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23 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 478: Horror of Fang Rock, Episode Four

Dear diary,

There’s something really quite unsettling about just how carefree the Doctor and Leela appear as they make their way back to the TARDIS here. Considering that they’ve just finished an adventure in which everyone else in the story dies. That’s not me being over dramatic, either, everyone dies. All the guest cast. The alien. Even other members of the alien’s race - who only turn up in the last half of this final episode - all get slaughtered. It’s a very bloodthirsty story… and it really works all the better for it. In many ways, this is a hugely brave choice for an opening serial: not just because it’s a fairly downbeat way of introducing the new run, but because we’re supposed to be at the dawn of a new era for Doctor Who, with a new producer who has been specifically asked to tone down the violence. Oh.

All of this is just my way of darting around simply saying again how much I’ve enjoyed this story. It’s not perfect, though I’d struggle to pick out any specific things that I’ve failed to enjoy, and I dare say that one of the biggest strengths and the biggest weaknesses of the tale is just how much it feels like something from the last season. It’s everything that Season Fourteen did well, being done very well, but I’ve come to expect that from the programme now. I want to see something new, and watch the TARDIS start to venture out and tread new ground in the universe.

Mostly, I think I’m just pleased to see that my opinion on the story as a whole has changed since the last time I watched it. That’s one of the funny things that I find with Doctor Who (and I’m hoping other people get this too, and it’s not just be being a little odd!) - there’s so much of it, I sort of lose track sometimes about which ones I like and which ones I don’t. Just recently, I was talking to a friend about one of the Hartnell stories and telling them how I had a strange urge to watch it again because I’d enjoyed it so much the first time around. He then proceeded to point out that - actually - I’d rated that one fairly low, and hadn’t found all that much to love in there.

It’s one of the best things about Doctor Who, too. I genuinely think that I could pop in An Unearthly Child the day after I finish this marathon and do it all again: one episode a day, every singe day, writing down my thoughts and scoring out of ten every time… and you’d end up with different ratings to what I’ve given it in this run though. Part of that will be because I know what to expect, so maybe I’ll be rating fairly (or, conversely, I could be rating harsher!), but some will simply be down to the way I feel on the day and seeing the story with a different frame of mind.

I think that may be why Doctor Who never seems to get old for me. 

23 April 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Simon Guerrier

RRP: £8.99 (CD) / £7.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2014

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 23rd April 2014

Years after he gave up travelling in the TARDIS, Steven Taylor is the deposed king of a distant world.

From the confines of his cell, he shares his story with a young girl called Sida.

And one story in particular – a visit to a whole world at war, which will mark Steven for life…

* * *
Steven Taylor’s life after leaving The Doctor in The Savages has been explored very little in Doctor Who spin-off media. In this newest release of The Companion Chronicles, we not only get to see what has become of Steven but how a certain adventure in his past helped him to get there.

The War To End All Wars is an interesting story of a damaged society trapped in constant battle and though the twist of what is actually happening is not exactly original it is how it relates to the framing story of the older Steven that gives it more power. 

Things haven’t gone too well for Steven. Now a deposed ruler, he sits in his prison cell with his books pondering over the society that he stayed behind to help many years ago.

This older Steven is much wiser than his younger counterpart and his reflections on power and the use and abuse on it really do make up the heart of this story. 

Simon Guerrier’s script is very good and is given vivid life by the brilliance of Peter Purves. The Companion Chronicles have been a excellent showcase for this very talented actor who has over the course of many stories breathed new life into a character he first played in 1965. The Doctor appears very little in this release so it allows us to see more of Steven when not guided by him.

The main story despite some predictable elements is a cracking little yarn but I found myself being attracted much more to the framing narrative between Steven and his young companion Sida played very well by Alice Haig. As Steven tells us about what happened to him on Comfort, we get little hints from Sida that things are much worse in Steven’s present than they ever were in his past.

There is a new story just beginning as this one closes and knowing that The Companion Chronicles are soon to be at an end this is rather sad. I would certainly like to see where the threads started here would lead to as I am very much interested in hearing about the future of Steven Taylor.

23 April 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2014

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 23rd April 2014

The TARDIS lands in the cargo hold of luxury space cruiser the Moray Rose. The crew and passengers are missing. The agents of Inter-Galaxy Insurance are determined to find out what’s happened and the shadowy Interplanetary Police Inspector Efendi is showing a very particular interest.

Caught up in all this, the Doctor and Leela find themselves facing a horde of metal mantis-like aliens. But throughout it all, Leela is haunted by terrible nightmares and the dawning realization that everything she knows about her life is a lie.

* * *
The Master, that dastardly arch nemesis of our favourite Time Lord returns in the latest release of Season Three of The Fourth Doctor Adventures

The Evil One is essentially and unashamedly an elaborate revenge tale. Using the companion as his weapon to kill The Doctor is a believable course of action for The Master, and it develops at a rather cracking pace. Supporting characters are introduced and discarded rather quickly, but the focus always remains on the brain washed Leela hunting The Doctor.

A considerable atmosphere of foreboding is introduced very early on as Leela is plagued by strange dreams, false memories and hallucinations. It pays off in a clever little cliff-hanger that pays homage to Leela’s first television story The Face of Evil. Prior knowledge of that story is not necessarily required to listen to The Evil One, but it certainly makes a lot of the references more enjoyable.

The great revelation of this story is the exploration of some of Leela’s past.

The final scene between The Doctor and Leela is beautifully written and played to perfection by the leads. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson really do cement their Doctor/Companion relationship with this scene. The joy of their reunion since the start of The Fourth Doctor Adventures is watching how gradually the writers are opening up the character’s relationship and here Briggs really expands it with wonderful results.

Geoffrey Beevers is a deliciously evil as The Master, refining his very silky interpretation of the character with each of his Big Finish appearances. His Master is very well suited to Baker’s Doctor, just as Delgado was to Pertwee and Ainley to Davison.

The supporting cast is made up of Gareth Armstrong as Arthley and Blake’s 7's very own Michael Keating as Calvert. Arthley is a thinly sketched character whereas Calvert has much more to do and has some excellent scenes with Tom Baker.

The Evil One is a great little story from Nicholas Briggs whose excellent script and tight direction make this a very enjoyable and surprisingly moving story.

22 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 477: Horror of Fang Rock, Episode Three

Dear diary,

The 50 Year Diary Day 477… or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fang Rock”…

I don’t know if it’s just be being a Doctor Who fan, but I’m constantly on the edge of my seat in anticipation of disappointment at the moment. Right from the start of this story, I’ve been waiting for it all to go wrong. For the story to come crashing down around me, and to open one of these entries by bemoaning the fact that it had all seemed so promising. Actually, I think I can tell you exactly what the problem is - I discovered that the Hinchcliffe era of Who was my highest-rated on average, so there’s a voice in the back of my mind that tells me everything has to suddenly turn disastrous.

But it’s not happening! Well, not yet, anyway. Once again today, I’ve found myself completely riveted by the events unfolding on Fang Rock, and I almost don’t want to write this entry: I just want to stick on the next episode and see how it all ends. I think the story is helped by the fact that I was expecting a simple runaround. The Doctor and friends are trapped in a lighthouse with a glowing alien blob. Oh no! What we’re actually getting is a tightly-executed lesson in building tension and really hooking in a viewer. We know what the threat in the story is - we’ve had point-of-view shots since the first episode, and we’ve now seen shots of the creature on a few separate occasions - but it still doesn’t feel as though we’re really confronting the monster. Dragging out the tension, and the games being played with the creature, is making this story feel a little unnerving, and claustrophobic - and that’s exactly what Terrance Dicks wants.

All this confined threat is only ramped up by the fact that this is such a bloodthirsty story. We’d lost one of the lighthouse men shortly into the First episode, and now we’ve not only lost Reuben, but discovered that he’s been dead for a while, and it’s a walking corpse we’ve seen wandering around acting strange. It’s not a particularly uncommon theme in this type of literature - a dead person being possessed to continue on in some mission - but what makes me uncomfortable about this particular example is the way the Doctor announces it: finding the man’s body and simply commenting that he’s in a state of rigamortis, and has been dead for some time. I think it’s because it suddenly makes it very real that this man is dead - usually n Doctor Who, we move on too quickly from the dead bodies for things like this to be an issue.

We’ve also lost Lord Palmerdale now, which isn’t a great surprise. The man was too thoroughly vile to live past the end of this story. I’m starting to wonder if any of our characters are going to make it out alive, though. Adelaide is starting to grate on me and become ruder and ruder to the people we care about (in this case, the Doctor, Leela, and VInce), while we’re getting more and more hints about Skinsale’s dark deeds. I can’t decide if I want to know the information that would ruin the man, or if I’d prefer to leave it unsaid. My current guess is that maybe - only maybe - Vince could make it out alive. The legend of the beast says that two of the three keepers died, while the other lost his mind… and Vince is the only one of the trio left alive at this point…

Despite all this darkness, there’s an awful lot of humour to be found in the story still. Palmerdale was a key source of laughs in yesterday’s episode, but much of that is gone for the final minutes of his life here. Instead, it’s Leela who once again lights up the screen for me. I love her slapping Adelaide (I think I may ever have cheered a little…), and her assertion to the Doctor that she’s only a savage being met by his response - ‘come along, savage!’ I think it’s moments like these which may save this story from becoming completely overtaken by the darkness… 

21 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 476: Horror of Fang Rock, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Oh, I’m so happy. I approached this episode with so much trepidation. Vague memories of not liking the new guest cast from the ship mixed with very few memories of anything else about this story left me thinking that it was probably about to take a bit of a nosedive in quality. In fact, I’ve laughed my way through all the comedy elements of the tale, while simply enjoying everything else about it.

Let’s start with the quest cast. Lord Palmerdale was the character I had in mind when I was complaining about not really caring for these characters, but he’s actually the best of the bunch. He’s thoroughly slimy and manipulative, but that gives him a certain air of humour that I can’t help but love. Sean Caffrey (in his only Doctor Who role) gives a really rather brilliant performance, and he’s does a nice trade in those ‘Martin Freeman’ style facial expressions, staring round in exasperation when Vince is fawning over Adelaide before him. I can only assume that he’s set to die before the adventure is done - he seems purpose-designed for that.

What’s interesting, in an era where monsters have very much become the forefront of the programme again, is that we’re now half way through this story and we’ve only had a single, very brief look at the threat we’re facing. So far, we’ve got one dead man, and the Doctor running around telling everyone (and us) that we should be on guard, and afraid, but there’s nothing really which makes the terror tangible. It’s best illustrated in the cliffhanger: Instead of something like Terror of the Zygons, where the cliffhanger involves Sarah Jane turning round and screaming while giving us our first clear shot of the monster, here the attack happens off-screen - we hear Reuben scream, the Doctor runs to find him, and we end with a simple ‘what the devil was that?’

It makes the threat so much more real, and I think it’s a testament to the story that I’m so gripped by it in spite of the relative lack of monster. We’re watching a story which excels in ramping up the drama and the tension, and I think it’s likely to really pay off in the next couple of episodes. The only downside is that the one shot of the creature that we do get in this episode is a bit of a let down - the scale is all over the place! For a moment, I thought Leela was looking at a tiny, insect-sized creature on the rail of the lighthouse (and I suddenly wondered why I couldn’t remember it growing by the end of the story - possibly with the more electricity that it absorbs?), but then I realised it must be down on the rocks below. But what size is it meant to be? I vaguely recall it being about the size of a dog, but am I just assuming that now? Hopefully we’ll get some better shots of it once the reveal has been made properly - it’s far more effective when simply seen as a rock pool glowing green when the Doctor turns away from it.

Ah, yes, the Doctor. It’s been a while since I’ve really pointed out just how good Tom Baker is, but it really does need to be done again here. I worried that now we were in his fourth season he may start to tire of there role a bit. I know at some stage he starts to go a bit over the top and just do whatever-the-hell he likes with his performance, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here. In fact, I think Louise Jameson’s style may be rubbing off on him - when he hears the tale of ‘the Beast of Fang Rock’, he stifles a smile at Reuben’s expense. It’s only a tiny action, and it would be easy to miss, but it really adds something to the scene. Jameson’s performance is full of these tiny moments: and it’s what makes her performance one of the best we’ve ever had. She does it today - the way she acts when left alone at the top of the lighthouse, entirely bored by having to operate the foghorn, but then finding ways to enjoy the task.

While I’m at it - that foghorn is one of the best bits of the episode. Right at the start, Reuben makes a point of saying that it must be kept up from now on, every few minutes. As they venture out to explore the rocks and look for survivors from the ship, the horn sounds at regular intervals in the background. I wondered just how long they’d keep it up for before fading it out in favour of simply showing us the drama unfolding downstairs… but they don’t! At regular intervals right the way through the episode, we get blasts of the foghorn to jolt us upright: it came as a shock on most occasions! It’s just another of those little things that really does help add something extra to the story, and I’m glad they went to the trouble of doing it. 

20 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 475: The Horror of Fang Rock, Episode One

Dear diary,

You know that feeling you get in the morning of New Year’s Day? You’ve spent the night before seeing out the old year and telling yourself that this is it: brand new year, brand new start. You might make resolutions, you might simply decide to do things differently, but it’s a whole new world. And then, the sun rises. January 1st is simply The Day That Follows December 31st. It’s not a brand new year at all - it’s the same old year with a load of tidying up to do from the night before. I’ve got that same feeling with The Horror of Fang Rock Episode One. I finished yesterday in a mixture of happy and sad feelings towards the end of the Philip Hinchcliffe era. As much as I’d enjoyed it, the time felt right to move on into a new style, before the old one wore thin. And then today’s episode… well, it wouldn’t feel out of place in Seasons Thirteen or Fourteen.

You’ve got a remote, isolated setting. It’s night-time, and there’s plenty of atmosphere (here rolling in on the mysterious fog). The Doctor and Leela have rocked up in the middle of the night and it’s the early Twentieth Century. There’s a feel to this story which I can imagine people calling ‘gothic’ simply for lack of any better term. In short, it feels a bit like a horror movie. This isn’t the bold new start that I was expecting at all. I have a feeling that’s going to come with the next story (in the same way that The Ark in Space is a lot more like Hinchcliffe Who than Robot was), so I’m just going to carry on.

All of this sounds a bit like I’m complaining, when of course I’m not. All these elements, familiar as they may seem, add up to make a truly great opening episode. There’s plenty to hook you in, and I’m captivated by the whole lot of it right from the start. I have seen The Horror of Fang Rock before, but it’s so long ago and so wiped from my memory as to be practically new to me. I’d forgotten, for example, that the dead lighthouse keeper gets up and goes missing (though I now have vague memories of him coming back for a confrontation on the stairs, maybe?). I’d forgotten that Leela takes it upon herself to venture out onto the rocks to investigate, while the Doctor heads upstairs to get his knowledge from the ‘locals’. I’d also forgotten just how good the serial looks.

I’m in danger of becoming horribly repetitive lately, because I seem to be giving a lot of praise to the set design in every story, but it really does need to be brought up again. They do a great job of making the lighthouse feel really cramped, while making the vast open rocks feel just as overbearing and claustrophobic. The lighting and the ‘fog’ all help towards this, of course, but it’s a great way of opening your season. It feels so rich, and real. It’s a shame, then, that it’s let down somewhat by the model ship in the cliffhanger. I don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but the lingering shot of the ship brushing against the rocks led me to think that more was to come of it. After some truly great model work in the last few years, this felt like a bit of a damp squib.

I also worry that the addition of more characters to the story will start to take something away from it for me. I have a vague recollection of not much caring for the guest character in this tale, and I worry that it may end up putting me off. Still, if worst comes to worst, I can at least enjoy this as a great start to the season.

 

19 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 474: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Six

Dear diary,

There’s an awful lot packed into this final episode, but it doesn’t feel bloated at all. Indeed, there’s just enough to hold the interest right through to the very end, and you come away from the story with a real sense of contentment. It’s possibly the most competent season-ender that we’ve ever had from the programme - it feels (and looks) truly special, and you’re left with the thought that the Doctor and Leela are headed off for adventures new. It’s funny to think that - in the original plan - this could have been Leela’s final story in the programme. I don’t know if the plan was to leave her behind with Professor Litefoot (although that would be fitting, and the idea of him teaching her to become a lady would be great fun), but I’m rather glad they opted for a different route. We’ve only had Louise Jameson in the programme for three stories, but she already feels like part of the furniture. I’m hoping that her strong characterisation and performance continue on into the new season - she’s very quickly becoming one of my favourite companions.

Speaking of which… can I count Jago & Litefoot as companions, too? I suppose that they’re not, in the traditional sense, but thanks to their continued life on audio, they have now experienced a further adventure with the Fourth Doctor, and they’ve even travelled through time and space with the Sixth! No matter what their status, they’ve been truly great value for money throughout this story, and especially so in the last two episodes, when they’ve been brought together. There’s no wonder, watching this, that the BBC considered giving them their own TV spin-off at the time, and I’m not surprised that it’s worked so well for Big Finish on audio. They’ve just recently released the seventh series, with another three already commissioned. See the ‘extra’ section for today’s entry for a bit more on their own adventures.

I’ve really nothing more to add on the subject of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s one of those tricky stories where I’ve simply enjoyed the experience of watching it, and have really very little to comment on. Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to say farewell to Philip Hinchcliffe, who’s been steering the programme since the Fourth Doctor stepped foot in the TARDIS 75 days ago. For as long as I can remember, people have told me that the Hinchcliffe era of the programme is the strongest that it’s ever been, and I’ve always been sceptical. I love too many other eras, and this isn’t one that I’ve ever really paid that much attention to. I’m surprised to learn, then, that when you take the average ratings of this era into account (including those stories from Season Twelve, which were technically commissioned by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks) it comes out with an average rating of 7.46 - the highest average rating that any producer has achieved up to now. Indeed, it even blasts the previous winner (Innes Lloyd) out of the water, where he’d averaged a 6.90.

I’m genuinely quite shocked by this. I mean… I know I’ve been enjoying the series of late, but you sort of get used to it just bobbing along at a steady level. You forget how this averages out over time to create a very strong period. And yet, despite this, I don’t think this era is lodged as fir my in my mind as some of the others. Maybe it’s because I’m still deep in the thick of it, and there’s a lot more Tom Baker to come, but nothing really stands out from the crowd here in the way that things do from other eras. There’s few stories from the last three seasons that I’m gagging to go back and watch again, in the way that I am with - say - The War Machines, or The Macra Terror, or Inferno.

It’s been a bold period for the show, and probably the most confident that it’s been since those early Hartnell years when the programme wasn’t afraid to go anywhere and try anything. We’ve veered into more violent and graphic territory than ever before, and we’ve got a Doctor who so completely inhabits the part. I’m really interested to see how my feelings develop as we move forward into the Williams era. From where I stand now, at the end of Season Fourteen, I’m simply expecting it to be ‘cheap’. That’s the only thing that I think I really know about the period to come, and after stories like this one and The Robots of Death, that may come as something of a shock to the system…

Day 474 Extra: *Jago & Litefoot: The Final Act*

The Jago & Litefoot series has never been shy of shaking up the format a little bit. After the first two seasons, in which the pair got themselves involved in a few adventures of their own accord, the third series brought Louise Jameson into the cast as Leela, who arrives back in Victorian London and joins in with their exploits. The Fourth Season sees the introduction of the mysterious Claudius Dark, who isn’t quite what he seems, and then the Fifth Season goes for the biggest shake-up yet – depositing our Valiant Victorians in the middle of the Swinging Sixties.

Just the one box-set – four stories – takes place in the 1960s, but there’s a thread running through those adventures which leads up to The Final Act: a sequel to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. When I first heard the story, it didn’t make a great deal of sense to me. There were enough bits and pieces that I could pick up from simply hearing the story, but a lot was lost on me because I’d never watched this Doctor Who tale. As I’ve made my way through over the last week-or-so, I’ve been growing ever more keen to give this adventure another listen, to see how it fares once I know the story it’s following up from. As soon as I’d written up today’s episode, it was straight to the headphones, and singing along with that fab Jago & Litefoot theme tune…

It took me a moment to get back up to speed with events, as this is really the second half of a two-part tale. Once I was ‘back in the room’, though, I found that I simply couldn’t connect with the tale at all. It tries to act as a logical sequel to Talons - a woman has become obsessed with the thought of bringing back Magnus Greel, and it’s an ambition that her family has had for several generations - but it’s very much a love letter to this earlier story, as opposed to standing on its own right.

Almost every event in the story is a call-back to something from Talons, and mostly to things from this final episode. Obviously, some trappings are bound to crop up again, and things like Mr Sin, the Time Cabinet, and the Key are all expected. But then it’s set in the same ‘dragon temple’ as Talons, which means that we get to see the laser-eyed dragon again, and there’s a sequence in which Mr Sin hides inside and uses it to attack our heroes. Jago and Litefoot get to make their way up the Dumbwaiter again, and they even get to make some of the same jokes and comments about it. They call back to lines from the earlier adventure, with reminders that Leela used to call Greel ‘bent-face’, and mentions of things the Doctor had explained before, and we’re told several times that the Doctor had stamped on the key to smash it into thousands of fragments. 

I think my big issue is that I’m coming to this story mere minutes after watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang for the first time. Heard thirty-something years on, this would probably serve as a lovely nostalgic follow-up to the tale. Still, having finally caught up with the Doctor and Leela’s excursion to Victorian London, I can at least see why this story is so capable of inspiring love letters!

18 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 473: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Five

Dear diary,

And so, five episodes in, I’ve finally reached the moment I’ve been waiting for since the TARDIS first touched down on the streets of Victorian London - Jago and Litefoot, Investigators of Infernal Incidents, are finally together and caught up in an adventure! I’d sort of been dreading this moment as much as I was looking forward to it, to be honest. I so love the characters on audio, and they work so well thirty years later when they’re given time to develop and the room of their own series to shine in, but I worried their appearance in Doctor Who proper may come as something of a disappointment. This fear had been somewhat curtailed by their brilliant moments in the four episodes that have led us here, but now they’re together… well, it’s clear to say that they way they’re written for Big Finish is clearly inspired by the way they’re written for here, in 1977.

There’s something about the pair meeting, and Jago mistaking Litefoot for the butler which is so perfect, I actually had to pause the episode and skip back a minute or so, because I was hooting too loud to hear the rest of the scene play out. I wondered if I’d have missed something in their own series by having not seen their first appearance, but knowing the adventures they’ll go on to share over the years really adds to this first meeting. It’s exactly how you’d want this pair to meet, and were you trying to retroactively create a ‘first meeting’ for them now, I think this would be the kind of thing you’d go for.

It’s telling that much of the episode is given over to the pair so that they can make their own investigations: at times, the Doctor and Leela here feel like they’re guest characters in their own programme. It really works, though, and it’s another testament to how well the guest cast is written here. It also helps to give the story a bit of a pick-me-up at this late stage, and it almost feels as though we’re off on a new adventure, suddenly freed from the trappings of the preceding four episodes.

Although we get appearances from the theatre and Litefoot’s house during this episode, we get to spend a lot of time in a grand new location, complete with a large ornamental dragon in the centre of the room, as if they hadn’t made the point clearly enough that there’s a Chinese influence to this tale. Greel seems to imply that the place is finally finished after quite a lot of work, but I can’t help but wonder… would he not have been more comfortable staying here? He’s spent the last few weeks (at the very least) hiding out in the sewers beneath the Palace Theatre, when across town he’s got a swanky crib of his own! I get that he’s had the builders in, but surely they could have sorted him a little room to stay in while the rest of his ‘palace’ (for want of a better term) was being finished off? It feels a bit odd to suddenly reveal this opulent new home for him, having spent so long hanging around in squalor!

17 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 472: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Four

Dear diary,

The action figures for the classic series seem to have a slightly heavier focus on this mid-1970s period than any of the others. If you want a figure of the K1 Robot, Revenge-era Cybermen, a Genesis Davros, Zygons, pretty much anything from Pyramids of Mars(including Marcus Scarman!), Krynoids, Morbius, The Deadly Assassin Master, Robots from the Sandminer (complete with stickers, so you can give them all different designations), and of course, a twin-pack featuring Magnus Greel and Mr Sin. Greel even comes with a swappable head, so you can have him with mask on or off when you display him on your shelf. And yet, despite the fact that it’s these two characters from this story immortalised in toy form, I’ve always thought of the bad guy here as being Chang.

Watching through the story, he’s clearly not the bad guy – he’s simply a lackey for the real baddie. He comes across as being fairly in control during the first episode, with Mr Sin doing his bidding, and an entire cult of men at his disposal to dispose of bodies. As the story progresses, though, he continues to lose face, becoming a seemingly incompetent ‘hired hand’ to our masked phantom hidden beneath the theatre. And yet, I still didn’t expect to see him killed off by the end of the fourth episode. Maybe it’s because there’s more images of him around than there are of Magnus Greel, meaning that I’ve become more used to Chang than I have this other character, but it does seem unusual that I’ve spent so long not knowing how… disposable Chang is.

I’m excited by it, though! Now that he’s out of the picture, it really feels as though the story could go anywhere and do anything. The last couple of episodes – much as I’ve enjoyed them – have been treading water in some places, with the Doctor, Leela, Jago, and Litefoot running around after Chang. Now, suddenly, the ball has changed courts. Greel has his Time Cabinet. Chang is dead. There’s suddenly everything to play for.

It does mean that I really should address today the potential issue of racism in this story. It was brought up by a friend recently, when they told me they wouldn’t watch this one because of how racist it was for the programme to cast a white-British actor and then make him up to fulfil the role of Chang. Although there’s elements which can be uncomfortable to watch, I’m finding that it’s more often the dialogue than anything else. Strange as it may seem from a more modern perspective, this is simply something that used to happen on television in those days. It’s worth remembering that when The Talons of Weng-Chiang first aired, the BBC still broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show (and would continue to do so for almost 18 more months).

As we move into the final third of the story I really am excited to see where we’re headed. I only realised today that Jago and Litefoot have yet to actually meet, and now I’m back to being impatient to see it. Add to that wanting to see how the story all pans out, and bids adieu to Philip Hinchcliffe and I’m very excited for the next couple of days… 

16 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 471: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Oh, ok, this must be what people are talking about when they mention the rat costume in this story. I still maintain that for the most part it’s not actually bad. Oh, sure, it’s very obviously a human-sized rat costume, but shot in some ways, with plenty of shadows and in quick, sharp bursts… you can just about get away with it. But then the chase with the creature goes on that bit too long, and there’s one too many similar shots of the creature scuttling through the tunnels. It doesn’t quite hang together for me. It’s not enough to spoil the story (or even the episode), but it is a shame, all the same. Especially when, earlier in the episode, I was willing to stick up for the rat that little bit more again, when it came to eat some raw meet left out for it - once again a combination of shadows and short shots helped to make the costume look ok.

I think it’s probably hampered somewhat by appearing in a story with such rich production values. Everything in this story feels very real, and I think that’s helped by spending so much time on location. I can’t remember the last story to have such a high split between studio/location work, but this one has to be up there as one of the most in the classic series, I’d wager. Watching the ‘Now and Then’ feature on the DVD today really does hammer home just how much of the story was shot out and about, and just how far afield they went to get all these wonderful locations.

I’ve always throughout, and it’s in evidence watching that special feature, that it must have been somewhat easier to film a story like this - set in Victorian London - back then than it would be now. There’s something about the condition of the buildings, and the whole feel of some areas which has changed in the last thirty years, so that it’s a greater task now to disguise the modern trappings of the location. Take the theatre, for example. I don’t know how accurate to a Victorian theatre it is in this story, but it’s close enough to what I expect it to look like that I can successfully suspend my disbelief.

But then take a look at the more recent shots of the location: it’s all modern and 21st century. I’d go so far as to say that you’d no longer be able to even disguise the backstage areas of that location to use in a story like this. Richard Bignall, who produces the ‘Now and Then’ features, even comments that it was - at the time - one of the few remaining Victorian theatres to contain all the elements they required to realise this script, and I should guess that would be nigh-on impossible to locate these days.

And running around in all these locations is out Leela. Last week, when she first arrived in the series, I was really pleased to find that it was a proper breath of fresh air. Having spent so long with Sarah Jane, I simply wanted something different. Well Leela brings us that in droves, and Louise Jameson is simply one of the best actresses the programme has ever had the honour of associating itself with. I’m finding everything she does as Leela to be wonderful, and much of today’s episode focusses in on her investigation of the events. She’s not afraid to get stuck into the action, jumping through windows, following Chang, freeing another girl and escaping into the sewers. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite companions, and I’m really rather pleased about that. 

15 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 470: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I’ll warn you now: I’m likely to bang on about the location work during every episode of this story. I spent enough time yesterday talking about how good it all looked, but it’s almost as though they’ve gone a step further here and decided that they can up their game a bit further!

Every bit of it is stunning, from the exteriors of Victorian London through to backstage at the Palace theatre. In the same way that the power station gave The Hand of Fear a scope unlike any other in the series, these locations do the same for this story - the shot of the Doctor looking out into the huge theatre hall is beautiful, and it really helps to ground him in the real world. My personal favourite has to be the brief scene in which the Doctor steps out of professor Litefoot’s carriage, and heads off across the street. It’s a lovely location in itself, but the smoke, the extras, and the odd bits of hay littered about on the street really help to give it a texture far greater than I’m used to seeing in this programme. It looks like some of the very best location work that the BBC has ever produced, let alone simply for Doctor Who.

And it’s all helped by some really fantastic lighting. I don’t usually bother to say all that much about the work of the lighting team on the series. That’s a good thing, on the whole, because if attention isn’t being drawn to it then it means that they’re doing their job properly, and I’m getting caught up in the adventure rather than focussing in on their specific role in the production. It’s hard to ignore in this story, though, because it’s simply so beautiful. Again, a lot of it comes down to the amount of location work (lighting for film is a very different skill-set to lighting a studio set on video), but it’s absolutely flawless in every scene. The yellow hue to the light on the street, the near-darkness of the upper gantries in the theatre, even the moonlight of Litefoot’s garden, it’s all somewhat spectacular.

I’m also really loving Litefoot and Jago more and more. As I said yesterday, I’m a big fan of their audio adventures together, but I’m surprised to see just how well-drawn the pair are here. Litefoot is perhaps the most vague, but then he’s always been something of a ‘plainer’ character when compared with Jago. That’s not a bad thing - you need Litefoot’s personality to stop Jago from becoming too over the top, and you can already see his very defined character in full swing here. Passing out when he sees the ‘ghost’, claiming to be as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar (before falling right under the Doctor’s hypnotism)… it’s all very much the same character we get to hear on audio, even after six seasons.

The one thing I am finding though, is how much I prefer their voices in the audios. Both Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin are thirty-something years older by the time they reunite for their own series, and their voices are noticeably older. I think I’d say that they’re also that bit richer with age, and that really works for me. The series is set shortly after the events of this story (placing it primarily in the 1890s), but I always imagine the pair as older men, after years of adventuring. I know this wouldn’t quite fit with the time period, but it’s always the way I picture them! I’m surprised to already be a third of the way through the story, without the pair being brought together, but I know it’s just something to look forward to later on. With all the other great stuff in these episodes, I can wait a little longer. 

14 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 469: The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Episode One

Dear diary,

I tend to listen to a lot of Big Finish stuff, but vary rarely any of the actual Doctor Who lines. I tend to enjoy the series that are inspired by Who, or set in the same world, but which don’t usually feature our Time Lord pal. Counter Measures, Bernice Summerfield, even some completely non-Who things like Dorian Gray and Dark Shadows. The one that I’ve seemed to latch onto the most, though, is probably Jago & Litefoot. It’s hard to explain the excitement of a new box set from that series, and every time I tell myself to span the adventures out: do them one a week, at least, if not one a month. And then, every time without fail, I listen through all four new stories in the space of a few brief days. I can’t help myself – I just get so caught up in their world, with a lovely mix of Victoriana and the supernatural. And yet, I’ve never actually watched The Talons of Weng-Chiang! Their ‘origin’ story! Truth be told, I think I’ve always avoided it because it’s another one of those stories that people think of as unable to do any wrong, and I’ve always found that very off-putting, in case it doesn’t live up to expectations!

I know I’ve tried to watch it before. I can’t remember how far I got (though certainly not even to the end of the first episode), or what distracted me, but I ended up simply watching the special features on the disc instead. I’m surprised that it didn’t hold my interest, because this first episode is really rather good! I said yesterday that I couldn’t believe Philip Hinchcliffe would instruct the entire production team to go all out and spend whatever for his final few stories, but watching this episode does make you wonder. Right from the opening shot, with an entire screen filled with supporting artists enjoying their night out at the theatre, you can see that some real money has gone into making this serial.

But then, part of the real gloss we’ve got here is simply the result of experience. Every time we drop back into history, I end up saying ‘the BBC are very good at period settings’, but it’s worth repeating yet again – because it’s true! The Victorian age is a specialist spot in the corporation’s skill set, and you can really see that here. Every set is superbly realised, and every location is gorgeous. They’ve not held back on using the smoke machine, either, and every outdoor scene is simply bathed in the stuff! Most impressive is the fact that we’ve got so much shot on location at night! We’re still in a period where night shoots are rare, so they really do make their mark when they appear.

The shot of the TARDIS materialising at the end of a foggy street is probably my favourite bit of the location work so far. It’s got something to it that’s more impressive than I’m used to from a materialisation. Maybe it’s the atmosphere afforded by the fog, or the distance from the camera that the box appears, but it’s really rather striking no matter what the reason. That’s not to say that the rest of the location footage is lacking – David Maloney is really going out of the series in style here. Even a shot as simple as the Doctor walking down the street is given that extra something that makes it stand out.

We’ve even got a fight scene that Pertwee would have been proud of! Tom Baker doesn’t often get the chance to engage in this sort of action, so it’s actually quite nice to see it back again here. Leela getting involved (and using a Janis thorn later in the episode) is a nice link back to her origins, and I’m somewhat surprised to find her still retaining so much of her original character, even though she’s no longer being written by Chris Boucher. It feels as though they’ve drawn a really strong character, and Robert Holmes (perhaps helped by having script-edited the last two stories) has a really good handle on her. I believe that this was originally intended to be Leela’s final story (only a temporary companion to round out this season, before introducing the new ‘full-time’ Doctor Who girl the following year. Or not, if Tom Baker could get his way…), so I’m really hoping that all this strong characterisation doesn’t simply fall by the wayside once we’re into Season Fifteen.

Indeed, I think the only thing which lets this episode down a bit is the giant rat during the cliff hanger. It’s one of those effects which is somewhat infamous in Doctor Who history, and I can’t decide if it’s better than I was expecting it to be, or worse. I knew from behind-the-scenes images that the rat was realised via the age-old medium of ‘a bloke in a rat costume’, and assumed that this was the cause of it not quite working. In actual fact, the close up of the costume wasn’t all that bad (I may regret saying that if we see more of it during the next episode). What threw me were the close ups of a real rat in a model sewer. Something about this just looked wrong - actually, I can tell you exactly what looked wrong about it: it looked like a real rat in a model sewer. I’m actually quite interested to see how it looks during the resolution in the next episode, because I want to see if this is the bit that draws so much criticism! 

13 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 468: The Robots of Death, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Crikey – I bet Mary Whitehouse loved this episode! The shot in the closing moments of yesterday’s episode, where a robot’s hands close around the Doctor’s neck isn’t overly alarming (I think being part of the cliff hanger affords it a slightly ‘over the top’ feel), but there’s a shot here as one of the Vocs strangles Leela, and it’s really brutal. Even I watched it thinking ‘bloody hell’ – it feels incredibly harsh, and even though it’s brief, it really does make an impact.

You then have the moment when one of the Vocs is stabbed, through the head, with a Laser Probe. That in itself is a fairly strong image for Doctor Who, but then the creature just continues on, heading towards the camera, with arms outstretched, chanting ‘Kill, kill, kill…’ This episode is surely one of the most striking that we’ve had in a long time, if not ever. During Revenge of the Cybermen, one of the few things I found to praise was the way that the tin men were showered with bullets, only to keep on going – it’s the same thing we get here, but this time around it feels as though they’ve really upped the tension.

Director Michael E Briant was behind both of these stories, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this is such a strong area? He’s always been a very competent director (There’s a lot of things he’s done which I’ve really enjoyed, including The Sea Devils and The Green Death), but this has to be his finest hour. Fitting, probably, since it’s also the last time he’ll direct for the programme. There’s so many little directorial flourishes, which set this one out above your standard Doctor Who fare.

I said yesterday that this serial could only be described as ‘lavish’, and I think that’s still something which holds true today. After yesterday’s entry, someone informed me that, having been told he’d not be back to produce the next series, Philip Hinchcliffe gave the order that his final few stories should really go all out – budget be damned! I’m not sure if I quite believe that: Though the rebounds on budgets for Who wouldn’t have been Hinchcliffe’s problem the following year, he was still working for the BBC, so the consequences would have found their way back to him one way or another!

Still – true or not, it’s looking really rather brilliant. I always think of John Nathan-Turner as being a producer who was best at making sure that the money was seen on screen, but this is probably the first time that you’ve really been able to see how much has gone into this. There’s loads of the robot costumes – while I’m sure parts of it are clever direction to make it look like there’s more that you’d expect, there has to be a fair few to begin with, just to fill these shots. You really get the impression that this is a world populated by robots, and the idea that they far out-number the human crew (even before they start bumping them off), and they look so expensive! This extends out through the costumes for the rest of the cast, too, with everyone given their own unique (and high quality) outfits to wear, and they’re all such a contrast from the regular ‘space’ design.

I’ve said in the past how much I love the ‘grungy’ look to space stories – those ones that the 21st century version of Doctor Who is so fond of. A world in which things don’t always work. They’re greasy, and grimy, and rusting. It’s not the sterile, white future promised to us in the 1950s, but a future that’s far more believable, and not a massive leap from the world we live in today. This story presents us with a different – but equally as interesting – version of things to come. That future world, where robots exist to do our bidding. A world where the human crew of a mining mission like this can relax in the lap of luxury until they’re needed to do the more fiddly parts of the job. A world quite unlike those we usually get given in this programme. It’s been a great little side step, and I hope that other future-based stories don’t disappoint after the inventive design of this one.

 

12 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 467: The Robots of Death, Episode Three

Dear diary,

There’s a point earlier in this story when the Doctor says that people rely on robots for everything, but that they’re always unnerved by them. They’re made to look just human enough to be familiar, but they still retain a feeling of being somewhat ‘alien’ all the same. I’ve liked the design of the robots since the very first episode (and I suddenly appreciate them a lot more than I have in the past – I’ve never had the action figure of any class of robot out on display, but I’m now tempted to dig around and get them out), but I’ve never found them in any way creepy… until this episode!

We get a scene today, where one of the robots is reprogrammed to kill, and there’s a shot of the creature staring right down the camera lens, and right out at the viewer. The shot goes on that bit too long – past ‘Ooh, they really should have cut there,’ and into being actually unsettling. As the camera focuses in on the blank, expressionless face, I suddenly understood why they’re so scary – you’d not want one of them to be coming at you with its arms outstretched for murder! People talk about the Daleks being so scary because they have nothing recognisably human about them: there’s nothing in there that you can relate to. These robots are scary for the exact opposite reason – they’re very nearly human, but they don’t quite reach it.

Earlier in the same episode, we get to see some kind of robot graveyard, with a number of deactivated models. As Poul explores and finds a particularly beat-up model, we finally get a shot of the arm hanging lifeless by its side – dripping with blood. It’s actually really scary, and although it’s not really all that over-the-top, it still feels quite shocking, even in this era of pushing things right up to the limits of what would be allowed (I bet Mary Whitehouse loved this shot!)

The only thing that slightly lets the robots down for me is that they’re not all quite uniform. When several have been converted into killing machines, they’re each handed a Corpse Marker and given their targets. ‘I will kill,’ one says. ‘I will kill the Doctor,’ another adds. ‘I will kill Leela,’ the third announces, as they all turn one by one and make their way out into the Sand Miner to complete their tasks. Each one has a different voice, though! I assume it’s the actors inside the costumes delivering the lines, but I wonder if I may find it even creepier if they all spoke with the same robotic voice. This gives each robot more of a distinct personality, and that takes away some of the threat for me – they should all be more identical, allowing the thought of the army of killer robots that the Doctor speculates about.

I’m glad that one robot has a personality, mind: D84. There was something uniquely un-nerving about him during the last episode, when Leela speaks to him before finding out that he’s not supposed to have the ability, but now he’s just a really fun addition to the cast. I love his pairing with the Doctor, and I’m almost sad that we don’t get a few stories of them travelling in the TARDIS together! The Doctor and his robot detective companion – how great could that be? D84 does bring in yet more shades of Isaac Asimov’s work, though. There’s been a strong vein of his style right through this story (any story that takes a strong element of ‘robot rights’ and the idea that they’re programmed specifically to not harm humans is going to be traceable back to Asimov somewhere), but the idea of a robot detective is key in his novel The Caves of Steel.

It’s interesting that this side of the adventure is now starting to come out, just when the murder mystery aspect of it is starting to die down. Dask was one of my suspects (but then, I think most of them have been at some stage!), but it’s odd to see how they’ve given the game away here. We see his face on a screen giving orders to a Voc – although it’s covered by a video effect, you can still clearly see who it is – but then they carry on as if they’re trying to keep the secret! They cover him up for any of his subsequent appearances, as if we’re still supposed to be guessing who it could be. Bumbling mistake, or simply a lack of faith in the audience’s attention span and mystery solving skills?

The Robots of Death has been a fairly strong story so far, with plenty to enjoy, but this episode feels like it’s stepped things up slightly. I’ve praised the set design already, but during some of the opening shots of this episode I realised just how much I love the design of the main ‘bridge’, with its buttresses, and wall designs. The crew quarters are equally brilliant, and even the corridors are of a more interesting variety than usual. The only word I can think of to sum it all up is ‘lavish’ – you can really see that some budget has been thrown at this one.

 

11 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 466: The Robots of Death, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I do love a good murder mystery. I think we all do, really. I’m currently half-way through finally watching the first series of Broadchurch - it’s taken me this long to find the time! – and I’m absolutely loving it. Twists, and turns, and everyone is a suspect. That’s the best part: every five minutes I proudly declare that I’ve solved the mystery and pronounce another new character as the killer. If I do it every time we’re introduced to someone new, then the balance of probability will be in my favour when the mystery is revealed. On the subject of which – hush! I’ve managed to avoid spoilers for this long, and I refuse to fall at the last hurdle!

The Robots of Death, while perhaps not as effective as Broadchurch, is having a similar effect. The suspicion is being cast on every character in turn, and I’m constantly updating my guess as to who might be behind the murders. To begin with, I wondered if it may be a robot which has gone rogue (it’s suggested at the start of the story, with the tale of the Voc masseur). I then started to think that maybe it was a Voc which had developed its own conscience (a concept not dissimilar to Xoanon in the last story), and decided to get rid of the humans who controlled him. Then we’re given another piece of evidence – someone is actively ordering the robots to commit the murders.

My absolute favourite murder mysteries are the ones where you’re trapped in a confined space – there’s only a finite number of suspects, and the paranoia all starts to set in. It’s a concept well used throughout literature, and even Doctor Who has done it more than once. The one that immediately springs to mind is The Web of Fear, where everyone starts suspecting everyone else as the pawn of the Great Intelligence. Similarly, my favourite Agatha Christie book is And Then There Were None, where a group of strangers are called to a remote island and bumped off one by one in accordance to the words of a nursery rhyme. It’s very clever, and thinking about it while watching this story is making me want to dig out my well-worn copy again.

I’m not sure who is commanding the Vocs to kill at this stage, or quite why, and I like that. I have my suspicions, sure, but I’m not going to bring them up – this story is such a well known and popular one, that you’ll all be laughing at me if I’m wrong! I love the way that it’s being set up, though, as someone who clearly sympathises with the Vocs, and sees them as more than just servants. I think I’m right in saying that they’re dressed as a Voc when they hand over the ‘Corpse Marker’ here, though it’s surely not to make the robot think that he’s receiving orders from another of his kind? There’s a lovely shot of the killer’s feet moving along the corridor as he approaches the Voc, and it beautifully mirror’s a shot of an actual robot’s feet in yesterday’s episode. It’s little flourishes like that which really help to add a bit more to a story.

During yesterday’s episode, I commented that the model sequences in this story were particularly impressive. We get a lot of new shots again here of the Sand Miner out and about on the planet surface, but I’m more impressed today by the way full-scale shots are being incorporated into models, to create the illusion of a very long shot – almost giving us the same kind of scale in the locations that The Hand of Fear was blessed with. We mainly get these shots here to give us a distant shot of the main ‘bridge’ of the vehicle, and to show a series of gangways, through which the robots move.

I’m sure it’s not the first time we’ve seen this technique employed in the series (though I can’t quite pin-point where else it’s been used!), but it’s being done really very well here. It’s more support for my hope that we’re seeing another evolution of how good the model effects can look in this programme. The only downside is that the same close-up of a model is used to overlay shots of – what I think are supposed to be – different gangways: one with the TARDIS parked on it, and one without. As I say, I think these are supposed to suggest two different locations, but use of the same image of the model led me to wonder if the TARDIS had been moved again without me noticing!

10 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 465: The Robots of Death, Episode One

Dear diary,

The last time a writer new to the series penned two stories back-to-back was Ian Stuart-Black with The Savages and The War Machines, two of my favourite William Hartnell stories. Seeing how much Chris Boucher impressed me with The Face of Evil, and knowing how well-regarded this story is, I’ve spent today very much looking forward to this episode.

I was a bit disappointed, then, with the scenes of the Doctor and Leela inside the TARDIS. Although there’s one or two moments of genius (I love that she believes the continued use of the yo-yo to be part of the ‘magic’ which makes the TARDIS move), it doesn’t necessarily feel as though this scene follows directly on from the end of the last story. I had no doubt that the Doctor would find it pretty quick to accept Leela aboard the ship – he loves having someone around to show off to – I thought we might have at least some antagonism before he relented and took her off to see the stars. Instead, it feels as though they could have been here for a while, and there’s no mention of her sudden arrival. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have noticed this if it wasn’t Boucher writing both episodes, because I’d not have been expecting such a direct continuation of those earlier events. Still, it’s hardly the end of the world, and it’s not long before they’re off getting caught up in a new adventure.

Something that Doctor Who has always been very good at producing is model sequences. We’ve had one or two questionable ones over the years, but on the whole they’ve been one of the stronger aspects of the programme. We seemed to hit a point during the early Pertwee era, where all of the model shots moved up a gear, and became very strong. The parade of locations being blown up meant that the model makers were really able to flex their muscles! Since then, with the odd exception, things have remained at a consistent standard, to the point where you start taking them for granted again.

So it’s lovely to see this episode peppered with some especially good model effects. Right from the opening shot of the planet (which somehow seems to take a setting that could be replicated to some extent in a quarry, and yet make it distant and alien again), it feels like the effects have stepped up another stage. I’m hoping that it’s not just a one-off, and that this will be the standard from now on - because it’s gorgeous!

Coming into this episode, I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d seen it before. This is one of those stories that I’ve owned twice on DVD (in both its original release and the updated version which came as part of the ‘Revisitations’ sets), but I’m certain I’ve never watched the full story before. I had vague recollections of the Doctor and Leela getting caught in a grain store, though, and I wonder if I might have been mis-remembering this cliff hanger? The design of the ‘window’ to the various stores rings a definite bell, although I’m sure I can remember Leela being trapped behind it. Maybe that’s from later in the story, and I’ve seen more than I think I have?

Nothing else here rings a bell, mind. I know the design of the robots, because it’s so famous within Doctor Who history, but everything else is entirely new. The design of the ship, the style of the crew, their mission out on this barren world… none of this seems familiar at all. It’s all rather interesting, though, and certainly a departure from the kind of design you usually see in Who space stories. It’s nice to see a space ship which feels like it’s got a sense of artistic design to it, as opposed to being merely functional. My favourite set has to be the main control room, which manages to encompass ‘Art Deco’, ‘Tudor’, and ‘Futurism’ all at once. It’s very skilfully done, and I can’t wait to see more of this throughout other areas of the ship.

9 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 464: The Face of Evil, Episode Four

Dear diary,

‘I never know why,’ the Doctor explains to a splinter of Clara during The Snowmen, ‘I only know who…’

He is, of course, talking about the way in which he chooses people to travel with him. It seems like the TARDIS is the same - she must have given Leela a hint as to which button needed pressing for the ship to take off so quickly! At the start of this story, she thought the height of technology was a crossbow, and yet now she’s able to run into the TARDIS and set the ship into flight seemingly on first try. I’m not complaining - I really enjoyed that entire final scene, and I can’t wait to see how the Doctor’s relationship with Leela is dealt with in the next episode, since he didn’t ask her to come along.

I’ve really enjoyed Leela throughout this story. It’s felt unusual to have a companion introduced with any kind of background again. Liz is introduced fresh to UNIT, so doesn’t know any of the characters. Jo does know them by the time she meets the Doctor, but only just, and Sarah Jane is brought in to this world and introduced to them all one-by-one too. Even Harry doesn’t feel like we’re greeting him on his own terms, because he suddenly pops up as a previously unseen aspect of a team we already know. The last time we met a new companion in their ‘natural environment’ was way back with Zoe in The Wheel in Space, so it’s nice to see a return to that format here.

And I love that the Doctor doesn’t automatically plan to take Leela with him. I’d always assumed (I say that as though I’ve ever given it more than about thirty seconds thought) that the Doctor would simply reach the end of this adventure and ask Leela if she fancied a trip round the universe with him. Travel broadens the mind and all that. Throughout the story, she’s been filling the role of companion admirably, getting on well with the Doctor, saving his life and caring for him when he’s unconscious for two days… I never considered that he’d not think twice about leaving without her. It’s nice, though, because I’m never fond of the idea that one companion leaves and he just goes off to pick up the next one. You can also wonder if he already thinks of himself as having a companion in Sarah Jane. He only took her home because she couldn’t come to Gallifrey with him, and he was aiming for London at the start of this story. Could it be that Leela turning up and rushing into the TARDIS distracts him for long enough to give up on returning for Sarah?

I’m really excited by it all. I’ve said several times in the last week or so that I wanted this story to act as a fresh start for the programme, and I think it’s done just that. Tom Baker has been on fine form, and Louise Jameson makes a fantastic first impression - even down to tiny little moments, as when Xoanon forms a seat for her and the Doctor. Tom settles in and continues the conversation, but my attention was solely on Louise, who makes it clear that Leela isn’t used to this kind of furniture! It’s a tiny moment, but it’s wonderful. Even the style of there story has felt like something of a hybrid between the programme as it’s been for the last few seasons, and the way that it’ll be come about 1980. The design of the Mordee ship feels like something you’d see in Peter Davison’s era, and the costumes of the Tesh give me the same impression too. Meanwhile, the browns and reds of the ‘outside world’ feel closer in tone to what I’ve come to know since Baker took over the role. This really is something of a changeover story.

Even the effects, used to provide both the image of Tom Baker’s face in the role of Xoanon, and the final form of the computer once its mind has been cleared, feel a bit more progressive. We’re coming up on the half-way point in Tom Baker’s tenure, and we’re right at the height of the programme’s popularity. I’m really thrilled to have been enjoying this one so much, and I really hope the trend continues from here… 

8 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 463: The Face of Evil, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Oh, I thought it had all fallen apart with today’s episode. I’ve so been enjoying the Sevateem, their style, the sets they inhabit and the jungle they live in, so as soon as we introduce the Tesh, with their bizarre costumes and customs, I thought things had really gone off the rails. I even made a note about things going down hill from here. But then… I just carried on enjoying it! Yes, the Tesh costumes are bizarre (and the bowing movement they make at the start and end of every conversation leaves at least one of the actors looking as though they can’t pin-point where it all went so wrong for them), but they kind of work. Being so very… futuristic Doctor Who, they contrast really nicely with everything we’ve seen so far.

The greatest bit of design on show in this episode, though, is the spaceship they live in. The corridors are pretty plain - all white panels and mirrors - and as with the costumes, it looks like the kind of set that people always think of Doctor Who using. They’re very simple, and very basic, and very effective. They’re such a stark difference to the locations we’ve been in up to now, and the colour pallet really helps to set them apart from all the deep, Earthy colours that the Sevateem live with. And then you’ve got Xoanon’s main room, with the three big screens glaring down at the Doctor. It’s another bit of really simple design, but it’s done really well once again.

One of the working titles for this story was The Day God Went Mad. While it’s tempting to think of it as an early example of the programme taking a mid-season break before coming back with a deliberately provocative title (Let’s Kill Hitler, I’m looking in your direction), I think I’m quite glad that they decided to go down a more traditional route. Mary Whitehouse would have had a fit! That said, all the religious undertones in this story are really working well for me. It’s the Doctor’s reactions to them which are most interesting, and the way that he both seems to completely understand the way it all works while also being completely absent from it. There’s a lovely moment today when Jabel drops to his knees before the Doctor (believing him to be his lord), and the Doctor idly muses if the man has dropped something.

It’s nice to see the series playing with the idea of the Doctor as a somewhat mythical figure here. It happens quite often in the 21st century incarnation of the programme, but I’m not sure we’ve ever had it before this point. There have been instances where the Doctor has returned to worlds he’s visited before (and encountered people who remember his last visit, or at least know of it), but this is the first time that his - unseen - interference in a planet’s history has set up events that will return to haunt him in a new story. There’s lots of lovely dialogue which all fits in rather nicely with this, such as the description of the Doctor as ‘Lord of Time’, and it’s really rather enjoyable to watch.

We’re also getting lots of nice background to the Doctor’s previous visit. On screen, it’s not stated when the Doctor made his first trip to this world, but in the Target novelisation it’s placed during that moment in Robot, when he tries to flee from UNIT HQ not long after his regeneration. To be honest, I can’t actually remember the ship dematerialising during that part of the story (the light flashes, the noise begins, but then the Docto’s head appears around the door), and I’m fairly sure that it came before the Doctor had changed into his now famous outfit, though the mountain-side carving features a hint of a scarf.

That’s really just be being pedantic, though, because it’s a great place to put his first adventure. The Doctor can’t really remember it now because he wasn’t in his right mind during the aftermath of the regeneration (he only really started to settle down once all the business with the Giant Robot got underway), and that would also explain why he’s managed to make such a massive mistake when reprogramming Xoanon the first time around. The Doctor hurries off in the TARDIS, finds the Mordee Expedition, goes through the events we hear about in this episode not because he needs to, but because he’s the Doctor, and making things better is simply what he does. Before he has a chance to realise his mistake, he remembers Sarah’s voice shouting as he left UNIT HQ, and hurries back to catch up with her. It makes a lot of sense to place it in that gap, so I’m going to squint and overlook the fact that it doesn’t seem to quite work with the events we actually see in his first story…

8 April 2014

Ben Miller is set to guest star opposite Peter Capaldi when the new series of Doctor Who returns this autumn.

Commenting on his role, Ben Miller said:

"As a committed Whovian I cannot believe my luck in joining the Twelfth Doctor for one of his inaugural adventures. My only worry is that they'll make me leave the set when I'm not filming."

Miller achieved fame as half of comedy duo Armstrong and Miller before success in dramas, including Primeval and more recently, as DI Richard Poole, the central character in the first two series of the BBC’s Death in Paradise.

Miller’s partner in comedy, Alexander Armstrong, appeared in Doctor Who’s 2011 Christmas Special (The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe), playing Reg Arwell, but it’s Miller’s first time on the show and he’ll be starring in an episode written by Mark Gatiss.

Steven Moffat, lead writer and executive producer, added:

"Mark Gatiss has written us a storming villain for his new episode, and with Capaldi in the TARDIS, we knew we needed somebody special to send everybody behind the sofa. And quite frankly, it's about time Ben Miller was in Doctor Who!"

Other familiar faces confirmed to join Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in the new series, which will TX on BBC One later this year, include Tom Riley and Keeley Hawes.

Mark Gatiss' story will be Episode Three, which DWO believe to be currently titled, Robots Of Sherwood. 

+  Series 8 of Doctor Who will air in August / Early September 2014.

[Source: BBC Media Centre]

7 April 2014

Doctor Who and Mark Gatiss' An Adventure In Space And Time have both received nominations in the 2014 BAFTA's.

Doctor Who was recognised in the Audience category with the nomination for The Day Of The Doctor. It features competition from Breaking Bad, Gogglebox, The Great British Bakeoff, Broadchurch and Educating Yorkshire.

An Adventure In Space and Time was recognised in the Best Single Drama category, featuring competition from Complicit, The Wipers Times & Black Mirror: Be Right Back.

Fans can cast their vote for the Audience award on the Radio Times website.

+  The awards take place on Sunday 18th May.

[Source: Tim Vine]

7 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 462: The Face of Evil, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Because I have a vague idea about the background to this story, I know that the Doctor arrived on this planet at some point in the past, and that the computer has taken on elements of his persona. I’m not sure if I’ve seen a clip of it, or simply a still screen capture, but I know there’s a scene at some point where the Doctor’s face appears on large screens shouting at him. What I didn’t know is that the computer spoke in the Doctor’s voice. I first noticed it during yesterday’s episode (Baker has such a distinctive voice, it would be pretty hard to hide it!), but it really starts to make an impact when the Doctor begins a conversation with - in effect - himself.

‘You. Me. We. Us…’ There’s something really un-nerving about the whole exchange, and the fact we simply focus in on the empty helmet as we hear the voice seems to just make things all the more effective. The Doctor piecing things together as he goes is pretty interesting too, and I can’t wait for him to figure out the rest of his previous visit to this world. I’m also surprised to see the invisible creatures revealed to be giant versions of the Doctor’s face! It’s such a bizarre concept, that should be really rather rubbish… but it works! I think it’s because it was so bonkers and unexpected that it makes such an impact. I even had to skip back a few seconds on the DVD, just to check that I wasn’t imagining it. Mind you, if they’re just giant floating Doctor heads… then how did they make to footprints we saw in the last episode?

Considering he takes on so many different parts throughout this episode, it’s perhaps useful to see that Baker is really at the top of his game. He’s made very few mis-steps since taking over the role, but I think we’re now entering the phase where he’s really at his peak. From the serious moments to the comedic ones (I love his tennis commentary as people argue over his life!), he’s rarely been better than this. He doesn’t even come across as acting - he simply is the Doctor.

The only slight downside to this comes during his trial against the Horda pit. Watching the programme as an adult, I’m well aware that the Doctor will find a way to make his escape. There’s no way that he’s going to die here and now, and he’s not in any real threat because I know he’s got another four-and-a-half seasons to go yet. But even putting that out of mind for a moment, Baker’s performance as the Doctor is so self-assured by this point, that I think much of the tension is drained from the scene. Right from the moment where he first steps onto the platform, you just know that he’s going to be able to hit the rope and get away. It was nice to see Leela dive in, though, in an attempt to save him. She’s only known him a few hours, but he’s already made such an impact on her.

I’ve really very little to add today. I’m simply enjoying the story, and I’m really interested to see where we go from here. Although I’ve enjoyed the overwhelming majority of stories so far in this marathon, it’s not often that I find it hard to ration myself to the one episode a day. I’m used to this pace, and I find it really suits me. Were I watching any quicker, I fear that I’d have burnt out a long time ago. This story is one of those one’s where I’m actually willing tomorrow to hurry up and get here, because I can’t wait to sit down for another episode. You can’t get much higher praise than that!

6 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 461: The Face of Evil, Episode One

Dear diary,

When I was watching Genesis of the Daleks, I mentioned a work colleague who used to watch Doctor Who back in the 1970s, but only really has a passing interest in the show these days. Every now and then, he asks me how the marathon is going, and I update him as to my whereabouts in the run. I told him the other day that Sarah Jane had just left the TARDIS, and his face completely lit up. He proclaimed this to be the start of ‘the greatest run’ of Doctor Who ever made. It’s clearly made some impact, because he was able to pick out details from the next few stories beautifully. He referred to ‘Tom Baker’s face on the side of a mountain’, ‘Green Robots’, ‘The little dummy man’, ‘The Lighthouse’, and several other things which are going to be making up the Leela era, before adding that Leela remains, to this day, his favourite companion. Considering the slight apathy I seem to have been feeling towards stories of late, maybe this is a good sign?

Certainly, we’re off to a very good start for the new season. Hm? What? No, no, I’m fairly sure that this is the opening episode for Doctor Who’s Fifteenth Season. Oh, go on then…

When Series Six was announced as being split in two for transmission in 2011, there was something of an uproar in fandom. We’d grown used to the idea of a straight, 13-week run in the spring. Suddenly, there was going to be a great big gap in the middle of the series, airing half in the spring, and the rest in the autumn. They did a similar thing for Series Seven, but at the time of writing, it looks like we’re back to a straight run for this year’s set of episodes. People complained that Doctor Who had never done such a thing before, but it had in a way. What we now think of as Season Fourteen was broadcast in two chunks in the mid 1970s. The Masque of Mandragora, The Hand of Fear, and The Deadly Assassin all made up the first half of the series, running twelve weeks from September to November.

The series then took a six-week break before resuming on New Year’s Day with The Face of Evil, and continuing on through to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even the Radio Times listing for this first episode bills it as being the start of a ‘New Series’. I’ve been a bit tongue-in-cheek above when I suggest that this is the beginning of a new season - from a modern perspective, it’s far easier to think of it as all one block - but it really does feel like a fresh new start, and I’m hoping that it’s a good sign for where things are headed.

So: where do I begin with this one? I’ve never seen The Face of Evil before, though I’m sure I’ve read at least some of the Target novelisation. Not that I can really remember all that much about it, mind. The one thing that I do know is the image of Tom Baker’s face being carved into the side of a mountain. It’s a shame, really, because it’s such a striking image, and I can’t begin to imagine how brilliant that must have seemed on first transmission. It’s fun, throughout the episode, to watch people react to the Doctor as ‘the Evil One’, because it gives the Doctor a great chance for some comebacks. Tom Baker is on fine form here - it’s almost as though he’s enthused by the fresh start to things, too.

He even gets to bring in the Jelly Babies for a few appearances. I’ve been surprised so far just how little they’ve been a part of his Doctor. When people talk of the fourth incarnation, they tend to mention the long scarf, the floppy hat, the curly hair, the toothy grin… and the Jelly Babies! It’s one of the defining aspects of this Doctor, but they’ve made a surprisingly small impact on the character thus far. When Tom took over the role, I decided to start keeping count of how often he said that famous phrase: ‘Would you like a Jelly Baby?’ By the end of The Ark in Space, we were up to three mentions, but then I sort of lost track. It didn’t turn up in every story, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve heard it since those early episodes of his.

Here, though, they’re being used to great effect. I genuinely laughed out loud at Leela’s reaction to the sweets (‘They say the Evil One eats babies’), and the Doctor’s threat to poison someone with one of his ‘deadly’ sweets is similarly priceless. I’m wondering if this may be where the idea of the Doctor being so fond of the sweets really begins in earnest?

And then you’ve got the new girl. They don’t waste any time in setting Leela up as a new presence in the series, with her being front and centre in the very first shot of the episode. We’ve had contemporary Earth girls in the role of companion for a while now, and all of the Doctor’s recent companions have come to the TARDIS via UNIT (Sarah Jane is the only one who wasn’t under UNIT employ when they first met, but even she stumbled in during one of their assignments). It’s a stark difference, then, to be introduced to our new regular while she’s being put to trial in a fairly un-evolved court.

She’s great right from the start, though, standing up to the people in charge, making her voice heard, and refusing to bow down to their rules where she disagrees. When she’s then pursued through the jungle by two guards, and then proceeds to kill one of them, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a very different kind of assistant. I love that she continues to kill the people who threaten her – and I love even more than the Doctor is able to make a point of telling her not to do it. I know that she’s intended to have something of an ‘Eliza Doolittle’ vibe, with the Doctor teaching her to become a ‘lady’, and this is a great step in that direction.

It also helps that most of her scenes with the Doctor are set on that stunning jungle set. I praised the one from Planet of Evil to the high heavens (and rightly so, I think, because it was a brilliant design), but this one is up there in the same league. Once again, the majority of it is being shot on film over at Ealing, so it gives these scenes a different, richer quality than you might expect. The trees, the ‘vines’, the smoke… it all really works. The only bit which doesn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid, is the reveal of the Doctor’s face on the mountainside! I think the intention in the first shot (featuring the Doctor in the foreground while the mountain stretches up behind him) is that we don’t immediately notice what he’s looking at, but it means that I was desperately scanning the image for Tom Baker’s face, and then the impact of the sudden close up was a bit lost on me. I’m really pleased, though. After a few stories which haven’t really hit the mark, I’m glad to see that I’m not tiring of Who - I just needed a fresh start.

6 April 2014

Doctor Who is arguably one of the finest British sci-fi productions ever. In fact, this highly acclaimed TV series featuring Doctor Who  – the Time Lord – won the 2006 British Academy Television Award for being the best drama series. It also won 5 National Television Awards (between 2005 & 2010) in the UK.

In 2011 a BAFTA television award for best actor was presented to Matt Smith – the first time in the history of the show that such an accolade was awarded. More significantly, Doctor Who holds the record for the longest running sci-fi series on TV in the Guinness Book of Records. The show first aired in 1963 to 1989, for 26 seasons. It was picked up again in 2005 and is already in its 7th season.

The premise of the show for those who have not had the pleasure of seeing it is about an alien time traveller known as the Time Lord who explores the universe in his TARDIS. Of course there are many enemy combatants along the way, but Doctor Who is tasked with saving civilization and helping ordinary people at every juncture.

It has become a popular cult favourite in the UK and indeed across the United States of America. Television producers certainly hit jackpot pay dirt when they decided to reintroduce Doctor Who back in 2005. There's certainly no gamble when it comes to this show’s popularity. The Time Traveller seems to have it all figured out – much like a skilled card player employs blackjack strategy while sussing out opponents at the table!

Long may the show continue to wow audiences, far into the future!

6 April 2014

Doctor Who is arguably one of the finest British sci-fi productions ever. In fact, this highly acclaimed TV series featuring Doctor Who  – the Time Lord – won the 2006 British Academy Television Award for being the best drama series. It also won 5 National Television Awards (between 2005 & 2010) in the UK.

In 2011 a BAFTA television award for best actor was presented to Matt Smith – the first time in the history of the show that such an accolade was awarded. More significantly, Doctor Who holds the record for the longest running sci-fi series on TV in the Guinness Book of Records. The show first aired in 1963 to 1989, for 26 seasons. It was picked up again in 2005 and is already in its 7th season.

The premise of the show for those who have not had the pleasure of seeing it is about an alien time traveller known as the Time Lord who explores the universe in his TARDIS. Of course there are many enemy combatants along the way, but Doctor Who is tasked with saving civilization and helping ordinary people at every juncture.

It has become a popular cult favourite in the UK and indeed across the United States of America. Television producers certainly hit jackpot pay dirt when they decided to reintroduce Doctor Who back in 2005. There's certainly no gamble when it comes to this show’s popularity. The Time Traveller seems to have it all figured out – much like a skilled card player employs blackjack strategy while sussing out opponents at the table!

[Source: Reach Web]

5 April 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 460: The Deadly Assassin, Episode Four

Dear diary,

What with the Doctor reaching the end of his thirteenth body last Christmas, the way that a Time Lord’s regeneration cycle works has been in the spotlight a lot lately. For as long as I can remember in fandom, it’s always been a talking point, and there’s been any number of theories as to exactly how the Doctor would manage to escape his ‘final’ death. The suggestions ranged from the unconcerned (‘they’ll simply ignore it’), to the over complex (something about the number of trips he’s made in the TARDIS naturally extending his lifespan). Some people suggested that all ‘limits’ on the number of lives a Time Lord can have were lifted when the Time War became serious, and some have suggested that it’s never really been an issue.

In my mind, the whole ‘twelve regenerations’ thing has always been a suspension applied by the Time Lords themselves. The Doctor implies that - barring accidents - Time Lords can effectively live forever - I think the limit is imposed simply to stop them from going on, and on, and on. The Time Lord society may be stale, but they’d never want it to become so stale that they never changed, but the same group of people carried on forever. I’ve always imagined that the more you regenerate, the less effective it becomes. By the time you reach your twentieth-or-thirtieth body, the process is fairly unstable. There’s only so often that you’re able to change every cell in your body before the effect starts to wear off. It’s why the Ninth Doctor wonders if he’ll end up with two heads - or no head - and it’s why the regenerations have been getting gradually more explosive over the last few occasions.

The fact of the matter is that over the years, a number of different production teams have all had a hand in the evolution of the regeneration mythology. The Second Doctor implies that he couldn’t have done it without the TARDIS, and the Time Lords of The War Games seem to treat it as something unique to the Doctor (‘You have changed face before…’). By the time Romana fancies a change, she’s even able to ‘try on’ a few bodies before settling on one. When we get to The Five Doctors, the High Council are even able to bribe the Master with promise of a whole new regeneration cycle. It’s at this point that I have to wonder… did the Master give them the technology to do that?

In this story, we learn that the Master is on his final life, and it seems that the only way he’s found to overcome that is to tear Gallifrey apart by ripping into the Eye of Harmony. Could it be that Rassilon programmed the ’13 lives’ limit into all Gallifreyans and it’s being held in check by the Eye? Maybe, now that the Master has helped to show the Time Lords that it actually exists, and it’s left sticking through the ground of their grand Panopticon, they’ll find a way to harness the power and gain a bit more control over the way in which regenerations work?

Aside from inspiring a little speculation like this in my head (which is never a bad thing - Doctor Who, and indeed TV in general, is at its best when it makes you think), I’ve watched this episode with the same kind of disconnect which has tainted the rest of the story. My disinterest is perhaps best mirrored by Spandrell’s faction to the Master’s survival at the end of the story, in which he half heartedly points and exclaims ‘Look, it’s the Master’, with all the interest of a man who’s just seen some leftover cabbage in the fridge.

The highlight of today’s episode is, again, the Panopticon set, which actually does look rather impressive as it collapses around the Doctor and the Master. When the destruction first begins, and a few polystyrene rocks are thrown towards Tom Baker’s face, I worried we were in for a rather limp ending, but by the time the floor starts to split open and the roof really begins to cave in, things were looking decidedly upwards. It’s just a shame that the whole story hasn’t been as fantastic as that!

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