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13 April 2014

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

Day 468: The Robots of Death, Episode Four

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

12 April 2014

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

Day 467: The Robots of Death, Episode Three

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

11 April 2014

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

Day 466: The Robots of Death, Episode Two

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 April 2014

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

Day 465: The Robots of Death, Episode One

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 April 2014

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

Day 464: The Face of Evil, Episode Four

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 April 2014

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

Day 463: The Face of Evil, Episode Three

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 April 2014

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

Day 462: The Face of Evil, Episode Two

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

6 April 2014

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

Day 461: The Face of Evil, Episode One

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 April 2014

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

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

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

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

[Source: Reach Web]

6 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

5 April 2014

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

Day 460: The Deadly Assassin, Episode Four

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 April 2014

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

Day 459: The Deadly Assassin, Episode Three

Dear diary,

In much the same way that the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey should feel like a really big deal, the return of the Master for the first time since Frontier in Space should feel absolutely huge. We’ve not seen him for about four years (which in terms of this marathon means that I’ve not seen him for almost three months), and he’s back to exact revenge against the Doctor. But it’s not treated as any kind of special event. The reveal of the Action Man miniaturised Time Lord in the Panopticon should be this stunning reveal as to who the real enemy is… but then it’s just treated as somewhat blasé - the Doctor simply confirms that it’s a sign of the Master’s presence, and then carries on with the story. As seems to be customary for this story, we get a chunk of information about who the Master is to bring us up to speed, but it’s lacking in any real fanfare.

I think the biggest issue is the fact that, by this point, Roger Delgado has been dead for some time. Looking back from 2014, when we’ve had several different incarnations of the Master, it’s difficult to think of a time when Delgado simply was the character, but watching through the series an episode a day like this means that I’ve not been through a Master story with a different incarnation since sometime back in 2012, and even then it was probably just an episode on in the background. To anyone who’s watching this series for the first time, and doing it in order (on first transmission, for example), all of this feels really, really, strange. We know that the Master is back… but where is he? Is he supposed to be the decaying figure in the cape? What’s happened to the suave gentleman we knew opposite Jon Pertwee? The one who looked so at home in a high-backed leather chair?

I’d really go for a story in which the Doctor and the Master fight each other in some kind of dream-scape (and we’ll come to that in a minute), especially if it comes as the reveal of the character. Someone’s been tampering with all this equipment. They’ve tried to have the Doctor framed for murdering the president. They stalk the Doctor through this land of nightmares for ages and ages, and when the face mask comes off… it’s the Master! After all this time! Obviously, they couldn’t have had Delgado back by this point, and in some ways I’m glad they haven’t just recast the role with an impersonator. But it doesn’t feel like they’ve brought the Master back because they have a story to tell featuring him - he’s simply here because someone in the production office has said ‘Hey! You know who hasn’t been in the show for a while…?’

Then we’ve got the land of nightmares inside the Matrix. I have to admit, even though I vaguely knew what was happening here (the end of Trial of a Time Lord is effectively a remake of this storyline), there were points where I was completely lost. I couldn’t figure out why the inside of the Matrix looked like this barren landscape, or why there were trains, and planes, and crocodiles in there. I think the implication is that Goth has spent so much time in the Matrix that he’s been able to create this ‘virtual reality world’ inside it, and some tampering with the machine means that the Doctor has gone straight there once he tries to enter the Matrix (as the master knew he would - earlier in the story he makes a comment about how predictable his foe is).

But then it begs the question… why has Goth populated his world with the aforementioned trains, and planes, and crocodiles? Not to mention clowns, and surgeons, and spiders. The implication earlier in the story is that Time Lords aren’t overly familiar with Earth, but does Goth have a special interest? Or are these things being drawn from the Doctor’s mind as fears? If so, then why don’t we see any Daleks, or Cybermen, or Koquillion? That’s my main problem with the episode: I love the idea of the Doctor and the Master trapped in a world of nightmares made real, fighting to the death… but that’s not what we get. This is the Doctor fighting the Master’s stooge in a landscape that’s not hugely interesting, with disparate elements thrown in to fill the episode out. It’s your standard ‘Episode Three’, but instead of running up and down the corridors from the previous two episodes, they’ve gone out to location.

3 April 2014

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

Day 458: The Deadly Assassin, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I don’t know if I was simply feeling especially sour yesterday, but I’ve been much more willing to go along with The Deadly Assassin today. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a darn sight more solid than I was giving it credit for being. There’s still one or two moments peppered here and there which take me out of things (I can’t decide if the chalk outline of the murdered president - complete with Time Lord head gear - was supposed to be funny or serious), but on the whole I’m being much more swept along with the story.

Yesterday, I said that there were elements of the sets that I rather enjoyed, but I tempered my praise with complaints that they were - on the whole - a bit drab. I think I still feel the same way having watched this episode, but I’m willing to give them a bit more attention than I was before. Seeing the Panopticon set without all the Time Lords stood around inside it means that we get to see the full scale of the area. There’s some great high shots looking down across the space, and it’s here that the setting makes a real impact. We also get some nice wide shots which also seem to include a domed ceiling overhead (Though I can’t decide if we’re supposed to be looking at a painted dome, or windows looking out onto a night sky). This is the design at its best - the shape of the room and the scale of it really do make the impression that they’re supposed to.

But then it’s still all looking a bit drab. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not expecting some kind of fantastically elaborate setting that would cost a million pounds, but I’m just sort of looking for something… more. My favourite version of Gallifrey, I think, is the one we see briefly at the very start of the Animated Shada webcast. The Eighth Doctor returns home to visit President Romana in her rooms in the Capitol, and it’s a lovely hybrid of ‘classic’ Gallifrey, and the snatches we see of the war-torn planet in the more recent series. The animation is basic, but we get to see a room with high, arched windows which look out across the stunning landscape, bathed in reds and golds. This is the Gallifrey I imagine when Susan describes it during The Sensorites, or the Doctor recalls little details in Gridlock.

As I said yesterday, I completely understand that the idea here is that the Doctor ran away because Gallifrey is like this - he left because he didn’t like the place being so stuffy, and dull. It’s only when you’ve said goodbye to something that you start to really remember all the good aspects, and that’s what he’s doing when he tells Martha all about his home world. And yet, as much as I love the idea of a young(er) William Hartnell getting bored with all the tedious rituals and boring info dumps and running away in a TARDIS, I still want to see Gallifrey as beautiful. I want to see the place as stunning… but populated by people who simply can’t appreciate the beauty.

I was thinking about this yesterday, actually. For years and years, around the time Torchwood started up, and the TARDIS began making infrequent stops in Wales, I told myself that - one day - I’d live in Cardiff Bay. The image of that water tower, and the Millennium Centre, and the water… that was the dream for me. Well now… I do! I live about a four minute walk from that water tower, and I can see the Millennium Centre from my window. And it is brilliant, and amazing, and everything I’d ever hoped… but then you start to just take it for granted. When I go into the Bay now, it’s not because I want to go out and experience everything the area has to offer… it’s because I’m on my way to Tesco. Or the Bank. Or to collect a pizza.

It was a nice day, yesterday. One of those rare ones where the sun is out, it’s not too cold, and we’ve got tourists around. There’s people over there taking pictures next to the water tower, trying to figure out which of the paving slabs John Barrowman has stood on the most, and carrying bags to the Doctor Who Experience. They’re all full of the excitement and joy that I had, the very first time I was brought to the area. But now it’s all just there. I barely even look at the water tower any more, and whereas I used to purposely walk past it on my way to buy milk, I’ve now found a slightly quicker route, and I don’t even really miss seeing the tower - I know it’s there.

Then there’s times like the other day, where I rounded a corner on the way to the shop… and there was the TARDIS! The actual TARDIS, stood in the middle of the street. And there’s Clara Oswald (well… Jenna Coleman) and the Doctor (ok… Peter Capaldi) in the middle of an adventure. Crew, and cameras, and extras all busying themselves about. I smiled, text the missus, and then carried on with my day. There was a time when turning the corner and running into the Doctor Who crew making a new episode would have been the most amazing thing in the world, but now that I’ve been here a few years, it’s simply become a part of everyday life. I’m sure they’ll turn up a few more times before the year is out.

This is exactly how I imagine the Time Lords. They live in - or, rather, they should live in - the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen in the series. A world where the sky is a burnt orange and there’s trees with leaves of silver. I want it to all be the reds and golds of the new series, with a sense of grandeur which almost borders on the obnoxious. I think if you were to take all the characters in this story, exactly as they are, and drop them into that setting, I’d be on top of the world. All these stuffy old people who’ve been here so long that none of this is beautiful to them. But that’s when you start needing a character like Sarah Jane to be alongside the Doctor when he visits home. You’d need her to be pointing out how stunning it all is. How rich, and beautiful, and unappreciated. You need a scene where the Doctor and his companion gaze out across the landscape as the suns set, and she wonders how anyone could ever leave a place like this.

(For the record, not that you asked, my perfect Gallifrey would be filmed in the entrance hall to the Natural History Museum. Those huge stone staircases. The pillars. The arched windows, which would be perfect for streaming in that deep, orange light. If you get a change, Google for images of the place shot with a fish-eye camera lens - that’s my Gallifrey.) 

2 April 2014

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

Day 457: The Deadly Assassin, Episode One

Dear diary,

Has there ever been a better example of ‘fan wisdom’ than The Deadly Assassin? When it was first broadcast, the general feeling among fans seems to have been that it was a mis-step. Taking the Doctor home to Gallifrey, and destroying the mystery of the Time Lords forever more (I can’t speak for everyone, here, but that seems to be the impression that I get asking around). As the years have gone by, though, people seem to have re-evaluated their opinions on the story, and subsequent generations seem to have deemed this one yet another of those Hinchcliffe-era ‘classics’ - taking the Doctor home to Gallifrey, and finally giving us a good look at the Time Lords.

And certainly, when the story opens, you know you’re in for something different. There’s an opening monologue read out by Tom Baker, as the text scrolls over the screen (I did wonder, briefly, if they’d stolen the idea from Star Wars, but that wasn’t released for several more months, yet), which sets up the mythical status of the Time Lord society, and warns that they’re about to face the ‘greatest crisis in their long history’. As if that weren’t tantalising enough, you’ve then got the Doctor almost collapsing in his TARDIS as he gets a vision of the Time Lord president begin assassinated! It doesn’t waste time in setting up a lot of mystery and intrigue.

But once they’ve got that excitement out of the way, Gallifrey’s just a bit rubbish, isn’t it? There’s nothing here which stands out to me as saying ‘We’re On The Doctor’s Home Planet’ - it’s just this week’s ‘space’ set, with this week’s set of dusty old men to fill in the guest roles. If anything, it’s a bit boring, with lots of characters stood around spouting information at each other, so it feels more as though you’re being loaded up with facts rather than being presented with an interesting world you want to explore. When the Doctor tries to tune into ‘the local news’, I’d completely had enough. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea for another society to have a kind of television system like we do (it’s something lacking in many alien civilisations throughout the series), but it just feels so bloody dull for Gallifrey!

Even when the Doctor’s being chased around the corridors by guards, there’s no real excitement to any of it. He simply hides behind things and waits until they’ve moved on. This then gives us time for scenes in which the captain of the guards is chastised for allowing his captive to escape him. What I’m trying to say is… we’re on Gallifrey! The Doctor’s Home World! Where’s the spectacle? The majesty? I understand the idea that the Doctor stole his TARDIS and ran away to escape such a crusty, boring old life, and I’ve always been a fan of that idea, but actually reaching this episode now, after 400-odd other ones, it simply feels like a let down.

Oh, but I’m being unfair. It’s not all bad, and there;s several things in here which I have to confess a love for. On the whole, the sets don’t really do a lot for me, and they simply blend into this bland feeling across the episode. That said, when we get our first proper glimpse of the Panopticon, with raised levels and filled with people, there’s something fairly spectacular about it. We’re not too far away from it being quite a good design, and I wonder if I may grow to like it more in subsequent episodes, given longer to experience it.

The real stand out, though, has to be the costumes. I’ve complained about the ineffectual guards above, but I really do love their costumes. They’ve got the right blend of space-age and medieval, and they really stand out against the very flat colours of everything else on display. I think I’d go so far as to say that they’re one of my favourite costume designs from the entire series. Then we’ve got the now famous ‘Time Lord’ collar and robe combination. It’s another winner, and it’s strange to look back now and think that this design didn’t debut until Season Fourteen. It seems so iconic, now, when we’ve seen it crop up again and again throughout subsequent adventures.

So, a shaky start to a story which may - or may not - be a ‘classic’. I’m remaining cautiously optimistic for now, and hoping that once the initial disappointment at Gallifrey has subsided, I may continue to find more to love as the story goes on…

 

1 April 2014

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

Day 456: The Hand of Fear, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I’ve been putting off the writing of this entry all day. This is it! One of the big ones! It’s the final appearance of Sarah Jane Smith during her original run in the programme! A huge moment, and one which is filled with emotion and heartbreak. When Elisabeth Sladen died in 2011, Babelcolour uploaded a video tribute to her, and it’s always been my favourite Sarah Jane related video. The tone is perfect - joyous, but tinged with a bittersweet sadness - and the clips of her saying farewell to the Fourth Doctor are really rather moving. I’ve been creeping closer to this episode, just knowing that the actual scene, coming in context after all her other episodes, will be even more emotional.

But then… it wasn’t. Didn’t even seem to move me one jot. I don’t know if I’m broken, but I didn’t find it half as sad as I was expecting to. I mean - yes - it’s very well done, and the way both Baker and Sladen play it is beautiful… but I’m just not sorry to see Sarah leave. Because of her return to the series in 2006, and the years she’s spent in her own spin-off, Sarah has always felt like the companion. The ultimate. The definitive article, you might say. While I’ve really enjoyed her time in the TARDIS up to now, though, I can’t say that I view her as being all that much better than Jo, for example. Or Jamie. Ian and Barbara… She’s a good companion, yes, one of the better ones… but I’m not sure I really understand what all the fuss is about.

And that, I think, is the root of my problem. So much of what makes Sarah Jane so well regarded is the fact that she was the right companion at the right time in the programme’s history. She’s paired with two of the more polar Doctors, and her time with Tom covers one of the most successful periods of the programmes history - both in terms of creativity and general popularity among the public. I think there’s a certain amount of nostalgia to the decision to crown her as the ‘best companion ever’.

All of this sound like I’m taking pot-shots at Sarah Jane in her final moments, but I’m really not. I have loved having her aboard the TARDIS for the last few months, and I’ve really grown to see what so many people love about the character. The issue is that I was just expecting more from her departure. I was expecting to feel more moved by it, and I think I’m a little disappointed that I’m not. Equally, it could be because I know she’ll be back now and again. I know I’ll see her when I watch K9 & Company at the end of Tom’s run, and again during The Five Doctors. I know she’ll pop up fairly regularly during the Tenth Doctor’s era. Maybe it’s not so emotional because I know it’s not the end?

I think I’m also a little miffed by the way the episode unfolds before we even reach the big farewell, too. It plays out like a rehash of Death to the Daleks again - in which the Doctor and Sarah have to overcome a number of puzzles to make their way somewhere inside this alien city. We’ve only recently had a similar scenario pop up in Pyramids of Mars, so it’s little too fresh in the memory for me. We’ve even got the same ‘creature watching a screen turns out to have been dead for millennia’ trick which worked so well when Terry Nation first did it a few seasons ago. It’s not often in this blog that I’m caught praising Terry’s originality!

During The Masque of Mandragora, I mused that I was feeling ready for a change in the programme, and I think that’s contributing to my general weariness here. The programme has had so many strong hits of late that any time an episode doesn’t quite live up to that same standard, I find myself feeling somewhat let down by it. You attune yourself to the average quality of the era you’re in. You’ll notice sometimes (the last season and a half of Pertwee is a good example) that I seem to be levelling out with my scores. Lots of sixes and sevens. That generally means that an era has been of a consistent quality for a while, and so stories then start to gather as extremes when they’re slightly better (or slightly worse) than those around them.

We’ve now got four episode of the Doctor on his lonesome, and then we’re going to be getting a brand new companion. I think this shake-up could be just what I need to shake off my fatigue and get my head back in the game. For now, I’ll say goodbye to this phase of the programme’s history.

Until we meet again, Sarah…

 

31 March 2014

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

Day 455: The Hand of Fear, Episode Three

Dear diary,

The pacing of this story is really throwing me. Episode One moves relatively slowly (though that doesn’t mean it’s boring in any way), then Episode Two really races by, with two nuclear threats and lots of people getting possessed by Eldrad. Then we reach Episode Three. I’d assumed Eldrad’s full reveal would be saved for use during a cliffhanger, so when it didn’t arrive yesterday, I wondered what that would mean for the pacing of today’s instalment. I wasn’t expecting to see the fully-formed creature emerge a little way into an episode.

I then also wasn’t expecting us to leave the location of the power station this early, either. I had no idea that we spent time actually on Kastria - I assumed we only saw it during that opening scene of the story. Events at the power station are left a bit suddenly, but we do at least get a nice send off for Professor Watkins wondering who’s going to believe him about all the events we’ve just been through!

To be honest, it was looking like we were heading for the kind of story I’m more familiar with from Dragonfire - the guest villain would want to get back to their home world, only to find that so long has passed, their world is long since dead. There’s certainly shades of that kind of story in here, but at least there’s a home for Eldrad to return to. I’m convinced that there’s more to her story than we’re being told, though. If she’s such a key person in that planet’s evolution, why would they have been so keen to destroy her? The booby trap in the cliff hanger adds another dimension to the culture, too. Did she place it there to deter intruders, or was it designed to keep her at bay should she ever return?

I’m also loving her bargaining with the Doctor. This season is seeing a heightened amount of ‘Time Lord’ being added in to his character, and it’s making for an interesting new thread. During the Pertwee years (and even into Season Twelve and Thirteen), the Doctor was unhappy to be sent on missions for his people, but now he seems to be talking a greater interest in their cause. During The Masque of Mandragora, he claims that it’s ‘part of a Time Lord’s job’ to step in and save the day against the Helix. Here, when Eldrad questions him about his home world, he says again that he has to protect the indigenous population when they’re threatened. Obviously, the next story will see our first proper trip to Gallifrey (as opposed to the brief excursion at the end of The War Games), so maybe they’re trying to thread them in deeper in preparation?

And then there’s all the stuff in the TARDIS. I only touched on the new console room briefly when it first appeared in the last story (to be fair, it does only make a fleeting appearance itself before we’re off to Italy), but now that we get to spend some proper time in here I’m really rather fond of it. As I said the other day, this room has always stuck out as something of an anomaly, but I’m really rather impressed by the set. Something about it feels so right, and it really does suit Tom’s Doctor. We’re given a slightly odd description of it, though. The Doctor explains that when they’re inside the TARDIS, they don’t really exist, so they can’t be harmed. Now, in one of the Matt Smith stories he describes this ‘state of temporal grace’ as being a clever lie - so maybe he’s trying to throw Eldrad off here? - but it is a bit of an odd one!

 

30 March 2014

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

Day 454: The Hand of Fear, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I spent much of The Masque of Mandragora banging on about just how brilliant the locations looked, but the same is true of this story - perhaps to an even greater extent. Oldbury Nuclear Power Station, used for the interiors of the Nunton Power Complex, is huge, so it really makes an impact on screen. Way back during The Dalek Invasion of Earth, I was impressed because when Ian and the Doctor found a flight of stairs to go up, the camera followed them… and just kept going! I’d become so used to the size of set the programme could build, and was ready for them to cut away. That same feeling is in place here today, when the Doctor and Dr. Carter rush after Sarah, and then engage in a fight on a gangway. Watching as Carter falls over the edge and plummets to his death below only helps to increase the scale.

It’s also inspiring some rather brilliant direction from Lennie Mayne, in his final work on the series. While the location is vast, and we’re able to get some stunning shots which really highlight how much space they have to play in this week, many of the individual areas of the power station are very cramped, filled high with machinery and equipment. Thus, they’re having to be clever with the placement of the camera when they’re taking many of the close up shots. Mayne has turned this into part of the serial’s style, and you notice that the shots are becoming more and more unusual as we focus on any character who’s been possessed by Eldrad.

Ah yes, Eldrad. I know enough about this story to know that - at some stage - the hand will grow into a crystalline blue woman, but I’m surprised it wasn’t the cliffhanger to this episode. I’m assuming it will come as the next cliffhanger, meaning that she spends less time being part of the plot than I’d expected. Instead, we’re left with the hand to entertain us for these 25 minutes. That’s not a complaint, mind, because it’s very well realised. There’s some shots where the CSO trickery is very evident (and one where you can tell the actor is being hidden away just behind the set), but then there’s other bits, like that first shot of the hand coming to life in the tupperware box, where I really can’t tell how it’s been done. I’m assuming that it’s CSO, the same as elsewhere, but it’s just done far better than I’m used to!

Aside from the effects and the location, I’m really rather fond of the characters we’ve got in this one, too. Just as with Giuliano and Marco in the last story, it feels like we’re being given added depth to the characters here. Many of them are scotched in with the briefest of lines, but it gives us just enough detail to fill in the rest of their story. I wondered, for example, what the relationship might be between Miss Jackson and Professor Watson: there’s enough of a hint between them to suggest that there’s a little bit of a workplace romance going on. And then, when things get dire, he’s sent everyone out of the building… and he phones his wife. It’s a beautiful exchange (where he even briefly speaks to his daughter), and while he never tells her that something serious is happening and that he might not come home that night, he tells her everything she needs to hear for a final conversation.

In The Writer’s Tale, during the planning of The Waters of Mars, Russell T Davies speaks a lot about how important the ‘messages from home’ are for the crew of Bowie Base One. He talks of the way they ground the story in reality, while at the same time helping to reaffirm just how remote the situation is. It has the same effect here, and it helps Watson to be ever more real. I do wonder if the dram is undercut somewhat by having the complex evacuated, then bringing the staff back in, only to evacuate it again: It’s difficult to take the threat seriously a second time (indeed, there was once a day at work when the fire alarm went off three times. By the end, we were genuinely unsure wether to bother going back inside again). But that one phone call, a brief scene of calm in an episode where a lot is happening, means that I care about Watson. I worry that he may end up becoming collateral damage before the story is out - and I feel sorry for his wife and daughter. Now that’s an example of good writing in a Doctor Who episode.

 

29 March 2014

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

Day 453: The Hand of Fear, Episode One

Dear diary,

By the time The Hand of Fear was released on DVD in 2006, I was regularly picking the stories up on release day as I passed by Woolworths. As if I didn’t already know from any number of guidebooks about the series, this particular release bore a sticker on the front, proclaiming it as ‘Sarah Jane’s final classic story’. Now that I’ve reached it in the context of the marathon, it’s as though things have come around a bit… quick. Sarah Jane has been companion for longer than most companions (even - just - edging out Jo Grant’s three seasons), but her time in the TARDIS has felt rather short.

I think it’s because of the change in teams throughout her time. She spends her first season alongside Jon Pertwee, and while they worked brilliantly together, they didn’t share the same rapport that she and Tom Baker would later build up. That said, in her second season, I often felt that she was overshadowed by the presence of Harry in the TARDIS. It’s only really through the stories of Season Thirteen that she’s become the wonderful companion that I know and enjoy.

But what on Earth have they dressed her in for her final appearance?!?! Of course, I’ve always known of the ‘Andy Pandy’ costume from this story (although I had no idea that it was described as such in the episode itself!), but it’s not until you actually encounter it watching through like this that you realise just how out of place it really is. Lis Sladen talks in her autobiography of making Sarah’s dress sense more and more ‘out there’ the longer she travelled in the TARDIS (and she makes the same point in the commentary for this episode), but this is, I think, the first time I’ve ever noticed it so much. Oh, sure, there’s been a few questionable clothing choices over the past few seasons, but this is batting things into a whole other league.

Thankfully, it’s not holding Sladen back, and she’s turning in a hell of a performance for her final story. She’s always been rather good with her ‘possessed’ acting, and it’s nice to see her really giving it her all in her final story. She gives a wonderful ‘far off’ look when trying to be disconnected from events, and I’m completely sold by it. Seeing a companion taken over like this isn’t new by any stretch (a similar thing even happened to Sarah in the last story!), but I’m loving the performance here. It sets this possession out above the rest, and that’s always nice.

I’ve never noticed before just how contemporary-Earth-centric these early Tom Baker years are. I’d always thought of the programme in the 1970s as being almost entirely Earth-bound for Jon Pertwee’s tenure, before barely touching down here again once Baker stepped into the role. It’s actually proved to be far more delineated than that, with every season from about 1972 onwards featuring at least a couple of stories set in the ‘present’. Since the Fourth Doctor took over, we’ve had Robot, Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion, The Seeds of Doom and now this one - almost half of his stories have taken place in this period of history. Sarah’s departure will change that, and we’ll start seeing less adventures placed here through the rest of Baker’s run. Maybe losing his human companion cuts another tie to the planet? After all, we won’t have another one until Tegan shows up, and that’s a long way off from now.

That said, this has a different feel to all the other stories set in this period over the last few years. For the first time since The Sea Devils, the Doctor has touched down on modern-day Earth in a story which won’t feature UNIT, and unlike The Seeds of Doom, he’s not been called in as such, but he’s simply arrived here while trying to give Sarah a trip home. It’s ironic, then, that the TARDIS should touch down in that most Doctor Who of locations - a quarry. There was a time, back around Season Three when quarries had first started to become shorthand for ‘alien world’, that I mused on how well they worked. It’s still true, now, but the language of the programme means that I watch the Doctor and Sarah Jane walk through this landscape, and my mind instantly sets it on some aline world. It’s only once we’re out of here and off to the hospital that things start to feel as though we’re really down to Earth. I’m also surprised just how often quarries do appear as themselves in Doctor Who. It was clever when they first tried it during The Ambassadors of Death, but we’ve only recently seen one at the end of last season!

 

28 March 2014

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

With the passing of Ray Cusick last year, it only felt right that I should speak a little bit in the Diary about him and his contribution to the story of Doctor Who. Sadly, given the recent passing of Christopher Barry, it’s becoming a more regular occurrence than I’d like.

I heard today that another one of those stalwarts from the early years - Derek Martinus - had passed away. Last month, I commented on the way that Christopher Barry had helmed to many important stories in the early years of the programme, and it has to be said that Martinus is the other side of that same coin. Between them, these two men directed the first three ‘post regeneration’ stories, and Martinus was also responsible for seeing out William Hartnell - taking the directorial helm of the first ever regeneration inThe Tenth Planet.

What strikes me, looking at the list of stories Derek Martinus had a hand in, is what an exciting period it’s been for them over the last few years. Galaxy 4 has seen an episode returned to the archives The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors have seen their missing episodes animated for DVD release (and Mission to the Unknown has been the subject of an unofficial ‘fan’ recon), while Spearhead From Space has been spectacularly cleaned up and released in High Definition on Blu Ray. I hope Derek got the chance to see this version of the story - and enjoy it in all it’s detail. Indeed, the only story he directed which hasn’t seen anything exciting or new happen with it lately is The Evil of the Daleks… but never say never, eh?

I’ve said it before, and I have the sad feeling that I’ll have to say it a few more times before this marathon experiment is over, but when you’re talking about a TV series that’s run for (over!) 50 Years, you’re going to find more and more of the key people connected to it passing on. We seem to be losing some especially big names at the moment, and I think Derek Martinus has to be hailed as one of the most important directors to ever work on the programme. It’s sad that I’ve no more of his episodes to come throughout the rest of the run on The 50 Year Diary, but I’m sure I’ll be popping in one of those fantastic adventures again before too long, once I’ve made my way to the end.

Day 452: The Masque of Mandragora, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I’m not sure what it is, but something about this story has completely failed to connect with me. I’ve spent three days banging on about how gorgeous the locations are, how great the sets look, and how lovely the costumes are, but I’m just sort of… watching the story, instead of connecting with it.

The one thing it has done for me is make a bit more sense of K9 and Company. No, no, I assure you I’m not entirely mad. I’ve always thought it strange that they should choose a cult of robed figures in masks for the adversaries in that tale, because they had no relation to the adventures Sarah had taken during her time aboard the TARDIS, but now I realise that she did encounter this kind of thing in Doctor Who. If anything, I’m a little saddened that they didn’t take the opportunity to bring back the Mandragora Helix for that story – there’s the perfect set up given in this episode, when the Doctor announces that the helix should be ready for another attempt on Earth at the end of the Twentieth Century. There was briefly a plan to bring it back during the second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but ultimately the story moved into a different direction.

I fear that I’m going to end up boring you a bit today, because I’m about to praise all the things that I’ve already drawn attention to in the story. Most noticeably, I want to comment on the style given to Sarah for the Masque Ball in this episode. She looks absolutely stunning - and it’s nice to see her given the opportunity to dress up and enjoy herself (even if she is worried for the Doctor throughout the party). It’s also quite nice to see the Doctor having a bit of a laugh throughout. The situation is dire, he’s not sure how to get out of it… but he’s still got time to put on his lion’s head mask and have a joke with Sarah. With the series seeming to grow darker and darker, it’s nice to see a few moments of light relief.

Otherwise… I’m really not sure what to make of this one. Speaking to various people this week, it looks like this may be something of a ‘marmite’ story – people seem to either really love it, or find it just a bit… ephemeral. I think, for me, it may just be burn out. I’ve been loving the pairing of the Doctor and Sarah Jane, but they’ve been together for a long time now, and maybe the time has come for a change of pace. The next story could be coming along at just the right time, then…

27 March 2014

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

Day 451: The Masque of Mandragora, Episode Three

Dear diary,

It’s somewhat strange that it’s taken this long – fourteen seasons! – before anyone has brought up the question of how everyone the TARDIS travellers meet seem to speak fairly perfect English! It’s been the case right from the very start of the programme (the Tribe of Gum didn’t have brilliant sentence structure, but they were otherwise perfect BBC English), yet no one has ever thought to bring it up before. The Doctor’s assertion that it’s a ‘Time Lord gift’ which he shares with his companions doesn’t quite chime with the 21st century programme’s version of this skill (where it’s a function of the TARDIS), but I suppose you could argue that the Doctor shares it via his ship.

It’s also somewhat unusual that Sarah only thinks to bring it up once she’s under some kind of hypnotic control. Then again, I suppose that you may not initially think to ask the question when you’re out and about among the stars. When the TARDIS rocks up on Exxilon, or Metebilis III, or Skaro, you’re too busy being caught up in all the wonder (and all the running!) to wonder how you can understand all these different alien species. Arrive in Italy, only a few centuries before your own time, however, and it’s a more glaring anomaly.

I’m sorry to say that this story still just isn’t grabbing me in the way that I’d like it to. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m finding myself far more distracted by all the trappings of the sets, the locations, and the costumes, and I’m not being swept along with the story at all. That said, I really am distracted by all the of dressings in this story – I seem to be discussing it every day, but there really is some great work on display. After today’s episode, I watched a bit of the ‘making of’ special feature on the DVD, and was blown away by just how much work designer Barry Newbury puts in when he’s given a Doctor Who serial to work on. It was true of the Brain of Morbius, when he talks of giving thought to a whole new style of architecture for this alien world, and it’s just as evident here, when he talks of looking at paintings of the period and picking out specific details to use in his sets.

The effect of the temple being restored is also very well done. It’s a variant of the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ trick, as far as I can tell, which has been used in theatre for decades, and was at its first peak during the Victorian period. It creates a lovely effect, and brings to life another beautiful set in the form of the temple itself, which is another example of great design. Because the effect is based on such an old technique, it’s simply being presented here as a matter of course, thrown into the background of the shots with Tom Baker. As such, it comes across as even more effective – they’re not drawing attention to it, it’s just something that’s happening.

 


26 March 2014

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

Day 450: The Masque of Mandragora, Episode Two

Dear diary,

The best thing about this story really is the locations and sets. I’ve said it before more than once (and don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll say it again plenty of times, too!), but the BBC really do excel themselves when it comes to producing the period stories. Today, I’m fascinated to learn that the ruined temple we see in this episode was provided by the BBC in the form of expanded polystyrene (and, supposedly, the people of Portmerion were so keen on it they asked if it could stay!), because it looks so perfect. Admittedly, I had thought that it was lucky to find such a perfect location right where they needed it, but I never for a second suspected it was anything other than real.

I’m also very impressed to discover that the orange grove from yesterday’s episode was all rigged up by the production team, too, with the fruit attached to the trees via wires. I mean, I was surprised enough that they’d found the location, but I never suspected! Maybe I’m simply foolish?

But then, Portmerion itself is proving pretty perfect, even without the BBC props department helping out. The chase early in today’s episode gives us plenty of opportunity to look around, and after that I just couldn’t help myself - I had to take a look at the ‘Now and Then’ feature on the DVD. Portmerion is best known as the location for The Prisoner, so it’s not completely unknown to audiences of archive telly. While I do own that series on DVD, I’ve still not found the time to get round to watching it, and I’m only a few episodes in.

Therefore, I’m most impressed by just how… European the setting is - You could take a pretty good guess as to where we’re supposed to be this week, even if the Doctor didn’t keep reminding us. Certainly, watching this story is making me want to visit the place (it’s only a few hours up the road - worth a trip!), and that doesn’t often happen with the series.

Something else that doesn’t often happen is me commenting on the musical scores for stories. To be perfectly honest… I’m not usually all that aware of them. Maybe that’s just me being ignorant, but it’s rare that they really stand out for me. That’s a good thing, though! The music isn’t supposed to be big and blaring and in-your-face, it’s supposed to be there to underpin the scenes and help add to the mood and atmosphere. Today, it simply can’t be ignored, though. Sarah’s tied to an alter. Cultists in robes gather around her, chanting and preparing her for sacrifice. She’s even been changed into the traditional white robes for the occasion. The tension is building, she’s going to be killed any minute…

But Dudley Simpson has chosen to score the scene with - what I’ve described in my notes as being - ‘comedy parp-parp music’. I just can’t take it seriously. Simpson has been providing scores to the programme since as far back as Planet of Giants, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as put off by the music as I am in this story. It’s perhaps worrying, because this marks the start of an unbroken run for his composing work on the series, which will last right through to the end of Season Seventeen and The Horns of Nimon. I’m dearly hoping that this won’t be the start of me not liking his scores generally, as it could make the bulk of the Baker years a bit of a chore. Still, he’s been composer for 39 stories before this one, so I’m guessing it may just be an off day!

 

25 March 2014

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

Day 449: The Masque of Mandragora, Episode One

Dear diary,

The Secondary Console Room has always been something of an anomaly as far as I’m concerned. When I think about the TARDIS in the classic series, it takes the form of the open, white, sterile space. Oh, sure, it goes through a fair few iterations over the years, but it always boil down to the same distinct template – the big white roundels and the large, hexagonal console in the centre. Once you reach the Eighth Doctor, things start to become a bit more flexible, and we have huge Jules Verne inspired cathedrals, or coral shells, or bright, orange monstrosities, but in the original series, there’s only one style of console room.

Except that there isn’t! I think it’s my lack of familiarity with this period that makes this room seem like such an anomaly for me (I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of the stories in which it appears, only odd clips of them like Sarah Jane’s farewell in the next tale). It’s also slightly strange to see how we end up with it, literally coming from a brief scene at the start of the episode where Sarah wanders the corridors of the ship and opens doors at random. It’s a lovely touch that earlier Doctors have their own effects scattered through the room (I can assume that the Third Doctor may have tried to jump-start the ship from here when in the earliest days of his exile, maybe in an attempt to bypass the Time Lord’s lock down), and I’m glad that we don’t spend too much time exploring the place before we’re caught up in the adventure.

And what an adventure to be caught up in! The TARDIS being sucked into the Helix is a beautiful effect (is it Mirrorlon, the same technique used for the Ice Warrior’s sonic weapons?), and then when the TARDIS rives at the bottom of the spiral, allowing the Doctor to step out into a mostly empty black void, it’s very effective. I’ve never seen this story before, but I have used some images from the production when doing design work before. There’s a lovely shot of the TARDIS against the CSO background which is perfect as an image of this era’s new prop: it seems obvious to me now that it was to be transplanted on another image for the episode, but I’d always assumed that the heart of the helix was a plain white void, which didn’t look very good! It’s always great when these kind of pre-conceptions of stories are overthrown, especially when they’re as good as this.

And then we’re off to 15th century Italy! I know that this story’s locations are filmed in and around Portmerion in Wales, but it’s easy enough to forget that fact when you’re watching the story, because it makes such a good stand in for Italy. We’ve not seen all that much of the town itself yet, mostly the surrounding areas, but they’re all uniformly lovely. Orange groves, and country lanes… I’m looking forward to watching the location work expand as the story goes on.

Ah, yes, the story. That’s the one thing which isn’t quite grabbing me yet. Due to the slightly odd nature of this episode, it feels almost like we get a false start with the Doctor and Sarah getting snared in the helix – when we cut to a hunt on horseback about ten minutes in, it feels like the opening scene of a new episode. But nothing in here yet feels very fresh or exciting. It’s portents and death, and there’s a sparkler floating around having hitched a ride in the TARDIS… I don’t know what it is, but something’s lacking for now. Still, it’s early days and we’re off to a good start.

 

24 March 2014

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

Day 448: Doctor Who and the Pescatons, Episode Two

Dear diary,

The beauty of listening to an audio story again is that I can put it on through my headphones and listen to it as I make my way home from the shops. And with the weather we're currently experiencing, it seems only right that I should listen to a tale of fish aliens looking for a wet new home while I try not to be completely soaked to the core by the rain. Maybe there's a Pescaton attack on the way? Was that a meteor I just saw falling into that river?

I suppose after all my comparisons yesterday between this story and Pemberton’s earlier script for the series in Fury From the Deep, I really should have seen this resolution coming. Of course the Pescatons were going to be defeated by the use of sound - it seems so obvious in retrospect. What seems less obvious is that the Doctor would come to this resolution while playing his paccalo, which as he tells us here, he always does when he’s nervous. Just like he did when he realised that Morbius may still be alive, or Sutekh may break free of his eternal bonds.

It’s not the only thing that’s somewhat out of character for the Doctor here. We end the story with him effectively committing genocide, and ensuring that the Pescaton civilisation is eradicated forever. Whatever happened to all that ‘do I have the right?’ stuff on Skaro last month? He reminds us (repeatedly) in this episode that Pescatons are creatures of pure evil - which means it’s ok for your hero to wipe them all out! - but it just feels very… odd.

Still, I’m more interested in the Doctor’s earlier trip to Pesca. When is this supposed to have happened? The assumption is that the Fourth Doctor made the trip, though that’s only because we’re listening to Tom Baker relate the tale to us. I suppose it could take place at the same time he makes his trip to the world of the Sevateem (I don’t know a great deal about that excursion, yet, but I imagine I will do in a few weeks’ time), but it could just as easily be an earlier Doctor who does those parts of the story. Sure, Zor seems to recognise the Doctor, but… oh, come on. You’re not really going to apply much logic to this one, are you?

On the whole… Hm. It’s a bit of an odd one, this, isn’t it? On the one hand, i can see it making quite a good story for TV (there’s some lovely moments, such as the cliffhanger for Part One), but on the other, it feels too much like a rehash of old ideas, mostly from Pemeberton’s other contribution to the series! And, at the end of Part Two, I’m not sure why they bothered to have Elisabeth Sladen even come down to the studios - she’s only got about six lines!

Day 448 EXTRA: *Exploration Earth: The Time Machine*

Dear diary,

Hello! It’s me! Again! Yeah, I know, I’ve already done my episode for today. There were shark aliens, and meteorites, and the Doctor played his piccolo to save the day. You know, like he does never. But you’ll never guess what! The best thing happened. I got to school, and we were learning all about the creation of the Earth, and to demonstrate the various stages of this, we were allowed to go on an adventure with the Doctor and Sarah Jane!

Oh, ok. What really happened is that I mentioned to Nick that I’d just listened to Doctor Who and the Pescatons, and he suggested that I’d have to do Evacuation Earth: The Time Machine next or there’d be uproar among fans of The 50 Year Diary that I just wan’t taking this experiment seriously. To be honest, I’d completely forgotten that this story even existed, but now that I’d been reminded… well, I had to do it somewhere. Since I’ve been taking a little sojourn into non-televised media between seasons, I thought I might slip this one in today and create a bumper entry - rather than spend another day kicking around on audio.

Produced for a BBC Schools series on the radio, this is probably the closest the programme has come in a long time to fulfilling it’s initial remit to both entertain and educate its audience. In the story, the TARDIS is dragged right back to the very formation of the Earth, and the Doctor takes Sarah on a journey through the evolution of her planet. It’s very clearly being made as an educational programme for children, and it features plenty of the dialogue you’d expect to hear in a schools-based programme (after Terror of the Zygons the other week, I watched Elisabeth Sladen’s episode of Merry Go Round which is on the DVD as a special feature. This is done in very much the same style, and they both remind me of the kinds of programmes we used to watch at school back in the 1990s - there’s a certain feel to these educational programmes).

That said, they’ve opted to use the characters of the Doctor and Sarah to tell the story of the Earth’s creation, and as Madame de Pompadour tells us, you can’t have the Doctor without the monsters. To that end, during their exploration of the planet’s history, our heroes keep running into Megron, High Lord of Chaos. Megron serves to introduce a bit of threat to the proceedings, but mostly he just pops up and booms at the Doctor for being near the Earth, and then gets shirty when the Doctor tries to teach us all a little something about geography and science.

I’ve been watching this little interlude in the form of some animations on YouTube by ‘adamsbullock’ (I watched his animation for The Feast of Steven, too, back in the day), and they’ve certainly made the story come to life a bit more. I’d have probably given up and switched off otherwise! It also helps to fill in some visual areas that would have been completely lost on me - when the TARDIS has come to a standstill at the start of the planet’s formation, the Doctor explains that there is absolutely no oxygen outside the ship… but he can still take Sarah Jane out to show her! Here, step into this handy capsule by the TARDIS door!

Oh, I’m not being fair, really. This isn’t supposed to be an episode of Doctor Who in the traditional sense, so it’s not fair for me to rate it amongst everything else (and that’s why it’s not received a day of its own on the Diary). It was created as a means to educate a young audience about the formation of the Earth, and in that respect I think it succeeds. It certainly gave my knowledge a bit of a brushing up! It should really be filed away with things like the Doctor Who Discovers books as an odd, educational, side-step.

23 March 2014

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

Day 447: Doctor Who and the Pescatons, Episode One

Dear diary,

It seems like an absolute lifetime since I had to listen to an episode of Doctor Who instead of popping in a DVD to watch. Doctor Who and the Pescatons was released on LP in June of 1976, between the transmissions of The Seeds of Doom and The Masque of Mandragora, and with Sarah Jane’s time in the TARDIS heading towards its end, I’m happy for any excuse to prolong her adventures with the Doctor.

My first thought in all of this is just how… familiar it all seems. The stories it most closely recalls are Fury From the Deep and Terror of the Zygons, and there’s elements from both present in this opening episode. We’ve got a killer seaweed, which is signalled in the soundtrack by an ominous, thumping heartbeat, which the Doctor first hears on the beach. The main enemies are trying to find a new world, because their old one is (nearly) destroyed. Then there’s a spaceship hidden at the bottom of a large expanse of water, and a creature swimming up the Thames, as people look on in horror. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised this story was written by Victor Pemberton, which perhaps makes the Fury comparisons even more obvious.

I found myself mostly confused by the scene in which the Pescaton swims up the Thames, but mostly because of my own preconceptions about this story. For some reason - despite what the cover to the LP clearly depicts - I’ve always imagined Pescatons as being short creatures. I don’t know why, but In my mind whenever I’ve seen an image of the one on the cover, I’ve assumed that they’re about three-and-a-half feet high. The kind of alien which would have been played by Jimmy Vee in the Russell T Davies era. I’ve also always assumed that they’re a kind of comedy alien played for laughs, but the script seems to be treating them in a deadly serious manner.

I’m not sure where any of these thoughts have come from, because I’ve never listened to the story before, or even really given it a second thought, but it’s certainly not what I was expecting it to be. I’m induing myself surprised, too, by how much this is Tom’s story. I was always under the impression that it was released due to the popularity of The Doctor and Sarah Jane as a partnership in the television series, but she harpy appears at all during this episode. She turns up to be attacked by a monster early on, and then to ask the Doctor what a Pescaton is, so that he can fill us all in on the idea, but that’s really all she gets to do in this one so far!

That’s not necessarily a complaint, because Tom Baker is (of course) on fine form throughout. I’m surprised by how much this feels like on of Big Finish’s ‘Companion Chronicles’ range, with Tom taking on the role of lead narrator, guiding us through the story. It moves at quite a pace, too - on more than one occasion, I had to skip back a minute or so, just so I could catch up with what’s going on, or where I was supposed to be. My favourite bit, though, has to be his opening speech, which introduces us to the story:

THE DOCTOR
My life is an endless journey across the bounds of space and time. A time traveller, drifting among the great galaxies of the universe.

It paints such a beautiful picture, and it sounds so right coming out in Tom’s very unique tones. It’s a lovely description, and it makes the episode worthwhile in those opening few minutes.

And then we end on an equally beautiful image, as we’re described a view of the sky over London lighting up as a shower of meteorites fall into the Thames. I’ve got my concerns about how well this would have been achieved on screen in 1976 (so perhaps it’s better suited to being on audio here!), but I’d love to see the modern team tackle it - I’m sure they could make it look lovely…

 

22 March 2014

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

Day 446: The Seeds of Doom, Episode Six

Dear diary,

Oh, there’s something rather sad about all of this. UNIT have been a part of Doctor Who since Season Six (and some characters, like the Brigadier, stretch back even further into Season Five), and for a while they’ve been a huge part of the programme. Now we’ve reached their last appearance for a good long time, and instead of going out in a triumphant blaze of glory, they’re leaving in a slightly diminished form. It’s like a popular TV series limping on for one more season once all the main cast have departed, and then facing a slow, agonising death.

We’ve been watching the break up of the ‘UNIT family’ for a long time now. If anything, it started as far back as Season Eight, with the Third Doctor’s first excursion off-Earth, and then continued on from there, with less and less time being spent on Terra Firma. Then we see Mike leave (he returns, of course, for Planet of the Spiders, but it’s not really the same), the Brigadier parts with Terror of the Zygons and has been stuck in Geneva ever since, while Benton bowed out with The Android Invasion earlier this year. That same story introduces Colonel Faraday to the UNIT team, but here he’s not even mentioned, and we’re left in the hands of Sergeant Henderson and Lieutenant Beresford.

It’s just not the same. This lot are all wearing the right uniform and running around in the right style to be UNIT soldiers, but there’s none of the shared history we have during the early 1970s. Part of the fun when Benton turns up in Ambassadors of Death is that we previously saw him helping the Second Doctor and Jamie repel the Cyberman invasion of London. By the time Mike turns on the rest of his colleagues, it holds impact because we’ve watched him work alongside them for so long. In this story, when Henderson is subjected to the composting machine it’s a shock because it’s such a brutal death, not because they’ve killed off one of our UNIT team. We’ll not see the organisation back properly for another thirteen years, when we’ll be given another new UNIT during Battlefield, so it’s been a shame to watch them face diminishing returns over the last few seasons.

It’s not enough to ruin the episode, mind, and there’s still an awful lot in here to love. After my praise for the shot of the house-sized Krynoid at the end of yesterday’s episode, I was sorry to see a similar shot not being done as well here, but it’s only a brief distraction because we spend much of this episode seeing the creature in the form of a model monster atop a model mansion… and that looks fantastic! There’s plenty of shots where the tentacles writhe and thrash around, while the building starts to crumble underneath them, and it’s all really effective.

And then of course – as is traditional – they blow up the model at the end. I joke about how often it happens, but it is always a very good effect. That we see it happen in stages here makes it a little different to the usual, but surely someone must have started noticing that every time UNIT get involved in a situation, the location ends up in flames!

The one thing that I don’t get… the adventure is over. The Doctor and Sarah decide that they need to go on holiday. I mean, it’s only natural – in the last few weeks, they’ve come up against alien doubles, sentient planets, Egyptian gods, alien doubles again, Frankenstein’s monster, and now this. Sarah’s got her swimsuit on, the beach ball is ready… and they arrive in Antarctica. Back where they started because the Doctor hasn’t cleared the co-ordinates from earlier in the story. Did they initially plan to take the TARDIS to the snow base before opting for the more traditional jet (don’t forget that they’ve spent most of this season trying to get back to UNIT HQ via the TARDIS, and failing spectacularly)? It’s a bit of an odd end to the adventure, but it’s a great way to end the season – with the Doctor and Sarah joking and laughing, and completely reaffirming his earlier statement that they’re the best of friends. Their time in the TARDIS is short now, with only a couple more adventures for the pair, so I’m glad that I’m enjoying them so much at the moment.

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