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27 September 2014

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

Day 635: The Awakening, Episode One

Dear diary,

I watched this episode hours ago. I usually write up the day’s thoughts fairly quickly after viewing (if I don’t, I’ll get distracted by something shiny, or some Doctor Who action figures or something, and I’ll never get round to it), but I’ve been wrestling with myself on this one. You see, I really want to give it an ‘8/10’, but I don’t think the episode quite deserves it, because… oh. Right. Tell you what. Let’s start with all the (many) positives, shall we?

For starters, this episode looks gorgeous. It does! Once again, the BBC are most comfortable when filming something down to Earth with actors in period costume. They’re rather gorgeous costumes, too, because the period of the Civil War allows for a certain amount of flamboyancy to be introduced into the design of the story. That also extends to the various sets, which are also gorgeous (and represent Barry Newbury’s final work on the programme, capping a tenure that’s stretched back intermittently to the very first story, with stops via Marco Polo, Doctor Who and the Silurians, and The Brain of Morbius). Visually, you couldn’t ask for much better.

I also love the whole idea of the war game, and that the entire village is all a bit too caught up in things. I can’t tell if that’s going to turn out to be down to the Malus’ influence (Will here does say that the creature makes the fighting worse), or if it will simply end up being just the way humans behave, which could be a nice way to take things. I just know that I’d enjoy getting caught up in these games, and the rural life on display here isn’t a million miles from what I grew up around (indeed, it’s almost making me a bit homesick!), so I’m enjoying that aspect of things, too.

And then you’ve got Tegan’s grandfather going missing, and everyone getting a little bit cagey as to what’s really going on here. I can’t tell if any of the characters are directly under the control of the Malus, and thus are behaving oddly on its orders, but it’s certainly fun to watch the Doctor come up against these obstacles in a slightly different way to the norm. I’ve become so used to him coming up against people in power that it’s always fun to see him caught up in some slightly different dynamics.

My problem with the episode, then, is the way that information is seeded out to us. There’s a lovely moment, when the TARDIS crew arrive and Tegan declares that they’re in the wrong century. Turlough tells her that he checked the instruments himself, and it’s definitely 1984… so something strange is going on. As our trio continue to explore, lots gets made of the fact that they’re surprised by the events around here, and the story tries to build up a real mystery around it all. But… we’ve already been told that it’s a recreation of the Civil War! We know that it’s just the present-day villagers getting dressed up and having a bit of a laugh. Surely it would work better if we have to wait and find out that information along with the Doctor? This is where I’m not sure that the episode deserves a full-on 8/10 score, because it feels like such an oversight.

Today also sees the introduction of Peter Davison’s new costume as the Doctor. I’ve always known that he had a slightly different version for this final season (though I assumed it would have debuted with Warriors of the Deep - I assume his original costume is still in the wash after the events of that story…!), but I always thought it was just the little changes - the shirt switching from red lining to green, the bands on the jumper, and the stripes on the trousers. But unless my eyes deceive me, we’ve got a slightly different jacket, too? I’m not sure what it is about the piece, but it doesn’t looks quite right - almost like a budget cosplay version of his regular jacket. It’s not something I’ve ever noticed as a problem before now, so I’ll be keeping an eye on it during the rest of the season to see if it’s just having an ‘off day’ (or, rather, if I am!)

Something else I’ve found amusing in today’s entry - and it’s the kind of pathetic thing I think of when watching several episodes but then don’t bother to write about here - has been an odd string of coincidences. The episode opens with the local schoolteacher searching the barns for someone. As she appeared on the screen, I thought to myself ‘she looks bit like an older Polly Wright’ (no, no, I know she doesn’t as the story wen’t on, I couldn’t decide why I thought that). As if on cue, she then starts calling out for her missing person… and it’s a man called ‘Ben’! That raised a smile, but then when the credits began to roll, I realised that the schoolteacher was being played by an actress called Polly James! So there we have it - a Ben and Polly reunion, taking place entirely in my own head!

Anyway. Coming to the end of this entry, and having finally written everything out… no, I can’t give this one an 8/10. The slightly strange seeding of information feels too out of place for me. I’ll stick with a solid 7/10, and hope that tomorrow might be enough to tip it up slightly… 

26 September 2014

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

Day 634: Warriors of the Deep, Episode Four

Dear diary,

When Turlough first arrived last season, I commented that he and Tegan together was always a TARDIS pairing that I enjoyed… but that I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. They travel together for much of this season, but it’s lots of stories that I’m not as familiar with as the Fifth Doctor’s earlier adventures. I’ve been looking forward to reaching this stage, because I wanted to try and put my finger on it. If I’m totally honest, I still don’t really know what it is that’s working so well for me, I think I’m starting to get some ideas. The pair didn’t really make that much of an impact during The King’s Demons, and they only get a little bit of time together at the start and end of The Five Doctors, but in this story we get to see them interact once more.

Both of the characters feel very rounded - certainly more so than Adric or Nyssa felt towards the end of their respective stays in the TARDIS. Tegan has settles into being someone who travels with the Doctor simply because that’s what she’s done for a while - like someone taking on a temporary position at work, and finding themselves still there several years later because it’s just what you do. She doesn’t always enjoy her travels, but she’s absolutely loyal to the Doctor, and has grown to have absolute faith in him. There’s the lovely moment in yesterday’s episode when the Doctor has already told Tegan to ‘close her eyes and make a wish’ to shield her from his Myrka-destroying ray. Several scenes later, he’s able to use almost the same phrase to keep her safe while freeing her from kidnap. They spark off each other nicely, and I think there’s a genuine affection here. Considering the look we got when Tegan invited herself back into the TARDIS in Arc of Infinity, their relationship has come a long way!

Turlough, on the other hand, is slimy. Obviously, he was given his place aboard the ship in order to kill the Doctor, and even if he’s over that phase of his life now, he certainly still comes across as a bit self-serving, and somewhat cowardly. There’s plenty of chances to see it throughout this episode - from the Doctor being pushed over the gantry and into the water (in which Tegan is determined to help, while Turlough simply decides that the man is probably dead and is ready to abandon him to his fate), and in today’s episode, where he’d much rather escape captivity and return to the TARDIS, because going after the Doctor will mean heading further into danger. This sounds like I’m being incredibly harsh on the character, but I’m really not, because this story also gives us the flip side of all that. Turlough is happy enough to pick up a gun and defend the Sea Base when he needs to, and he goes out of his way to try and get the Doctor and Tegan freed from the grip of the Myrka when they’ve been shut in. It’s moments like this that make him seem so very real, and I like that.

The dynamic between the companions and the Doctor is also an interesting one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it might develop over the next few stories. We had a team that didn’t exactly get along during Season Nineteen, but there it was just petty squabbling that could easily get tiresome (not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I wouldn’t want much more than we actually had). Tegan and Turlough bicker in a more ‘grown up’ way, whereby she doesn’t trust him, and he doesn’t particularly care for her. And yet, when they both end up in the same cell in today’s episode, they’re both so pleased to see that the other is alive. I’ve seen it suggested that these two are ripe for a romantic pairing, and I think I can see that. The Doctor’s not overly sure on Turlough either at this stage, which is nice, because I’d really worried that the Black Guardian would be defeated and they’d all forget about the attempts on their lives!

As for the episode today… Well, I’ve been discussing the TARDIS crew because it’s a fantastic story in terms of their characterisations. I can’t say that I’ve really noticed this in either of Johnny Byrne’s other scripts for the series, but it’s something that’s shone through Warriors of the Deep, even when everything around it has been going a bit… wrong. I think part of the problem is that the Myrka turns up so early, and as I said the other day, everything around the creature goes so wrong, that it shattered the illusion for me. The story was never going to claw its way back up in my estimations, because it has been too thoroughly damaged by that attack.

On the whole, it’s been a bit of a disappointment. I went in to this story knowing that it wasn’t going to be the best one I’d ever seen, but hoping that I’d be able to find it better than general opinion would have it. As it is, I’ve come away with a sad sense that this really is one of the low points in the programme’s production. Still, we’re back to a two-part story tomorrow, featuring period pieces, and it’s one I seem to remember enjoying before. As ever with Doctor Who, there’s something completely different just around the corner…


25 September 2014

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

Day 633: Warriors of the Deep, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I’ve never particularly gotten the ‘point’ of bringing back the Silurians and the Sea Devils for this story. Back in the days before I’d started doing this marathon, it was simply on of those useless Doctor Who facts that occupied space in my head. In which 20th century stories do these creatures appear? Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Sea Devils, Warriors of the Deep. Useful for an answer in a quiz, but just a fact. I’d not watched those earlier two stories, and I remembered so little about this one that I may as well have not seen it. Once those two Pertwee tales came and went, though, I found myself really enjoying them.

Doctor Who and the Silurians was the moment that I suddenly realised that I might enjoy the Third Doctor’s era after all (it’s still high on my list for a re-watch once the marathon is over), and The Sea Devils was a highlight among some stories that didn’t fare quite so well with me. But they were also stories that had been told. Completely. Finished with. They don’t feel as though they need to be drudged up again more than a decade later, and this is perhaps the closest that the series has ever come to being some kind of fan-pleasing, box-ticking exercise. We know that these two species are cousins… but we’ve never seen them on screen together…!

Now that I’m watching this story, I really can’t make up my mind as to whether it’s been a good idea to resurrect them. On the one hand, I’m really enjoying the Doctor’s reaction to these events - he urges the crew of the Sea Base not to fight with these creatures, partly because he knows how strong they are, but also because he seems to be spying a chance to try for a better outcome than we had the last time around. That’s a great idea, and I can see the sense in bringing them back to tell that kind of story… but it feels like a story that should either be told with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor… or not at all. He was the one who felt that he’d let the Silurians down, and ten years on it just doesn’t have the same emotional impact for me.

Having the creatures on screen isn’t exactly filling me with nostalgia and excitement, either. When the Silurians made their first appearance in the programme, I commented that I loved the idea of them, and that they were being given really intelligent and great dialogue… but that the costumes let them down. The joins were just too obvious, and it was a shame. The design was sound, I could really get on board with that, but the execution just didn’t do it for me. On top of that, having had several episodes where we only catch glimpses of the creatures as they stalk across the moor, or hide in barns, when they started to speak, the voices were awful. I described them at the time as being simply the voice of a ‘man in a rubber suit’.

They’re not being served much better here, if I’m honest. This time around, we’re not treated to any mystery about the creatures - they appear on the screen in full before we’ve even set eyes on the TARDIS crew in this adventure. The costumes have been given an overhaul, but they now seem to lack any of the charm they had in the 1970s - here they’re just another generic rubber suit. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s been made well enough, and it’s a clever update of the design (I’m not keen on the flashing third eye, mind), but it just looks a bit… well, again, I can see this story earning it’s rather unfortunate nickname of Warriors on the Cheap.

The voices have been given a bit of a makeover for this return, too, but I think it’s telling that one of the notes I’ve made for Episode One is to comment on how rubbish they sound! The Sea Devils at least retain their lovely, whispery voices, though I’m not entirely sure if I like their new Samuri style… it just feels slightly at odds with… everything!

(Yes, you’ve probably noticed that I’m trying to avoid discussing the episode itself. If I have to talk to you about that karate kick - another famous Doctor Who moment, for all the wrong reasons, and ten times worse here than I’d even thought - then I’ll scream.)

24 September 2014

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

Day 632: Warrior’s of the Deep, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I like to think that I’m generally pretty fair when I’m writing The 50 Year Diary. The lowest scores I’ve ever handed out are 3/10’s (which, by the criteria I set out in January of last year during An Unearthly Child, means that no episode of Doctor Who so far has been classified as either ‘Dreadful’, or ‘Why am I doing this again?’), and there’s only been a handful of episodes which have scored the covered 10/10. The reasons for this are quite simple - I hate it when things get marked too far as extremes. There’s a few Hartnell episodes that I look back on now and think I should have given a 10/10 to (including that very first episode), but then it wouldn’t have left room to breathe when even better episodes come along. The scores I give out most often are 6’s and 7’s, and I think they’re pretty strong figures - anything more than that means that an episode is really stand out, while anything less is a bit of a let down.

In addition to trying not to ‘overrate’ stories, I try to be fair when dealing with episodes that I’m not keen on. The Highlanders. The Dominators. The Curse of Peladon. The Pirate Planet. All of these stories have scored pretty low with me, but it’s still been a 3/10, because there’s always something I can enjoy in them, be it the Doctor, his companions, or a monster. I also find that my opinions don’t always fall in to step with the perceived wisdom of ‘fandom’. The Evil of the Daleks bored me, on the whole (and I note that it’s slipped again in the most recent Doctor Who Magazine poll, continuing its trend of becoming less revered as the years go by), and I just didn’t get on with The Dæmons either. At the other end of the spectrum, there are stories like The Invisible Enemy, which I’m not supposed to enjoy but I just can’t help myself! I try to be as open and fair to an episode as I possibly can be, and I’m willing to overlook the odd bad effect, or dodgy performance, if everything else is up to par.

Can you guess where I’m going with this? I bet you can. Ladies and gentlemen… The Myrka! Oh, the Myrka. It really is held up alongside the Taran Wood Beast as the time that Doctor Who just got it so spectacularly wrong. I’ve been all ready to defend the Myrka. It was going to become one of my ‘causes’. You’d have seen me stood outside WH Smiths with a collection bucket and a ‘save the Myrka’ t-shirt. Because, in a way, I quite like the creature. It appears on the cover to Mike Tucker’s The Silurian Gift book, and while it looks a bit cute and cuddly there, I think it actually fits in well with the new Silurians, and that’s always made me a bit more sympathetic towards the creature.

Oh, but then today happened. When the doors first started to buckle, I prepared myself to mount a defence. There’s a flash of fin behind the collapsing doors, and I’ve made a note to say that it’s not awful at that moment, but then… gah. It’s not necessarily the Myrka itself. I’ll admit that on screen the design doesn’t work, and it does come across as more ridiculous than scary (one of the final shots of the episode is looking up towards the creature, in a move that should make it imposing and give it stature, but watching the arms flail around simply makes it look ridiculous), but I’d be just about willing to overlook the creature. Possibly. No, it’s the fact that everything around it is so poorly done, that it all adds up to being one big mess.

You’ve got the actual ‘pantomime horse’ scripture for starters (complete with paint that hadn’t quite dried, I think I’m right in saying), coupled with one of the brightest parts of the Sea Base set (I thought that over-lighting was an issue of this entire story, but there’s several scenes where things are toned down a little and we get some really nice contrast), the doors really looking like they’re made of polystyrene, and a complete lack of tension to any of the proceedings. When the Doctor realises what’s about to burst through the doors, we get one of the most ridiculous moments we’ve ever seen in the programme, in which he declares that it’s a Myrka… and everyone carries on milling around. We even cut to a few other scenes before coming back to find them all still stood there, wondering when the action might start.

I’ve been wrong for all these years, because I thought this was an example of fans disliking a story because of a single bad costume. I’d never realised just how poorly done the entire sequence is, and I’m sorry to say that it has brought down the episode several points in my estimation. In the build up to the Myrka scene, I was expecting to give this episode maybe a 6/10 - not as good as yesterday, but still fairly decent, and better than expected. But then disaster after disaster strikes when the creature turns up, and there’s no way that even I can justify is all. I think this might be the first example in this marathon of one event going so wrong on screen that it effects the score in such a big way.

While I’m on the subject of being a bit let down by this episode, there’s something else that I want to draw attention to. We all know the age-old joke about ‘classic’ Doctor Who (well, there are several of them, and we all know the lot), which tends to get rolled out when someone - usually a relative - finds out that you watch it. They almost always mention the ‘wobbly sets’ as if it’s something the series was famed for back in the day. I’ve taken issue with this conception before in this marathon, pointing out that it actually doesn’t happen all that often, and certainly no more than in any other BBC programme made during the same period. Today, though, is the first time that I’ve really noticed a set wobble. It’s in the reprise to yesterday’s cliffhanger (and in fairness, I didn’t spot it last night), when the Doctor is having his fight. He’s slammed in to a wall, at which point the whole set does a wobble. A second hit makes it even more obvious. It’s a pity, because the rest of that particular set is fantastic, and it comes mere moments before he goes over a gantry and falls into a pool of water, in a shot that looks rather good!

Ho hum. On the plus side, I wasn’t expecting the Myrka to turn up until the final episode (or at least the Episode Three cliffhanger), so I can now at least hope that once it’s been disposed of, the story can get on with being somewhat good again. It’s a real shame to have thing ruined so spectacularly by just this one scene!

23 September 2014

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

Day 631: Warriors of the Deep, Episode One

Dear diary,

I think it’s fair to say hat Warriors of the Deep has a bit of a reputation. It polled 226 out of 239 in the recent Doctor Who Magazine poll (though, in fairness, two other Davison stories - Time-Flight and The King’s Demons - polled lower than this one did), is frequently referred to on various Doctor Who forums as ‘Warriors on the Cheap’, and has even been held up by me in this very marathon as an example of things going a little bit wrong at times. I doubt this story is anyone’s absolute number one (oh, who am I kidding? Of course it’s someone’s number one!), and it’s certainly not a story that I’d be reaching for when I fancy seeing some Doctor Who… but I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve seen it before, and it was the only one of the ‘Beneath the Surface’ DVD set I watched when I picked them up, but I have no strong memories of it at all. I know the Myrka is a fairly poorly done effect, because it’s something that’s drummed into our collective fan subconscious, as is the fact that the story is over-lit, and, and, and… oh, what I’m really saying is that I know this story is supposed to be a bit naff, but I’ve been really looking forward to watching it and seeing what I think.

And you know what I’m finding to be the worst thing about it so far? Peter Davison’s haircut. Of all the Doctors, he’s the one who’s hair alters the most in my mind. Yeah, yeah, I know that Jon Pertwee allowed his to grow out more and more with every passing season, that Troughton went from wig to his own hair, and that Colin Baker returns in Season Twenty-Three with that thing on his head, but they all happen gradually, either as time goes on, or between seasons. Right from the start, owing to the way that Season Nineteen was produced, the Fifth Doctor’s hairstyles have been all over the place. This is the shortest that it’s ever looked… and I simply don’t like it. My favourite Fifth Doctor style is the long floppy hair he sports through most of Season Twenty, and to go from that straight in to this! Maybe it was less noticeable at the time, with a bit of a break between The Five Doctors and this story, but it sticks out like a sore thumb to me watching in order day after day!

I also have to admit that I rather like the design of the Sea Base that we’ve got here… though with a few caveats. It’s multi-level, which is something that always scores well with me, and the opening shot in which we follow a character from the upper platform down some stairs and to the main control area below is fantastic. It’s also got a real ‘kit’ feel to it - especially in the corridors - where you get the impression that it’s all been mass-produced and brought down to the sea bed to be installed. Where it gets let down, though, is the lighting. I’ve mentioned before that this story is an example of over-lighting in the 1980s, and it’s telling that the setting here looks much better once the yellow alert is sounded, and all the lights get turned down a few notches! It’s also rather nice when the Doctor and his companions are exploring initially, and they get to wander around in ares of low lighting. It makes things look that bit more sinister, and that bit more real. I’ve head it said that when writing the story, Johnny Byrne was envisioning a rusty old submarine sort of setting, and I think that would have looked lovely with some of the more crafted lighting we get here.

While I’m on the subject of sets, I’d like to just mention the ‘new’ TARDIS console room. It was actually installed during yesterday’s episode, but I was too busy enjoying the party atmosphere to mention it! I’ve often thought of the 1983 - 1988 TARDIS as being my favourite version of the classic console room (although it switches places with the original 1963 design on a fairly regular basis), and it does feel like a breath of fresh air when it’s added to the programme. Something about the console that Davison has been using for the last two seasons has felt somewhat out of place with the more glossy look the programme has had since John Nathan-Turner took over. This new console room feels very 1980s, and I can’t help but love it. A few years ago, I commissioned a replica of this set in scale with the 5” Character Options figures (though I’ve sadly since sold it on - a house move no longer allowing the space!), and there was no debate in choosing which version of the room I was going to have made. The only thing that’s been bothering me here is that I now know that almost all the buttons on this console are just stuck on and not useable (I’ve tried pressing them at the Doctor Who Experience enough times…), and I’m trying to figure out if that’s a more recent development, or if Peter Davison is actually able to use them on screen here! 

22 September 2014

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

Day 630: The Five Doctors

Dear diary,

Confession time: I love The Five Doctors. It’s the episode of Doctor Who I’ve watched the most times, and I’d say that it’s the only episode that I’ve ever been able to watch over and over and over. When the Anniversary Edition of the DVD came out, I watched it several times in one day, just to do all of the commentary tracks (and once I’ve finished writing this entry, I’m going to curl up and watch it again with the David Tennant commentary turned on, because I’ve not heard it in years. I love it because it’s a party. It dispenses with the idea of trying to tell any particular story, and just gets on with bringing back all the old favourites, shoving them all in to an adventure together, and letting them do their greatest party tricks. As such, we get to watch Susan fall and twist her ankle (something I was surprised happened so few times on screen, but it feels like it happened a lot), Sarah gets to be a bit put out by being dragged into danger again, The Doctors get to turn up (mostly) and rattle off some of their more famous quirks… Someone once described The Five Doctors as ‘a Doctor Who convention on screen’, and I think that’s probably quite a fair description in many ways.

It’s because I’m so familiar with this episode (I spent most of it quoting the script as I watched - a habit that irritates me in other people, but I simply couldn’t help myself), I decided to watch today’s episode with Emma in tow. I didn’t tell her that we were watching the 20th anniversary episode (though she did get suspicious when I suggested getting a cake in), just that it was an important one. She sat down with me, ready to watch… and then bailed a little over halfway through. Frankly, she was bored by it, and that’s not something she’s encountered with any of Doctor Who before.

After this, I was watching the episode through slightly new eyes and realised that it actually is a little bit dull. I love it simply because we get to see all these party pieces - all the old Doctors turn up (even if two are in archive footage), there’s a selection of companions you know and love, there’s a Dalek, and a Yeti, and the Cybermen, and the Master, and a Time Lord Turned Bad… it really is just taking all those elements that you’d expect there to be in the story and throwing them at the screen. As a fan, I can find this great, because it’s all my old favourites (and watching it as part of the marathon, it is nice to see some of these elements again), but to a more casual viewer, it simply isn’t enough.

During the build up to the 50th anniversary last year, there were lots of calls for The Day of the Doctor to be a modern-day version of this tale, and I really don’t know if that would work for me. The closest that we’ve come to it is in The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End, in which we get all of the Doctor’s old companions back together for a jolly send off at the end of the Tenth Doctor’s final season. There’s just a bit too much going on here for any room to be given over to telling a story. I think that’s where the episode has failed the most for me. There’s something just wrong about the fact that the Fifth Doctor sees Susan - his grand-daughter - nineteen years after leaving her behind in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but that because of the constraints of the story (and the fact that they’re trying not to get too bogged-down in continuity, I’d suppose), he only really gets to say two lines to her in the entire piece. One is simply to confirm that he remembers who she is, and the other is to say goodbye to her! Even when she’s paired off with him to trek across the Death Zone, any comments he makes are directed at Susan and Tegan, as opposed to really connecting with his granddaughter. I suppose what I really want is a scene like the one we get in The Sarah Jane Adventures story The Death of the Doctor, where he gets the chance to sit down with Jo Grant and have a real catch up after so many years. Once again, it’s the kind of moment that you don’t get a lot of at this point in the programme’s history, but having a few less characters included would perhaps free up a little more space for such conversations.

That’s why I’m so keen on the ‘phantoms’ in the tower: I think they’re a great way of getting a few more cameos in, and despite complaining above about there being too many characters wedged in already… I wish we had a few more like this! I think it helps that some of the cameos are such obscure choices - Liz and Mike aren’t exactly the first companions you think of when going for the Third Doctor’s era, though at least Jamie and Zoe are a more sound proposition!

Oh, but I’m just being cynical. Of course I’m still going to be giving the episode a good score, because I’m not supposed to be watching it with quite the same eyes that I use for the other episodes of this marathon. This is a celebration of Doctor Who reaching 20 years, a chance to revisit some old friends in the days before home video releases and with very few repeats, and in that sense it’s a real success. For all my complaining about there being so many characters thrown at the screen… did we really want anything else? It’s really fantastic to have them all back again, and everyone is clearly having a fantastic time.

I’m not going to delve into commenting on everyone’s performances, because the party atmosphere of this episode really doesn’t need to be analysed in any great detail, but I will take a moment to talk about one particular individual - because this is the only chance I’ll get to do so. Over the years, Richard Hurndall’s portrayal of the First Doctor has been through various stages of popularity, and it’s a particularly hot topic at the moment, with Big Finish recasting some of the earlier companions for recent releases. I have to say that for me, he absolutely works. People talk about the fact that he’s not quite the First Doctor that William Hartnell played… but I’d argue that Partick Troughton in this story isn’t playing quite the Second Doctor that he played in the sixties, and William Hartnell isn’t playing quite the Doctor that he did in the early 1970s, either. They’re all playing versions of the Doctors we remember, and Hurndall is a good enough First Doctor for me. That we get the real William Hartnell showing up at the beginning of the tale is wonderful, too, and it means that no one is left out of this celebration.

And let’s be honest, Richard Hurndall’s casting is worth it for the appearance he made on Blue Peter alone, in which Peter Davison clearly wants the floor of Television Centre to open up and swallow him. 

21 September 2014

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

Day 629: The King’s Demons, Episode Two

Dear diary,

In hindsight, this episode looks largely like an introduction for Kamelion as a shape-shifting robot companion, getting us all up to speed on the various abilities that the robot possesses, and getting him aboard the TARDIS ready for adventures to continue. Obviously, as it turned out, that plan fell by the wayside due to the robot’s shortcomings in the studio… and I think that’s a real shame. Kamelion is one of those elements of the programme that Doctor Who fans discuss in hushed tones. More than once, I’ve seen him hailed as an example of John Nathan-Turner getting it so spectacularly wrong… and yet I love the idea.

I mean, let’s be honest, if you’re given the opportunity to add a new companion to the TARDIS team, one which is an actual robot, able to move its lips in time to pre-recorded dialogue, and tilt its head, and (according to the plans for the machine outlined in a special feature on the DVD of this story) eventually walk around, then it seems too good a chance to pass up. Peter Davison sums up in that same documentary where it all fell apart: if the current Doctor Who production team were offered a robot that could do all of this effectively and on their budget… alarm bells would start ringing.

It’s a real shame, I think, because the design of Kamelion is really rather nice. It somehow manages to create a whole new style all its own - almost an idea of what a futuristic art deco might look like. What we see if him on screen here is rather impressive, even when it’s just little tilts of the head, and I have to admit that he’s quite near the top of companions I’d like to see Character Options produce for the classic figure line - I’d love to display a little Kamelion next to the Fifth Doctor on the shelf! Heck, if I’m honest, I’d quite like a model of him sat in the chair with a lute!

As for the story here itself… it does come as a bit of a let down after yesterday’s episode. There, I commented about how much I’d enjoyed the build up of the mystery - that something wasn’t right with the king, and that these events are somehow in contrast to what history tells us. All of that is great. The revel of the king as a shape-shifting robot is great, too (and it’s a fantastic reveal, as the Doctor hears the king’s song from Episode One coming from inside a room of the castle, and we follow the Doctor’s reaction as he enters the room, before cutting to the reveal of Kamelion), but I think my problem comes from the fact that the Master is in here at all.

The whole scheme just doesn’t feel like something the Master would do. In fairness, I’d forgotten that he planned to then take the robot to other worlds and pull similar tricks there, but frankly the man just doesn’t have the patience for a scheme like this in his current incarnation. Delgado I could just about imagine doing it, but even that’s a stretch - this just isn’t a Master plan… it’s a Meddling Monk plan! A shame, because it does detract from the overall impact of the story. Were it simply any old alien with a robot pulling this stunt the nI think I’d go along with it, but making it the Master simply for the sake of bringing him back… I’m afraid that slightly ruins it for me. 

20 September 2014

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

Day 628: The King’s Demons, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s that time again, for the annual two-part story that we get throughout the Davison years, and I think it’s fair to say that The King’s Demons isn’t a tale that people are overly fond of. I don’t think it’s a story that many people actively dislike, but it’s just one that they tend to forget about - fading into a sort of obscurity, with the likes of the anniversary celebrations in The Five Doctors around it. I think I’m also right in saying that this was the lowest-rated of all the Fifth Doctor stories on original transmission… so all in all, it’s not anything particularly special.

That said, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it! When I was a kid, I loved all this medieval stuff, with kings of old, a knights, and castles, a jousts, and crusades. I still do, if I’m honest, and since moving to Wales there’s never been a shortage of castles to visit. The opening of this story would have been something to really capture my imagination, and the way that the TARDIS arrives in the middle of the jousting match, throwing the game off its stride would have really worked for me (it still does, if I’m honest - it’s one of the best TARDIS arrivals we’ve had, in terms of the actual events surrounding the materialisation).

As for the story itself… I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers when I say that I’m enjoying it. In many ways, it’s a similar plot to the first episode of Enlightenment - the TARDIS arrives in what looks to be a standard historical location, but there’s something not right that the Doctor just can’t put his finger on, and the inconsistencies build up and up throughout the episode. For some reason, though, it’s working better for me here than it did in Enlightenment, even though today’s cliffhanger is nowhere near as good as the one we had there (it’s not even in the same league). I just love the Doctor getting caught up in history and enjoying himself, but starting to slowly realise that things aren’t right. I also love the way that his curiosity is leading him in to things again - while Tegan wants to leave, the Doctor just wants to find out if he’s right about things here, and wants to get to the bottom of them.

The setting is filled with atmosphere, too, from the locations to the sets and beyond. Once again, it’s the BBC being asked to do costume drama, and they can do that with their eyes shut. The opening shot of the great hall makes it look massive, and all the supporting artists getting on with enjoying a medieval feast… yeah, I’m liking it, and as I’ve said, it would have certainly worked for me as a kid watching.

But then you have that cliffhanger, and it’s just a bit… I know that the Master is in this story, so the make up was never going to fool me, but I can’t tell if I’d have seen though it anyway. It’s not as good as the Portrieve disguise from Castrovalva, but it’s not a bad mask. I’m somewhat disappointed that he returns to his normal style with a video effect, though, rather than peeling off the face, which was much more creepy back in Mind of Evil (I think it was Mind of Evil, anyway…!)

19 September 2014

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

Day 627: Enlightenment, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I think it’s probably fitting for Enlightenment to end like this - leaving me unsure quite how I’ve felt about it. The story is one of those that I went in to with no preconceptions - I’ve seen it before at some point, I know, but I couldn’t remember anything, and I had no idea quite how fandom-at-large felt about it - which really meant that things could swing either way. As it is, I’m sort of left stranded in the sea of ‘meh’, because for everything I liked about the story, there’s things that just didn’t really work for me.

Let’s start off with a load of positives, because there’s a lot of them. The design on this story is fantastic. It’s yet another example of the BBC being so good at capturing period detail, and you can see the effort that’s gone in to creating both the Edwardian sailing ship and the pirate ship. I think it’s probably telling that the set which doesn’t quite work for me is the chamber on Wrack’s ship which calls for being more ‘sci-fi’. The big flashing light declaring that the vacuum shield has been turned off just doesn’t look right to me. All these sets are nicely shown off by some rather lovely direction, too. I was discussing with a friend this week that while Fiona Cumming is a perfectly competent director, she’s not one that you’d normally include in the upper echelons of people who’ve worked on Doctor Who. It’s nice, then, to see that she’s done such a good job with this story. I’ve switched back to the original model effects for these last two episodes, and they’re all rather good, and suit the tone of the story perfectly.

Then you’ve got the guest cast, who are all brilliant without exception. Oh, sure, they’re all playing it in different ways - Keith Barron’s turn as Striker is a million miles away from what Lynda Baron is doing with Wrack - but they work perfectly for the characters that we’re being asked to believe in. I can’t imagine Wrack working with a more low-key performance, and by the same toke, Striker wouldn’t be anywhere near as unsettling if he was going over-the-top with it. Even the Guardian’s are quite good in their own somewhat unique way - Valentine Dyall stalking around the set laughing his head off like Batman’s Penguin is a nice contrast to Cyril Luckham’s rather more laid back White Guardian.

I think that they’re the biggest issue that I’ve had with the story, though, and if I’m honest it’s a problem with this whole trilogy of tales. As I said back in Mawdryn Undead, I really like the idea of the Doctor’s new companion being placed aboard the TARDIS with a mission to kill the Doctor. It’s something new and bold for the programme to do, and a great way to spice up the companion role as we make our way though the twentieth year. The problem is that it starts to lose credibility as it goes on. When Turlough’s attempt to bash the Doctor’s head in with a rock is disrupted by an explosion, I can go along with it, and I’ll accept that he then doesn’t get another chance for a while because he’s busy getting caught up in one of the Doctor’s adventures. Where things start to fall down is in the slightly wooly characterisation that companions are given at this point - meaning that Turlough is often forced to be simply a tool in the story, and only come back to his motives when they need to fill a bit of time.

Terminus is the worst for this, having the boy slink off into a corner every five minutes to stare at his crystal and be told that he still needs to kill the Doctor, almost as if they’re reminding us who he is and why he’s around. It’s a good example of the programme needing the kind of ‘all seeing’ head writer that we get with the modern series, because I just don’t think that Eric Sawad has done a great job at trying to keep this storyline important across the three stories. It suddenly comes right back into the fore here, with the final showdown of light and dark, but it doesn’t feel like the big, awaited climax to this little story arc - it just feels like any other story. I think it’s what’s caused Enlightenment to fall flat for me - I’m waiting for some big ending to this plot line, and it just doesn’t live up to what I’m wanting.

That said, I think it might just be me finding fault, and maybe I’m just not in the right mood to enjoy this story? It placed the highest of the three ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ tales in the recent Doctor Who Magazine poll, coming in at position 75, with Mawdryn Undead (my personal favourite of the three) ranking lower at 117, and Terminus languishing way behind at number 209!


19 September 2014

Production on 2014's Doctor Who Christmas episode has begun, with a host of British acting talent set to appear.  The Doctor Who Christmas special, a cracker of a highlight in the festive season’s schedule, will air this Christmas on BBC One and promises to be an action-packed, unmissable adventure. 

Nick Frost, actor and screen writer, has starred in numerous hit film and television roles, including Spaced, The World’s End, Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Cuban Fury and Paul, which he also wrote. 

Nick comments:

“I'm so thrilled to have been asked to guest in the Doctor Who Christmas special, I'm such a fan of the show. The read-through was very difficult for me; I wanted to keep stuffing my fingers into my ears and scream "No spoilers!” Every day on set I’ve had to silence my internal fan boy squeals!"

Michael Troughton (Breathless, The New Statesman), who has recently returned to acting, will follow in his father’s footsteps by appearing in Doctor Who. His father, Patrick Troughton, played the second incarnation of the Doctor.

They will be joined by Natalie Gumede (Coronation Street, Ideal, Strictly Come Dancing), Faye Marsay (Pride, The White Queen, Fresh Meat) and Nathan McMullen (Misfits, Casualty). 

Steven Moffat, lead writer and executive producer, says:

“Frost at Christmas - it just makes sense! I worked with Nick on the Tintin movie many years ago and it's a real pleasure to lure him back to television for a ride on the TARDIS.”

The Doctor Who Christmas special will air on BBC One on Christmas Day. Written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmshurst (Strike Back, Combat Kids), it will be shot in Cardiff at BBC Wales Roath Lock Studios. 

[Source: BBC]

18 September 2014

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

Day 626: Enlightenment, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I think a problem that I’m having with this ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ is that it’s just not been handled all that well. It’s not all that bad during Mawdryn Undead - you’ve got a great introduction for Turlough, agreeing to murder in exchange for his own life, and not quite realising what he’s getting in to, but after that first episode or so, it all gets a bit silly. During Terminus and this story, we get occasional scenes of the boy turning to the crystal seemingly just to remind us that he’s got it (this practice is at its worst during Terminus’ middle episodes, when he often slinks away from Tegan to do some ‘crystal acting’ before being called for), and with the Black Guardian occasionally prompting him in the right direction. We seem to have hit a stage now where Turlough has been given so many ‘final chances’ that the threat just doesn’t stick any more, and what should be a pivotal scene in today’s episode falls a little bit flat.

I’ve been musing about this since yesterday. I love the idea that the Black Guardian has told Turlough that if he doesn’t kill the Doctor then he’ll never be able to leave the ship, and that this thought plays on the boy’s mind so much that he actually ends up throwing himself overboard. It’s a great idea, but it just doesn’t quite come across on screen. It all happens a bit too quickly for my liking. But it’s the scene in today’s episode, with Turlough trapped in the airlock (it’s not an airlock, but you know what I mean), that should really matter. He’s already declared, while jumping from the ship, that he will never work for the Guardian again. He’s tried to kill himself to escape the man’s power. When he’s back in a life-threatening situation, though, he’s right back to calling for help.

It’s then that something wonderful happens. The Black Guardian turns up to follow through on his threat - he’s given up on the boy and he’ll happily let him die. That’s the first wonderful moment. That Turlough continues to shout for him, with the situation getting more-and-more desperate is rather powerful… until the real crisis point at which point he’s stopped shouting for the Guardian and started calling out for the Doctor instead. His time in the TARDIS has taught him to have absolute faith that the Doctor will save him - and of course, moments later, he does. The way that linked story lines like this are handled in this period of the programme’s history, though, simply doesn’t allow for the kind of nice through-line from the car-crash at Brendan school to the scene we see here, and it’s a pity, because the journey has felt somewhat bumpy when it could be something really rather brilliant.

As for today’s episode itself… I’m really struggling with Enlightenment. Not in the way that I slogged through The Dominators, or The Pirate Planet, just in the sense that I really can’t make up my mind. This seems to be a running theme this season. There’s lots of individual moments about this story that I’m really enjoying - the guest cast, the sets, the ideas, the direction, which is really rather nice - but I’m feeling as though the sum is less than the whole of it’s parts. I’m coming away from each episode having liked lots and lots of little bits, but feeling a bit ambivalent. And then it didn’t help that today’s episode wen’t a bit Lord of the Rings and had about six different endings! There’s so many moments that felt like the cliffhanger that by the time one actually kicked in, I was just glad to hear the theme music sting!


17 September 2014

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

Day 625: Enlightenment, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I spent a few days in the build up to this story debating whether I was going to watch the original broadcast version, or go for the swanky new CGI edit on the DVD. For yesterday’s episode I decided to go for the original one, but I’m afraid that I’ve caved today and swapped over to the swish new version! I know, I know, but I never set out to do things strictly as they were on TV, and after the very abrupt ending to Episode One, I wanted to see if it was given more room to breathe in this new edit. I just… forgot to switch off afterwards! I knew where the cliffhanger fell for Episode Two, so simply covered my ears and eyes as Turlough made his jump from the ship.

The new CGI effects are lovely, on the whole. They give a good sense of scale to the ships in the race, and I’ve seen people comment that you get a better idea of exactly what’s going on with this new version. It doesn’t all work for me - I’m not all that keen on the shot of the windows on the bridge, for example - but it’s certainly a nice way to enjoy the story. I’m now debating the idea of switching back to the original version for Episode Three, then back to this one for Episode Four (or vice-versa), but I’ll play it by ear and see how I feel when getting the disc ready tomorrow!

The effects aren’t the only thing to this episode, though, and I’m glad to say that I’ve started getting more involved in the story. On reflection, I think I may have been a little harsh on yesterday’s episode because I’m remembering things about it more fondly now than when I wrote up my entry for the day. There’s so many things introduced here that I can’t help but love - chief among them being the Eternals. When we were first introduced to the concept of the Guardians in The Ribos Operation, I mused that I really liked the idea of there being these two beings who sit above even the Time Lords in the grand scheme of things - the Black and the White Guardians effectively representing ‘God’ and ‘the Devil’ within the Doctor Who universe. Here, we’re introduced to another species, the Eternals, who don’t bother with the cosmic games of the Guardians, and don’t care about imposing their design across history like the Time Lords. They’re just these powerful beings who see themselves as being above it all.

As an introduction to the species, the Doctor’s conversation with Striker is wonderful:

You are not an Ephemeral. You are a time dweller. You travel in time.

You're reading my thoughts.

You are a Time Lord. A lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?

And where do you function?


The way that this exchange is then immediately cut off with Striker being called back to the race is fantastic, because it gives us a moment to let the idea sink in. We’re still at a point in the programme where the Time Lords are treated somewhat with awe (though we’re starting to see that change. Their portrayal in Arc of Infinity was, after all, rubbish, and in a couple of seasons time everyone and their mother in the programme with know who the Time Lords are and not really bat an eyelid about it), so the idea that this person finds them to be so insignificant is really interesting, and certainly fires the imagination.

Can we also have a big cheer for Marriner’s line ‘You're not like any Ephemeral I've met before’? It’s the same chat-up-line I used to woo Emma. 

17 September 2014

DWO’s spoiler-free preview of episode 8.5 - Time Heist:


One of the greatest strengths Doctor Who has, is its ability to tell wildly different stories from week to week. Right back to the very earliest episodes, it’s a programme that can show us the stone age, before whisking us off to a dead city in the far future, or trapping us in the time machine. Season Eight is showing this ability off wonderfully, and Time Heist is as different to last week’s Listen as that episode was to Robot of Sherwood the week before, or Into the Dalek before that.


This episode takes The Doctor and Clara, and drops them in to a bank heist movie. Everything you’d want from such a tale is present here, and it’s always good fun to see how our characters react in scenarios we all know from an entire genre of film and television. 


It also presents us with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor slightly out of his depth, having to put his trust in others, and work it out along with the rest of us pudding brains. There’s enough twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing right up until the end. Why are they breaking in to the bank? Who sent them here? Where’s the TARDIS? And why do they have to go about the break-in like this?


Time Heist may come as a disappointment to people going in expecting something as deep and creepy as last week’s story, because it’s not in the same style at all. That’s not to say that this isn’t an entertaining episode, but it’s a story to be enjoyed more simply expecting an entertaining 45 minutes.


There’s plenty of visual spectacle on display, with director Douglas MacKinnon returning for his second story of the season, and a great monster design in the Teller - a creature able to detect your guilt and remove it from your mind. As prosthetics go, it’s one of the strongest that Doctor Who has seen in a while.


On the whole, Time Heist serves its purpose as a good episode for the middle of the season. It’s never going to grace the top of ‘best story’ polls, but it’s sure to win over fans and warrant a repeat, to watch everything unfold once you know what’s been going on behind the scenes of the adventure…


Five things to look out for:


1) “Are you ready for your close up?”

2) Soup

3) “Have you got to reach a high shelf?”

4) Characters from The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, and the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip!

5) “Time to run”


[Sources: DWO; Will Brooks]

16 September 2014

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

Day 624: Enlightenment, Episode One

Dear diary,

I love it when I get to say this: there’s something so brilliantly and unashamedly Doctor Who about today’s cliffhanger. In hindsight, it seems like such a simple and obvious idea - good old fashioned sailing ships, but sailing through space - but it fits absolutely perfectly into the world of Doctor Who. It’s rather wonderfully executed, too, with the story shifting from ‘strange place’, to ‘sailing ship’, to ‘something not quite right’, and then the big reveal at the end, as we get to look out over the view. I think my only complaint would be how oddly handled that final shot is - I can see what it is because I know what the surprise is (and the Doctor’s just told us that they’re spaceships), but it’s such a brief shot that it’s almost hard to process. I’m assuming that’s the whole point. Reveal the true nature of the ships, and then get out just while the imagination is fired.

Despite all the mystery in this episode, something simply hasn’t grabbed me yet. I think it’s because I know we’re flying through space with Eternals at the helm, so I’m just waiting for those elements of the story to kick in. It’s a pity, because I can imagine this episode being rather intriguing when seen without any prior knowledge. Did any of you at the time guess the reveal ahead of the cliffhanger, or was it a shock to you?

And then we’ve got the return of the White Guardian to the series. The first note I made today was that the TARDIS looked a bit ‘Ribos Operation’, completely forgetting that the Guardian put in an appearance at the very start of the story. The back-lit roundels with the main lights turned down really does look lovely, and I wish they’d light the set a bit more like this all the time. Perhaps not quite to the extreme that we see here, but still. I think my problem with the Guardian in this instance is that he’s sort of been undermined since his last appearance. When we meet him at the start of The Ribos Operation, he’s able to stop the TARDIS in its tracks, open the doors, and summon the Doctor. That he forces the Fourth Doctor - during one of the most arrogant stages of his life - into awe and obedience simply reinforced his position of power, and his threat to the Doctor that should he not take the quest then simply ‘nothing’ will happen to him was really rather wonderful.

Here, he’s reduced to a less imposing old man (the guardian was old in his first appearance, but he carried it with a sense of flair), who’s struggling to break through to give the Doctor a warning. The way that he repeats a few choice words from his message (and not the important ones, necessarily), has the effect of making him simply look a bit… doddery. I’m hoping that there’s a reason given for this before the story is out (in my head I’m sure there is, but it may be something I’ve artificially projected onto the tale after the fact on a previous viewing), because it seems a shame to take a character who is essentially God in this universe and make him so much less impressive.

What I am enjoying here, though, is the companion dynamic. I’ve always thought of Tegan and Turlough as one of the pairings I really like about the programme, even if I can’t remember a great deal about their stories. I’m sure it’ll get watered down as the episodes roll by, but I love here that the Doctor doesn’t trust the boy… and he makes it extremely obvious to him. There’s something about the way he tells Tegan that he needs someone he can trust in the TARDIS which I can only imagine Davison’s Doctor doing out of all the ones we’ve had to this point. He plays it calm and quiet, and it’s almost scary as a result. That he alternates between treating Turlough as a friend and with suspicion is fun, and I’m hoping that it’s a theme we continue to play on through this story.

16 September 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: James Goss

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 16th September 2014

“Athens, 421 BC. An ancient civilisation of philosophers and poets and the birthplace of theatre. The Doctor has decided to show Ace and Hector how it all began, with help from the great comedian Aristophanes.

But life in Athens is no laughing matter. There’s the ever-present threat of invasion from the Spartan horde. The plague that turns people into the walking dead. The slavery. The tyrannical rule of the paranoid, malicious Cleon and his network of informers. And the giant flying beetle with knives for wings that stalks the city streets at night.

What Athens needs is a hero. And who better to be a hero in ancient Greece than a man called Hector?”


Before I even get going, I’m just going to take a second to assert what I did in my review of Revenge of the Swarm: I’m not going to bang on in this review about whether or not they should have brought back Hex/Hector.  They shouldn’t, but that’s a discussion for... well, probably the release after this one.  Instead, I’m going to focus on the play as its own entity, away from these things, for now at least.

The second in this trilogy of Seventh Doctor/Ace/Hex-sort-of-ish plays, Mask of Tragedy takes us back to Ancient Greece, a time of political reform, war, new ideas, philosophy, and, it turns out, space tourism and a lot of fun.  Barely two minutes have passed before it’s revealed that in Greece around this time, everyone is well aware of time travel and aliens, because... well, because it’s Greece around this time, so every time traveller wants to visit it!

It’s a great idea: funny, silly, cheeky, a little bit Iris Wildthyme, and perfect for a play that honestly made me laugh aloud at least twice an episode.  I simply was not expecting this play to be as funny as it is.  I’ll confess that despite liking James Goss’s writing and the Seventh Doctor (heck, I like all the Doctors, even... no, no, especially Edmund Warrick), this play didn’t hold much expectation in my mind before listening to it.  Perhaps it’s due to my apathy towards the resurrection of Hex/Hector, but regardless, it is often the way when two plays in a run get released in the same month: you’re aware, especially so in this case, that a finale of sorts is in the pipeline, and so it’s easy to lose sight of what else is there.  I remember when this happened with Paper Cuts, which proved itself to be one of the best Sixth Doctor/Charley adventures out there, and this is certainly every bit as strong a release as Revenge of the Swarm was last month, so I dearly hope it doesn’t get overlooked.

The play kicks off with Ace acting as a Greek chorus and giving us hints of what’s to come, which is at once confusing and intriguing.  We’re then thrown into the action, with Hex still not the Hex we once knew and the Seventh Doctor in a toga, keen to take a trip into history, but one with an ulterior motive, as it soon transpires that he is sponsoring the comic playwright Aristophanes and, in his own words, wants to keep an eye on things due to the nature of all things time travel converging on this one place in time and space.

We soon get a playwright bemoaning his art being sullied by an audience’s taste for fart jokes, Ace as a proto-Feminist freedom fighter, a not-very-good space traveller who is only there for kicks and lessons, Spartans a world away from their depiction in 300, and Hex/Hector lost and adrift in a time he finds hard to cope with, with the titular mask proving that he is not the man he was.  Indeed, Ace and the Doctor find themselves treading on eggshells to not remind him that he’s not this guy they once travelled with, and this is shown up time and again here when Hex/Hector is thrown into the past and expected to cope in the way Hex used to be able to.  Indeed, this is a play which uses the Hex/Hector plot device to full effect, both with regards to story and drama, and it is also a play which doesn’t forget what has just come before, with Swarm proving itself to have an effect on his character here, too.  It’s an example of continuity being used in a smart and effective way, as opposed to a clunky one.  You don’t need the lines nodding towards Swarm in there, but it helps explain a few things.

Sylvester McCoy and Philip Olivier are in fine form throughout the play, though Sophie Aldred perhaps suffers a little by having an Ace who is used mainly for comedy and is given some... questionable lines.  I’m sure having her bellow “I’m gonna teach ya... how to gatecrash!” works well in a comic strip, but on audio it’s a little bit wince-inducing.  That said, Aldred does spar well with Emily Tucker, with whom she is paired with for a fair chunk of this play, and she plays some of the tender moments between her and Hex/Hector rather well.  Why do birds suddenly appear, etc.  I suspect we’re heading towards tears before bedtime with this budding romance, as hinted at in Swarm as well.

Mention has to go to Samuel West as Aristophanes in this play, who manages to be blackly funny and wonderfully dour in equal measure throughout.  He also steals the show in the CD extras by being so damn nice and loving towards Dimensions in Time, which is genuinely touching and pleasingly fan-ish to hear! It does make me sad though that he never once wishes upon someone that they are doomed to go on a journey... a very long journey.

Whatever my misgivings towards Hex/Hector, the same cannot be said for this play which, like Revenge of the Swarm, is good fun throughout.  We have an ending approaching though: a definite ending this time, apparently.  I am not sure that I really believe Big Finish on this one, but let’s play along with them and say it’s true.  I want it to be true, and if that play can be as good as the two preceding... well, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised once again.  Here’s hoping.


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