Tuesday, May 31, 2011

 

Doctor Who – Underworld: “The Quest Is The Quest”

Underworld is not the most highly regarded of Doctor Who stories. You’ll know this if you’ve read my critique of it in the Myths and Legends DVD set, or watched it yourself and thought, ‘Oh.’ Despite starring the bloke in the scarf, the woman in the leather bikini and the tin dog, despite pirating Greek myths, despite its starting point of a hundred-thousand-year Quest, it’s all just a bit dull. So I may be pushing my luck to return to it so soon (particularly after more of The Time Monster), but here’s a look at how it might have been so much better.
“Whatever blows – can be sucked!”
It’s customary when talking about Underworld to say how cheap it was, how feebly acted, how the groundbreaking but limited effects drove the inexperienced director to drink and left him no time to give the show much pace and energy… And all of that’s true. But, as I argued a couple of weeks ago, the central fault is the script. Relatively small changes might have salvaged it up to a point: giving Leela back her character rather than reducing her to a stupid, infantile savage; realising that the Doctor’s confrontation with the big villain should either be scornful of rank of any kind, or perhaps deliberately needling in a way that only he can; having a proper dragon or, if they couldn’t afford a monster, not promising one.

What Underworld really needed, though, was for the script editor to seize it, look at the elements that work – and some of it does – and demand a rewrite to bring out the elements that fire the imagination and push the rest of it back down to the underworld. Even if you still have to set most of it either on the ship or in the caves. And when we settled down to watch the DVD last year, Richard and I threw some ideas back and forth about how they might have done just that. So here’s a rough map of what they could have done with the story, and there are two reasons you should take a deep breath and watch the TV version first – not only will the reimagined outline make more sense if you can fill in the bits, but while ‘Here Be Dragons’ may have needed more buried treasure, it’s definitely marked ‘Here Be Spoilers’…

Going Under

It takes a bit of whittling to get to any ideas that deserved to be set on a pedestal, but one simple realisation helps: the first episode is far from thrilling, but the idea of the Quest is the bit of the story that has something interesting to say; the three episodes set in the Underworld itself are the ones that wander about aimlessly with nowhere near enough plot to sustain them and piddle away great myths into something very much smaller; so the answer isn’t to try and find more incident to liven up the final three episodes – from the interminable fight scenes, you can see that’s exactly what they tried – but to swap the focus of the story round entirely, so that the dull cliché is livened up by being tautly tied up in the final episode and the Quest of a hundred thousand years instead has room to breathe over the bulk of the story.

Bob Baker and Dave Martin came up with at least one really evocative idea that suited the epic feel they were after – that the characters’ story should stretch across a huge expanse of time. Where their earlier The Hand of Fear and The Three Doctors had antagonists cast away millions of years before, in Underworld it’s the protagonists who’ve been on a Quest for a hundred thousand years, and we’re drawn into their story long before we realise that their main antagonist (again) has also been cast away for all that time. Unfortunately, while putting your big idea up front sounds like a clever thing to do, using it as the story’s starting point has two major drawbacks. Firstly, feeling like you enter the story half-way through is an intriguing narrative device, but unfortunately it means most of the story’s gone when there are still three episodes to drag out with nowhere near enough to justify them. And secondly, while it’s a brave decision to open your story at a point when all your characters have become bored to the point of suicide, stepping back for a moment should tell you the fatal flaw there for audience engagement.

The solution is surely not just to give lip-service to the TARDIS as “a timeship of the gods,” but to treat it as exactly that. On screen the Doctor acts as if he’s merely a traveller in space, with the destruction of Minyos as much a hundred thousand years earlier for him as it is for the Questors, yet the story briefly comes alive when the Time Lords’ most tragic mistake is not just ancient history but something that shaped the real lives of the ROC’s crew. We should see more of those lives and what changes them over those hundred thousand years – and the Doctor should use his godlike power in time not just to meet up with them as if one ordinary starship bumping into another but skipping along their timeline at will, while they’re condemned to take the slow path. Not meeting them at the end and then going backwards, though; not only has that become its own timey-wimey Moffat cliché, but putting that into the rewrite would leave us exactly where we started – hey, kids, tune in for the boredom that makes you want to die! And unlike the surprise return in one of this year’s Doctor Who DVD releases, the Doctor’s several visits to this starship are entirely deliberate.

Focusing on the Quest through the millennia rather than jumping straight to the end of it offers two obvious ways to start Underworld – or, perhaps, simply The Quest – anew. One is to have the TARDIS land on Minyos itself before the fall; either, with typically brilliant timing, just as the other TARDISes flee the revolution against the Gods, or more appropriately in the midst of the civil war that results in the planet’s destruction and launches the Quest to try and track down their inheritance, lost en route to creating a new world – which would underline the irony that it does literally that, but to no-one’s benefit, and offer the symmetry of a story both beginning and ending with a world destroyed. A thrilling opening episode with a cast of thousands and calling for stupendous special effects, I can see the saga of a Star Atlantis in my mind’s eye… But I can also see that the budget of millions is so far beyond Doctor Who’s resources that even Bob and Dave at their most bonkers wouldn’t have proposed it. So where else would you start The Quest?

Reimagining Doctor Who – The Quest

Richard and I thought about how two of Doctor Who’s greatest ‘lead writers’ would have approached it: Bob Holmes would have got over the problem of a cast of thousands and the sets of DW Griffith’s Babylon falling by setting the story on the fringes of great events, painting in the wider story with words and the effects they’ve had on the characters fleeing them; and those characters would have been the starting point for Russell T Davies, who’d surely look at the interpersonal relationships and say, ‘Well, they’ve all had each other every which way fifty thousand times and are bored to death’. So we’d take Bob and Dave’s opening, seeing the TARDIS materialise on the Quest ship ROC and be recognised, then add a dash of Proper Bob and Russell: rather than make that just a prologue to the main story, surely for a quest to come to life, the vignettes in the Questors’ never-ending lives are the whole point of the story.

Part One of Doctor Who – The Quest opens with the TARDIS materialising on the ROC and dividing the questors, fresh from their civil war, once again into those who loved and who hated the Gods – but rather than the thin, exhausted cast that opens the story on television, this early in the quest the ROC has a full complement of hardy, dedicated heroes who are able to pull together, remembering that this very ideological / theological fight doomed their world, that they’re now its only hope and that they must succeed. ‘Well, the quest is the quest,’ says the Doctor, offhand. He helps save them from the Scylla-like space whirlpool and send them on their way, still full of hope; put in danger together, Orfe and Tala are drawn tentatively towards young love. Eager to be off rather than compound the Time Lords’ meddling, the Doctor takes the TARDIS away instead of staying to complete the quest. But Leela, drawn to these fighters, wants to know what becomes of them and the Doctor lets the TARDIS search time and space – only to find the ROC ten thousand years later, under attack from another ship…

The middle episodes of The Quest see the Doctor make another couple of visits to the ROC: from their point of view an irregularly helpful intervening god like Athena who drifts in and out of their lives on rare occasions; from his and Leela’s (and the audience’s) point of view seeing the Questors’ lives compressed from millennia to tiny snapshots. Like A Bit of A Do in time and space. Orfe and Tala are now an old married couple, happy with each other over the longest time while the crew’s other relationships chop and change around them. The crewmember who most loved the old Gods has taken up the Doctor’s “The quest is the quest” as a comforting expression when things get tough, while ferociously anti-Time Lord Herrick has been mollified by the Doctor providing a little help and then leaving without trying to dictate their lives. Part Two sees Herrick in his element in their first space battles, lusting after excitement to break thousands of years of watching the stars and knowing that most injuries can be healed by the regenerators that give them eternal life – but other questors are horrified when they suffer their first real casualties, blown away into space beyond the reach of regeneration. These battles are against ‘the Talos’, bronze machine men* into whose territory the ROC has strayed, and while they’re defeated with the ship still in one piece, this encounter has a lasting effect. The ROC’s computer succeeds in communicating with the Talos, enabling it to interface with and drain them… But it can do more than that, as the questers find when the inert Talos suddenly reanimate and turn on them. It seems the ship’s computer would be happier directing the quest with a shiny bronze crew that doesn’t ask questions or get tired**. While the rival crews – each repeatedly ‘dying’ and then getting up again – fight to a standstill, it’s the Doctor who breaks through to take the ship’s computer offline.

By Part Three and the Doctor’s next visit, the Minyans are no longer talking. The Captain*** answers every complaint with a peremptory “The Quest is the Quest” to silence all argument; some of the Questors we’ve got to know along the way are now missing, and there are only glares and sullen silences when Leela asks about them; Orfe and Tala are long-estranged and bitter, because no-one should be together for fifty thousand years; and Herrick is increasingly a loose cannon, arguing that they divert to anywhere that looks like it might give him a fight but seeing no contradiction in blaming the Time Lords for their still not having found the P7E because the Doctor disabled the computer, meaning their search and the state of the ship are becoming increasingly erratic. Although Orfe testily argues the faint transmissions from station**** Fini-S aren’t of Minyan origin, Herrick shouts them into changing course and, spoiling for a fight, is delighted to find it plagued by space raiders in their RP fighters. While signals from Fini-S are then able to guide the battered ship through the local asteroid belt without terminal damage, the overall Quest has lost direction and they’re not interested in the departing Doctor’s advice. Grumpily, he accedes to Leela’s plea to return to them one last time… When, at the end of the penultimate episode, they find the Questors exactly where they are in the transmitted Part One – at the end of their tethers. The few remaining crew tiredly treat it as just another in a long line when Tala makes her hauntingly effective (to the Doctor, Leela and the rest of us who haven’t seen it before) attempt at suicide; the Captain’s visionary optimism has long since turned to intolerant jobsworthery; and Herrick’s drive and enthusiasm become the edge of mania to keep himself going, tipping over the edge when the Doctor turns up again in berserk rage both that it was the Doctor’s meddling that put the Quest off-course, and that he could have helped them throughout the Quest, but merely appears to play with them for his sport. He’s stopped from killing the Doctor by the crewmember who once loved the old Gods and now worships our Time Lord as the wise father god who manifests divinely whenever they really need his help and guidance – and, sick of his pieties, Herrick guns him down. But before he turns his shield gun on the Doctor, at last they hear the signal: after a hundred thousand years, they’ve found the P7E…

And you can’t tell me that the transmitted Parts Two, Three and Four wouldn’t be better telescoped into one thrilling mini-adventure, the climax where we finally open out from the ship to some, er, hopefully more exciting caves. Let’s make the Underworld a real place of living death in need of liberation, while the Captain’s tunnel vision can only see the race banks he’s sought so long. Minyos’ last war was bacteriological as well as nuclear, leaving most of the population sterile: the race bank was created to let them breed true again, but while none of the ROC’s wounded generation could have children and so only regenerated to infinity, some children were born in the new planet among the much wider group of settlers – ignored by the Captain, their descendants have become the real heirs of the Minyan race, reduced to a life of servitude deep in the rock: ‘digging their own graves,’ as the Doctor puts it, and only he has the vision to see that both the entombed New Minyans and the ship of ghosts that the Quest has become are different types of living death that must work together to find new life elsewhere. Instead of Herrick dying the glorious death he’s longed for, he’s jolted from blaming everyone else after killing one of his own and at last takes responsibility, joining in the finale with the Doctor and Leela when they must defeat the Captain’s cold obsession just as much as the mad Oracle. The Quest ends in a journey towards peace, when the surviving crew take the new Minyans to a world full of life where they can settle and the Questors can at last fade away.
“That’s intensely interesting.”
Alternatively, someone might rewrite Underworld not by focusing on the personal stories, but by taking the notion of the Promethean Time Lords and making it bigger, more serious, and more terribly, terribly up itself so that the rest of us needn’t follow the plot but just sit in silent awe at how very important and majestic the ‘Gods’ are. That story was called Death Comes To Time, and it was a horrible mess that makes the transmitted Underworld seem fresh and inviting.


* Anything would make a better use of that bit of the myth than the Seers.
** Explaining why one of the identical twin ships in the TV story has a computer that goes bonkers and takes over while the other, er, forgot to have theirs installed.
*** I refuse to call him “Jackson” (Richard suggested “Diomedes,” but a Bob and Dave-style ‘space’ version of that comes out as ‘Diodes’).
**** Named in Bob and Dave ‘space’ style.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

 

The Avengers – Game

The most fabulously Sixties of all Sixties TV shows, The Avengers, is fifty years old this year – and twenty-seven years ago today, I was hooked by a repeat on Channel 4. It starred Linda Thorson as Tara King, and for me she’s always been as terrific an Avengers woman as any other. Her series of The Avengers was the last and perhaps the best, mixing colourful camp with the more sinister atmosphere of the earlier years. Where better to start than with Game, the larger-than-life postmodernism (and larger-and-deadlier-than-life Snakes and Ladders) that really opened her time on the show?

My introduction to The Avengers was the episode Who Was That Man I Saw You With? and though I’d thoroughly recommend it, Game was both chosen to launch Tara King at the time and is one of her stories that even her detractors praise. You can watch both, beautifully restored for DVD, in The Avengers Complete Series 6 box set, or in The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection. Way back in 1999, I was commissioned to write a piece on Game for Cult Times, and that forms much of the article below, originally published in Cult Times Issue 45 as File Under… Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! I’d love to encourage you to buy their magazines, but sadly Visual Imagination went under a couple of years ago; they produced some wonderful stuff while they lasted (and were among the very few houses that’s ever paid me for writing).

Game was the first Avengers story broadcast with Tara King as Steed’s main partner (after the season opened with a more muted handover episode), and starts the new era off in great style. Enjoyable, surreal and intense, this is one of the most visually striking episodes the series ever produced. And even for The Avengers, it plays games with the audience – confident that everyone’s enjoying it all enough to laugh along with the joke that both it and the audience know it’s a TV programme.

Breaking Out of the Screen

The Avengers itself is a great big cheat that encourages everyone to play along with a fantasy of Britain that never really existed, rather than a ‘real’ thriller show. Usually it’s Steed’s playful attitude that gives the game away. Game is different and as postmodern as even this consistently fourth-wall-breaking series gets, with persistent nods to the audience that it’s not only an exciting piece of action-adventure television – which it is, very much – but also a work of artifice.
“Take me, for example. Did I create myself… Or did others create me?”
The story has two directors: vividly in-your-face first-time director Robert Fuest, delighting in thrilling Op-Art style; and, within the story itself, villain “Monty Bristow,” who’s just as in-your-face for the characters, moves all the pieces and first appears watching his plans unfold on TV… But is as unreal as an Avengers villain gets. Officially dead, he’s taken making a new life to extremes – it’s not his real face, it’s not his real name, and he’s not really as good a sport as he pretends. At dinner with an expert on fiction, he all but asks, ‘Who wrote me?’ Technically that was Richard Harris, whose script is a story all about how these stories go, with Bristow almost a killer Avengers fan. He knows the series to a tee, describing his killer game based on Steed’s lifestyle as requiring courage, strategy, cunning, and a damsel in distress, while the inside of his mansion is filled with giant games that are as blatant studio sets as any in the series. Steed wins through at the end despite odds of six to one against, yet earlier fails when Bristow offers him odds of only one in six of failure – because the underdog always wins in fiction, and Bristow knows from The Avengers ‘formula’ that means Steed will make the wrong choice.
“Evens, Brigadier. That’s very fair… Much fairer than – say – six to one against. That’s what you gave me!”
Bristow wants revenge on the six army officers who court-martialled him in Germany twenty years earlier. All are to be killed in giant games based on their current jobs – and to make certain of that, Bristow cheats whenever any of them looks like ‘winning’. A Brigadier, for example, is a natural games player and treats life as a game anyway, as befits the man with the most ‘serious’ job. Watch him win – and watch how our villain loves people trying, but only if they fail. Bristow is such a control freak he doesn’t even let people roll their own dice (you could see him working for the Labour Party). As the final victim, Steed is given the most challenging “Super Secret Agent” game in many parts, but keeps subverting the way it works, as if he’s overwriting his own ‘director’s cut’ over Bristow’s version of the plot. Bristow’s face twists even on their first meeting, when Steed’s read the script and knows who he really is; when Steed, not just a better gamesman but a better cheat, goes on to dodge facing a symbolic six assailants alone, Bristow stamps to his feet in disbelieving anger like a child facing defeat.
“Cheat! You cheated. You cheated! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!”
Steed and Tara

Patrick Macnee’s Steed becomes more understated the more that Peter Jeffrey’s Bristow loses control, but never stepping out of line of the episode’s blatant postmodernism – his marvellously inappropriate look of mild surprise on being told, “The safe contains a bomb” is perfect, just as Steed is perfect to foil Bristow. On one level, it’s simply about class; gentlemen are ‘allowed’ to cheat, as long as they treat the cheating as a game too, and Bristow can’t even cheat with good grace, let alone lose. On another, notice that while Steed is more than capable of killing, he more often chooses not to – and that while Bristow cheats in order to kill, Steed’s bit of cheating that most infuriates him (and most breaks the rules of TV thrillers) is using a gun not to kill, but to give life.

So while many action heroes are honest and upright, but kill with abandon, Steed is the reverse. Being a secret agent is always less important to Steed than having fun, and if he can have more fun by cheating… Ever since he was the shadowy partner to respectable Dr David Keel, each of the ‘other’ Avengers played it straight while Steed never fought fair, whether beating Tara in an outrageous game of “Steedopoly” in her first principal story here, or cheating his way to a fencing victory over Mrs Peel in hers. That was the biggest mistake in the movie version released a few months before I wrote this originally: while nowhere near as bad as it was cracked up to be, it did get the central character badly wrong by having their Steed claim always to play by the rules while his partner breaks them, when it’s quite the opposite. The only ‘rule’ the other Avengers break is their gender.

Tara and Steed make a splendid team throughout. She’s confident and determined, but with a refreshing innocence, giving the impression of working harder than her invulnerable predecessors. She earns her successes in moments like the cat-like spring to the ground that slashes the odds for the super closing fight, where the Avengers thump opponents in sync. Game was a flying start for her with viewers, rarely bettered until such fabulous stories as Pandora and Requiem, right at the end of her run. She has a good clothes day here in red-based outfits with waistcoats, though a bad one in green; Steed excels in rather a stylish navy suit and dark maroon tie and looks good in grey as always, but sinks to a dreadful patterned shirt in the otherwise diverting tag scene. Together they look terrific approaching a long swing like pall-bearers, with Tara in mourning colours of pale lilac blouse with black waistcoat and culottes and Steed in brown, but in step; but that same suit comes a cropper when partnered with Tara’s lime-green outfit, making them together look like mint choc chip.

Watch out for Tara’s confrontation with a remarkably queeny manager in a monocle at “Jig Creations” – “Royalty has walked through that door,” he tells her. Of course it has, dear.
“Tell me, what do you do on long winter nights?”
“I ride a bicycle.”
“What else?”
…breathes Linda Thorson, and sweeps out, leaving the wicked butler to pop up from behind a giant pink jigsaw piece. Sublime!

The Substance of Style

Much of Game’s superb eye for colour comes from former designer Robert Fuest, establishing him instantly as one of the great Avengers directors (the first story he filmed was the stunning My Wildest Dream, with this his first to be broadcast; he went on to direct Dr Phibes and other films). Giddy cuts between scenes grab your attention right from the opening teaser, where a game of Scalectrix contrasts with a driver on an indoor racing track, who crashes and is thrown from his car but hits the ground outside – his racing goggles full of jigsaw pieces… Avengers have found dead bodies in playgrounds before, but Fuest makes them uncanny, just as Bristow makes these invitations to a killing a mockery of the usual process of discovering clues.

Robert Jones’ set design splendidly realises the games, while the best of the well-chosen locations is Bristow’s big old house, in reality the Grim’s Dyke Hotel at Old Redding, Harrow (my heart gives a little skip, as I used to play near there on childhood holidays with my Nana and Grandad). You might also recognise it as the mad investor Maxtible’s house in top Doctor Who story The Evil of the Daleks. There’s fab music, too, from forgotten Avengers composer Howard Blake, at times strangely reminiscent of Inspector Gadget or – more appropriately – Batman.

Most of Game is so enjoyable that you barely notice any weak points (but you’ll notice a spoiler in a moment). True, friends of Steed being bumped off becomes a repetitive New Avengers trope later, but it’s not boring yet; there’s a moment where the ashtray with which Steed has been knocked out suddenly vanishes in the next shot, but perhaps the wicked manservant is just very tidy. The main irritation is the end – Sir! Madam! Please avert your gaze if you don’t want to know! – where Bristow dies by his own weapon, which is the most overused, least diverting of all Avengers clichés. But at least it was a razor-edged playing card rather than a gun, and in this story about Avengers stories, it had to be a cliché, didn’t it?

No description of such a feast for the senses can do it justice. The Avengers is a show to be seen for its fabulous surface style, and rarely more so than with Game. Sit back and let Steed and Tara’s duel with a diabolical mastermind enthral and amuse you – you won’t believe your eyes.


Five Reasons To Watch Game
And Guest-Starring…

The Avengers excelled in featuring top British actors in perfect guest roles. Five in particular stand out as their ‘Old Reliables’, each appearing at least four times, giving scene-stealing star turns with curiously consistent character traits. You know you’re onto a winner with ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’, ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, ‘Villainous Julian Glover’ or ‘Demented John Laurie’ – and if you’re lucky enough to see Pandora, two turn up at once! Game stars ‘Old Reliable’ number five, ‘Villainous Peter Jeffrey’, who you may know from many movies and as the wicked Count Grendel in The Androids of Tara – no, not a plot to replace our favourite Avenger with robots, but a just as camp Doctor Who story (as well as the less well-known but equally brilliant The Macra Terror). His first Avengers appearance is in the black and white Emma Peel episode Room Without a View as a mildly comic ministry official, but his villainous credentials are assured by a strange trilogy of stories as lead villain. Each of these characters is bent on revenge against an Avenger; each uses a playing card motif; each has a dubious continental connection. Oh, yes – and each is dead! Game was the middle story in this trilogy; for the first, Peter Jeffrey gives a performance of barely controlled hysteria as German smuggler Max Prendergast in The Joker, a sinister episode from the colour Emma season. A thoroughly disturbing psychotic who uses cards as interior decorations, he cuts up pictures of Mrs Peel and is revealed on screen in similar ‘slices’ of close-up. Chillingly, he tells her: “I’m dead, Emma. You can’t kill me twice.” Following Game, Jeffrey turns up again as wily spymaster Perov in The New AvengersHouse of Cards. After Steed humiliates him, Perov fakes suicide and launches a set of sleeper agents, the “House of Cards,” against our heroes. His dastardly plan even calculates that the first sleeper, David Miller, will betray him to Steed – then Perov makes the mistake of fighting Purdey…

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

 

Doctor Who – The Time Monster: Inspirations, Dæmons and Fallen Gods

Say ‘What you need is more of The Time Monster’ to most fans and they’d back slowly away. And yet, against all reason, a dozen different Doctor Who stories – right up to last week’s episode – take inspiration from what seemed one of the most uninspired. Plucked from the wreckage and polished, other authors took TARDISes inside each other, Chronovores, battles snatched out of time, hermits and more and made something (usually) more interesting of them. Less surprisingly, The Time Monster was inspired by earlier tales in turn; less Greek myths than two other Doctor Who stories in particular.

The Time Monster and The Dæmons

One of Patrick Troughton’s earliest and, most concur, shonkiest stories as the Doctor was The Underwater Menace, in which he lands in the ruins of Atlantis and – not wishing to give away the entire plot – competes with the local mad scientist to see who can make them more completely ruined. It does not have a high reputation. So you do have to wonder what Barry Letts was doing when he replicated much of the same Atlantis set-up: the ‘villain from outside with the crazy destructive plot’ by whom ‘the ruler is chatted up, only to realise too late he’s actually a bad thing and that the Doctor was right’… Though the Doctor dropping a brick and exposing the villain’s ambition at a key moment is quite well-delivered in both.

The Time Monster co-writers Robert Sloman and Barry Letts had a much more obvious source of inspiration for their not terribly successful Doctor Who Season Nine finale, though: The Dæmons, the enormously successful Doctor Who Season Eight finale by, er, co-writers Barry Letts and Robert Sloman. If you thought some elements of Russell T Davies’ end-of-season epics were a little repetitive, he had nothing on Barry Letts. And it’s not just the overarching plot – essentially The Dæmons again with the end of Atlantis thrown in, and even that was mentioned in The Dæmons – that’s familiar, but many little details of the story are recycled. Ready?
Perhaps, then, given that I’ve now written about Barry Letts’ and Robert Sloman’s The Time Monster, The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders, it may be time I reviewed The Dæmons? But first, there’s something much more surprising than a list of elements The Time Monster ripped off – an idea of some of those it inspired!

An Unlikely Inspiration

Watching The Time Monster to ready myself for these reviews, I was taken aback – yet again – at just how horrible the one-story-only TARDIS redesign is. Known as “the Tupperware TARDIS”, the control room covered with huge, hideous ’70s plastic plates, it’s the equivalent of giving the Ship nylon flares, and makes me realise that Matt Smith’s is OK after all… Though the Master’s knobbly steel time rotor does have a look that might have inspired Matt’s bobbly glass one. Even Terrance Dicks’ novelisation, which isn’t bad but wasn’t able to make a silk purse of The Time Monster, has a cheeky little aside about this ghastly redesign that was dropped straight away:
“Something had altered, something about the circular configuration of the walls… From time to time, the Doctor altered some detail of the TARDIS interior. More often than not he decided he didn’t like what he’d done and reverted to the original.”
Given all that, it’s perhaps surprising that one of the biggest influences this story had on later ones is to do with the TARDIS. Though the first major reappearance of an idea from The Time Monster is the Doctor’s old guru, mentioned here and then turning up in person – distractingly played by one of this story’s actors in a different wig – in Planet of the Spiders before subsequently being referred to in several other stories in several other media, the first really interesting examples of one of this story’s inventions being reworked come a few years later, in Tom Baker’s last two season finales. Douglas Adams’ Shada was never quite completed for TV, but features some very similar sequences of TARDISes dancing about each other in the vortex and the Doctor being temporarily expelled; Chris Bidmead’s Logopolis, in which the two TARDISes (probably the same two TARDISes, at that) being inside each other become something altogether richer and more threatening. This year’s Comic Relief double-sketch Space / Time borrowed it, too, before last week’s The Doctor’s Wife made everyone sit up and take notice properly (as well as giving us another one-off TARDIS design. And does that mean she still has the Tupperware TARDIS on file? The horror).

The ‘deadly things out of time’ sequence, wasted padding out the middle of The Time Monster, is used to great effect in Doctor Who Magazine’s finest comic strip, The Tides of Time, complete with medieval knight on horseback suddenly appearing in the Twentieth Century countryside. And that one really is a silk purse. Paul Cornell has used Chronovores, or something very like them, in his rather wonderful Christopher Eccleston story Father’s Day, and his rather less wonderful novel No Future. There was even another tribute to The Time Monster in last year’s The Lodger (possibly to make up for losing a villain from another famously rubbish story), which builds something out of the most outrageous slow-down-the-plot device in all of Doctor Who. And many other novels and TV stories have had other references along the way.

The most notable influence wielded by The Time Monster, however, was on two Doctor Who novels from the Noughties. Like karmic twins, they are opposites, and it’s rumoured that should anyone ever read both together, one of them is bound to be torn into little pieces and stamped on. And I know which I’d choose. They are prequel and sequel; subtle and self-indulgent; brilliant and utter rubbish. I know some people enjoy “fanwank”; if so, The Quantum Archangel is for you. But I never wish to read it, nor ideally think about it, ever again. Where The Time Monster fails spectacularly but has many redeeming features, the novel that sets out to do the same story again, but bigger, manages only the first half of that summary. Fortunately, it’s not the only novel whose entire basis was inspired by The Time Monster

Doctor Who – Fallen Gods

Everyone can think of stories which can seem ruined retrospectively by terrible sequels. The Time Monster, unusually, has a prequel which succeeds in lifting it, at least in the memory – unlike Myths and Legends, Fallen Gods really does come across as a Greek legend, and more a phoenix than a load of bull (as Daryl Joyce’s frontispiece captures). Who could be attacking the mighty Minoan Empire, protected by their own fleets and by the divine power of the Fallen? What is the secret of the fiery demon bulls that consume all that they touch? And who will the suddenly helpless people of Thera turn on in their rage and fear?
—One of the disadvantages of being a child of the gods is that you rarely see your family.
—Oh, I wouldn’t say that was the main problem.
—What would you say, then?
—That you’ll always be a child.
—In the divine realm, children overthrow their parents with startling regularity.
The New Adventures of the mid-’90s were among Doctor Who’s golden ages, though, as most people never read them, you might think of that as mythical; one of the series’ best finds as an author (along with such influential names as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Lawrence Miles) was Kate Orman, who wrote 2003’s Fallen Gods with her writing partner and husband Jon Blum. It isn’t what you expect. From the out-of-print but in this case very much worth searching out range of Doctor Who novellas from Telos Publishing, this one has the length and depth to be more a novel than novella and, indeed, won the Aurealis Award for Best Novel; its distinctive prose style is quite unlike their other work, and unique; Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is captured here in a way that fits in with the convoluted and up-themselves BBC novels of the time, but happily soars above all that (he may or may not have destroyed his homeworld by now, and may or may not remember. He may have other things missing too, but that’s not important right now); and, while this is undoubtedly and absolutely a prequel to The Time Monster, it never says so, and doesn’t need you to be familiar with it in the slightest.

Don’t look for names from The Time Monster, then, or crowd-pleasingly crass nudges and winks. This is a book that requires imagination from the reader to see the currents between different times – though the Doctor and at least one other character do appear in both, if you look for them. In some ways, Fallen Gods has an ecological message that’s more Pertwee than Pertwee – yet in a completely unPertwee way, with a very different Doctor. It’s something wonderful and strange, and not like any other Doctor Who book. And yet, again, both The Time Monster and Fallen Gods begin with Thera (one as trendy news and a hook, one with the history, even making the famous bull-leaping its keystone image), so that Fallen Gods has two starting points, one declared and ‘real’, one an uncredited Doctor Who story that’s poles apart, and yet it moves them inexorably towards each other. Take a look at The Time Monster’s first major scene in Atlantis, the debates between Hippias and Dalios on how “the blessings our forefathers once enjoyed” were cruelly stolen, to see how both stories grow in stature if you take them together in the right way.

Crystalline, Fallen Gods is a book in which you can see many different sides reflected. I said it has an ecological message; some might barely see it, and yet – in the sense of an ecology as everything taken together, rather than just ‘environmental issues’, this might be the most ecologically minded Doctor Who story of all. And while it tells what is for the most part a cracking good story on its own, just as you’ll get more out of it if you see how it in turn makes The Time Monster something bigger, you’ll most appreciate this novel if you recognise that it takes history and myth and deftly shapes them into a glittering pattern of allegories.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to ‘get’ about this story is that almost everyone in it is a fallen god – the Doctor both literally and metaphorically (there’s a fabulous place for the TARDIS to park, that in itself calls up myths of ancient heroes avoiding the maelstrom). Perhaps the thing that’s most missing from the book is Doctor Who’s sense of fun; true, it starts with a playfulness and sense of wonder, but very soon everyone and everything will have feet of clay, though not all of them will be brought down to Earth. Perhaps the novel’s central concern is with being forced to see the truth and take responsibility – but along the way it deals with blessings and betrayals, guilt and exploitation, and it’s rare for Doctor Who to so agonisingly debate making compromises. You might read it at any time and see an allegory of colonialism; knowing it was published in 2003, it’s obvious that much of it is informed by 9/11; yet if you were told it came out last month, it would seem just as clearly a commentary on the deficit.

So this is a Greek tragedy. Very serious, very stylised (and, you might say, everyone’s wearing masks – except one). While it’s written for Paul McGann’s Doctor of the books, I can still more easily imagine him as Christopher Eccleston, consumed by but hiding his guilt and responsibility, taking on an ‘apprentice’ while really longing for something else, and not really being to her what she thinks he is as he diverts her future and uses her past (with the priestesses, it always makes me think of the empty horror of The Tombs of Atuan). Still more than in Season 14, he’s explicitly Prometheus here, but more complex, a figure not just of gifts but of sex (one of many things she might think of him that might not be) and betrayal.

The first half of the novel, as you spiral closer and closer into the mystery until the appalling moment where you suddenly realise what’s going on, is certainly the stronger. Written in five parts, the key moment, when your jaw drops, is the end of Two. Utterly chilling, utterly brilliant, nothing afterwards matches it and perhaps some of the latter passages might have been trimmed, though admittedly what for me is the overly repetitive torture-anger-atonement sequence is really much shorter than it feels. It’s how the characters react to it all that keeps the drama flowing: the Doctor and how he changes things, from fashioning weapons to what turn out to be his two apprentices; the Fallen themselves (I’m not sure I buy their origin, but they’re used brilliantly); and virtually all the scenes with King Rhadamanthys are fascinating. He feels like a powerfully effective king (in all the good and the bad ways), while the Doctor teaching the King’s two sons brings a lot out of all concerned – the Doctor thinks he’s giving them something to think about, whereas in fact…

It may not be easy to find a copy of Fallen Gods, but look for it if you can. It takes both The Time Monster and Greek myth and asks, ‘If these were true, what would they mean?’ And it makes both great and terrible, rejecting easy rage and easy answers, but ending in redemption, of a sort. Because it has to. If you’ve never seen The Time Monster, you can enjoy Fallen Gods without knowing it. If that means you never have to watch The Time Monster, that may be preferable! But, much as they may fall at opposite ends of the Doctor Who quality range, like all the best prequels – or, more accurately, reimaginings – I think you’re best knowing The Time Monster first, then riding the winds of time back through Fallen Gods to find both are the richer for it.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

 

DVD Taster: Doctor Who – Myths and Legends

Saturday’s Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife showed the TARDIS with a life of its own and TARDISes inside TARDISes; so did The Time Monster, broadcast 39 years ago today. Available with Underworld and The Horns of Nimon in the Myths and Legends DVD boxed set, starring Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, K9 and the Master, these three stories offer a distinctively ’70s interpretation of the Greek Myths. So do they build on those myths to make Doctor Who a still more legendary epic? No. All Doctor Who is, of course, brilliant, but some of it’s more brilliant than others. None of these stories are the worst least brilliant Doctor Who ever made… But all three are in the running! And yet even here, there are marvellous things to treasure.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out the key twists.

I’d certainly rate The Doctor’s Wife very much more highly than The Time Monster, though the 1972 story’s take on the fall of Atlantis was at least more interesting than BBC1’s dreary docu-drama Atlantis a couple of Sundays ago (terrible dialogue, but prettier – both the special effects and the Atlantean male lead). That aside, few fans have a good word to say for these three tales. Some Doctor Who DVD boxed sets just offer stories sequentially; others have stories from different years based around some more or less distinct ‘theme’. Those themed are usually a mix – Beneath the Surface, the other ‘trilogy’ boxed set with Pertwee and another Doctor, runs from absolutely brilliant, to exciting but flawed, to pretty shonky – but this box is all of pretty much the same unfortunate quality. Officially called “Myths and Legends,” it’s been given a lot of other names from fans. As I try to be positive, I can’t repeat any of them. However, back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200 TV Doctor Who stories to that point (I made it 204). So what did the mass of fandom make of these stories? Not a lot. Out of 200, The Time Monster flaps in at 187, and I can’t argue with that; Underworld is at 197 and The Horns of Nimon 189, and though I might put each of those perhaps 10 or 20 places higher on a good day, that still leaves them deep in the lower reaches.

Between them, the Myths and Legends borrow from the Titans and the fall of Atlantis, the Argonauts, the Minotaur (twice) and several other elements from Greek legend, but you’ll probably have gathered that none of them quite hit the spot. The Time Monster has a more ‘magic’ take on it – or, at least, New Age hippiedom – while the other two both sci-fi it up and largely miss the point. The Time Monster and The Horns of Nimon are the minotaur stories, the latter more thoroughly (try to ignore it not being real in 1968’s The Mind Robber, and note that – in DVD order – The Creature from the Pit was one month later, which almost makes sense of the Doctor mentioning the labyrinth); the Nimon isn’t the series’ most successful monster, but it beats the others here – a flappy thing, men with tin tea-cosies on and the most disappointing “dragon” ever conceived. Underworld and The Horns of Nimon both play with asteroids / clashing rocks, gravity / whirlpools, lost ships and fallen empires, the former merely tedious (though I loved it when I was six) and the latter teetering into ‘so bad it’s good’ – though less so, for either category, than many reviews would have you believe. Ironically, The Key To Time saga was first broadcast between those two and does a far better job of being legendary, despite only a sideswipe at Greek myth. So, really, if you’re short of Doctor Who boxed sets, you should buy that first (and if you want a thrilling volcanic historical tragedy from Doctor Who, why not try The Fires of Pompeii?). But, anyway, the prologue…

Doctor Who – The Time Monster

This one’s the full house for your Greek Myths: Doctor Who does both Atlantis and the Minotaur three times, and The Time Monster hits the jackpot as the only story to feature both, showing exactly how much this jackpot’s worth. Ingrid Pitt steals the show, though it takes a while for her to turn up; Darth Vader’s involved, too – but don’t get your hopes up; and who could the mysterious “Professor Thascalos” be? Oh… You guessed (and even he overacts mightily here). Like Planet of the Spiders, this is co-written by Barry Letts and Roger Sloman: that one, apparently, the most ‘Barry’ of their scripts together, this the most ‘Slo’; though they do have much in common (changes of scene half-way through, the Doctor’s guru and ‘magic crystals’), this one has the more achingly trendy hippy ending. And there are six interminable episodes to crawl through before you get to it.

That Golden Moment
“Welcome! Welcome to your new Master!”
It would be very unfair to pick the opening scene of Episode One as my golden moment, and say that the story largely goes downhill from there. But that’s not going to stop me. For various reasons, the most entertaining stretch of the story is undoubtedly Episode Five, and this is essentially a trailer for that part of the story: the whole thing opens with the Doctor having a terrible dream of the Master, and unlike most of The Time Monster this is “terrible” in its more impressive meaning. Roger Delgado steals the scene unmercifully as a giant, laughing Master, surrounded by lightning and labyris, while volcanoes erupt all around. It looks tremendous, and gets your attention. It even subliminally calls to mind without aping two of Pertwee’s far better early stories, Inferno explaining why the Doctor would have nightmares of the world’s fiery end and The Mind of Evil why the Master would be so keen to be a tower of terror in the Doctor’s dreams.

Purists may well say that this premonition doesn’t have much of a logical connection to the plot of Episode One – well, there isn’t much of a logical basis to what passes for the plot of Episode One, anyway. It’s disappointing that when we reach the inevitable destruction of Atlantis at the end of the story, it doesn’t look anywhere near as good as this, but by then we’ll have had nearly six episodes to get used to this particular story not looking anywhere near as good as it should. The first signal of this is when the Doctor wakes to find Jo Grant wearing one of her most early ’70s and most hideous outfits (brown and yellow!), with lines that send up how badly she’s usually written (“Look, I know I’m exceedingly dim, but would you mind explaining?”). Before long, though, one of his companions gets revenge on the patronising Pertwee – the Doctor demands agents be alerted world-wide because he’s just seen the Master, only for the Brigadier to deliver the perfect put-down when his advisor lets slip the source of this ‘intelligence’:
“A dream. Really, Doctor, you’ll be consulting the entrails of a sheep next!”
Something Else To Look Out For

The Time Monster is from dead in the middle of Jon Pertwee’s five-year run as the Doctor, while he’s still exiled to Earth and working with UNIT, and it finishes the series’ ninth season with one of its very few deliberately epic season finales – but, though it tries so hard, it’s probably the second-biggest flop the series has ever had at achieving any such thing. As I’ve intimated above, it doesn’t really get going until about two-thirds of the way in before petering out again at the climax (as I said the other week, exactly the reverse of Planet of the Spiders), and very little of it makes much sense. It’s impossible to believe that the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton wouldn’t recognise the Master, particularly when he shouts his head off for no reason other than his Time Lord powers sensing an approaching cliffhanger – and what are they doing attending a research project in Cambridge, anyway? Why does UNIT, rather than just the ministry, send an observer? Why are this UN team suddenly part of the UK government? Why doesn’t their scientific advisor go along, just the military side, who know naff all about science? Why does Dudley Simpson compose that hideously ‘jaunty’ theme for the Doctor’s car Bessie? Why is Dr Ingram astonished at the crystal being “the actual crystal” from Atlantis, when she could never have heard of Kronos or its bling, so she should be shocked that it’s ‘the actual Atlantis’? Why are modern troops and Roundheads perfectly matched in battle, with the New Model Army never having to reload and, equally magically, no-one dying? How come the TARDIS can suddenly move about as much as it likes, as if they can’t be arsed remembering the Doctor was supposed to be ‘grounded’? Where did it get its ‘Get out of cliffhanger free’ lever? And what on Earth were they thinking when they spent ten minutes of gibberish with the Doctor saying, ‘No, wait, wait, this is really cool, I used to do a lot of it when I was a student,’ involving an empty wine bottle…? No, actually, I think that one may have answered itself.

This story may also win a special prize for Doctor Who sexism. The series in the ’60s was mostly moderately ahead of its time in giving good parts to the women leads, not least because the very nature of the series made it impossible for them to just stay at home; Pertwee’s first, best season had Dr Liz Shaw, cool, brainy and more than able to hold her own against the Doctor. She was then succeeded by Jojo Grant (as she’s dubbed here), the series’ first companion deliberately designed to be nowhere near as good as her predecessor, so the Doctor could ‘take her under his wing’. Much of the time, Katy Manning is so sparky in the role that she saves the character – but 1971’s hugely sexist shift back was a terrible idea, and by 1972 producer (and co-writer here) Barry Letts was thinking that maybe he’d better ‘do feminism’. Unfortunately, rather than ’60s Who’s attitude of simply having intelligent, competent women who were rarely put down or indeed commented on for being women, Barry’s brilliant plan was to have a career woman whose standing up for herself is followed by exclaiming “Men!” and then threatening to cry. Last time we watched this story together, my reaction to the line “May God bless the good ship Women’s Lib and all who sail in her” was apparently so volcanic that Richard laughed like a hyena (not at the line itself, you understand). Despite this, there are two saving graces: patronise her he may, but the Master still trusts Dr Ingram to do important work for him, which is more than the überpatronising Doctor ever does with Jo; and in the novel by Terrance Dicks – not himself the series’ leading feminist standard-bearer – he nails that the Master “didn’t assume that he was superior just to women. He was superior to everybody.”

Bizarrely, Queen Galleia of Atlantis comes across far better than the attempt to write a ‘modern’ woman, though to be fair to the authors each is given a callow male counterpart who’s not nearly as good at what they do as the women (Stuart a less impressive scientist; Hippias a far less charismatic tarty piece – the other week’s Atlantis docudrama was dreary, but at least their equivalent eye candy was prettier). And with Ingrid Pitt’s fabulous Galleia comes sex, in a way that hadn’t really before in Doctor Who – while the Doctor wasn’t allowed snoggage until 2005, here the Master seduces the Queen. It’s something of a relief, actually, as from Nick Courtney’s relish in exclaiming “Tom-TIT!”, the shape of the time sensor and Jo wearing a floppy belt instead of a skirt, until this point in the story you get a sense that someone on the production team wasn’t getting any. Or, as we always remark on hearing “You dare mock the High Priest?” Oooh, TOMTITter ye not!

So, yes, there are some things here worth watching after all. The glamorous, strong Queen and the wise, surprisingly bitchy King of Atlantis are the two best things in it, and worth waiting for. The King, in particular, gets some tantalising scenes on film before the action’s fully shifted to Atlantis, setting up the mystery of his age and his Age, and some very funny put-downs of the Master, followed by a subtle test disguised as gallantry to Jo. The Master is often very entertaining railing against his rubbish henchmen, even if “I’ve never seen a more inept performance” may be giving a hostage to fortune, and charismatic when he chats up the Queen, though in between Delgado is by far at his hammiest. And when Sergeant Benton and his ‘crack team’ of severe Dr Ruth and florid-shirted slacker Stuart are running about, all they’re missing is a big dumb talking dog (actually – that’s Benton). It’s a shame they waste the story’s initial idea of excitingly anachronistic attacks on making them merely a device to slow down the plot in the middle, but from the same part of the story, if you’ve bought Spearhead From Space (re-released just last week) you might forgive a comedy yokel: you’ll recognise he was a UNIT soldier in the earlier story, so clearly he’s lost his mind and been farmed off to the country. The story’s high point for many fans is a ‘charming’ Buddhist parable in a dungeon; unfortunately, having seen it cross-cut with a Monty Python sketch to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, I find it very difficult to sit through – as would Jo, if she wasn’t chained down.

On top of some pretty remarkable picture restoration, the DVD has a middling set of extras – a considerably more experimental commentary than usual (swapping between several different teams of people to get different perspectives for each episode), text notes, photo gallery and so on, with the highlight a ‘Making of’ that majors on the science, with Professor Jim Al-Khalili (in truth, the MASTER! Not really) bravely trying to make sense of it all. And, utterly absurdly, the story’s soon to have its own range of action toys. But the real ‘extras’ for The Time Monster are to be found in other stories – one in particular that it rips off and several that, incredibly, it inspired

Doctor Who – Underworld

‘Jason and the Astronauts’. The magic silhouettes of the bloke in the scarf, the woman in the leather bikini and the tin dog are the old series’ most iconic line-up, and you get all three – Tom Baker, Leela and K9 – in this story. It’s from Season 15, a troubled time for the series: Mary Whitehouse had seen off a brilliant producer; the brilliant script editor had just left; and their replacements, while promising, were dropped in it at the last minute at exactly the moment all the BBC’s money ran out (it’s also a season where most stories end in great big explosions: ‘Boom and Bust’, you might call it). So this isn’t the most polished story ever made, and they’ve not yet come up with the wit in their scripts that replaces the horror the old regime was told off for. The result is a story that lacks verve, lacks skilled hands knowing what’ll work and what won’t, and perhaps more famously than any other Doctor Who adventure lacks a budget. And whereas most Who stories that look a bit threadbare have a strong script and lively actors to fall back on, here both underperform. This is perhaps the only Tom Baker story that’s just plain dull.

That Golden Moment
“None of us likes it. But the Quest is the Quest.”
Part One is the most coherent, the most straightforward, and possibly the least interesting part of Underworld; in effect, it’s a prologue to the main story, a vignette in the never-ending lives of a crew that have been travelling so long they’re fatigued beyond endurance. In its favour, this is where all the money went, on a large starship bridge set and some quite decent special effects (I rather like the whirlpool nebula), and while actors playing been exhausted and bored stiff after a hundred thousand years makes for every bit as dynamic drama as you’d imagine, there’s one idea in it that’s hauntingly effective.

Though Terrance Dicks’ novelisation mostly tells the story more briskly, it opens with a five-page Prologue setting out how the Time Lords were welcomed as “gods” by the Minyan people, who picked up technology too fast, kicked out their “gods” and then destroyed themselves – giving one of my favourite offhand lines: “A hundred thousand years went by.” And that’s where we are in Part One: the doomed Minyans sent off a ship to settle a new world… Which was never seen again, and the crew of the ancient ship the Doctor finds have been looking for it ever since. Not unreasonably, they’ve got very weary along the way, not least because it’s been the same people throughout: they don’t have the Time Lords’ natural ability to shake themselves up and gain a new self when they die, but borrowed from them a machine-driven, mercilessly efficient form of regeneration that simply makes your old body young again, not a rebirth but merely an endless repeat.
“Each one of us has regenerated a thousand times… And now we’re like the ship, regenerating faster than we can regenerate ourselves. Not the body, not the mind – but the spirit. A ship of ghosts, Doctor.”
Just as the Doctor comes on board, one of the tiny crew – Tala – collapses through extreme old age, and is taken off the flight deck to be force-regenerated for the thousandth-plus time (she’s the one being carried on the DVD cover picture, so they thought this was a key scene, too). And the chilling moment is that she wanted to die: “She’s gone past her regeneration point, deliberately – just like all the others.” As she’s taken to the sleeping bays to be rejuvenated, we see why the crew’s so small after all this time – it’s a huge, vaulted chamber with dozens of pallets stretching away… All empty. It’s understated, but most of the crew have already despaired of the Quest and committed suicide. Not that ‘you’ve made something marvellous merely prosaic and bored yourself to death’ carries any warning for the viewer. The novel lacks the telling shot of the empty couches, but has Tala wake in that despair, rather than the TV version’s suddenly improbably perky newly-young-again woman:
“As she looked at her smooth unwrinkled skin and dark, shining hair, her face filled with despair. ‘Again!’ she whispered softly.
Once again, she had been sentenced to life.”
Something Else To Look Out For

After Part One, there’s a very distinctive look to Underworld – or rather, a very indistinct one. Without the cash to build the ‘underworld’ itself, for the first time all the actors are shot against bluescreen for most of the ‘action’, with cave images added behind them. And what dull caves they are, too (similarly inlaid backgrounds for some scenes just three stories earlier had shown how interesting the results could be, or at least different, for The Invisible Enemy). With a design sense that passes understanding, people in brown and grey outfits are pasted onto a brown and grey background, and then it all goes a bit fuzzy to make absolutely sure it all looks like a dull smear. Perhaps it’s a visual metaphor for taking a legend and sucking all the excitement out of it. The similarly indistinct plot of the next three episodes largely consists of remarkably incompetent ‘action’ sequences: half the cast forgotten behind one door (which opens instantly after the cliffhanger), with the Doctor unable to work another then staggering around in the fog making the first Williams-era blow job gag until the editor takes pity on him and runs the end titles; a wobbly energy blast that gets kids’ hopes up by being called a “dragon” (and, on screen, makes even less sense than the script); shoot-outs with energy beams so lethargic that you could yawn and step out of their way. On the bright side, the “shield guns” that fire those beams were very cool when I was six, and I still think they’re the best-realised idea in it.

Tedious as the fight scenes are, the best character for the story is a fighter: Herrick, played by Diana Dors’ husband Alan Lake, is the only person here who gives it some welly. In Part One he’s almost insanely hostile to the Doctor, the Minyans being rather split in opinion over their former colonial masters and responsibility for their civil war – when one crewmember wonderingly recognises the TARDIS’ wheezing, groaning sound as “the time-ships of the gods,” Herrick is furious that they’ve turned up again and gives a glimmer of how it would feel to be caught in a Greek legend: “They use us for their sport!” Later, he almost single-handedly makes a fight sequence come to life, holding off the bad guys while seeming invulnerable, yet his bravado misses the point – surely the reason he should be a carefree berserker is if his mates are ready to drag him off to regenerate, not if they’ve all run away! Yet while one warrior enlivens the story, another drags it down. It’s no fault of the marvellous Louise Jameson, but no companion of the Doctor’s has ever had such potential wasted as Leela. Born into a warrior tribe, she was the heretic who asked the awkward questions – highly intelligent, just untutored. Unfortunately, once her creators left the building, later writers saw no further than her leather bikini and made Leela a stupid, infantile savage. Did they ever watch the show, or just Louise Jameson’s cleavage? And this story is perhaps her nadir, especially when zapped by the ‘cannabis ray’. No, it’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, and for once – incredibly – the series seems to approve of mind control (in just the previous story, the Doctor thought a similar pacification programme an abomination).

The Tom Baker Show offers us the Doctor in a painter’s smock and lots of scarf-wafting (and it’s a particularly impressive version of the scarf, worn almost as a toga), but he rarely seems engaged; he’s unusually happy for both Leela and K9 to shoot things, and the writers similarly miss the point at what should be his sparkiest moment: “Who are you to question me?” roars the megalomaniac villain. “Who do I have to be?” he retorts, just as you would to, say, Tony Blair outraged at some little person daring to ask impertinent questions… But then the script goes and spoils it by the Doctor pulling rank (back in the days when that was out of character), as if the writers didn’t realise they’d written a good line. They don’t even make it hurtful – if he’s going to tell the villain he’s a Time Lord, in this story that should really have made it lose control: ‘I’m one of the Minyans’ real fake gods, as opposed to only the fake fake god they made in our image’. At least the principal villain has an impressive voice (and groovy disco lighting), as opposed to the dispirited delivery and design disasters of everyone else. Hurrah that, unusually, Tom does the DVD commentary with Louise Jameson, who he’d usually avoided – though don’t get your hopes up for one with ex-wife Lalla Ward on the final DVD in the set (of all his stories, this is the one I’ve heard K9 voice John Leeson slag off most unmercifully, so he’s unsurprisingly missing from the line-up). Of the other extras, the ‘Making of’ is rather well done, evoking sympathy for the poor director (“And then he had rather a lot of scotch”), though most terrifying is the 17 minutes of extra studio footage – if you ever wished for more of Underworld, and more blurrily…

Fond as I am of several of their scripts, the blame for much of what went wrong here has to rest with Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who reach their low-point here, and not merely because as the budget collapses, their ambition expands (I won’t even start on their ‘science’). As well as fatally misunderstanding Leela, they treat the TARDIS as just a spaceship, not a “timeship”, and having created K9, they make him an amazing cure-all here, jump-leaded into the Minyans’ ship to run all their drives and power it all – DIY Earth kit being so much better than Time Lord-derived technology. They make a serious mess of the series’ morals, too; not just the Doctor’s sudden self-aggrandizement, but that the Minyan questors’ cold determination to survive at any cost while rejecting their less silvery relatives reminds me of the Cybermen, except we’re meant to sympathise with them. You wonder what will happen on Minyos II after 100,370 years’ obsessive questing (will they have died out? Had another civil war? Or will Jackson just shoot them all for not being true Minyans?), and after all, in Bob and Dave’s The Hand of Fear – ironically achieving a far more successfully ‘mythic’ feel with an ancient tale that’s all their own – the “race bank” was the empty obsession of a fascist.

But it’s the way they’ve borrowed this story from three main sources – Greek myths, Doctor Who: The Face of Evil, and Star Trek – and managed to make it far less interesting than any of them that really lets it down. It makes Greek legends dull and prosaic, taking the shape of them but emptying them of meaning. The ‘underworld’ is not death but just under the ground; ‘dragons’ just an electrified door; the ‘golden fleece’ a test tube (or a couple of dildos). Why is an ordinary sword, rather than something technological that’s been used as a sword, significant? And it entirely misses the point of the Sword of Damocles (I seem to be using that phrase so often that I may as well have headed this review ‘Mything the Point’). Of all their wordplay – the lost starship “P7E” the best, and Quest starship “R1C” the most forced – why name a hero “Jackson”? It’s even less ‘spacey’ than “Jason”. I learnt to swim (through water, not zero-gravity air) down the Jackson’s Lane Baths, and there were no space aliens there. You’d have noticed in the changing rooms. The idea of the Time Lords’ most tragic mistake has potential (and, shh, don’t notice that it’s nicked from Marvel Comics), but the crew seem bored by it and it’s just forgotten after Part One. They’ve clearly remembered bits of the far superior Season 14 and wanted to do the ancient history of the Time Lords from The Deadly Assassin, as well as the whole thing basically being a remake of The Face of Evil with its brain scooped out (making it all the more aggravating that Leela doesn’t get the concept of great-great-great-great grandfathers)… And, astonishingly, what isn’t taken from legend or Doctor Who is from Star Trek – a touch of The Cloud Minders (is it just me who’s always thought that has to be a typo, as like this story it’s about troglodyte miners?), and a whole lot of For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. When Doctor Who steals from Star Trek and one of the Treks is better, you really have to wonder why they bothered. And yet, when I was a boy – or when I’d not seen it for a long time, but remembered the basic ideas – Underworld still caught my imagination. You can see what they were trying to do, but you can’t help wishing they’d done it so much better

Doctor Who – The Horns of Nimon

This part’s mostly written, but I’m in a lot of pain right now and it’s The Time Monster’s birthday, so I’m posting most of it this evening – it’s all taken so long to write; who would have thought a Chronovore would eat my time? – and hope to have the Nimon’s Great Journey of Life arrive tomorrow. So, if you’re reading this tonight, don’t forget to return later… As The Horns of Nimon is the one I like best of these three, it may even be worth coming back for!

The day after tomorrow (near enough, eh?): “Lord Nimon! Lord Nimon! It is I, Sandy!”

The last story of Myths and Legends was once widely regarded as the worst Doctor Who story ever, and both its detractors and defenders still often describe it as “pantomime” – either as an insult, or claiming that it went out over Christmas and was intended as a load of silly fun. They’re both wrong. I’ve been to pantos and it’s nothing like one, though with its marvellously stormy Wagnerian skies and some of the flamboyant costumes it might resemble an opera. I’m enormously fond of The Horns of Nimon (not least the book), though it’s often not funny enough to be comedy nor serious enough to be drama (even in the book) and very few of the ‘bad’ bits are deliberately so, even if several of them are entertaining. On the other hand, for some years it was the only Doctor Who Richard wouldn’t have in the flat, and when once I asked him for a reason why (as with all Who) it was brilliant, his stony reply was that “After a hundred minutes, it ends.” Though even he’ll occasionally admit to the cleverness of the deadly hustle involved, despite not being able to bear watching what they make of it.

Oh, and if you’ve not seen this before, don’t watch the DVD menu [“Or, indeed, the DVD,” growls Richard] – just stick it straight in and press “Play”. In fact, I’d make that general advice. Quite a few Doctor Who DVDs carelessly toss away twists in the menu clips; this is one of them.

The last story of the ’70s, it’s easy to see that the money’s run out – though the story is, itself, about what happens when the glory runs out and you won’t take it lying down. Something about fallen empires has always fascinated me, so the empire of Skonnos and their desperation to rise again is a gripping backstory. A Second Empire, for only the price of a tribute to the great Nimon… And while opinions are decidedly mixed about the Nimon, too, it’s still an exciting monster to me – at least from its bullish front. Former script editor Anthony Read, who’d previously crafted the superb Key To Time season, provides a decent script, this time edited by Douglas Adams; on screen, it’s brought to life on the cheap with moments of horror and minutes of ham, some of which works surprisingly well and some of which doesn’t work at all. And a lot of that’s down to the Doctor – both Tom Baker, nominally, and the actor who takes on the role for much of the story…

That Golden Moment
“Despicable worm!”
…thunders Romana as she storms onto a spaceship bridge at the end of Part One like a force of nature, confronting the cowardly, ungrateful and hammy Co-Pilot because he’s just abandoned the Doctor. And yet for much of this story the script, and Tom Baker, do exactly the same – and it’s the making of it. Lalla Ward, usually pretty good as the Doctor’s Time Lady companion, is suddenly awesome when for large parts of The Horns of Nimon she’s called upon in effect to play the Doctor (strikingly, both when he’s stranded for much of the second episode, and when she is in the last). Though Tom Baker is still around, in Tat Wood’s memorable phrase able “to prat about like he always wanted to and find out how unsatisfying it is,” this would feel like a modern ‘Doctor-lite’ story were it not for Lalla stepping into the void and stealing the show with every bit the authority of a Time Lord.

Though much of the design is very cheap, it makes up for it with an astute colour sense of blacks and greys with vivid red and yellow highlights, and thanks to brilliant costume designer June Hudson nothing stands out more strikingly than Lalla’s hunting pink, a splash of red that’s surely her best outfit (though, strangely, the straight guys seem to prefer her ‘school uniform’). Her part and her performance have just the same impact. When the Doctor’s around, she comes up with the ideas, quotes Oscar Wilde and has a better sonic than he does; without him, she asks all the pertinent questions – such as “Have you seen it?” and “How many?” – and brings back the crucial information in Part Four; she’s both calming and ironic with the hostages in Part Two, giving a brilliant assessment of where the Nimon lives; she leads them into the Labyrinth and makes a gruesome discovery; and most memorably, she confronts wannabe-Emperor Soldeed first in his pomp, then again as his power drains away.
“You – you meddlesome hussy!”
Romana’s real finest moment, though as it’s part of the climax it would give away too much to describe it in detail, is in her ferocious final face-off with Soldeed, one which sums up the story. It’s not just a clash of two personalities, but almost of two different productions: where Lalla is fantastic taking it absolutely seriously, Graham Crowden as Soldeed is gleefully hamming it up like mad. Both dreadful and dreadfully entertaining here, he’s the other leading performance, playing a self-styled genius who’s out of his depth and desperate for power in one of the most over-the-top acting turns ever seen in Doctor Who, where even those who hate him and the story can’t resist joining in with a chorus of “It is I, Soldeed…”

Perhaps surprisingly, Graham Crowden was considered for the Doctor when Tom Baker got the part in 1974; perhaps even more surprisingly, I think he’d have been perfect casting, but not then. He was an actor who, for me, hit a certain age – old age – and, from having been perfectly good, suddenly became a towering talent. Twenty-five years ago this week, Graham Crowden ran away with the dark comedy-drama A Very Peculiar Practice with his doom-laden, half-demented authority as Dr McCannon; a few years later, he brought a childlike delight in life to Tom Ballard in sit-com Waiting for God. And while Lalla Ward plays an outstanding one-off Doctor in this story, if I’d been casting for a new Doctor Who series in the 1990s, I couldn’t think of any better choice than Graham Crowden to combine the elements of those two great roles into the Doctor.

Something Else To Look Out For

So what about Tom Baker? Well, this was the last story shown in his penultimate season, a time when he was widely regarded as doing pretty much what he wanted, and here he gets to sit back and watch Lalla do all the work for a treat. No, that’s not entirely fair; in the first episode, he calms some of the frightened juveniles with a jelly baby (his last on screen), saves a ship with some tinkering and gets some very Doctorish moments:
“Have you noticed that people’s intellectual curiosity declines sharply when they start waving guns about?”
But for much of the story, he’s Tomming it up with K9 (I’d say the dog plays his straight man, but it’s difficult to do that from under a cloud of multi-coloured computer printout), dismantling the TARDIS for fun, putting two fingers up to Lalla (watch for it)… And yet it’s only in the final scene when he really gets my back up, not as Tom Baker but as the Doctor, casually dismissing races of people and satisfied about genocide: that’s not the fault of the actor, but of the usually very talented writers. And it’s Mr Read and Mr Adams who are most to blame for the final episode falling to bits, too.

Most of the script is pretty good – and tells the cautionary tale at a much faster pace than a very similar one for the Centauri in Babylon 5 – but it isn’t just the production that’s a bit ropy. A story that’s solidly plotted for three episodes, and even introduces some impressive twists and a guiltily sympathetic new character in Part Four, significantly lets itself down with a clever plan that turns dumb at the end: on the large scale there’s an extremely unwise “final contingency plan” that’s also the first resort; on the small scale, that’s when the Nimon gets to say, “Kill him – but not yet.” Never a good sign. Yet on top of more Underworld-style wordplay, there are some clever reverses to the myth, and Teka’s a commentary on how myths start (but more on her later). And I still love the Nimon, mainly for Clifford Norgate’s vocal acting and the deep, surging rumble all the way through its speech – while almost everybody’s voices in Underworld were dreary and dull, that’s not a fault you can find here – it’s also impressively tall, and I enjoy the bull face and horns. So why do so many people hate it? Well, I think a lot of that’s to do with something in a draft of the script that never quite made it to screen: that the bull-head was artificial, with another creature within. Perhaps too expensive (or too daft) an idea to be realised, apparently the designer tried to make it look artificial to prepare for this – and, yes, it does. Particularly from the back. So whether it’s meant to be a creature, a cyborg or a mask, try not to see the join. Still, it’s better than the Minotaur in The Time Monster. Some might say that this deft treatment of the legend from an uncommonly more-or-less safe-for-work Oglaf is better than either…

People often called old Doctor Who stories “cheap”; well, on this one it’s deserved. With 1979’s Season 17 as a whole reduced to just 60% the real budget of Season 14 thanks to inflation forcing BBC cuts, this was planned to be the cheapest of the year. And yet it sometimes does remarkably well for it. Like Underworld, it has a memorable gun design, this time with twin barrels (I was eight, and a boy. I remembered the guns). The story starts with a pretty poor spaceship model; it ends with a pretty impressive explosion. There’s rather a good ‘extruding defence shield’ special effect, homaged in last year’s The Time of Angels, and a form of space travel that’s both clever and rather effectively realised; there’s an unimpressive flashing light for a “furnace”, and an overacting man meeting his doom with split pants. A spaceship set is built to judder about in a meteorite-hit gravity whirlpool; bless them, it’s deliberate, but it unfairly looks just like a wobbly set. Things are better on Skonnos, under operatic skies (and operatic hats), with great big yellow arches like an evil McDonalds. Well, more evil. I’ve praised Lalla’s outfit; Soldeed’s is fabulous, looking even better in the Photo Gallery where you can make out the brocade; one character in the final episode looks fascinatingly like a Skeksis; and the Anethans are in pyjamas, which sums up how exciting they are. So if you want to say it looks good, or terrible, all you need do is pause your DVD at the appropriate point to ‘prove’ either case.

The actors are mixed in a different way. The Skonnons, survivors of an empire fallen in civil war, divide between weary old soldiers and a fanatical younger generation brought up on stories of greatness without having seeing how it all turned out; it’s a great backstory [Richard thinks I infer much of it from the book, and suggests replacing “weary” and “fanatical” with “bored” and “nuts”], and though even the shoutier Skonnon actors aren’t that memorable – save, obviously, Soldeed – you almost side with the nasty bunch of fascists over their next-door neighbours, the “Weakling scum!” from Aneth (intended to make you think of ‘Athens’, when unfortunately the actors prompt ‘Anaesthetic’). This insipid bunch who are being used unwittingly to enable an invasion of their own planet – hmm, sounds a clever plan – do so little that you’re left to find something else to say about the actors: doesn’t that one with the perm look like Dominic Monaghan? As on DVD you can see a bit of chest hair, is it quite right to call Seth “chicken”? Teka is played by future Blue Peter legend Janet Ellis, which is the most noteworthy thing about her – you barely notice when at one stage she’s captured and put into cold storage, poor frozen Teka.

Janet Ellis is one of the stars of this disc’s lead extra feature. Who Peter – Partners In Time takes us through Blue Peter’s work with Doctor Who across the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with sex symbols from three generations, silver fox Peter Purves (delightfully described as having played “Outer Space bloke Steven Taylor”), naughty Janet Ellis and sex-on-a-stick Gethin Jones (she genuinely shocks him at one point with a revelation of her wiles and a Blue Peter badge). Legendary producer Biddy Baxter is both praised for saving so many Doctor Who clips and terrifyingly Stasi-like in her tracking down the secret files on Sophie Aldred. Rather than a ‘Making Of’, there’s an interesting but rather too short piece on writer Anthony Read – the same is true of Peter Howell’s Music Demos. There’s quite a good commentary with Janet and the two stars (I don’t mean Tom, obviously), and some OK text notes – shame they keep hinting at interesting little nuggets, then not giving them any detail (such as Douglas Adams’ theory of time travel for the series, apparently worked out with Graham Williams, which would have been nice to read rather than just have mentioned).
“Next to the crumbling Palace of the Emperor, on the edge of the sprawling ruins that were the capital of Skonnos, there rose the Power Complex.”
It’s notable that none of the novelisations of these three Myths and Legends stories have yet been made as part of the expanding range of talking books from BBC Audiobooks – and The Horns of Nimon is the shortest and most typo-spattered of the three, so I suspect it’s the least likely of them for an audio adaptation. That’s a shame, as it’s probably the reason why, back when I was eight, this was – yes – my favourite story of the season. Steve Kyte’s cover picture was vibrant and exciting (far more so than the more ‘accurate’ but dreary VHS composition). The decaying empire had a grandeur on the page, and there’s another Prologue from Terrance Dicks to fill in some of the history and emphasise that Soldeed is rubbish, and knows it. The Pilot and Co-Pilot are far more memorable simply for being named Sekkoth and Sardor (and for being better actors when you read them). It’s not a great book – Romana is far less striking without Lalla being determined to seize the story, the plot problems with Part Four are if anything more noticeable without her and Graham Crowden to distract you, and even the back cover blurb uses the word “enslave” when it really means “consume” – but it’s very enjoyable, a good story told engagingly. Childhood visits to London made the book still more fondly remembered; I spent my 85p on it in the book arcade that used to be in the front corner of Barkers, the day I mortified my Mum by deciding I had to have the Dalek advertising standee from next to the Target display. Pestered to distraction, she asked, expecting a “No”, then had to walk along Kensington High Street with a four-foot cardboard Dalek under her arm as well as a small boy grasped in each hand… And a year later, the rumbling voice of the Nimon in its lair welcomed me to a Doctor Who Exhibition at Madame Tussauds, which was terrifically exciting.

So of all the ‘minor’ Target novelisations, The Horns of Nimon is the one I’d love to have Tom or Lalla read aloud on CD. I doubt it’ll happen, because I’m very unusual in being just fond of the story. The chances are that those choosing which books should be released are fans who either hate or love the story for what it was – or when it was – on screen, and the book fits neither worldview. More than any other story, this still splits fandom today, and much less because of the story itself than as a symbol, a frontier in time…

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Monday, May 09, 2011

 

Doctor Who – The Hand of Fear… Tonight!

Missing Sarah Jane Smith? At 7.40 tonight and tomorrow, BBC4 pays tribute to the late Elisabeth Sladen with Doctor Who – The Hand of Fear, starring Lis with Tom Baker in Sarah Jane’s very last story (until she came back to do all the others). Enjoy a particularly creepy cliffhanger; a mythic sweep sometimes matched by the visuals; terror in a nuclear power station; a dead planet; and even a quarry. Though not her best, The Hand of Fear is part of Doctor Who’s greatest ever season, a year of dark religion with an unusual connection to the current series…

That Golden Moment
“Emergency… Emergency… This is not an exercise…”
There are two outstanding scenes in this story, and each might be seen as a spoiler: I can’t tell you about the gorgeous closing coda, even with Tom and Lis underplaying beautifully, Sarah Jane’s superb monologue and the Doctor getting it wrong again; so it’ll just have to be the fantastic cliffhanger to Part One. Or, on BBC4 tonight, probably the mid-way point, as they tend to edit two episodes together at a time (all three of the original cliffhangers are good, but as luck would have it, the middle one – likely to be the only one BBC4 leaves as such, closing tonight’s double-episode – is the least of them). It’s one of Doctor Who’s best, beaten only by, oh, the cliffhangers to the opening episodes of Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin, both not coincidentally from the very same period of the show’s life.

Part One is an exercise in building tension, from the opening scenes establishing a sinister menace from primeval times, through Sarah Jane being injured, to her apparently going on the rampage, to… While kids are busy worrying ‘Why has Sarah turned mean?’ (Lis finding yet another way to ‘act possessed’, and a particularly unsettling one) the adults are more likely to be concerned at what threat she’s becoming to a nuclear power station, and thrillingly shot in the high gantries of a real one this time. The music, too, ramps up the tension, with Dudley Simpson providing spine-tingling, spidery echoes as the alarms start sounding – as in Planet of the Spiders, creepy-crawlies bring out the best in him, and there’s no doubt just what fear this, too, is appealing to.

And in the closing seconds, of course, just as you thought it couldn’t get any more tense, the sinister fossilised stone hand that Sarah Jane’s been gripping springs an added surprise in one of the show’s most memorable images. Oh, it’s technically a spoiler, but in a story called The Hand of Fear and with Part One featuring a sinister fossilised stone hand throughout, you’d be disappointed, wouldn’t you, if it didn’t start feeding on the energy around it to recover, regrow, and then, creepier than any spider, start to move on its own…? But, coming from one of Doctor Who’s most fertile periods, you know this isn’t going to stop at just a crawling hand – the story’s going to take that horror staple and build from it…

8.05pm Update: Hurrah! I’m so pleased to have been proved wrong. Clearly, they loved the cliffhangers too, so they’re showing the full episodes in proper pairs! Part Two’s cliffhanger was better than I’d remembered, as well. The escalating peril and mystery drew me in.

Something Else To Look Out For

The opening scene is written as something out of a legend, alien monks clinging to life in thick white cowls against the cold, full of fear and determination to destroy the carrier of all evil… Just keep that in your mind when, with this story’s weaker moments mostly on an ancient storm-tossed world, they’ve really not turned the lights down low enough and the robes look a little too much like duvets (not to mention some terribly clichéd lines). But soon it comes quite literally down to Earth, with witty dialogue – between Tom Baker never looking more iconic than leaving the TARDIS in his long scarf and deep plum coat and Lis Sladen never looking more improbable than in an outfit so infamous that Dr Carter’s description even hangs a lampshade on it – and masses of inventive location filming, as well as a proper, old-fashioned gigantic BBC explosion so inimical to health and safety that it buried one of the cameras recording it.

There’s a curious mix here of almost high fantasy (a ring that behaves almost like Tolkien’s) and, jamming up against it, naturalism: a foreman won’t take responsibility; the quarry’s really a quarry; the nuclear power station’s really a nuclear power station; the power station boss quietly rings his family when he thinks he’s about to die in a terrorist attack – Glyn Houston’s character very much grounds us, giving what may be the series’ first profanity (“I want this damn racket stopped!”) and, poor man, blatantly being left with his career in ruins and no-one to believe him after the Doctor’s dealt with the ‘big’ problem and swanned off (just try to overlook any ‘realism’ in his attitude to nuclear weapons). At the other end of the down-to-Earth scale, Judith Paris and Stephen Thorne stand out: one striking and subtly ambiguous, both sexually and perhaps gaining our sympathy; the other in the least of his three major Who roles (Azal is both bestial and coldly calculating; Omega grandiose, self-pitying, but also with real tragedy; here, he’s a ranting loon with a crooked hat). The final episode is generally the weakest, and in ordinary circumstances would end with some rather unimpressive ‘uncertain doom’ – thank goodness, then, for that heartbreaking coda and a final shot suggested by Lis Sladen herself.

Writers Bob Baker (now an Oscar-winner for Wallace and Gromit!) and Dave Martin were stalwarts of ’70s Doctor Who – famous for coming up with masses of ideas (often unaffordable), memorable catchphrases (“Eldrad must live!” is a doozy), and plots that rarely made any sense (neither did their grasp of nuclear science). Remarkably, they write out Sarah Jane here, then in their next story write in K9 – only for the two of them to be paired in spin-off series decades later. This story is one of their least silly, with more than a dash of their earlier The Three Doctors; improving on some of it, but coming a cropper with one key character near the end. And though subtlety is hardly what they’re famous for, there are surprising subtleties throughout, of course in the Doctor and Sarah Jane’s relationship, effortlessly at ease, with his very Doctorish attitude to “weapons” against what may be a villain or a victim and her brilliantly sarky practicality (with one superb gag as she springs a trap laid long ago: “Stop making a fuss, Sarah – you’re from South Croydon!”), but also in the many little time references (Carter – surely named for the mummy’s curse – being knocked out for much longer than he expected; the Doctor musing on different alien life forms and alien timescales) that turn out to be clever clues to the ending, or in where all the bodies went… While some of the characters and details are often subtle, though, it’s an unusually linear plot in which everything essentially follows the same one character, with almost nothing in the way of sub-plots and distractions, which may be why it pretty much shifts location every episode, to keep you diverted.

If you’re entertained enough by this story to pick up the DVD, not only will it definitely have all three cliffhangers in place, but a number of extras that make it all the more worth the money: an affectionate commentary that Lis, ah, starts with a sore throat; an informative and visually interesting documentary, Changing Time, that’s considerably more than a ‘Making Of’ for one story, not least in covering the casting of Lis and Tom, with Lis explaining why (fortunately for all of us) she didn’t want Sarah Jane married off or killed off; and a pdf of The Dr Who Annual 1977, the first I ever had, which it’s impossible not to love for its fabulously psychedelic artwork and utterly preposterous narratives.

Doctor Who Season 14 – The Year of Dark Religion

As if to tip you off that it’s part of a season with more than usually coherent running themes, Sarah Jane’s exit is prompted by one of ’70s Doctor Who’s rare ‘To be continued’ endings (leading into a story which has been prefigured in numerous ways throughout this one and means, if you’re familiar with the end of The War Games, the Doctor’s “Don’t you forget me” becomes less fondness for Sarah than fear for what might happen to her). And if ever there were a story that really begs you to find out ‘what happened next’, it’s the immediately following The Deadly Assassin – for me, still the greatest Doctor Who story of them all, and the centrepiece of 1976-1977’s Season 14, for me still the series’ best.

I adore the early Tom Baker era, when the creative masterminds behind the series were producer Philip Hinchcliffe – who wanted to expand the show’s horizons – and lead writer Robert Holmes – who wanted to “frighten the little buggers to death”. I was one of those little buggers, and I’m eternally grateful. You can see, here, their themes throughout of vengeance, survival and possession, and their progress from technocratic elites to lone messiahs across three outstanding years that began with a brilliant season of cold science, moved through horror and visceral colour, and climaxed with their full-blooded dark Gothic vision in Season 14. The Doctor here is intellectual, inquisitive and often very funny, helping centre the series as pro-knowledge while the earlier years’ ‘science as fascism’ and ‘science as dangerous meddling’ here give way to science as sheer intelligence, for good or evil, pitting rationalism against religion. It’s a year of invention and experimentation, with much rich, dark design aiding literate scripts in building believable societies, all creating a greater variety of settings and styles than in any season since the 1960s now the Doctor’s at last fully a wanderer again, a Renaissance man in a dark Universe of ancient secrets and fallen glories, the stories often taking place at the fringes of or as codas to great events. The horror is both more powerful than before and leavened by vivid characters, vibrant black humour, and more satisfying conclusions than just a big bang.

The season’s key themes are laid out in opening story The Masque of Mandragora like a manifesto. Enlightenment-set, it puts the importance of intellect and making up your own mind centre stage, pitching it against intrigue and dogma – so from here, the season unfolds into three main underlying ideas. The mind is this year’s battlefield, whether championing intelligence and rationalism or delving into the darker themes of mental domination and madness, with not just the human mind at stake but computer, robot, pig and even electronic group minds. That’s complemented by the running theme of growing up, from Marco trying to outgrow both superstition and his uncle, to the Doctor returning home and then finding himself another world’s absentee dad (while the villains very much refuse to move on when their time is long since up). And more than either of those two concepts, of course, religion courses through these stories. I had a very religious upbringing – watching Doctor Who every Saturday night before going to two churches every Sunday morning – so I felt this was speaking my language: it’s impossible to miss the religious elements throughout the season, usually in opposition to intelligence and individuality (imagine!). Everyone’s in a cowl, even the gorgeously wooden-panelled TARDIS control room looks like a chapel, and – coming at last to that unique connection to the new season airing right now – there’s something very striking about its structure.

What 1976-77 and 2011 Have In Common…

The current Doctor Who season, the 32nd (and, some may wrongly argue, 33rd) is unusually but not uniquely being split in two, with seven episodes being shown now and another six in the Autumn. If I mention that, back in 1976-77, the episodes were half the modern length, and that Season 14 was also first shown in a block of twelve episodes followed, after a few months’ break, by another fourteen, you may notice something strangely familiar. Only three new episodes in (as if, uncannily, we were at the moment halfway through The Hand of Fear), I can’t tell what plans Steven Moffat has for the ongoing story, but Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe created two mini-seasons that, like dark mirrors, repeated their themes to reinforce them. Each set of three stories follows the same pattern: This has been my favourite season since it first aired, and I’ve got more out of it as I’ve got older. It’s still as good as Doctor Who ever gets – so far! Watch The Hand of Fear tonight, thrill to its scary music and vivid images, appreciate its mythic scope, and see that dark religion in its central character – scientist and saviour, creator and destroyer, denounced as devil in one litany but worshipped by “We who have seen the light of Kastria” in another…

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