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22 January 2013

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

Day Twenty-Two: The Velvet Web (The Keys of Marinus, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

I complained on a few occasions during Marco Polo that it felt like no matter how far the travelers were supposed to have gone, it always simply felt like the same place. Being part of the caravan meant that even though the backgrounds changed, we never seemed to actually go anywhere.

The same can't be said of The Keys of Marinus. I've seen this story before, so I know that each episode gives us something new to feast on, but it's only when you start to watch like this that you really take note of how strange it is. I've grown used to being given a set up - a location, characters etc - and then spending a few days with them.

The setting for today's episode is a world away from yesterday's, and a fun story in its own right. It's fun to see the Doctor initially cautious, advising against opening the door because there's going to be something bad behind it. It's then strange to see the series turning this on its head so early in its run, confounding our expectations by showing us a paradise world, where Barbara has been given a life of luxury.

I'm not sure how long she'd supposed to have been there - but it's clearly been a while. She claims to have met their 'host' (presumably Altos), and she's gotten quite comfortable in her new surroundings. Perhaps odd, considering that we were told in the last episode that the dials would move them through space but not time. The Doctor, Susan and Ian left no more than a minute or two after, but more time has clearly passed here.

It's nice to see Ian suspicious for so long, too. They've been at this adventuring lark for a while, now, and he's used to the way it works. It also means we're given a great grounding point for when he's tricked into seeing the beauty and nothing else.

On the subject of which - it's a really rather well done effect, isn't it? Barbara waking to see the truth of the city, all crumbling and in an awful condition. The back and forth between the luxury world the others are seeing and the version through her eyes is directed very well. It means that by the time the Doctor and Ian explore the 'lab', they can pick up a dirty mug, describe it as a piece of fantastically high-tech equipment, and I'll buy it.

There's just a chance to praise the brain-creatures in the jars, too. I've little to add to that thought, but I just thought they looked pretty good.

And now, with Susan screaming madly once more, it's off to the jungle…

Next Episode: The Screaming Jungle 
21 January 2013

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

Day Twenty-One - The Sea of Death (The Keys of Marinus, Episode One)

Dear diary,

The start of a new story is always a bit exciting. Three weeks into this marathon, and I'm starting to appreciate how much that's true. When you watch Doctor Who as a set of DVDs, where you can watch a story in full from any era of the programme at any time, you start to forget the excitement of getting onto a new one.

When I first got into Doctor Who in 2003, I used to relish the chance, every other week or so, to visit the BBC shop in Norwich, where I was living at the time. There weren't nearly as many DVDs on the shelf then as there are now, but I used to enjoy choosing one at random (or, sometimes, based purely on how much I liked the cover art. I didn't pick up a copy of The Leisure Hive for several years, 'cos I thought the art was awful) and then excitedly getting home to watch it.

These days, I own a copy of every story in some form or another; DVD, VHS, audio… it takes some of the magic away from it all. I've really enjoyed Marco Polo, and as I said yesterday, I'd not have been opposed to another episode to allow events to berate a bit at the end, but all the same - it's great to be arriving somewhere new.

The first season of Doctor Who has a simple format, but it works really well. For the most part, it's Historical/Space Story/Historical/Space Story, with the exception of The Edge of Destruction, which is something of an oddity, anyway. It means you get to have a nice deal of variety to the stories, and as much as I love the historical settings, with rich dialogue and fantastic characterisation, it's lovely to be turning up on a world with acid seas and glass beaches.

Sure, this one may not be as polished as the story I've been watching for the last week (and while it's nice to be back to moving episodes again, it's a shame this one has more than a couple of production faults. Two stagehands are very noticeable, as is a boom shadow hovering over Barbara's head for some time while they hunt for the missing Susan), but it's good fun.

We open with a shot of the island itself, which looks rather good - especially when we pan in on the beach, and a tiny model TARDIS arrives. This is the first time we've seen the ship arrive in this way, and it works really well. While on the subject of the models, I'm going to have to mention the washing-up bottle submarines. They get a bad rep, perhaps rightly so, but in general it works quite well.

It also means, since I've got a few bottles of washing-up liquid released for the Jubilee last year, in the shape of these 'classic' versions, I'm going to playing 'Attack of the Voord' when I do the washing up in a bit.

I mentioned a few days ago, during a fight scene in Marco Polo that it was a shame not to actually be able to see it. It was represented in the recon by a series of blurry images and a lot of scuffling noise; not painting a great image! I also mused that it was perhaps for the best, as I could imagine the scene in my head to be better than it perhaps was.

I think this might well have been justified by the scene in this episode, in which a Voord attacks Arbitan and Ian intervenes. The fight is very stagey, and that somewhat let the scene down. It's lovely to have some movement on the screen again, but perhaps reckons are sometimes a good answer…!

Next Episode: The Velvet Web

20 January 2013

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

Day Twenty - Assassin at Peking (Marco Polo, Episode Seven)

Dear diary,

The downside to a seven part story is that… well… it's very easy to run out of things to say on the whole. Across the last week, I've praised the sets, the performances, the dialogue…

I've listed several reasons why I think this story is so high up people's lists of tales they want returned to the archive, and I've voiced constant surprise that I'm not bored by the fact that not an awful lot seems to be happening.

So forgive me if I'm reaching for new things to add here. In short; I've enjoyed this episode, too, but I'm looking forward to moving on with a new story.

What? You want more? Oh, go on then…

He's a late addition to the cast, but Kublai Kahn is a great character. he was used comically yesterday, puncturing a lot of bureaucratic and ceremonial nonsense with simply being rather down-to-earth. It's great to see him at the start of this episode, playing Backgammon with the Doctor, and the stakes being so high - yet so relatively small to him!

I've mused on the fact that the Doctor has been mellowing a lot over the last few episodes, and I think it's very much on show here, now. I can't imagine the Doctor of three weeks ago sitting down to casually play for the return of his TARDIS. The way he laughs about it as he leaves the room is just as great.

One thing that has bugged me a little, though, and this has been rumbling for a few days now… Marco really can't decide which side he's on, can he? It's used to great effect in a couple of places, almost painting Marco as the bad guy. In this last episode, though, it just feels muddled as he swings from wanting to help our regulars, to being against them, to feeling sorry for them, to wanting them kept locked up, to setting them free with a key to the TARDIS…

It's a shame, as he's a really interesting character, and his final thoughts in the story, wondering where the Doctor and Co might be are lovely, and a nice end to the tale. In all honesty, though, that's all I have to add, so I'll rate the episode and move onto my thoughts on Marco Polo as a whole…

I'd never really 'seen' Marco Polo before this viewing. I'd listened to the first episode a few times over the years, usually when I'm trying to complete a marathon, but I've never made it right the way to the end. As a result of this, I've always been a bit unsure of it when people list it among the stories they really lament the loss off.

Actually, though, it's really rather good. I still can't get my head around it - by all rights, I should have been bored out of my mind. I've complained on more than one occasion that the story is just a lot of walking and talking with the occasional 'event' to spice things up a little. Added to that, I've had to watch the whole thing as still images. Not a single clip to break it up!

But it's never let my attention slip. I won't go into the reasons all over again (they're listed at the top of today's post if you need a refresher). I've enjoyed all seven episodes to some degree, and it's my highest rated story so far.

What's odd, though, is that like The Daleks, I've reached the end of seven episodes and feel like I could do with a bit more time in this location. There's an awful lot packed into these last 25 minutes; the resolution to the cliff hanger, the Doctor's game with Kublai Kahn, Tegana trying to win on all sides, an army marching on the city, Tegana's death, the escape from the era…

The problem this causes is that some things aren't given enough room to breathe. The death of Ping-Cho's proposed husband comes out of nowhere and is glossed over in about a minute. It feels like a sad resolution to a story that's been bubbling under throughout these seven episodes.

On the whole, though, the average of my scores gives this episode a solid

Next Episode: The Sea of Death

19 January 2013

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

Day Nineteen: Mighty Kublai Kahn (Marco Polo, Episode Six)

Dear diary,

I can't quite get my head around this story. Let's recap; I've stated a few times over the past couple of days that I worry I'll get bored of it. I've mentioned that it's a lot of back-and-forth between the TARDIS crew and Marco Polo, with the occasional 'set piece' to keep the attention going.

I've also mused on more than one occasion that there's only so long it can go on for, before it gets boring. During yesterday's entry, I hoped that the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara getting back to the TARDIS would signal a turning point for the narrative, but it was very quickly put back to the status quo in this episode.

And yet, and yet… I just can't stop enjoying it. Much of what we have here, we've seen before - Marco is angry at the travellers for defying him, but he forgives them. Tegana convinces him that he should be more suspicious of them. William Russell gets plenty of opportunities to shine. The Doctor is more fun that he's been at any previous point in the series (his complaining of a bad back when being forced to kneel before the Kahn is especially well done).

We're given several new locations, but it all still feels like the same old caravan. Tegana is up to something evil and making dodgy deals… It's all very much same-old-same-old.

But it's not boring. Every bit of this episode has been just as entertaining as the last one, or the one before that. By all rights, I should have had enough of this story by now. Really, I should! Heck, but the fourth episode of An Unearthly Child, I was ready to run a hundred miles from another 25 minutes.

Another thing I commented on recently was the fact that the visual appeal of this story helps to make it a prime candidate for discovery. I wonder if the fact that it's also a very dialogue-heavy story means it's better suited to be left lost? By removing much of the visual element to the story, I'm left being able to focus on other areas.

I've praised William Russell already, but I have to say good things about everyone, really. Jackie Hill, Bill Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford… And it's not just the regulars, our guest cast are engaging, too. Even Tegana isn't as pantomime as he was being to start off with. There's a very real chance that because - for the most part - I'm having to rely on the performances to enjoy the story, I'm enjoying it far more.

It helps that there's some lovely dialogue floating around in today's episode, too. There are a few lines from this era of the programme which are rightly famous ('Have you ever thought what it's like…' 'A thing that looks like a police box…'), but there's a few here that should be as instantly recognisable.

'I come from another time. Our caravan, it not only covers distance, it can cross time!', and Marco's description of time travel as being able to 'defy the passage of the sun'. They're both lovely lines, and I'm surprised I've never heard either f them before.

Then there's the fun ones, such as the one Barbara used to set up the above conversation, when she's trying to convince Ian to speak to Marco; 'Oh, Marco? Ian wants a word with you. * yawn *, I'm feeling a bit tired, I think I'll go to bed…'. It's really rather wonderful…

Next Episode: Assassin at Peking 
18 January 2013

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

Day Eighteen - Rider From Shang-Tu (Marco Polo, Episode Five)

Dear diary,

I've not mentioned it, but since Episode Two, I've been watching this story as a tele-snap recon, rather than by listening to the narrated soundtrack. It's perfectly acceptable, and it's just easier to follow the story this way, rather than having to manually look through the images and try to time them up with the audio.

The downside to this, though, is that things aren't always clear. At the end of yesterday's episode, when Ian is sent to distract the guard outside their tent, I assumed he'd knocked him out. There's no dialogue, just ambient noise and soundtrack, and then a shot of the guard on the floor.

This episode confirms that, actually, the guard was already dead. Stabbed. Ian just found the body. It's a shame it's not clearer, as it means I spent a few minutes at the start of this episode thinking back over to the events of yesterday, when I really should have been enjoying this one.

It's also a shame when you have big fight sequences, as in today's installment. It means there's a few minutes of blurry images and a lot of noise while the characters all fight, but you don't actually see any of it taking place. In some ways, this isn't too much of a loss. As with the sand-storm a few days back, in means things can look far better in my mind than they perhaps did on TV, but it would be nice to be able to see something, I guess.

I'm still enjoying things on the old Silk Trail, though this is another episode which uses a set piece (the fight, on this occasion) to break up lots of scenes set in the camp. Even when we reach the end of the episode, with the group settled down for the night, it doesn't feel as though they've really moved. It's another casualty of the tele-snaps that all the locations look broadly the same.

I'd imagine this story could have looked fantastic - the first episode featuring snow-capped mountains, then moving to deserts for Episode Two, caves for Episode Three, and now in this episode we've got a bamboo forest. It's a real pity that I can't really see any of it properly.

Many people seem to list Marco Polo among the stories they'd most like to see returned to the archives, and I'm starting to see why. For all the talking among characters, it's a terribly visual story.

And then we reach the end, with the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara back safely in the TARDIS. But, hold on! Where's Susan?! It's very reminiscent of the trick pulled to stretch out The Daleks for a few more episodes - 'We've made it back to the TARDIS, but we've left something behind!'. In The Daleks, they then came back from this point by spinning the story off in a different direction, which helped to keep me interested. I hope a similar thing is going to be happening here, as if they just carry on as they have so far, there's a danger that my patience will wear thin!

Next episode: Mighty Kublai Kahn

Next Episode: Mighty Kublai Kahn 
17 January 2013
 Day Seventeen - The Wall of Lies (Marco Polo, Episode Four)

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

Day Seventeen - The Wall of Lies (Marco Polo, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

Do you remember, back in An Unearthly Child (The story, not the episode!), Ian told the tribe that the TARDIS travellers had no leader. At that stage, it was true. As the fabulous Wife in Space blog once said, 'They should have called the show Ian'.

Here, though, Tegana and Marco discuss the travellers;

TEGANA
Marco, which one leads them?

MARCO
The Doctor

TEGANA
And leaders are obeyed?

It's clear, to our guest characters in this story that the Doctor is the leader of the group, and actually, it's becoming clear to us as viewers, too. The show at this stage is still very much an ensemble piece - all four of our regulars are given their own chance to shine at one stage or another, be it Barbara sneaking out to follow Tegana in the last episode, or Ian distracting the guard here.

Still, though, the Doctor has emerged as the leader of the group. He is the only one with the power to fly the TARDIS, as we're reminded earlier this story. Ian, Barbara, and Susan's lives are all in his hands. It's nice that this has become so prominent after the events of the last story, which I noted as a turning point in his character.

He still has the ability to be crotchety, and to be manipulative, but he's a far warmer soul in this story that we've seen him before, and now that his companions are becoming his friends, he's much nicer toward them. What I'm particularly enjoying is the way that he's a short with those he distrusts as he was with the schoolteachers, once. I really love the way that the Doctor barks at Marco - “You poor, pathetic, stupid savage!”.

Our guest cast is interesting in this story. They're far more rounded as characters than we're sometimes treated to. Marco Polo seems to walk a fine line between being an ally of the group and an enemy. This is most noticeable here for the first time since The Roof of the World, when he initially took the TARDIS away.

The way that he barks orders, listening to the corrupting words of Tegana is totally believable. He wants desperately to trust the travellers, to make friends with them, but from his point of view, it's a no-go. They've betrayed him by sneaking into the TARDIS while no one is looking, and so he has to swap sides again.

It's nice, following on from the pantomime villainy of the first few episodes here, to have a character with a distinct grey area. Marco isn't evil, but he is an obstacle to the TARDIS crew.

I do have to wonder, though, why Tegana - and by extension, Marco - believe out far more likely that the Doctor uses magic to access the 'caravan', above the possibility that he may have a second key. While I could argue that Tegana simply uses magic to reinforce the idea of the Doctor as an evil spirit, Marco does seem surprised to find another key…

On the whole, I'm still really enjoying the story, and I'm actively looking forward to continuing on the journey. The only thing that troubles me is that we spend so much time in the 'camp'. I was really enjoying bits at the start of this story, with the travellers exploring the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. Ian studies the face to realise the eyes do move, finds signs of a hidden door and…

Well, and then it's all over, and they're sent back to camp. Much as I'm enjoying the Doctor sneaking around, and our heroes trying to avoid detection as the ship gets repaired, it would have been nice to have some more time spent in the cave - it's a different setting and a chance to see something new with the story.

While I'm finding plenty to like in Marco Polo so far, I worry that over time, I'll grow weary of the story is it just carries on revolving around the camp. Interesting characters are only half the battle…

Next Episode: Rider from Shang-Tu

16 January 2013

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

Day Sixteen - Five Hundred Eyes (Marco Polo, Episode Three)

Dear diary,

This episode brings up some interesting questions about the TARDIS. A cold night, followed by a hot day causes condensation to form on the inside, to the extent that it's described as 'streaming down the walls'. Point One; surely the TARDIS should have a circuit that stops that? Is it one of the broken ones? It'll ruin all of the Doctor's furniture. Maybe that's why the console room is so bare by the 1980s?

Point Two (a more serious one, promise), is that this clearly treats the inside of the TARDIS to be situated within the four walls of the police box. Now, I know there's a couple of different schools of thought on this, but I've always been of the opinion that when you cross the threshold, you're transported to another part of space and time. Maybe even another dimension.

Couldn't tell you when I became sure of that, but it's been in my head for as long as I can remember. What's everyone else's thoughts on the subject? Is it a huge space fitting inside the (comparatively) smaller box, or a portal to somewhere else? Leave a comment or Twitter me with your thoughts - I'm genuinely interested to see what people think.

I'm pleased to say that I'm still really enjoying this story. Perhaps its reputation as one of Doctor Who's best is justly deserved? I'm not entirely sure what it is that's sucking me in. The story is good enough, I suppose, though it still feels like they need to insert a number of things just to fill out the journey (more on which in a minute), but I think it's just the characters.

There was a point, when the Doctor, Susan and Ping-Cho are exploring the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, when it feels just right that Ping-Cho is with them. She almost feels like a part of the team. Equally, it seems right that Marco and Ian should pair off together to hunt for the missing Barbara, too. It's a real testament to the story that these guest characters have only been a part of the narrative for a few days, but they already feel fully formed.

As for what I'd call 'padding'… the tale of Aladdin is very odd - a few minutes of the story given over to be told another story. It's almost like story time at school, where you all get to sit cross-legged on the floor, and listen to a fairytale. It feels oddly out of place - especially given that a fair bit of time early in the episode is given over to setting up that Ping-Cho is going to be telling it.

It does, however, give us a chance to see Susan and the Doctor at their most relaxed. From the images in the recon, you can see Susan laying up against her grandfather, clearly they've known each other for a long time. I'm not sure why people go to such great lengths to deny that they're family - the image says it all! The Doctor is her grandfather, and that's exactly the relationship they share on screen.

The episode is still taking its duties to educate the audience very seriously - we're given a lesson via Ian about how condensation is formed (a great use of him as a science teacher. It really is a fantastic role for the series' early set up), and then later on as he tells Susan (in a completely un-forced way. Or not.) “Do you know that we still use the word Ḥashshāshīn in English today?”

It's nice to see the series using this story as a chance to fulfil one of its initial briefs. It's not something that will last forever, and I'm looking forward to seeing how long it does before it gets fazed out in favour of 'Monster of the Week'…

I'll avoid saying too much about Susan's reactions at the cliff hanger (“THEY MOVED!”), but the rest of the episode is working very well for me!

Next Episode: The Wall of Lies 
15 January 2013

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

Day Fifteen - The Singing Sands (Marco Polo, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

One of the benefits of the missing episodes is that they give you the chance to let your mind fill in the gaps. Today's episode features a sequence in which Susan and Ping-Cho are caught outside during a sand storm. Now, on screen, this may (or may not…) have looked great, but in my head, it can look as great as I'd like.

In my head, it can be suitably epic and dramatic, the soundtrack certainly helps with that, and it's actually quite a brilliant scene. It injects a nice level of drama to the story, which helps to carry this episode. It doesn't hurt that for this installment, I've used a proper recon of soundtrack and tele snaps, mixed with some other photos taken on the set. There comes a point when you almost forget that things are supposed to be moving - just like yesterday, I'm caught up in the story.

An Unearthly Child doesn't really fit the format of the historical adventures (it set more in a fantasy 'stone age' than any easily definable period of history), which makes Marco Polo the first story that can be really pinned down. I can go and look him up and read about his travels to the East along the old silk trails, and see how this story might fit in.

It's a format that really works for the show, and it's a shame we've not had any of these 'proper' historical adventures in the revived series. While The Daleks was made interesting by the first appearance of the Doctor's greatest enemy, this story is given it's boost by interesting characters.

It's telling that I didn't really feel the absence of the Doctor during this installment; especially considering they go to great lengths to remind us that he's just off to one side, either sulking or sleeping. He turns up at the end, of course, but it really is little more than a cameo.

I'm too busy enjoying the story of Ian, Barbara, Susan, Ping-Cho, Marco and Tegana. The cast gel really nicely (though, really, Tegana is just a pantomime villain. I half expect Marco to turn up during the cliff hanger, as Tegana pours the water away, just so we can shout 'behind you!' at him…).

Something that I didn't tough on yesterday, but will here (and no doubt again at some point) is just how good the incidental music to this story is. You could quite happily give me a soundtrack of it to listen to as I drift off to sleep - it's some really nicely composed stuff.

I'm hoping that the story keeps up its current high quality as we continue on, though I worry that the further into it I go, the more it will need to resort to finding padding for the journey. It feels a little like each episode may just be there to fill time before Tegana can commit something evil…

Next Episode: Five Hundred Eyes 
14 January 2013

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

Day Fourteen - The Roof of the World (Marco Polo, Episode One)

Dear diary,

Brace yourself; I'm going to open today's entry with a statement that may not get me many fans… I like that there are missing episode of Doctor Who.

Yes! I know! I should really mourn their loss - 106 little pieces of the show that I may never get to experience in their original format. I should hate the fact that they're lost from the archives. I should be up in the attic, hunting around for film cans in the vein hope that I've got a part of The Web of Fear tucked up there or something.

But the fact is, as far as I'm concerned, the fact that we're missing these little bits of the programme's history somehow makes it all the more magical. It makes the 1960s era of the show seem distant and difficult, but it makes it seem so mythical, too.

Perhaps I'm more willing to accept the fact of missing episodes simply because I'm a fan of archive telly in general, so I'm used to there being gaps in my favourite shows. Most of the first season of The Avengers is missing from the archive (oh, but how I love the few episodes that survive from it!), the same is true for Dad's Army, or Adam Adamant Lives!, or The Army Game. Take a look at the DVDs on my shelves, and you'll find that a good chunk of them are missing an episode or two because of the archiving policy of the era.

That's not to say that I don't like to see episodes returned. I was ecstatic when two turned up in 2011, and I'd be thrilled if some more turned up. Of course I would! I'm not mad! But I don't see them as all that big of a loss while they're still missing.

Besides, calling them 'missing' episodes is almost as ridiculous as calling the period between 1989 and 2005 the 'wilderness' years. They're not all that missing at all! We've got a soundtrack for all of them. That's bloody lucky. That's simply not true of the other examples I've given above for show's missing pieces of their past. On top of that, we've got tele-snaps for most of the stories, plus a wealth of behind-the-scenes photos.

Still, all that said… It does make it hard to do a marathon of Doctor Who from the start. The last time I tried it, I didn't even bother with the missing episodes, I just skipped over them to the next available story. This time, though, I'm doing every episode, which means delving into various reconstructions.

They'll be taking a number of forms over the coming months (in just a few weeks, Reign of Terror comes out on DVD, with it's missing episodes fully animated! And just in time for when I have to watch it!), but for today's story, I've been listening to the narrated soundtrack, and taking a look at the tele-snaps as I go.

Now, let me get this one out of the way early on, because I'm likely to ramble on about it plenty over the next week; William Russell's narration on the soundtrack is superb. The man is simply amazing. His work for Big Finish over the yard has been fantastic, and even here, he's giving it his all. He really is one of the greatest ambassadors the show has ever had, and I really do hope he gets a chance to pop up in the 50th.

As for the episode itself… Marco Polo has a reputation for being one of the great lost stories of Doctor Who. There are parts of the internet where you can find it held up as a cure for all the evil in the world. It has to be said, I've always been more than a little skeptical of this. I don't tend to like it when people constantly tell me how good something is.

Based on this first episode alone, though, it is rather brilliant, isn't it? I've found myself being swept up in the story with this one, which is always a good sign, and the 25 minutes just breezed by. Right from the word 'go', with the travellers exploring their surroundings on the mountain top, I caught up with events, and it's not long before their being swept away to join Marco Polo's caravan.

This episode is perhaps the best example we've had so far of the show fulfilling it's original intention to educate the audience, as well as to entertain it. We're given discussions of Marco Polo's journey and of his life, given specific details. Coming to this after a recent re-watch of Andrew Marr's fantastic History of the World documentary, it's startling how much they impart here.

And yet, I wasn't bored at any point. I'd worried, without having anything much to focus on, that my attention would wander away from the story, and I'd end up missing bits. I'm really glad that the educational stuff is nicely mixed in with enough of a story to keep me interested.

Marco Polo isn't really a good guy, here. He's certainly not evil (unlike Tegana, who might as well be twirling his mustache as he laughs from a corner), but he tells the Doctor that he's taking the TARDIS, and that's that. Mark Eden plays those scenes really well, in what might be one of the best performances we've had in the series so far.

It's continuing a trend of having a very strong opening episode, so I'm hoping that can hold true for the next few days…

Next Episode - The Singing Sands

13 January 2013

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

Day Thirteen - The Brink of Disaster (The Edge of Destruction, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

It has to be said that after the last episode, this one looses its tension really rather quickly. Yesterday was all about building suspense, forcing us to wonder why all these strange things were happening, and led down roads that indicated there could be some entity aboard the ship hiding in the crew.

We even end on the cliffhanger of someone's hands closing around the Doctor's throat. It's all rather dark, and just a little bit off the wall, but today's 25 minutes just feel a bit like, well, filler.

Technically, the whole story is filler. Hastily assembled using the regular cast and minimal sets to bulk out the initial commission of thirteen episodes while the production team waited to discover their fate. But even so, yesterday we were given something really rather fantastic (an episode I'd never expected to rate so highly).

There's still a lot to like here, but most notably is the changes we see in the Doctor. I commented that Barabra's rant toward him yesterday is a real turning point for the character, and we see that in effect here. He's still the Doctor we've known for the most part so far to begin with, declaring that he'll put Ian and Barbara off the ship no matter where they are, but by the end he's a very different man.

It can be seen as he helps Barbara into her coat, and laughs with Ian - this is the kind of relationship I most closely associate with the opening of The Chase, quite some time later. By the end of this story, he's not talking of taking them home, and they're not asking about it. Simply; they've landed somewhere new, and they're off to explore it.

It's more than a bit of a shame that the whole plot boils down to the idea that there's a spring stuck in the TARDIS console, especially after we're teased with such great ideas in the first instalment. Still, it does its job, and sets us up nicely for the next adventure. I think that's the best way to think of this tale; it's a bridge between the 'old' version of the show and the version we'll be running with for a long time yet.

Today's entry has very much summed up my thoughts on the story as a whole, anyway, so I'll not be writing a separate piece to cover the two episodes together. Suffice to say that the story averages;

(Higher than I would have expected a fortnight ago!)

From tomorrow it's going to be a test as I venture into the recons for The Roof of the World.

12 January 2013

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

Day Twelve - The Edge of Destruction (The Edge of Destruction, Episode One)

Dear diary,

During the 1960s, the cliffhanger reprises at the start of each episode weren't always clips from the last episode. On some occasions, they were re-filmed at the start of the next for one reason or another - usually helpful if the scene carries right on from there.

It's a shame, then, that this isn't one of those episodes to re-film those few moments, as the story opens with the built-in-a-corner version of the TARDIS, before we're treated to the full set for the remainder of the instalment.

I didn't really get a chance to discuss it under An Unearthly Child, but I really do love the original TARDIS. It's so gorgeous, and so vast! Don't get me wrong, I love most of the TARDIS console rooms down the years (I think the Five Doctors version is my favourite, still, though), but this one has a size and atmosphere to it that just dissipates as the show goes on.

It's great to see it as the main setting for a whole episode (and another to come), and another great chance to see our four regulars given a chance to shine. I'd not noticed before doing this marathon that the first episode of all these first stories feature (more-or-less) just our TARDIS crew and no other characters. It's nice, since they're all so wonderful.

I warned a few days ago that there's likely be a few moans about Susan as I make my way though, but actually there's been a lot to praise over the last couple of stories. Here, Carole Ann Ford really uses the opportunity of such an unusual story to go completely over-the-top with her performance, but to some extent - it works.

All the regulars are reacting in a different way to this most unusual of scripts. To begin with, Ford plays it as though she's simply drunk, before resorting to hysterics further down the line. Perhaps my favourite performance though, is William Russell. He plays it as being so disconnected from everything right the way though, a bit baffled by everything going on around him.

There's one thing I'd told myself not to mention when it came to this episode; the infamous 'scissors scene'. It's something that gets commented upon time and time again when someone undertakes one of these marathons, and I simply didn't want to add my thoughts to the pile.

Bloody hell, though, it is a bit much, isn't it? As i watched, I realised I'd have to mention it - because it's really quite alarming. THe tension has already started to build in the story before we reach this point, but the way Ian turns around to find Susan stood beside the bed, scissors in hand ready to attack…

It doesn't help, either, that they're particularly long and sharp scissors! You could do some real damage with these things! There's another scene later on, where Susan holds the scissors ready to attack Barbara, which I think gets less of a look in when people talk about it, but both are quite dramatic. It's hard to believe that they allowed it on TV in 1964, and you definitely can't imagine it being allowed onto screens these days. Forget the Daleks, the scariest thing in the series so far is Susan wielding a sharp instrument!

Throughout the early days of Doctor Who, people always hunt for the magical moment that the character becomes the Doctor that we're most familiar with from the rest of the series. I've touched briefly this week on the fact that the character has already lightened up a lot since the first episode, but this one sees him very much back in his original role.

He's dark, and sinister, accusing Ian and Barbara of tampering with the ship, and (presumably) drugging them to keep them out of the way while he can figure out what the problem is.

For all that, though, there's a moment in this episode which, I feel, is the most key when it comes to the Doctor's evolution as a character, and it's the moment when Barbara tells him off. I feel it's worth quoting her speech here, as it's one of the very best we've seen in the series, and Jacqueline Hill gives perhaps her best performance to date to deliver it;

“How dare you? Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you'd have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn't made fire for you? And what about what we just went through with the Daleks? Not just for us, but you and Susan, too. And all because you tricked us. Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us!”

This is definitely one of the most surreal episodes that the show has ever given us, but it's one of the best, too, if only for the chance to see our team really sinking their teeth into things again.

8/10 
11 January 2013

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

Day Eleven - The Rescue (The Daleks, Episode Seven)

Dear diary,

I've never noticed it before, when watching the stories all in one sitting, but the cliffhanger reprises at the start of the episodes are actually pretty damn useful, aren't they? As the titles played out on today's instalment, I became very aware that I couldn't actually remember how we left things yesterday, but a few seconds of the recap and it all came flooding back to me.

I complained yesterday that our whiny Thal had been irritating me for a while, but here he nobly sacrifices himself to ensure the rest of the party have a chance to continue onwards. It's a great moment, and really allows him to die with dignity. It's far more moving than any of the deaths we have in the final battle (though more on that later).

In his book The Writer's Tale, Russell T Davies says that it's important for characters to have flaws, as it makes it all the more wonderful when they overcome them. He gives the example of Rose Tyler being selfish - so her best moments come when she is completely selfless. This is the idea in motion during this death. We've witnessed fear and cowardice throughout the last episode, and here it's all made worthwhile by the single act of self-sacrifice.

I can't help but think that if the death itself had been the cliffhanger, with the final shot being of Ian staring over the edge into the abyss below, then it may have been more memorable, and packed more impact.

I do have to take issue with the final battle here, though. It feels very much like after they've managed to break into the Dalek city, it's all a bit too easy. It's a scene replicated in Journey's End, the Doctor's companions working together (and here with the Thals, too) to overcome the Daleks, shutting off their power and kicking them into a corner.

It's a shame that after such a long time of building them up to be these imposing creatures, they're defeated with the flick of a few switches at the end. I wonder if things would have worked better had this episode been given over entirely to a final battle? The few Thal deaths we do witness during it feel completely arbitrary, just there to make the stakes seem higher.

It's especially laughable when it's described moments later as 'The Final War'!

I'm glad that there's enough time at the end to include a proper 'goodbye' scene, though. In the last story, the TARDIS crew departed in a hurry, running for their lives and fleeing in the ship. Here, they've made friends, and they get to properly see them go. Susan's given a present, Barbara gets a kiss and the Doctor gets to fill them with hope about the possibilities of the future.

He's very clearly a different character already to the one I first met just over a week ago, and different, too, to the version at the start of this story. Here, he's far more kind-hearted - pleased that he's managed to help the Thals, and excited by the possibility to build a new world.

The whole team has changed, really, and this is exemplified in the final scene aboard the TARDIS, where they seem perfectly casual with one another, ready for the next adventure instead of worrying about how to get home. It's a shame to see that the set has been created in miniature in the studio, as the size of the TARDIS during this era is one of the best things about it.

At least the next story has plenty of opportunity to show it off…

As for the story as a whole…? Well, I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Watching an episode a day has already started to become an interesting way of viewing the series, as it's allowing my time to sit and digest everything I'm seeing, instead of heading right into the next part. The Daleks is certainly better in the first half than it is in the latter, and I think this is what's ruined previous viewings of the serial.

Watched as one, it could start to feel a bit like running through treacle towards the end, but taken at a slower pace (as intended), you realise that there's plenty to love as you go along.

I certainly think there's some changes that could be made to have some more impact - as I've mentioned above, the final battle needs a bit more room to breathe, and Episode Five is far too padded for my liking. Perhaps the first three episodes could tell the story of the TARDIS crew exploring and escaping from the Dalek city, Episodes Four - Six could be the struggle to get back inside (it's supposed to be a near-impossible feat, after all!), and then Episode Seven could feature the battle on a larger scale?

Still, I'm pleased to have enjoyed it more, and I'm really glad that I'd not gotten sick of it by the end as I had with An Unearthly Child.

Next Episode: The Edge of Destruction

10 January 2013

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

Day Ten - The Ordeal (The Daleks, Episode Six)

Dear diary,

Well, the good news is that yesterday seems to have been a bit of a blip. I've found myself enjoying today's instalment much more again. It's not all been plain sailing - I started the episode with a heavy heart, worried that I'd not be able to get the momentum back for the rest of this story, but actually (and this isn't a sentence I expected to ever say), watching a group of people make their way through a system of caves is rather good.

I think it's helped that unlike yesterday's episode, in which most of the running time was spent with characters telling us what's going on, or what has been going on, or what will be going on, today has seen our two distinct groups take action.

Before I talk about the stuff in the caves, I'm going to focus a bit on the Doctor and his little 'team'. The Doctor here is far closer to the man we've come to love over the years, taking a gleeful delight in breaking the Daleks' equipment when he thinks he's putting them out of action. I love the way he happily smashes away at their power supplies with the end of his walking stick.

I'm less keen on the idea that they can hide in the heart of the petrified jungle and make a (fairly detailed, it would seem) map of the Dalek city. A few episodes ago, they had to be right on the edge of the jungle before they could see it, and it was at least an hour's trek away. Equally, I'm sure that the Daleks' sensors could only reach the edge of the jungle. Have they boosted their power or something, and I've just missed it?

Either way, the shot of the Daleks surrounding the Doctor and Susan is fantastic, and should, I think, be more iconic that it is. There's also a fantastic scene where the pair are forced to sit cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by the Daleks. It's well shot, and helps to make the creatures seem especially menacing.

On the whole, there's a lot of rather good direction in this episode. Some of the shots during the cave sequences is very well done - there's a great shot of one of the Thals jumping the ravine, with the camera positioned behind him, so you can see all the way down to Ian in the distance, and across a ravine.

I praised the set design yesterday, commenting that it didn't look as though it was filmed in a tight studio. There's lots of good stuff on display here, too, with several shots framed specially to make the tunnels look long and thin. They feel dangerous, too, and we're shown just how tricky they can be to traverse at several points throughout the story.

Antodus, a Thal who's feeling more than a little out of his depth, has irritated me a lot of the way through the episode. He's spent most of it complaining that he can't go on with the adventure, and looking for excuses to turn around and run away back to the other Thals in the jungle. Actually, though, he's the person I'd be if I were on this adventure. Maybe that's why he bothers me?

Still, we end the episode with him dangling from a cliff, so perhaps he'll have less to whine about tomorrow?

Next Episode - The Rescue

9 January 2013

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

Day Nine - The Expedition (The Daleks, Episode Five)

Dear diary,

The bubble had to burst some time, didn't it? I'm not sure what it was, but tonight's episode just didn't really grab me in the same way that the first four instalments of The Daleks did. Perhaps my elation at enjoying the story for the first time yesterday was premature?

I think it lost me towards the beginning, during long discussions about the morality of asking the Thals to fight the Daleks, simply to get back the Fluid Link. It's an argument we had yesterday (not quite, but along the same lines), but there it was much more succinct. Here it just seems to drone on, between Ian and Barbara, then Ian and the Doctor, then Ian and the Thals, then the Thals themselves…

By the time things really got moving, I'd already let my attention slide. It's not all doom and gloom, though, but I do have one more little niggle before I talk about the good stuff.

The cardboard cut-outs of the Daleks are quite effective the first time they appear on screen. No, really, they are! When they're all pointing toward the camera, you could actually mistake them for other Dalek props. Well, if you squint.

What you have to remember, though, is that I'm watching this episode on a 21" iMac, in a darkened room, and using a print that the Restoration Team have spruced up for DVD release. Watched on a grainy 1960s black-and-white TV (and trust me, I know, we used to have one in our apart room while I was growing up), it would have been quite effective.

It's later, though, when you see them from an angle and realise just how thin they are, that the effect if ruined. There's even one shot where there's two practically leant against a wall! A shame, as there's some shots of the city in close-up during this episode, which just help to reaffirm my comments yesterday about the success of the effects in the tale.

Anyway; time for some better stuff. Ian tempting the Thals into battle is well handled, and it gives Williams Russell an chance to really shine. I'm on Ian's side of the argument, though. Much as the travellers need the TARDIS to leave the planet, it is more than a little selfish to ask the Thals to risk their lives to help them.

The swap setting is rather well done; it really is tricky to tell that this series is made in a studio as small as it was. There's another chance to get some good effects in, as they gaze across the lake to the Dalek's water pipes, and the use of dripping water in places really helps to sell the effect.

One other thing to note - the Doctor muses that his 'little trick [with the Fluid Link] has really rebounded on me'. Not half! It it wasn't for his curiosity in the first episode, he'd possibly not have met the Daleks for a long time!

Ho hum, hoping tomorrow returns some enjoyment to the story for me…

Next Episode - The Ordeal

8 January 2013

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

Day Eight - The Ambush (The Daleks, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

If there's one thing I could change about this marathon, it would be how much I know about Doctor Who.

For the early years of the programme, each episode had its own individual title (much like the modern series), but because each story was spread over several weeks, the viewer never quite knew how long each narrative was going to last for.

Now, I know that The Daleks is a seven-episode-story, so I know that there's still another 75 minutes of story to go, but if I'd not been so sure about the length of the stories, then today's cliffhanger would have had a bit more impact. The first story was four episodes long, and since this one builds up to the TARDIS crew headed back to the ship until the last thirty seconds or so, I'd have been in the same mind about this story, I'm sure.

As it is, the cliffhanger feels weak. I know the story's not over, so it feels like a way to extend it pointlessly.

Still, this isn't the complaint it might appear to be. By the time I'd reached the fourth episode of An Unearthly Child, I was bored of the setting, bored of the guest cast, bored of the story and more than ready to move onto something new. I worried briefly that this may turn out to be the case with all the stories - that I'd become so used to watching a Doctor Who in one or two sittings to the point I couldn't enjoy it in this way.

Thankfully, though, and still much to my surprise, I'm still enjoying this one. I've spent the day eager to get home and tune in, and I'm already looking forward to tomorrow. Huzzah!

It helps that, quality wise, this story has remained pretty damn consistent for me. I've been enjoying it all along, and while it's not quite perfect, it's certainly better than some tales. Today's instalment continues to give me things to smile at, and I'm particularly keen to focus on one aspect; the effects.

Back in the first episode of this tale, I commented that the Dalek city looked pretty good, and that the props themselves were rather well made, too. In this episode, we're treated to several special effects - certainly more than we've had in the series up to now.

The lift looks fantastic - I'm assuming here that they've not built an actual lift in the studio, but have created it with some camera trickery? Maybe someone more familiar with it can let me know in the comments? Though the shots panning down the lift shaft as it rises and falls do become a bit repetitive after a while.

Especially impressive, though, is the effect of the wall being blistered when a Dalek gun hits it. Done with some form of split-screen effect, it works surprisingly well. Though we don't get actual rays from the Daleks' guns for some time yet, this story does a perfectly valid job of making them seem like a powerful weapon.

The Daleks cutting through the door to reach the TARDIS team is just one of the shots from this story that gets visually referenced many years later for Chris Eccleston's swan song Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (The other being the first shot of the Daleks' sucker arm in Episode One), and it works just as well here as it did in 2005.

Aside from the effects, the music has also been particularly good this time around. There's a scene where the Daleks hide from the Thals, and their movement in unison out of sight, coupled with the effect of the incidental music really helps sell the tension of the scene. It's fairly easy to see why the Daleks were considered so scary at this stage - here, they're not the single-person tanks they'll later become, but scheming, manipulative little creatures encased in metal.

The Doctor has softened a bit here - already he's becoming a different man to the one I met a week ago at the start of this experiment. When he sits with the Thal woman, looking over the history of Skaro, there's a wonderful mix ofd the excited explorer I enjoyed so much at the start of the last story and the cuddlesome grandfather he'll later become.

And yet, there's still flashes of the original Doctor in here. The debate over weather they should stay and help the Thals or simply leave while they have the chance ('The Thals are no business of ours') is strongly reminiscent of the same debate in the last story, with the teams still being equally drawn.

Still, I'm glad to see that this story isn't wearing me down in the way I'd expected. I'm certainly enjoying it more this time around than during any other watch I've ever done of it…

Next Episode: The Expedition

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