Yes, I think I even used the word psychedelic in my review...
The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker
THE ANDROID INVASION
Writer Terry Nation made a conscious effort not to pen a story with the Daleks when coming up with The Android Invasion. Sadly, like his other non-Dalek entry The Keys of Marinus, this adventure falls flat, which is a pity as it’s got plenty going for it, initially at least.
The early scenes which encompass episodes one and two do fantastic work in setting out a mystery. The Doctor and Sarah arrive on Earth, but things do not appear to be as normal. What is creating the energy source the Doctor’s instruments detect? Who is the suicidal UNIT soldier? How does he come back to life? Why are the telephones out of action? Why is the village of Devesham and the nearby Space Defence Station deserted? Why is there only new, freshly minted money in the pub till? Why is there a group of protective-suit-wearing soldiers roaming the streets? What has turned the villagers into unfriendly, monosyllabic zombies? Why is Warrant Officer Benton acting strangely? Most concerning of all, where is the Brigadier?
This allows Patrick Newell to step into his shoes. Newell spent a season playing Mother to Patrick MacNee’s Steed in The Avengers, so he’s used to the sniggering dialogue. Curiously, with his neatly trimmed hair and moustache, Newell’s Colonel Faraday seems to actually resemble the Brigadier and not just read his lines. Harry Sullivan returns too, but he does so little the producers needn’t have bothered. John Levene’s swan-song reminds us again of how good he can be when utilised properly; he relishes playing both the formally addressed, warm-hearted Mr Benton, who we learn partners his sister for ballroom dance competitions, as well as his cold, efficient, killing android double. There are a lot of android doubles, a whole village worth as it happens, and the Doctor almost comes a cropper discovering a replica of Sarah – an excellent climax to part 2 as the robot’s face falls away to reveal the inner mechanical and electrical circuits of the machine.
Exactly why so many androids are required to help launch an invasion of Earth when the alien Kraals intend to wipe out humankind with a deadly virus is not made clear. Nor is it explained why the Kraals need to create a facsimile English village on their home planet Oseidon, a world ravaged by radiation. The Kraals seem more than intellectually capable, but like the Chameleons from The Faceless Ones, their master scientist, Styggron, is unable to solve the problem of excess radiation poisoning and instead all his efforts are concentrated on a convoluted invasion plan.
Make-up and creature effects wiz John Friendlander also bowed out from the show. The Kraals are an okay monster, being short and hunchbacked, with a greenish brown skin and an ugly inverted lower lip which makes them appear like upright turtles. They serve a purpose, but are not very memorable. They’ve brainwashed Guy Crayford, pioneering astronaut, into believing they rescued him from near death. Ever in their debt, Crayford is unwittingly aiding the invasion, believing it to have honest peaceful intentions. He’s another of those infamous unsympathetic victims. He acts like a class idiot and Milton Johns plays him with a childish manic air. Martin Friend’s Kraal leader Styggron is typically one-note, a heartless villain.
As the adventure runs its course it gets less and less interesting and what were points of intrigue become plot holes. Chief offence is the revelation Crayford has never removed his eye patch and therefore never realised he has a fully functioning eye underneath it. Batty. The virus harks back to the plans of the Silurians – again – and the androids resemble The Stepford Wives or the Fem Bots from Lindsay Wagner’s The Bionic Woman. For all the initial blank-stare stuff, the androids soon become superfluous. The best of them is actually the Doctor’s own double; Tom Baker relishes the opportunity to play bad. Once Styggron’s one-Kraal advance party is thwarted, you wonder what happened to the invasion fleet – is it still hovering, waiting to emerge from orbit? No one ever mentions it. Maybe they gave up and went home. Ultimately, the action just about ensures an audience remains interested. Former producer Barry Letts manages the entertainment with some robust, physical direction, even if the plot’s gone to the dogs.
[Point of interest: during a chase sequence, the Doctor jumps into a river to shake off the scent of the pursuing bloodhounds, exactly how OO7 evaded the dogs on Crab Key in Dr No.]
Len Newson’s location photography is excellent. So too Philip Lindles’ village sets. He’s less competent with the space centre, the XK5 rocket and the alien designs, all of which are ordinary enough to be of no interest whatsoever. Dudley Simpson’s incidental score is a jazzy little number of much delight. There’s nothing wrong with the cast either, who deliver well on the nonsense they’ve been given. Ultimately, there’s a lot of inconsequential fun to be had as the Doctor and Sarah deal with doubles and Kraals in equal numbers. The problem with The Android Invasion lies in the narrative which hasn’t been effectively thought through. The first half, the much better half, becomes irrelevant to the second and all the good production values in the world can’t save it from a disappointing finale.
And I missed the Brigadier:
3 from 5.
Although I do not like science fiction in any way and will not watch the new Doctor Who for example, but I have watched a few classic Doctor Who shows on TV. The one I saw all episodes of was 'The Demons' (Deamons?) with John Pertwee. I still can't make my mind up if they are good or bad, or so bad they are good!
Joshua, this is my review of The Daemons. I understand your point. I think the show generally features imaginative stories poorly executed, but some have aged for better than others. When the production values match the content, some episodes are very good indeed. https://www.ajb007.co.uk/discussion/comment/1034513#Comment_1034513
THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS
In A Critical History of Doctor Who, John Kenneth Muir dismisses The Brain of Morbius in less than a page, calling it bland, unoriginal and ludicrous. He considers the story’s homage to Frankenstein as being so obvious it doesn’t deserve our attention. This seems peculiar given the high praise he lavished on Pyramids of Mars, specifically that story’s homage to aspects of gothic horror. Methinks he fails to understand the enjoyment an audience can derive from the familiar. It’s the fact that The Brain of Morbius is slightly ludicrous – like Frankenstein – which makes it so enjoyable and lends it an exciting air. When moments of true horror take over, we are jolted from a sloth-like apathy and the shocks have genuine impact, becoming viscerally memorable.
It’s worth noting that the National Viewers and Listeners Association condemned the serial as unsuitable for a tea-time audience, for Morbius certainly branches towards the more adult viewer. That should be applauded. The production team isn’t dumbing down an adventure, making it a palatable experience for all ages and generations, it is challenging the expectations of the audience and extending its viewership far beyond those of school age. It is worth remembering too that this may be younger viewers first encounter with the literary mythology of Frankenstein and his monster, so any associations with Mary Shelley’s novel would be new to them. The serial works as a homage because it understands the elements which made the original successful; it works as an unique adventure because it takes those elements and encases them in the traditional framework of Dr Who science fiction.
The story begins with a moment of sheer gore straight of the Hammer mode. The world is windswept, cratered, a sky lacerated with lightning, thunder howls, a huge insectoid is struggling among the wreckage of a burning space ship. We wonder where we are and what this is. Behind the injured animal creeps a giant man. Suddenly he attacks and we see his left arm has been replaced by an enormous sickle. The arm scythes down, director Christopher Barry pans back to the sky as the insect’s death cries accompany the rolling thunder. As a youngster, this moment both thrilled and terrified me. As the adventure progresses, the producers and director continue to confront us with animalistic turns of violence, adding to the frightful landscape, the frightening narrative and the fearsome, wretched characters who inhabit one small corner of the planet Karn.
The TARDIS, like the insect’s space craft, is mysteriously drawn to Karn where the Doctor discovers the renowned surgeon Solon isolated in a grand dilapidated castle. Here, Solon has preserved the brain of a renegade Time Lord, Morbius. Once leader of Gallifrey’s High Council, Morbius was exiled and executed during a civil war which climaxed on Karn. The powerful Sisterhood, a telekinetic everlasting coven of women as powerful as the Time Lords, assisted in Morbius’ defeat at the cost of the desolation of their planet. To protect the secret of their lifegiving Elixir, they have used their phenomenal mental powers to cause passing space ships to crash land. But their power is diminishing and they have not foreseen that Solon has conserved the biggest threat to their existence on their doorstep. He plans to transplant Morbius’ brain into the Doctor’s skull. Morbius – or more accurately Morbius’ brain – believes the Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords to kill him, and, unnerved, insists Solon instead transfers his brain into a protective casing. When Morbius finally sets his new eyes on the cobbled together monstrous body Solon has constructed for him, he is sent mad and his true malice manifests itself.
Writer Terrance Dixxs never liked the finalised version of his screenplay and requested his name be removed from the credits. He felt Robert Holmes’ script changes over-emphasised the horror elements. He also found the bits-and-pieces monster faintly ridiculous. It does, of course, resemble elements of crass science fiction of the sixties, films like They Saved Hitler’s Brain or The Atomic Brain, films so poor Halliwell’s never even saw fit to review them. Morbius carries the ‘brain in a dome’ storyline with some aplomb. It fits seamlessly into the bizarre bits-and-pieces world of Karn and Solon, where everything appears to be a disjointed tangle.
Terence Dixxs’ assessment also ignores the amusing and knowing performance given by Tom Baker which goes some way to alleviating much of the horrific elements by downplaying them. When called on to be serious, Baker is equally adept. He threads a fine line between drama and pastiche and manages to pull off the trick in spectacular fashion. He is quick with a quip and switches in seconds between playful and intense. He is our barometer of when to be scared, when to be thrilled and when to smile. His questions and actions inform at every stage of the story; even if Baker gives the impression his Doctor is always a step ahead of everyone, we are never lost and not informed, and, importantly, that awareness doesn’t stop him falling into life-threatening situations.
Equally competent is Elisabeth Sladen, who is able to match Baker’s mirth and severity. The scenes where she wanders into Solon’s laboratory – once when nosy, once when temporarily blinded – are particularly powerful and lead to moments of unexpected terror which climax episodes 1 & 3. She’s also cutely sharp: when the Doctor has passed out after drinking Solon’s drugged wine, she’s been smart enough not to drink it and fakes her own coma; later she rescues him from the Sisterhood, for only she, being a woman, can infiltrate their temple; she is also eminently believable playing a sightless Sarah, although one does struggle to believe what she gets up to.
Philip Madoc, returning after The War Games, makes a slightly off-kilter Solon. Occasionally his portrayal lurches towards the pantomime villain, but he commendably holds it in check enough to persuade us Solon is a distracted genius, a fanciful and elegant dinner host given to accidentally mixing his words, abusing his manservant and jumping to conclusions. His actions are blinded less by loyalty to Morbius than his own ego: his surgical achievement in reanimating the monster’s body and the Time Lord’s brain is all which matters to him. Morbius’ dissatisfaction with his appearance is a bitter blow to Solon’s ego from which he cannot recover. Colin Fey’s unfortunate Condo mixes the roles of slow-witted valet, henchman and strongman. He shares many of the characteristics of Baron Frankenstein’s hunchback servant Igor. His own moment of revelation comes as he realises Solon has plundered his body parts for the creature.
As the weak become strong and the even stronger come to life, the adventure tips into a ghastly, highly-strung, flesh creeping finale. Condo meets a gory death, shot by his master, then gouged by Morbius’ enormous claw as he protects Sarah from the marauding monster. Morbius is a fine character, voiced with brittle, grating intensity by Michael Spice and animated by Stuart Fell, a monster regular on Dr Who. We sense his urgency, his frustrations and his vehement lunacy. The humanoid nightmare vision of the creature does recall Frankenstein’s monster, but only in its electrical resurrection and brain-damaged madness. Fell gives the monster a stumbling gait, weighed down to one side by the huge claw, yet still manages to be vigorous and destructive. The brain, encased within a sealed plastic bowl and given protruding eyes, might add a touch of the bizarre, but it gels brilliantly with this ogrish jigsaw puzzle of a creature. Galatea this is not and Solon is no Pygmalion.
Full marks to the director and editor for racking up the pressure and the tension. It really does become a delirious, gruesome melodrama and you can see why Mrs Mary Whitehouse and her N.V.L.A. colleagues considered it too disturbing for younger audiences. However, while the blood content might be high for Dr Who, it certainly isn’t when compared to the most outrageous inventions of cinema’s fright-festivals. Here, the real terror is in the deep knowledge the making of so ugly a being might actually become probable. Eventually, the Doctor engages Morbius in a ‘mind bending’ duel which turns the unstable brain insane and the body into a primal thrashing being. The Sisterhood chase Morbius with flaming torches, like the villagers in Frankenstein, and he falls to his death from the top of a cliff.
[Point of order: the ‘mind bending’ duel is, among Dr Who aficionados, the most controversial element of the story. An ancient gladiatorial Time Lord contest during which antagonists attempt to mentally dismantle each other, this is represented as a telepathic battle of wills. As the two Time Lords fight, the duel apparatus displays pictorial flashes from their past lives. Images of the Third, Second and First Doctors are instantly recognisable, but there are also several other faces which are not familiar. Much controversy has surrounded who these faces are meant to represent. At this moment in Dr Who history, Time Lords had not been allotted a finite number of regenerations – the process had only just been termed a regeneration – and many observers assumed these were other faces of the Doctor. When the thirteen lives cycle was introduced, keen observers therefore attested The Brain of Morbius showed us more than three past lives. In my opinion, this is an exaggeration by fans desperate to overcomplicate the Doctor’s accepted time line. Many years later, the makers of the rebooted Dr Who wrote an episode called The Timeless Child which cleared up the issue – or muddied it, depending on your point of view. This certainly shows the influence of fans on the show’s long-term development, that an issue caused such a long-standing debate the producers felt inclined to resolve it.
[I don’t believe there is an issue here at all. At the start of the ‘mind bending’ battle, Morbius has the upper hand, he’s full of vim and anger. He easily bests the Doctor and his opponent’s three previous incarnations sweep across the apparatus. But Morbius’ brain is already fatally damaged. The Doctor knows this and has gambled on it. As the contest continues, the Doctor gains the upper hand, forcing Morbius to surrender and reveal his previous lives. He loses the battle and his scrambled brain turns him into a feral raging monster. Quite why some fans seek to augment a point of interest which isn’t really there is a source of amusement to me. Unfortunately, for many The Timeless Child has now ‘resolved’ the debate and we are stuck with a solution even more complicated than the original – and so difficult to explain, I won’t bother. It’s also not particularly relevant to a review of Morbius.
[As a side point, the faces seen are members of the production crew, including producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Hinchcliffe has admitted the original intention was indeed to represent incarnations from the Doctor’s past and it was the intellectual and physical effort Morbius took fighting the duel which was meant to have frazzled his brain. This is an unfortunate disclosure as it puts a completely different spin – and an unverifiable visual one – onto what we witness on screen.
[However we interpret the sequence, it is an incident of high suspense and a memorable moment for Dr Who. John Kenneth Muir’s review doesn’t mention the ‘mind bending’ battle at all, which seems a curious oversight.]
The weakest aspect of The Brain of Morbius isn’t the titular villain or his weird amalgamated body, nor is it Solon and his gabbled motivations, it is the Sisterhood of Karn. Terrance **** had used the planet Karn a year earlier in his stage play Dr Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday [see above], but it’s given a completely different make-over here. The Sisterhood are very unimpressive for such a super powerful sect, whose mental abilities include teleportation and misdirection of space craft. They are sustained for eternity by a mysterious Elixir provided by an underwhelming Flame of Eternity, but quite what this substance is nobody explains. The Doctor calls it “nectar,” the food of the gods, which in Greek mythology offers eternal life. The influence of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She is obvious to those familiar with it or the 1965 movie adaptation. As always when Dr Who has attempted to portray the paranormal, the results are not good. A few neat tricks can’t instil any sense of superiority in this group of ladies who live in a grotty cave system and parade around adorned in flimsy garments unsuitable for Karn’s hostile wintery atmosphere, decorate themselves with Cleopatra style makeup, permanently cross their arms, speak in rich affected sentences or monotonic chants and dance like Pan’s People. They serve an important purpose to the narrative, but are not developed anywhere near as shrewdly as they ought to be. While Cynthia Grenville’s Maren has some gravitas, the performance of Gilly Brown as her successor Ohica is so wooden she might be timber.
Luckily, an audience can gloss over these disappointments and talking points and revel in an adventure which is thoroughly well made, with outstanding dark visuals, strong direction, shadowy photography and some superb leading performances. The Brain of Morbius is rip-roaring, horrifying entertainment and all the best for it:
4 from 5.
epic review of Brain of Morbius @chrisno1 this is one I remember unusually clear, so maybe I've seen it more than once?
I specifically remember Sarah Jane staggering round blind, quite convincing and disturbing, as well of course as all those mysterious faces seen before Hartnell's in the mind duel sequence, and the general Frankenstein's lab imagery.
I'll just quote this one paragraph, because you review is so lengthy and this is as you say topic of perpetual debate
Point of order: the ‘mind bending’ duel is, among Dr Who aficionados, the most controversial element of the story. An ancient gladiatorial Time Lord contest during which antagonists attempt to mentally dismantle each other, this is represented as a telepathic battle of wills. As the two Time Lords fight, the duel apparatus displays pictorial flashes from their past lives. Images of the Third, Second and First Doctors are instantly recognisable, but there are also several other faces which are not familiar. Much controversy has surrounded who these faces are meant to represent. At this moment in Dr Who history, Time Lords had not been allotted a finite number of regenerations – the process had only just been termed a regeneration – and many observers assumed these were other faces of the Doctor. When the thirteen lives cycle was introduced, keen observers therefore attested The Brain of Morbius showed us more than three past lives. In my opinion, this is an exaggeration by fans desperate to overcomplicate the Doctor’s accepted time line. Many years later, the makers of the rebooted Dr Who wrote an episode called The Timeless Child which cleared up the issue – or muddied it, depending on your point of view. This certainly shows the influence of fans on the show’s long-term development, that an issue caused such a long-standing debate the producers felt inclined to resolve it.
The twelve regenerations rule is not invented so fars I know til the Deadly Assassin. As youve been showing us, a lot f this TimeLord/ Gallifrey mythos has only been introduced in the most recent seasons, bit by bit, after six years of the Doctor only ever referring to "my people". And I suspect its already starting to contradict by this point. The Twelve Regenerations rule is one newly introduced element that did stick over the long run, and became more important as Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth actor (so is he the Twelfth regeneration or do we count from the Hartnell-to-Troughton regeneration?). Anyway a this point the idea Hartnell was not the first was new, did not yet contradict anything previously established, and is interesting to speculate about.
As I recall during the McCoy era theyd be changing the Doctor's origins again, making him more important to the longterm history of the universe, and I seem to recall Colin Bakers era was introducing future regenerations that don't seem to have happened "yet"
I havent seen the Timeless Child yet, this Jodi Whittaker episode that "changes everything". I remember the usual round of "I'm never watching the show again" once that episode came out, but it was from the same people who'd been complaining about a woman Doctor all along. The backstory had been retconned again and again since the Unearthly Child contradicted The Pilot, so why shouldnt they add a new twist now? and looking at summaries of the Timeless Child it almost sounds as if they were trying to somehow reconcile the unused "Findooclare" origin for Susan.
anyway we sure dont want to digress to arguments about the Whittaker Doctor, there's already a thread for that. Go argue about Whitaker there. This thread is for Chris's reviews and any discussion he wishes to allow. But this idea of whether the creators are ever allowed to retcon the Origin is raised by the Brain of Morbius, and I wonder how many other examples there are and how theyve been received by fandom? particularly in the classic 20th century series, rather than the revived 21st century show.
have watched a few classic Doctor Who shows on TV. The one I saw all episodes of was 'The Demons' (Deamons?) with John Pertwee. I still can't make my mind up if they are good or bad, or so bad they are good!
@Joshua maybe you mean the writing and acting. but if you mean the visual effects, I like the extreme low budget quality! what is frequently mocked as "wobbly sets". some may call that "so bad its good", I call it creative use of practical special effects. I am more impressed with the artists's ability to draw us into a fictional world using limited means than I am all the modern CGI we now take for granted, I think they have to be more creative to make it work and therefor deserve our recognition, not judge them by contemporary standards.
The original Star Trek has a similar quality but not so extreme. They probably had slightly larger budget and made good creative use of the colour television palette so it looks better. but its fascinating to watch how simple those effects were yet how persuasively Shatner et al made us believe that fictional world.
that said when I first tried to watch Doctor Who in the late 70s, the "wobbly sets" did put me off. Theres episodes chris has not got to yet that feature K9 the robot dog, quite possibly the least convincing special effect ever! Lucas had already already given us Artoo Detoo, so I could not suspend disbelief and accept K9 the robot dog at all...
THE SEEDS OF DOOM
The Avengers episode The Man Eater of Surrey Green features Steed and Mrs Peel trapped in a mansion occupied by well-intentioned botanists who are under siege from a malicious carnivorous alien lifeform: a vicious, fast-growing outer space seed plant. It’s an early Diana Rigg outing, tense, filmed in black and white and is one of that series’ most obviously science fiction based stories. Writer Robert Banks Stewart borrowed heavily from Philip Levene’s 1965 fifty-minute thrill ride and created The Seeds of Doom, a sprawling six-part epic for the Fourth Doctor. Borrow perhaps is too kind a word. Steal might be more accurate. Levene’s and Banks Stewart’s version’s both bear resemblance to the film adaptation of John Wyndam’s Day of the Triffids, where two human survivors are sheltering in a lighthouse attacked by the titular alien plants. Triffids too descended from the skies as seed pods. Banks Stewart also tags on a prologue at an Antarctic research centre which runs along similar lines to Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and therefore imitates portions of Dr Who’s own The Ice Warriors. In fact, the opening snow-lashed and crevasse filled landscapes, the howling wind, the desolation of the ice pack, and the two scientists digging at the permafrost conjures immediate memories of the introductory shots of the Artic wastes from that Fifth Season chiller.
I mention these points not because they detract from the success The Seeds of Doom, only that it betrays the format Philip Hinchcliffe was so cleverly orchestrating during his term as producer: take a source novel and / or film and / or legend and bring it crashing into the modern day, toned down for a family audience, but with enough horror and thrills to be instantly recognisable as the former incarnation. John Kenneth Muir is an astute commentator, but in his review for A Critical History of Doctor Who, he completely overlooks this chapter’s close parallels to The Avengers. What he does get right is the fantastic performances from the able cast and the atmosphere of growing tension which Douglas Camfield creates for his swansong as a Dr Who director. To say this adventure sustains its narrative drive with crackling action throughout, while still adding a degree of personal insight is no understatement. That it is has some defects is also very obvious.
The episode kicks off with that South Polar mystery. Two seed pods are uncovered in the Antarctic by three scientists. Under observation, one of the pods starts to defrost and begins to germinate, infecting Charles Winslet, whose skin turns a nasty shade of green, peppered by ugly crocodile-like pores. The Doctor, called in by UNIT to work for the World Ecology Bureau, knows immediately the threat the world is facing. These are Krynoid pods, space hopping seeds which came to Earth 20,000 years ago, and once released the carnivorous plant will grow, devour, self-germinate and eventually overrun the planet, leaving only plant life in existence. It’s disappointing the Doctor understands the danger from the outset as this removes the element of mystery which so often successfully pervades the show. [We learn he’s President of the Galactic Flora Society. This might be a Time Lord organisation, it might not. It conveniently explains his breadth of knowledge here, but doesn’t make sense when he’s been mystified studying other plant life in the show.] However, skipping the mystery and investigation of the Krynoid does allow the writer and director to concentrate on the incidents in and the characters of the story instead of weaving a notional cat’s cradle plot.
Poor Charles Winslet is completely subsumed by the Krynoid. It even changes his metabolism. Overhearing a plan to try and amputate his arm in the hope it will kill off the infection’s source, Winslet / the Krynoid goes berserk, kills a colleague and stumbles into the blizzard. Meanwhile two strangers arrive by private plane. Scorby and Keller are out to steal the remaining pod and present it to their rich benefactor Harrison Chase. To cover their tracks Scorby decides to blow up the research centre, killing the rampaging Krynoid, the scientists, the Doctor and Sarah. He doesn’t succeed, of course, and the Doctor returns to London intent on pursuit. These earliest scenes are claustrophobic and intensely well presented, with sweaty, anxious people in an inhospitable environment battling the unknown. It’s so good the production team could easily have based a whole four-part adventure at the Antarctic.
The performances of the three actors playing the scientists are uniformly excellent, we sympathise with their thirst for knowledge; we empathise with the fright and panic they experience as Winslet becomes more horrifically alien. Scorby, a mercenary turned hired henchman, is brilliantly realised by John Challis, an actor well-known as Boycie, second hand car dealer and comic foil to David Jason in Only Fools and Horses. To see him playing serious, lending his ruthless character depth and emotional insight, is something of a revelation. No fake laughter and cigars here. Challis is all mean, rugged, filthy action. Wed to money, he will do his chief’s bidding however murderous it turns out to be. As the adventure progresses Scorby comes to side with the Doctor in quite possibly the most uneasy alliance ever witnessed in Dr Who. Sarah Jane Smith doesn’t baulk from his constant verbal and physical assaults and Challis doesn’t give Elisabeth Sladen an easy ride. During episode five, as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Tom Baker shares a fantastic slanging match with him, convincing the blinkered ex-soldier that his way is the only way. Challis is superb as we watch his allegiances change, yet still he retains an air of military and psychotic menace. Unable to comprehend the full might of the Krynoid, he eventually makes a foolhardy run for it, but this death is fully in keeping with his nature of confronting an enemy, a problem, head on. Scorby certainly isn’t a hero, but he is a misguided villain. Challis’ performance is probably one of the best supporting turns ever given in Dr Who. It’s surprising then, that he’s out performed by Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase.
By episode three the adventure has moved to the leafy climes of Athelhampton House in Dorset, the setting for Harrison Chase’s mansion. Chase is a world renowned botanist whose house and gardens are filled with exotic and unusual plants. He talks to them, feeds them luxurious compost and plays a strange, pining, tinny music to assist them to grow. He claims it is ‘plant song’ [my phrase]; the Doctor just thinks it’s terrible. Beckley is magnificent as Chase. He wears black leather gloves through the whole story, reminding us Bond fans of Joseph Wiseman in Dr No. He has some of that villain’s slithery, unruffled and faceless charm. He barely smiles, barely creases his brow. He’s as ruthless as any megalomaniac and bestrides every scene he’s in. Like all the very best villains, Chase dominates conversations, using both his wisdom and wordy wiles to ensure he achieves his desires. It is unusual for a crackpot not to want power for himself, but to help deliver it to the Krynoid and thus deliver Earth to the plant kingdom. His infatuation with flora is genuinely scary. Even when discussing beautiful blooms with dotty artist Amelia Ducat – a nice turn by Sylvia Coleridge – you sense there is always something more sinister behind his polite patter. When he is finally in the thrall of the Krynoid, Chase sits cross-legged in his glass house, meditating, communicating, his hands making curious wispy movements like the creeper and ivy which swirls around him. Chase meets a fitting end, fed through his own composter machine. This pre-tells Dario’s demise in Licence to Kill. Even though we don’t see any blood, it is a tremendously horrific exit for a children’s TV show, accompanied by an ear-splitting howl of agony. Earlier on the Doctor, then Sarah, both narrowly avoid a similar fate. This repetition, like the many foot races, is a tad disappointing for such a robust tale.
Meanwhile, Chase’s botanist assistant Keeler has become the second unfortunate to contract Krynoid fever. Like Winslet, he turns a luxuriant shade of scaly green, augmented by some wavy feelers and suckers. The monster suit is a painted left-over from The Claws of Axos. It’s very effective and quite disgusting. No wonder the butler, Hargreaves, recoils in fright as Keeler attempts to break his bonds. Mark Jones is very good, both as the nervy, conscience stricken scientist and as the infected, ferocious, Krynoid. It’s unusual for a transformation to be so intense. The first sight of the Krynoid, a single vibrating tendon swaying from its pod which launches itself at a man’s arm, is genuinely startling and brings to mind the sudden appearance of the alien in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
The monster isn’t as successful once it stops being humanoid. At one point it speaks and this seems to subtract from the immediate menace. There was a similar issue towards the end of Fury from the Deep, when the Seaweed Creature began to speak through Chief Engineer Robson. Having an alien lifeform unable to communicate with our heroes adds immeasurably to the suspense. Because the characters, and by extension the audience, don’t know the alien’s plans every decision, every movement, becomes fraught with danger. When the Krynoid – essentially Keeler – talks in The Seeds of Doom it allows the Doctor to plot his escape and relieves too much of the well-built tension. The moment feels out of place too, for the previous infected human / Krynoid didn’t utter a word. Sadly, the effects team and costumers can’t fathom how to make the mountainous monster realistic and settle on a tent with tentacles to impersonate a being the size of Godzilla. Dr Who’s CSO effects are always risible. Sometimes it seems not to matter, but here they detract badly from the point of peril. It doesn’t help too that while the story is dramatic and edgy and the characters are engaging, we can’t help wondering why it takes so long for anyone to suggest blowing the Krynoid to smithereens. It worked in the Antarctic. The statement by UNIT’s Major Beresford that he can’t damage personal civilian property just sounds daft coming from a military man. They end up blowing the monster and the mansion to pieces anyway. A satisfying climax, but a throw-back to Jon Pertwee’s era.
The Seeds of Doom marks the final regular appearance of UNIT in a Dr Who adventure. Sadly, as in The Android Invasion, we have no Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. We also now have no Warrant Officer Benton or Harry Sullivan. Not even Colonel Faraday, which might have been fun. Instead Major Beresford, who the Doctor appears to know, makes all the decisions alongside a government functionary, Sir Colin Thackery. I have nothing to say about the decision not to include the familiar crew except that, for whatever the reason, it is supremely disappointing. You sense whole scenes have been altered and characters created simply to write them out. UNIT, the Brig and Co. could have had a glorious send off, once again saving the world from impending destruction, instead the organisation exits with a whimper. Their laser doesn’t work, their leaders seem inept and they rely on the RAF to destroy everything. It would have been far better to have the Doctor discover some Krynoid-killing bacteria to save the hour.
[There was a comic strip entry which ran for ten weeks in T.V. Comic called The Death Flower which enacted this exact scenario, including a giant mutating plant. It premiered in 1975 and predates The Seeds of Doom by a year. Yet another inspiration for Robert Banks Stewart, no doubt.]
There is some governmental skulduggery and a few cute scenes of amateur espionage which lighten the tone and resolve themselves neatly, but you yearn for Nicholas Courtney and John Levene to be occupying the roles taken by Michael Barrington and John Acheson. Kenneth Gilbert makes a decent stab at a duplicitous civil servant. Because of the stereotypical nature of the playing, we don’t warm to the new UNIT or the subsidiary characters. They distract from the main thrust of the adventure, which should be all about the Krynoid. Somehow, I don’t feel the usual roster of part-time companions would have this addling effect.
The production values are mostly a hit. While the sets and costumes are first rate, including some good model work for the snowy research centre, and the photography fine, those special effects are criminal. Dick Mills isn’t doing anything we haven’t heard before in the sound booth, so there’s a familiar creeping texture to the FX soundtrack. You can’t fault Douglas Camfield’s direction, although he can’t do much about the endless pursuits which become repetitive. [How many times can the Doctor and Sarah evade the estate’s armed guards when they’ve never visited the place before? These men really are incompetent. No wonder Harrison Chase considers he’s surrounded by idiots.] The adventure’s at its very best when the increasingly frantic survivors – either at the Antarctic or Chase’s estate – attempt to thwart the Krynoid and the overtaking foliage, holed up in small, savage little wing-dings unaware of what is outside or how to combat it.
Ultimately, although The Seeds of Doom is an exciting outing for Tom Baker’s incarnation, it doesn’t quite match the very best of Dr Who because, while it succeeds as an adventure, it isn’t offering the audience anything very unique. It’s probably the emphatic playing of the major cast members which ensures it stays long in the memory. And, yes, I still miss the Brigadier. An almost classic:
4 from 5.
It was the whole thing! I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a comedy at first! I did watch the first episode of 'Genisis of the Daleks' that was with Tom Baker (?) but I found it was so poor that I didn't bother to watch the others.
The standard maintained over the course of Season 13 is remarkable. It stands comparison for consistency with Seasons 7 and 10, although for me the lack of a five-star classic makes it more akin to Patrick Troughton’s Season 5. The highest accolade I can deliver is that across each of the stories the production has never wavered in its attempt to present adult themes and dramas to a potentially child-aged audience. Dr Who has long passed the stage where it is attempting to be educational. These adventures are designed with excitement in mind, while still being thought provoking, both in science fantasy and human interaction.
Aiding this are the players. The performances in almost every serial are first class, drawing the audience into the lives, honours, conspiracies and misfortunes of the cast. We have a range of splendid villains for the Doctor to contend with: Broton, Sutekh and Professor Scarman, Solon and Morbius, Harrison Chase and Scorby. If the supporting roles sometimes lack class, that can’t be said of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, who are uniformly excellent.
The production designs are not scrimped on, perhaps only The Android Invasion drops below standard. The detail contained in the costuming and make up is first class. Perhaps the SFX could have done with a fine tune – how often will we have to suffer badly engineered colour separation overlay behemoths marauding across our screens? I can forgive that, most of the time, because the remainder of each story tends towards more human concerns. Despite the presence of monsters, it is the conflict between men, or men and aliens, and not always on a violent level, which comes across most strongly. Tom Baker is fully into his persona now: thoughtful, given to humorous asides, mumbling to himself, grand speeches, a touch of angry impatient irritation, sudden bursts of frantic action, a forgiving, winning grin. He feels very alien: his knowledge is phenomenal, his demeanour slightly detached, almost inhuman. Unlike his previous incarnations, this Doctor tackles his evil enemies head-on; gone is the wavering over the greater good; only in Planet of Evil did he take a more nuanced view of the universe. Currently, this is the most black and white version of the Doctor we’ve met.
Lastly, Philip Hinchcliffe as producer needs to be congratulated on his choice of storylines, allowing the series to cater for an older audience by including elements of gothic horror and traditional science fiction, as well as boosting the amount of vicious action. It might have got him into trouble with critics, but it helped move Dr Who away from its image as a cosy kids fantasy show and into something far more stringent. It’s fair to say Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor laid the foundations for this kind of material, but it is Tom Baker with Hinchcliffe’s orchestration who begins to play with much more solidly adult themes.
A stirring thumbs up.
I’ve just finished Revenge Of The Cybermen which you reviewed on post #173 - I thought it was pretty good - as these are being viewed by myself as first viewings I am consciously ignoring the weak effects and concentrating more on the story. William Marlowe was in this one , who is also in another series I’m currently watching called The Gentle Touch. Tom Baker is not as good as the preceding three doctors but his portrayal is still interesting.
THE PESCATONS (1976)
During July 1976, one of Britain’s hottest summers, and dropping between Dr Who Seasons 13 & 14, Argo records released Dr Who and the Pescatons, an audio story narrated by Tom Baker and featuring Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah. It was a two episode affair, one side of a 12” vinyl record for each chapter, produced by Don Norman and featuring decent audio effects and a reasonable plot which bears a passing resemblance to writer Victor Pemberton’s earlier Fury from the Deep.
The TARDIS lands on a deserted beach on the east coast of England, near the Thames estuary. Strange things are afoot, confirmed by Professor Emerson. The Doctor uncovers a hidden underwater space ship, which contained an advance party of Pescatons, a shark-like alien species who plan to invade Earth. Their planet, Pesca, is rich in salt water habitats, but is orbiting closer and closer to its sun, which is evaporating the water sources. The Doctor recalls an earlier visit he made to the planet and its evil ruler Zor. To stop the invasion, the Doctor lures Zor into a watery, underground, high frequency sound trap, where the sound of his piccolo playing turns the monster to dust. Pesca explodes on collision with its sun.
The story is slight, quite well narrated by Baker, and doesn’t embarrass anyone. It could fit between any of the Fourth Doctor / Sarah adventures without disturbing the timeline. It was certainly an unusual move to put Dr Who on record. I don’t know the original cost of this LP, but I remember in my local Woolworth’s during the 70s, you could pick up kid’s vinyl albums for as little as 50p to a £1. I expect this pressing was part of Argo’s children’s literature series which started out showcasing the Rev. W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine tales, as narrated by Johnny Morris.
I watched some animated adaptations on You Tube. You can look them up if you want. If you just want to listen to the audio, here’s a link on the internet archive:
Doctor Who and the Pescatons : Donald Phillips : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
cool! here's the Discogs listing for the Doctor Who And The Pescatons LP
and the artwork!
I'm gonna start looking for this one!
EXPLORATION EARTH: THE TIME MACHINE (1976)
Hot on the heels of Argo’s audio attempt was BBC Radio’s single episode story The Time Machine, which featured as an episode of the educational program Exploration Earth. This also featured Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen reprising their roles and premiered in October 1976, shortly after the start of Season 15.
It’s written by Bernard Venables and features rather decent sound effects from the radiophonic workshop. The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Sarah back to the dawn of Earth’s time. The episode follows the geological history of the Earth. Megron, the High Lord of Chaos and Chief of the Carions tries to interfere with natural developments. The Doctor mocks him and, as they progress along the timeline, the Megron keeps up his pursuit.
The short story provides the sort of educational insight Sidney Newman probably expected it to when the show premiered in 1963. It’s more of a curio than any sort of worthwhile adventure. Once again, Tom Baker’s narration is quite good. He really does have a way with sentences which demands attention.
Doctor Who: Exploration Earth: The Time Machine : BBC Radio Four : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA
The opening story of the Fourteenth Season is possibly the most sumptuously realised of any Dr Who serial. Louis Marks’ screenplay is set in Renaissance Italy, the late 1500s, the small imaginary principality of San Martino. To create this historical period, designer Barry Newbury has furnished some superb castle interiors, including an alchemist’s laboratory littered with experiments, devices and scriptures, a splendidly ornate duke’s ballroom and a series of roaming, cobwebby catacombs; James Acheson has borrowed colourful costumes from the 1954 film version of Romeo and Juliet; Dudley Simpson creates an impressive 16th Century sounding music score; the production team decamped to Portmeiron for the exteriors and the Welsh Italian village folly made famous by Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner works its televisual magic again – we really believe we’re in northern Italy; cameraman John Baker captures it all with a keen eye for detail and space. Under the close eye of director Rodney Bennett, The Masque of Mandragora is highly enjoyable and hardly puts a foot wrong, until you get to the science.
It’s fair to say that the cleverest thing about the serial is how the alien threat barely features. After a winsome introduction which resembles the opening salvo of The Mind Robber – the Doctor and Sarah in a space-bound nothingness surrounded by DNA spirals of pulsing energy – the Mandragora Helix is always hiding in the background, nothing more than a red halo of energy. Unable to take form or speak, it requires a human body to communicate. The court astronomer and closet heretic Hieronymus becomes the alien’s mouthpiece, but that too is delicately done. A cliff-hanger ending which reveals Hieronymus’ energy-consumed body as a brilliant white light is excellently realised, but isn’t the most frightening of moments.
While the Doctor insists the Mandragora Helix is a palpable threat to the planet, it really doesn’t seem like it. This cosmic energy force hitch-hikes a ride in the TARDIS and randomly decides to take over Earth. Mandragora’s lucky it has willing disciples in the shape of the Brotherhood of Demnos, a centuries old Roman cult. These black robed pagans operate on a monastic level and are feared by the local gentry, who are a superstitious lot, given to trusting in astrology and the supernatural. The young prince, Giuliano, has just inherited the kingdom after his father’s untimely and suspicious death. Chief suspect is his hothead uncle, Count Federico, who schemes with Hieronymus to overthrow the ruling dynasty. Louis Marks writes this intrigue as a mild variation on Hamlet. The young prince has a best friend, Marco, and a devilish uncle and he is a thinker, a man consumed with the natures of life and death, religion and sorcery. Here though, the story’s ghost is not his father but the Helix, and it exerts more skill than mere fortune-telling, being able to kidnap the TARDIS from outer space, kill by energy touch and take over human consciousness. The Doctor recognises its powers immediately, which rather detracts from the tension. He also realises he’s inadvertently brought the Helix to Earth, although he’s too busy to feel guilty about it. The summary explanation about the alien’s intent to return Renaissance man to the stone age doesn’t really cut it, and neither does the Doctor’s DIY chicken-wire solution, nor his miraculous victory over the odds, but we’ve all been having too much fun to care. Latterly, the adventure morphs into a mild version of Roger Corman’s classic medieval psychological horror The Masque of the Red Death, with the besieged occupants of the prince’s castle deciding to hold a masked ball while the end of the world occurs beyond its barred and soldiered walls. Sarah gets to dress in fancy garb and dance a galliard. Who knew she was so adept?
There are great performances from the support cast. Norman Jones is particularly effective as Hieronymus, his deep tones and mad staring eyes complementing the most spectacular beard we’ve ever seen on the show. Jon Laurimore’s Federico is a fine secondary villain and the two young bucks Giuliano and Marco are perfectly fleshed by Gareth Armstrong and Tim Piggott-Smith. Everyone, even the lesser roles, give the production a Shakespearian edge which aids believability, although the Cockney soldier recalls Anne Chaplet’s misplaced West Country accent in The Massacre.
The adventure also demonstrates the main players’ abilities with off-hand humour. They swap banter as easily as Morecombe and Wise. The opening scenes as the Doctor and Sarah explore the enormous maze-like TARDIS interior, flipping one-liners at each other are particularly refined. The teak panelled second control room was an excellent creation, sunk in the floor with a more compact central console and a bigger display screen. It was a nice touch to feature William Hartnell’s armchair, Patrick Troughton’s flute and Jon Pertwee’s smoking jacket and frilly shirt; Tom Baker treats them like bad memories, which hints at an innate superiority complex for the Fourth Doctor. The cantankerous old First Doctor wouldn’t stand for that!
[Point of TARDIS interest 1: this serial features a new police-box exterior as well as a new interior; the old one was well worn by 1976 and the new model looks distinctly pristine.
[Point of TARDIS interest 2: the Doctor explains to Sarah that she can understand alien languages because it is a gift given by the Time Lords; one assumes through the TARDIS, although he doesn’t actually state this.]
There’s a lot of very fine detail in The Masque of Mandragora, but most of that is in the historical aspects of the story. It’s an unexpectedly joyful treat, unless you concentrate on the sci-fi stuff. So, don’t:
The Fourth Doctor - Tome Baker
THE HAND OF FEAR
Somewhere in deep space a termination module is spiralling through the galaxies. On the wintery, windswept desolate planet Kastria, power is fading fast and the authorities decide to detonate the module early even though there is a miniscule chance the traitor Eldrad will survive the explosion. 150 million years later, the TARDIS lands in a quarry – an actual quarry! – and the Doctor and Sarah are buried in a rock fall. When rescued, Sarah is discovered to be clasping a calcified dismembered hand. Dr Carter can’t understand the physiology of the silicon based fossil, which appears to be regenerating, using the radiation from the x-ray machine. Meanwhile Sarah is acting very strange. Repeating the mantra ‘Eldrad must live,’ she steals the hand, using its bejewelled energy ring to blast Carter into unconsciousness. She infiltrates the Nunton Experimental Complex and breaks into the outer nuclear fission reactor, where the hand begins to vibrate, absorbing more lifegiving radiation. Its fingers start to move…
So unfolds the magnificent opening episode of The Hand of Fear, one of the best and most intriguing of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, a three season period when the producer, along with his script editor Robert Holmes, seemed to almost do no wrong. The story which follows is a tense affair that revisits some of those Pertwee era cyclotron meltdowns [The Silurians, Inferno, The Claws of Axos] only here the action is enhanced by featuring location footage inside Oldbury, a real nuclear power station. Obviously the control centres and fission rooms are studio sets, but Christine Ruscoe’s designs feel very genuine and do much to enhance the contemporary feel of the Earth-bound scenes. So too does Lennie Mayne’s direction, which is packed full of long shots to fill the screen with scope and action, then as tension mounts, he uses discreet closeups to remind us of the human drama. There’s a particularly good zoom on Tom Baker’s features as he realises the inert hand is only dormant. A mention must be given also to the subdued special effects and the lowkey music, which both add to the flavour by being so underplayed.
Dave Martin and Bob Baker’s script is excellent and is well interpreted by the cast. Tom Baker delivers a much more controlled performance. There are some quite special scenes for the Fourth Doctor: how he studies the nuclear plant’s blueprints, silent during surrounding chaos; the detective-like interest he develops in the fossilised hand; his careful, deliberate, empathetic handling of the villain; the cheerful by-play with Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth Sladen offers her finest turn as Sarah. Not only is she fun and witty, resourceful and headstrong as a companion, but she also has to portray the possessed Sarah. With her blank expression, monotone voice, upright stance, she looks equally commanding and fearful. Rex Robinson gives sterling support as Dr Carter. Glyn Houston is Prof Watson, the put-upon director of the Nunton Centre, displays much humanity. Aware the reactor is reaching critical condition, he phones home to speak to his family one last time. This is a rare moment of personal emotional interest and is a worthy inclusion in the story. It is not often characters are given lives outside of the adventure. It happened a few times during the UNIT era, we saw some personal relationships develop in The Wheel in Space and Marco Polo was at pains to stress the backgrounds, hopes and fears of the caravaners, but generally this kind of intimate detail is missing in Dr Who. It is a welcome addition here, adding to the drama of potential nuclear meltdown.
Perhaps the most remarkable performance comes from Judith Parris, who impersonates Eldrad. Given a sleek dark blue-grey bodysuit festooned with shining crystalline rocks, her costume resembles exactly the silicon based lifeform she’s meant to be. Even her hair is a swirl of glimmering dark stones. Complementing Barbara Lane’s effective costume, Parris imbibes Eldrad with similar mannerisms to Sarah Jane Smith, having copied the basic shape of the first being it came into contact with. One can only assume this is an attempt to normalise its appearance. This is a good innovation by the production team, who reject the obvious idea of a rocklike being a la the Horta in Star Trek’s The Devil in the Dark. Eldrad’s voice is given a slight echo, which adds both an alien quality and a touch of sovereign authority.
This female Eldrad looks phenomenal and is acted with aplomb. It is rare for a villain to be so sympathetic. Although Sarah has her doubts, Eldrad convinces the Doctor to return to her home planet, where she can help the Kastrians rebuild their civilisation. Again, one must thank Tom Baker for his sterling interpretation of the Doctor, how at this melodramatic crossroads, he ceases to be playful, lowers his eyes, the tone of his voice, as Eldrad persuades him; yet he retains his own counsel and rebuilds the audience’s confidence during scenes in the TARDIS where he is able to take back a semblance of control. Throughout these scenes the interaction between Baker, Parris and Sladen is marvellous and turns the third episode into a classic three-hander. At this point, the only downside to the story has been the rather naff cliff hangers for episodes two and three, very disappointing work after the fantastic ending to episode one.
Sadly, everything unravels in the final part. Eldrad is mortally wounded with an acid spike and the Doctor and Sarah take her to a regeneration chamber where she seems to be crushed to death, only to reappear as a monstrous bellowing Benjamin Grimm type, impersonated by Stephen Thorne, whose vocal mannerisms remind one of Brian Blessed. It doesn’t help the dialogue tics resemble those of Omega, the villain Thorne voiced in The Three Doctors. Not only is this ‘male’ Eldrad a blustering, cumbersome, megalomaniacal loon, who looks much more like the rock based lifeform we might have first expected, but because of it, he’s lost all the audience sympathy. As Sarah says: “I liked her, but I can’t stand him.” When Eldrad trips over the Doctor’s scarf and tumbles to his doom, we can only laugh at the pantomime demise of a pantomime villain.
To be honest, the climax of the adventure is only a preamble to the exit of Sarah Jane Smith. It wouldn’t really matter how it ended as the moment the audience will always recall is Elisabeth Sladen’s farewell. Sarah developed from a ballsy, superior, feminist journalist into a chirpy, inquisitive, strongminded companion; her relationship with the Fourth Doctor in particular has shone, both players being able to convey the respect, concern and, yes, love they feel for each other. It’s not all been mellow for Miss Smith. She’s been put through the emotional ringer an awful lot by both Doctors Three and Four, who constantly pretend to be dead, and shared moments of high danger facing all four of the classic monsters [Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sontarans] as well as a host of lesser baddies. She’s tackled the internal bickering of the UNIT team, seen a regeneration, been kidnapped, captured, interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, sacrificed [almost], executed [almost], chased, mesmerised, possessed, blinded and sported an array of startlingly tasteless seventies fashions, including this adventure’s Andy Pandy outfit. It’s no wonder she’s finally had enough:
“I must be mad. I’m sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left, right and centre. I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been. I want a bath, I want my hair washed, I just want to feel human again... and, boy, am I sick of that sonic screwdriver. I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home.”
The Doctor as usual isn’t listening. While she goes to grab her bags, he receives a telepathic message from the Time Lords ordering his return to Gallifrey. He insists on taking Sarah home to South Croydon, Hillview Road. This moment is particularly poignant. The Doctor doesn’t want her to leave; Sarah doesn’t really want to go. Neither of them can say it. It’s as if two lovers are parting mid-love affair, their lives taking them in different directions. They will always have their adventures, but their lives must go on without each other:
“Don’t forget me, Doctor.”
“Oh, Sarah, don’t you forget me.”
Pity about Stephen Thorne’s shouty Eldrad:
THE DEADLY ASSASSIN
The Deadly Assassin is an important chapter in the history of Dr Who and particularly in regards to the Doctor’s race, the Time Lords.
The most obvious difference between this adventure and any other Dr Who serial of the Classic era is it doesn’t feature a companion. It was written at the specific request of Tom Baker, who believed he could carry a story all on his own. He’s right; he can. However, the Doctor still ends up with surrogate companions, who ask questions and receive the explanatory answers, so this unique adventure became a one-off; the companion[s] would return in the next adventure and remain until the show ended twelve seasons later.
Putting the lack of companion aside, The Deadly Assassin also introduces us to an almost fully rounded Gallifrey and its inhabitants the Time Lords. While I can only applaud Robert Holmes for his efforts in developing the concept of the Time Lords, I think it’s fair to say he took some liberties with what we’ve already learned about them from past adventures, most notably The Three Doctors and The War Games. He’s also not provided a water-tight history, so as the show continued further adventures would elaborate on, and sometime contradict, the history and information he gave us here. I’m not averse to a show developing organically, but it always leads to something of a muddle.
The innovations Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe introduced are numerous. I managed to note down a few here, but there are more:
1. The Capitol, the Time Lords’ main complex on Gallifrey, although it isn’t made clear if this is used purely for administrative purposes or includes living quarters. The TARDIS lands outside the Capitol and armed guards are dispatched to investigate it, suggesting there is a much larger city / cities / civilisation beyond the confines of the Capitol.
2. The Panopticon, a Time Lord ceremonial hall.
3. The President, an elected head of the Time Lord community.
4. The Chancellor, the senior administrator.
5. The Castellan, the head of Capitol security.
6. The Cardinals sit on the Time Lord Council.
7. The Time Lord Council, the chief administrative and law creating body.
8. The Chancellery Guard.
9. The Amplified Panotropic Computer Net, an electronic storage program which contains the Time Lord biometric files, histories and memories from all time[s] in a framework of trillions of electrochemical cells. I assume this works rather like modern ‘cloud storage.’ The Doctor considers the A.P.C. Net to be an elementary computer system, which suggests the Time Lords are not as advanced technically as they are extra-sensorially.
10. The Matrix, an extradimensional virtual reality contained inside the A.P.C. Net., accessible to Time Lords. It isn’t entirely clear what purpose the Matrix could serve other than to allow a user to witness past [and future?] events, similar in a the manner of Harry Potter’s Pensieve bowl. In this story, the Doctor’s allies are reluctant to let him access the Matrix.
[Point of Time Lord order 1: Both notes 9 and 10 are particularly interesting as they prefigure the ideas of virtual reality, which William Gibson espoused in the early 1980s, and of course The Matrix movie series, which started in 1999. Cloud storage itself didn’t begin until 2006.]
11. Artron energy is mentioned. Apparently the Doctor has unusually high levels of artron energy, but we aren’t told exactly what it or what its benefits are.
12. Time Lord society is divided into Chapters, similar to Colleges at universities: the Doctor is Prydonian – a notoriously secretive sect; there are also Arcalians and Patrexes.
13. In Time Lord ceremonies, the Chapters wear the same, but different coloured, robes and head dress.
14. Hooligans are known as Sheboogans.
15. Earth is referred to by an astral name, Sol 3 in Mutter’s Spiral, which is odd as in The War Games it was called Earth.
16. There is a Time Lord constitution. The Doctor invokes Article 17, allowing him to avoid execution by standing as a Presidential candidate. Not a very solid constitution, it must be said.
17. The Book of Old Time is a ‘history’ of Time Lord legends.
18. The Time Lords are given names. They’ve had them before – Omega, Morbius, Cho’je – but the inhabitants of Gallifrey were always non-specifically nameless. It’s odd some Time Lords prefer titles to names: the Doctor, the Master, the Monk, the War Chief and, later on, the Rani. Are they all pesky, devious Prydonians?
19. The Doctor clearly states all Time Lords are telepathic.
20. The Time Lord C.I.A. is the Celestial Intervention Agency. One assumes it is this body which has employed the Doctor on his past missions [e.g. Colony in Space, Genesis of the Daleks.]
21. Rassilon is the founder and shaper of Time Lord society as well as its first President. Many myths and legends surround him, including that he helped develop the theory and practice of time travel, although this seems to contradict the story of Omega [see The Three Doctors].
22. The Sash of Rassilon is worn by the President. It has protective powers.
23. The Rod of Rassilon is carried by the President. It unlocks the chamber beneath the Panopticon which houses the Eye of Harmony.
24. The Eye of Harmony is the Time Lord’s power source, a condensed black hole captured during the supernova cycle of a sun [again, see The Three Doctors].
25. The Time Lords are only allowed to regenerate twelve times, giving them thirteen lives. Power from the Eye of Harmony can kick start a new regeneration.
[Point of Time Lord order 2: Does the Eye of Harmony do this all the time? At this moment in Dr Who, we’ve been led to believe each TARDIS is linked to each other through a central nervous communications system from which they also derive power, enabling the miracle of travel through the fourth and fifth dimension. This was made clear in The War Games. We’ve also learnt the TARDIS communicates telepathically, as do the Time Lords. In The Tenth Planet and Power of the Daleks, we learnt the TARDIS has healing powers, aiding the regeneration of the First Doctor. So, given the Time Lords, the TARDIS and the Eye of Harmony are all interlinked, it must surely be the Eye of Harmony which controls a regeneration when a Time Lord’s body reaches its expiration point.
[Of course, I could be wrong and I am not an expert.]
The Time Lords themselves seem to lack the menace of old. This has been happening for quite some time. The bowler hatted variety seen in Terror of the Autons was a noticeable misstep. The ‘angel of death’ messenger in Genesis of the Daleks was more welcome. Thinking back to the Doctor’s previous visit to his home planet, I was pleased to note the misty walkways shown in The War Games were reintroduced although only for the scenes set outside the Capitol. This suggests first that there is a much wider community on Gallifrey than the Time Lords, or the Councillors and Administrators, and reminds us of the planet’s alien nature. Sadly, that’s about all we get to remind us of those original, powerful, black robed guardians of time. Here, they are dressed up in elaborate robes and headdresses reminiscent of Papal synods; Holmes even refers to them as Cardinals, Chancellors, etc, which lends a religious air to the proceedings of episode one. It is also very obvious Time Lord society of the 1976 variety [or to quote the serial, the year 309906; Gallifreyan years, obviously] is exclusively male dominated.
I’d go so far to say this is the single most significant oversight by the production team. It shows no ability to comprehend a future, or alien, society beyond the boundaries of accepted contemporary times. While Dr Who has often shown women in positions of great elected power [e.g. The Space Pirates, Frontier in Space] to portray the galaxy’s most powerful race as single sex seems somewhat misogynistic. I can only think they were drawing allusions with the all-female Sisterhood of Karn from The Brain of Morbius. The two races share similar backgrounds and psychic powers, so it may be possible they are genetically linked. If that was Holmes’ intention, he doesn’t mention it. The oversight is corrected later in the series when Romana is introduced, but here female Time Lords are a mystery never solved.
[Point of Time Lord order 3: One of the antagonists here is Chancellor Goth, played with much vigour by Bernard Horsfall, he of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. An excellent choice of casting, Horsfall was one of the Doctor’s judges in The War Games and you wonder if he’s playing the same role. It would have been a brilliant touch to reference the Doctor’s trial. As Goth becomes the Doctor’s adversary inside the Matrix, it would have added the extra bite of revenge to their combat.]
Gallifrey itself is well-imagined by production designer Roger Murray Leach. Completely studio bound, he’s created some large interiors and everything looks sleek and angular. There’s an almost brutalist tone to the architecture which harks back to those early Season Six days; a line of TARDISes might have been fun, although two are shown having landed in the same area. The costumes are good, given my reservations. Generally, I’m not disappointed with the visual interpretation of Gallifrey and the Time Lords. It’s appropriate for its time in television history. The biggest sticking point is probably the finite number of regenerations Holmes allocates to the Time Lords. He does it because its fundamental to the plot, but subsequently producers / writers have spent many adventures attempting to solve the dilemma for the Doctor, the Master and others: how to survive more than thirteen lives? You do rather wish Holmes hadn’t made it so definite.
What he does do well is create a fast paced, action orientated adventure which owes something to The Manchurian Candidate and sci-fi staples like Star Trek’s Arena. The story opens with the Doctor experiencing a premonition, during which he witnesses himself shooting the President of the High Council of Time Lords. Unaware the visions have been sent to him from via the Matrix, the Doctor continues to Gallifrey and infiltrates the President’s resignation address, where the scene from his vision comes true. The President is killed and he is arrested as a traitor and assassin. While Chancellor Goth declares himself a candidate for the Presidency, the Doctor pleads his innocence and with two sympathetic supporters, Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin, begins an investigation. They discover he’s being framed by that old rascal the Master. The Doctor believes his nemesis is hiding inside the Matrix, which explains how he received the precognitive images [remember the Matrix, the Eye of Harmony, the Time Lords and the TARDISes are all telepathically interlinked]. Together the three allies decide to insert the Doctor into the A.P.C.Net and the dreamlike nightmare environment of the Matrix. Here the Doctor is forced to confront not his nemesis, but his flunkey, Chancellor Goth.
This sequence, which encompasses the best part of forty minutes of action is a phenomenally violent, visceral wartime battle as the Doctor fights both the physical danger posed by Goth and the psychological one of the Matrix’s bewildering, fast changing landscape, one the Chancellor has mastered, but which is new to the Doctor. Director David Maloney has rarely been better, aided by Fred Hamilton’s excellent camerawork and Ian Mckendrick’s cutthroat editing. Entering the Matrix is a hallucinogenic experience. The producers cleverly utilise Bernard Lodge’s title sequence to suggest the otherworldly mental journey. Once in the battle ground, the Doctor is menaced by runaway trains, snipers, delinquent surgeons, maniacal clowns, divebombing planes and finally the Chancellor himself. The climatic hand-to hand fight is a Dr Who highlight. Fight arranger Terry Walsh outdoes himself here and the cliff-hanger of episode 3 is one of the very best of the classic era; so realistic is the Doctor’s drowning, the scene brought forth a mountain of public complaints and led to the removal of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer at the end of the season. Apparently, us kids couldn’t deal with such brutality!
Escaping both Goth and the Matrix, the Doctor uncovers the Master’s secret lair, but the wizened creature appears to have died. However, there’s another twist in the tale and the Doctor confronts the Master in the Panopticon as the latter seeks access to the Eye of Harmony’s power to generate another cycle of thirteen lives. The Doctor saves the day – just – and after he virtually destroys the Panopticon doing so, he departs with no thanks from his old college lecturer Cardinal Borusa, vowing never to return. Spandrell and Engin then see another TARDIS dematerialise. It appears the evil, putrid Master has in fact lived to fight another day.
The four episodes pass in a brilliant blur. The hallucinogenic early sketches as well as the Matrix scenes are exceptional and set an extremely high bar, but the detective investigation during episode 2 is a tad elementary and the resolution feels rushed. This is one of the rare times when a Dr Who serial feels too short. An extra episode or two dwelling on the machinations of Gallifreyan court processes, the investigations and the Master’s eventual demise might have ironed out some of the slackness. It could even have improved the piecemeal realisation of Time Lord society.
Bernard Horsfall apart, the performances are hit-and-miss. Angus Mackay’s Cardinal Borusa is probably the best of them, displaying some of the modern day penchant for fake news, concocting truth and lies to the High Council’s benefit, eventually paraphrasing Voltaire: “If heroes don’t exist, it is best to invent them.” Peter Pratt is given the thankless task of impersonating an emaciated Master. The makeup is super-exceptional, but Pratt’s dialogue is frequently unintelligible. Robert Holmes forgets that drama is more important than humour and gives the baddie his best line during the incredibly tense final standoff, describing the Doctor as “so despicably good, so insufferably compassionate.”
While The Deadly Assassin slips up every so often, it succeeds far more than it fails. It was a very popular serial, did much to cement Dr Who’s reputation in America, by dint of the all-action storyline, and truly begun the mythology of the Time Lords. A deserved:
awesome review of The Deadly Assassin! I reported on it once, and think I came up with one or two sentences. (something like only those zany TimeLords could reference both a film from the past The Manchurian Candidate and a film from the future The Matrix)
that long list of Gallifrey factoids established with this episode shall be an incredible resource to future generations, much grateful you took the time to spot all those details and write them all down. I wonder how many of those are still canon and how many got contradicted sooner or later?
I cant see if you mention it, but we eventually meet Rasillon in David Tennant's final episodes, and he is played by... Timothy Dalton! There is some debate whether he is playing the same founder of TimeLord culture we always heard about, or a different character with the same name. But logically, no matter how long ago the original Rasillon lived, he's a TimeLord and therefor just as likely to encounter The Doctor today as any other TimeLord .
I didn't realise Baker specifically asked to do a story without a Companion. I was thinking this story is so much about exploring his origins, that a Companion would get in the way.
I'd love it if 3-4 members started their separate "Introspective of Classic Dr Who" threads. 😁
Believe you me, this takes some doing introspective, retrospective, televisual-perspective...
Thanks for the love @caractacus potts I had a feeling you'd reply back after that one. The Deadly Assassin is one of my favourites, although I recognise its faults. I really enjoyed watching these Tom Baker episodes again. The standard is so high. I feel involved in the story and the characters and that can't be said for many TV series.
THE FACE OF EVIL
Beware the Janus thorn!
The hit rate of Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure as producer is remarkable. For my money, he and script editor Robert Holmes have barely put a foot wrong. A few minor hiccups is all they have to their detriment. The Face of Evil is one of those, but, like Revenge of the Cybermen or The Android Invasion, the adventure still provides much of interest and plenty of memorable moments.
Far and away the most extraordinary aspect of The Face of Evil is the introduction of the Doctor’s new companion, Leela, played by Louise Jameson. Leela is a warrior of the Sevateem. She is capable, vicious, stealthy, inquisitive, rude, uneducated and prone to killing people without impunity. Her favourite weapons are a crossbow, a twelve inch hunting knife and the Janus thorn, a poisonous barb that paralyses and subsequently kills an intended victim. Leela became a phenomenally popular companion. It helps, of course, that Miss Jameson is remarkably physically attractive and that she’s dressed in skimpy, leather animal skins. The adventure opens with her in close up, a haughty, defiant expression on Leela’s face. Before five minutes has passed, she’s charged with treason by the elders of her tribe, witnesses her father’s execution and is exiled into the hinterland of the forest where she fights for survival. This warrior amazon makes an immediate and striking impression. What is so magical about Leela’s presence is how her curiosity never tumbles into imbecility, as we saw with Jamie, a similarly ill-educated youth. As with the very short-lived Katrina, Leela interprets everything around her with a sense of wonder and excitement, framing it in expressions and words she can quantify. For the Doctor this is a challenge. Usually his companions have some inkling of science and history. Leela has nothing but the shared oral mythology of her tribe. She doesn’t even have a name for her planet.
Louise Jameson is superb as the constantly baffled and thrillingly captivated warrior. She strikes up an immediate rapport with Tom Baker. He treats her like a woman-child; she treats him less like a surrogate father, more like a mentor, as if she’s a female ward and is expected to learn the ways of life from him. There is an undercurrent of sexual tension too, which hasn’t often reared its head in Dr Who; perhaps it was most notable in Season Ten, when Jo and the Doctor were trapped in the Mini-Scope [Carnival of Monsters] or when Jo later took up with Cliff Jones [The Green Death]. Here, the Doctor openly flirts with Leela and she with him. Witness their first and last scenes: he persuades he isn’t the ‘Evil One’ with tact and smiles, offers her jelly babies and doesn’t talk down to her; she chases after the Doctor, offering to accompany him with a quick witted: “You do like me, don’t you?” Great things beckon for this pairing, I feel.
The remainder of The Face of Evil is a little humdrum. The Doctor lands on a mysterious planet covered in a creepy forest. It’s a good-looking studio confection, but Austin Ruddy’s effort isn’t a patch on Roger Murray-Leach’s from Planet of Evil. Baker gives an opening monologue direct to the camera, effectively addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall, which is almost unique. This kind of innovation hasn’t happened since The Edge of Destruction, way back in Season One, or the brief moment in The Moonbase where we hear the Doctor’s inner thoughts. Tom Baker is brilliant in the opening salvos of the adventure, all bug-eyed curiosity, vigour and childish humour. He recognises the remains of a Starfall space craft recycled among the village artefacts, such as the religious relics, the throne and the three point salute the warriors use which is identical to the respiratory checks made by an astronaut on a space suit.
The Sevateem are in fact the descendants of an Earth Survey Team. They engage in a constant battle with the technologically advanced Tesh, or Techs. The two sets of differently evolved humans have lived here for so many generations all knowledge of Earth history has been forgotten. Even the purpose of the rocket ship the Tesh / Techs inhabit is unknown. Centuries earlier the Doctor visited the planet and helped to mend the rocket ship’s central computer. Unfortunately, this was during his difficult recovery from regeneration, and he made some programming mistakes, turning the computer, now known as Xoanon into an all-powerful god-like entity. It’s multi-schizoid personality is dominated by the Doctor’s own profile. As an act of worship, the Tesh have carved the Doctor’s likeness onto the side of a mountain. The sighting of this alien Mount Rushmore provides another better than fine cliff-hanger to episode 1.
[Point of order: this unseen adventure takes place during the opening episode of Robot, when the Doctor had just regenerated and was acting very odd. It’s a neat way to remind us of the troublesome opening to Baker’s first story – all the bizarre costume changes – but we never saw the TARDIS dematerialise so we have to take all this on trust. How many more ‘unseen’ adventures did he have, I wonder?]
The Sevateem are well-realised, if a little earnest. There’s a tribal chief, a shaman, a rebel, a young upstart. What they lack, other than Leela, is women. The same can be said of the less interesting Tesh. Nobody gives a decent performance on their behalf. John Broomfield’s Sevateem costumes are excellent, if hardly inventive, all leather and skins, like latter-day Tarzan’s. He’s less adroit for the sleek, uninteresting, jump-suited Tesh. After the initial exciting intrigues surrounding the bickering Sevateem, there isn’t very much to entertain us and much of it we’ve seen before: the Doctor is mistaken for a God – he’s not flattered this time, unlike in The Myth Makers; there’s another set of Id style monsters, not as effective as those on Zeta-Minor [Planet of Evil]; there’s another dysfunctional unequal civilisation, [The Savages]; the adversary is another out of control computer, and we’ve had plenty of those from as far back as WOTAN [The War Machines]. The Doctor resolves his earlier mistakes, but he doesn’t hang about long enough to sort out the two side’s societal differences. “Ah, democracy at work?” he chuckles as the two leaders continue to argue.
Writer Chris Boucher makes as instant an impression as Leela. He’s more than competent in creating scenarios and characters. Most of his television work however would be for the Terry Nation series Blake’s 7. Dr Who’s loss, I guess. Director Pennant Roberts makes his debut too and he confers a less comfortable fist of it. The Face of Evil drags badly from midway through the second episode, basically once the Doctor has infiltrated the Tesh strong hold. It would be easy to blame the writer, but Boucher has provided enough action, Roberts simply doesn’t do anything interesting with it. For example, towards the climax Leela is supposed to be battling advancing Tesh but the conflict is about as thrilling as a tortoise race. Nobody is helped by Dudley Simpson’s invasive music score which overpowers some scenes and frequently blots out the dialogue.
Despite the production issues, The Face of Evil succeeds because Louise Jameson’s central performance is so tremendously memorable:
THE ROBOTS OF DEATH
“There are three types of robot on this sand miner. There are Dums, Vocs and Super-Vocs. And then there’s You.”
The Robots of Death is a classic slice of futuristic Agatha Christie set on an enormous mining transport on a sand blown desert planet. Despite tiny blemishes along the way, Chris Boucher’s second consecutive screenplay is a taut, skilfully directed adventure which provides a story and support cast of intense interest and a satisfying overarching twist which attempts to redefine Isaac Asimov’s First Principle of Robotics: “A robot may not harm a human being… etc.” Taking as its template Christie’s And Then There Were None, the adventure kicks off inside Storm Mine 4, a mineral mining landship which sucks fragments of dust from sandstorms, selling the vital ore to the Company for enormous profits. Its Commander is Uvanov. He’s capable and financially ambitious, but he’s hiding a secret, as are most of the nine human crew. Among them are two from the planet’s founding families who have fallen on hard times, an unpopular scientist, a secret agent and a murderer. The Doctor and Leela arrive just as the first victim is discovered and, considered stowaways, they receive the blame. It wouldn’t be the first time – does anyone remember Frontier in Space? – the Doctor treats it all as a superficial game. Leela’s less cool under the circumstances and threatens the overbearing Uvanov with violent retribution.
As the murders continue and the situation deteriorates, a siege mentality takes over the crew and the metaphorical columns of their capitalist civilisation begin to crumble, starting at the top with Russell Hunter’s suitably pernicious Uvanov, who begins to lose his air of authority. Money, once the prime incentive, ceases to be everyone’s goal; personal revenge, political allegiances and blatant prejudices begin to surface. The pot of gold is no longer so sparkling. Amongst this chaos roam the service robots, who themselves have a hierarchical society. Their lowest strata are basic labourers, called Dums, because they cannot speak. They are superseded by Vocs, who can talk, and Super-Vocs, who are in charge of day-to-day operations on ship, can make decisions and communicate with the humans. Chief among them is SV7.
The Doctor realises the robots are the real killers, but someone must be altering their circuitry to control them. The question is who and how? Along with two Company special agents, the sceptic Poul and D84, a disguised Dum robot who is able to talk and think, the Doctor manages to save the remaining humans and thwart the plans of crazed Taryn Kapel. The story is as slim as a supermodel, but that doesn’t matter when its dressed up as splendidly as this.
The first congratulations must go to designer Kenneth Sharp whose interiors are beautifully imagined. The engineering sections of the sand miner are coarse, iron and steel constructions; doors clang, footsteps echo, everything is dusty, worn, lived and worked in. They are lit by low light, giving the impression of being secretive and forbidding. It is no surprise many of the murders occur in these shadowy enclaves. Meanwhile the crew’s domestic quarters are cavernous, angular, art deco accommodations, swished with luxury and bright light. At one point, Leela bounces with pleasure on a comfy settee; a beautiful insert highlighting both her fascination and disdain, as well as the opulence of the surroundings.
Even the clothes for the crew are elaborate. Costumer Elizabeth Waller uses stretched leather, starched cottons and diaphanous silk in abundance. The humans, even the men, wear makeup and impractical headdresses are worn when a person is on duty, signifying at distance they are not a robot, but an individual. The titular androids themselves are sleek, oriental-looking figures. Their expressionless moulded faces are designed with large slightly slanted eyes, a wave of lustrous metal hair and half-smiling, pursed lips. They are given a uniform to wear, a sort of peasant smock which demonstrates the robot’s lowly position in this mechanised and deluxe society. This enclosed environment does seem to represent a sort of future Gosford Park, with the upper classes at the very top, waited on by the mechanised proletariat while an indignant, striving educated middle class tries to escape the centre. The crew members fulfil each of these stereotypes, providing a broad base for the antagonisms, retributions and ambitions which evolve. Full marks must go to the ensemble cast who quite wonderfully inhabit these people. It is perhaps only Gregory de Polnay as D84 who struggles. He’s been badly directed, I feel, and delivers his robot’s lines slower and slower as the adventure progresses. I understand D84 needs to be monotone, but he shouldn’t speak more sluggish than any of the other Vocs or Super-Vocs.
The mystery of the murder galvanises these lazy company men. While seeking the culprit, they argue like children and find fault in each other rather than solving the immediate problem. Blinkered by reliance on and trust in their robotic servants, they fail to see the danger lurking in their midst. The scene where Pamela Salem’s Toos is menaced by a Voc is striking because she is immediately unquestioning of the robot, even though she’s been warned not to trust them. Only when she sees the ‘corpse marker’ in its hand, does her predicament strike home. Even the wily Poul, underplayed by David Collins, can’t fathom the enormity of the grisly murders and, when reality finally hits, he is driven insane, succumbing to a serious case of robo-phobia, the unnatural and irrational fear of robots.
[Point of interest: Chris Boucher termed this brilliant concept Grimwade’s Syndrome, an in-joke against production manager Peter Grimwade, who would go on to both write and direct Dr Who stories in the future.]
The action is peppered with moments of high energy and tension, well controlled by director Michael Briant and edited with some panache. [There is no editor listed on the production notes, so I can’t congratulate by name.] Some scenes, especially the murders, are presented from the robot’s point of view, an innovation we first saw way back in The Seeds of Death, but much more chilling here, the multiple images fusing into a disorientating blur. The ending to episode 2 is particularly gripping, as the sand miner, having careered out of control, threatens to explode, and the humans are panicking in the control centre. The swift cutting between faces, screams, groaning landship, buckling metals and petrified stares, is excellent, heightening the tension and terror. The scene is also important as it solidifies David Ballie’s Dask as a hero – a red herring to the audience and the Doctor. Dask is in fact Taryn Kapel, an orphan who grew up with robots and began to identify with their lot in life. He’s a sort of violent communist for the android population, seeking to eliminate all humans on the planet, starting with those on the sand miner. Whether he plans to bestow actual feeling into his brother robots is not clear; here he is still a man in control, even if his revenge is motivated by the influences of his slave-robot upbringing. The sociological subtext is also quite clear: every society has an underclass and that underclass will be prone to revolution if it is treated without respect.
It’s tremendously helpful to have Chris Boucher write this story as he is able to develop Leela’s character further than he could in The Face of Evil. There’s an opening scene in the TARDIS control room where the Doctor delivers an elementary and easily absorbed explanation of the craft’s trans dimensional spaces. Leela is astonished by everything around her, but not to the point of silliness. She remains entirely practical and nerveless. It is Leela who notices the change in vibration of the mining ship just before the engines malfunctions, she is the first to detect the difference in D84’s behaviour and she notices how SV7 alters his manner of address – a simple change, but a specific one which rescues Toos from further harm. Leela also discovers the Doctor is 750 years old and doesn’t batter a single beautiful eyelid. Odd though, the time traveller’s aged three-hundred years since he looked like Patrick Troughton [see Tomb of the Cybermen].
The Robots of Death is a better than excellent story, it represents some of the very best of Dr Who, certainly of the Fourth Doctor’s reign. I’ve viewed it five times, including its original 1977 transmission, and the serial never disappoints, from its look, to its writing, to its acting, to its suspense. An all-round first class classic:
5 from 5.
THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG
The biggest problem with The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the giant rat, so let’s get that out of the way first. Given the disappointments of dinosaurs, Loch Ness monsters and Krynoids, you really think the writer, producer, director and special effects department could come up with something better than a furry puffball. Future Dr Who producer Steven Moffat is on record as saying: “How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he’d come to my house when I was fourteen and said ‘Can the BBC’s effects team do a giant rat?’ I’d have said no. I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap.”
Hear! Hear! I cry. In the interests of balance, I ought to point out that writer Robert Holmes envisioned the rodents as being photographed in the shadows and the early scenes, filmed using real rats running along a model mock-up of the London sewer, work perfectly well. The dodgy costume / effect used in episode 3 is frankly appalling. I can almost feel the collective indifferent shrug of the audience. Maybe the younger ones found the concept so frightening the visualisation of it didn’t matter. If that’s the intention, then it probably works. Once you resign yourself to the giant rat, The Talons of Weng-Chiang becomes an exceptionally elegant, elaborate, sophisticated, violent, gruesome, tension wracked, adult slice of grand guignol melodrama. It touches on elements of Sherlock Holmes, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, the history of Jack the Ripper, Hammer’s Countess Dracula, AIP’s The Food of the Gods, Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, the film version of The Man with the Golden Gun and Dr Who’s own The Invasion. It is a phenomenal serial and is frequently voted one of the ten best adventures of all time across both Classic and Reboot series. A 2003 poll for Outpost Gallifrey Magazine hailed it as the best Classic adventure ever, and it is certainly a contender.
The story concerns Magnus Greel, a fugitive from the 51st Century who, along with his midget sidekick, has become stuck in Victorian London. The Doctor describes him as “the infamous Minister of Justice, the butcher of Brisbane.” It is clear Greel is not a pleasant man. He’s impersonating the demi-god Weng-Chiang, a deity worshipped by the Black Scorpion Tong, and is using them and the fabled magician Li H’sen Chang to trace his Time Cabinet, a rudimentary time travel device. Oddly, Greel states he is the first human to experience time travel. This conveniently forgets the experiments of Waterfield and Maxtible in The Evil of the Daleks, which takes place in a similar time period to Talons… as well as the terrorists in Day of the Daleks. Maybe, as the Doctor interfered with these experiments, the history of them has vanished [into one of those recently discovered alternative universes, perhaps?]
There’s a lot of scientific garbage espoused about the time cabinet and zigma energy, which is relevant, but won’t harm anyone’s enjoyment if you fail to grasp it. The Doctor seems to know an awful lot about Earth in the 51st Century and regales us with several long speeches explaining the political machinations of the time. This is a case of ‘tell, not show’ and it sits badly in a series which usually prides itself on delivering information piecemeal and with the minimum of exposition. This is most prevalent when the Doctor describes the properties of Mr Sin, Greel’s android Chinese henchman who resembles an ugly ventriloquist’s dummy. Sin is the Peking Homunculus, an organic robot built during the Ice Age of the fiftieth century for the children of the Commissioner for the Icelandic Alliance. It operates through printed circuits and magnetic fields powered by the cerebral cortex of a pig. The pig-part became dominant and Mr Sin started a human-hating rampage which almost caused World War Six. At some point Greel must have placated the Homunculus as the Doctor states he’s from a century later. All this detail can be confusing and distracting to a casual viewer. There’s a neat in-joke during episode five when Leela smiles knowingly and says to the Doctor: “You only ask me so you can tell me.” He does a lot of that in this episode and she’s clearly got his ego marked already. She’s no fool, this warrior of the Sevateem.
[Point of order: at the beginning of the adventure, as the Doctor and Leela emerge from the TARDIS fully kitted in Victoriana, he seems to suggest this is an educational trip for her, that he wants to teach her something of her human ancestry. Yet he also makes an immediate beeline for the Palace Theatre, stating “This is what we came to see.”
[When the Doctor first meets Li H’sen Chang, he recognises him as a master conjurer, and appears to know of the Chinaman’s entire history. So, did the Doctor come to show Leela a London musical hall act – which seems very odd – or was he searching for Li H’sen Chang?
[After episode 1, none of this is referenced again, almost as if the writer decided not to pursue this angle. Once again, I am wondering if the reason the Doctor is so well informed about Chang and Greel and Mr Sin is because he already knows the circumstances of this visit to London, given to him either by the Time Lords or, telepathically, by the TARDIS.]
One of the joys of Talons… is its late Victorian setting. The BBC is always good at costume drama and the 1970s was a high point for their output. Essentially, Talons… inhabits the world of Sherlock Holmes, but not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, this is Hollywood’s and Basil Rathbone’s, all the chases, Hanson cabs, foggy London streets and so on. The Doctor puts on a long cape, wears a deer stalker, runs verbal circles around the police and makes identifiable deductions, but, other than an obvious paraphrase [“Elementary, my dear Litefoot”], the similarities stop there. As the story develops into the more familiar chase and capture, the nod is much more to Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, the hero of Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, specifically The Face of Fu Manchu and its 1965 filmic adaptation where the villain hides in London’s sewers, uses Chinese coolies to do his dirty work, has a scheme with world-reaching implications and inhabits an adventure which is action orientated rather than psychological.
The sets and costumes are superb. Roger Murray Leach and John Bloomfield should both take long bows for providing such authenticity. Midway through the story, the action is transported from London’s theatreland to Limehouse and the Chinese temple of Weng-Chiang, where Greel has enslaved the Black Scorpion Tong. You wonder why he spent so long in the sewers when he had a readymade hideout, but like the giant rat, a young audience would probably gloss over this, carried along as they would be by the constant fighting. The production design doesn’t falter either, the transition is seamless. Fred Hamilton’s camera work is above great, all those gas-lit streets, the long night-time shadows and intense flickering closeups highlighting the creeping dangers. You can see why, when the human tensions are so successful, that bloody rat was such a disaster. One of the outstanding technical points is the sound recording, which captures every word and verbal nuance of the characters, every sound effect, every echo in the sewers and cobbled lanes; Clive Gifford and Vic Goodrich even make Li H’sen Chang’s magic stage show sound acoustically distant, as if we really are watching him in the Palace Theatre, London, c. 1895.
Additionally, the central figures of the narrative are all magnificently realised. It’s hard to pick a Dr Who serial which has such all-round great performances; certainly The Silurians and Genesis of the Daleks; Inferno or The Ice Warriors, perhaps; maybe even Marco Polo from William Hartnell’s debut season. There’s even a reference to that tale when the Doctor mentions he’s not been to China for four hundred years. He’s overstated the time, but for the aficionado it’s a lovely in-reference. Tom Baker has rarely been better as the Doctor. Once again taking on the mantel of a thrusting scientific detective, he displays all the frustratingly eccentric quirks we’ve come to expect, while still being the soul of reason, the source of knowledge and the heart of deductive enquiry. Baker would later go on to give an excellent performance as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and this outing has all the feel of a dress rehearsal. He’s aided by three Dr Watson types: Leela, Professor Litefoot and Henry Jago.
Christopher Benjamin’s ebullient impresario Henry Gordon Jago is one of the show’s great supporting roles. He plays him as a self-satisfied, penny-pinching, ruddy cheeked, port drinking, cigar chomping rapscallion, as much a pirate as Paul Witsun Jones’ Squire in The Smugglers. Like the Squire, he also flatters to deceive and his bluster is exactly that. It doesn’t stop Jago being entertaining. He has a series of fine scenes with his Irish stage manager Casey as they rummage through the props and costumes beneath the theatre, discussing showbusiness and the news of the day, including the deaths of several young girls and murder victims being found in the Thames. Casey, brilliantly played by Chris Gannon, is more concerned about ghosts in the cellar. He’s got the measure of Jago. His boss is a man who sees profit in everything, and for the least effort. “But you don’t do anything, Mr Jago,” he good-naturedly complains; not even this deft put-down hinders Jago’s flamboyance. When facing the Doctor, Jago’s elaborate speech is reflected back at him. Respect earned, he becomes fascinated by the opportunity to work with this great detective and creates an evolving fictionalised back story for the Doctor worthy of a stage play.
Professor Litefoot, the police pathologist, also shares screen time with Jago. Trevor Baxter interacts so well with Christopher Benjamin it was suggested there might be scope for a supernatural Victorian detective spin-off. It came to nothing, but this twosome are so effective you can see why it was given serious consideration. Baxter delivers a portrait of a quintessential gentleman. Nothing surprises him, he’s calm among the chaos, stoic when things go against him, and isn’t averse to engaging in enemy action. He’s as baffled by the Doctor’s explanations as Watson would be by Holmes. At different times and in different manners, he’s supportive of the Doctor, Jago and Leela. He comes across as a fully rounded individual, which isn’t often the case in Dr Who. The sequence where he entertains Leela to supper is a moment of beautifully observed humour and creates a delicate, formative friendship. She clearly enjoys his attentions and when Litefoot is threatened, it is Leela who wants to rescue him. You sense he’s also rather taken with the wild warrior girl, in the same manner Henry Higgins fell for Eliza Doolittle. When she puts on a dress and shyly models it, both Litefoot and the Doctor profess their admiration, just as Pickering and Higgins do in Pygmalion, or perhaps more acutely from the musical My Fair Lady. It’s not clear which of them is which, but it is entirely clear Leela is Eliza.
Louise Jameson’s Leela of course needs no introduction to us. Robert Holmes gives a neat spin on her character by placing her in Victorian costume, which is both appropriate and sensible. As the Doctor says, she can’t go running around London in animal skins. The script constantly references her savage upbringing, which puts her at odds against the genteel surrounds of the city landscape. London, of course, is far from genteel, populated with urchins, prostitutes, drug addicts, murderers, vicious gangs and giant rats. At one point, on hearing a disembodied scream, she observes: “It is the scream of death.” London’s concrete jungle is not so unlike her distant world. Leela’s quite at home dishing out violence to the Tongs and arguing her point of view with the ‘Blue Guards’ as she terms policemen. The script is sensible enough to not treat her like a damsel in distress; told several times to stay put, she frequently disobeys the Doctor, saving his life more than once, almost killing Greel, and seems to thoroughly enjoy herself until that damn rat tries to gnaw her leg. Here, she’s given to running around in her underclothes and at one point appears to be auditioning for a wet-corset competition, which seems more the kind of stunt Jo Grant might have performed. I’m not sure we’d ever seen nipples on kids T.V., before or since.
[to be continued...]
Apparently my whole post is 850 characters too long - who knew we had a word count? I'm sure I've posted and read huge reviews before...
The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker
The most charismatic villain is Li S’hen Chang, magician and devoted disciple of Weng-Chiang. John Bennett plays him with inscrutable calmness. There was some criticism at the time, and still is now, that the role was not given to an actor of oriental heritage. It’s a fair point. All the Tong stooges are played by Chinese actors, so why not the biggest role? The over-sight is a little disappointing, but luckily Heather Stewart’s make up is so good and Bennett’s interpretation so fascinating we barely notice. He has the inscrutable countenance of Fu Manchu when dealing with underlings, but the fawning desperation of an indebted slave when confronted by his master. His failings lead to his expulsion from the Tong, yet his devotion to Weng-Chiang continues unabated, an adoration more akin to a lover being spurned. The Doctor tracks him to an opium den where he’s eking out his last hours, one leg missing, eaten by a giant rat, his drug addled mind barely functioning. I’m not sure we’d ever seen drug taking so achingly represented on kids T.V.
I’m not sure we’d ever had a midget rampaging homicidally around London’s streets either. Deep Roy plays the Homunculus, stabbing victims to death like a Victorian version of Nic Roeg’s murderer from Don’t Look Now. By the climax, he’s snorting like a sow, brandishing a dragon headed laser cannon and attacking the Doctor and Leela like a crazed Herve Villachaize. The allusions to James Bond’s Nick-Nack are very clear. Sadly, Mr Sin is too easily defeated to be the catalyst of world wars: the Doctor simply removes his fuse. Nonetheless, he’s a chilling addition to the ranks of Dr Who villainy. The story is certainly bloodthirsty. I’m not certain kid’s T.V. ever had such horrific sequences: the cold blooded killing of policemen, hatchets driven into turned backs; men’s legs being eaten by huge rodents; girl’s bodies being molecularly dehydrated; the exhumation of corpses from the Thames, something more familiar from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewitt.
I’m not sure The Phantom of the Opera ever featured on a kid’s schedule either. Magnus Greel’s deformed appearance, his cloak and mask disguise, his hideout beneath the theatre and in the sewers invokes the crazed environment of Leroux’s character. Greel is less interesting than the Phantom – and of Li H’sen Chang. The sci-fi plot which surrounds him is fairly typical. He’s not even very bright. The Doctor describes him as an incompetent scientist who is meddling with forces he doesn’t comprehend. Michael Spice is fine as far as Magnus Greel goes, but, as with Azal the Daemon, I rather wish the production had concentrated on the occult possibilities of the story, the idea of Weng-Chiang as a supernatural phenomenon and all-powerful deity. Shoving all that 51st Century nonsense onto his backstory works, but lessens his impact as a villain. He’s basically a tyrant, stuck in a time zone he despises with people he abuses and without the brain cells to fathom his escape. He’s kept alive by the absorption of molecular DNA from a series of female victims. It doesn’t beautify him as virgin’s blood did to Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula, but there are vampiric overtones, as well as hints to Jack the Ripper. There’s no explanation why the victims need to be women and it might have made sense for Greel to be female to counter this clearly sexist plotline.
Nevertheless, there is so much to admire in Talons… that I constantly find myself forgiving these shortcomings. Writer Robert Holmes has fashioned a brilliant, action packed and gory screenplay which functions on a myriad of levels: the horror movie, the mystery thriller, the Victorian drama, the backstage melodrama, the buddy movie. He’s created excellent characters, places them appropriately and interweaves the plot around them rather than the other way around. He splits up the expected pairing of the Doctor and Leela, and instead we have a series of excellent double-acts: the Doctor & Jago, the Doctor & Litefoot, Leela & Litefoot, Litefoot & Jago, Jago & Casey, Chang & Mr Sin, Chang & Greel. Even the smaller roles, especially the policemen in the opening episodes, the cabby Butler, the prostitute Teresa are defined and well-rounded – have we ever so blatantly had a whore advertising her services featured on kid’s T.V.? If the plot loses something, it’s hidden well enough not to matter.
Director David Maloney returned for his eighth and final stint helming Dr Who and he delivers once again. He graced the show for ten years, and with the exception of The Krotons, the standard he brought to his stories is tremendously high [e.g. The Mind Robber, The War Games, Planet of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, Planet of Evil, The Deadly Assassin]. His contribution to the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era cannot be understated.
Talons… is a fabulous adventure which, like the best of those Christopher Lee Fu Manchu thrillers it attests to, is slightly barmy and unbelievable, yet retains a pulsating drive and ambition undimmed by the occasional shoddy effect and haphazard production details. It’s probably the most obvious example of how Dr Who succeeds despite its shortcomings and confirmed the adaptability of the pseudo-historical template which would be reused over and over again in both the Classic and Reboot series. While some aspects of the production have and already had dated the adventure, it’s very hard to dislike because the thing’s so damn entertaining.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang deserves its classic status:
5 from 5.
I knew! I found out when I posted my transcription of the CBC Fleming interview right after @SiCo changed the forum software! I think I had to split it into 5 posts, and something I'd intended to quickly post by 8pm kept me up til nearly 11pm
perhaps you posted longer reviews when we used the old software, cuz I never noticed a limit in those days?
Strange. I haven't calculated word counts for these reviews as on my docs they are separated by season. Back in the day I did some in depth movie reviews of OO7 from 1971 - 1989 and they all came in well over 3000 words, so this character restriction took me by surprise. Some of the reviews posted for NTTD were enormous, I thought. Ah, well. I think Talons... is my longest effort, so hopefully no more troubles...
Hope you enjoyed the review. I'll post my season summary then its a short break while I laze it up in not-so-sunny Spain.
Season 14 can arguably be described as the best ever season of Classic Dr Who. In terms of overall quality of product [writing, directing, design, costumes, etc.] this season happily sits far above almost all its competitors. Perhaps only the four-story Season 7 matches it in that regard. Of the longer spells, Troughton’s Season 5 retains a similar consistency, but for me it lacks a Five-Star classic and several episodes are missing, so it is difficult to gauge the overall impact. Season 10 is also equally remarkable, but is gifted the anniversary adventure, which I wouldn’t be considering a Five-Star success without the Three Doctors.
What so impresses about Season 14 is the adult nature of each adventure’s themes, how they gel with the sci-fi elements. It is noticeable the monsters are all humanoid, excepting that giant rat, and this adds considerable weight to the stories. It is far easier to identify with a warped mind or be shocked by a diseased face when these are occupied by humans or human-looking aliens. It also enhances the impact of the dodgy special effects as most of the excitement comes through the audience’s response to the characters. It isn’t only the villains and ‘monsters’ who benefit from this attention to simplistic details, but the supporting roles also. There’s a couple of slip-ups in the mid-season stories, but the playing of all the ensemble casts is outstanding during the remainder, from the Shakespearian broth of Mandragora… through the modern clutter of The Hand of Fear and the futuristic brio of Robots…, finally to the Victorian morals and genteel politeness of Talons…. One must congratulate Tom Baker for reigning in his more extravagant antics. He’s lost one great companion in Sarah Jane Smith and gained another in Leela, and sparkles well with both. I enjoy the jokey interplay, and the underlying tension with the savage Leela is particularly striking, adding a level of tempestuousness we’ve not come across since Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor used to question the First Doctor’s motives. Baker’s Doctor looks genuinely upset by some of Leela’s violent tendencies. Louise Jameson’s marvellous as the unworldly, but not naïve, ingenue, so much so, I’ve already forgotten about Elisabeth Sladen’s smarty pants Miss Smith. Across the board, good, memorable villains abound. Situations are pertinent and the stories have bite and the tremor of excitement from the off.
It is with some regret that producer Philip Hinchcliffe was forced to leave the show, chiefly because those in power at the BBC couldn’t take the criticisms levelled at Dr Who by the National Viewers and Listeners Association. Publicly the Corporation defended the show and the ratings remained solidly in the 10 – 13million mark. However, Hinchcliffe was asked to take on more adult series, such as the police drama Target and later The Charmer. His replacement was Graham Williams – who had originally been Target’s producer – and he arrived armed with orders to tone down the adult content.
While I understand the Corporation’s intention, I personally feel this is and was a backward step for the series. Dr Who had started life as an educational adventure show and over almost fifteen years had developed into a science fiction series of much character, depth and narrative intrigue. Yes, the last few years have occasionally featured stories which are too shocking or too violent, especially for a very young audience, but some judicious editing could have easily placated the NVALA without removing the adult themes from the stories. As a youngster in the seventies, I remember being enthralled by these adventures and, while sometimes they scared me, I don’t believe I was ever traumatised by them. I knew the Doctor was the hero and I knew the serial lasted four or six episodes, so if he was in severe peril, I always knew he’d survive because there was another episode or two to play out. There was much speculation in the suspenseful cliff-hanger endings and it was never ‘will he survive’ but ‘how will he survive.’
Season 14, Tom Baker and Dr Who have never looked rosier and more relevant than this. A stupendous achievement.
Back from my holidays and a chance to post some of my thoughts on Season Fifteen:
THE HORROR OF FANG ROCK
Beware the Beast of Fang Rock!
The TARDIS lands on a lighthouse island off the south coast of England. “Lost in the fog,” claims the Doctor, although this seems unlikely. The lighthouse is malfunctioning and naturally, the Doctor wants to investigate. Brighton beach will have to wait. We are in the Edwardian era of the early twentieth century, a time when superstitions still held sway with many coastal folk and technology was still treated as the most dubious of all entities. Something is interfering with the electricity supply, the Head Keeper has mysteriously died during repair work and an all-enveloping cold fog has descended, leading to a pleasure yacht crashing on the rocks. Vince, the young lighthouse man, is convinced the strange happenings relate to a meteor he saw crash into the sea. The Doctor believes him. Rueben, an old timer who claims to have seen it all, pessimistically believes it’s a local legend, the Beast of Fang Rock.
This beast is certainly no myth. The Doctor and Leela quickly gather it is an alien being, a devious shapeshifter, one which thrives on electricity, lives in cold waters and whose ship has the ability to replicate the cool, murky environment of its home planet. The Doctor is mystified. The fact he takes so long to uncover his enemy is unusual for Dr Who and Tom Baker spends most of the serial floundering in the dark, or the fog, as it were, hunting for clues. This makes him irritable and short-tempered. Confronted by a sceptical quartet of castaways, he’s at his most condescending, although he appears to have good reason as these interlopers are more concerned with their personal status and satisfaction than any perceived unnatural danger. Despite his forthright authority, soon gained, never remitted, the Doctor realises he’s made a crucial mistake in his tactics: by attempting to lock the alien outside the lighthouse, he’s inadvertently locked it in. This revelation leaves him momentarily in anguish, head in hands and lost for words, seeking the solution to a problem of his own making. It’s quite a moment for the flawless Fourth Doctor, a paragon of reliability no more.
His investigations are aided by the steely Leela, who is once more baffled by the onset of technologies, deportments and uniforms on Earth. Her adaptability is noteworthy and writer Terrance Dixxs is at pains to ensure she is not treated like a damsel in distress. Frequently abandoned to look after the survivors of the shipwreck, she is impatient, confrontational and abrupt. She delivers a rattling slap to the face of a panicking Adelaide; “Has she never seen death?” she queries with a shrug as the young girl promptly faints; Leela casually changes her clothes in front of a startled Vince; “Do as the Doctor tells you, or I will cut out your heart!” she orders the supercilious Henry Palmerdale. Louise Jameson makes her character more and more agreeable and sympathetic with every episode. We actually side with her in arguments against the Doctor and her own forays into detective work reveal useful clues which benefit the Doctor’s cause. It is Leela too who suggests the Doctor uses the lighthouse beacon to create a laser which can disrupt the alien ships. She shows sterling faith in his abilities, warns him of and off danger – there’s a lovely scene when she tells him not to be scared, and he doesn’t realise the implication for several sentences – and is grateful for his influence. “I used to believe in magic,” she says, “but the Doctor has taught me of science.”
Colin Douglas plays Rueben with an air of resignation befitting an old timer. He doesn’t like electricity, he is suspicious of all the newcomers to Fang Rock, thinking them either spies or idiots or both. This grumpy so-and-so becomes the mouthpiece of the alien and Douglas is less impressive then, but he’s not allowed to be very dynamic by the script or the director. Sean Abbott’s Vince displays the right amount of fright and naivety, although he’s occasionally too whiney for a man in a responsible role. Annette Woollett’s Adelaide, a decorative touch in a generally muscly piece, is given to the opposite and whines too much, hence the slap. The two gentleman protagonists, Henry Palmerdale and Colonel Skinsdale are a couple of bounders, whatever their breeding. The former is out to make a killing on the stock exchange through illegal trading. The latter is more concerned about his reputation, should his complicities ever be discovered. The introduction of a second narrative papers over some cracks in the plot and creates added layers of tension as the twosome’s selfish actions create more danger for all. Sean Caffrey and Alan Rowe are excellent as these skullduggers and both meet suitable ends. In fact, no one survives Horror of Fang Rock, except the Doctor and Leela, which makes the story rather bleak.
Complementing the dark tone are the solid designs from Paul Allen, a claustrophobic series of cubbyhole lighthouse interiors and a slimy, rock strewn, fog shrouded island. These are exceptional, setting both the time period and the location with equal dexterity, aided by some gloomy photography from John Walker. Jayne Hawkins’ costumes are a treat. Director Paddy Russell elicits a strong sense of the enclosed, creeping nature of the setting and the external threat. This is a marvellous interpretation of the ‘base under siege’ storyline and those in peril have rarely been better. It helps the cast is small and the staging equally tiny. Luckily these good points compensate hugely for some terrible effects work which spoils some potentially exciting moments. The shipwreck climaxing episode 1 is horrendous; poor model work and bad direction contribute to one of the slowest cliff hangers ever. The reveal of the monster is perplexingly bad.
As far back as The Time Warrior we learnt of the Rutan, sworn enemies of the Sontarans. The two alien races have been engaged in a centuries long war and a Rutan scout ship has been sent to Earth, its mission to decide whether our planet is suitable for a military base. This will involve the destruction or enslavement of all life. The threat doesn’t worry us, or the Doctor particularly, because it isn’t treated with any gravity. He counters it in the simplest of ways. The business about destroying the mothership could have been dispensed with. The threat the Rutan poses to the individuals on Fang Rock is far more interesting, enacting as it does a variation on The Old Dark House. The story does struggle with repetition, after all the nature of lighthouse construction only really lends itself to running up and down stairwells. You do wonder how the survivors mange to keep avoiding the Rutan. At one point this problem is solved when the Doctor hangs off a window sill a la Sean Connery in Never Sat Never Again, which is fun. Sadly the eventual confrontation with the alien is not a moment to savour. The Rutan is nothing more than a luminous pulsating balloon which at a distance resembles a diseased sperm. You can’t imagine these blobs of green giving the Sontarans an ounce of trouble.
Horror of Fang Rock is a great opening to a new season. It continues the fine work of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, developing stories organically and ensuring the plots are character driven. It also maintains some subtle humour. The adventure is certainly one of Terrance Dixx's most accomplished and focussed screenplays [I recall his novelisation being a better than average effort too; see above] but what can I say about the Rutan?
THE INVISIBLE ENEMY
The Nucleus of the Swarm emerges out of the cold waste of the universe and into Dr Who legend as one of its most hilarious monsters, a man-size shrimp so cumbersome it needs to be held upright and propelled along the floor by two members of the support cast.
It’s a pity, because I rather enjoy The Invisible Enemy. It’s an action packed story, with plenty of mystery and intrigue, bouts of laser-gun play, some excellent sets, a storyline part borrowed from the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage and there’s even a robot dog, K9, inspired no doubt by R2D2 from Star Wars. The serial holds a special place in my heart because it is the first adventure I truly remember; not from a few memorable suspenseful scenes, but as a whole, even including some of the mundane bits, the cheap and cheerful effects and the jokey script. It helps the serial was repeated in the summer of ’78, less than a year after its October ’77 premier, and that the novelisation, one of the earliest I bought, emerged in early ’79 with the show fresh in my memory. I devoured Terrence ****’ adaptation in a day and the book was one of my favourite Dr Who tie-ins for years.
Enough of me, what about the serial? A relief crew bound for Titan Base, on one of the moons of Saturn, is infected with a malignant virus after their ship inadvertently traverses a strange glowing space cloud, identified by the craft’s guidance system as a living organism. The crew take over the base by force and begin to set up a huge repository, or hive, for the virus’ ‘eggs.’ One assumes these ‘eggs’ were somehow transferred onto the space freighter, but it’s not made entirely clear. All we know is that once a human is infected, their neurological system is altered and their sole purpose becomes the preservation of the Swarm.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is engaged in some off-hand banter with Leela. He’s still trying to educate her, this time espousing on man’s quest for the stars, c.5000 C.E., when humans began to journey across the galaxies, colonising and conquering other worlds. He equates them with a disease. This scene features a revamped Control Room 2, so we’re back to the familiar console and white walls with glowing circular alcoves. Leela’s wearing the Doctor’s hat in a jaunty, fetching manner, and trying to absorb this week’s history and science lessons. She’s clearly confused, repeating everything he says, and wondering why, if humans are so pernicious, the Doctor likes them so much. On answering Titan’s distress call, the TARDIS passes through the space cloud. An electro-static shock causes the Doctor to faint, but Leela remains unaffected. Instead, her hunter’s intuition senses evil in the atmosphere; she detects it in the disjointed message cancelling the Mayday, inferring the voice is not human.
While investigating the problems on Titan, the Doctor realises he’s been infected with an alien virus, puts himself into a coma and, with the help of Leela and the base commander Lowe – who she doesn’t realise is infected – he is taken to the nearest medical centre, a hospital hollowed out of an asteroid. Quite how they operate the TARDIS to get there is, like many aspects of The Invisible Enemy, unexplained. Bob Baker and Dave Martin have fashioned a story that powers along at a fast pace, but they haven’t given its finer points any thought and that’s disappointing. Barry Newbury’s sets for Titan are excellent. I enjoyed the idea of the base being below ground level and the companions spend their time walking along rock hewn passageways. This feels exactly how an early colonial space base should look like, mined out of the natural resources, the material providing shelter, yet offering no comfort; there’s no pleasant amenities here other than the spartan crew quarters. Nick Allder’s shadowy camerawork injects eeriness, mystery and the purse of lurking danger. Derrick Goodwin directs with an eye on the speed of the thing. He’s realised the story has problems and overcomes them with constant drive, points of action and athletic energy. It’s one of the fastest moving adventures of the late seventies and really does roar along.
In contrast, the scenes at the Bi-Al Foundation medical centre are all glossy and bright. The story slips up a little here. Fredrick Jager, who returns again to play a scientist, this one the scatty Professor Marius, a genius surgeon, is too scatty. When he discusses neurological science or the facets of cloning technology with the Doctor, the two men act like overgrown schoolboys. The fact he doesn’t listen to his better’s thesis is simply annoying. The Doctor tells him Leela was rejected as a host by the swarm because her psychological make-up is rooted on instinct and intuition, not intellect; Marius, despite being told this, takes a whole episode to recognise it. The Nucleus of the Swarm is attracted by intelligence. When the TARDIS passed through the space cloud, the Doctor claims it, not he, was the highest functioning intelligent lifeform – he must have been idle – a bit unfair, he was actually talking to Leela – so the Nucleus initially infected the TARDIS. It then jumped into the Doctor’s brain.
This is another open admission that the Time Lords’ space craft do have an organic intelligence operating at their core. The Doctor explains it is linked to the to Time Lords’ telepathically, but the link was denied him after The Deadly Assassin affair. Nevertheless, the Nucleus recognises the Doctor is a Time Lord and wants to use his and the TARDIS’ intelligence to swarm across the galaxies:
“It is the right of every creature across the universe to survive, multiply and perpetrate. How else does the predator exist? We are all predators. We kill, we devour to live. Survival is all… We have as much right to conquer mankind as mankind has the right to strike out across the stars.”
The Doctor doesn’t like this megalomania one bit; a virus breaking out from its natural state and becoming a fully organic lifeform will upset the natural order of the universe. There’s a neat inference by the writers that mankind is exactly the disease the Doctor claimed it was in episode 1. The paradox is how mankind’s ‘human colony’ disease is considered an acceptable price to pay, but the Swarm’s conquests are not. So, The Invisible Enemy does have some cultured insights; it isn’t only a shoot ’em up space western. It does tend to resemble it though as Leela and a robot dog fend off Lowe and his cohorts. Generally the effects for all this gunplay are well done. The model work is excellent, the honeycomb look of the asteroid borne medical centre is brilliant; its conception as a working laboratory and hospital is very good; Leela is as confused and agitated by the receptionist’s inane questions much how we still are by modern health service form filling and advice giving. There’s a brilliant crash landing, some neat laser gun battles, and also an exceedingly poor special effect where a section of wall is blown away where we’ve already seen the massive crack on the masonry. This sort of oversight doesn’t do the story any favours as it sticks in the memories of the more observant. As a kid, I don’t think I noticed. I was more concerned with Louise Jameson’s legs, nicely exposed again now she’s back wearing animal skins. Once more, the actress is more than a match for the chaos surrounding her, including a slightly manic Tom Baker, whose impetuosity is getting more alarming by the adventure.
The story goes all Stephen Boyd – Raquel Welch on us in episode 3, when the Doctor and Leela are cloned and their replicas shrunk to microscopic size and inserted into the Doctor’s addled brain. The aim is to destroy the Nucleus before it has an opportunity to fertilize and release the Swarm. This has more than a passing resemblance to Richard Fleischer’ award winning sci-fi epic Fantastic Voyage, a sci-fi movie I loved as a youngster, and is another reason for my continued affection for this serial. While it isn’t as involved as its forebear, many of the body’s internal dangers and the interloper’s solutions to them as suggested by Harry Kleiner’s cinematic screenplay are reused to good effect by the Who writers. I was impressed too by the seaweed like structure of the ‘brain’ design, sort of spongy and clammy. The use of colour separation overlay, often a detriment in the series, this time enhances the sequence, appropriately providing a distinct unreality to scenes inside an animate, fantastical environment.
Strangely, having established it is Leela’s psychosomatic makeup which aids her immunity, once her dying clone has been absorbed into the Doctor’s blood stream, he too becomes resistant to the virus. A contradiction, for sure. Another moment you really need to stay blasé about. So too the eventual finale, which is rushed and features that terrible monster. I’d have preferred the Nucleus never to have been revealed, but I suppose that would have been too much to ask. They should have had it absorb the cloned Doctor’s physiognomy and escape as his double. No matter.
Lastly, I need to mention Professor Marius’ dog, K9. I don’t like him. I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now. He’s small, slow, has a whiney voice and, even in this introductory episode, the annoying blighter runs out of puff and has to recharge himself. Leela is reduced to pulling him along by a leash. Like a Dalek, K9 also can’t ascend stairs, so how he enters so easily into the TARDIS, which sits on a plinth, is a total mystery, never seen or solved. Intellectually, he’s a robot Zoe Herriot; looks-wise nothing of the sort, basically a box on wheels. Leela clearly likes the mutt, because he can kill stuff, obviously, but already you sense K9 will become a useful escape or back-up plan for the Doctor.
The Invisible Enemy isn’t the disaster zone contemporary audiences considered it. While it still has a very unforgiving audience, I’m in a forgiving mood – it’s Christmas as I’m reviewing this – and the serial is one of my favourites from the Tom Baker era, warts and all. I’ll gladly accept all the criticism which comes my way for this rating:
IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL
If the Nucleus of the Swarm from the previous adventure was one of Dr Who’s funniest monsters ever, the Fendahleen must be a close runner up. This weird looking, snaky, multi-whiskered slug is about as bizarre an imagined creature as you can possibly get. The fact the actual Fendahl monster is a golden hued, mute woman wearing a long flowing gown and given to levitating or pointing dramatically before silently killing her victims is even more peculiar. Quite what these two interlopers from the vanished Fifth Planet have to do with a twelve-million year old human skull is a complete mystery, one which is the fundamental fault with Image of the Fendahl.
Writer Chris Boucher appears to have forgotten to include any motivation for the titular monster. Who they are, what they hope to achieve and how is never made clear. The Time Lords have had a hand in the race’s demise, trapping the Fifth Planet in a time loop following a destructive galaxy spanning war, but the Doctor’s hopelessly vague when he tells it. He explains it as a nightmare myth he remembers from his boyhood and Tom Baker gives a good impression of a fearful Doctor when he first encounters a Fendahleen. We don’t see it though, which is probably a good thing at that stage of the serial, keeping us in suspense for a hoped-for shocking reveal. Sadly, as I say, it doesn’t come.
Instead we are mostly concerned with a skull. Somehow this remnant of a Fendahl has made it to Earth and been buried for millions of years until the German electronics magnate Dr Fendahlman discovers it in Kenya. He’s one of those maverick archaeologists we read about in school and he’s already been carrying out secret physiological experiments at his 1970s English West Country laboratory, aided by the sceptic Adam Colby, the cultist Maximillian Stael and the victim, Thea Ransome. These four scientists never remove their lab coats, which is almost as bizarre as the appearance of the Fendahleen grubs. Fendahlman’s investigations reactivate the creature’s dormant energy source and soon all sorts of unholy chaos is raging around the old priory.
There’s a neat scene where Dr Fendahlman [Denis Lil, very good] recognises that the entity has been biding its time, passing its psychosomatic energy through generations of humankind – and one assumes before, provoking the theory it might have kickstarted man’s evolution – the Doctor says not, it could only influence evolved beings – until it had developed sufficiently for its resurrection to commence. It is unfortunate for Fendahlman that his family history is entwined with the occult and he realises that there is a greater power at work than he can fully comprehend, what he terms biological programming. The Doctor gets it, of course, but seems at a loss to prevent the manifestation of evil. It’s rather amusing to discover the most effective method of attack are the old ways epitomised by Ma Tyler [Daphne Heard, the best member of the small cast]. Tossing salt does the most damage. The Doctor captures the skull and deposits it in the middle of a super nova. He could just as easily have got Leela to smash it with a hammer, I feel.
There’s a whole substory about a black magic religious sect led by Stael who seems to know all about the Fendahl without ever having been party to it before. Scott Fredricks looks as confused about his motives as the script. Thea Ransome gets kidnapped by Stael and completely absorbed by the Fendahl, but we don’t know why she’s been singled-out. Is she related to Dr Fendahlman, perhaps? Wanda Ventham, who I loved in U.F.O. flirting with Ed Bishop’s Commander Straker, has nothing to do here, not even any flirting. She doesn’t have a line of dialogue after the second episode. They even dyed her gorgeous blonde hair tar-black. Ugh. These scenes, all crypts, cowls and pentangles, were familiar from The Masque of Mandagora, or even further back, The Daemons. In fact, just like the Season 8 finale, Image of the Fendahl shares more than a passing resemblance to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. It’s probably even closer, given that the original also involved a skull buried for millions of years which displays signs of kinetic psychosomatic energy.
I felt a little like Edward Arthur’s Colby, remaining just about the right side of indignantly inquisitive throughout. There’s a really good adventure struggling beneath all sorts of problems which don’t aid the narrative or the character development. It doesn’t help that the production is mired in banality. No one does anything very memorable, not the FXS, the designs, or the camerawork. Interestingly director George Spenton Foster was recruited specifically because he was good with night shooting. While the night-time location scenes at Stargroves [previously used, and better used, in Pyramids of Mars] are good, the rest of the adventure is very static, taking place as it does in a series of laboratories or drawing rooms or kitchens. Whatever suspense is created, it comes from the cycle of script writing dead-ends and the occasional flourish of above average thespianism.
There’s a ton of scientific garbage spoken about sonic shadows, time scopes and evolutionary programming which doesn’t hold water even if you want to make it do. The most interesting point was one the Doctor makes about time fissures, how ghosts from the past reappear at locations where cracks in time and space have fermented. [This anticipates Barry Lett’s The Ghosts of N-Space by decades, although chronologically that story predates this, should you wish to include it in the canon.] Fetchbottom Priory and village, the location of Fendahlman’s laboratory, has always been prone to ghost tales, hence ‘fetch’ in its name, an old English term for a phantom. That querulous Ma Tyler knows more secrets than she lets on! This other worldly strain of the story works better than the science fiction aspects. It reminds us we are still in Philip Hinchcliffe’s gothic horror inspired stories, these Season 15 entries being commissioned before Graham Williams became producer. Williams was less enamoured with the route the series had taken and it shows in the tired feel to Image of the Fendahl.
Despite my reservations, this adventure isn’t truly terrible and on a superficial level, it manages to remain interesting. Sadly, it’s also extremely familiar and the characters are stereotypical of the ilk. The emphasis away from action towards humour and dextrous word-play doesn’t quite succeed here and is at odds with such a savage companion as Leela, who ought to be given more physical work to do – after all, she does save the Doctor’s life, again. Overall, and unfortunately, there are simply too many unanswered questions and this hinders any enjoyment. Chris Boucher has done better work and so has Dr Who:
2 from 5.