Saturday, January 19, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 46: Image of the Fendahl

Counting down on every Saturday* towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Tonight showcases another of the series’ defining features, with the scariest sequence from one of Doctor Who’s scariest stories. Image of the Fendahl stars the iconic team of the man in the scarf and the woman in the leather bikini and guest-stars the fabulous Wanda Ventham in a role building on those she and others took for Hammer and Tigon Films. For this triple-cliffhanger, night has fallen, and the only light is something you don’t want to see…
“Apparently it only works after dark.”

Doctor Who 50 – Image of the Fendahl

Image of the Fendahl was first broadcast over Halloween 1977, and – filmed largely at night, the action taking place largely on three nights with only fleeting snatches of day between them – still seems like the perfect Halloween story. Which might be a gag, as the script sets it at Lammas, the height of Summer (though there is maybe a reason for that, as I mention when reviewing a bit more of Image of the Fendahl). I said when I offered Eleven Great Cliffhangers in the run-up to the Fifty that there’d be more to come of those scary bits that get you coming back next week, and here’s the first of them – one that made a big impact on me as a boy. I was just turning six back then, and after nearly three years that had had me peeking, petrified but compelled, through the crack of the door this was effectively the last adventure in ‘Doctor Who – The Scary Years’. It’s one of three or four stories that might be the scariest of the lot for me, and Part One is its most brilliantly crafted stretch of horror, peaking in its cliffhanger ending.

The episode opens with a group of scientists working together on a project that somehow takes in everything from a human skull eight million years older than humanity to a mysterious hi-tech scanner and a hole in time. And the most obviously sensible, practical and technically competent of the team is Wanda Ventham’s Thea Ransome, who gets on with doing her job like a real person while the men establish themselves as the bitchy one, the sinister one, and the even more sinister one. I like her, and I’ve always liked Wanda – as did producers, who made her almost the only glamorous ’60s actress to get sex symbol roles while never being a stick insect. In dark wig and lab coat, she’s in a down-to-earth role here, her first after having her son (who’s now almost as impressive an actor as his mum but, strangely, turned out quite thin and more striking-looking than sexy, though I understand Benedict Cumberbatch does have a following). Clearly, she’s going to be the sensible one who helps the Doctor while we play ‘Spot the madman’ among her fellows. And that’s merely the first of many reversals of expectations (“This is not how it should be!”) that Image of the Fendahl is going to play on the audience…

Because not three minutes into the episode, the mysterious scanner is whining and throbbing as the two ostentatiously sinister blokes power it up, while in another part of the mansion the cracked, ancient skull starts to glow in pulsing time with the throb, giving it an unpleasantly organic appearance… And much more so as we see the skull and Thea’s suddenly-blank face merging in and out of each other, while out in the dark woods a hiker (not, in fact, Simon Williams, much as it looks like a famous cameo) is stalked by something horrible and finds himself rooted to the spot when he tries to run. The sound design, the eerie lighting in the night and the wordless cross-fading between Thea and the skull make it a hugely effective sequence – but it’s only an apéritif for the still more involved and tensely inter-cut build-up to the cliffhanger at the other end of Part One. Across the next day, the scientists find a dissolving corpse in the woods, we meet a cantankerous old cook from To The Manor Born and a private security guard from EastEnders, and the TARDIS lands, bringing the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) in search of a threat to the World. Unfortunately, by the time they’re creeping round behind the big old house, night’s fallen again and Thea, intrigued, has gone to take a look at the mysterious scanner. This isn’t going to end well. But, as we’re headed to a cliffhanger, that means it’s going to end brilliantly.

Alone in the secret lab, Thea switches on the ‘Time Scanner’…

On the other side of the mansion, the darkened Palaeontology lab is suddenly lit by the glowing skull…

In the woods, Leela slips from the Doctor’s side to investigate a hooded figure stalking through the mist…

Thea stares blankly ahead, her hand operating the machine as something else operates her…

The Doctor is left in the woods as something approaches with a hungry slobbering sound…

The throbbing of the scanner builds alongside the slavering noise as the yellow-orange blazing skull and Thea’s face intertwine again…

Leela follows the figure to a cottage, where it’s lying in wait with a shotgun and lets off both barrels…

And the Doctor stands, rigid, as something wicked approaches, the camera and us watching from its point of view, the Doctor’s frozen face an eerily blank echo of the opening titles as we slowly zoom towards him and into the scream of the closing music.

It’s hard to match the building terror of those last three minutes, with the voyeuristic camerawork in the dark and the horrible slobbering sound and eerie mechanical throb perfectly marrying technology and ancient horror. And there’s still the apotheosis of that most Doctor Who of all forms of death – when someone dies only to rise, hideously transformed – to come.

My brilliant Richard observes that my response to this is visceral rather than analytical, which mirrors what happens in the scene: it takes the rational scientist, Thea, and the instrument of inquiry, the scanner, and by-passes their purpose to pour horror straight through.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Macra Terror
“Well, it’s just possible that you’ve been given a series of orders while you’ve been asleep. You know – ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ‘do the other thing’… My advice to you is: don’t do anything of the sort! Don’t just be obedient. Always make up your own mind.”
Arriving on an all-too friendly planet run like a holiday camp, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his friends are given a great welcome. As long as they don’t ask any awkward questions. As long as they pull their weight. As long as they do as they’re told. In one of his most brilliant and most characteristically Liberal adventures, the Doctor senses an insidious influence while they’re sleeping. He blows a fuse. Then he goes into his friend Polly’s room and blows hers. And just wait until he gets into the boys’ bedroom…

Next Time… Right back to where I started, celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, a fabulous team, and more good advice to adults and children alike.

*Yes, I know this one’s a week late (having been more ill than usual), but at least it’s a Saturday. I hope to catch up before next week…

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Thursday, January 17, 2013


One-Day Doctor Who Fandom Challenge: Favourite Season Countdown

To start their celebrations of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary year, Jennie and Caron have embarked on a thirty-day “Fandom Challenge”, daily choosing their favourite and least favourite aspects of the series. I’ve not. Aside from my inability to get my finger out (and Richard and my both being rather ill at the moment), I don’t really like answering ‘least favourites’… So, to make up for that, here are my top ten favourite seasons (if you want me to answer another question from the meme, suggest it and I’ll think about it). And this isn’t a countdown of my favourite Doctors… Not least because Matt Smith, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker might all be nipping at the heels of my favourite, and none of them get a look in. While the Doctors may have a quite a bit to do with it, this is much more about the stories, with of course quite a bit about me, too (my top two will be predictable as ever). And although it was reading about Jennie’s favourite season and Caron’s favourite season that inspired me to think about this, I completely disagree with both of them. Hurrah!

10: Season Seven – Exiled to Earth (1970)

Possibly Doctor Who’s most consistently strong season, where I could stick every single story in front of you and say, ‘There, that’s really good, that is.’ The Doctor has suffered the egregious fate of being exiled to Earth as Jon Pertwee, and ends up semi-working for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. This means we get the awesome Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), at pretty much his most awesome and, to start with, very much the lead, and Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John), the companion so brilliant and capable that she could only last one year. On the downside, it can be rather too consistent: in theory, it’s virtually all on Earth in the same period (the 1980s, probably. What? What?). I say ‘in theory’, because perhaps surprisingly, what you might think of as the UNIT paradigm of day-after-tomorrow Earth (probably being invaded) lasts precisely one story before they start undermining it. Still, with the Doctor all mouth and no TARDIS and with not much sense of playfulness, there’s something vital missing. Still, if you like your Who with a bit of a Quatermass flavour and a strong moral centre yet also lots of shooting, this is a bold, terrific relaunch for the series.

Great stories: Doctor Who and the Silurians, Spearhead From Space, The Ambassadors – SPROING! – of Death

9: Season Twenty-Nine / Season 2007 / Series Three – You Are Not Alone (2007)

One of the two Twenty-First Century seasons that really stand out so far, this captivates me with a powerful through-theme about what it means to be human, running alongside the Doctor’s story as ‘last of the Time Lords’. In both themes, after a fun but less focused season in between, this is from lead writer Russell T Davies’ natural, more reflective, more pessimistic successor to 2005’s return. From the mirroring of the last of Boekind and the last of the Daleks, then the last of humanity, to the ‘A Deal With God’ mirroring of the Doctor’s watch against the Master’s, the themes are carefully intertwined. This season’s favourite horror trope is more thematically consistent again, too: where Season 2005 was all walking dead but 2006 packed in a wide variety of horror / fairy-tale tropes, this time there’s a strongly vampiric feel, with repeated transformation and consumption of humans – starting with the Empress of the Racnoss, who feasts on us, transforms Donna and has a history much like that of the Great Vampires and the Yssgaroth, and carrying on through the plasmavore, the Carrionites, the various Dalek-human hybrids, Professor Lazarus transforming to give himself more life then sucking the life from his victims, the crew sucking the life out of a sun and possessed by it in vengeful turn, the Family wanting to consume the Doctor’s long life, the Weeping Angels leeching life and time from their victims, the cannibal Futurekind and the “Toclafane” prolonging their lives but losing their humanity, to ultimately – and most disturbingly – the Buffy vampires-as-demons-entering-a-human-body-and-giving-it-superpowers-while-overwhelming-the-personality idea inherent in the way that both John Smith and Professor Yana meet their ends… With the bonus of David Tennant finding his feet as the Doctor in suffering (and possibly through Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones giving him a kick in the arse).

Great stories: Human Nature / The Family of Blood, Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, Gridlock

8: Season Thirteen – Body Horror (1975-6)

Tom Baker’s second season as the Doctor, and his second in one year – and what a year! – sees more horror, but of a very different kind to Season Twelve. The Doctor himself is at his most grim and brooding; Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith really comes into her own; and where the previous season had strong underlying themes emphasised by its own largely monochrome colour palette, here it’s as if the colour leads the stories – but what colour! The most visually startling of any Twentieth Century season, it explodes into rich, visceral, organic colours for stories which are, appropriately, the series’ most consistently horrific, with a recurring motif of body horror and possession and scientists changing from the previous season’s fascists to dangerous meddlers who disturb something horrible. Science was the sterile future; now it awakens the dark past and the all-too-fertile body. This time, there are very few references to Doctor Who, but an awful lot to famous horror stories: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man / Jekyll and Hyde, Mummies, Triffids, zombie android body-snatching pod-people… Plus starting with the Zygons, the series’ best one-off monsters between the Quarks and the Reapers. While in theory the season returns surprisingly often to UNIT, paradoxically it’s only to emphasise how far away the series has moved, and the defining stories are the ones with the fabulous historical setting, dark god and glorious score, the stunning alien world and nightmarish sci-fi burial alive, and the series’ own myths and black humour that herald what’s to come. This season establishes what feels like the most settled old Who pattern – five four-episode stories followed by a big six-parter that takes what’s gone before to its natural conclusion – but its vivid, thrilling tone has its own weaknesses: everything tends to get blown up at the end, there are very few women, and there’s little playfulness to leaven the mood. For all those reasons, it’s a terrific though flawed season, and perhaps the very best ever to show to small boys.

Great stories: Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, Planet of Evil

7: Season Twenty-Six – New Games (1989)

Doctor Who’s last TV season of the Twentieth Century draws elements from many earlier ones – echoes of the very first story in its earthly child, of Season Seven’s almost entirely Earthbound setting and a world destroyed in the finale, of early Tom’s horror stories – but has an assured, mature confidence of its own. And though the BBC brought Doctor Who on screen to an abrupt pause, Season Twenty-Six looks forward, too, inspiring one of the greatest eras of Doctor Who, though sadly most of the New Adventures weren’t on the telly. That’s a fitting legacy for one of the most intelligent, innovative and impressive years in the history of the series. Sylvester McCoy had already become a darker Doctor; here, he and lead writer Andrew Cartmel add more subtle shades, with a more complex character and morality than the judgemental destroyer of the previous year. This gives his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) more focus, with female empowerment another running theme (as the current DWM explores), and she brings the recognisable world in whatever strange setting she finds herself. There’s still often a dark feel, with a hint of magic – every story has something unearthly and unexplained, and each of them is packed with ideas and, looking forward to post-2005 Doctor Who, passion too.

Great stories: The Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light, Survival

6: Season Sixteen – The Key To Time (1978-9)

If Season Twenty-Six has a hint of magic, this marvellous season revels in it, the series at its most fairy-tale, fluffy and fun. Tom Baker’s enjoying himself as the Doctor, Mary Tamm’s Romana is icily fabulous, and this is easily the best season for K9 (John Leeson), all now collected together in a DVD box set for the show’s first serious ‘story arc’. Which, despite impending doom for the entire Universe, is rarely serious at all. The sheer entertainment of the actors and the style is massively boosted by some of the best writers ever to work on the Doctor, who include Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes and David Fisher (the most underrated, but who for my money gets the best balance of character and wit here, and is rather grown-up about sex). A compelling Doctor and companion having masses of fun, witty scripts, love, magic, a story arc, vivid women characters and even filming in Wales… It could almost be the series in the Twenty-First Century, if you stepped up the pace and budget and added all the old enemies. While the sparkly magical themes of quests, citadels and evil queens appear very cohesive on the surface, the battles between or rejection of gods underneath keep pointing in different directions – perhaps because producer and writers had different ideas about all-powerful superiors. And the stories themselves feature the Doctor sent on a mission from God, at which point he gets involved in a small-time scam and ignores the ‘important people’; the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare – young people today who are gay hoodies; a fabulous killer lesbian and sausage sandwiches; a summer holiday running around the countryside, playing at swordfighting with a moustache-twirling villain; more buttocks and tentacles on show than Torchwood; a skull on a stick, and the most Doctorish possible answer to absolute power…

Great stories: The Androids of Tara, The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet

5: Season Eighteen – Decay and Change (1980-1)

Tom Baker’s final season is something wonderful and strange, not the dry science it’s often dismissed as but a much older sort of story underneath: I may be the only person who loves both this and Season Sixteen to bits equally, and sees that amid their very different tones, both are making, in their own way, sci-fi fairy tales (just as Mr Moffat says he’s making today, and just as distinct from each other as they are from his). The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ from lead writer Christopher H Bidmead, this is one of those seasons that work best when you watch all the way through. Events cast shadows before them, and with Season Eighteen the long shadow of Tom’s departure, no wonder it’s so often hymned as “Change and Decay”. But it’s really the other way round – just as it’s wrong to see regeneration as a funeral, in a season of Decay and Change, every story features things set in their ways before collapsing, then ends in rebirth, whether people, societies or ultimately our heroes. By the season’s end, everything has changed, but with an irresistible sense of hope. Sombre yet still wittily quotable, beautiful but scary again, with gorgeous music and every penny seeming well-spent on great design thanks to new producer John Nathan-Turner, five stories out of seven brilliant and only one a bit saggy, I’d call it a triumph were it not for the sober tone. It makes for two striking bookends, as well: though all of Tom’s seasons have an unusual degree of thematic unity, this one closes his reign more coherently than any other since his first; and, the first season broadcast in the ’80s, it’s way ahead of any other season of the decade until the final one.

Great stories: The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, Full Circle (Warriors’ Gate, The Leisure Hive)…

4: Season One – Wanderers in the Fourth Dimension (1963-4)

Several brilliant people invent the best idea ever invented in the history of the world and Verity Lambert and David Whitaker put it on TV with the impossibly brilliant William Hartnell as the Doctor to take us on adventures in time and space. And it’s not just a cracking concept, but a cracking start, nailed from the very beginning with perhaps the greatest single piece of television ever made, and the pieces rapidly come together with that theme, with the TARDIS, then with the Daleks and their world. The sound and visual design is inspired, and unlike anything else: weird and disorientating; dark and atmospheric; busy and terrifying; gleaming white and mind-expanding. The stories find their way into shaping the Doctor and the series in a diverse but strangely discrete assortment – for the only time, strictly split into either Earth and history or sci-fi and otherworldly – that set an amazing standard with five of the first six adventures simply superb. The great line-up of companions, especially teacher and goddess Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), do as much as the Daleks to prompt the Doctor into becoming the hero. And everyone involved creates what, fifty years later, is still an astonishing launch for a series that’s still being carried forward today on the ever-expanding edge of that first explosion of imagination.

Great stories: The Aztecs, An Unearthly Child, The Daleks

3: Season Twenty-Seven / Season 2005 / Series One – The Trip of a Lifetime (2005)

At last, Doctor Who was back on television, and more fantastic than I’d dared to hope. This is still the most coherent of the Twenty-First Century series so far, just beating 2007, with its strong running story of Christopher Eccleston’s war survivor and Billie Piper’s shop assistant journeying together and bringing out the best in each other. Yet though the key themes are of the Doctor’s journey from suicidal survivor guilt to new life and love and Rose’s from shopworker just going with the flow to deciding the fate of all time and space, with underneath it all the looming and receding shadows of the Bad Wolf and the Time War, there are two other underlying ideas with very different tones to them. On the one hand, keeping all the stories within our solar system, from human history to the end of the Earth, makes the series not just down-to-earth but about the wonder of humanity… On the other, there’s a recurring motif of the walking dead. The Autons are plastic zombies; the Doctor and Cassandra, last survivors who ought to be dead; the Gelth zombies; aliens walking round inside dead humans; the Dalek is another last survivor who should be dead; zombies staff the Satellite 5 control room; Pete, dead but walking; gas-masked zombies; Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen as Margaret Blaine, another sole survivor, again walking around in a dead person; and a Dalek army made entirely from the dead. A bright and optimistic series, then, but – as Russell T Davies said – steeped in death. The first three episodes together (or simply that trailer) are just about a perfect introduction to Doctor Who, and it’s notable how many seasons since have started off with the same present-past-future template all covered within three weeks – and it’s not just those: there’s not a single weak story in all ten. While the music and visual design (barring the TARDIS) is no longer alien and bizarre, it still looks different to anything else on TV: matching the thematic consistency, this season simply glows, beautifully. Oh, and it’s all eerily (and, given Russell’s love of it, surely deliberately) reminiscent of Season Twelve, too, in both the structure and content of the stories…

Great stories: Father’s Day, Boom Town, Rose

2: Season Twelve – New Birth and Cold Science (1975)

This was the first Doctor Who season I ever saw, and I’ve always loved it. Yet if anything I’ve only grown to appreciate it more over the years. Striking out in a bold new direction, in come Tom Baker as the Doctor, Robert Holmes as lead writer, Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and the greatest titles ever. Here are companions intelligent, capable Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and adorable, pretty Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). And it’s one of the most thematically unified seasons in the show’s history, on top of obvious links to get you from one story to the next. On screen, it’s the cold, monochromatic style that hits you – the vibrant new Doctor in red and a swirl of scarf often the only dab of colour – but the design theme reflects the scripted themes of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, a mixture of sterility and rebirth. These cold abusers of science include: the nuclear blackmailers out to ‘reform’ society on scientific lines; the chosen survivors set to resettle a world; the alien mechanically testing humanity to destruction; thrilling new villain Davros devising the ultimate form of scientific ‘progress’ overwhelming individual feeling and decision; and the battle between humanity and its half-machine ‘descendants’ (though the last story falls to bits on delivery, hey, not even everything Holmes and Hinchcliffe touched could turn to gold). With other recurring motifs such as compelling speeches, disturbing torture, and even great big phallic missiles, this is an amazingly coherent season. I was coming up to three and a half when I started watching this, and I’ve got no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn’t. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are written through me like a stick of rock, and the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane seem as natural a team as I could imagine. I love this period. It scared me as a kid, inspired me growing up, and I still find new ideas in it today. What more does a television series need?

Great stories: Genesis of the Daleks, The Ark In Space, Robot

1: Season Fourteen – Dark Religion (1976-7)

Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes – and Doctor Who – reach their height in a season with a sense of history that both builds on and goes way past what’s gone before, in style and substance, theme and design. Motifs of survival, vengeance and possession continue; colour palettes of sterile monochrome and visceral colour give way to darkness; rebirth and scaring small boys evolve into growing up; and science as fascism and science as dangerous meddling give way to science as sheer intelligence, for good or evil, pitting rationalism against dogma. You can still see them borrowing from horror, but there’s also much invention and experimentation, with a greater variety of settings and styles than in any season since the ’60s now the Doctor’s at last fully a wanderer again. Most of this season features rich, dark design aiding literate scripts in building believable societies, with the Doctor 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 full-blooded than before and leavened by vivid characters, much black humour, more satisfying conclusions than just a big bang and the Doctor finally coming out of a year-long sulk. I was five for this season, and during it Doctor Who was making my mind pop with ideas and inspiring me to start reading: I think it was Isaac Asimov who said the stories you loved the best are those you come to when you’re fourteen. Well, I wasn’t, but Doctor Who was, and made me feel like it (and did an Asimovian murder mystery here into the bargain).

The season’s key themes are laid out in 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 before finding himself another world’s absentee dad (then saddled with heretic ‘granddaughter’ Leela). And on a personal note, I had a very religious upbringing, 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 TARDIS looks like a chapel, and if you split the season into two halves (as they did, on first broadcast; how modern), both have the same structure: a Catholicism-inspired society where an evil god sets religion against science and it’s the Doctor’s fault, taking the role of Adam or Prometheus; then the Doctor faces a self-styled scientific messiah; then a masked, post-death villain from another time mixes technology with religious trappings. This has been my favourite season since it first aired, and I’ve got more out of it as I’ve got older, as good as Doctor Who ever gets – so far… And to complete this Fandom Challenge, watch a fan-made Season Fourteen trailer here.

Great stories: All of them. Obviously. But in particular, three that stand out as among the best the series has ever produced: the Art Deco character study in psychological horror and extraordinary worldbuilding; Doctor Who in the inner city, with gangs, guns, stabbings, drugs and prostitution – which, ridiculously, turns out to be one of the most quotable and sheerly enjoyable works of television ever made; and the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, not least because it tells so many stories and fires off so many ideas in so much style – so that, to take just one thing about it, after Part One you’d pin it as ‘just’ a brilliant comedy horror driven by satirical dialogue, but it then overturns expectations into first nightmarish surrealism and then an action epic where hardly a word is uttered. Isn’t that the very definition of Doctor Who, that nobody should know what’s coming next?

And if you don’t know the stories that were coming last, they were, of course, this time in ascending order, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and – if you watch only one from this page – The Deadly Assassin.

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Friday, January 11, 2013


My Doctor Who Thirty-Eighth Anniversary and DWM

Instead of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, this evening I’ve been thinking about a more personal event. It’s thirty-eight years exactly since little three-year-old me was first captivated by Doctor Who with Part Three of Robot, Tom Baker’s first story as the Doctor. I’ve analysed with enthusiasm Doctor Who’s Twelfth Season that filled the first half of 1975, as well as raving about that year as the series’ best ever as a result – and, happily, the new Doctor Who Magazine printed a letter from me saying just that, just yesterday. But to see my punchline, you’ll have to read on…

It’s one of the perils of writing for someone else’s publication that you face editing – and though under 250 words is a snip by my standards, it still got snipped. Now, usually I’d still be very happy to see it printed (and I am) without any pedantry to follow, but for me it loses something without my last line – which I’d intended as the point of the whole thing, and dropping it completely reverses the meaning.

One of DWM’s regular features is A Battle of Wits… in which Toby Hadoke and Johnny Candon, at least one of whom, improbably, I know to be a real person, debate obscure Doctor Who controversies and then invite readers to take sides. In last month’s issue, Toby argued that the best year ever to be a fan was 1983, because there was lots of stuff going on but you could only do it if you tried really hard, and though curiously he praised very little about the actual TV series that year, it was special because it had never yet been cancelled (so, Doctor Who was special because it was hard, and simultaneously because it was easy). Johnny, on the other hand, praised the series’ great return in 2005, because suddenly it was back, it was popular, and it was good. Whereas my instinct was the same as when I read Tat Wood’s long essay in About Time Volume 3 on why 1973 was, entirely factually, the greatest year ever for Doctor Who: marshal all the arguments you like to ‘prove’ it; it’s really not about the series, but about you. So, read on to the punchline:

My Letter in Galaxy Forum, DWM 456
So, Toby, 1983 was the best year to be a fan? [See A Battle of Wits in DWM 455.] How about 1975 as Doctor Who’s most brilliant year instead? A massive 35 weeks of new episodes – still the most in any year since the series went colour. Fantastic stories including two in every fan vote top ten (Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars), a favourite of both twenty-first century showrunners (The Ark In Space), all part of the first full year of Tom Baker, the twentieth century Doctor that everyone remembers. For fan-pleasing returns, Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans. For creativity in space and time, Davros, Sutekh, a fabulous Robot, an amazing jungle, Zygons and their ship that seemed grown, not made. Who can doubt that 1975 was the best? It’s completely objective truth!

My Original Letter
So, Toby, 1983 was a great year to be a fan because it was hard to do the fan things (A Battle of Wits… DWM 455)? Or because however good, bad or middling the series was, at least it was just always there? I find Johnny’s 2005 more convincing – a thrill beyond hope for old fans like me, a marvellous start for new fans, and one of the most marvellous seasons in the programme’s history. What could possibly beat it?

How about 1975 as Doctor Who’s most brilliant year instead – for fans and everyone else? For quantity, a whole 35 weeks of new episodes, still the most in any year since the series went colour. For quality, the fantastic stories include two still in every fan vote’s top ten results (Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars), a favourite of both Twenty-first Century showrunners (The Ark In Space), all part of the first full year of Tom Baker, the Twentieth Century Doctor everyone still remembers. For fan-pleasing returns, Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans. For creativity into space and time, Davros, Sutekh, a fabulous Robot, an amazing jungle, Zygons and their ship that seemed grown, not made. To take home, not just shiny new Target novels but even The Doctor Who Monster Book, with the most thrilling pictures ever.

Who can doubt 1975 was the best? It’s completely objective truth. And by pure coincidence, it’s when three-year-old me started watching. I bet Toby and Johnny were just as objective.

Now go out and buy DWM 456, which features an adorable* Doctor Who alphabet (surely begging to be a poster), a comic strip with one of their most memorable ‘WTF’ splash-panel endings, features on the both the last and the first of Doctor Who in the ’80s (both rather brilliant), and lots about the new (and, for me, much-improved) TARDIS design. Just don’t look at the spoilertastic pictures from the new version of The Reign of Terror (due on DVD on Richard’s birthday in a fortnight) if you don’t know the story…

*Favourites include 1975’s Zygons, obviously, Quarks, J is for Julian Glover, doing the sort of thing I do and cheating with two for R… But, most of all, another from 1975 made me go ‘Awwhhhh!’ H is for Harry Sullivan. From Trumpton.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 47: The Rescue – The Powerful Enemy

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… It’s my first choice of the fiftieth anniversary year itself, so it’s back to the beginning: today, William Hartnell would have been 105 years old. The Doctor – the original, you might say, and over the years he’s become my favourite. The Rescue is a great place to start for Mr Hartnell, a short adventure that nevertheless showcases his versatility – stern, kindly, vulnerable, intelligent, embarrassed, and often funny here, too.
“Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.”
“Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you’re feeling better. Hmm!”
Doctor Who 50 – The Rescue

People often dismiss the youngest Doctor (William Hartnell) – the one looking like the oldest man – as a grumpy old thing, not least because when we first see him he’s terrific but not kind in running rings round his companions and takes a while to warm. Yet Mr Hartnell was an amazingly versatile actor and I can’t think of another Doctor with more facets. First broadcast at New Year 1965, The Rescue is in effect Doctor Who’s first relaunch, and some say it softens the Doctor’s character: well, only up to a point. What it really does, as a small character piece, is introduce a companion and reintroduce the Doctor by giving Billy a chance to shine in many different ways, not least as the only person who sees everything that’s going on in the story. And he’s fantastic.

I love Billy for his speeches and his passion, and there’s plenty of that here – at the climax of the story, he follows his previous ‘courtroom’ triumphs with a stunning confrontation in an awesome Hall of Judgement. He charms budding companion Vicki with his understanding when his other friends have been winding her up, then is chuffed to bits overhearing what she thinks of him, and at last, eyes full of wonder, promises her friendship and an abundance of adventure. He promises her he’ll be diplomatic… Which last about ten seconds before – though he’s the last Doctor of whom you’d expect it – he picks up a girder to use as a battering ram and determines on breaking a door down. William Hartnell turned presence learned as the stern sergeants and ruthless crooks of his film career into the perversely authoritative anti-establishment Doctor… But he was also a fine comic actor, as previously seen when the Doctor erupts in inappropriate giggles in Marco Polo, or coming in a string of comedy moments in the next story, The Romans (in a double-DVD set with The Rescue which ought to be called, but which you won’t find labelled as, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vicki’). And my favourite scene in The Rescue perfectly displays two of the elements of this Doctor that are most often forgotten: his talent for comedy, and his vulnerability…

The TARDIS has arrived on an alien world, literally a beacon of light in the dark, and on board the Doctor’s companions Barbara and Ian are a little worried: she’s noticed that the vibration of flight has ceased, and that means that for the first time, the Doctor’s slept through a landing. They rouse him and he comes to, embarrassed but charmingly tactile with his friends, pretty much giving each of them a hug, so when Barbara breaks his flow to try and tell him what’s happened, he gets entirely the wrong end of the stick and clasps her hand to his breast in concern and relief that she’s getting over it. Then’s more embarrassed when he realises what she actually meant.

Well, it always tickles me, anyway. He’s never seemed more naturalistic and like a kindly old grandfather than here – and yet (another scene I featured in December) he’s just had to say goodbye to his Granddaughter, something that suddenly hits him, and hurts him, as he starts to ask her to open the doors and falters. Barbara helps him over his abrupt vulnerability with kindness; Ian thinks he’s lost it and takes the piss, only to get caught by the Doctor, still as sharp as ever. And we’re shown that not just in his comic upbraiding of Ian, but in the beginning of the Doctor as the man who’s been everywhere and can apply his experiences: he recognises the planet by its smell, and when Ian encounters a threat, the Doctor knows more about it than his exasperated friend telling the tale (with more comic business in wondering if he can get away with pretending he landed there deliberately before remembering that he did it in his sleep, playfully undercutting the danger of his becoming a know-it-all). And that experience – and his continuing willingness to get stuck in – is crucial to the story… For all that the Doctor might seem very different at a glance today, watch a bit of The Rescue and you’ll realise exactly where he comes from.

Oh, and should you buy The Rescue / The Romans on DVD – you should – even more than for most of the range, hit “Play All” before you watch the menus. Many of the Doctor Who DVD menus conspire to pack as many spoilers into as few seconds as possible, but the clips played across the Special Features menu here win a special ‘What were they thinking?!’ prize. Watch this story without spoilers.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Doctor’s Wife
“Do you not know me? Just because they put me in here?”
“They said you were dangerous.”
“Not the cage, stupid. In here. They put me in here. I’m the – oh, what do you call me? I – we travel. I go vworp vworp.”
As if to prove that the Doctor – and the TARDIS – could seem almost unrecognisable after so long, here’s a jump from less than two years into the series to less than two years away from its Fiftieth Anniversary. In The Rescue, the Doctor was deep in the arms of Morpheus; now he’s written by Neil Gaiman. Here’s the Doctor (Matt Smith), excited then hurt and vulnerable; here’s an alien planet in the dark; here’s the TARDIS, in a junkyard. Completely different, then. All right, so the TARDIS looks a bit different this week: she’s a mad woman out of her box, and even the Doctor takes a minute to recognise her as the one who wanted to see the universe, stole a Time Lord and ran away.

Next Time… Time for a scary bit – the skull beneath the skin.

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