Time Lord Tees

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30 September 2014

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

Day 638: Frontios, Episode Two

Dear diary,

There’s something quite striking about having a cliffhanger in which the TARDIS - effectively - blows up. I used to comment about enemies getting in to the ship being something truly unsettling, because that white console room is our beacon of safety for the main characters, but this feels like going several steps beyond even that. Having just the hat-stand left as a signifier of where the ship once stood is also a brilliant visual image.. but I’m not sure if it would make as much of an impact on me if I didn’t know that the hat-stand was supposed to be such an obvious part of the ship, with the Doctor drawing attention to it at the start of yesterday’s episode. I think of it as being iconic… because I’ve always been told it is. I know it’s been around in the console room for ages now (and will continue to be so right through to the new series), but I’ve never really noticed it before!

This story is still scoring an awful lot of thumbs up from me, though. I mostly mentioned the direction yesterday, so take it as read that I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of the tale today (though I do need to make mention once again of the way different coloured light is being used to great effect - yesterday it was the red of the ‘missile attack’, while today it’s the green of the underground tunnels - and close ups again of various characters is making this look really rather beautiful), but I’m getting caught up in lots of the actual narrative this time around. Despite the fact that I’ve seen Frontios before, I can’t remember a great deal about the plot. I know that the Tractators are dragging people down through the soil to power their machines… but I can’t remember why they’re doing it, or what they hope to achieve. It means that I’m finding everything really gripping as I try to piece it all together!

The last time Christopher H Bidmead penned a script for the series, it was filled with lots of high-concept ideas that simply couldn’t be realised all that effectively in a BBC TV studio. Now, it feels like he’s come back to the programme with a better idea of what they might actually achieve with the time and budget they’re given. He’s created a world here that I feel really invested in - it’s populated with very rounded characters, and a sense of shared history that I can completely buy in to. It’s always nice when this happens, and it’s putting me rather in mind of Kinda, which can only help to strengthen this story’s position! We’re being drip fed information about this colony, their back story, and their various power struggles really carefully, and it’s bringing me right in to the story. There’s no doubting that this is Bidmead’s best script for the show.

I’d also like to take a moment today to give some prise for Mark Strickson. He’s been in the series for a while now, and he’s given a great performance in every episode so far. He’ll be off in only a few episode’s time, so I wanted to make sure that I single him out for praise at least once! I fear that he gets rather over-looked in the grand scheme of companions, overshadowed by the likes of Tegan and Peri around him, both of whom are Doctor-defining companions. Turlough is just there, not always given the most to do, but Strickson makes sure to really flesh out the part every week. His performance today is a real highlight, when forced to come running through the caverns absolutely petrified by the thought of the Tractators - I’m really unsettled by his acting here, and that’s supposed to be a compliment! He’s managing to convey the terror of the situation perfectly, and I think it’s a shame that he doesn’t get credited for his work on the programme as much as he deserves to!

29 September 2014

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

Day 637: Frontios Episode One

Dear diary,

Frontios was one of the last Peter Davisons stories to be released on DVD, coming out towards the latter end of the range in 2012. Up until then, there wasn’t much I could have told you about it, other than it was broadcast as a part of this season. It was just one of those Doctor Who stories that existed, but whereas the tales around it in this season featured the return of creatures like the Silurians, or the Daleks, or were the location of major cast departures and arrivals, this one was just A. N. Other story. Because it was one of the later DVD releases, I was long since caught up on buying them, and I’d pick them up on day of release on the way to work. Even if it wasn’t a tale I was desperate to watch immediately, I’d still dutifully buy the DVD, because a) I’d want to see it one day, and b) there would be a gap in the collection and it would drive me mad knowing that it was still to be filled. That said, I’ve still not actually bought The Web of Fear on DVD, because I picked it up on iTunes…

With this being one of the stories I knew so little about, though, I couldn’t wait to get it home and watch it. At some point, I’d sort of made a conscious decision not to find much out about it, because I liked the idea that there could still be Doctor Who stories that were almost completely alien to me. Actually watching my way through the series for The 50 Year Diary has revealed that there’s loads of stories I know very little about - even if I didn’t realise it - but for a long while Frontios was an example of a story that I was aware of knowing very little information on. I still wonder, if I’m honest, if that’s why I enjoyed it so much on that first viewing, because I can remember being simply glued to it throughout.

It’s one of those times when I want to say ‘you can always tell that so-and-so is back in the director’s seat this week…’, but actually, it’s not as simple as all that. When I started out on today, I made a note that it must be Peter Grimwade directing, because it was looking so polished and he’s one of the best director’s we’ve got at this point… but then I remembered that he bowed out of the series with Earthshock. I had to wait for the closing credits to roll around to find out that this one was being directed by… Ron Jones!?!?! Surely that’s an error in the credits? Ron Jones was the director responsible for Time-Flight, which wasn’t particularly stand out direction, and for Arc of Infinity, which even in Amsterdam didn’t make any impact! This is the man who turned the corridors of Gallifrey into a tacky office block corridor, complete with sofas!

I’m being rude, yes, and unfair. I was just so surprised by the revelation, because I’m loving the direction in this story. The main courtyard set looks fantastic when it’s being struck by the ‘missile attack’, and there’s a lot of really nice close ups that make this story feel quite unlike anything… well, quite unlike anything from before Season Twenty-One. I’ve been musing over the last few days that this season has its own very unique style. The costumes worn by the ‘locals’ here are very similar to the ones we see in Warriors From the Deep, and we’ll be seeing similar things cropping up in at least a couple of other stories before the season is out. It’s not just the design that feels different this year - the whole ‘look’ of the season feels more polished and glossy than anything from the last few years has. It’s almost as though we’ve done that ‘Season Eighteen Upgrade’ thing again, where everything has suddenly started to look completely different from the Doctor Who that came before…

28 September 2014

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

Day 636: The Awakening, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Oh dear. Yesterday, The Awakening had so much promise. Although the central mystery was botched a little bit - informing us that the people in this village are playing a war game before trying to drum up mystery about the fact that they're all dressed in period costume - there was enough going on to keep me really interested and I was enjoying things. Today's episode has been much more of a mixed bag.

For starters - we get the revelation that Sir George is under the influence of the evil Malus in the church. I'd wondered if there was some kind of influence being applied to the people in this village, or if they were just going too far by their own accord, and I really like the idea that it's a bit of both. Sir George is under the influence, and because people know and respect him, they all get caught up too. We also find out today that they plan to really recreate this battle in the village - complete with casualties. That's a great revelation, and I think it needs to have been seeded in to the story a little bit earlier on. You can get away with explaining the concept of the war games and then building mystery about the fact that they're all going too far to make it accurate, but that didn't come across on screen as well as it perhaps should have.

The other issue I have is in the form of Tegan's grandfather. He's the reason that they're here in Little Hodcombe, and much was made in the first episode about the fact that he was 'missing', and the locals were being more than a little bit shady about it. After all of that, though, he turns up today without any real fanfare - he simply happens to be locked up in the same barn Turlough gets taken to, and is introduced to the plot with a simple 'hello, I'm so-and-so'. This probably shouldn't bother me as much as it does, but then he doesn't actually make any difference to the story after that. We discover that he's the one who found the Malus, but for all the difference that makes, it could have been any character in the village. Thank goodness Tegan asks for time to spend with him at the end of the story, or he'd be completely redundant!

On the plus side, I really like the Malus creature in the church here. It's an image that I just know would have been burned in to my mind as a child, watching the bits of the wall crumble away to reveal the evil face behind. Indeed, I can claim that it's been burned into my adult brain, because it was one of the images I an most clearly recall from the Doctor Who: The Legend book, about a decade ago. I've said before during this marathon that that book was responsible for inspiring and growing my love of Doctor Who all the more in the early days of my interest in the programme, and this is just another example of it. I think I like that even though it's only a two-part story, and we only really get to see the creature in this second half, they've created what looks like a fairly expensive prop for it - complete with moving lips and glowing eyes, billowing smoke… yeah, definitely one of the greatest creations of the era, if not the entire 'classic' series.

I didn't bring him up yesterday, but I'm really loving the character of Will in this story (and not just because he's my name-sake. Is this the first time we've had a 'Will' in the programme? No others spring to mind immediately…). It's quite nice to see a return to that Season Nineteen format of pairing the Doctor off with a 'local', while the companions go off to play a different role in the story. Peter Davison works well with a 'child' companion, and Keith Jayne turns is a really lovely performance. I've also been enjoying Polly James in this one as the schoolteacher - she works very well with Davison's Doctor, too. I think I'm right in saying that both these characters travel with the Doctor for a while in the novels - presumably while taking Will home again at the end of the adventure, leaving Tegan and Turlough behind in the village for a little bit (there's a point - I can understand Tegan wanting to stay put for a day or three, but Turlough has been so desperate to never see the planet again - I'm surprised he doesn't want to hurry away again!).

It's a real pity that this has all fallen apart so much for me, because I so enjoyed various aspects of the first episode, and it seems like a real shame to see them go to waste like this.

While I'm here, I'd also like to draw attention to the 'making of' feature on this DVD - Return to Little Hodcombe. I don't watch special features for every story as I go through the marathon, but I tend to dip in and out here and there. This particular one is a real highlight, though, and probably one that I've enjoyed the most from the entire range. It takes this story's director - Michael Owen Morris - back to one of the locations used for the story, as well as bringing back Eric Sawad, Janet Fielding, and Keith Jayne to talk about their various involvement in the story. The feature is peppered with input from local residents who remember the filming, and it's lovely to hear them recall it, and to see their photographs from the time. It adds a really nice new angle to these kinds of features, and I've really enjoyed watching it!

27 September 2014

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

Day 635: The Awakening, Episode One

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 September 2014

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

Day 634: Warriors of the Deep, Episode Four

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

25 September 2014

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

Day 633: Warriors of the Deep, Episode Three

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 September 2014

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

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

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 September 2014

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

Day 631: Warriors of the Deep, Episode One

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

22 September 2014

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

Day 630: The Five Doctors

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 September 2014

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

Day 629: The King’s Demons, Episode Two

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

20 September 2014

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

Day 628: The King’s Demons, Episode One

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

19 September 2014

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

Day 627: Enlightenment, Episode Four

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

18 September 2014

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

Day 626: Enlightenment, Episode Three

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

 

17 September 2014

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

Day 625: Enlightenment, Episode Two

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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…

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