s hamstrung by an over-reliance on the source novel. It garnered excellent ratings mostly because of a strike on the only other terrestrial television channel of the time, ITV. A charming, fluffy interlude:
THE POWER OF KROLL
The Power of Kroll has a chequered reputation. Thanks to a series of industrial disputes, this story had higher than average ratings, but it isn’t well thought of by fans and even its author, Robert Holmes, considered it his worst screenplay. He must have conveniently forgotten the debacle of The Space Pirates. I remember watching this as a kid and my recent rewatching was the first time I’d seen it since 1979. For me, seen both with a child’s perception and with an adult’s eye, I recognise the faults, yet the serial has a kitsch charm which I found oddly endearing. The effect is similar to the nostalgia I feel when I watch old Ray Harryhausen movies, creature features such as the Toho Godzilla flicks, or distinctly dodgy sci-fi films like Crack in the World. I know the effects are (mostly) rubbish or very obvious, but they’ve been presented to me in an appealing and sensible framework that I can accept, allowing me to concentrate on the flow of the action, the motivations of the characters and how they affect the story. Despite a distinctly dodgy monster, there is still plenty to admire here.
The TARDIS lands on the third moon of Delta Magma, a far distant Earth colony in the far distant future. The Doctor and Romana have walked inconveniently into a private little war being waged between the colonist engineers and the Swampies. The latter are green skinned humanoids, the indigenous population of Delta Magma, evicted from their home planet and forced to live on a reservation on the moon. Here they’re eking survival among the huge methane rich lakes and the marshy swamp land. They worship a powerful god, Kroll, who resembles a giant squid. According to legend, Kroll once swallowed the Great Amulet which resulted in his subsequent increase in size. The Swampies call on Kroll to help them in their fight against the rapacious humans, who have set up one protein mining refinery, but intend to expand the scheme taking over more and more land and forcing the natives onto ever smaller reservations.
The parallels to the plight of the Native American Indian are woven deftly into the screenplay. This has all the hallmarks of a space western and is better realised than the effort Robert Holmes wrote for the Second Doctor [again, see The Space Pirates.] The architect of the war is the chief engineer Thawn, played with relish by Neil McCarthy. He’s a deviously intelligent racist bully, one clever enough to disguise his true colours from his crew; it is only when the tide lurches against him that his latent emotions burst free. Thawn is familiar to anyone who watches western movies as the unstable cavalry commander, the man who runs the fort with an iron fist and wishes to exterminate the local Indian population, considering them as vermin or subhuman. Among the crew are a couple of sceptics, Fenner and Dugeen, portrayed by a returning Philip Madoc and John Leeson, more familiar as the voice of K9. The robodog doesn’t feature in this story, so Leeson got a little bonus offering. Madoc as always is reliable. Eventually these two turn on their commander and with the Doctor’s help forge an unlikely alliance to defeat all the problems at once.
Thawn also has a double agent working for him, the gun runner Rohm Dutt, a rogue of despicable morals and dodgy accents. Glyn Owen carries some character weight, but Dutt is too easily startled to be anyone’s threat. Kroll makes a feast of him. The Swampies have been given defective weapons by Dutt, who is conniving with Thawn precisely to present the colonists with an excuse to eradicate the natives, take over the moon and extract its gaseous assets. For those of us with long memories of Dr Who, this will be familiar as the basic template to Colony in Space. The wild west origins are more obvious here because the Swampies are dressed in Native American costume and live in mud and straw tepees. They even have a firelit ghost dance, calling on Kroll to take the sacrifices laid out for him.
This last evolves like a scene straight out of King Kong, as Romana is tied to a stake and left outside the confines of the village to be eaten by the all-powerful Kroll, the huge double doors in the wall closing, cutting her off from the world. Mary Tamm isn’t exactly Fay Wray, but she does scream for the first time. Unlike Miss Wray, she manages to keep all her clothes on, which might be considered unfortunate by some observers. Kroll doesn’t appear this time, but later on the humongous creature, attracted by the vibrations of the warmongering natives, devastates the village, breaking those wooden doors and slashing the tepees with as equal a vicious intent as old Kong himself. It’s not quite the same with thrashing rubber tentacles, although the effect here is no worse than when Jon Pertwee was strangled by the Nestene way back in Spearhead from Space. In fact, the manifestation of Kroll is fairly well done, a split-screen camera trick from Martin Patmore, and although the miniature model work is a bit naff, none of this is as bad as glove puppets, waddling sarsen stones, slithering slugs or any alien from The Web Planet.
The setup and the socio-politics surrounding the narrative is extremely interesting. Between them, the Doctor and Romana ask leading questions as they are constantly captured and incarcerated by one side or the other, and they piece together the situation, the rights and wrongs and solutions to the age old battle of nature versus technology, the natives versus the settlers. I enjoyed the clear references to other genres and the adventure proceeded with plenty of light conspiracy. There are a few inanities: the Doctor’s galoshes come and go; Romana loses the Key Tracer but the Doctor miraculously finds it; the natives keep important religious books at the bottom of a pit [who knew they could read, write, bind and print books? Not as backward as Thawn thinks then…]; when it rains no one gets wet; curiously, the natives appear to be a men only tribe; Michael Goldsmith’s editing at the end of episode 2 is very poor removing all the tension from the cliff-hanger.
The story runs out of intellectual puff half-way, at the very moment its picks up pace, and may be the reason Holmes was so disappointed with it. The last two parts barely stretch to twenty minutes an episode and pass in a blur. Thawn’s ambitions come to a dastardly end and the Doctor realises it was a much smaller squid that once swallowed the Fifth Segment of the Key to Time, thus increasing the animal’s size and life span to extraordinary proportions.
Tom Baker’s reverted back to his fussy ways in this one and you wonder if it’s the director’s fault; Norman Stewart helmed a similarly artificial performance for Underworld. Romana’s less impressive when she’s tied up all the time. On the plus side Kenzia Dewinne’s make up is good, nicely complementing Colin Leaver’s costumes, Dan Giles’ simple designs are on point – I like that the refinery’s external walls are dirty – and the location photography is grand, Snape Marshes in Suffolk look exceptionally uninhabitable. Many commentators consider the serial’s lack of humour as a major failure, but that’s a trifle unfair. There are big subjects being debated and to belittle the themes would do them a disservice.
The Power of Kroll also has, for some, an inauspicious production history. Producer Graham Williams was unwell and unit manager John Nathan Turner stepped into his shoes, assisted by Anthony Read and David Maloney. Turner would become synonymous with the later years of Dr Who and is considered by many the prime architect of the show’s decline. Had he not assumed control of the reins for this story, his name may never have been in the running to eventually replace Williams in overall command.
3 from 5.
THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR
Like the previous season closer The Invasion of Time, Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s The Armageddon Factor suffers from a two part narrative structure and a preponderance of appalling performances which do nothing to instil any sense of ambition or suggest the remotest competency. The adventure is lazy, looks cheap and ultimately abandons the whole of the last twenty five weeks in a vapid shimmer of disappointment.
Atrios and Zeos are two neighbouring twin planets engaged in an ongoing galactic nuclear war. Atrios has a despotic commander, Marshall, a warmonger of the most cliched variety, even down to his corny military uniform. He dominates the wan-looking royal princess, Astra, who he suspects of being in league with the Zeons. Quite why no one ferments a coup to oust this deluded dictator is never made clear. Everyone around him looks nervous; they clearly think he’s a lunatic; even worse, he’s not even winning the war; yet they remain stupefyingly inactive. The Doctor and Romana discover that the population of Zeos has been completely wiped out. The war is being continued, and won, by a super computer, the Mentalis. There were faint echoes of the classic Star Trek episode A Taste for Armageddon, but this Dr Who adventure stretches and expands the idea to breaking point, before branching on a tangent to unravel the secret of the Key to Time’s sixth segment.
I was bored from the off. Not even the lovely Mary Tamm’s cleavage-exposing dress can distract me from the paucity on display. Everything is completed in a perfunctory, mannered style. This stems from the appalling, work-a-day dialogue to the unsurprising studio bound sets, but the worst offenders are the actors, universally wooden, bar the two leads. To have both your villains so excruciatingly awkward is a crime against villainy. John Woodvine’s Marshall is a one-trick pony with a broken leg, or rather a dodgy neck: someone’s stuck a controlling device on it which looks like a cube of Lego. That someone is Shadow, a lacklustre evil-doer who appears to be an alien suffering from a stroke. He spends almost every scene sitting on a rock, his lopsided face and mouth drawling out every line and word to extraordinary length. At one point actor William Squire laughs like a dastardly pantomime villain, an unfortunate moment which is offensive to all decent pantomime villains. As Astra, Lalla Ward, who somehow impressed the production team enough to be later handed the role of a companion, is almost as bad; some whispery, winsome Ophelia trapped by her own spectres. When Barry Jackson crops up as a chirpy south London sounding Time Lord, the whole adventure swerves from dull to inept. Drax could have been a moment to savour. Instead his lampooning of the Time Lords strikes another nail into the coffin of their omnipotence. He’s a hopeless character, not even any use for comic relief, which was clearly the intention.
[Point of order: in 1979, calling one of your character’s Drax when you must have known the villain of the up-coming Bond film was to be called Hugo Drax just seems plain dumb. He’s an old fellow of the Doctor’s college. We learn you have to qualify academically to become a Time Lord. One assumes powers, such as telepathy and the use of a TARDIS are then bestowed on you. You wonder how Drax ever managed to pass any exam, he’s so incompetent and unknowledgeable. He calls the Doctor ‘Theta Sigma.’ This is most likely a nick-name.]
To top it all, K9 is made to seem faintly ridiculous and rather stupid. Even his dialogue is beginning to feature witticisms. John Leeson provides unsubtle variations in the tone and delivery of the robodog’s speech which suggests the pooch has developed emotional intelligence. Baker and Tamm do their utmost to support a dying story, but even they’re flummoxed by the endless gabbled explanations and even more endless wandering about in tunnels. Early on their repartee is as good as ever, but Romana begins to be treated too much like any other companion. The effect reduces her impact and Dr Who becomes ‘the Tom Baker show’ again. There is one splendid moment where, on learning the soppy Merek is in love with Princess Astra, the two Time Lord’s declare a stunned “Oh!” as if love has never been a consideration for doing anything. Their chatter becomes generally unenlightening. Latterly, Romana poses an ethical conundrum to the Doctor about the Princess, who is in fact the sixth segment. Are they committing murder by fermenting her transformation – this despite the Princess’ own admission it is her destiny? Reaching this conclusion has come a little late: they’ve already murdered the Graff Vynda-K, absorbed the whole planet of Calufrax, ruined a dynasty on Tara and destroyed a god-like squid on Kroll. Frankly, this White Guardian hasn’t done a very competent job of hiding his keys and his two seekers have sown chaos wherever they’ve trod.
It’s obvious the writers were charged primarily with solving the season’s overarching narrative. They seem to forget all about Atrios and Zeos. Cramming Shadow into The Armageddon Factor ruins what might have been a reasonable little four-parter about a nasty inter-galactic war, something similar to the Kaled / Thal conflict in Genesis of the Daleks. Instead we have two swift ungratifying codas. The planets are saved, of course. The Key is reunited. It would have been very unexciting to simply have the White Guardian take it with grateful thanks and say goodbye, so we have a shorter than short confrontation with his evil twin. The Doctor, realising Romana’s moral poser is the same question the White Guardian would ask, refuses to hand over the key and, in his rage, the masquerading Black Guardian [Valentine Dyall] reveals himself as the architect of the whole palaver. The Doctor re-scatters the key. To avoid his new arch-nemesis he fits a randomiser onto the TARDIS controls which means, not for the first time, he has no idea where the time capsule is heading.
[Point of order 2: there’s a suggestion by splitting the key the Doctor has turned the sixth segment back into Princess Astra. If so, has he turned the other hidden keys back into a necklace, a hunk of jethryck, a statue and a planet?]
This should be a great ending, yet Tom Baker spoils it with his back-and-forth, impulsive, shouty ham-acting. The coda feels hurried and does the whole narrative of the Key to Time an injury. To climax twenty-six episodes in little more than five minutes, to not put your villain physically in the same space as your heroes, to not explain how the Key works or how it splits, to not even see its devastating evil impact is worse than disappointing. It displays complete indifference on the part of the production team towards the audience who have invested many Saturday evenings in what turns out to be a wild goose chase. I’m certain I watched this as kid – I was glued to Dr Who in those days – but tellingly The Armageddon Factor is so unimpressive, I had no memory of this serial at all, not one single second.
I’ve prattled on long enough. The Armageddon Factor is a vastly inferior product and lacks a stern guiding hand. The adventure was the last transmitted six episode serial for Dr Who. These longer stories always tended to problematical and this is no exception. It’s a rotten finale to the Key to Time Season:
I love Romana. She’s the best thing in Season 16, one which treads water, being neither ambitious or lackadaisical.
If there is one consistency it’s the humour count, which has increased immeasurably, to the point the BBC bigwigs asked producer Graham Williams to tone it down. That’s a little ironic considering they employed Williams specifically to tone down the horrific elements and inject a sense of family fun. He’s more than achieved that objective here. Season 15, his debut, still clung to the twin roots of Hammer horror and fifties sci-fi. While one or two aspects of The Stones of Blood and The Power of Kroll do dip into this territory, on the whole the grim gothic designs and storylines have been eradicated in favour of less darkly confrontational adventures. Everything now feels just a wee bit easy, placid and pleasant. I agree there is some nastiness, but it doesn’t overwhelm the audience in the way Genesis of the Daleks or The Brain of Morbius does. And that’s mostly because the humour constantly deflects the tensions, too much so in the case of The Pirate Planet. The writing’s hit and miss all the way and the productions suffer a combined lack of vim and spirit. They’re all a little flat in one department or another; no story provides a strong overall model for success; they work in bits and pieces only. Recently, the actors alone have given many adventures the necessary gravitas, but here there are too many cast failures and, as in the case of The Armageddon Factor, this can tip the scales towards unacceptably thoughtless drama.
Thank goodness then for the ground level success of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm who are often left holding the reigns of a runaway horse. Baker does his usual instinctive best. Sometimes he doesn’t keep hold of the horse either and bolts after it, making the Fourth Doctor too impetuous. This crosses over into other aspects of his acting; he’s beginning to mumble and gurn at inopportune moments. Luckily he’s got a companion of intelligence he can spar with. In Mary Tamm’s Romana, the writers and producers have uncovered a gem. Intelligent, competent, sophisticated, opinionated, witty, snooty, inquisitive, argumentative, beautiful and ever-so sexy – there, I admit it, I have lusts too – this Time Lord matches the Doctor on every step of this journey for the Key to Time and it’s a joy to watch her share it. Tamm herself felt the role was being undermined as the tales progressed which was why she asked to be released from her contract, and given the amount of imprisonment her character latterly has to experience, I can see why. It may have become immaterial anyway as the actress herself became pregnant at around the time Season 17 would have started filming.
Perhaps the final word ought to regard the unique idea of ‘The Key to Time’ season. Featuring an overarching narrative to join the six adventures together just about holds water. However, the disappointing end to the season, where the key is never seen being used and we’re never properly introduced to the evil Black Guardian makes the project feel wasted. Every story could have functioned without the input of the Key – even Kroll and the Ogri could have been explained away in a different manner; using the Key’s power was an easy get-out for the writers.
Overall, the 16th Season is good, with sporadic brilliance, but that’s about all. Oh, and I do love Romana.
DESTINY OF THE DALEKS
Destiny of the Daleks starts off with a scene of high farce as Romana, previously fleshed out by the superb Mary Tamm, regenerates into Lalla Ward, who previously fleshed out Princess Astra [see The Armageddon Factor.] I don’t have any problem with Time Lords regenerating, but I do have a problem with this individual regeneration. Firstly, it isn’t explained why Romana is regenerating. It’s as if she’s changing a set of clothes, bored with last year’s fashions. Secondly, she experiments with various different looks, each one designed to annoy the Doctor until he settles for her original choice. Now, we have seen choices of face for a regeneration before [in The War Games] but we’ve not seen the Doctor try them out for size. Lastly, Douglas Adams wrote this scene once it was decided to recast the companion role and he turns it into an exercise in dry, droll wit and triviality. The regeneration isn’t painful for Romana and she suffers no ill-effects. Perhaps that’s how these physical changes ought to be. Perhaps the Doctor puts too much strain on his body, making his changes distressing. He’s usually been forced to regenerate, being at the point of death or physically and mentally exhausted. Meanwhile, Romana just clicks her fingers and says: “I’m regenerating.” However you suppose it, the scene rubs another lump of sheen away from the Time Lords’ mystique, proving they are just as frivolous as humans.
I ought to mention Lalla Ward as Romana. She’s a more girly presence, lacking the strong will and sharp tongue Mary Tamm’s incarnation possessed. Like the Doctor, she shares an amused, inquisitive nature, is able to fathom science and offer solutions. It’s important to remember she is still a young Time Lord and as such she’s slightly naïve about the universe, so the Doctor is able to fill in the blanks of her practical knowledge, thus allowing the audience to gain essential insight. Ward’s more dainty presence benefits this persona. It also makes the scenes where she’s terrified of monsters more believable. When Mary Tamm screamed at a few waving tentacles in The Power of Kroll, it was vastly out of character. When Lalla Ward screams under aggressive interrogation by the Daleks, we sympathise with her plight; she makes it plausible for her to be petrified, even if she is a Time Lord. Generally though, I’m less impressed by the show reverting to the traditional female companion template of a frightened damsel in distress. It’s strange how the Doctor doesn’t seem able to cope with ballsy, opinionated, capable women. Liz Shaw, the initial Romana, the savage Leela, even that bubbly, know-it-all Zoe have all exited the TARDIS after barely one solitary season. Perhaps Jon Pertwee has it right when he suggested the Doctor is overprotective of his assistants and that is the dynamic which works best, providing him a chivalric ‘white knight’ persona which an audience immediately identifies with. I’m not completely anti-Romana #2, Ward does well here, neatly off-setting Tom Baker’s more extravagant turns. She sports a pink and cream outfit augmented by a long coat and scarf, mimicking the Doctor’s style. He obviously approves. Tom Baker certainly seems more at home inhabiting exactly the role Pertwee describes. It helps, I guess, that the actors were conducting an off-set affair [they eventually married] so the chemistry is inordinately more vibrant.
Tom Baker enjoys himself in Destiny of the Daleks. The director allows him. The writing benefits him. Unfortunately when Baker is let off the leash, he too often falls back on facial expressions, shouting and mumbling to convey the Doctor’s excitement, impatience and fears. He has several contretemps with the returning nemesis of Davros which have none of the authority, intellectual insight and friction we witnessed in Genesis of the Daleks. One of the main problems with this serial is its distinct lack of suspense, hard to believe when you look at the ingredients involved.
The TARDIS randomiser lands the travellers on a desolate, radiation plagued planet. Not only does the Doctor’s little gizmo embark on random journeys, it doesn’t seem to be able to tell him where it’s landed. The Doctor and Romana discover a derelict city. Surface evidence, as well as several earthquakes, suggests a drilling operation is being conducted far below the planet’s crust. While the Doctor is captured by the sleek, android based lifeforms the Movellans, Romana is captured by marauding Daleks, tortured and sent to work with Labour Force Two, clearing debris from the drilling operation. These early scenes are terrific. The mystery of the planet builds with clue after clue: high radiation levels, strange burials, decimated populations, escaped convicts, UFO landings, strange physically imposing humanoid aliens, drillings, earthquakes, explosions, finally the Daleks, screeching and screaming and being thoroughly intimidating with their repetitive mantras: “Exterminate! Seek! Locate! Destroy! Question! You will answer the question! I obey!” At the time, there was much criticism of the duplication of Dalek speech, but I’m far more appreciative. The penetrating sound of the metallic voices is like a gunshot. Voice artist Roy Skelton does a fantastic job maintaining the pitch and one-note cadence of the Daleks. That they all sound the same increases the image of them as one functioning entity, with one goal, one thought. Some previous Dalek entries [notably The Day of the Daleks] struggled to give this embodiment of alien evil a decent tongue. Here, articulating sharp short sentences with a grating, piercing bellow and rasp serves to batter and terrify their victim’s, as well as the audience’s ears.
By contrast, the Movellans are an almost muted creation. Decked out in silver and white body suits with braided silver hair, complemented by dispassionate faces, they look very seventies and might have escaped from Studio 54. Their expressionless voices never panic, their movements are never ungainly; the Doctor realises all is not normal with this race and soon learns the truth. I was a little disconcerted to notice all the Movellans were either played by actors of African or Asian descent, or were made up to look like it. I’m not entirely certain why this was done and I haven’t seen any comments about it online or in print, but with my 21st Century hat on, it does hamper their success.
The Movellans are an android race involved in a centuries long war with the Daleks which has reached a stalemate. The two enormous space fleets have been shadowing each other for decades, the battle computers unable to create an opening without the other countering. The Doctor finds the situation amusing: “You’ve created the ultimate peace maker, a logical impasse!” Not so for the Movellans or the Daleks, who each want to break the deadlock. The Daleks have returned to Skaro to resurrect their creator, Davros, so he can reprogram the computers, thus forging an overwhelming victory. The Movellans decide to thwart their enemies by destroying the planet, and using the Doctor to reprogram their own computers.
After the opening episode, where the foundations of a great story are laid, the whole thing gradually collapses in on itself. There’s plenty of neat tricks being played as the Doctor, Romana and Tyssan, a renegade ex-captive, evade Daleks and Movellans alike, but the constant injection of humour turns much of the action into childish folly. The tension, such as it is, becomes so lumpy it’s like a walk through mud. This is particularly evident whenever Davros appears on screen. The Dalek creator was a superb villain last time out, but Michael Wisher is absent and his replacement, David Gooderson, is worse than a poor choice. He commands no authority. His dialogue is bland, mere statements of selfish intent. Rather than being a megalomaniacal monster, he’s like a slighted brother with a chip on his shoulder. Tom Baker doesn’t help, patting Davros’ bald head and chuckling. Indeed, once we’re into the rub of the thing, even the Daleks, who made a grand initial impression, are reduced to cannon and joke fodder. The Doctor teases them, the Daleks subsume themselves to their creator’s will and Davros destroys them on a senseless suicide mission. I was extremely disappointed and couldn’t help wondering why they submitted so eagerly to Davros’ command, after all these are the most feared beings in the universe.
Writer Terry Nation cut his Dr Who teeth with the Daleks. This was his eighth adventure featuring his iconic creation and his tenth screenplay overall. Each time he penned a story for these metal monsters, Nation attempted to bring a new dimension to the Daleks. Here, he suggests the mutant casings have taken on new lives as fully automated machines, reliant on computers to fight wars. There’s an interesting scene where the Doctor finds a wasted Kaled mutation and bemoans what it’s race has become. Nation’s intent is not entirely clear and perhaps it’s best left alone, as future stories don’t pursue the suggestion. Nation’s Movellans are a better creation than some recent monsters, aided by June Hudson’s Egyptian-themed costumes, but they are too easily bested and you wonder why the Daleks needed a super computer, or Davros, to defeat them.
New script editor Douglas Adams claimed he reworked almost the whole script, which might explain the emphasis on humour. The writer of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is so egotistical he even inserts a reference to his own show: the Doctor reads Oolon Collophid’s The Origins of the Universe. Director Ken Grieve claims the script was 90% Terry Nation’s. It makes no difference to him, as he still can’t provide any muscular thrust. Luckily, the adventure looks fantastic. Peter Logan’s SFX are better than usual. Ken Ledsham’s designs are superb: the Movellan space ship’s open plan and gleaming interior; the heavy concrete, glass and steel frames of the destroyed Kaled bunker; a Dalek control centre which harks back to ones we’ve seen in their glorious past. Phil Law’s steady-cam photography allowed for some brilliant active location shots. The camera was used throughout, so there’s no noticeable jarring between studio and outside filming. The downsides are the universally poor performances from the support cast. In addition to the dreadful Davros, Peter Straker’s Movellan Commander can just about be excused as he is a robot after all, but Tim Barlow’s blandly monotone Tyssan is appalling on any scale. Dudley Simpson provides jaunty incidental music which does not sit well with the bleak atmosphere.
Destiny of the Daleks is by no means a bad Dr Who adventure. Some aspects of it are very fine, others simply crass. The good just about outweighs the bad. Due to an ongoing strike at Independent Television, the BBC channels had no competition during the adventure’s run and Dr Who gathered higher than average ratings, episode 4 pulling in 14.4 million viewers.
It’s nice to have Terry Nation’s final Dr Who story create as much of an impact as his first. Without Mr Nation’s input, without the momentous introduction of the Daleks, it’s highly likely Dr Who may not have made it past the first couple of seasons. Destiny of the Daleks isn’t any kind of tribute, but it’s a worthy, if haphazard, final fling for a writer who contributed much to the legacy of the show:
CITY OF DEATH
City of Death begins with a long shot of an alien landscape. Brilliantly realised, it is honeycombed, caked in black and reds, the sky a blur of orangey clouds. Isolated on this barren plain is a Jagaroth spaceship, a craft that resembles a huge metallic spider. The pilot, Scaroth, attempts to blast off, but the craft is destroyed by an enormous fission explosion, fracturing the atmosphere.
This is one of the most astoundingly epic preludes a Dr Who adventure has ever had. Rarely has an alien world been captured with such a nightmare vision. The ugly, green skinned, exo-veined, one-eyed Jagaroth is suitably horrid. There’s not much time to sympathise with them, only to wonder why they are escaping the planet and what significance this event will have for the Doctor. In fact, the exploding Jagaroth spaceship is significant for the whole of the universe, as the Doctor later explains: “This: the amniotic fluid from which all life on Earth will spring. The amino acids to form minute cells, cells which eventually evolve into vegetable and animal life. You, Duggan. It’s inert. There’s no life in it. Yet.” The key word in the Doctor’s marvellous speech is ‘yet,’ for the fission explosion kick starts life on Earth 400 million years ago.
[This is incorrect. Life already existed on Earth in micro biotic form almost 4000 million years ago, so the evolutionary journey had already begun. Script editor Douglass Adams and producer Graham Williams both dismissed criticism of the science as artistic license. This neatly allows them to get away with any factual error of science and history, but by doing so they call into question the skill of the writing in the first place. They are in fact defending themselves. Like The Invasion of Time, City of Death’s credited author is David Agnew. This is a pseudonym used by the BBC when an official writer cannot be or wishes not to be credited. This adventure was rewritten by Adams and Williams from an original, unused draft by David Fisher.]
However, even if we ignore the dodgy science and the dodgy history – and there is a hefty amount to ignore – we can’t ignore the marvellous production values, the phenomenally strong performances, the vivid direction and, in particular, the witty, sophisticated dialogue. Sometimes, as with The Three Doctors or The Green Death way back in Season 10, a Dr Who adventure has to be admired despite its deficiencies because there is so much else to enthral and enrapture us. City of Death is a prime example of that. What it does well, it does so well that the inconsistencies are forgiven and an overriding feeling of satisfaction at the outcome is all that really matters. I for one, derived much pleasure from watching this stylish, amusing and exciting serial.
Perhaps what I enjoyed the most wasn’t the sci-fi elements at all, but the parallels the narrative draws with all those heist capers of the 1960s, movies like How to Steal a Million, Tokapi and The Pink Panther. It even tiptoes into sub-Hitchcockian comedy-thrillers, such as Charade, or mimics some of the frenetic comic strip nature of Herge’s Tintin books. The English antiquities detective Duggan even looks like the Belgian sleuth, with his fair hair and long rain coat. Pity K9 couldn’t have featured in this one; Duggan would’ve had a silver Snowy to run with.
Central to the narrative is the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. The production team were not able to film inside the museum, but they were able to film in Paris and this enhances the look and atmosphere of the serial. Even wayward composer Dudley Simpson is inspired by the footage. His score has a playful Gallic lilt which pays homage to the melodies of the Café de Paris. The photography is brilliant. Director Michael Hayes and cameraman John Walker construct something entirely unexpected, shooting through gateways, around columns, behind postcard stands, across streets, at distance, in close up, from below, above and a bird’s eye point of view, each time offering an invigorating glimpse of both the unfolding action and the landscape of Paris. We go up the Eiffel Tower, past Notre Dame, into the Metro and along the Place de la Concorde. It’s completely not Dr Who and much more Stanley Donen’s Arabesque. It’s a trifle repetitive, but I can forgive that; watched one week apart this probably wouldn’t matter. The city almost becomes a character itself, contrasting its external façade with the decadence of its wealthiest societies; quite rightly the Doctor compares the Paris of 1979 to a table wine amongst luxuries. He’s been here before of course [The Massacre and The Reign of Terror] so he’s got some bitter memories. It doesn’t stop him admiring the art world which surrounds him, although Romana is less impressed by the Louvre, preferring the Academia Stellaris on Sirius V.
There are strange goings on. Not only is a rich Countess wearing a futuristic holograph bracelet, but the man tailing her carries a gun and strange fissures in the time vortex are occurring. The Doctor uses one of these dizzying moments to steal the bracelet, attracting the attention of Duggan, who pursues the travellers to a café. The Doctor learns from Duggan that the Count Scarlioni has been selling rare art works for millions of dollars, most of them considered lost masterpieces. The art work’s provenance is genuine, but Duggan considers they must be fakes or they must be stolen as one man could not own so many rare pieces. After being kidnapped and imprisoned, the travellers discovers six genuine Mona Lisa’s in Scarlioni’s basement and realise the Count must want to steal a seventh from the Louvre so he can auction each one to the world’s seven richest private collectors, who will each believe they have purchased the one and only Mona Lisa. The question is, how did the Count obtain six genuine Leonardo’s?
Leaving Romana and Duggan to foil the heist, which they fail to do, the Doctor travels to renaissance Florence, hoping to meet his old pal Leonardo da Vinci but instead meets Count Scarlioni, here called Captain Tancredi. Scarlioni and Tancredi are two fractures of the Jagaroth captain Scaroth, whose essence was scattered into a dozen pieces throughout the time vortex when the Jagaroth space ship exploded all those millions of years ago. His various bodies have been communicating telepathically across the millennia assisting mankind’s intellectual, engineering and scientific development. He needs the Mona Lisa copies to fund his 20th century experiments, providing the capability to travel back through time and prevent his own destruction. If successful, this will alter the history of Earth, the human race and the universe. The Doctor tells Scaroth he can’t do it – which is true, or they wouldn’t be able to experience the happenings in 1979. It’s the same temporal paradox faced by the rebels in The Day of the Daleks. Some moments in time simply cannot be altered or they will risk upsetting the whole balance of universal nature. However, Scaroth throws this accusation back at the Doctor: “Meddling in time is exactly what you do.” “But I’m a professional,” he argues, which is both a lie and a truth.
Humorous exchanges such as these permeate throughout the adventure and raise City of Death to a higher plain than simply a sci-fi time travel exercise. While we can all have fun with the looping ins-and-outs of the heist concept, or the antics of Duggan as he smashes things and crashes thugs, or Romana as she attempts to foil the Count or uncovers a hidden basement, or Scaroth revealing himself to the audience in a classic cliff hanging episode ending, or the Countess Scarlioni as she realises her husband has deceived her, or the holographic enactment of the theft itself, or the chases around Parisian streets… the writers haven’t forgotten to provide their audience with something more tangible than the simply robust. There’s an insightful and delightful screenplay at work here, enlightening us about the Doctor’s admiration of European culture – is this why he loves the Earth so much? – and Romana’s disdain for it, the pretentiousness of the upper classes, the Doctor’s own pomposity, the ambitions of madmen [or in this case a mad Jagaroth] and how riches blind us to the inadequacies of others [the scientist Kerensky obeys whenever he’s presented with money to work with, the Countess eventually recognises the evil in her husband].
For the first time since his debut season and those powerful turns in The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks, Tom Baker is fully in control of his persona as the Fourth Doctor. He displays the right amount of manic intensity, appropriately falling short of outright lunacy. He treats everyone with equal conceit, even Romana, and is able to pontificate and reason his way through every debate. He’s so agreeably overbearing, Scarlioni laughs at his antics, seeing through them immediately: no one could possibly be as stupid as the Doctor pretends to be. Best of all, the Doctor takes the central premise extremely seriously. There’s a whole civilisation about to be wiped from history, from the now and the then and the forever, the effect will be galactically catastrophic. When Duggan finally loses patience and launches a right hook, knocking Scaroth unconscious on the plain of the febrile prehistoric Earth, the Doctor calls it “The most important punch in history.”
A little bit twee, I know, but better than “Well done, Duggan” or worse “Leela, you’ve got to stop hitting people.”
There’s many niceties happening. The Doctor must be able to turn off the randomiser he installed in The Armageddon Factor or else he couldn’t pin point Leonardo da Vinci in Florence or go back to pre-history by tracking Scaroth through the vortex. Romana has her own sonic screwdriver to wield. The few special effects are brilliantly realised thanks to Ian Scoones, who did model work for Gerry Anderson’s 21st Century production company, and here creates the excellent opening primeval scenes. We learn the Doctor likes red wine and Romana likes drinking it. She’s also flattered easily, especially by a sketch artist, and seems rather taken by Duggan’s rough and ready attitudes, which she attempts to rub down. The sets are excellent, even the rather cramped laboratory seems feasible. The costumes are good, although Romana’s schoolgirl outfit is definitely one for the fetishists.
Lastly, but most importantly, the standard of acting has increased dramatically and once more displays the kind of character development we expect to see. These are three dimensional people, or aliens, and they interact and challenge each other appropriately, verbally, physically and intellectually. Julian Glover returns to Dr Who a long time on from his stint in The Crusades. He’s simply marvellous as the debonair scheming Count and the cruel, insensitive brutish Scaroth. Catherine Schell, who could easily be considered a bona fide star so prominent have some of her film and television roles been, is splendid as his wife, accomplice and finally his antagonist within. David Graham’s scientist Kerensky is a timid weakling whose position becomes untenable. Graham was one of the first actors to voice the Daleks way back in Season 1. Tom Chadbon’s disbelieving detective is a neat counter to all the science patter, looking more astonished and confused at every turn; his belief that might is right reminds us of those Doctor / Brigadier verbal confrontations back in the UNIT days. Kevin Flood as the henchman Hermann carries weight with his singular, unpresupposing attitudes. There’s even a moment of pretentious light relief as John Cleese and Eleanor Bron play critics assessing the aesthetic merits of the TARDIS, which has landed in the corner of an art gallery.
[This cast is quite list for us Bond fans: three of our alumni feature.]
City of Death was transmitted during a twelve week strike by Independent Television, and as a result, the adventure had very high ratings. Episode 4 set what is still an all-time high for Dr Who by achieving 16.1 million viewers. The adventure wasn’t well received at the time, although even its repeat found six-million viewers. However, like the best red wines, it has matured and is now considered a high point in the show’s history. It is regularly voted one of the top ten stories of all time, including the rebooted series. Whatever the defects, City of Death has a touch of Parisian class about it which cannot be denied:
5 from 5.
THE CREATURE FROM THE PIT
To coin a cliché: from the sublime to the ridiculous. There’s a list of production credits I could hold individually to account for his calamity of an adventure, but I won’t be so specific. I’ll just blame everybody.
The Creature from the Pit is an extended rip off from Star Trek’s classic episode The Devil in the Dark. It has none of that story’s pathos and eventual redemptive humanity, nor is there any notion of treating a subject seriously. This entire serial is constructed for and played for laughs with the Doctor and Romana both taking the proverbial piss out the local population. They’re a dubious lot on Chloris, a matriarchal society ruled by the arrogant Lady Adastra. They are backward, ignorant, greedy, bloodthirsty and devoid of any redeeming characteristics. Every single second of the time the Doctor spends on this plant-heavy planet is an excuse to poke fun at his obviously incapable and one-dimensional opponents and allies. It doesn’t matter which side he talks to, he treats them all with equal contempt. Tom Baker’s performance is abysmal. Lalla Ward follows his lead. Nobody else even bothers to try. The results are so inept I was almost weeping at the tragedy. How far can a show fall from unexpected heights?
In City of Death the humour advanced the plot and informed on character and place. The supposed hilarity on display in The Creature from the Pit undermines almost every scene and every individual, so much so the whole routine becomes a sniggering, sagging, ill-focussed, inglorious, over-the-top disaster. Even K9 joins in the mirth. He’s voiced badly by an over-keen David Brierley. The less said about the incompetent bandits who skulk about like Fagin and his thieves from Oliver! the better. There is a plot, somewhere. There’s also a creature, in a pit. It’s a gigantic blobby thing with phallic appendages. No one explains how it got trapped in there. Apparently it’s a Tythorian ambassador, but really, watching this muddle, who cares?
Veteran director Christopher Barry, who should know better, attempts to inject some urgency in the final ten minutes, but the effort comes too late to save such a feeble enterprise. The Creature from the Pit is a stupefying low point for Dr Who, a complete abandonment of the show’s proud history of treating themes and peoples with respect. It really is the pits, from the opening scenes to the final credits rolling.
I’ll give a polite nod to June Hudson’s good but totally inappropriate Samurai costumes, and bid the whole sorry exercise goodbye:
½ from 5.
NIGHTMARE OF EDEN
Nightmare of Eden deserves to be reappraised. It’s an extremely adult story, based around an illegal narcotics trafficking operation. The villain’s plans go awry when the star liner Empress emerges from hyperspace and collides with the survey ship Hecate. The Doctor and Romana walk straight into trouble after the TARDIS answers the mayday call. Being suspected of intergalactic drug smuggling is the least of the Doctor’s worries, there’s also two unstable molecularly fused ships to separate, a troop of Space Corp policemen in pursuit and an angry pride of marauding Mandrels to contain.
The latter appear to have emerged from an unstable Continuous Event Transmuter device. This neat little machine is similar to Vorg’s Mini-Scope from Carnival of Monsters. This time the zoologist Professor Tryst is scooping up whole sections of planets and condensing them into crystals, allowing him to project the images onto a 3D holographic illuminator. The problem is, he’s lacking a stabiliser and subsequently its possible for people – and Mandrels – to walk into or out of a projected image. Someone has learnt of the C.E.T.’s deficiency and is using the crystals to smuggle huge quantities of the drug XYP. Known colloquially as Vraxoin, XYP is a highly addictive fungal narcotic which is found in abundance on the planet Eden, one of Tryst’s condensed zoological specimens.
Writer Bob Baker, working without his usual partner in pen Dave Martin, has constructed a clever and provocative screenplay which perhaps owes too much to convenience to be wholly successful, but nevertheless provides much entertainment and some welcome suspense and intrigue. The majority of the tale is set on the space liner and initially involves attempts to separate the two ships, before the interfering Mandrels and the opportunistic smugglers force the Doctor and Romana into a swift and unexpected exit: straight through the projection and onto Eden. This startling moment was a great cliff-hanger which stayed with me through the fallow years of Dr Who. When things went south, I could still vividly recall watching it with a sense of stupendous excitement. It’s a pity individual moments such as this, or other scenes where a crazed Captain Rigg attempts to assault a fearful Romana, or the Doctor chases a suspect through the matter interface, or Romana stares fascinated at the hypnotic eerie world of Eden, or Rigg descends into a Vraxoin fuelled mood of complacent carelessness, or the eventual reveal of the villains – which surprised me, even though I should have remembered – are undone by some hammy acting and those Mandrels, who are a poor monster by any standard.
It’s worth reflecting on the acting, because once more Tom Baker seems unable to contain himself. Occasionally, he’s in check: the conclusion with a disconsolate Tryst is very fine and in some of his less manic moments he’s almost back to his best, but what’s happening elsewhere? Why is Baker treating the whole project as if it’s a joke, something even the kids can laugh at? Are children not allowed to be scared? There is an exceptionally poor climax with the Doctor playing Pied Piper to the monsters and leading them back to Eden, which struggles to raise any tension and ends with what I can only describe as an inappropriate and extremely childish physical jape. I thought we’d kicked this kind of incident into the long grass when Patrick Troughton resigned the post. The Doctor must be having relapses to his previous identities. So too the writers, or perhaps more accurately the script editor.
[Point of interest: director Alan Bromley left the serial half way through after a heated row with Tom Baker, who wasn’t taking direction. Producer Graham Williams stepped in as an emergency replacement, but was so upset by the fractious atmosphere on the set, he also decided to quit at the end of the season.]
Baker’s not alone in his over-showy acting. Lewis Fiander’s Tryst has a bizarre German accent that far from making him sinister only succeeds in turning him into a hapless reject from Colditz. David Brierley’s K9 is still too chirpy a personality. Thank goodness then for David Daker as Captain Rigg, initially believably sturdy then chillingly gleeful as he deteriorates into a drug dependant lunatic. Barry Andrews is confident as the reliable secret agent Stott, while Geoffrey Bateman captures perfectly the Hecate’s impatient commander Dymond.
The adventure has energy and ambition. It’s very rare for Dr Who to discuss and demonstrate the effects of any disreputable adult behaviours, like drug taking. The series tends to avoid painfully real subjects. Interestingly, this chapter also touches on lost love and relationships, although the word ‘love’ is never used. The nervy, taut atmosphere the players inhabit is well demonstrated, right from the opening conceit. The plot develops well, with worthwhile twists and turns, a genuine mystery and a scientific puzzle, both overlapping so the twin arcs of the story become a functioning narrative. It intrigues and, up to a point, doesn’t let us down. There’s a lot of good stuff going on behind the scenes too. Roger Cann’s designs for both the swish star liner and the jungles of Eden are better than good. The SFX and model work from Colin Mapson deserves a mention too for being better than average.
Sadly the Mandrels really do disappoint. I don’t quite know how to describe them. Black hairy things with lurid green eyes, sums it up. They stagger around and growl a lot. There’s a moment of high hilarity as the monsters begin slaughtering the passengers and Rigg, now finding amusement in everything, remarks: “Who cares? They’re only second class passengers.” Eventually the Mandrels prove central to the plot, but that revelation should have been left well alone: discovering their bones were the source of the drug made no scientific or narrative sense as we’d already been told Vraxoin was a fungus.
Enjoyment of Nightmare of Eden stems from how much you’re prepared to forgive. Monsters I can live with; there’ve been much worse in the black and white days. Colour and some unimaginative direction and camerawork is the Mandrel’s undoing. Can I forgive a lead actor who lords it over the rest of the cast and improvises without restraint? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, this story isn’t the nightmare many critics claim:
THE HORNS OF NIMON
The planet Skonnos and its warlike race once had an empire spanning a hundred solar systems. Now the empire is on its last whispers, its leaders enthralled to the cult of the Nimon, an alien beast who promises technology for great riches, conquest and untold military victories. In return the Nimon requests regular tributes: seven youthful captives and seven radioactive hymetrucite cores. The freighter carrying the last of these tributes is suddenly stricken, falling towards a black hole. The TARDIS, entering the same space-time zone, collides with it and the Doctor, as he does, considers there’s no time like the present to investigate. The freighter is an old, worn out, dilapidated shell of a vehicle. The Doctor and Romana offer to help, but are perturbed by the presence of the young prisoners and immediately suspect all is not well with Skonnos.
Anthony Read’s screenplay cleverly revisits the myths and legends of ancient Greece. The Nimon are a reimagining of the Minotaur. [The Doctor attempts to thwart one in the same manner he bested the bull in The Time Monster. It doesn’t work. His cloak gets blasted to a cinder.] Skonnos samples Knossos of Crete, where the Labyrinth was built. The Nimon resides in the centre of a huge maze, which resembles a positronic circuit, hence the configuration of the maze keeps changing as the Nimon increases or decreases the power generators. Soldeed is a play on Daedalus, the master inventor. The sacrifices come from a neighbouring rival planet Aneth [Athens] and are led by Seth [Theseus]. The Nimon use the hymetrucite to power a hyperspace corridor between two artificially created black holes. Having conquered one world, they ‘jump’ to the next, like a plague of locusts. Their last residence was Crinoth [Corinth], an empty world, diseased and decaying, shrouded in darkness, unlike the sleek, steel, ivory and jet of Skonnos. As the Nimon’s power centre activates, Soldeed believes his destiny and that of the Skonnon Second Empire is at hand, but can the Doctor prevent a catastrophic invasion of Skonnos?
Despite a tremendously serious and thoughtful plot, The Horns of Nimon starts with another of those farcical TARDIS vignettes between the Doctor, Romana and K9. This one goes on far too long, but sets a template which the whole adventure follows: the Doctor is constantly fixing things with his sonic screwdriver while Romana does all the clever stuff, all the investigation, all the dangerous gigs, all the confrontations, all the cajoling.
Lalla Ward grasps the opportunity to shine with both hands and more. She emerges with her credit enhanced. I’ve not yet warmed to her. She’s not bedded in well, but the difference between the snotty nosed intelligentsia who looked contemptuously down on the bandits of Chloris and the empathetic counsellor who here displays concerned sympathy in the plight of the youthful Aneth captives is almost peerless. She’s equally capable dealing with the arrogant freighter Co-pilot, the delusional Soldeed and the aging, valiant Sezom.
Quite why Tom Baker has to play the complete opposite I’ll never fathom. He continually exhibits all the bug-eyed, madcap switches of tone, sudden exclamations and general flippancy we’ve noted for the last six years. Baker’s performances are becoming a caricature of what his Doctor used to be, rather than what he ought to be. He’s been in the role six years now and I’d expect to see something a little different, something to show me this Fourth Incarnation has aged, matured and expanded his philosophy. But there’s nothing new. Baker’s going through the motions and no one seems to stop him. Personally, I have a hard time appreciating jollity in the face of adversity.
To be brutal, the performances are a bit hit-and-miss, some not much better than an amateur show at Wimbledon Theatre. Of the best, Graham Crowden’s Soldeed proves to be a deeper character than his gown-and-staff appearance suggests. A gullible scientist, a wily statesman, a visionary, but also a dictator whose one ambition is to restore his planet’s empire, Soldeed displays all the neuroses and affectations of a man persuaded by his own dreams. When these collapse, he has nothing left but to blame everyone around him, starting with the Doctor. The effort to succeed and the sense of crushing, indisputable failure drives him insane. His opposite number on the doomed world of Crinoth is Sezom: John Bailey is dignified in this cameo, sacrificing himself and his planet to save another. Even Malcolm Terris’ blustering Co-pilot comes across well until his trousers split on him. He’s dead by then, mind, shot by the energy bolts from the horns of a Nimon.
The success or otherwise of this serial depends, I feel, on whether you can stomach the Nimon. Like the previous adventure’s Mandrels, the monsters are not very well presented. Based on the Greek Minotaur, these bull-headed creatures are fleshed out by actors forced to wear platform boots and enormous skull encasing masks. They are physically imposing and rather Satanic, caked in shiny, sweaty looking sable black. They are even given a constant deep, rumbling bellow, which replicates their breathing. Unfortunately, the mouths don’t move, nor the eyes, and the outfits are so top-heavy and bottom slender the actors simply can’t walk very fast for fear of falling over. The energy rays from the horns are an unusual addition which doesn’t make any biological sense – that is until you learn the bull-heads were originally envisioned as helmets to be removed and reveal a horrific bull-like face beneath. June Hudson’s done well costuming the Nimon. Unfortunately, she seems to have forgotten everyone else; the youthful kung-fu outfits are a fashion disaster.
The story is far more interesting than its Greek mythology concept suggests, touching as it does on the familiar themes of an alien parasite, the failure of leadership and the seduction of power. While the Doctor generally acts the buffoon, Romana displays tact and fortitude in demonstrating that women can succeed and lead in Dr Who’s world. That in itself is refreshing. The story’s well directed, although Kenny McBain can’t do much with the smallness of the Nimon control centre, where the tension he has built drains away as Tom Baker plays the fool, hiding – or not hiding – nonchalantly behind computer banks. I thought the FX were better than usual. So too, Graeme Story’s other sets, which received criticism for being spare, but that’s the point: Skonnos is a civilisation on the verge of collapse, every ornament and unnecessary abutment has been removed; they even walk on a clattering, vibrating steel mesh, a construction material, not a finished product. Like their fading star ships, they have nothing left; civil war has purged the Skonnons of all wealth. Finally, for the kids, or those who want to feel like kids, there are still elements of sci-fi / horror, in the Nimon themselves and their frozen cadavers. I actually jumped when one of them disintegrated into dust!
[Point of order: I must mention the spinning TARDIS. I raised this point in my review of Frontier in Space. The TARDIS normally remains in an upright position; in Frontier… it was seen to spin on its side, yet retained an internal gravity. Here, the Doctor deliberately puts the time capsule into a spin so it skims off an approaching meteor. This time, the internal gravity fails, and the Doctor and K9 are tossed about the control room. How do you explain that? To top it all, the coat stand remains upright and the Doctor’s coat still hangs off it– how do you explain that?]
The Horns of Nimon is a much misunderstood story. It’s a pity Tom Baker chose to misunderstand it too. Thank goodness for Lalla Ward:
Be careful what you wish for…
For years Shada was considered by many fans of Dr Who to be a missing classic. This sort of rhetoric was fuelled by publications such as Dr Who Monthly, but they could never attest directly to these statements because no-one had ever set eyes on any footage, barring a few minor excerpts [more on that in The Five Doctors.] Shada was aborted after a prolonged electricians strike resulted in studio time being cancelled. Strikes were not uncommon at the BBC in the 1970s. Spearhead from Space had benefitted from one, forcing the whole serial to be filmed on location and turning it into a unique cinematic-looking treat, while Seasons 12 and 16 were both badly affected, requiring last minute rescheduling. Writer Douglas Adams didn’t consider this script to be particularly good – he scribed it in a rush to substitute another – and when the resulting footage eventually saw the light of day on VHS in 1992, response was muted. Shada is no classic. It’s rather ordinary, in fact, and while it doesn’t disgrace the show, it is another six part adventure which drags and drags, not helped by Adams’ insistence on peppering his dialogue with pithy jokes at inappropriate moments.
I watched the 2017 version, which features the best of all the original footage and splices it with animated scenes voiced, as far as possible, by the original cast. It’s a fair production; I mean, we aren’t talking Walt Disney here. The animated sequences give an audience a fair appraisal of what the finished serial may have looked like, but unlike the remounted animated or still-photo versions of the sixties, there is no original audio soundtrack, so the newly recorded voices do sound thirty years older and the cast’s reactions don’t feel as realistic as they might have done acting in 1979. Putting that aside, the filmed extracts look good. The location work in Cambridge is up to standard. There’s a few decent SFX and okay model work. The standard crap monster appears – if you thought the Mandrels were bad, wait till you meet the Krargs. There are a couple of decent support acts in Denis Carey’s Professor Chronotis, Christopher Neame’s villainous Skagra and Victoria Burgoyne’s fetching Clare Keigthley. Director Pennant Roberts handles the action reasonably well. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are not at their best, unfortunately; neither seems to be taking proceedings very seriously. It might be the script. It might be them. Or both. Carey’s dotty professor is the best turn in the show, although his Mr Chips act gets a little tiresome. Professor Chronotis is in fact a retired Time Lord and he’s been hiding out on Earth for three-hundred years.
[Point of order: They can retire now? Who’d have thought it. Why do Time Lords have such an affinity with Earth? The Prof and K’Anpo have both settled there, the Doctor loves it, the Master and the Meddling Monk both want to conquer / obliterate it. The universe is full of planets, why keep picking on our world?
[Interestingly, the Fourth Doctor seems to have more to do with his race than his predecessors. Not only is he constantly meeting enemies who have a history with the Time Lords, but he’s done their dirty work in Genesis of the Daleks, faced down Morbius, thwarted two potential destructions of Gallifrey and bumped into an old college friend, Drax. The Professor Chronotis Affair is basically this season’s prerequisite Time Lord offering.]
The Doctor and Romana visit present-day Cambridge where the Professor lives a blameless academic life as a college don. Unfortunately, when he retired from Time Lord existence, he stole a sacred book from the Panopticon, The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, and Chronotis wants the Doctor to return it, fearing the contents are universally dangerous. He’s certainly taken his time to figure that – three-hundred years, in fact. A brilliant, but evil, scientist called Skagra is also in pursuit of the text, believing it will be the key to locate the uber-villain Salyavin, who is incarcerated on the Time Lord’s prison planet Shada.
[Point of order: why do the Time Lords need a prison at all? These super beings can destroy whole worlds and put planets into time loops, why do they need to imprison the universe’s most dangerous criminals. Apparently the show was originally meant to feature a Dalek, a Cyberman and a Zygon as inmates, but how would one Dalek or Cyberman contribute to being the worst criminals in the universe when there are millions of them?
[Later on, it’s revealed that the Doctor and Romana have forgotten about Shada because, to keep the prison hidden, the Time Lords have ‘forgotten’ it, i.e. erased it from the Matrix. Which makes me wonder how Skagra knows of Shada if the Time Lords don’t?]
There’s a lot of messing about with a silly floating silver balloon and a pair of Earthlings who are completely confused by events. I was too, especially when the narrative trips over itself. At one point Professor Chronotis is dead, then he’s revived and wearing a Victorian nightgown and cap. Next scene, he’s back in his suit making tea. Clare Keightley’s hairstyle inexplicably changes at the same time. The animated version shows Skagra’s home ship exploding, but later on we’re back on board; did it reconstitute itself? The Doctor escapes oncoming Krargs, but we don’t see it; he just appears minus his pursuers. All very odd. The original director as well as retrospective producer Charles Norton really ought to do better on continuity.
There are some nice touches. The Professor’s apartment being a TARDIS was fun and I enjoyed the scenes between Denis Carey and Victoria Burgoyne, which resembled a surrogate Dr Who and his companion. K9 spends most of his time blasting Krargs. Apparently he can mend electronic circuits by the power of his scanner. [I’m fairly certain the robot pooch can’t do this, it’s a convenience for the writer.] Skagra’s plot is insane, even the Doctor says so. The invisible space ship was a treat. As befits a Douglas Adams script, the humour count’s too high and this time it’s not very amusing. As if to recognise the level most of the mirth is aimed it, T.V.’s original Billy Bunter Gerry Campion makes a disgruntled, grumpy cameo.
Overall I don’t feel we missed very much. Yes, it would have been nice to have seen a fully finished 1979 version of Shada, but the one we have doesn’t suggest it would have risen above the moribund:
2 from 5
Well, I used to like Romana. Ah, that’s being mean. Lalla Ward’s okay. She isn’t disgracing the show, but she is being led by Tom Baker, whose attempts to lighten the mood don’t always work. Neither actor is assisted by script editor Douglas Adams. Graham Williams’ experiment in contemporary humour isn’t the complete anathema some detractors would have us believe, but it does rub away at the foundation stone of the series, which was solid, serious science fiction. The show was always laced with humour; Adams swamps it. Season 17 just about holds back the rising tide of mirth, but only just.
Watching these adventures now is a very uneven experience. The most that can be said is the stories are consistent by their inconsistency. Only the remarkably excellent City of Death stands out. All the others swing dramatically from the excellent to the crass, not helped by loose direction which seems to allow the cast to slacken off. This is most apparent in Nightmare of Eden where the potential of a character such as Tryst is completely undermined simply by the actor sporting a pronounced German accent. Similarly Tom Baker’s childish hamming it in The Horns of Nimon deflects all the positive, serious work done by his usual partner in laxity Lalla Ward, who decides to play serious. This is one of, if not her very best performance as Romana. Destiny of the Daleks too is stymied by some dreadful acting honours. In a way, it’s almost a good thing Shada was never completed and transmitted, for that story only adds to the issues already highlighted.
Elsewhere, the sets are hit-and-miss, so too the costumes and the effects. The stories do attempt to entertain us. It was good to see the show take a more adult perspective; the theme of drug running was a good, topical inclusion and the contemporary setting of City of Death was more than welcome. Otherwise, there’s little to suggest Dr Who was entering a new golden age. Tom Baker later admitted he was too disruptive on set and seldom gave producer Graham Williams the support he needed. The lead’s overacting is apparent once again, paired as he is with an actress he’s clearly fond of, and the frisson of attraction between them is noticeable. Unfortunately, he and she along with an over keen bunch of writers aren’t helping the end result. Dr Who isn’t supposed to be a romantic comedy thriller. Baker isn’t Cary Grant and Ward’s not Audrey Hepburn.
The principles of Dr Who have been long established: the narrative action should be fore-fronted, the science should support the narrative and the comedy relieve the tension. Season 17 reverses the principles and while it occasionally succeeds, the flaws are drawn out by untidy acting and chaotic plotting. The BBC’s attempt to pacify the Mary Whitehouse mob has swung the show too far from its recognised template. One can only hope a new producer can swing it back.