Woohoo. Tom Baker. Looking forward to your thoughts on these.
Something from Jon Pertwee and the Third Doctor
THE PARADISE OF DEATH (1993)
After Dr Who was cancelled indefinitely by the BBC in 1989, most fans began to content themselves with watching video cassettes and reading Target Books’ novelisations. However, following the success of the supposedly one-off 1985 Sixth Doctor radio adventure Slipback [more on that later] former producer / writer / director Barry Letts penned a five episode serial called The Paradise of Death. It starred Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney, all reprising their television roles. The adventure aired on BBC Radio 5 in five episodes over August and September 1993.
While it isn’t strictly canon, Letts was careful to ensure the story could fit neatly into the established time-line. Early in episode one, Sarah and the Doctor are discussing the Sontaran Linx, so we know the story takes place between The Time Warrior and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Sarah is attempting to interview the Doctor, but he’s having none of it and is thankful the Brigadier arrives bearing bad news about the new entertainment complex on Hampstead Heath: Space World. This bizarre funfair provides Londoners with a look at other planets and species. The public think it’s an elaborate hoax, until someone turns up dead with unexplainable, inexplicable and distinctly alien injuries.
Space World is run by the Parakon Corporation, whose representatives Freeth [Hugh Innocent] and Tragon [Peter Miles, who by 1993 had already been seen in Dr Who’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Genesis of the Daleks] are a pleasantly evil duo. There’s a whiff of the gentle humour, mockery and craziness which inhabited the best UNIT stories and Letts, while borrowing freely from the televised adventures of the Third Doctor, also proves quite forward thinking. His notion of Experienced Reality Couches – a sort of virtual reality helmet which activates when you sit on a very smart looking chair – is well on the way to becoming a genuine article. Because Letts writes confidently and appropriately for the radio, the narrative is effective and the dialogue is appropriate to an audio only format. So, unlike the Big Fish version of the stage play Seven Keys to Doomsday, we are provided with plenty of verbal explanations and descriptions to assist us to visualise the action.
While the Doctor and the Brigadier indulge themselves in noble sherry and five-star Scotch, Sarah and the hapless photographer Jeremy Fitzoliver do their own investigating, resulting in Sarah’s abduction by a UFO. The Doctor has already exposed the Parakon Corp. as non-terran, but he’s concerned the visualisations are based on actual events which took place on other alien worlds – and these include gladiatorial fights, man hunts and all-out war. Space World is basically a sophisticated version of Vorg’s Mini-Scope from Carnival of Monsters. Giving chase, the Doctor arrives on Parakon and gains the confidence of the ailing President, played by a highly effective Maurice Denham [who features in the Sixth Doctor’s debut The Twin Dilemma]. The President has been wallowing in the luxury provided by the miraculous Rapine Plant, a powerful parasitic alien whose molecular structure is very similar to Axonite [from The Claws of Axos] and can transform itself into any matter. However, the Rapine requires organic fertilizer to continue to bestow its riches and that is being provided by unknowing Parakons, specifically those who die in the war arenas. The peace loving ‘sky people,’ the Kimonya, are trying to overthrow the Parakon Corp and the Doctor switches sides in time to save Sarah and the day.
While I can’t get over excited about Dr Who on the radio, The Paradise of Death was certainly interesting and at the time leant itself well to filling a gap in the Dr Who market. The Radio 5 transmission was so popular it was repeated on Radio 2 the following year. I’ve included the story at this stage of my reviews, because while it was transmitted after the close of the Classic Series, it did air before Doctor Who: The Movie. The cast and crew obviously offer top credentials. Trevor Martin [who we will meet in a moment in Seven Keys to Doomsday…] even pops up as the President’s Champion Jenhegger. While Jeremy is annoyingly silly, he doesn’t spoil anything too much and it’s obvious everyone is having as much pleasure making it as fans did listening.
Best of all, the story isn’t some stylised fan fiction. The Paradise of Death is a properly submitted, produced and transmitted serial. The creative team took time to attempt to recreate some of the richness of the Pertwee era and in the main, they succeed. The audio image of the Brigadier leading an assault on Parakon Headquarters while riding a giant flying bat was worth its weight in fun.
A very good audio experience.
For a full synopsis: The Paradise of Death (drwhoguide.com)
For a listen: Doctor Who: The Paradise Of Death : BBC Radio : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Something more from Jon Pertwee and the Third Doctor
THE GHOSTS OF N-SPACE (1996)
Following the success of The Paradise of Death, Barry Letts revived Dr Who again with another Third Doctor serial starring Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney. Like many of Pertwee’s adventures, this one slightly overstays its welcome at six-parts, but is welcome nonetheless.
The Brigadier is on holiday in Sicily, visiting his ancient uncle; by sheer coincidence so are Sarah Jane Smith and Jeremy Fitzoliver – who don’t appear to be having an affair, but do appear to be on vacation together. The Brig’s uncle Mario lives in a haunted castle on the island of San Stefano Minori. Worried about this sudden turn of events, The Brigadier calls in the Doctor, who discovers very quickly that the castle is positioned over a fracture in space / time. There follows a complicated explanation of what he terms Null Space, a counterpart to Earth which exists ‘nowhere’ but parallel to the normal space / time continuity. Everyone has an N-Body, and sometimes when people die they get stuck in N-Space and try to remerge on Earth, which is how we see ghosts.
At this point, I was quite intrigued by the story’s premise, but as Letts develops his narrative, it takes on a pseudo-religious slant, an alchemist’s dreams, a recurring extrapolative comet, a Mafia overlord with dreams of world domination achieved via the N-Ghosts, a fight with the devil – or a null-devil – in a bewildering vision of hell, as well as battling a lot of N-Ghosts, who lay siege to the castle. While the Brigadier goes all army on us, the Doctor and Sarah gallivant around fifteen century Sicily trying to solve a genealogical mystery. There are moments of complete confusion, laboured humour and a very nasty interrogation scene, which sounds extremely violent for Dr Who. Quite a lot of obscenities too.
There’s an interesting scene in episode four where the Doctor explains the Time Lords’ policy of non-interference, claiming changing the course of history is an expression with no meaning, although he’s prone to use it “as a quick way to prove a point.” As he rightly points out, you can’t predict the consequences of an action; so in trying to prevent one disaster, you might be responsible for a greater one, hence the Time Lord’s forbade unauthorised interference. The key word, I think, is unauthorised.
Otherwise, The Ghosts of N-Space isn’t very interesting. It’s too confusing to listen to, too many bad Italian accents. Sandra Dickinson pops up for some reason [she used to be married to the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison] and there’s a nice joke about the Earth bound UNIT stories when, while boarding a ferry to Sicily, Jeremy says: “The weather’s blowing a gale and it looks like rain” – exactly the sort of ‘summer’ weather the T.V. show used to demonstrate!
For some reason, while it was recorded in 1994, the serial wasn’t aired on radio until January - February 1996, a couple of months before Jon Pertwee’s death. Sadly, you can almost hear the tiredness in the old stager’s voice. It’s a very weak performance. Still, The Ghosts of N-Space is a small reminder of the show’s 1970s triumphs.
For a full synopsis: The Ghosts of N-Space (drwhoguide.com)
For a listen: Doctor Who: The Ghosts Of N-Space : BBC Radio : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
DR WHO AND THE DALEKS IN SEVEN KEYS TO DOOMSDAY (1974)
Over Christmas 1974, the Adelphi Theatre in London ran a stage play based around the characters of Dr Who and the Daleks. It ran for four weeks and must have posed an interesting alternative to the traditional yuletide pantomime.
Jon Pertwee was originally slated to appear, but chose to pull out. He had after all just left the television show. With no replacement available, the stage show’s producers invited the serviceable actor Trevor Martin to take on the role. Martin has previous experience playing Time Lords: he was one of the Second Doctor’s judges in the climax of The War Games. Dr Who script editor Terrance Dixx's penned the play and devised an opening sequence whereby the Doctor is seen only in shadow and seems to resemble Jon Pertwee, but he collapses and undercover of theatrical trickery, emerges as Trevor Martin – an alternative Fourth Doctor.
Witnessing all this are two theatre goers Jenny and Jimmy. The TARDIS materialises during the opening scene of a London play. The two youngsters choose to get on stage and help the struggling Time Lord back into his space ship, which they discover is bigger on the inside than the out. Fully and rapidly recovered from his ordeal regenerating, the Doctor explains he has escaped from the planet Karn with a powerful crystal which is being sought by an alien super-race for it is an integral part of a destructive weapon. Forming a strained alliance, the three travel to Karn where they battle the crab like Clawrantulars, meet a few rebels, are menaced by a super computer and its guardian and finally confront the evil Daleks, who have created a Doomsday Machine to help their conquest of the universe.
I’m paraphrasing really badly. For a full synopsis, go to the following website:
Seven Keys to Doomsday (drwhoguide.com)
Originally, Jenny was played by Wendy Padbury – this is not a reprise of her character Zoe Herriot – and Jimmy by James Matthews. Jimmy is quite belligerent and distrusting of the Doctor, which harks back to the original reactions of some early companions like Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor. Jenny fills the damsel role. Terrance Dixxs’ script is functional at best; he packs in an awful lot of action for the slim 90-minute running time. I listened to an audio reproduction by Big Fish, a company which has made a speciality of recording ‘lost’ or ‘imagined lost’ programs from cult TV shows. They hired Trevor Martin to reprise the lead role and Nicholas Briggs to impersonate the Daleks, which he does so well in the TV reboot. Jenny is voiced by Charlie Hayes, who is Wendy Padbury’s daughter [she was married to the actor Melvyn Hayes] which is a neat touch. Joe Thompson plays Jimmy. [Nope, no idea about him at all].
For a listen, try You Tube:
(1) Doctor Who Seven Keys to Doomsday act1 - YouTube
Doctor Who Seven Keys to Doomsday act2 - YouTube
I found it tremendously difficult to follow, as the narrative was very dialogue driven and refers to action you would see on stage, but cannot in an audio adaptation. I have little idea how the show would have appeared as I can’t track down any images. [Maybe I’m not trying hard enough; sometimes my research is lazy.] There is a moment at the end of Act One when the Daleks emerge from hiding – hiding behind the super-computer, I think, I wasn’t sure – which sounded as if it would have looked spectacular. I imagined them appearing from the rear of the stage, sudden flashing multicoloured lights, their lamps blinking, stalks waving, cones swivelling and screaming “Exterminate!” Wonderful, the imagination.
Although not strictly canon, this show is interesting as it demonstrates the continued appeal of Dr Who and how the BBC attempted to exploit the character’s popularity. Several ideas from recent serials, such as a city that can protect itself and a guardian, or Master, of the computer / city [see Death to the Daleks and Colony in Space] are redeveloped. The show also raises three themes which will occur in the Fourth Doctor’s era.
I don’t have much more to say. Dr Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday is a curio at best. It has been revived a couple of times since 1974, but it’s not a substitute for the real thing.
For those who might be interested in catching some of these stories, they are all available to view online. I used Bing search, typing in the title of the show and the episode number. There are often several alternatives, some are mirror-imaged, some colourised, and there are plenty of official and unofficial animated / photo-library fan versions for the missing episodes in Seasons 1 - 6.
The easiest site for catching existing episodes from Seasons 1 - 10 is Uncle Earl Uncle Earl's Classic TV Channel (solie.org)
I used Bing or Google video search again for all episodes from Season 11 onwards. The best versions are the ones marked HISTORIAS DE TRENZALORE, which although they have Spanish subtitles are excellent quality.
TARDIS Archive has them all too, but it's a very small window and you can't expand it.
You can of course buy existing classic stories on DVD and Blu-Ray easily online.
If you live in the U.K., Forces TV is beginning repeats of some stories from the Jon Pertwee / Tom Baker / Peter Davison eras from this Tuesday 15th February 2022, 8.15pm.
It's time for me to get back in the saddle.
As a brief preview, Bernard Lodge's fabulous Fourth Doctor title sequence.
Now we’re talking. The pinnacle of DW programming.
Sorry to derail slightly…but why is dou dou trying auto-erotic asphyxiation? 👀
The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker
Tom Baker’s debut for Dr Who isn’t quite as successful as the introductions to each of the previous three incarnations of this multi-faced hero. William Hartnell was gifted with an astoundingly good opening episode and a story set in prehistory which fell away; Patrick Troughton was allowed to battle the Daleks in a blood thirsty six-parter; Jon Pertwee survived the Autons in a classic Earth bound serial of suspense and terror. Baker is saddled with a King Kong knock off which owes much of its philosophical content to Isaac Asimov and most of its enjoyment to Elisabeth Sladen.
Dr Who was going through a period of sudden change. After five years of stability, the show was going to see a new producer, a new script editor and a new star. As with Season 7, the transition was handled slowly and Barry Letts produced Robot, while Terrance **** wrote the screenplay. The erstwhile Christopher Barry directed. Nothing wrong with the back-up team really, except that this new season feels like a hangover from the last one. We have UNIT, we have Sarah Jane Smith doing her nosey journo stint, we have a cabal of mad scientists seeking a way to destroy the world for no discernible reason. We don’t have dinosaurs or spiders, but we do have a slow moving giant robot and a whole climatic episode crammed full of dodgy special effects.
Robot holds up reasonably well for most of its run time. We start with the Doctor recovering from his regeneration. Much confusion abounds and at this early stage the Fourth Doctor seems more infuriating than any of his predecessors. Meanwhile someone is stealing the parts required to create a top secret disintegrator gun. Things escalate when the activation codes for the great powers’ nuclear weapons are also stolen. Sarah has been intrigued by Think Tank, a scientific development centre run by the officious Miss Winters, played with some steel by Patricia Maynard. It was good to see a woman toying with evil for a change. Sladen and Maynard share a great confrontation where they compare the mind of the titular robot to both a human and a machine. Sarah’s more compassionate interpretation of dotty Professor Kettlewell’s invention K1 leads the seven foot Metal Mickey to take a shine to her. Sarah discovers Think Tank has been infiltrated by the Scientific Reform Society, another bunch of daft boffins. This lot are enraged by the modern permissive, liberated society. Their scheme is hopeless. I lost interest when the previously good Professor Kettlewell suddenly decided to be a bad Professor Kettlewell. Edward Burnham doesn’t play him any different, so who’s to know one way or the other? There’s a ‘save the world from nuclear war’ ending which owes something to James Bond, I guess, and the already large robot grows even larger and rampages around a pretty English village destroying model tanks and squeezing Action Man figures to death. It’s an abysmal end. The Doctor chucks a metal-eating virus at it. Job done. Time for tea.
There are several monstrous plot holes big enough for the robot to walk through, but the cast give it their all, in particular Elisabeth Sladen, whose very good when dealing with a confused and frightened K1. It’s a credit to Michael Kilgarriff that he makes the robot such a sympathetic monster. When K1 returns to Kettlewell’s house and begs for help, your heart goes out to him as it might to a lost son. The robot’s problem is it’s been reprogrammed to override the prime directive: a robot cannot harm a human being. This is one of the Three Laws of Robotics as outlined by Isaac Asimov [‘A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’] and the story clings to this premise but ultimately abandons it in favour of a madcap few minutes of King Kong inspired craziness. Not good.
It is worth acknowledging James Acheson’s robot design, which is exceptional. Alas, Michael Kilgarriff is very restricted inside and can’t move fast enough to instil any sense of true menace. Those come in its one-to-one confrontations, which all seem to be with Sarah Jane Smith. There’s really not much support for Elisabeth Sladen from anyone except Patricia Maynard and even she goes barmy by the end. Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier does very little, although it was fun to hear Sarah tease him about being “a swinger.” Crikey! Benton’s Benton and although he’s got a promotion to Warrant Officer; everyone still calls him “Sergeant.” The new companion, Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter, seems completely out of place and out of his depth. Enter then, the new Doctor, scatter brained as usual after a regeneration. This Fourth incarnation conducts himself like an oversized schoolboy, all grinning teeth and popping eyes. When not frantically active, he likes to take cat naps and reclines with his floppy hat over his face in the most bizarre places. He has terrible dress sense – one early scene has him trying on a series of appalling pantomime costumes before settling on a long coat and even longer multicoloured striped scarf. “That’ll have to do,” declares an impatient Brigadier. Tom Baker is in fact impersonating his ancestors. Like Troughton and Pertwee he assesses his new face in a mirror, he carries mountains of useful nick-nacks in his pockets, he uses the sonic screwdriver, he has an abundance of energy, he’s fascinated by things and people, he doesn’t appear to be entirely concentrating on the job in hand, he’s protective of his closest companion, he is not afraid to confront his enemies.
There are some missteps in this opening portrayal, but Baker does grab your attention with his shock of thick curly hair, those penetrating bug-eyes and the wild grin. He’s tall and rangy and thoroughly engaging. It’s disappointing the script is obviously a rehash of something Jon Pertwee could have performed; only occasionally do we see flashes of a new character emerging. One of them comes midway through episode 2 as the Doctor and the equally scatty Professor Kettlewell gleefully swap science stories, only for Baker to cut short his smile, darken his face and deepen his tone and say: “Professor, I think we ought to talk about your robot.” This is perfect playing, introducing the element of fun into an interrogation, yet retaining the Doctor’s seriousness; he’s undermining Kettlewell’s chitchat to a point the poor man’s so befuddled he simply comes clean.
In the final scene, the Doctor persuades Sarah to re-join him in the TARDIS, but not before expressing his sympathies for the poor demised K1, a monster Sarah considered almost human. “It was a wonderful creation,” he says, “capable of great good and great evil. Yes. I think you could say it was human.” This puts us on the back foot a little. The Doctor had shown no inclination to understand the K1 robot before its annihilation. Like Pertwee’s Third Doctor, he’s been far too busy as a man of action to bother with the psychology of its cybernetics. This brings us back solidly to every Doctor’s fundamental curiosity about the universe and its creatures. There will be much more of this sort of dialogue to come in the Baker era, but there’s not much of it on show here.
Robot’s okay, but nothing more:
3 from 5.
can we please adjust the swear filter so Terence **** may receive proper credit for his work?
aside from the plot of the serial, how do you like Baker's opening moments as The Doctor in the first episode? they all go through an episode or two of discombobulation but Baker does seem particularly clownlike with his absurd costume changes, and the Brigadier is a less patient foil than the usual young female companions, especially since he's seen this all before. Did Troughton and Pertwee fuss so much over what they should wear? maybe Pertwee, but he instinctively chose impeccable slightly old school fashions that read aristocracy to his human companions, whereas Baker doesn't know whether a Viking helmet is or is not appropriate. The contrasts reveal character, Baker's Doctor is more alien than Pertwee's was.
(the Brigadier is I think the only companion to witness two Regenerations, and Pertwee was more intimidating than this new fellow)
I've seen some compare Baker to Harpo Marx. Except for the big booming voice of course, but he's got the hair, the rubber face, and the pockets from which he pulls endless silly toys, and he does plenty of physical comedy moves. I think he's the first Doctor to use a yoyo to test an environment's gravity.
...this new season feels like a hangover from the last one. We have UNIT, we have Sarah Jane Smith doing her nosey journo stint...
I think the general pattern, more often than not, is that the new companion (in this case Sarah Jane) is introduced in the outgoing Doctor's final season and bridges the introduction of the new Doctor. Good for the audience to still have a familiar face, and good for the story as the Companion gets to witness the Regeneration and gets to know the new Doctor alongside the audience. Baker in turn takes on three new Companions in successive serials in his final season and hands the whole lot over to Davison. I think in the original era the Troughton-to-Pertwee Regeneration was the only one where the Companions did not return, that one was more like the near-complete reboots we see in the modern era when showrunners change behind the scenes. but even then we had the Brigadier.
Well, Baker is fine. The dressing up in costumes sequence is a little bit of poke-fun at the audiences expectations: the past three Doctors have all leaned towards a vaguely Edwardian dress sense, with some odd accessories - Hartnell's cape, Pertwee's frilly shirts. Personally, I see it as an example of the physical humour which occasionally blights the show.
Regarding the second point, what I meant by a UNIT hangover was the basic elements of the plot, its setting and characters. It wasn't specific to the regeneration, although all your points are valid observations.
THE ARK IN SPACE
If there was a hesitation over Tom Baker’s appointment as Doctor Who, those doubts are dispelled by the magnificent soliloquy he delivers at the end of episode one of Robert Holmes’ The Ark in Space:
“Homo sapiens! What an inventive and invincible species. It’s only been a few million years since they crawled out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They survived flood, famine and plague. They survived cosmic wars and holocaust. And here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to out-sit eternity. They are indomitable. Indomitable.”
The Fourth Doctor’s second adventure is a hugely influential classic slice of science fiction. Writer Robert Holmes has constructed a claustrophobic, tense, taut, terrifying monster movie set on an empty space station. From austere beginnings, as the three travellers explore their surroundings, confused by what they encounter, the adventure develops into a suspense ridden race against time as the stakes rise to welcome the survival or extinction of the human race. There is death, there is sacrifice and there is exactly what the Doctor describes: the indomitable human spirit.
The story is set 10,000 years in the future. Solar flares have ravaged Earth and desolated it’s soils and atmosphere. With no word from the colonists, Earth’s High Minister took the decision to abandon the planet and a selection process identified the chosen few who have been placed into a cryogenic deep freeze and sited on Nerva, an orbital space station, to await the moment of awakening and repopulation. Unfortunately an alien life form has penetrated Nerva’s life support system and prevented the time clock from activating. The survivors have slept for seven thousand too many years. Between them, the Doctor and Harry accidentally switch off the suspended animation and the first of the survivors are reactivated.
Unfortunately, this also brings the wasp-like alien Wirrn out of hibernation and the Wirrn are determined to feast on the sleeping cadavers of the human race. The med-tech Vira is the first human to recover and while she is deeply suspicious of the travellers, it is her partner, Commander Noah, who becomes openly hostile. Noah refuses to listen to the Doctor’s explanation for the power outage and believes the travellers are saboteurs. During his own investigations, Noah becomes infected with the lifeforce absorbing Wirrn virus. Now with access to his human intellect, knowledge and leadership capabilities, the enemy suddenly becomes sophisticated, organised and dangerous. Is there any shred of humanity left in Noah’s bloated Wirrn body to save the space station?
The action in this adventure is an exercise is tension rarely matched on Dr Who. Reproducing the famous ‘those in peril’ format so well-used in Season 5, the narrative builds through a series of smaller, then larger incidents, which eventually lead us to a climax of ingenuity and suspense. The opening episode features only the TARDIS travellers, a first since The Edge of Destruction. We are entirely reliant on the interplay between the characters, their inquisitiveness, their fear, surprise and relief. As they explore Roger Murray Leach’s fantastic interiors, all sleek white and huge cavernous spaces, we have a genuine sense of wonder. The hibernation chamber recalls the Cybermen’s similar installation in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but even without a fifty foot rock wall, Nerva’s cryogenic facility appears stunning and enormous, filling two rooms and reaching far beyond the ceiling, as the camera sees it: both the Doctor and Harry stare upwards at supposed row upon row of frozen human forms. We can’t see all the sleep chambers, but the actor’s expressions tell us their magnitude. Rodney Bennet’s direction is excellent, always clever not to show us too much lest it spoil the vision of our imaginations. This is particularly true of the Wirrn, which he never shoots below the waist, and their horrific grub like chrysalis, which he photos sparingly. As monster costumes go, these are about as good as you get. There is also a spectacular external corridor to the space station which reveals the star-scape outside through floor to ceiling windows. Superior model and blue screen special effects help immeasurably our enjoyment. The sound effects too are well above par, terse clacking, popping, wheezing noises accompany the Wirrn as they slope and skitter about the space station. The interior rooms are all hexagonal, brightly lit and spotless. The Ark in Space is a flattering view of the future and its menaces which evokes a genuine sense of mechanical, technological scale and how organic life, peaceful and violent, fits inside it.
If episode one has enough quirky mystery to keep us interested, the story proper kicks off in episode two as Noah gets infected by the Wirrn and begins a horrific transformation. His odd behaviour is at first alarming – he wants to shoot the Doctor and actually kills a fellow human – then becomes truly terrifying. As he pulls his left hand from his pocket, we see a slick, green mass of primordial detritus which for tea-time viewers must have been ick-inducing. I remember it well. It frightened the knackers off me. The scene still looks amazing today. Hats off to the effects team led by John Friedlander. Hats off too to Kenton Moore as Noah, who is able to elicit sympathy from the audience as he battles the alien creature which is absorbing him. Wendy Williams’ Vira retains an awkward detachment: this is her life partner who is dying. It’s interesting to learn that a scene where Noah pleads with Vira to kill him, ending his agonies, was deleted as this would have reinforced their love for each other and emphasised their loyalty to human existence. It’s almost there, but the lines are cut, and the scene badly ‘jumps’ because of the unnecessary edit. Noah’s transformation becomes more and more graphically gothic as the episode progresses. Meanwhile, Vira is forced to take on the mantle of leadership and the decisions she has to make weigh heavily on her. Only the Doctor’s enthusiasm for the battle of survival draws Vira out of her medic’s shell and allows her to rediscover a semblance of humanity.
The tale has a small cast and that immeasurably helps both the writer, who is able to provide every character with something to achieve, as well as the director, who can concentrate on the developing relationships. If Ian Marter’s Harry is a bit too old school – and Liz Sladen’s Sarah lets him know it – Tom Baker is a complete revelation. Jon Pertwee always had a downer on the human race: in his mind, they were responsible for disaster after disaster and constantly wanted to provoke war, or shoot first, as he often told the Brigadier. The Fourth Doctor already displays an innate optimism; he is fascinated by the challenges overcome by humanity and is keen to help them achieve their aims. The Nerva space station is testament to that ingenuity and the show celebrates rather than denigrates it, as it did for instance to Sky Base in The Mutants. This Doctor also immediately recognises the Wirrn as a harmful evil.
[There is a vague explanation of a centuries past Human-Wirrn war, but this seems most likely to be at a moment of human colonisation; the Wirrn jump leach-like from planet to planet and can survive in a non-oxygen environment for virtual eternity.]
It’s good to hope we might see more of this type of open-mindedness during the next few seasons. The interplay between Baker and Sladen is developing fast. He doesn’t look down on her like Pertwee, he teases her, cajoles her, sympathises with her, congratulates her. He also isn’t so fussed for her safety: only once does he suggest she stays put. He is more scathing of Harry, especially as it was UNIT’s medical officer who activated the dematerialisation switch.
The adventure had an influence far beyond the immediate confines of Tom Baker’s interpretation of the Doctor. The whole premise was basically stolen for Ridley Scott’s ground breaking 1979 film Alien. If you’ve ever seen it you’ll recognise the similarities immediately, including ingestion of alien eggs, although thankfully we don’t see the result of that here. Nonetheless, the Wirrn are still one of the show’s most descriptively bloodthirsty monsters. If you’ve ever seen Alien 3 you’ll remember the movie starts with creatures breaking into a hibernation store, which replicates the opener here. There was also a very similar alien-eats-alien creature in the Space 1999 episode Dragon’s Domain.
The ark in The Ark in Space is not to be confused with the ark in The Ark as the two missions take place in completely different eras. The First Doctor’s adventure occurs many centuries after this one, when the Earth is about to be obliterated by the Sun; here Earth is damaged by solar flares and, it appears, is now suitable for re-habitation. At the end of the story, the Doctor does a very curious thing and uses the transmat relay to visit Earth, knowing full well if the receiver is broken beyond repair he’ll never be able to return. He thinks it’ll just be corrosion. After 10,000 years, we can only hope he’s right.
The Ark in Space is the first bona fide classic of Tom Baker’s era:
5 from 5.
THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT
The Sontaran Experiment is the first two-part adventure for Dr Who since 1964’s The Rescue. It shows up the major deficiency of the very short story format: laziness. It also looks cheap and it isn’t cheerful.
It’s no surprise to learn the whole forty-odd minutes was shot in a week out on Dartmoor. The story is not enhanced by being filmed entirely on location, the first time ever no interior sets were required for a Dr Who story. All we have to entertain us are the Doctor, Sarah and Harry bumbling about in the hills and being chased by three manic space soldiers who in turn are being hunted by the most ridiculous and impractical robot we’ve seen since the Quarks, which is itself controlled by a lone Sontaran, Styre. Sarah mistakes him for Linx [see The Time Warrior], which is odd because they don’t look alike. Despite being a race of clones, there must be some anatomical and intellectual differences between Sontarans or else they would never tell each other apart or develop an effective chain of military command.
Styre has been sent to Earth to ensure it is safe for invasion and has deliberately set off a distress beacon to lure humans to Terra so he can carry out experiments on man’s ability to resist conquest. Given the planet is completely abandoned, this is a totally pointless exercise. The tortures devised by Styre were [and are] considered by some critics to be ground breaking in their realism. They really aren’t and the impact of them is diluted by the fact we know Styre’s mission is stupid. He’s basically torturing people for fun – witness his joy in discovering Sarah is a female – but inflicting a few burns on a man’s arm doesn’t look very horrific to me. When a soldier dies of thirst I could only think of how derivative this is of other scenes in movies and television, and how much better it’s been handled. Styre’s superior, Marshall, is introduced via com-link to inject some urgency into proceedings, but as the whole solar system is empty of life – even the Ice Warriors had abandoned Mars – what’s the need for a swift invasion? Both monsters are played by Kevin Lindsay, but he’s nowhere near as challenged by the script as he was in The Time Warrior.
The Doctor knows Space Station Nerva is orbiting the Earth, and could be under threat, yet neither the Sontarans nor the humans appear to know it is there, which is a huge oversight by writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who have written well in the past for Dr Who, but come badly astray here. The narrative is essentially a clutter of incidents bound together to form an incoherent mess: Harry falls into a pit, Sarah gets lost, the Doctor falls into a pit, everyone gets captured, escapes, recaptured, a couple of people die, there’s a fight.
One interesting aspect is a link to the Doctor’s great speech about the indomitability of the human race [see The Ark in Space]. The space soldiers come from Galsec, an Earth colony far beyond the stars, the sort of colonies Vira considered to be legends. 10,000 years on, those colonies have thrived and are now ready to return to Mother Earth. They believe Space Station Nerva is a legend. Curiously, all the actors are South African and have an Afrikaans accent. I suppose it makes a change from the Queens’ English being spoken in deep space.
The Sontaran Experiment was originally envisaged as the second half of an epic six-part adventure tied up with The Ark in Space. New producer Philip Hinchcliffe took the wise decision to sever it from that classic piece of sci-fi. Wise because this adventure is so very, very bad:
1 from 5.
They had to drastically change the way this two parter was filmed as well due to Tom Baker dislocating his arm quite severely. Which is why he wears that weird coat and doesn’t move about much.
Yes. I didn't mention this in the review, but I understand Kevin Lindsay found the filming too stressful - he had a heart condition and died in 1975 shortly after the serial's transmission - and hence the climatic fight was fought between two stand ins.
I’m watching Genesis Of The Daleks at the moment and I’m looking forward to reading your review 🙂
And as if by magic...
GENESIS OF THE DALEKS
The opening moments of this excellent adventure are shrouded in mist. Out of the swirling hue staggers a platoon of bedraggled soldiers, wrapped in gas masks and carrying rifles, traversing a bleak rock-swept landscape. Suddenly machine gun fire penetrates the air. The soldiers reel under the assault. Their deaths are filmed in agonising slow motion. The battle passes on. The camera focusses on the corpses, abandoned, as if the dead concern no one but the salient earth.
This is a magnificent introduction to a Dr Who adventure, quite possibly the greatest in its whole history. In a matter of a minute we are introduced to the setting and theme of the story in horrific detail. We are in a war ravaged environment – it might be Earth, we don’t know yet – and war is a place of desperate hell where acts of supreme violence are committed, where death inhabits every step and where the dead are forgotten.
Into this morass arrives the Doctor. He’s angry. Someone has intercepted the transmat beam. That someone is a Time Lord swathed in black robes to resemble ‘Death’ from Ingmar Bergman’s astonishing 1957 fable The Seventh Seal. This reference might be lost on the younger viewer. The film concerns Block, a crusader knight who wishes to perform one great deed for humanity before he dies. To save a young family, Block entices ‘Death’ into a game of chess, a game he cannot win. Nevertheless, ‘Death’ spares the family in exchange for the knight’s life: “The next time we meet will be the last for all.”
The Doctor, of course, is the knight carrying out his meaningful deed with his companions, while the Time Lords – ‘Death’ – look on. In this version, the ultimate victim is not the Doctor but the titular Daleks. Looking far to the future, the Time Lords have seen a universe where all races are doomed beneath the realm of Dalek dictatorship. Their solution is to send an agent [the Doctor] to Skaro at a time before the Daleks’ inception, whose task is to prevent the birth of this great evil. The fact this seems to be completely at odds with the Time Lord’s policy of non-interference is handily glossed over.
The travellers are given a Time Ring which will return them back to the point in time they departed. It is essential they don’t lose it and the fact they do – more than once – is a MacGuffin which propels the story beneath all the terror and brutality which we witness at the forefront of the action. Initially, the travellers conclude the war has been ongoing for a multitude of years, so long that advanced future technology has almost disappeared in favour of mines, bombs, bullets and shot guns. Battles are fought from trenches across a destitute no man’s land populated by radiation scarred mutations. Civilisation has collapsed.
During a sudden attack from one side, the Doctor and Harry are captured by the Kaleds. These black garbed extremists have a fanatical zeal which quite obviously parallels Fascist regimes. Like the Nazis, their prime concern is the preservation of the Kaled race. Ravon’s speech of Aryan superiority and purity is startling in its bombast and, in 1975, a bare thirty years after the end of the Second World War, must have felt terrifyingly familiar even to a youthful audience. The Kaled military is riven with political factions. The Security Chief Nyder resembles Heinrich Himmler with his pinched face and small glasses; his organisation is so fearsome not even a general like Ravon can resist its demands. Nyder is in thrall to the scientific genius of Davros, a crippled, wizened creature whose legs have been replaced by the lower half of a Dalek casing. Together they are syphoning funds and equipment into the Scientific Centre, making Davros virtually the de facto leader of the Kaleds. His experiments within the underground Bunker are designed to artificially mutate Kaled embryos into a fearsome, conscienceless creature which he calls a Dalek.
Sarah meanwhile wanders into the wasteland and witnesses the first Dalek tests. Escaping the Kaled lines, she meets a sympathetic mutant, Sevrin. Together they are captured by the Thals, who are constructing an enormous rocket which will destroy the Kaled’s domed city and its people, ending the war forever. The Thals, familiar to us as peace loving forest dwellers from The Daleks and nervous, military novices in Planet of… are here cast in a completely different mould. They are as ruthless and unforgiving as the Kaleds. They use prisoners as slave labour, unconcerned for their fate, and care nothing about wiping a whole race from the existence. They share the same disdain for the unfortunate ‘mutos,’ who suffer from the after effects of the two armies wanton use of neutronic bombs.
Perhaps the only thing missing from the makeup of the Kaleds and the Thals is the use of concentration camps to exterminate inferiors. That might indeed have been a step too far, for Genesis of the Daleks is probably the most violent, merciless and heartless adventure Dr Who has ever produced [up to this point in its history]. You’d think the embodiment of all this dread would emanate from the Daleks, but it doesn’t. It comes solidly and with much significance from the humanoid characters: the Thals, the Kaleds, Bettan, Ravon, Nyder and Davros. Even the peacemakers, such as Ronson and Gharman, are essentially warlike rebels, so thoroughly engrained onto these souls is the art of war.
The adventure twists and turns along familiar lines, but is interpreted with such an arresting visual style and with exceptional vitality we don’t see the recurrences. This perhaps acknowledges the sterling work done by the set designers and cameramen. While there is a little exterior work, the vast majority of the serial was filmed in the studio and Roger Murray Leach comes up with a superb series of interiors for the Kaled dome which resemble, but do not imitate the Dalek city we witnessed way back in the show’s ground breaking second story. The lack of elaboration is notable. This is a civilisation without refinement. Every spare ounce has been spent on war. Nothing but the essentials remain. It seems entirely fitting we see pens and paper and clipboards being used. There’s a 3D model of the battle zone. Furnishings are minimal. Equally good is the representation of no man’s land. Swaddled in fog, crisscrossed by slit trenches, this is a gritty, shambolic view of warfare and its aftermath. The Thal rocket silo looks believably tall and foreboding. Perhaps the only duff note is struck by a couple of sequences in caves beneath the Kaled dome where Davros’ early creature experiments lurk. This nicely dovetails us back to The Daleks, where indescribable monsters inhabit Skaro’s lakes. The whole piece is often photographed from curious angles, giving sense to the urgency of a war. It’s the sort of filming you might get in a documentary, long close ups followed by sudden expansive screen-scapes. Cameraman Elmer Cossey isn’t bothered by shadows; he keeps them in, increasing the overriding atmosphere of gloom. He photographs large groups in wide shots, letting us see all the protagonists, even those who skulk in the background. Guided superbly by David Maloney, he makes the world of Skaro so believable it’s almost petrifying. There’s more applause for Larry Toft’s editing, Barbara Kidd’s costumes and the SFX teams who have rarely been so on point. Dudley Simpson’s music is better than fine, often rousing and seeming for once to add ambience and tension rather than dissipating it with silly electronic chortles.
There is certainly plenty to enjoy. This six episode story doesn’t flag, isn’t padded, and maintains its grip from start to finish. There is much capture and escape. There is not one, but two revolution plots. The Daleks rampage across the landscape. The surviving Thals are a naive, inexperienced cohort destined for heroic roles. We’ve seen totalitarianism before [notably in Inferno], but it was never portrayed in such terrifying detail. It’s a tribute to writer Terry Nation, script editor Robert Holmes and director Maloney that we don’t notice any cracks or repetitions. The script is phenomenally insightful, both about human[oid] nature and about Dalek nature, by which I really mean Davros’ nature.
It is fair to say that as an ‘origin story’ being made before the term was applied regularly to heroes and villains, Genesis… conforms to convention by superseding the created monster with its creator. Rather like Frankenstein, which is perhaps the origin story of all origin stories, the adventure isn’t really interested in the Daleks – the monster, as it were – who play peripheral roles which only become pivotal at the climax. Instead it is the scientist Davros who takes our attention. Like Victor Frankenstein, Davros is obsessed with creating life, in this case a new and superior life form which will conquer not only the Thals, but the universe. He’s been crippled, one assumes, by his own experiments with radiation and is confined to a motorised chair, only one hand and arm capable and blind except for a mechanical eye. He still exudes power and menace. It cannot be understated how brilliant Michael Wisher’s performance as Davros is. Barely able to move and wrapped in a mask with no eye-sockets, he has to contribute the whole of his characterisation through dialogue. His voice trembles and vibrates with immediacy, sly schemes and righteous anger. Even when attempting to empathise, his grating, spitting mechanical vowels convey a lifetime of unhinged malice. He is never better than in a pivotal scene with the Doctor, where they discuss a hypothetical universe destroying viral disease:
The Doctor : Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory. Something contagious and infectious that killed on contact. A virus that would destroy all other forms of life... would you allow its use?
Davros : It is an interesting conjecture.
The Doctor : Would you do it?
Davros : The only living thing...the microscopic organism... reigning supreme... A fascinating idea.
The Doctor : But would you do it?
Davros : Yes. Yes. To hold in my hand, a capsule that contained such power. To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure on my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything. Yes. I would do it. That power would set me up above the gods. And through the Daleks I shall have that power!
As Wisher fantasises, he raises his right hand, fingers holding an imaginary vial. He snaps the fingers shut, pretending to break the glass, and his voice becomes serene, wistful and charged with wonder. He’s now consumed by the single idea of universal death, the power of a lunatic God. The Doctor uses his moment of reflection to pounce and turns off Davros’ life support systems. Under threat of his own death, the creator of Gods weakens, his voice cracks and whispers and surrenders. Once rescued, he quickly reverts to type – exactly how the Daleks always revert to their cold-blooded nature. These machines really are born in their master’s image. Wisher delivers a chilling, emphatic performance.
The theme of death, of genocide, hangs over Genesis of the Daleks like a space plague. The Thals launch their rocket and kill hundreds of thousands of Kaleds. This has been achieved only with the tacit assistance of Davros, who chooses to sacrifice all remaining Kaleds to preserve his new Dalek race. The Doctor believes Sarah and Harry have died in the assault and is completely forlorn by his abject failure, both to protect his friends and the Kaleds. Driven by the need to avenge them, as well as retrieve that damn Time Ring, he convinces a female rebel Thal to help him destroy the Daleks at source: he wants to detonate explosives in the incubator room.
This of course seems more of a delaying tactic than outright extermination, as does the eventual outcome of the serial, but the machination serves its purpose. Finding his companions safe, thanks to the resourceful Sevrin, the Doctor now plants the incendiaries and pauses before joining the detonation circuit. Suddenly faced with committing mass murder, our hero’s conscience is pricked:
The Doctor : If someone who knew the future, pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives... could you then kill that child?
Sarah : We’re talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them. You must complete your mission for the Time Lords!
The Doctor : Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear... in peace, and never even know the word ‘Dalek.’
Sarah : Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn’t hesitate.
The Doctor : But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.
If there was any lingering doubt that Tom Baker would succeed as the Doctor, this scene and speech banishes them for good. Baker is sublime here, agonising over the fate of millions of evil creatures, agonising over his own future – can he live with the guilt? – is this the redeeming moment of his life? Or is there a further, greater good, to come from this embodiment of evil? This is his moment of redemption. Like Block in The Seventh Seal, he recognises how his action will serve to preserve life, to unify and coagulate against the Daleks whole species throughout the known galaxies.
Davros doesn’t recognise it all, nor do the rebels who launch a revolt in a foolish attempt at negotiation. They only see the agony of killing. To create a being incapable of pity goes fundamentally against scientific principles, Gharman argues, and all beings should be given the ability to make their own decisions based on a full range of emotions; to eliminate some in favour of others is a gross, unethical distortion of biology. Davros refutes it, but once his own creations turn on him, he realises the great folly and, as when the Doctor almost took his life, Davros pleads for clemency. This time he has no one left to rescue him and like many great villains, he dies alone and unloved.
Meanwhile, his creatures live on, even if they are entombed. The chief Dalek, faces the camera, its single eyestalk twitching and appears almost to have morphed directly from Davros, spouting the same vile rhetoric and using the same inimitable screeching vocal tones. How much of Davros’ hate for the world has he transmuted into his beloved children, we ask with some trepidation.
If the magnificent duo of hero and villain, Michael Wisher and Tom Baker, take the acting honours, it is certainly worth mentioning the roster of superb supporting acts which benefit the telling. Elisabeth Sladen revisits her feisty, spunky Sarah; Ian Marter’s Harry is given a much more active and less bumbling role and was never better; Peter Miles is excellent as Nyder, a cruel one man secret police force; Stephen Yardley, a compassionate Servin; James Garbutt brings substance to the sceptic Ronson; Guy Siner is frighteningly youthful and idealistic as General Ravon; we empathise with Dennis Chinnery’s conciliatory Gharman; perhaps only Harriett Philpin, in an underwritten role as the Thal leader Bettan comes across poorly, which is a shame given she’s the only female of any authority.
Genesis… prefigures the age of Marvel and DC movies and provides a revisionist reworking of the origins of the Daleks. It is carried out with considerable grit, style and panache. Former script editor Terrance **** thought it lacked humour, but I welcome the serial’s seriousness. War, death, genocide, the nature of evil, these are not subjects to jape with. Terry Nation and Robert Holmes understood that and guided by producer Philip Hinchcliffe, have moulded a brilliantly brutal fantasy which concludes on a moment of hope beyond the wilderness of the war torn wastelands.
Genesis of the Daleks has been regularly voted on several surveys as the best Dr Who adventure of all time and I don’t have anything in my armoury to disagree with that. A few snippets here and there, maybe, but if evidence were needed to demonstrate the mature and visceral path the series was going to turn down during the Fourth Doctor’s reign, this is surely it. Genesis of the Daleks, like The Silurians, isn’t simply great Dr Who, it is great science fiction on any level and deserves to be recognised as such. Without doubt, an absolute classic:
I know I filed a report on Genesis of the Daleks a few years back but more concise and less knowledgeable
if there were rival candidates for " best Dr Who adventure of all time" what would they be?
just from the Baker era I might guess The Deadly Assassin (which fleshes out the backstory of Gallifrey so its similar in that aspect) and maybe Pyramids of Mars. not so much my opinion as I haven't watched enough to have one, but rather repeated suggestions I've seen on various fansites.
That’s a great review @chrisno1 I think it’s a wonderful story. My viewing of Doctor Who began at the very first episode but by the end of Jon Pertwee’s reign I had given up with watching - teenage hormones and girls took preference 😂 and I was starting out life in my bookselling career. But I’ve been enjoying rewatching the entire series from the first episode on BritBox over the past couple of years and have just finished Genesis which is brilliant. I will only read your reviews now once I’ve seen each story as I don’t want to have any spoilers.
REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN
The 12th Season finale can be regarded as an exciting, breathless, non-stop action adventure, one which the young view with hands gripped and rapt attention, or it can be a tedious, repetitive, hopelessly cratered mess that a reasonably older audience would demerit. The truth lies somewhere in between.
This is one of the few Fourth Doctor adventures I’ve only ever seen on its original transmission, so re-watching Revenge of the Cybermen felt like an introduction to a whole new adventure. It really is non-stop, urgent, noisy and packed full of incident. It also has one of the most enormous plot holes the series has ever demonstrated. Coming after the near perfection of Genesis of the Daleks, the return of the Doctor’s second most notable nemesis is something of a disappointment, but it isn’t as poor as many critics would have us believe.
The prime reason for its success is Michael Briant’s direction, which is vivid and concise, hurtling the characters from scene to scene without pause. We are thrust quickly and avidly into the action: thanks to the Time Ring, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive back on Space Station Nerva, but it isn’t the slick, white washed gleaming vessel we saw in The Ark in Space. This one is a dingy yellow, old-fashioned, lacks a cryogenic centre, is missing the TARDIS, and is chock full of corpses.
[Point of order: when the Time Lords first interrupted the transmat beam, they flung the travellers back in time. Now they’ve been flung forward, but not far enough. They are several thousand years short of the events of The Ark in Space. The Doctor doesn’t seem concerned and states the TARDIS is being sent back through time to join them. It isn’t clear how he knows this. What he doesn’t consider is the Time Lords, with their penchant for acting like a sort of universe-wide MI6, might have deliberately waylaid them to help solve an impending crisis on Nerva. Additionally, the Time Ring self-disappears, so the travellers simply have to trust the TARDIS will turn up. It’s all a bit odd and, considering how easy it was for the Gallifrians to rustle up past incarnations of the Doctor [see The Three Doctors] you wonder why they needed the ring at all. After all, while they are busy not interfering, we know they are watching. If things got dicey on Skaro, they could have simply teleported the travellers away. I don’t think I’m simplifying this, the Time Ring does appear to be a very daft concept, which didn’t matter in Genesis…, because we assumed it would return the travellers back to the time they left.]
The opening scenes have the trio wandering the once sparse corridors of Nerva and tripping over dead bodies. It is eerie and chilling. We learn that before Nerva was an incubation ship, it served as a space beacon to interplanetary flight between Pluto and Earth, hovering on the fringes of Jupiter’s orbit. A plague has taken root and exterminated all but four humans, one of whom, Kellman, has been making transmat journeys to a mysterious asteroid which he calls Voga, ostensibly to carry out land surveys. Kellman is triple crossing everyone in an attempt to help the Vogans defend themselves against the marauding remnants of the once mighty Cybermen. Episodes 1 and 2 work exceptionally well, as we [and the Doctor] try to gather information and comprehension of the situation. He [and us] is not convinced by Kellman’s explanations; soon it becomes irrelevant as the Cybermen invade Nerva for their own destructive ends.
[Point of interest: the eagle-eyed will notice the secret communication device Keller uses comes in the form of a clothes brush with a miniature radio antenna and a push button control. Sound familiar? Look familiar? It does indeed. It’s exactly the same prop Roger Moore used to send morse messages from his hotel room on San Monique in Live and Let Die. Apparently, Moore was invited to the BBC studios and took it with him for a laugh. He was going to offer it as a free prop, but the props manager gave him two shillings for it. I know a few actors have crossed between James Bond and Dr Who, as well as a few timely plot ideas, but this is the only instance an exact same prop can be seen in both franchises.]
This crime investigation in space stacks up remarkably well at the off – tactfully putting aside the new look, serpent-like, disease spreading Cybermat, which likes to take chunks out of people’s necks to inject its poisons, waggling its enormous tail like a demented platypus as it does so. There’s even some intrigue among the Vogans, who are blessed by some fine actors underneath their special, individually moulded facial masks: Michael Wisher [again, already? – wow, the 12th Season seriously cut corners everywhere], Kevin Stoney and David Collings all give their respective characters vim and vigour. I enjoyed the personal individuality each brought. We witness anger, loyalty, egoism, ingenuity, annoyance, impatience, even sickness. These are not one-note performances. Politically, Vogan society is split between the Council, who are essentially wary of conflict and have ensured the planet’s survival through stealth, and the Guardians, a militaristic faction who believe that attack is the best form of defence. As often happens when Dr Who pursues two parallel stories, this lesser one is more interesting than the one we should be worrying about. It has all the action and excitement and all the best actors.
[Point of order: the keen eyed will notice the emblem on the Vogan suits is identical to the one later used to identify the Seal of Rassillon, a motif of the Time Lord High Council. The hierarchy of the Vogans also bears an uncanny resemblance to Time Lord notions of class: a president, a high council, a military class. They are riven by similar disputes. Script editor Robert Holmes had not at this time commissioned the seminal work about Gallifrey, The Deadly Assassin, but he was obviously already ground testing ideas for future use.]
Once we’re past the off, things deteriorate a little. The Cybermen strap three Cyberbombs to the Doctor and the last two surviving space engineers. Cyberbombs, we learn, are tiny explosives with devastating consequences, banned under the Armageddon Convention. [Yeah, you say, you what? I thought.] The Cybermen transmat their cannon fodder to Voga with orders to penetrate to the asteroid’s core and explode the bombs, thus destroying the planet and eradicating a major source of gold, a metal deadly to the Cybermen’s life support functions. Voga had already been virtually blown apart during the First Cyber War, so this isn’t really revenge, more like a premeditated military strategy to eliminate a potential threat. Anyhow, this is where the adventure turns sour.
[Point of order: one of several continuity issues in the adventure is this one: if the Cyber War is so well known, how come nobody knows of / recognises / understands about Voga and its prime role in the defeat of the Cybermen. And if gold was used as a weapon of war, then surely the archaeologists in Tomb of the Cybermen would know of its effect. There’s also a line from Sarah Jane Smith which suggests she knows about the Cybermen. One assumes this is from events in The Invasion, but she’s adamant they were all destroyed: how does she know? While this Vogan gold premise is all a bit of hokum, it seems technologically unfortunate for the Cybermen, especially given the conductive properties of gold. It also provides an easy ‘get out’ for future writers of Cyber-stories.]
Sadly, the basic concept of Voga as a half obliterated planet of gold simply doesn’t work scientifically. The planet can’t have a core of gold and cannot take up an orbit without a magnetic core. There’s no liveable surface, so how do the Vogans eat, drink, exist without sunlight – maybe that’s why they are grey skinned and bald? How can three bombs potentially cause such a catastrophe, for when we see one explode through its boobytrap mechanism the blast only consumes three victims? How can two Cybermen walk about so close to all that cave gold dust with no visible side-effects? Why don’t the Vogans – who supplied gold to make glitter guns which ultimately ensured Cyber defeat – use gold against this solitary twosome? How did the Guardians construct the huge Skystriker rocket without the Council realising it was there? How can the Doctor possibly comprehend escaping the explosion in fourteen minutes when it takes him at least twenty five [the length of an episode] to reach the core? [Yes, really…] And, lastly, and most baffling, why are the Cybermen – dressed in boot-high flares, the leader sporting a brunette metal wig and all travelling in a space ship that looks like a phallus – so extremely camp?
From here, the tremendous jigsaw-like narrative of the first two episodes is thrown out in favour of [some admittedly great] location footage in Wookey Hole, lots of gun battles, explosions, fights, and a gripping finale as Armageddon really does approach, intergalactic treaty or not. It’s all a bit frantic, and I rather enjoyed it. The incidents kept piling one on top of another and I was never bored, which I can’t say of every serial. The production values are good; lots of gold laced finery for the Vogans, a scrubbed down Ark, good photography from Elmer Cossey, decent sound effects from Dick Mills, excellent music, dodgy seventies fashions for the Nerva crew. It’s a pity nobody took the time to write a decent story. Luckily Gerry Davis and script editor Robert Holmes both have a good ear for great lines and the script crackles, even if the plot becomes lame. The actors rise above the nonsense, especially the regulars and the trio of Vogans. Jeremy Wilkin is an equally class act who as Keller keeps us guessing to the last. Everyone else is, well, forgettable, including the emotion prone Cyber Leader, who stands with hands-on-hips, is susceptible to strutting and enjoys giving aggressive massages when he should be strangling his victims. Other than Sarah, there are no women in this story and by the time we reach the denouement the whole package does feel like something of an uncontrolled testosterone fuelled joyride.
A half-way success, but overall, not a great return for the Cybermen:
3 from 5.
I need to comment first on the very opening seconds of Dr Who’s Twelfth Season as Ron Grainer’s theme tune accompanies the hurtling twin corridors of time and space which begin Bernard Lodge’s fantastic slit-screen titles sequence. Never bettered, this thirty seconds of engrossing stylised psychedelic imagery goes a long, long way to setting an audience’s expectations. I remember as a young ’un watching every week with keen anticipation as the TARDIS, the face of Tom Baker and the ‘Dr. Who pyramid’ vanished into the far-flung distance of the cosmos. Where would I be this week? What enemy will I meet? How will I get out of that sticky cliff-hanger situation? It all felt so very personal. I was virtually being sucked into the program and immersed in its machinations from my seat on the family sofa. A high benchmark of achievement is being set, and we’ve not even found out who the new Doctor is yet!
The Fourth Doctor’s era continued and expanded on the successes of Jon Pertwee. Yes, the writers and producers may have changed, but the spirit certainly remains undiluted. If anything, this new version of Dr Who seems more violent and virulent than ever before with fights and deaths and explosions occurring throughout each story. It’s fair to say the immediate impact made by Tom Baker is watered down by a very average opening adventure. Then, just as he’s begun to get in the swing of the role, and delivers a brilliant performance, he has his thunder stolen by Michael Wisher as Davros in the season’s outstanding story Genesis of the Daleks. Baker is so thoroughly engaging throughout the season, a few minor hiccups along the way barely notice; because two stories utilised the same sets (The Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen) these two serials were filmed back to back and his playing is similarly nuanced. It’s noticeable that the final chapter filmed was Genesis… and is the one where Baker looks the most comfortable and contributes some of his most erudite speeches. While he was relatively unknown in 1974, it is worth remembering Tom Baker was a member of the National Theatre Company and had been nominated for a supporting actor Golden Globe for his nefarious turn as Rasputin in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra. He has pedigree and he begins to declare it early on and keeps declaring it.
Of his companions, less said. Sarah Jane Smith has developed into quite a weepy woman since she first came on the scene. People keep dying, or almost dying, all around her. Sarah’s mental health seems to be in permanent danger; I’m not sure how much more emotional abuse she can take. Added to the physical danger she constantly puts herself in, it’s a small wonder she’s not had a breakdown. Sarah isn’t helped by Harry Sullivan, who is one of the worst assistants so far. Brought on board in case the new Doctor was going to be an older man more akin to William Hartnell, it’s obvious from Robot he isn’t ever going to be required. Luckily the writers have figured out the best way to keep everyone occupied, probably one of the benefits of five years of UNIT stories, but sometimes it appears Harry is more chummy with the Doctor than Sarah, which disappoints. This is particularly true in both The Ark in Space and Genesis…, the two best stories in the season. Elisabeth Sladen is always watchable and her chemistry with Baker is far superior to Ian Marter’s. Sadly, she’s dealt a few curve balls – cryogenically frozen, captured by Sontarans, infected with a cyber-plague – and only manages to shine in Robot and whilst leading a rebellion on Skaro. Ian Marter simply isn’t a compelling enough actor. It doesn’t help the Doctor believes the man’s an idiot and constantly reminds him of said fact. Those exchanges got wearisome. I’ll be glad to see the back of Harry.
Regular cast aside, the five stories contain a good run of supporting characters and a couple of memorable villains. The stories are inventive and well directed. The only duff note is struck by The Sontaran Experiment which looks and feels monumentally out of place. This story needed much more development. Ultimately a huge disappointment, it is underwritten, which can’t be said of the other serials which all spend time developing characters and their respective motivations, fears and joys. They are not slow stories either, moving terrifically fast, and rarely losing focus. If they occasionally get muddled, it hardly notices.
Philip Hinchcliffe was a new producer on Dr Who. He’d had no contact with the series at all and brought a fresh and invigorating perspective to the show. While these scripts might have been picked and gone into pre-production before his arrival, you can detect his stamp on them already. They are intensely adult in theme and presentation. One of the defining aspects of his tenure – the appropriation of gothic horror as suitable material for a children’s show – already reveals itself in the crazed monsters of Robot and Genesis… [Davros, I’m referring to, not the Daleks] and the bleak, cut off landscapes the travellers are forced to inhabit. He is helped immeasurably by a script editor in Robert Holmes who always wrote well and intelligently for Dr Who and did not dumb down stories for his viewers. The absence of humour – it isn’t completely absent, but pared down – is welcome and brings a more mature atmosphere to proceedings. So too the emphasis on humankind’s ability to survive, explore, learn and exploit for both bad and good. This is a more optimistic image of the future than the depressingly pessimistic one constantly delivered by the Third Doctor. For all Jon Pertwee’s successes, he never appeared so ready to comply with his audience’s expectations, always testing their rationale via acerbic conversations with villains, heroes and companions. Tom Baker doesn’t appear to have time for this. He seems to invest his character with wonderment, those amazingly expressive features capturing the Fourth Doctor’s genuine interest in what he encounters, good or bad, Harry Sullivan included, I guess.
While he was relatively unknown in 1974, it is worth remembering Tom Baker was a member of the National Theatre Company and had been nominated for a supporting actor Golden Globe for his nefarious turn as Rasputin in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra. He has pedigree and he begins to declare it early on and keeps declaring it.
The two films I've seen that Baker did just before Doctor Who are the Vault of Horror and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, both 1973
the Vault of Horror is an adaptation of old EC horror comics, in anthology format with a framing device. Baker is in the framing sequence, and then his own story begins at 56:00 minutes, the final act, about a painter living in Haiti.. Terry-Thomas and Curd Jürgens are both also in this as well as frequent Saint guest Dawn Addams.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is of course Ray Harryhausen and also stars Caroline Munro (so you get a Spy Who Loved Me villain in each film) and was written by Brian Clemens. Baker plays the villain, an evil wizard.
wikipedia claims it was the Sinbad film that got Baker the role of Doctor Who, but I think both would be of interest to us lot!
I was just watching an early Avengers episode The Mauritius Penny (s2e07 November 10 1962) and thinking it was a pastiche of 1930s Hitchcock (Steed even visits an evil dentist), then noticed the writers were two familiar names: Malcolm Hulke and Terrance ****. Then did some reading online, and several sources claim **** recycled elements of this Avengers plot for Baker's debut Robot!
I havent seen Robot for a couple years so cant remember, but if you like to compare The Mauritius Penny is available on archive.org
I was unaware of this. Thanks for that goblet of info. I found quotes from Mr Dixx here, which claim the similarities were unintentional
TERROR OF THE ZYGONS
The 12th Season was curtailed due to a production strike. This story should have concluded the previous season, bookending the Fourth Doctor’s debut with two UNIT stories and providing a neat step into and out of the TARDIS for Harry Sullivan.
Terror of the Zygons has plenty to recommend it. First off are the titular monsters, quite possibly one of the most realistic and frightening creations James Acheson ever made for the show. The Zygons have a scaly, barnacle-like, orange / brown skin, huge foreheads and tiny, creased faces. They are shape shifters and, given contact with another being, are able to organically replicate its form. This leads to some moments of surprise and shock, most notably at the end of episode one when Sarah is menaced by a Zygon as she makes a telephone call, one of the best introductions to a monster the show ever made. Congratulations must go to director Douglas Camfield, who hasn’t worked on the series since Inferno. He always had a good instinct for tension and he doesn’t neglect that here. Another moment comes as Sarah – bless her – is menaced by a Zygon impersonating Harry Sullivan, who attempts to impale her on a pitch fork. The build up to this conflict is exceptional.
So too is the overall look of the piece. Nigel Curzon’s Zygon space ship is excellently realised, both internally, where it’s organic living structure is reflected in the strange shaping of control panels, rooms, floors and doors. Nothing has a straight edge. You can almost imagine the physiognomy of a Zygon looking something like this. Externally, the ship resembles a huge black mechanical spider and when it rises from the depths of Loch Ness, I had a moment of wonder which I don’t often get watching Dr Who. The expressions on the faces of the UNIT crew are suitably astounded.
As with Robot, UNIT and the Brigadier are treated with some respect and provided with better dialogue. No longer are they characters for ridicule. The Doctor is angry with being summoned back to Earth just because a couple of oil rigs have been destroyed, but soon he’s intrigued by the case; Nicholas Courtney plays off Tom Baker much better here than he did with Jon Pertwee because Baker, and the script, gives both men room to breathe. The two rely on each other which could only rarely be said of the Third Doctor. Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan seems more at ease back on Earth and while his role is less influential, at least he’s not acting a buffoon.
While the production is fairly representative of seventies Dr Who, with goodish sets and the usual custom-made dodgy SFX, the budget didn’t stretch to filming in Scotland, so the South Downs substitutes for Loch Ness, the village of Tullock and the surrounding moorland. It barely notices. What does is the terrible representation of the Zygons’ cyborg monster, the Skarasen. I really don’t know what the producers were thinking of here. They seem to have learned nothing from the disappointments of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot where the CSO effects were so poor and the representation of huge monsters so very, very bad. This one resembles a Drashig [from Carnival of Monsters] but not when they looked scary, popping out of marshland, rather when they looked silly and studio bound escaping from the Mini-Scope. Some commentators have compared the Skarasen head and neck combo as a glove puppet. They are not far wrong.
There is also a sense of déjà vu pervading the story. Robert Banks Stewart is the nominal writer, but he’s clearly been influenced by earlier stories. We’ve seen shape-shifters in The Faceless Ones and the doppelganger storyline has cropped up several times, most notably with the Autons. The organic space ship was done to better effect in The Claws of Axos, where its living nature was fundamental to the Axons survival. Here, it is the cyborg Skarasen which the Zygons require, although exactly what it does for them and how isn’t made entirely clear. The aliens have been hiding under Loch Ness for centuries, just like the Sea Devils hid in the English Channel. They also attack oil installations like those reptilian ogres took on defunct military bases. The Zygons came to Earth to escape the solar flares which destroyed their planet. We remember this phenomenon from The Ark in Space and it’s good to know Earth is not alone in suffering these cosmic misfortunes, but it’s a bit swift to slip such a destruction into a new story. The Zygons want to take over the Earth, but it isn’t clear exactly how six Zygons, one Skarasen and an attack on a World Energy Conference is going to achieve this. For much of the run time, the actions of the Zygon leader, Broton, bear resemblance to the crazed single-mindedness of the Young Silurian. In fact much of the story resembles a condensed version of that seminal UNIT classic: oil rigs instead of the nuclear energy cyclotron are threatened; a Zygon is wounded and chased through the countryside exactly how a Silurian was; there’s a confrontation in a hay barn; both aliens have huge monsters protecting their bases. Terror of the Zygons lacks much of The Silurians’ depth, both in character and tension. It passes very nicely and I enjoyed it, but this wasn’t ground breaking material.
John Woodnutt plays the dual role of Broton and the Duke of Forgill with some success. Angus Lennie, who was a great comedic foil in The Ice Warriors, isn’t nearly so good as a pub landlord with ‘second-sight’ – a talent which doesn’t stop his murder. There’s a satisfactory climax in London which would be even better if it wasn’t for that damn Skarasen. I remember reading and loving Terence Dixxs’ novelisation Dr Who and the Loch Ness Monster as a kid and while I know I watched the serial – I have several flickers of memories – I’d never seen it since 1975. Truth be told, I was disappointed. The necessary verve and vigour was missing. The familiarities didn’t help and because of that, I could almost see the writer, producer and director joining the dots of the story, placing this incident there and that one here. It’s an efficient adventure, but not a great one.
[Point of James Bond interest: the adventure is set in Scotland on the Duke of Forgill’s landed estate. The village of Tullock sits on its outskirts. The Duke has a man mountain of a ghillie called Caber who is the Highland Games champion. The Duke’s residence is a huge Scottish castle. The access to the Zygon’s hidden ship is through a secret door in the library.
[John Gardner’s continuation novel Licence Renewed featured a villain who was the Laird of Culcaldy and lived in a castle, with a village on the estate, he had a henchman called Caber who is the Highland Games champion, and a cellar office is accessed through a secret door. Surely not a coincidence?]
Treading the water:
PLANET OF EVIL
On Zeta-Minor, Professor Sorenson and his team are mining antimatter minerals which he believes will reignite the planet Morestra’s fading sun. Zeta-Minor however, has been fighting back. The TARDIS picks up a distress call leading the Doctor and Sarah to discover the geological expedition has fallen prey to an unseen killer. Worse, the military mission sent to rescue them accuses the travellers of being responsible. The Doctor knows better: Zeta-Minor is perched on the very edge of the universe, and is in fact a gateway to the world of cataclysmic antimatter.
Planet of Evil is an excellent Dr Who adventure, the first commissioned by new producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and thus the first to fully deliver on his premise of mining old classic horror, thriller and science fiction stories for plot outlines, bad guys, monsters and action sequences.
This story features a shimmering ‘invisible’ energy beast which bears more than a resemblance to the Id monster from Forbidden Planet. That it is thwarted in exactly the same way will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with that classic slice of 1950s sci-fi. Forbidden Planet famously mangled Shakespeare’s The Tempest and it was clever of the writers here to emphasise this by having the Doctor quote the Bard; though it would have been more astute if he’d quoted Prospero instead of Romeo. The unseen monster is a fine innovation which removes the need for expensive, unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfactory costuming. Additionally, the monster’s habitat is phenomenally well realised. Dr Who has always been good at jungle sets, but during the early seventies, they’d tended to avoid them. Roger Murray Leach produced something truly remarkable for this serial. The jungle looks cold, daunting, overgrown, untended. Lianas tremble. Leaves are blackly verdant. A curious red tint on everything hints at the low intensity of day light. There is mist. Tree trunks and branches are covered in moss and lichen. Bark is sodden. The ground is wet. It is dark during the daytime and darker at night. Peter Howell’s sound effects add depth to the environment. We hear only the smallest of noises. The world appears to be devoid of all life bar its swampy, tentacle-like, miserable, all-encompassing flora.
Roaming this forest, but only at night, the mysterious, unnamed, antimatter creature is preventing the exit of its materials from Zeta-Minor. Professor Sorenson smuggles some samples aboard the Morestran ship, unaware of the consequences. Sorenson is equally unaware he’s been so contaminated by antimatter that his body is taking on a new and frightening hybrid form, a sort of space-age murderous Mr Hyde to his usual docile Dr Jekyll. The transformation scenes will evoke obvious comparisons with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale and all those cinema and television adaptations. They are handled exceptionally well by director David Maloney, who is careful to emphasise Sorenson’s agony as he attempts to prevent each transformation. The low-key make up work from Jenny Shircore is effective, achieving much with little. It is the story and the characters which are driving our imaginations, not the visuals, hence Planet of Evil becomes a far more frightening and striking story than many of the more simplistic, obvious monster tales. The fear really is of the unknown.
Of particular note too is Louis Marks’ competent script, which provokes sympathy both for Sorenson and for the military commander Salamar, two men driven by separate desires, but equally committed to their individual goals. Caught between them is the stately voice of reason, Vishinsky, an older man, weathered, less impulsive. You sense he’s seen it all before and the antics of his blustering superior don’t phase him. Fredrick Jaeger, Prentis Hancock and Ewen Solon have all been previously involved with Dr Who [Hancock in Planet of the Daleks, the other two as opposing factions in Season Three’s The Savages] and they are superb in this telling, bringing depth and emotion to their characters. It’s a hard act to pull off, especially for Hancock, as we’ve seem all these tropes before, but Marks’ screenplay gives them the bones to work with, building rounded and believable people.
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen have rarely been better. Finally freed of Harry Sullivan, the two have developed a charming rapport. Sarah won’t stand for the Doctor’s nonsense. She knows when he’s lying, conceited or childish and won’t hesitate to tell him. He knows she’s more inquisitive and capable than most of his companions have been. As a team, the twosome work very well together. It shows that the need for multiple companions in the TARDIS is a false one, creating difficulties for the writers who have to find too many things for the actors to do. One good companion, doing all which is required, is plenty.
[Points of order: Sarah has suddenly learnt a lot about the TARDIS as she’s able to locate and identify a cosmic measuring device the Doctor asks for; it looks a bit like grease gun and is never used.
[She’s equally familiar with the mechanics of Morestran space travel, which seems odd.
[Although it’s never stated, the Morestran’s appear to be human, no doubt from one of those colonies we learnt about last season.
[We’ve not seen the interior of the TARDIS for a while, since Death to the Daleks, I think, and it hasn’t changed much. The time machine, in addition to carrying a builder’s holdall full of science gimmicks, also contains medieval restraints. They aren’t strong enough to stop the Mr Hyde version of Professor Sorenson breaking free. The climatic confrontation between him and the Doctor is suitably maniacal.]
Once again, one must admire Ms Sladen for her ability in showing Sarah suffering so much emotional trauma; she’s particularly fine when succumbing to the physical properties of antimatter and sparkling when dealing with Vishinsky and Salamar. The scenes where the Morestran space ship hurtles back towards Zeta-Minor have their own inbuilt suspense which the actors play off superbly. As the red-outlined monsters start to creep through the stricken ship, the tension is ramped up again and for a moment it appears the Doctor has been too late to save the day.
The antimatter creature – in fact, the whole planet – is made out to be the villain, but this is rather unfair as its intention is to prevent an apocalypse. If we cast our minds back to The Three Doctors, we’ll remember the Time Lords’ insistence that when matter collides with antimatter the result is an enormous explosion, one which annihilated completely Omega’s world. Zeta-Minor is an unfortunate exiguous planet where the two worlds manage to co-exist; a pool of darkness represents the interface point between the world of ‘nothing’ and the world of ‘something.’ When antimatter seeps across the divide, it is quickly sucked back, explaining Sorenson’s haste in accumulating his samples.
As the Doctor explains in another fantastic speech: “Zeta Minor is the boundary between existence as you know it and the other universe which you just don’t understand. From the beginning of time it has existed side by side with the known universe. Each is the antithesis of the other. You call it ‘nothing,’ a word to cover ignorance. Centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. ‘Antimatter,’ they called it. And you, by coming here, have crossed the boundary into that other universe to plunder it. Dangerous...”
The Doctor, on discovering Sorenson’s secret, shows great sympathy with a man who clearly wants to do good, but is misguided in his efforts: “You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.” The planet sees it differently, recognises the danger and is attempting to stop dangerous antimatter from entering the known universe. The planet’s properties take over Sorenson and he too begins to murder and sabotage in an attempt to complete the task.
The science is borderline hogwash, but it’s so well presented, you hardly care. The adventure is tense and dramatic. It is expertly framed and realised, photographed and directed. It’s fair to say the design of the Morestran space ship is less successful than the jungle sets, but this is forgivable; given the story is set in the year 37116, it’s highly probably computers would do all the work for space pilots, so there’s no reason for control centres to be over-elaborate. They do look perhaps too small and drab, mind. The effects are expertly done and much better for using that minimalist approach. If the monsters are invisible, the evidence of their work is not; the dehydrated corpses are particularly horrid, like ochre tinged, skeletal husks. However these men died, it was without doubt unpleasant.
Of interest is a scene where a murdered crewman has a burial in space, his coffin ejected into the empty ether, accompanied by a Morestran Orthodox hymn. This moment of domestic and religious insight is rare in Dr Who, which usually concerns itself with science and politics. It is telling the same chamber is used for summary executions carried out with no religious overtones; death can be both sacred and profane.
The show garnered ratings of over 9 million for every episode, some well over the 10 million mark, and it was edited and repeated in the following summer to a more than respectable 5 million or so viewers. It was certainly popular at the time. For most passing observers, Planet of Evil is a variant of the ‘those in peril’ or ‘monster on the loose’ format, but that’s missing the superb construction of the adventure, how the characters’ idealism is matched to the action, and how the shocks and suspense draws us constantly into the narrative.
An almost forgotten jewel:
4 from 5.
PYRAMIDS OF MARS
When Pyramids of Mars was edited and repeated as a one hour special in November 1976, it pulled it ratings of 13.7 million, the highest ever viewing figures for a Dr Who episode to date. And it was a repeat, which demonstrates the popularity of Stephen Harris’ bold attempt to bring science fiction into the world of Gothic horror, in this case the realm of ancient curses and Egyptian mummies. Stephen Harris doesn’t exist, it’s a conglomerate of writer Lewis Greifer and script editor Robert Holmes. Most of the finished script is Holmes’ work, only in the bare bones of the story lie Greifer’s ideas. That isn’t to diminish anything about Pyramids of Mars. For the majority of its run time this adventure is fascinatingly mysterious, is taut and exciting, and concentrates on themes of eternal, isolated incarceration and the true definition of time travel. That this should be so plausibly wrapped up in the clothes and manners of an Edwardian-set horror story is all the more remarkable.
The Doctor is in a foul mood at the start of this adventure. He’s irritated that the Brigadier can summon him at any time to help solve minor problems on Earth. He’s considering resigning his position as UNIT’s Science Advisor. I wouldn’t call the Zygons a minor problem, but the Fourth Doctor has got a faraway look in his eye, a wonderment we’ve not witnessed since William Hartnell so brilliantly proposed the formation of stars in The Edge of Destruction. Sarah tries to lighten the mood, but she’s wearing one of Victoria Waterfield’s old dresses [I don’t remember it, but there you go…] and this only turns the Doctor’s mood toward melancholy. Luckily, as the TARDIS tries to land, a temporal projection interrupts the journey and instead the travellers find themselves at the Old Priory which preceded the UNIT headquarters. The year is 1911 – one of the Doctor’s favourite years – and something strange is occurring at Professor Scarman’s mansion.
Marcus Scarman is a world renowned Egyptologist who has just discovered the tomb of Sutekh and plundered many beautiful relics, including some huge sarcophagi – but Scarman himself has vanished. The local G.P., Warlock, and Scarman’s brother, Laurence, who lives in the estate lodge, both believe the uninvited houseguest Ibrahim Namin to be responsible. Peter Copley and Michael Sheard are excellent as early allies and conspirators against Peter Maycock’s crazed disciple of Sutekh. Their warring verbal exchanges start the thriller in fine style. Namin enjoys barking orders and playing the organ, which he does loudly and to great effect, especially towards the end of episode 1 as he summons the mighty God Sutekh out of a superb psychedelic time-space tunnel disguised as a sarcophagus. Namin’s Gloriana blends seamlessly into Dudley Simpson’s incidental score, a rousing welcome to this manifestation of all evil, a black robed monster who declares “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity” before summarily murdering the servant by sucking the life force out of him.
This is a fantastic, truly terrifying finale to a magnificent opening episode which manages to intrigue and delight and excite all at once. Applause and bows please for director Paddy Russell, cameraman John McGlashan and editor M.A.C. Adams who instil a genuine atmosphere of foreboding, the same one which so effectively inhabits those old Universal or Hammer pictures of the ’30s and ’50s which the team are so lovingly trying to recreate. Christine Ruscoe’s interior designs are fabulous, the quaint country house, the enormous organ-dominated great hall, the ante-wing full of ancient artefacts. The incidental score is exceptional. The rattle-snake hum as two robotic mummies pursue the Doctor and Sarah through the forest is a delightfully eclectic touch. Exteriors were filmed at Stargroves, which was then Mick Jagger’s London home, and using a real Edwardian pile lends an air of authenticity to the production.
One of the highlights is setting the adventure in a specific and recognisable time and place, but peppering what makes us comfortable with the undead disciples of a devil God, force fields, advanced rocket devices, and mute, grey bandaged mummies marauding through the estate and the forest. Hammer’s 1959 production The Mummy utilised the same enclosed space to brilliant effect; the writer and director here seem no less adept at creating a stifling atmosphere among very serene and localised surroundings. Bernard Archard’s chilling interpretation of Prof Scarman, whose dead body has been expropriated by Sutekh, resembles both in manner and in look Boris Karloff’s playing of Imhotep in Universal’s 1932 original. He’s a pale, skeletal, upright figure, with deep-set dark eyes; he’s so pale he looks as if his skin has been drawn over his head. His unflappable, unholy demeanour adds an ominous air to his portrayal. The scene where Scarman has doubts, while his brother pleads with him to remember, is wonderful stuff. These moments of pathos are rare in Dr Who. The fact the discussion ends in Laurence’s murder makes the childhood memories even more poignant.
A few moments of light relief are supplied by a poacher, Ernie Clements, who catches a mummy in a mantrap, only to see the giant extricate itself with ease. He also runs headlong into a Midwich Cuckoos style forcefield. This almost silent, light-hearted role is encapsulated by George Tovey, Roberta Tovey’s father; you may remember she played Susan in the Dalek spin-off movies. His performance brought recollections of the baffled Mr Ollis in The Three Doctors. Sadly, Clements, like Laurence Scarman, Warlock, Collins the butler and Namin, meets an untimely end, but not before he shoots Prof Scarman only to see the crazed archaeologist reverse time and suck out the bullet. A memorable SFX. In fact the effects in this story, while few and far between, are extraordinarily good. Smoke, or heat if you like, is used to suggest the infliction of pain. There are some well realised explosions. The mummies are not too shabby a monster, moving rapidly, if stiffly through mansion, pyramid or glen. The eventual revelation of Sutekh’s true likeness, a Typhonian beast, is well managed.
The performances are first rate all round; there’s not a bad show on sight. Baker and Sladen are almost perfect, so well in tune with each other are the two leads. There’s an excellent scene where the Doctor questions the butler, Collins, by impersonating a museum curator. The deceit is nicely played by all. Later at Laurence Scarman’s lodge, Sarah’s coquettish stance manages to be the perfect counterfoil to the brackish Doctor as the two explain where, why and how they arrived in Hampshire, 1911. The Doctor identifies a Marconi-scope and this provides the perfect moment for the two men to talk science. A wonderful, naturally sly method of ingratiating oneself with the natives. Baker doesn’t need to brow-beat anyone, as Pertwee was prone to do, he cajoles and humours, develops trust and rapport. All the while he’s digging for clues: “Something’s interfering with time, Mr Scarman, and time is my business.”
The Doctor may not want to work for UNIT, but he spots danger when it’s about and won’t abandon Earth to its fate. There’s a brilliant moment when Sarah tries to persuade him they could leave in the TARDIS and return to 1980 [she claims to have come from that age, which dates the UNIT stories earlier than we thought] because everything must have turned out fine, or she wouldn’t exist. The Doctor directs the TARDIS forward in time from this 1911 to that projected 1980 and shows her a desolate, ravaged Earth. “Every point in time has its alternative,” he explains. They can’t change time, but they can influence the future. This re-iterates the alternate universe principle as outlined by the Third Doctor in Inferno. It also handily removes the Doctor from any blame regarding his continued interference in the history / histories of the universe. One wonders now, quite openly, which universe we are inhabiting and is the TARDIS able to ‘jump’ between different timelines?
Whichever it may be, the universe is under threat. 7000 years ago the Osirians, a race of God-like aliens, destroyed their own planet during a war between factions supporting Horus or Sutekh. The Osirians brought their war to Earth and helped found the Egyptian civilisation. Horus eventually imprisoned Sutekh – or Set as the Egyptian’s called him – for all eternity in a tomb on Mars, which is an exact replica of the pyramid tomb Scarman uncovered in Saqqara. By breaking into the pyramid, Scarman has aided Sutekh to breach the paralysing forcefield that restricts his movements to a bare, black throne in an empty box-chamber.
It does beg the question, why would you entomb someone for eternity and provide them with a key to escape? There are quite a few unanswered questions in Pyramids of Mars. For instance, why are the robots dressed as mummies? It seems only to benefit the structure of the action, not the narrative itself. In fact, why have robots at all? On Mars, Scarman and then the Doctor have to complete a series of logic puzzles, which Sarah likens to the City of the Exillon’s despite her never venturing inside it [see Death to the Daleks]. These puzzles seem superfluous to all requirements and slow the story down at a point it ought to be picking up. One does get the recurring feeling Sutekh’s power resembles that of Azal the Daemon [see The Daemons] and I wondered if the two alien races, both all-powerful planet destroyers, both likened to goats, were related. While his eventual manifestation is quite disturbing, Sutekh spends most of the adventure constricted to his throne by Horus’ Earth originating forcefield. He wears an enveloping mask and a long cloak. The whole get up only recalls Omega from The Three Doctors. Gabriel Woolf’s vocalisations should be lauded. It is disappointing this seated view of the all-powerful destroyer came midway through episode 3 as it would have been far more effective to zoom onto it during the episode’s cliff-hanger. Some of the science really doesn’t make sense – listen to this garbled jargon: relative continuum stabiliser, parallax coil, cytronic particle accelerator, etheric impulse, decadron crucible, triobiphysics. Sutekh’s escape plan feels very convoluted. It’s also a tall order to believe the Doctor happens to find a Marconi-scope at the precise moment the temporal warning ‘Beware Sutekh’ is transmitted. Small issues aside, Pyramids of Mars retains most of its capacity to enthral for most of its narrative. Its flaws are easily brushed over in favour of a fast and furious pace and an interesting central conflict.
The Doctor is suffering the same existential torment as his enemy. The Doctor considers he’s been bonded to the Brigadier, Earth and UNIT for too long; it’s not where he wants to be: “I walk through eternity,” he says. Sutekh meanwhile yearns to escape the yolk of his brother, who has imprisoned him, supposedly forever. When the two adversaries eventually meet, the Osirian’s jealousy is tantamount and reveals itself in pure rage and malice as he tortures and manipulates the Doctor to achieve his freedom. Sutekh though has an Achilles’ Heel. He is the Destroyer of Worlds and it is his lust for death and destruction which leads him to abandon the Doctor for dead, when, as we all know – except Sarah, poor thing – he’s faking his own demise. The eventual triumph is a moment of brilliant revelation as the Doctor on seeing the consecutive doors of the prison corridor open, recalls his trip to Mars through the Time-Space Tunnel: Sutekh can only reach Earth via the Tunnel, and that gives the Doctor precious minutes to beat him back to the Priory using the TARDIS and trap the Osirian in the tunnel’s vortex. A handy explosion climaxes the story, destroying the Old Priory and allowing the current UNIT H.Q. to be built on its ruins.
There is much to enjoy in Pyramids of Mars, from the homage to gothic horror to the sterling performances to the tense, edge of your seat, race against time climax. Perhaps best of all is the story’s attempt to remind the audience of the possibilities of time travel and where it can lead us, from one world of options to another. This is only the third time Dr Who has attempted to tackle the theory of alternative universes [the others being Inferno and Day of the Daleks], although it has touched on the idea several times, and once again it has provided a startling story and a series of arresting visuals to demonstrate how one person’s action or inaction can affect the health of the universe.
A near classic:
another one I filed a report on sometime in the last year or two. I think you got the most important bit: this was filmed at Mick Jagger's house!
but I think you missed that The Doctor and Sarah Jane do a specific physical comedy move they copied from a Marx Brothers movie
also, my subjective opinion, the special effects in this story are very psychedelic, no wonder all those 70s rock stars liked to watch this show during breaks in the recording studio.