Time Lord Tees

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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:

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

DOCTOR
You're reading my thoughts.

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

DOCTOR
And where do you function?

STRIKER
Eternity.

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. 

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.

15 September 2014

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

Day 623: Terminus, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I think this might me one of those unfortunate instances, as with Time-Flight, where there’s a really good story to be told here, using all of the elements we’re given on screen, but what we’ve actually got has slightly come off the rails and missed it. What I mean is that there’s a great departure story for Nyssa in Terminus… but it’s only in the last three minutes when she’s actually making her goodbyes.

This fourth episode is, in many ways, all Nyssa’s. She’s spent a few episodes infected by a virus, and then she’s cured of it, and decides that her purpose in life should be to stay here and help refine the process. Her split-second decision at the end to leave her life in the TARDIS behind is rather touching, but it feels as though it’s all come somewhat out of nowhere. I think it’s largely down to the fact that Nyssa’s interest and skills in science haven’t really been forefront in recent stories, so to suddenly have her so up-to-speed with things again here just doesn’t feel quite right.

It’s also the case that I don’t really feel like I’ve seen much of her in this story. The fact that she’s ill and gets to see the conditions that the Lazars are being kept in is vital to her decision to stay behind at the end… but it’s all felt like a side story to the Doctor’s plot about the birth of the universe. In fairness, this episode does do a rather good job, I think, of intertwining the two strands of the story: but it’s too little too late for me, and I have to admit that I zoned out a little bit today, so I think I’ve possibly missed some things…

As for Nyssa herself… I’m sorry to say that I’m not really going to miss her all that much. That’s nothing against Sarah Sutton, who’s turned in a good performance fairly consistently, but more that the character never seemed to chime with me. Throughout Season Nineteen, she was my least favourite member of the TARDIS crew (and I thought the team worked better throughout Kinda, without Nyssa there), and Season Twenty seems to have robbed her of any particularly interesting character traits, and reduced her to your stereotypical screaming-and-pointing assistant. Over the years, I think I’ve heard Peter Davison say that he felt Nyssa should have carried on while Tegan should have left the series, but I’m afraid I’d disagree - I’m much more looking forward to having Tegan around for a good while yet.

The same can be said of Turlough. I think I’m liking him so far - he’s another character with a great line in sarcasm, and that’s always a winner for me - but it’s difficult to judge from this story. He’s had to spend far too much time scrawling around in maintenance ducts, and when he does manage to break away and into the rest of the set, he’s reduced to talking with his pet crystal! I can’t wait to get the Black Guardian storyline out of the way in the next story, so that we can enjoy Turlough on his own merits.

 

14 September 2014

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

Day 622: Terminus, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I can’t decide wether or not this is a good story for Nyssa’s departure. On the one hand, things start well, with her being separated from the rest of the TARDIS crew, and then being the one paired with the Doctor while Tegan and Turlough have to crawl around in the ventilation ducts. Since then, though, she’s contracted a disease, and has spent much of today’s episode either whining about being ill, or getting chained up to be taken away by a big dog. The jury is still out, I think…

On the subject of the big dog… I think I’m right in saying that the Garm is one of Doctor Who’s less fondu remembered monster costumes. I don’t think it’s as bad as I was expecting it to be, but it is being shot in a strange way - quite at odds with the skill and precision that Mary Ridge is bringing to other parts of the story. There’s a lot of areas in the set - particularly within the Garm’s own forbidden section of the ship - which have been lit beautifully, really highlighting the shadows and the atmosphere. I’d assumed that this was partly to hide the costume a little, keep it a mysterious, seven-foot dog shape leering out of the dark… but no. The creature moves very quickly from the shadows and into the fully-lit sections of the studio very quickly, even in its first appearance. As I say, it’s not a bad costume, but it would benefit a bit from being kept more mysterious, especially with those glowing eyes.

Something I’d forgotten I knew about Terminus is that it’s all to do with the Big Bang at the start of the universe. There was almost a twinge of recognition when they first discovered that it sat at the exact centre of the universe, but this episode brought it all flooding back. I really love the idea that the start of everything was caused by the venting of spaceship fuel from a time vessel, and watching the Doctor and Kari figure it all out has been fantastic. I think I’m also quite keen on the idea that the second explosion would have the exact opposite effect and bring everything to an end. I can’t remember if they do shunt the ship forward in time to do just that (though I don’t think they do…), but it’s posing some nice ideas for now.

Despite all this… I’m not really sure what to make of Terminus. On the one hand, it’s filled with some great ideas, enough of your standard Doctor Who fare - in the slaves here on Terminus rising up against perceived oppression - to keep things moving, and the direction really is lovely on the whole. But then on the other hand… I’m just not sure about anything. I’m being kept entertained enough by things, but it’s hardly leaving me screaming out for more, and desperate to carry on in the way that Mawdryn Undead did. Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s final episode will prove to be both the thing that makes the story stand out in my mind, and also work as a fitting departure for Nyssa…

 

13 September 2014

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

Day 621: Terminus, Episode Two

Dear diary,

The last time Steve Gallagher wrote a script for Doctor Who, it was Warrior’s Gate… and I didn’t understand it very well. Terminus is a far more straightforward serial (though there’s still enough here to keep me guessing), but it’s not the writing that I actually want to focus on today - it’s the sets and the direction. Something I praised in Warrior’s Gate was the use of different levels on the sets of the spaceship to make it feel far less studio-bound than we were used to. The same effect is being applied here, too, to an even greater extent… even though it’s an entirely different director. I know, this sounds like a ramble of various different thoughts, but in my notes, I compared this story to Warrior’s Gate because of the set design… and only found out afterwards that this was also a Gallagher script. It’s strange, really, how little coincidences like this crop up from time to time in the programme.

I said yesterday that the sets for this story were a little drab - lots of grey and not much to them. In this episode - perhaps because we’ve spread out into Terminus itself - I’ve completely ‘got’ them, and I can’t help but really like them. You first get a sense of the size in the cliffhanger reprise, when you’ve got the Doctor stood up on one platform, looking down at a dozen or so extras milling around, and then you cut to Tegan and Turlough slipping down into the ventilation shafts beneath the floor: you really get a sense of this ship being a real location. It’s then carried on into the rest of the sets, and Mary Ridge’s direction starts to really make the most of these different levels.

There’s also a lovely shot towards the end of the episode, where we pan up from a supporting artist working at some sci-fi machinery, to see the Doctor and Kari walking along one of the gantries. The shot then pans back down again to the extra once more, while in the corner of the shot, we can still see Peter Davison and Liza Goddard exploring. It’s probably the most inventive use of the sets we’ve had since Four to Doomsday, and it’s a shame that Ridge never had another opportunity to work on the programme (reading an old Doctor Who Magazine interview with her, I don’t think she had the best of experiences when making Terminus, so it’s a real credit to her that it looks as polished as it does!

It’s also been a while since I’ve had one of my moans that the whole series should have been shot on film. Tegan and Turlough exploring the ventilation shafts looks lovely in every singe shot, and the detailing of the set, coupled with the lighting and use of smoke make these look like some of the nicest parts of the story - perhaps for the best, because they’ve spent the whole episode trapped in them!

I also have to mention perhaps the most famous moment of the story - Nyssa dropping her skirt for seemingly no reason at all. A quick look online reveals that the original plan was for her to drop her brooch, leaving a clue to the Doctor that she had been this way. The fact that she’s suddenly started changing her costume every single story, though, means that she no longer has a brooch to drop, and elects to use the only bit of the costume that was removable… the skirt! Now… I’m not particularly versed in the ways that these things work, and maybe they just wanted to show Nyssa stripping off before she leaves the series for good (in one quote I’ve seen today, Sarah Sutton calls it a ‘parting gift to the fans’!), but surely if the script required her to drop a brooch… they could have made sure she wore one for this story? She needn’t go back to her entire old costume just for the sake of that one moment, but it seems like harder work to change the script to accommodate the dress, than to change the costume to suit the script! Bizarre! 

12 September 2014

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

Day 620: Terminus, Episode One

Dear diary,

Of the three tales in the ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’, Terminus is the one I know the least about. I’ve seen it (or, at least, some of it) before, but my memories really boiled down to a single image - that of the TARDIS wall being replaced by a large image of a skull. Other than that, I know some basic facts about the story - it’s Nyssa’s last, features a large dog, and is based around a leprocy colony - but that’s it. I always love going into tales like this one, because I’m completely unbiased from either a previous viewing, or the way I think other people may feel about the story - I simply have no idea!

First impressions… have we ever had a more 1980s story than this one? To start with, Nyssa’s hair is looking particularly ‘on trend’ for the period, and don’t even get me started on Liza Goddard’s barnet! The space suits our two raiders have been stuck in are particular dated now, too. Very much a 1980s rendition of 1960s ‘futurism’ - Dan Dare as seen through the prism of 1983. It’s not necessarily a bad thing - but it certainly does make this story scream out at you more than any others this season, and I dare say more than any other this decade. It almost needs that, though, because the sets for the story are particularly drab, decked out largely in gun-metal grey. Once again, that’s not a complaint, because it suits the story perfectly, but having such outrageously 1980s fashions stuck in there gives the piece at least a little jazz!

And yet, despite being so ‘of the era’, this is another tale which harkens back to the early days of the programme. Nyssa and the Doctor don’t get to leave the TARDIS until something like ten minutes in, and we don’t have any characters other than the regulars until fourteen minutes in. We’re back into the old model of the TARDIS crew exploring the strange new location for a while before encountering danger. One of the ‘strange new locations’ on show is the TARDIS itself - with Turlough lost in its rabbit warren of corridors. I think it’s fair to say that they’ve never looked quite as good as they do in the opening shots here: it’s simply the regular set flats arranged in a different way, but they seem to better give the impression of the corridors stretching out into the distance. I’ve had the CGI effects on again for this episode, which means that the Doctor and Tegan staring into the problems the ship is encountering makes it look larger again (though I did check the original version for comparison - the very close up pixellation effect doesn’t work as well for me, but mostly because it makes it look like Tegan is stood just a few inches from the trouble when she notices it!

I’m somewhat confused about Turlough’s purpose again here. At the end of Mawdryn Undead, he’s relieved to see that the Black Guardian’s crystal is cracked and I took that to mean that he thought he was free of the man’s influence. Obviously, I knew he wasn’t, but I was expecting him to simply get on with his new life in the TARDIS for a while before the Guardian re-emerged to him. Instead, we open this story with the boy in mid-conversation with his evil paymaster, and it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s as though we’ve missed an episode between this one and the last, in which he finds that he can never escape (waking or sleeping, etc etc)… 

11 September 2014

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

Day 619: Mawdryn Undead, Episode Four

Dear diary,

There’s something I’m not quite getting about Mawdry Undead. The Doctor’s biggest objection to giving up his remaining regenerations to end the suffering of the creatures on this ship seems to be not that he’d then have no more lives to live, but that ‘it would be the end of [him] as a Time Lord’. What I don’t understand is… why? Because he’d be unable to regenerate any more? Does that mean that Matt Smith’s Doctor wasn’t a Time Lord, considering that he wasn’t supposed to regenerate any more? I sort of kidded myself into believing that it was because he’d be helping people who stole Time Lord technology, but that’s not what the dialogue here seems to confirm. Still, it’s not that much of a sticking point for me (I can always put it down to the Doctor being over-dramatic), because I really love the idea that these people stole regeneration technology from the Time Lords, and their punishment for doing so is to live on forever, never dying. It dovetails neatly with the way seekers of immortality are treated in The Five Doctors, so if we believe that Rassilon was the man who imposed the ’13 lives’ limit, then it fits very nicely. As in Shada, it’s a nice addition to Time Lord mythology (and notice how much better this is for the species, compared to actually visiting them and getting bored to tears during Arc of Infinity…)

On the whole, Mawdryn Undead has turned out to be a massive surprise for me. I’ve always thought of it as being one of those stories that just happened to exist, much in the way that something like The Savages does. No one really dislikes it, but then no one really cares all that much for it, either. The only thing I’ve ever known it to be notable for is the return of the Brigadier after a long leave of absence. Looking at the Doctor Who Magazine poll from a few months back, this story charted at number 117 - almost smack-bang in the middle of all results. I’m actually really surprised, though, because it’s been great! I almost did a real-life, cartoon-style double take watching the special features and realising that this was written by Peter Grimwade: the man who washed away so much potential (and good sense, if we’re honest) with Time-Flight last season. For comparison’s sake, that story ranked 237 out of 241… so at least we all agree that this is a massive step up!

The whole script dovetails nicely, and this last episode has been filled with little moments that just left me sitting there grinning from ear to ear. Tiny little things, that shouldn’t even register suddenly feel like everything snapping in to place. For example, I love that the school Doctor is waiting at the top of the hill able to find the amnesiac Brigadier in 1977… because the Brig himself had left a message for the man to be there three episodes earlier, when they thought that the burnt man in the TARDIS may need help! As I say, it’s a tiny, insignificant thing, but it makes it feel as though some real thought has gone into this (it also makes the Brig’s outburst about the man earlier in the story all the more affecting - to know that this doctor didn’t only diagnose a breakdown, but was the one who found the Brig makes it all the deeper).

What made me smile, and laugh, the most though was Tegan’s reaction to events - and more notably, the way it was used to show how her relationship with the Doctor currently stands. In episode three, the Doctor explains to the Brigadier why having two versions of himself on the spaceship at the same time is a bad thing:

DOCTOR
You'd exist twice over. And if the two of you met, you'd short out the time differential. Don't you see? The Blinovitch limitation effect? Oh dear. As Tegan would say, zap!

This is then turned back on itself in this episode, after the two Brigs have met, and The Doctor tries to explain to our former air hostess exactly what’s just happened…

DOCTOR
The two Brigadiers just shorted out the time differential.

TEGAN
You mean zap?

DOCTOR
Yes, that's right. Zap.

Again - it’s tiny! The kind of fun little detail that you’d usually just gloss over in a script, and yet here it absolutely sings, and the look the Doctor gives Tegan as he replies is absolutely perfect.

Throughout this whole story, there’s really been one thought that just keeps on recurring… Nicholas Courtney really is fantastic, isn’t he? I commented a couple of days ago that his relationship with the new Doctor was very in keeping of my memories with the previous incarnations, but the same is true for the Brig as a character, too. It is, of course, partly down to the writing (another plus for Grimwade, there), but it’s also down to this man who simply loves and embodies the part more than any other actor and character in Doctor Who’s long history. I’ve absolutely loved having the Brigadier back, and I think Mawdryn Undead may well become my ‘go-to’ story when I want to watch Nick Courtney at his absolute finest.

 

10 September 2014

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

Day 618: Mawdryn Undead, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I’m really enjoying the way the Doctor and the Brigadier are interacting in this story. I’ve been trying all day to think of the right way to put it, and it stuck me about a half an hour ago - they’re interacting like the Doctor and the Brigadier! Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like I’m just being facetious, but what I mean is that the relationship they share here is in many ways the same that Patrick Troughton’s Doctor had with the Brig, or Jon Pertwee’s, or Tom Baker’s. It’s not identical to any of those earlier versions, but it fits right in with my memories of them. Way, way back, during Season Seven when the Third Doctor and the Brigadier weren’t often getting along, I mentioned that I’d always seen the pair as being best friends because that’s how they’re portrayed in the 1980s stories. I think this is specifically the tale that I was thinking of - it’s the way that Davison’s Doctor grins when he first sets out to follow the man back down to the school, and the way that the Brigadier has a dry remark to counter everything the Doctor says, before getting on with the task in hand because he trust’s the Doctor’s judgement, no matter what face he’s wearing.

I’ve not yet mentioned the Black Guardian in this story, who’ll be popping up over the next few tales, too, forming what fan’s tend to call the ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ (it’s imaginatively titled). It always struck me as an odd return for the character, several years after he was last a threat, and operating in such an odd way. In The Armageddon Factor, he was trying to gain control of the Key to Time because he could use it to plunge the universe into chaos. Here, he’s using an alien in an English school to try and simply kill the Doctor. After appearing to be such an immensely powerful being in Season Sixteen (and slightly beyond - even though he often over-rode it, the Doctor had to install the Randomiser in the TARDIS to make sure he could escape the Guardian’s clutches), this all felt a bit… low key.

I can see now just how like The Trickster from The Sarah Jane Adventures he is. At the time I remember thinking that the Trickster felt familiar, and it’s strange to see this serial now when I’m so much more familiar with the spin-off. For some reason, though, I accept this kind of meddling from the Trickster and accept that he’s a supremely powerful being, whereas in the case of the Black Guardian, I simply don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because he insists on wearing that bird on his head?

He does at least escape his green vortex in this episode - but only because I’ve turned on the CGI effects. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what effects they’d actually replace (it’s hardly a story that relies on lots of laser beams, exploding castles, or giant snakes), so I thought I’d give it a go. It makes the Guardian’s appearances suitably more creepy - especially when he takes the place of a bust on Mawdryn’s ship - and it gives us a really rather nice effect as the Teleport capsule arrives back in place, too. I think I’ll leave them on for the next episode, just to see if they do anything with the two-Brigadier’s meeting moment.

While I’m at it - I’ve loved the couple of scenes in today’s episode of the Brig just missing himself in the ship’s corridors - and I’m hoping we get one or two more before they come face-to-face!

 

9 September 2014

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

Day 617: Mawdryn Undead, Episode Two

Dear diary,

This episode really is an unashamed continuity fest. And you know what? As much as we might look back at 1980s Doctor Who and complain that it gets far too entrenched in continuity, on this first occasion it’s absolutely glorious. This really feels like it’s supposed to be a celebration of the programme’s first twenty years, and the montage of old clips used to represent the Brigadier’s memories coming back is absolutely perfect. The few brief shots we got of the earlier Doctors confronting Cybermen in Earthshock was exciting, but this is something completely different.

I can’t quite relate to children of the time watching that scene, because for them they’d likely never seen any of these moments, only read about them or heard about them from older fans, but I can get at least a sense of how it must have felt, because I’m excited by it! All these moments of Doctor Who gone by - there’s clips in there on The Invasion, which I saw just over a year ago… but it feels like a lifetime! The programme has been through so much since then. I’m even feeling nostalgic about the Pertwee years - and that’s not something I could have predicted way back when! If anything makes the montage extra special; above and beyond the way the Brigadier’s face fades into a shot of his earlier self, or the way we get to see glimpses of Zygons, and Yeti, and the original Omega, it’s the way that the montage comes full circle, and ends with a shot of the Brig meeting this latest incarnation of our hero, just a few scenes earlier. Somehow, it makes him feel even more like the Doctor.

That montage isn’t the only ‘kiss to the past’ in this episode, either. The Doctor himself mentions the Yeti, and all of his Pertwee era companions. We get an update on where Benton is these days (somehow, selling used cars seems both so right, and also so wrong for him - it couldn’t be better), and Nyssa goes to pains to remind us that they used the Zero Room during the Doctor’s last regeneration. As I say, it’s an unashamed continuity fest, and I don’t even care, because it’s wonderful to see. I’d imagine that such things will feel less special when - say - we reach stories like Attack of the Cybermen which are entirely built upon the idea of continuity, but for now, I couldn’t be happier.

I think it also helps that this is a rather good episode in itself. There’s something wonderful (and very in-keeping with the rules of the programme during the Steven Moffat years), about the Doctor trying to find out where his companions have ended up, with the Brigadier starting to remember Tegan… who we see meeting a younger Brig, intercut with these moments. It feels like an exciting way of playing with time in the programme, and it’s not something we’ve seen done very much at this stage. I also love that the two Brigadiers are identifiable by the state of his moustache!

Another great idea in this episode is Nyssa and Tegan believing that the Doctor has regenerated… but it doesn’t quite work as well as it should. It’s great when they enter the teleport capsule expecting to find the Doctor, and mistake the only occupant as being him… but even though he’s badly burnt, he’s clearly not the Doctor, even before they think he’s regenerated. They could have at least cast someone with similar hair to Peter Davison, so that they’d have more of an excuse for getting it wrong!

 

8 September 2014

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

Day 616: Mawdryn Undead, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s always felt really odd that the Brigadier comes back in the middle of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure, having been absent from the programme since Terror of the Zygons a full seven-and-a-ha;f years earlier. Doctor Who is a very different beast now to the one the Brig left, and he’s a very different man. For a start… he’s a teacher! Oh, I know, the story was originally planned to be bringing back William Russell as Ian - a call back to the original TARDIS team in the programme’s twentieth anniversary year - but it’s never quite sat right with me that the Brigadier simply turns up here with no fanfare, and in such a different setting.

This is usually the point where I’d ask if people even really knew who he was at the time, and if this had an impact when the episode first appeared, but I’m largely getting the impression from comments on this era over the last month or so that yes, of course it would have had an impact! A slightly different question for a you all today, then: had the Brigadier become, by this point, the legendary character we think of him as now? Or was that partly fuelled by the fact that he pops up a few times in the 1980s?

I’ve also only thought today that the Brigadier’s love of vintage cars could well be inspired by the time he spent with the Third Doctor - I certainly don’t remember him having all that much of an interest in them back then, so I’m adding that to my own personal ‘head cannon’ from now on!

We’ve also got the introduction of Turlough to the TARDIS crew… in what must be one of the strangest introductions ever. He’s brought in as a schoolboy, and set up as a troublemaker right from the very start. But then there’s all these references to him not liking Earth, and wanting to go ‘home’ - but it’s not been explicitly stated yet that he’s an alien, and I think I’m right in saying that we don’t find out the truth about his background until his final story - towards the end of the next season! It’s very unusual way to bring a new character in to the programme. I do love that he’s been taken under the employ of the Black Guardian and forced to kill the Doctor, though. I’ve always felt that this little ‘arc’ plays out over too many episodes, and I vaguely recall things getting a bit silly by the end, but at this stage, with the boy holding a rock over the Doctor’s head, it’s something new and exciting.

There’s not really a great deal else that I want to say for this first episode - it’s quite an unusual start to a new story, with everything moving a bit slower than I’d expect. Having just come from a story in which Tegan had become possessed and started terrorising people by the time the first cliffhanger rolled around, this is positively leisurely. That said, I would like to call out Davison for praise again, because I really love the Doctor that he’s settled in to playing. The moment when he runs in to the TARDIS - straight past Turlough, who’s fiddling with the controls - and then takes a moment before looking up to really take in the boy has to be one of my favourite scenes ever. I hooted at that one for ages. It’s also very reminiscent of the way he encounters the Tenth Doctor in Time Crash (I know, I know, I bang on about that seven-minute scene over and over, but I’ve spent so long thinking that the Fifth Doctor was a bit out of character in it that I love seeing all the little moments which clearly influence it!).

7 September 2014

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

Day 615: Snakedance, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve seen the ending of Kinda a few times over the years, but when I think of the Mara, it’s always in the form of the pink snake from the end of that story. Doesn’t matter if it’s the original effect or the alternate CGI version, that’s just how I picture this creature. It seems odd, then, that when it finally materialises in this story, it’s in the form of a black and yellow snake, and a completely different design entirely to the one we’ve seen before.

Now, I’ll be fair, the snake here is better than the one from Kinda. Is it a completely convincing effect? No, it’s not. But it does look better than the earlier version, and the shot of Tegan’s head staring out from the snake’s mouth is actually quite scary - I can imagine it causing one or two nightmares after the first transmission. I simply can’t enjoy this version of the snake as much as the earlier one, though, because it seems wrong that it’s not pink! What does everyone else prefer? Mara Mark One, or Mara Mark Two?

Something about this final episode - other than the colour of the snake - simply hasn’t gelled with me. I think it might just be a general come-down from the fact that I’ve not found Snakedance as enjoyable as Kinda, but I’ve been a little bit disconnected from this episode. It was summed up most for me when everyone has broken free from the Mara’s power… and they all mill around in silence, looking at each other as though they’d just witnessed something mildly interesting but not worth commenting on. It shook me out of believing completely in this world, and that’s a shame, because I’ve found Manusa and its society more and more compelling the longer that I’ve spent here.

I know that the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan (along with Turlough) revisit the world for a third Mara story in the Big Finish audios, so I think I’m adding that one to my list of things to hear once The 50 Year Diary is over, because I’m interested to see how the whole Mara concept fares under a different writer. I’m pleased to say that having now watched both stories, I can understand it all a lot better than I did through vaguely knowing the plots (and I mean ‘vaguely’). I’m also adding The Children of Seth to my list - one of the ‘Lost Stories’ that Big Finish have produced, and based on the only other script that Christopher Bailey planned for the series - I’d be interested to see what a non-Mara story penned by him would be like.

On the whole, while I’ve enjoyed Snakedance, it’s not been the gem that I was hoping it would be. For a while, I’ve suspected that Season Twenty may be the one I enjoy least out of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure (I’m not entirely sure why I’ve got that feeling, but it’s been nagging at me since Castrovalva), and I’d somewhat convinced myself that Snakedance would be the highlight. I’m hoping that I’ll be surprised by some of the stories to come, and if nothing else, the next one brings back a real Doctor Who icon… 

6 September 2014

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

Day 614: Snakedance, Episode Three

Dear diary,

There’s a point in The Writer’s Tale where Russell T Davies talks about the way that you need to keep ‘turning’ characters to make them feel real. You’ll have to forgive me for quoting two passages from the book in today’s entry, but they’re vital to the point I’m making:

”I suppose I do know already what [a character] would do in given circumstances… with the proviso that anyone can do anything in any circumstance. You should never mark out a character so formally that their reactions are fully defined, because none of us is like that; we’re slightly different every day, with different people, with each different mood. You have to keep turning characters in the light.”

A little while later, during rewrites on The Fires of Pompeii, Davies discusses the way in which he takes an original introduction to the character Quintus as being ‘sullen’, and uses that as a springboard for ‘turning’ the character:

”A lot of my rewrite consisted of turning him, like a barbecue, making sure that he’s cooked all the way through. In my rewrite, he’s sullen and hung over when he first appears, but then he deepens as he defends his sister before his parents, then greedy when the Doctor offers him money to take him to where Lucius lives, then as scared as a little kid when they break in to Lucius’ quarters, then brave when he throws the burning torch at the soldiers to escape Lucius, then magnificent back at the Caecilius’ villa, when he kills the Pyrovile with a bucket of water. And then he’s transformed at the end: the sullen youth has become a Doctor himself, the image of his hero. That’s what I mean by turning. No one is fixed. They’re all capable of change - not just once in some plot-reveal, but all the time. They become more distinct by allowing them a fuller life.”

I think this is the best example of what makes Christopher Bailey’s work on the series all the more wonderful - he manages to ‘turn’ characters more than many writers in the classic era manage to do. Take Lon in this story, for example. He get’s to be more rounded than some companions have been over several stories. When he first appears in this tale, he’s the epitome of the spoiled, arrogant youth. He’s waiting for his father to die so that he can be the one with all the power. He has no interest in the history of the world he will one day rule, as has little time for there people, unless he can effectively make them dance for him to keep himself amused.

It’s a good introduction for a character - it’s a role that we know well enough from all kinds of fiction, and I dare say most of us know of real-life people who share a similar attitude to Lon here. The character then begins his process of turning in the second episode, when the owner of the hall of mirrors comes to fetch him. Lon’s reaction to being ‘summoned’ is initially to find it somewhat amusing, before becoming curious as to exactly what’s going on. By the time he enters the hall of mirrors, to find Tegan staring deep into once, he’s actually become scared. There’s something very telling about the way he cautiously enters the darkened tent, and tries to make contact with her, completely devoid of the pomposity and self-belief which has defined him until now.

Once he’s been taken under the possession of the Mara, he’s back to largely being the boy he was to begin with, using his status to make other people run around and fetch what he needs, but it’s his sudden interest in history which has started to make people question him. I think it’s this kind of character work which makes both this story and Kinda feel a little bit more special than several of the other ones around them. Bailey really understands how to make his characters and his world’s believable, and you can’t help but enjoy that.

Such a well-written character gives Martin Clunes something to really get his teeth into, as well. I think I’m right in saying that Snakedance was one of his earliest TV appearances, and as such it’s often popped up as something with which to embarrass the man during interviews in more recent years. The bold style that he’s given to wear here probably doesn’t help matters! But it’s actually a very good performance, and it gives a good idea of why the man has become so ubiquitous on British TV over the years. I can’t say that I particularly follow his career (I’m not sure if I could name anything I’ve watched recently with him in…), but he’s popped up in no end of stuff, and if he always turns in a good performance, then it’s easy enough to see why…

5 September 2014

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

Day 613: Snakedance, Episode Two

Dear diary,

The thing I’m enjoying the most about Snakedance so far is the way that the Doctor is treated as though he were simply a nutter. I’ve never really questioned before the way that he shows up and takes charge (sometimes there’s wrongful accusations an imprisonment involved before he can take control of the situation), but this story is really painting an image of how the man must look to the people he meets in these adventures. He’s turned up here, proclaiming the end of the world, with lots of shouting and gesturing. I doubt that I’d take him all that seriously, to be honest. I think my favourite exchange has to be this one;

The Doctor arrives in the Director’s office, to warn him of the imminent danger this world is in

DOCTOR
Er, hello…

DIRECTOR
I know exactly what you want.

DOCTOR
Do you?

DIRECTOR
Yes, you've come to pester me with some extravagant theory you've dreamed up concerning the Mara, and should I, the Director, fail to take sufficient notice of your colourful improbabilities, it will be the end of civilisation as we know it at least. How am I doing so far, hmm?

I think it’s the look that Davison gives in reaction to that which really sells it all for me. To be fair, though, it’s not a bad interpretation of what happens in lots of stories. The fun is that we know the Doctor is right, and yet you can’t help but feel for the Director throughout the whole story. I also love the way that the Doctor tries to explain the ‘Six Faces of Delusions’ mask to the man later on, managing to subvert the Director’s earlier tone with his own sarcastic line:

DOCTOR
That was probably the idea, don't you think?

This is the kind of attitude that I enjoy from the Fifth Doctor, and it’s the one that I hope to see more and more of as the rest of his tenure plays out - the man who knows he’s cleverer than everyone else in the room, but is too polite to say so, and simply gets exasperated waiting for everyone else to catch up. Tom Baker’s Doctor would have huffed and puffed and made a big scene of that moment, but this incarnation is smaller, quieter. I like that.

While I’m discussing people’s performances, I have to draw attention again to Janet Fielding. She really does deliver her best performances when doing a Christopher Bailey script (probably because they give her the most to do, and a greater range of character than she’s had for the last few stories), and today may be a new high for her. The early scene in which she sneaks up to surprise Nyssa in the crowded market place, before laughing her head off about the way the fortune teller screamed and screamed is genuinely scary… as is the follow up a few moments later, in which the real Tegan manages to break back through and beg her friend for help. Wonderful stuff.

It continues to be quite unsettling throughout the rest of the episode too, when she’s fully under Mara control. Staring into the mirrors and seeing the skull of a snake talking back to her is wonderful - and better than I’d expected. I thought I’d seen Snakedance before, but all of this seems completely new to me. I knew of the snake skull from the Episode One cliffhanger, staring out of the crystal ball, but had no idea that it actually moved and spoke later on. It’s provided quite a moment of surprise for me, and I’ve loved that. I also need to give some praise for the fact that they explain the mirror situation from Kinda: as soon as Tegan started to wander around in the hall of mirrors, I made a note that it seemed to contradict the ending of the earlier story, so having it explained (and explained well!) in the same scene was a great thing.

Though I do find myself slightly confused by something else do do with the circle of mirrors from Kinda. Possessed Tegan here proclaims that she needs the great crystal in order to let the Mara manifest in physical form, and get out of her head… but isn’t that more-or-less what happened when Aris was trapped by the mirrors? The snake certainly appeared in that situation…? I think there’s probably something that I’m missing (or, rather, it’s not been explained yet), but I’m guessing it’s a simple case of the great crystal serving to stabilise the creature, perhaps? Or strengthen its power? I’ll be keeping an ear out in the second half of the story in the hope that this gets cleared up... 

4 September 2014

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

Day 612: Snakedance, Episode One

Dear diary,

I’ve been looking forward to this one. Having found Kinda to be such an unexpected highlight of the last season, the chance to watch another story from the same writer that explores similar concepts was always going to seem appealing. That said, I’m not entirely sure what I make of it, yet.

When I started Kinda, I said that the Mara had always somewhat confused me. I understood the basic premise, and a lot of the idea behind it, but it was the specifics of the creature that confused me. Watching this story, I can already see more things that had formed part of the jumbled up picture of the Mara in my head (specifically, a cave in which the creature lived, a society which was once in its thrall, and a blue M̶e̶t̶a̶b̶i̶l̶i̶s̶ crystal, which has some relation to the snake itself). I’m not entirely sure that I know where all these things are heading as the story progresses, but I knew they had some relation to the Mara legend.

I didn’t know that Tegan was so central to the plot again. What I mean to say is that of course she was going to play a major role in events here - having been possessed by the creature in the previous story (even though she then spends much of the rest of the tale out cold) - but I didn’t realise that the TARDIS would end up on Manusa because the Mara is controlling Tegan subconsciously. I love the idea that she’s the one who gives the coordinates to bring them to this world, and it gives us another chance to see Davison’s slightly angrier Doctor this season, with him suspicious of his companion almost from the very start of the story. It also allows Janet Fielding to take centre stage again, and she’s raising her game here as much as she did during her last dabble with the Mara - the laughter in the closing moments really sells the terror for me. In the interview on the Time-Flight DVD, Fielding claims that fans always ask her to do the Mara laugh at conventions, and it’s no wonder, when it’s such a great performance. I love the sequence of her trying to recall her dream, too. It’s times like this, when the companions are really given a chance to shine, that we get to see just how good all the actors really are.

I can’t help but think that there’s another missed opportunity here, though (I’m sorry, I really am. I’ll stop seeing them in my shadow all the time soon, I hope). I complained in the last story that Tegan suddenly turning up in Amsterdam and getting caught up in Omega’s plans was just too much of a coincidence. I think I’d like to take the idea from this episode - that the Mara is controlling her - and stretch it back into the last tale. It almost feels as though the return of the Mara has been played too soon - it would be great to have Tegan brought back into the Doctor’s life, and then by the end of the season have it revealed that it was all down to the Mara, manipulating events to ensure it would be brought back to its home world.

Besides, if you’re a creature who revels in the darker thoughts of the mind, then a holiday in Amsterdam could be quite appealing…

3 September 2014

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

Day 611: Arc of Infinity, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Peter Davison’s performance has altered a little between Seasons Nineteen and Twenty, to the point where we’re seeing a bit more depth to him here than we have before. It’s most noticeable in this episode, when he shouts at Nyssa to wait in the TARDIS, and it’ not the first time we’ve seen him get angry in this story - he has a pop at the High Council in an earlier episode. I can’t recall seeing him set angry like this in any of the stories from his first season, so it’s nice to see it happening here, and he carries it off nicely. I walkways think of the Fifth Doctor as being the mild-mannered once, and I love it when doing this marathon shakes up my preconceptions a bit…

Sadly, though, I’ve still just not been taken by this story. It’s not even necessarily a bad story, it’s just one which feels a bit… nothing for me. This last episode does at least give us a chase around Amsterdam (though at points, we’re stuck just listening to the sound of different footsteps against to cobbles in shot-after-shot), and we get the whole business with Omega emerging to look like Peter Davison. In the end, though, it’s just not been enough to salvage things for me.

I’m also slightly at a loss as to what Omega is actually doing here. Is he simply trying to come back to ‘our’ universe, so that he’s not stuck alone with his creations any more? In The Three Doctors, he’d been somewhat content in building himself a domain to rule over, but it was pretty much wiped out at the end of the story - is he just bored and ready to come home? Or is he trying to take over Gallifrey and assume his perceived rightful place as their leader? I’m fairly sure he’s in Amsterdam because what’s where the link between the universes is weakest (or something to that effect, anyway), but I’m not entirely sure that I get what he’s up to.

And then we’ve got Tegan back on the team. I’ve spent a fair amour of time over the last few days praising the way that she’s been kept away from her former travelling companions for much of the story, but when they’re brought together again finally in this episode… well, it just doesn’t feel right. Straight away, the Doctor is barking at her to follow him, leaving her cousin behind to recuperate in a clapped out ship which has just blown up, and then she just runs around after him for the rest of the story. Perhaps even more annoyingly, she twice sees something of importance and simply stands still, arms at her side, and shouts ‘Doctor’ without heading off to actually look at what she’s caught sight of.

The final scene is perhaps the worst of the bunch. She’s just spent several days in a foreign country trying to first find, and then care for, her cousin, who has been kidnapped by an evil alien. He’s then caught in the aforementioned blown-up ship, having already not been in the best of states following his ordeal. And yet what does Tegan do? She makes a phone call just to check he’s ok, and then tells the Doctor that she’s coming back to the TARDIS. I wouldn’t mind so much - she doesn’t want to risk letting the Doctor out of her sight, because the last time she did that he left without her, but they never say that. It just comes across as the plot device which his her cousin has served its purpose now, so off we go, new adventures. It’s another of those times, like we saw lots in Time-Flight, where there needs to be just a little more thought given to the characters to make it a better story (and certainly a better ending).

2 September 2014

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

Day 610: Arc of Infinity, Episode Three

Dear diary,

When I said yesterday that I’d forgotten that the Doctor was kept out of Amsterdam for a while in this story, I don’t think I really appreciated just how long he’d be away! We’re three-quarters of the way through the story, and he’s still trapped on Gallifrey! He knows now that Tegan is involved in events, but hasn’t actually met up with her yet in the physical world, and I’m really enjoying that aspect of the tale - I was banging on about needing a story away before Tegan rejoins the TARDIS crew and in some ways we’ve got it, because dragging out the time they spend apart is really helping it to feel as though their worlds are being slowly brought back together again. I think if I’ve one complaint, it’s that Tegan just happens to stumble in to these events by chance, and then Omega is surprised (but delighted) to realise that there’s a link with the Doctor. I think I’d rather have Omega actively seek Tegan out as a bargaining chip, because there’s an awful lot of coincidence going on here!

Outside of the Doctor and Tegan being kept largely separate, I’m struggling to find very much that I’m enjoying about Arc of Infinity, I’m sad to say. Everything just seems to be plodding along, and there’s just nothing that’s pulling me in to the story. Even though the scenes on Gallifrey have now come to a head and the High Council have learned that - yes - there’s a traitor among them and they even have proof that it could well be the Lord President himself… everyone seems about as interested as if they’d put a new pot-plant in the council chamber. And not even a nice, extravagant pot plant with silver leaves that was hand-reared on the south side of a Gallifreyan mountain range: just a regular one that the Castellan picked up from the garden centre. Reduced.

I think it’s because I’d like there to be almost more of an Agatha Christie feel to these events. You’ve got a small number of suspects, various evidence, and deaths that have been brought in to cover up said evidence… you could really make something from that, and it seems a shame that there isn’t a great deal done with it. Even when Nyssa is pleading for time to try and clear the Doctor’s name, there’s no real sense of energy about it, everyone is just milling about and trying to keep themselves busy until this cliffhanger arrives.

Despite all of this - I have to admit that I quite like a lot of the effects in relation to Omega himself. I love that he often appears in negative, when everything else on the screen in positive (a great way to represent him as ‘antimatter’ in a ‘matter’ universe - though imagine if The Three Doctors had done the reverse! yikes!), and the kind of ‘vortex’ effect that gets applied to him when he’s materialising is also a great effect. I used to have a copy of one of the old ‘In Vision’ magazines for this story, and the back cover was a full-page image of Omega inside the green-tinted TARDIS, and I think that image wormed its way into my mind, because I can’t see that here without thinking of the magazine!

I’m also quite keen on the costume they use here, too. I’ll admit that on the whole I do prefer the look of the one he wears for The Three Doctors, but there’s something rather beautiful about the design of this one, too. The same can’t really be said for his pet Ergon, though. I think the Gel Guards were a somewhat more successful creation! That said, I’ll at least give them points for trying. It may look like a giant, feather-less chicken, but it at least looks a million miles away from being ‘human’…!

1 September 2014

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

Day 609: Arc of Infinity, Episode Two

Dear diary,

For the longest time, I’ve always thought you need just a slightly longer gap before bring Tegan back to the programme after the sudden departure in Time-Flight. Not a massive amount of time - just this story away, for instance - but something more than simply bringing her back again in the very next story (albeit with a season break in the middle). Actually watching it again now, though, it’s handled better than I thought it was. I’d forgotten, for instance, that we don’t see her until this second episode, and I’m even surprised to find that she’s not encountered the Doctor again, yet. The fact that he’s still a long way away from Amsterdam helps, too, because you almost get the impression that you’re watching two entirely different stories, following the lives of our three regulars even though they’ve diverged.

I also love Tegan’s new look - the hair really suits her. There’s a short interview with Janet Fielding on the Time-Flight DVD, in which she ascribes the haircut to the fact that the BBC wouldn’t pay her a retainer fee between seasons, so there was a short period in which they had absolutely no say over what she did with her look! It’s certainly for the better, and the way that Nyssa’s hair style has started to evolve more, too, all helps to give this new season a fresh look - it’s like another breath of fresh air being pumped into the programme.

I also can’t go any longer without discussing perhaps the most striking part of this story - it’s Colin Baker’s first foray into the world of Doctor Who. He really does dominate the screen here (I’m sure I’ve heard Colin tell anecdotes to the effect that this is a performance toned down from the way that he played it in rehearsals), and it’s hard not to like him. There’s a kind of grandiose element to the performance that simply makes him watchable. It’s fairly well known that it was his performance at a wedding after the production of this story that won him the role of the Doctor, but watching him here, you can almost start to see why you’d keep him in mind for the title role.

As for the story itself… it’s really not grabbing me very much. Lots of the Gallifrey scenes are leaving me entirely cold - there’s too much back and forth to the TARDIS for my liking - and I just can’t get myself interested in the threats being posed. One of the council is a traitor! So? We’ve seen the mysterious person kill a man to protect their secret, but there’s not a great deal of suspense being built up, with lots of suspects running around and keeping us guessing. It feels as though the story isn’t really trying to make this plot line involving, so I can’t be bothered to try very hard to connect with it.

I’m crossing my fingers that things will get back on track once everyone has arrived in Amsterdam. In fairness, it has to be said that keeping the Doctor away from the city for this first half of the story does help to make things all the more interesting. Perhaps it’s just the memories of City of Death in which Tom and Lalla were forced into as many shots as possible almost top prove that they really are there (and we’ll get plenty of that before this story is out), but having other characters in Amsterdam and not the Doctor makes it feel less like they’ve all gone over there to film an episode, and more like the adventure just happens to be taking place there. 

31 August 2014

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

Day 608: Arc of Infinity, Episode One

Dear diary,

Those of you who’ve been following The 50 Year Diary may remember our first proper trip to Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin (Hush, I know, but The War Games keeps us pretty confined), in which I said I rather liked the design of the Citadel, but that it wasn’t the way that I imagined Gallifrey to be. It wasn’t grand enough, not majestic enough, and it was really very green. That said, though, I’d take the Tom Baker era version of the planet any day, because I really hate Peter Davison era Gallifrey. It puts in two appearances - in both this story and The Five Doctors, and in both it feels completely wrong to me. Here, for example, there are sofas dotted around in the corridors, and random examples of modern art taking up space for no apparent reason (the same could be said of lots of art, but still). If I didn’t think the Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin was impressive enough, you can imagine how I feel about this version.

Anyway, enough about that. I told myself to get the complaint out of the way right away so that I can just settle in and enjoy the rest of the story. Arc of Infinity is another one of those tales that doesn’t fare all that well with reputation. That said, it’s certainly a bold way to open a new season. For a start, we’re in Amsterdam! People tend to mock John Nathan-Turner’s insistence on going abroad to film the programme (the man was, after all, the driving force behind all of the classic run’s overseas excursions, even City of Death), but it gives us a really different atmosphere once the location shots appear. It helps to make the show feel like it’s playing on a bigger canvas than mocking up an alien world in TV Centre can, and picking a popular tourist destination just helps to bring it all home for British viewers.

It’s a shame, then, that we spend our time in Amsterdam today with some truly atrocious actors. I’d more or less managed to block this pair from my mind, but the second we get their first line - ‘oh, no. A policeman’ - it all came thundering back. I try not to be too critical of people in Doctor Who is I can help it, but I’m sorry to say that this is one of the worst performances that we’ve ever had in the series. I’m hoping it gets better as it goes along (I’m not sure I’ve ever made it to the end of the story to check before!).

It’s also one of those stories in which the Doctor and his companion spend a large amount of time stuck inside the TARDIS - almost as though we’re back in Season Eighteen again. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (though it may be nice to get the pair involved in the action a little swifter at the start of the new year), and I’m surprised just how well Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are working together here. Truth be told, I often felt that she was the weakest of the three companions during the last season, so I’m glad that I’ve taken to her a little more here. Maybe having room to breathe away from the others allows a bit more of the character to come out, and a chance for Sutton to really flex her acting skills?

30 August 2014

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

Day 607: Time-Flight, Episode Four

Dear diary,

When you’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for long enough, there are several ‘facts’ about the show that you just sort of ‘accumulate’. You know that Adric dies in Earthshock. You know that the final story of the original run is called Survival. One of the things that you just somehow end up knowing - wether you’ve seen the story or not - is that Tegan leaves in this final episode of Time-Flight… only to return in the very sext story, after the gap between seasons. I’ve never been sure how keen I am on the idea, but watching through now, I think I rather like it.

I certainly love the idea that the Doctor simply leaves her behind at Heathrow, not realising that she’s chosen to stick around on the TARDIS, and the whole sequence is played far better here than I remembered it being - I’d forgotten that Tegan actually wanders off to have a think about where she wants to be, for instance. The only thing that’s niggling in the back of my mind now is the fact that there needs to be at least one story without her before she returns, I think, but I’ll wait and see how it feels over the next few days.

That final scene is by far the best part of this episode, it has to be said, and everything else has left me cold. Something that bothers me more than anything is the fact that the master is only there because they wanted him to be there - not because there’s a good plot that absolutely requires him to be. You could play this story in a similar manner with any old villain who’s been stranded on prehistoric Earth and needs to lure someone there so they can steal working components to escape. Saving the reveal of the Master until half way through the story and then separating him from the Doctor until it’s time for the traditional negotiations for help just makes it feel hollow - and that he’s then defeated with a swift ‘oh, there we go, I’ve gotten rid of him’ feels like a terribly low-key final battle for the season.

I think more than anything, though, I’m disappointed that Season Nineteen has gone out with such a whimper. It’s been a run of stories that I’ve really enjoyed watching, with a few true stand-out tales in there. I think this season - even more so than Season Eighteen - is the one that I would have enjoyed the most as a kid, and it’s easy to see why so many children of the early 1980s look back on this period with such fond memories. It’s been the strongest run of stories in a long, long, time. But now we’re moving on to Season Twenty, which is more divisive among people’s opinions. Some see it as the beginning of a slippery, continuity-filled slope, while others find it to be a year-long celebration of the programme’s past. It’s certainly got a lot to live up to after this season, and I’m not entirely sure it’ll be able to. John Nathan-Turner’s era of Doctor Who is probably the most uneven in the minds of fan opinion (although I can happily say that I enjoy parts from all of it), but I think it’s fair to say that had he left here, after two fantastic years, and having cast a great new Doctor - I’ve sort of stopped tracking the evolution of Davison’s performance, now, because he seems to have found his ‘groove’ - he’d be remembered as one of the best producers we’ve ever had.

Probably a good job he didn’t leave here, though: this would be an awful story to go out on!

 

29 August 2014

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

Day 606: Time-Flight, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I really don’t know what to make of Time-Flight at all. This episode is clearly another not-so-great one, and yet I’ve reached the end of it with a sense of vaguely enjoying it. I’m not entirely sure what I’ve enjoyed about it, though, and I can’t pick out anything in particular to highlight. The sets are alright, but that’s down to their sheer size more than the design, I quite like the plucky air crew sneaking aboard the TARDIS and getting into a pickle, I suppose. Anthony Ainley slapping the door controls for the TARDIS, and being paid to mostly stand around fiddling with props is good for him, I suppose? It’s one of those episodes (and this is usually the mark of an episode that has failed to engage me), where I really have nothing of interest to say, because it’s not offered me any threads to pull on.

Never mind, though, because there’s something else I want to discuss today, anyway. After writing yesterday’s entry, I was thinking more and more about how botched the apparition of Adric was. As I’ve said, the idea of having his reappear briefly after his death is a great one, but it’s an example of John Nathan-Turner understanding the ‘showmanship’ of the programme (Matthew Waterhouse is only there to help hide his death in Earthshock, after all), while failing to grasp the dramatic potential of such an event. I also got to thinking how I would have handled the situation (one that I’ve already admitted is difficult), and so I’d like to present another edition of ‘This is How it Should Have Been (I reckon)’…

Instead of the TARDIS arriving at Heathrow more-or-less by accident (having spent several stories earlier in the season trying to get there!), it should be on purpose. Tegan and Nyssa should be more upset by Adric’s death, the way they are in those final moments of Earthshock. They should ask the Doctor to go back and save the boy, getting ever more frustrated with his refusal, until eventually Tegan demands to get to Heathrow right away. She should make some comment about not wanting to arrive centuries too early, or too late, or on a different world altogether, but just to get home. Adric’s death should be the catalyst for a huge row on the TARDIS - it’s been simmering all season, and it sort of needs the death to be a focal point that sorts everything out once and for all.

Arriving in the airport terminal, we should then have her saying goodbye to Nyssa - but not the Doctor - and leaving the TARDIS behind. With the Doctor ready to depart with his one remaining companion, he should then get caught up in the events of the story. Either you have the police arriving at the police box and questioning the Doctor (as in the broadcast version), or someone commenting that UNIT had advised the Doctor would be along.

Somehow, Tegan should end up with the Doctor and Nyssa on the Concorde flight, and not be happy about it. He just can’t let her go, can he? In my head, Tegan should be really hard on the Doctor, not happy at all. This would then culminate when they reach prehistoric Earth, with Nyssa being released from the Plasmatrons and having a heart-to-heart with her friend, telling her that it’s not really the Doctor’s fault, and that Adric chose to live the dangerous life aboard the TARDIS, and went out saving their lives. It would help to inject a bit more urgency to the proceedings, with the Doctor trying to find out what’s happening here, while also trying to deal with someone who’s so angry with him.

You then have the apparitions in the tunnels. Adric shouldn’t be the first, I don’t think. It could work as sheer shock value, but it’s directed so flatly here as to lose all effect. Instead, I’d start with the Melkur - Nyssa confronting her greatest fear. This statue represents not only the man who killed her father, but also the one who went on to destroy her entire world, and kill Tegan’s aunt. Nyssa’s faith in the Doctor should be the thing that gets her through - after all, the Doctor did give his life to stop the Master.

I’d then pick up with Tegan encountering the Mara, and the worry that it could still be inside her mind. It’s an idea that was planted during the end of Kinda, when she asks the Doctor if she’s free, and he fails to respond. It should all add to her wavering trust of the man. Maybe Nyssa can help to convince Tegan that the Doctor is a good man, and that they should support him. If need be, you can have the Mara transform into a Terrileptil, and Monitor, and even a Cyberman if you want - a snapshot of their adventures together - before…

It’s Adric. Taunting her. Clutching his brother’s belt, still, and staring sadly at his former companions. Tegan needs the chance to say goodbye, and to apologise for not always being the easiest person to get along with. It’s all part of bringing the emotions of the season to a head. Able to move past the apparition of Adric, the pair should encounter the Doctor in time to see the villain revealed as the Master. I know that they’re in an entirely different part of the complex at that point, and much of this episode is about them being there, but it just feels wrong that these two characters - who’ve both had relatives killed by the Master - should find out that he’s here simply by the Doctor throwing it into the conversation. The trio need to be there to see the reveal together - the Master was the villain in all of their first adventures, and bringing him back in the season finale has to be a real statement, and his inclusion should be more symbolic than anything else.

The rest of the basic story can remain unchanged, I think. You can have the Concorde being transported down a time contour. You can have the hypnotised crew, and the split-personality brain, and the flight crew heading off for adventures in time and space (or a mile above the planet). But the story needs to be about the Doctor and his companions, about them dealing with the loss of Adric, and using that event to strengthen them and move forward, overcoming the ultimate villain together. I’m not sure if the whole ‘leaving Tegan behind’ thing at the end of the story would work so well after a few episodes of bringing them closer together, though it could make all the more impact, if she finally decides to make that same decision - to travel with the Doctor no matter the danger to herself.

It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, and I think it’s far more character-driven than anything Doctor Who tended to do around this point in its history, but it’s what Time-Flight is supposed to be in my own head. Even the bland, generic science fiction wouldn’t feel out of place if it’s simply a stock backdrop to the real story. As it is, that’s out main focus, and it’s just not up to scratch.

 

28 August 2014

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

Day 605: Time-Flight, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Do you know, I honestly can’t tell if I’ve enjoyed this episode, or hated it, or if I’m just plain indifferent to it. On the one hand, it’s got everything that I think of as ‘not liking’ about Time-Flight - the slightly cumbersome monsters, the sets which simply don’t do anything for me, some not-all-that performances - but on the other hand, I’ve gotten through the episode without that feeling that accompanied other stories I’ve not enjoyed - the Dominators and *Pirate Planet*s of this word. To be honest, I wonder if it’s simply a case of the episode being so bad that it’s almost come back round to good again.

It’s fair to say that Perter Grimwade’s strengths lay far more in the direction side of production than it does in the writing - my notes on this episode describe several things as being ‘generic sci-fi rubbish’, and lacking any of the charm or whimsey that usually helps to make Doctor Who stand out. The best example of that comes early on in the episode, when the Doctor is released from his cliffhanger peril and his companions ask about the creatures. “Oh, you mean the Plasmatrons!” he replies, with all the enthusiasm of a child being dragged around the boring shops for hours on end by his parents. There’s an almost identical line a little later on, and to me it just feels like something you could pick up and transplant into any science fiction franchise and it would fit in simply by being ‘bland’.

The script isn’t helped by some particularly flat direction, either. Ron Jones’ work wasn’t stand out enough in Black Orchid for me to really notice it, but equally, it wasn’t bad enough for me to pick up on, either. Here’s I’m just finding that there’s very little pace or energy being injected into half the scenes, as people wander around into various sets and half-heartedly try to engage with the plot. It seems strange to think that both this and Kinda could be part of the same season of the same programme, when they seem to me to be such a distance apart in quality.

Hm. I have a feeling that writing up today’s entry may have helped me decide that, no, I haven’t really enjoyed this episode much after all.

Still! Let’s try and focus on the positives for a moment, shall we? The idea of Nyssa and Tegan encountering various people and creatures from recent adventures is a great one, though it feels a little too much like it’s brushed aside here. I particularly like that they encounter Melkur, and we get a reference to Nyssa’s father’s death (although, it seems strange that she tells Tegan that ‘what comes from it killed my father’, when she knows that it also killed Tegan’s aunt), although I’d have expected Tegan to encounter the Mara - surely that had a bigger effect on her than the Terrileptil did? I’d have placed him second, don’t get me wrong, but it seems an odd choice (if a better costume…).

And then we’ve got Adric appearing. Or, more specifically, we’ve got Adric appearing before any of the others, as a sign that they’re simply illusions. For me, this feels like the biggest lost opportunity. I know he’s only there so that John-Nathan Turner could include him in the Radio Times cast list and help to cover up his death, but this should be a chance for Nyssa and Tegan to make their peace with the boy - to apologise for the fact that they never got on with him and tell him that he’ll be missed, as they tell the Doctor at the start of Episode One. Yes, he’s only an illusion, but I really think we should have had them feeling a lot more shaken up about the death until now, and use this illusion as a turning point - it would have felt more true than simply declaring that he can’t be there, because he’s dead (with very little emotion at all, perhaps another fault in the direction?), and moving on quickly. A shame. I think it’s this which has let the episode down the most for me: there’s so much potential in the various ideas (using the airport and the Concorde, prehistoric Earth, and the return of Adric for a brief scene), but it’s all just being washed down the drain.

Mind you, much as some people hate it, I do love the reveal of the Master at the end of the episode. It’s possibly the best that this is ever pulled off, and I’m sure I’d not have guessed as a kid!

27 August 2014

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

Day 604: Time-Flight, Episode One

Dear diary,

Time-Flight is the unloved child of Season Nineteen, isn’t it? On the whole, it’s a very strong run of stories, with some absolute ‘classics’ like Kinda and Earthshock, and some other tales that simply worked well for me, even if general opinion is mixed, with the likes of Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid… and then it ends with this tale. On the whole, I think the problems most people have with Time-Flight boil down to some of the more ridiculous elements, and I’ll get to those in the next few days I’m sure, but I was pleasantly surprised by this first episode… because it’s rather good!

I’ve only seen this story the one time, when it first came out on DVD, and over the years I’ve come to think of it as being one that simply never takes my fancy for a re-watch. All I can remember about it is that it largely takes place on prehistoric Earth, and the Master turns up somewhat improbably. I’d forgotten, for instance, that this first episode is largely set in the present day at Heathrow - I thought scenes here simply topped-and-tailed the adventure. I’m glad that’s not the case, though, because I’m really enjoying lots of the airport material. It’s almost like going back to the 1960s (I seem to be saying that a lot recently), where there’s something really exciting about seeing a location ‘as it was’ at the time. Landing the TARDIS right in the middle of the building is great fun, too, and I love the way that the Doctor decides that he simply has to go and have a look, and then on course he gets caught up in something. Curiosity defines this Doctor more than I’d ever noticed - making his comment in Black Orchid all the more appropriate!

There’s also something quite exciting about seeing the Doctor inside a Concorde. It feels at once like something too mundane for him (last week he was in a space freighter), and also terribly exciting because it’s not somewhere that you really get to see very often (especially not these days - Time-Flight has become a historical in more ways than one!). Seeing him peering round the cockpit brings the series closer than ever before to being Blue Peter.

I feel as though I’m being generous here - although I really do enjoy all the stuff at the airport and on the plane - because as soon as we touch down on to prehistoric Earth, things all start to fall apart for me. From the moment that they step off the Concorde and into some questionable CSO, we’re back into the story that I remember Time-Flight being, with not-particularly-great sets, some questionable guest performances, and monsters that aren’t… great. I have a feeling that the goodwill built up in the first two-thirds of this episode may dissipate over the next few days, so I’m glad that it has at least started strong. In that spirit, I’d like to add that the concept of everything in this episode is fantastic - the idea of stepping off the plane to find themselves back at Heathrow, until Nyssa sees through the illusion to a pile of bodies, is a great one, and I think it really is a case of the effect letting it down.

Something that does need to be mentioned is the way they deal with the aftermath of Adric’s death. It’s a tricky thing to pitch, really, and I’m not sure that they quiche get it right. Let’s use Journey’s End as an example: Donna’s memories of the Doctor have been wiped, and she’s been returned home. The Doctor can never see his best friend again, and she’s resigned to living a life in which she’ll never be as great as she could. The episode ends on a down-beat note, and you’re left with the Doctor alone, and sad, and soaked from the rain. But the crucial thing is… this comes at the very end of the season. When we next catch up with the Doctor, it’s Christmas, and he’s off for an adventure in Victorian London in the snow. Now, on original broadcast, there was a real gap between episodes that lasted months and months. You don’t get that now, if you’re watching the episodes through in order, but there’s still a real sense that a great deal of time has passed for the Doctor and the programme, so it can move on in to a bold new adventure. With Cybermen! That’s not to say that Donna’s departure is completely ignored, the Doctor is still hurting from it, and that gets touched upon later in the story, but it feels right that we should pick up with smiles, and festive cheer, and a brand new story.

Time-Flight doesn’t get that luxury. I commented the other day that to feels like a season finale… but it’s not. It’s the penultimate story of the season, so we’re going out with this one. As has become common practice for the series at this point, today’s episode picks up only a short time after yesterday’s one, and then we’re off into a new adventure. Now, this is where things get tricky. You can’t make the whole episode be about Adric’s death, or you’d never get a story going. Equally, you can’t simply ignore the fact that in the last episode you killed off one of the main characters! Do you see what I mean? Tricky to pitch. Time-Flight deals with it by… having 16 lines of dialogue between the three regulars, and then brushing it off with the Doctor promising a “Special treat to cheer us all up.”

After that, Adric is forgotten, and we continue on as though nothing had happened. It just doesn’t work for me, and it’s another example of the programme not always being good at the character-led pieces that a situation like this one really needs. A pity, in many ways, because those 16 lines between the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa raise some interesting points that I’d love to see explored further (for example, Tegan’s suggestion that they could save Adric and still allow the freighter to crash so that it wouldn’t change history would be - so far as I can tell - entirely workable under the rules of more recent Doctor Who!), and it feels like there needs to be something more. I know Adric makes a brief cameo in this story somewhere, so I’m hoping that might give us something a little bit better.

I should point out that despite what I’m saying here, I don’t think you could have ended the season with Adric’s death: it’s just too bleak. In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies has long discussions with Benjamin Cook about the ways to end that Fourth Series, and he worries that you need something to bounce back. I think what we ended up with there was perfect, but I don’t think it would have worked for Adric’s death - it’s just too major. I keep on saying it… tricky!

26 August 2014

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

Day 603: Earthshock, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Having missed yesterday’s episode, Emma has rejoined me for this episode. It’s time to show her the second big twist of the tale, as Adric finally meets his doom. I’ve been ever so good up to now, making sure that the DVD is paused on the title sequence of the episode by the time she enters the room, so she won’t catch any glimpse of the footage on the DVD menu. I didn’t want to repeat the situation my friend Nick had a few weeks ago, with the ending being spoiled in advance. We sat and watched the episode, waiting for that ending…

…and five minutes before it arrives, Emma picks up her phone. A minute later she asks: “So this is the one where Adric dies?”

Confiscate the phone! It seems such an obvious thing, now. Ho hum. In Emma’s defence she claims to have only looked it up because she could sense it heading in that direction, but still: I was waiting for the surprise! Oh well.

Much as I’ve liked Adric’s time in the TARDIS (he’s certainly nowhere near as bad as received wisdom would have you believe, even though I still think he works better opposite Baker than he does with Davison), I really do love the idea of killing him off. It makes such a bold statement, and the sleeve notes to the DVD sum it up best:

”The final scenes of Earthshock shattered once and for all the cosy air of invulnerability that had pervaded Doctor Who. The Doctor was fallible, and fail he occasionally does…”

There’s just something so bold about the idea of killing off a long-running companion. The last time the show dabbled with the idea, back in Season Three, it only killed off characters who’d been a part of the Doctor’s - and the viewer’s - life for a few episodes at most. Here, we’re discussing the end of Adric, the boy who first encountered the TARDIS in Full Circle. On original broadcast, it was almost eighteen months between his arrival and his departure, which means it’s a really big deal. Watching all the stories in order like this also has an added advantage - I can better appreciate little things like the theme from Full Circle being introduced into this episode, and his clutching of his brother’s belt in his final moments. I don’t think I’ve seen this story since watching Full Circle for the first time - so this is the first time that I’ve ever really been able to appreciate what’s happening in that moment.

A somewhat embarrassing admission, though: on my first viewing, when the credits roll silently over Adric’s shattered badge… I didn’t realise it was his badge. I thought it was supposed to represent the Earth blowing up having been hit by the freighter, and it was just a particularly rubbish effect. I couldn’t understand what the point of that was, since it’s clear from the dialogue that the planet doesn’t blow up (of course it doesn’t, it wouldn’t make sense!). In my defence, though, watching through this time, I’ve never noticed before that the floor of the TARDIS has turned black for this shot! Is there a particular reason for that?

It seems pointless to discuss much else about this episode, because the death really is the thing that defines it, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to enjoy elsewhere, too. People mock the Doctor’s speech to the Cyberleader, but I think there’s an element of the Doctor mocking his enemy here while trying to make his point. It raises a smile, and there’s something just so very Doctor Who about trying to appeal to a creature of evil by suggesting they should have a nice cooked meal!

The whole of Earthshock really feels like a season finale - and much more so that the actual season finale will. There’s a sense of the stakes being raised higher than ever before, and not everyone makes it out. I can’t remember the last time the programme had such confidence, and it’s probably this production team’s highest point. I loved Kinda, and that story scored better than this in my ratings, but I appreciate Kinda as someone watching now, when I know it would have gone a little more over my head as a child on first broadcast. Earthshock is a story that I can appreciate as a grown up, and I know I would have loved as a child.

Oh, and one thing: if I have to suffer, then so do all of you. Someone pointed out to me this week that this design of Cybermen has ‘eyebrows’ built in, giving them a look of being completely surprised all the time. Now I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it, and I don’t plan to be alone in this. 

25 August 2014

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

Day 602: Earthshock, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Way back in the mists of time when I first got in to Doctor Who, this was one of the earliest stories I saw. It wasn’t my first Cyberman story (that was The Tomb of the Cybermen), but it’s a tale that I think really helped make me love the silver giants. There’s really two main schools of Cybermen: you’ve got the sinister, scheming ones of stories like The Moonbase where they infect the crew slowly via the sugar, or The Wheel in Space, where people are hypnotised into helping them, and then there’s the ‘macho’ versions that really make their first real impact in this story. These are Cybermen reimagined for the 1980s, and they really go on to inspire the versions seen in the new series. Both types have their highlights (though I think right now the 1960s versions would win out, but ask me again tomorrow and it’ll be the 80s models. Then the 60s again. You get the idea…), and I don’t think that this particular style of Cyberman has ever been done better than in this episode.

Put simply, the Cybermen in today’s episode are unstoppable. They just are! There’s only a handful of costumes (though more than I’d expect), but they’re being directed and shot so well that it feels like there are hundreds of them. The implication is that we’re looking at something like 15,000 onboard this freighter alone, and you really get a sense that the figure could be true - there really are loads of them. From my twenty-something perspective, I can see that the slit screen and mirror shots don’t always look the best, but it’s another thing that I know would have worked absolutely for me as a child. For me now, it’s the repeated shots of them breaking out of containers, or ripping plastic off themselves that really sell it for me. We’re never told that there’s a whole army waking up here, but it’s all implied and works really very well.

I think it helps that I really like the design of the Cybermen in this story, too. By the time you reach Attack of the Cybermen it’s the controller that sticks in your mind, and the over-chromed versions of Silver Nemesishave never really been as appealing to me (watch me change my mind on that in a couple of months, I’m sure!), but in Earthshock, we get to see this design really shine. I’ve heard people complain over the years that it’s too much of a departure from what had gone before, but I can’t see that at all. This feels like a 1980s update of the costumes seen in Revenge of the Cybermen, and this outfits in turn felt like a 1970s version of the ones from The Invasion. There’s something about this version in particular - right down to the little tubes on the main body (I believe that these were converted from flight suits, and are part of the original suit as opposed to an added detail) that really works for me. The tubes leading up into the helmet and the see-through chin pieces all stand out, too. I think this is the closest to seeing the Cybermen as organic creatures with things plugged in to them, keeping them going, that we’ve come since their very first appearance all those years ago.

I will admit, though, that they do look pretty stupid when Tegan and her squad of soldiers spy on a pair of Cybermen who just mill around having a chat!

Elsewhere, there’s an awful lot to really like about this episode, and a lot of it comes down to the direction. I’ve already praised the way that the Cybermen bursting out of hibernation has been handled, but the lighting in these sequences deserves a bit of attention, too. It’s the same throughout lots of the episode - the different areas of the ship all feel distinct and they’re all lit beautifully. The shot of the Cyberman getting trapped in the door is one that I could bang on about for hours, too - it’s not only a great visual image, but it’s pulled off perfectly. Surely one of the best effects shots the programme has ever given us?

24 August 2014

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

Day 601: Earthshock, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Today sees the annual appearance of the ‘classic montage’ which John Nathan-Turner was keen on inserting into seasons in the first half of his time as producer. We get some clips in Logopolis as the Doctor watches his life flash before his eyes, then they turn up in today’s episode to represent the Cybermen looking back over their previous encounters with the Doctor (and to me, the absence of the Third Doctor seems to be staggeringly obvious. I’ve never really noticed quite how much it sticks out that he never got to face off against them, but it’s no wonder that we’ll see this rectified before too long!). Season Twenty-One sees clips integrated via the Brigadier getting his memories back, and then we get snapshots of the Doctor’s previous companions - well, most of them - in Resurrection of the Daleks. This fad seems to disappear by the time the Sixth Doctor arrives, and the programme gets its nostalgic kick from elsewhere.

I’m somewhat gently mocking this practice here, but I can only begin to imagine how exciting this must have been for kids watching at the time. Not only had they just had a shocker of a cliffhanger in which the Cybermen came back after a huge break away from the show, but they were getting clips of the old Doctors facing off against them! People talk about the Five Faces of Doctor Who repeats season as being absolutely massive because it was a chance to see stories they never thought they would, but now they’re getting snippets of them integrated into the series proper. I’d have genuinely wet myself with excitement, I think.

Whereas yesterday’s episode was largely split between scenes in a quarry, a cave, or the TARDIS, today’s episode is filled with far more things that I think of when picturing Earthshock. The freighter has a very distinct style to it, which is beautiful in a kind of industrial way, and much like Four to Doomsday, it utilises the actual television studio itself to help make spaces seem larger and more solid than they really are. When the Doctor and Adric are out exploring the cargo hold, you get a real sense of them actually travelling around the place, rather than it simply being a set. There’s some real tension in these scenes, and it all helps add up to make this simply one of the most exciting things ever.

Where this story differs from Four to Doomsday is in the success of its ‘name’ casting. Under that tale, I praised the inclusion of Stratford Johns among the cast, pointing out that John Nathan-Turner’s stunt casting really could work on occasion - bringing in a well respected and talented actor to fill the role of a major guest character. I mused that perhaps it’s wrong of us to always remember his headline-grabbing casting policy as being a bad thing. This story, however, presents us with the other side of the coin, in casting Beryl Reid as the head of this space freighter. The performance is somewhat out-of-kilter with everything around it, and you do somewhat get the impression that she doesn’t have the first clue about what she’s actually doing here. A pity, because I think it’s the one weak link that’s bringing the story down a little…

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