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Roderick Donald

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16 November 2014

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

Day 685: Time and the Rani, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I can't help but feel that Time and the Rani isn't necessarily let down by a poor script, but simply by the fact that the rest of the production seems to have fallen apart. I mused the other day about the fact that it looked and acted like a kids show, patronising the audience and overplaying everything, and I think that's the biggest problem - there's actually a half decent story in here about the Rani setting down on a planet, enslaving the population, and setting up her own deadly experiments in to creating a time weapon. I even like the fact that part of her plan is to go back and ensure the survival of the dinosaurs, because it makes sense of the T-Rex embryos in her TARDIS during her last appearance.

The direction of the story swings from being somewhat pedestrian to having moments where you can really see some flair, and I don't think that's been helping this one, either. It's hard to get involved when even the director doesn't know where he's pitching the tale. Andrew Morgan will be back to direct next season's opener - Remembrance of the Daleks - and I remember that story having a much better feel than this one - everything there just comes together so much better.

It's a shame, really, because this is the Rani's last proper appearance in the series, and I'm still finding her a really interesting character. She's not been quite as strong in this story as she was in Mark of the Rani, because she's been forced in to falling for the Doctor's prattling in lots of places, but there's still a lot to like about her. While I'm on that subject, I really wasn't keen on that final shot of her, being strung up by the Tetraps in her TARDIS, because it feels too much like a rehash of the way she was trapped in there last time, and with a less-beautiful TARDIS console room!

Four episodes in, I think I can go with the Doctor's comment that he'll grow on me - he's already been doing that for the last few days. I know from past experience that I like the Seventh Doctor, but he didn't win me over as much to begin with here as I was expecting him to. I think you can clearly see McCoy feeling his way in to the part throughout this story (and I'd imagine the same will be true of the next story, too, if not the season as a whole), and you really get the sense that like with Peter Davison, he's just been dropped in to the show and asked to get on with it.

I have a feeling that this story will be a good example of how I'll feel towards Season Twenty-Four as a whole, because I seem to recall finding the tone of this year's stories not quite right, even when the ideas at the heart of them are sound. I'm quite excited to find out what i make of the next three tales, because this season is the one I'm least familiar with from the Seventh Doctor era (though I've seen all the stories before). I'm willing to be impressed by it, but we'll need to step up a little from here…

15 November 2014

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

Day 684: Time and the Rani, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I'm really pleased that the Rani needs the Doctor for her current experiments. Somehow, I'd convinced myself that she was simply out fir revenge against him in this adventure, and that seemed like a real pity after all the mocking of the Master she did in Mark of the Rani in regards to having a petty vendetta against the man. It's much better that the Doctor has been summoned to Lakertia in order to help. I'm also quite keen on the fact that while the Rani needed him to be plugged in for the main part of her plan, she was also seeking his assistance earlier on in actually making the experiment work. It just feels so much more realistic that she can appreciate the Doctor's skills, in a way that the Master simply can't.

It's just a shame that we had to put up with all that tedious 'pretending to be Mel' nonsense earlier on in the story, because I think I'd rather watch a story in which the Rani tries to convince the Doctor to help her while he's in the middle of his post regeneration trauma. It's something that I could believe the Rani would do, and I think she might even be able to convince him that it's a good idea (though she may have to lie). I'm still not quite sure what the Rani's scheme is in this story, mind. I realise it has something to do with the asteroid of strange matter overhead, and there's a giant brain involved but… have we actually learned what she's up to yet?

Something that I've been meaning to mention for the last few days and haven't found a chance to is how good the 'bubble' effects look in this story. This is one of the first Doctor Who stories to use computer effects in quite this way, and while is has dated, when watching through the programme in order, it comes across as rather effective. I've seen the location footage on the DVD before now, and seen just how simply the explosions of the bubbles hitting rocks are done, but they come across well on the screen! It's no wonder that we've been treated to examples of it in all three episodes so far, and I don't think I'd be surprised if we get one tomorrow, too!

While I'm on the subject of dated computer imagery… the new titles. I know they're not very popular, but I've always liked the McCoy title sequence. I've never noticed before just how ropey some of the CGI looks in there, though, especially on the TARDIS in the bubble. At the time, did this look any more impressive than it does now? John Nathan-Turner was always quite good at being forward-thinking, and I can imagine that going for these titles was probably another step forward from his point of view at the time. Oh, and then there's the new logo… I'm afraid that I love that! It's probably the least admired of all the 'classic' series versions, but it's one of my favourites (and I think it's certainly better than the famous 'diamond' one!). That said, I think it works best when seen in two-tone, such as on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine.

The new theme music is fine, although as I think I’ve said before, they all sort of end up blurring in to one for me! This story also marks the first of Keff McCulloch’s incidental scores for the programme. McCulloch doesn’t have the best of reputations among Doctor Who fans, but the score is one of the things I’m enjoying the most about this story so far! He can stay, as far as I’m concerned!

14 November 2014

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

Day 683: Time and the Rani, Episode Two

Dear diary,

The Tetraps might well be one of my favourite monster designs from Doctor Who. There's something about them which makes me think that they should be a bit rubbish, but I just can't help but really like them. For a start, the design is quite nice in itself, taking enough from the look of a bat and yet tweaking it enough to make them truly alien. Then the actual masks are fantastic, especially when they have to snarl at people. I've always thought that the work on creating monsters in the McCoy years of the programme is especially good, and it's nice to see that it's a trend which starts right from the very first story. I'm rather keen on the way that the various different point-of-veiw shots are overlaid, then focussing in on specific images. I think this must be the first time since about Doctor Who and the Silurians that a POV shot has impressed me this much by doing something different with it.

I'm not so fond of the Lakertians design, because I'm not entirely sure that they work. I appreciate the attempt to do something a bit different with their make up and design (and the fact that the director has thought to give them a very distinctive way of running, which makes them stand out alongside the other characters) but there's something about them which doesn't appeal to me as much as their furry friends.

This episode seems to have allowed Sylvester McCoy the chance to settle in to the character a bit more, too, and I can't help but wonder if it's because he's no longer having to play amnesia, and because he's been reunite with a real companion, as opposed to thinking that the Rani's disguise made her look anything like Mel. When he finally is reunited with his friend, it feels like the moment that he suddenly becomes the Doctor - having spent a couple of minutes distrusting each other, the Doctor and Mel finally look at each other across a table;

DOCTOR

Mel?

MEL

But you're completely different. Nothing like you were. Face, height, hair, everything's changed.

It's such a lovely moment, and something about it really gels for me. There's a bit of conversation earlier in the scene where the Doctor suddenly remembers something about carrot juice, and it feels like the two of them are already starting to find their groove.

That said… I really can't take to Mel. I'm trying, and she showed a fair bit of promise during Terror of the Vervoids,but something's just really not gelling for me here. I don't know if it's the way that Bonnie Langford is playing her (certainly, this is her weakest performance so far), or just the way that the character is written - she's certainly the archetypal 'screaming' Doctor Who girl, isn't she? I actively had to turn the volume down today while she screamed and screamed at the sight of a Tetrap!

13 November 2014

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

Day 682: Time and the Rani, Episode One

Dear diary,

Is it really that time again? It almost doesn't feel right watching another post-regeneration story (or, I suppose, plain old regeneration story) so soon after the last one. Like The Twin Dilemma, this tale isn't exactly considered one of the best to start off a new actor in the role, and perhaps more than with Twin, I can see why. When The Sarah Jane Adventures was on television, I used to hear people say they didn't want to watch it because it's a 'kids show' (I didn't point out that their favourite time-travel based series was, too), but I always argued that The Sarah Jane Adventures wasn't a 'kid's show' - it was drama for children. There's a difference in there. Lots of children's telly (not so much any more, thanks to Sarah Jane and the likes of Wizards Vs Aliens and Wolfblood) talks down to the audience, and fills the screen with things that aren't always worth watching. I remember Christopher Eccleston during publicity for the first series of Doctor Who making the point that if you give children good drama when they're young, they'll demand good drama when they're older, and I think there's a lot of truth to that.

Time and the Rani, then is what I would describe as being a real 'kids show', in the worst way. As I've intimated above, Doctor Who has always been for children - there's parts of it designed to appeal to every member of the family, but it's predominantly for the young ones. It's usually very good at balancing itself to be accessible for children while also having enough in there for an enquiring mind. This story is just a bit patronising, with very little beneath the surface. Everyone involved in the production is pitching their performance and their work as though this were a show for the youngest of children (even if the subject matter, and the skeletons and death seem to go against the grain of that).

Even Sylvester McCoy doesn't really seem to fit in here. He's not slipped in to the role with the same ease that Colin Baker did, and you can really see him feeling his way here. That''s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because I know the character that the Seventh Doctor will become, and it's quite fun to see him clowning around so much here. There's moments where you can see the more manipulating Doctor of his later seasons shining through, though - as in the moments when he first wakes up and starts going over a list of things he needs to do. We've never really seen the Doctor work to any grand scheme before, so it feels immediately fresh. I think McCoy is having to struggle against the story and the production, so I can't wait to see how he blossoms when placed in other settings. Also, I have to say, how much I love the way Colin's costume doesn't fit him! In all the other regenerations, the clothes all either change with the Doctor, or we see him choose new ones too quickly to get a feel for them in their predecessors outfit. It's great seeing the way McCoy tumbles around while being completely drowned by Colin's outfit.

I guess I should probably mention the elephant in the room for today's episode - the regeneration itself. Now, I have to admit that I don't really have all that much of an issue with it. No, the wig doesn't look all that convincing as Colin's hair, but the actual regeneration effect itself isn't bad - I certainly know several people who were completely fooled by it as children on the first transmission. There's a bonus version on the DVD for this story which edits in Baker's face to the sequence, just enough to make it look a bit better. I think this is probably the best that they could do in the situation with Colin not wanting to come back to the programme to film the scene, but wanting to show it anyway.

I think they would have been somewhat better not showing it at all. ave the TARDIS crash down in to the quarry, and then have the Tetraps drag the newly regenerated Doctor from the police box. The fact that he's in Colin's clothes would be enough of a giveaway for us that this is the same man, and we can then come to terms with is as Mel does, suddenly being told that her friend has a different face. Even better, they could just have carried on the way that the 2005 series did - with a brand new Doctor, and brand new adventures. Starting fresh, and moving on from the troubles of the last few seasons.

12 November 2014

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

Sixth Doctor Overview

Dear diary,

These modern Doctors. Just no sticking power, is there? If I thought the Fifth Doctor era was over quickly, it did nothing to prepare me for this - Colin Baker's only been with us for about a month, and now that's the Sixth Doctor gone, too! This is the first time that I've had to write an overview post before the regeneration has occurred, but I thought I'd let the Sixth Doctor bow out with Colin, rather than with the outfit and a wig in the next episode. 

So, just how has this very short era stacked up against everything that came before it? There's a common conception within Doctor Who fandom that the mid-to-late 1980s are rubbish. When I first took my steps into the world of fandom, it was a fairly strong message that almost gets drummed in to you - everything is great in the 60s and 70s, and the early 80s aren't awful, but don't bother with either Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy because they're rubbish and a taint on the great tapestry of Doctor Who. Actually, though, I've always found a lot to enjoy about this period of the programme's era, and I'd choose to re-watch it sooner than a lot of others!

I'm not entirely blind to its faults, however. The Sixth Doctor stories on the whole, from The Twin Dilemma through to the end of the Trial rated on average 5.77 - which makes it my lowest rated era for any Doctor. I can pinpoint exactly why that is, though, and it's two culprits from Season Twenty-Two. Both Attack of the Cybermen and Timelash averaged just 2.5, bringing them in as my lowest rated stories on average from this entire marathon. Both of them rated only a 2/10 for an episode, and only a handful of other episodes from the first twenty-one years of the programme have done that. Something about them just left me entirely cold, and that's really harmed the era overall. It's perhaps telling that if you were to take out the four episodes that comprise those two tales, the average for the era would be a far nicer 6.25 - a massive improvement.

At the other end of the scale to those two stories, the story I've rated highest for the Sixth Doctor, with a score of 7.5, is The Mark of the Rani, which really captured me right from the word go. A combination of stunning direction coupled with an interesting new villain in the form of the Rani, and a beautiful location really came up trumps. Next in line from this is The Mysterious Planet, coming in with an average score of 7, and then a score of 6.5 for Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and The Ultimate Foe.

I'm quite pleased to see two of the four Trial of a Time Lord segments so high up the list, there, because it's another season that isn't thought of very highly in general. Terror of the Vervoids came in with an average of 6, while Mindwarp really failed to connect with me and only mustered an average of 5. Taken as a whole across the fourteen episodes, The Trial of a Time Lord garnered 6.07.

If there's one thing to have come out of this era of the programme, it's a realisation of just how good Colin Baker is as the Doctor. I've always rather liked him, and I know he's had something of a reinvention on audio, where people have been better able to appreciate his talents, but he shows so much promise in these two seasons. I genuinely think that Colin's sacking after Season Twenty-Three may well be one of the biggest missed opportunities in Doctor Who - I'd love to see how he would have continued to develop the role as the seasons went by...

...And under a different stewardship. I'm still something of a fan of John Nathan-Turner, but I really do think that it's incomprehensible to take the programme off the air, publicly state that it's no longer as good as it used to be... and then let the same producer and script editor carry on with it! The powers that be now claim that there was no one else to do it, but it just seems so bizarre not to get a new team in to replace the one they felt wasn't working. The events surrounding the end of the season, with Saward's resignation, show that the team was being pushed to breaking point, and it's a real pity that we never got to see Colin shine on screen with a better set of stories around him!

12 November 2014

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

Day 681: The Ultimate Foe, Episode Two (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Fourteen)

Dear diary,

The problem with doing an epic, 14-part Doctor Who story is that the payoff in the final episode has to be worth paying attention to the preceding weeks. You have to feel as though you've been given adequate entertainment for the time that you've invested in the programme. The problem with this episode in particular, is that it's possibly got the most tortured journey to screen of any episode the programme has ever produced. Forget your Shadas , your Greatest Shows and your TV Movies, they're still in the nursery compared to The Ultimate Foe. Originally scheduled to be written by Robert Holmes, tying up all the elements he started putting in place at the start of this season, it ended up being taken over by Eric Saward when Holmes fell ill and later died. While all of this was going on, Saward and John Nathan-Turner finally came to the end of the road, and Saward left the programme, refusing permission to use the completed script. Ultimately, writing duties were taken over by Pip and Jane Baker, who JN-T felt could provide an adequate episode on time and using sets, actors, and costumes already budgeted for and contracted.

Now, I'm not going to go out and claim that this is a fantastic episode - because it isn't. I am, however, going to claim that it's not a bad one. It's not even the worst episode of the season, as far as I'm concerned, and there's an awful lot crammed in to this episode that I know would have entertained me as a child watching at the time. There's so much in there, that the episode is actually extended from the usual length, to create thirty-minute extravaganza! I'm not going to go in to detail about everything that I've enjoyed here, but in brief; the cliffhanger to yesterday's episode is fantastic, and the resolution here as the Doctor emerges clean from the sand is equally good. The exploding quills. The interaction between the Master and Sabalom Glitz. The fake trial. Even the often ridiculous dialogue has been rather fun, and I can't help saying 'There's nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality' to myself, and I'd imagine it's something that I'll be doing for a while, yet!

I will say that you can tell the difference here between the half of the story written by Robert Holmes - yesterday's episode - and this one. I think being out on the same locations and with the same characters makes it more apparent than it would normally be going from story to story, with completely different settings and different casts. Yesterday's episode was filled with an awful lot of bokum, but today's episode suddenly has people talking as though they're in a science fiction programme - it's especially noticeable with the Doctor during all the beach scenes, because he's not talking properly any more. Don't get me wrong, it sounds perfectly fine coming from the Doctor's mouth (and this Doctor, in particular), but it's not as natural as the lines Holmes gave him.

On the whole, I've rather enjoyed the Trial of a Time Lord season. I won't go in to great detail about the way the story has come out ratings-wise, because we're at the end of another era, and I'll be doing that in my Sixth Doctor Overview post, which will be a post above this one of the Doctor Who Online news page. I will say, however, that I'm not against the idea of the trial format as I know some people are. It doesn't work quite as well as the production team think it does, and I have a feeling that it's largely down to the three main bits of 'evidence' not really filling the roles they're supposed to properly. The concept is a rather good one, but the execution has left a little to be desired, I think. The programme has returned from an 18-month break with a good series, largely, and I think I would have enjoyed it as a kid on first broadcast. It's been bright and colourful, with a Doctor who can be taken to much easier than last year. I don't think I could have asked for much more!

11 November 2014

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

Day 680: The Ultimate Foe, Episode One (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Thirteen)

Dear diary,

I don't think I've ever really understood the Matrix in Doctor Who. It seems to be too many different things all at once. It's a whole pocket universe. It's a virtual reality. It's the place where Time Lord consciousness is uploaded when they die. It's a communications network. For the last twelve days, it's been a DVD collection of the Doctor's adventures. In The Deadly Assassin and in this story, it's playing the part of a virtual reality that can be bent to the will of the strongest inhabitant… I just get lost in trying to keep up with it. Today adds an additional complication in that not everything is an illusion in the way the Doctor expects it to be - somethings, like the harpoon thrown at Glitz, are decidedly real!

I'm also confused about the way that you actually enter the Matrix. In this episode, we're introduced to 'the Keeper', who announces that you can only enter the Matrix with the Key of Rassilon, which is always kept in his possession (unlike the Key of Rassilon which featured in The Invasion of Time). He says that people are very rarely allowed to enter the Matrix, and it happens perhaps once a millennia with him blessing and the key. And yet, in The Deadly Assassin, the Doctor simply needed to be wired to a machine to enter the realm, as did Goth, whose equipment wasn't exactly up-to-scratch! We then enter the Matrix here through the 'Seventh Door', which happens to be on this space station (that I can buy, the High Council would have ensured it).

What's lost me about all this is… did the Valeyard actively go in to the Matrix to alter all the footage we've been watching? While the Doctor was off reviewing the events of Terror of the Vervoids, was the Valeyard skulking around in a Matrix-version of the Hyperion III, altering events behind the Doctor? And if you only need someone to physically enter the Matrix once every thousand years or so, then why do you need to have a minimum of seven doors? Surely that's just Inviting a leak of the contents?

Then we've got the revelation that the secrets Glitz was hunting in The Mysterious Planet were leaked scientific advancements from the Matrix itself. Right. Okay. So now, the Matrix is also a Dropbox file, where the Time Lords can store all their scientific information, when they're not slipping in to the pocket dimension to play a game of cat-and-mouse? Please tell me that I'm not the only one who can't quite wrap my head around all of this?

All that said, I do like the idea that Glitz is trading in Gallifreyan secrets. There's something about it which feels again as though it could fit quite neatly in to my vision of the Time War drawing closer, with the Daleks trying to hack in to the Time Lord's great big databank, and the 'lesser species' all flocking to the breach to try and swipe some of the secrets for themselves. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy these odd little hints of Gallifreyan mythology to seep in from time to time, and this is a perfect example. I also love that the current High Council is so utterly corrupt, and that they'd made a deal with the Valeyard to set up this whole trial, and to use the Doctor as a bit of a scapegoat.

It then raises the interesting question of which High Council this may be. Is it the current one, back on Gallifrey? I'm almost tempted to think of it as being a future High Council (possibly even the one we see in The End of Time, headed by Rassilon himself?), who have opted to come back in time and put the Doctor on trial in this particular incarnation because he's a) the most violent of all the Doctors up to the point where the Time War kicks off, and b) the next Doctor is the one who helps to kick it all off, when he blows up Skaro! There may be a bit of fudging to be done in the next episode, but I think it's a theory which can just about hang together, so I think I'll be accepting it into my own 'head canon' from now on!

Today is probably the best moment to actually discuss the Valeyard, too. There's been lots of talk about him within fandom in the last year or so, with it being revealed that the Matt Smith incarnation of the Doctor is the final one in his current life-cycle. The general topic that keeps being raised is that we should have therefore seen the Valeyard come in to being when David Tennant became Matt Smith, with some people actively suggesting that the Meta-crisis Doctor could well be the birth of the Valeyard, because it fits in with the timeline. Actually, it's simply that these people aren't listening to what's said in this episode! I saw lots of complaining that the Valeyard is supposed to appear between the Doctor's twelfth and thirteenth incarnations, but that's not what the Master actually says - he specifically describes it as being between the Doctor's 'twelfth and final' incarnations. Now, at the time, this was intended to mean between twelve and thirteen, but in hindsight, not knowing that the Doctor's life has been extended with a new regeneration cycle, it opens up one or two more interesting possibilities. For what it's worth, I don't think that we'll ever see the Valeyard in the programme again, but I don't think we've missed the boat recently in the way that some people seem to claim!

I really do love the way that the revelation of the Valeyard's origins comes about, too. It's not made a bit thing of, there's not massive reveal, it's simply slipped out in the middle of the Master's sentence, and then he carries on talking. That works so beautifully, because it leaves you almost not listening to the rest of the conversation - you're too busy trying to work out if you've understood what was said properly or not. The Doctor then picks up on it a moment later to help confirm your suspicions. It's very cleverly done, and I'm glad that in his final episode, Robert Holmes could slip in something as beautifully executed as that.

The Doctor himself is on fine form again today. During The Mysterious Planet, I picked out his speech about stars dying as a real highlight moment of his era, and I think that we've got another one today. It comes as he decrees the assembled Time Lords in the courtroom for their part in events on Ravalox;

THE DOCTOR

In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that's what it takes to be really corrupt.

It's such a grand speech, and it works especially well for this most grandiose of Doctors - I think a few of the earlier incarnations could have pulled it off (Pertwee and Tom Baker especially), but it seems very fitting for the Sixth Doctor, and it gives Colin one more chance to shine before he bows out tomorrow…

10 November 2014

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

Day 679: Terror of the Vervoids, Episode Four (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Twelve)

Dear diary,

I'm sorry, but the Doctor deserves to lose the trial after that, I'm afraid. What on earth was he thinking, showing Terror of the Vervoids in his defence? I mean, sure, the Matrix has been tampered with to make him look even more guilty, but it's still a story in which the bodies pile up (am I right in thinking that there's only about two characters left alive at the end?), and he does finish up by committing genocide! I can take his point about not letting a single Vervoid leaf touch the soil of a planet, but surely he must have realised how that might look to a court who suspect him of being a violent meddler, and when he's facing down a prosecutor who will turn anything against him? I mean.. come on!

He seems to have two arguments about this adventure - that he becomes a better person in the future (and, in fairness, he's a lot more like the traditional 'Doctor' in this story than he was through Season Twenty-Two), and that he was specifically summoned to the Hyperion III, and asked to help. Well, right, okay, I can sort of see the argument he's making with that last one, but surely there must be another example of him being specifically asked to help with something, if that's enough to get him off these charges? Why not show one of the many times that the Time Lords have swanned in an asked him to go and meddle? Or - even better - the time that the White Guardian - a being whose authority exceeds the Time Lords - chose him to undertake the most dangerous mission in the universe, because he was deemed to be the most capable? It just seems like he's really not doing himself any favours by choosing this particular story in his favour, and I'm actually a bit annoyed about that! It would have worked better if the Doctor had been shown this evidence by the Valeyard - an example that if he's left unchecked, then in the future he will go so far as to commit genocide!

You can probably tell that this has wound me up a bit. It just seems so stupid of the Doctor to have chosen this one to show in his favour, and then seem so pleased about it! If the charge here is that he's been meddling in the affairs of other planets, then surely this isn't the best example of showing that you don't always do that! I think he's trying to make the same argument that he did in The War Games - that sometimes getting stuck in and fighting for the side of 'good' is better than standing by and letting evil take control - but he's not actually said anything along those lines yet! It's simply the only way I can make sense of what he's thinking with these four episodes!

Oh, but that's only one side of it, and I have to admit that I've enjoyed Terror of the Vervoids on the whole. I think that stripped from its Trial of a Time Lord trappings (and despite what I said the other day, I think it actually could be done - I suppose we don't need to see who destroyed the communications room, only that it is destroyed when Mel and co enter to send a message), this could be a fairly nice little story, probably condensed down to three episodes once all the courtroom stuff has been removed. I'm assuming that someone has tried this type of edit before? Surely? The only real problem that I can foresee is that the Doctor explains how he knows one of the Mogarians isn't real in the trial, but otherwise…

And now we're off on to the final couple of Sixth Doctor episodes! It does seem to have come around ever so quickly this season - even though we're an episode longer than we were for Season Twenty-Two, you really do feel the fact that the episodes are back down to the regular 23 minute length. I vaguely recall the ending of Trial not making a great deal of sense when I watched it before - much like the whole Matrix sequence of The Deadly Assassin, I suppose - so here's hoping that it stands up better this time, because I'd dearly love to see Colin go out of the programme on a high…

9 November 2014

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

Day 678: Terror of the Vervoids, Episode Three (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Eleven)

Dear diary,

I'm a little bit disappointed with the actual Vervoid creatures in this one. The tension and menace was effectively built up over the first two episodes, but now that the killer plants are awake and carrying out their own nefarious schemes, they're just a bit rubbish, aren't they? I mean, there's lots about them that should be interesting to me (an especially so to a young audience) - they've got the ability to poison you, they can fire a noxious gas from their 'mouths', and they're humanoid plants! It's a concept that the programme has been playing with since right back in the 1960s, and has already done very well in The Seeds of Doom, but here it's just being done so poorly.

It all starts from the moment we first hear one of the creatures speak. It's a low, rasping, whispery voice, the kind that has previously been so effective for the Ice Warriors and the Zygons, but here it's being applied to such mundane dialogue. The first line we hear a Vervoid say is 'help me with this', as he drags a body! It's hardly the most menacing thing to ever come out of a monster's mouth in Doctor Who! Later on, they also get such stand-out lines as ''congratulations must be delayed', and they get to stand around discussing their plans like… well, like any other bargain-basement monster. We've spent two episodes building up to the reveal of these creatures, and two very good cliffhangers that has led to them, and they just mill around as though they've something better to do. It's a massive anti-climax, and I can't help but feel a little annoyed by it.

As for the design of the Vervoids… it's something of a long-standing joke in Doctor Who fandom that they look a little bit like genitalia, but that no one can ever decide which bit! Again, on paper they should be quite a good concept - humanoid plants which are more humanoid than either the Krynoids of the Varga Plants - but they just come across looking like actors stuck in somewhat ill-designed monster costumes. I don't think it's helped by the fact that they're being given so little of interest to do, so you spend more time than you perhaps should looking at the costumes and spotting the flaws!

There's so much potential for a tight, tension-filled mystery here, with a finite number of characters all trapped together in a confined space as they start to get bumped off one-by-one, starting - it seems - with an investigator… there's amoral experiments, and killer plants, and as if all that wasn't exciting enough, the space ship is now being plunged right into the jaws of a black hole! All the ingredients are here for a great story, but they just aren't hanging together for me.

People have often said that this is the segment of the Trial season which would work the best being completely stripped of the courtroom segments, but I'm honestly not sure how it would work. I do think that they'e becoming boring and repetitive again (there's one today which seems to be there purely to remind us that Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingman have been contracted for 14 weeks), but at the same time, there's a few which are absolutely vital. We've gone beyond simply having the Doctor claim that things have been 'tweaked' slightly to alter the facts, and we've got him reacting today to a whole scene - himself destroying the communications array - which he claims never happened. With so much in this story possibly not being quite as it seems, would it be all that feasible to do a re-edit?

8 November 2014

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

Day 677: Terror of the Vervoids, Episode Two (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Ten)

Dear diary,

There's something that I don't understand about Terror of the Vervoids, and it's the way that this 'evidence' fits in with the rest of the trial. The Valeyard presents two cases against the Doctor, as evidence of the way he meddles in the affairs of other peoples and planets. Okay, I can go along with that, although I'm not sure that he's actually chosen the best examples of such things (surely showing something like Frontios would be far more damning if it's the case that all adventures are recorded in the Matrix - after all, there the Doctor claims that it's expressly forbidden for him to even be there, and although he feigns protest, he's soon helping the colony out), and I'm also not sure why he chose to show one example that needed careful bleeping to stop High Council meddling from being seen, and another which shows the High Council directly influencing events by ensuring Ykarnos can kill everyone…

No, it's these four episodes which really confuse me. The Doctor has chosen to present an example of his adventures… from his own future. I think I can just about buy that the Matrix may have scanned such things (though if its recorded adventures that have yet to happen to the Doctor, then shouldn't the Valeyard be showing the War Doctor blowing up their own planet as his most damning evidence?), but I really don't understand why the Doctor has chosen this specific adventure to make his case! In the first Episode, even without the bits of the adventure which have been altered, the Doctor agrees when someone comments that the bodies start piling up as soon as he arrives! I'd also like to touch on this idea that the Matrix has been tampered with. Throughout the previous nine episodes, it's been clearly stated on several occasions that the Matrix simply cannot lie. The Doctor claims that events aren't being played here quite how he remembers them. He claims that they've been specifically edited to paint him in a bad light. In both examples (and at least the first of those is brought up on several occasions during both The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp), the Valeyard and the Inquisitor point out to the Doctor that it's utter nonsense, as the Matrix can't be edited in such a way.

Then, in today's episode, the Valeyard accuses the Doctor of that type of meddling with the footage… and the Inquisitor points out to the Doctor how serious it would be if he were doing that! How come we've suddenly gone from it being an absurd notion to being something that's just frowned upon? The Doctor's claim that events being shown aren't quite as they were before was brought up as recently as yesterday, so it's not simply Pip and Jane Baker misunderstanding things…! I don't think I've lost track along the way, but I think the production team might well have done. I'll be keeping a close eye on the remainder of the Trial season, to see if this is now a permanent shift in attitude towards editing the Matrix. I'm also half wondering why they didn't include as a part of the Doctor's defence a flashback to lots of other stories, in which his meddling has been for the greater good. An annual flashback was common during the Peter Davison era, but this feels purpose built for one!

I'm a little saddened in today's episode that the direction isn't always as fantastic as it was yesterday. We seem to lurch from being really very good (the continuation of the explosions and sparks from the cliffhanger), to the very bad (the CSO starfield. It's not so much the starfield that doesn't work, it's the way that it's cropped out around Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford's hair! Yikes!). By the time we reach today's cliffhanger, things have perked up considerably, and the make-up of the half-human-half-plant creature is one of the programme's more successful alien prosthetics! I'm hoping things settle back down tomorrow into the 'good' camp! 

7 November 2014

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

Day 676: Terror of the Vervoids, Episode One (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Nine)

Dear diary,

Largely inspired by the gorgeous staging and camera work during today's cliffhanger, I watched on in the credits eagerly to see who the director was. It's Chris Clough's first work on Doctor Who, and I'm pleased to know that he'll be back for several more outings over the next few seasons. That final shot today is beautiful, as Mel's scream fades into the closing theme, and the camera pulls back past sparks and explosions, and giving us the brief look at something bursting out from the pods… this sequence wouldn't be out of place at the height of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, when the programme is supposed to be 'scary'. Not many of the cliffhangers during The Trial of a Time Lord are anything other than a close up of the Doctor's face, so it's nice to see that this one has used the break from the current norm to do something really interesting and different!

I think it's helped, too, by the fact that the Hydroponics Centre set is so beautifully done, and the same can be said for the hold outside. Some people write off all 1980s Doctor Who as being poorly lit like the Myrka sequences from Warriors of the Deep, but this is the perfect example that the programme can still get it right in this era! This episode is also a good one for showing off the full sale of the trial room setting - it's another huge set, and when shot from interesting angles, there's lots of little details to pick out. Sadly, not all the sets in this story are as effective, and I don't really much care for the main passenger quarters of the space liner. I think they're supposed to look a bit cheap and tacky, but they come across as terribly dated now, too. There's one or two shots where I can sort of see what they were aiming for (with some nice shots of the stars passing by the windows overhead), but I'm afraid that I'm not being won over by them.

Today's episode also sees the introduction of a new companion for the Doctor… and I think it's fair to say that it's the strangest introduction we've ever seen for a new regular to the programme. Forget Dodo bursting in and giving us her life story, here, Mel just happens to be stood around with the Doctor in the TARDIS, forcing him to work out on an exercise bike! Something I've not missed this season is the lengthy TARDIS scenes which so dominated Season Twenty-Two. We've not had any sight of the Console room now since Timelash, which has been a refreshing break. When we catch up with this pair in there today, it feels as though it should be a fairly fun scene, with the Doctor and his companion getting on with something a bit more mundane in between adventures, but…

Well, I just don't care about Mel! Not yet, anyway. Were this the Doctor and Peri opening the episode with this scene, I think I'd be more willing to buy it - they're clearly written and acted as two people who have spent a lot of time together and become great friends, but because this is the first time we ever set eyes on the girl, it's very hard to muster up much enthusiasm towards her! That said, her enthusiasm is infectious, and it's hard not to quite like her when she sets off exploring. She clearly works very well with Colin's Doctor, too, which is quite fun, and they're already at the stage here that Peri took until The Mysterious Planet to reach in the Doctor's attitude! 

6 November 2014

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

Day 675: Mindwarp, Episode Four (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Eight) 

Dear diary, 

I've never been overly fond of Peri's exit from Doctor Who, in either this form, or the alternative that gets offered during the end of the Trial season. I'm not entirely sure what doesn't sit right about it with me (it certainly not the fact that a companion dies, because I think that works wonders in the cases of Katarina, Sara, and Adric), but I've always thought that it stick out as simply being wrong somehow. 

Watching the episode today, though, I can't help but realise just how effective it is! I mean... it's brutal. I think the moment that it really starts to turn and you suddenly realise how much you fear for Peri is when Crozier orders her head shaved, and it feels so out of nowhere, and something that we can relate to so easily, especially given that Peri's hair has been allowed to grow out this season, fuller than we've seen it before. 

It then also shocked me when we cut back to the laboratory a little while later, and it's been done! I know from seeing the story before that Nicola Bryant goes out wearing a bald cap, but I'd sort of forgotten just how effectively it works, and I love that they don't make a big deal of it. We cut back to the action, and Peri's laying there bald. If anything, I think that's more scary than when she sits up at the end and starts talking in a deep, scary voice. No matter how much I'm enjoying it here, it still doesn't sit quite right in my mind, and it sticks out too much as a companion departure - not necessarily in a good way. 

People often complain that the effect of this ending gets entirely undermined come the end of the season, when it transpires that she's actually living happily as a warrior queen alongside Yrcanos, and I'm sure I'll make my own mind up about that when I get there. That said, I can't help but think it's been clearly signposted throughout the story - especially in these last couple of episodes! I'm sure Colin Baker tells the story that they only addend the 'happy ending' for Peri later on when he wondered what was real and what had been faked in the trial, but I think it's clearly set up that Peri should be going off to rule with this man! Oh, I don't think it's something that she would ever do by choice, and she'd never purposely give up life in the TARDIS for that particular fate, but I don't think it feels too out of place in retrospect. 

Brian Blessed has actually impressed a great deal throughout this story - far more than I was expecting him to! I mused the other day that you hire him to simply be Brian Blessed on screen, and while there's plenty of that on display in Mindwarp, he actually has lots of rather nice little moments alongside Nicola Bryant in particular, and I'm very impressed with him on the whole. 

Today's episode has continued to take the aspects I was finding scary yesterday - the Doctor not being able to remember what happened - and ramp them up a gear, making things even scarier in the process. I love (and I can't stress that enough, love) the way that the TARDIS appears in the corridor right in the middle of all the chaos, and the Doctor is compelled to walk backwards in to the box. There's something genuinely scary about the Doctor being taken away at just the moment everything comes to a head, and that works so well. I think my only slight criticism about this sequence is that the chaos isn't quite enough for me! You've got lots of supporting artists spinning around in corridors, but I want explosions and people tearing the set apart! Really up the stakes! 

So with that, we've said goodbye to Peri, and we're off on the next stage of the programme's life. I think I like how much you couldn't predict Peri's departure from the way she joins the series back in Planet of Fire, and I'm not sure if I can remember the last time the programme had been shaken up this much between a companion's arrival and departure, either. We're deep in to the period of Doctor Who that many people consider to be the weakest, now, and the introduction of Mel in the next episode is something that many consider to be another step towards death. If I can enjoy her as much as I've enjoyed all the other things recently that I'm not supposed to... I think we're in for a treat! 

5 November 2014

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

Day 674: Mindwarp, Episode Three (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Seven) 

Dear diary, 

The thing I'm liking most about Mindwarp is the idea that the Doctor can't really remember anything that's happening here. There's something genuinely unsettling about the moment when he first interrupts the episode to tell the court that he can't remember what he's seeing - and Colin plays it as calm and a little bit scared. He shouts and gestures again only moments later, but suddenly it's because he's genuinely worried by the event,s not because he's putting on a show for the sake of the trial. I love that even he isn't entirely sure that this isn't just the way he behaves, and when he's trying to convince the Inquisitor of his innocence, it comes across as the man trying to convince himself more than anything. This is then all turned back on him. when he does get back the odd pocket of memories, and the Valeyard points out how convenient it is for him to remember now... yeah, this is probably my favourite thing about the trial so far. 

Sadly, though, the episode itself isn't grabbing me at all. I'm getting on better with it now than on previous viewings, and I actually understand better what's going on this time (I'd somehow convinced myself that the sandy-coloured Mentor in this story was a separate character to either Sil or Kiv, and forgotten that he was Kiv's replacement body), but I'm still not enjoying it half as much as I did with The Mysterious Planet. I'm beginning to wonder if it may just be that I don't get on with Philip Martin's style of writing. Vengeance on Varos is often hailed as a total 'classic', and yet I'm not as fussed on it as some people seem to be, and while I've often seen this episode trumpeted as being the best of the Trial season, it's leaving me completely cold! 

A few years ago, I did a different kind of Doctor Who marathon with my friend Nick Mellish, who provides many of the Big Finish audio reviews here on Doctor Who Online. We made our way through all of the Paul McGann audio plays from Storm Warning through To the Death, which comprised ten years of adventures for the Eighth Doctor. We wrote our thoughts about each episode and emailed them to each other, eventually putting together a book which followed the marathon. For a brief period, the Eighth Doctor's companion Charley ends up going off on travels with the Sixth Doctor, and we dutifully followed her for a few weeks, in adventures with Daleks, and Draconians, and even the odd Kroton or two. 

Once we'd finished the marathon, and started to get withdrawal symptoms from not hearing a new episode every day, we decided to do it all over again with a different Doctor. The Sixth incarnation seemed to be the obvious choice, having already been through a few adventures and really enjoying them, and we decided that we'd start with the season of 'lost' stories from the originally planned Season Twenty-Three. Over the last five years or so, Big Finish have dramatised lots of stories originally written for the show and at some point left behind, but when they did this first set, it was something of a novelty, picking up stories that have grown up their own reputation within fandom. Stories like The Nightmare Fair, which would have pitted the Doctor and Peri against the Celestial Toymaker on a holiday to Blackpool, The Hollows of Time, a rematch between the Doctor and the Gravis (and the Master), and The Space Whale, which has been a 'work in progress' story for so many Doctors that it's hard to keep track. And then there's Mission to Magnus

Magnus is the story originally proposed by Philip Martin for Season Twenty-Three, long before the format of the trial was imposed. It was to feature the return of Sil, alongside the Ice Warriors, and has always been one of the 'lost' tales that people know a little bit more about. But we didn't really much care for it. We never managed to finish our Sixth Doctor marathon, as real life got in the way slowly, but looking back over the entries wrote to each other for that story... I was mostly just left a bit bored by it, and it's perhaps telling that I don't mention Sil anywhere in my write up. He obviously made very little impact on me! Nick was somewhat less forgiving, because of the way that Martin's scripts tend to treat (and talk about) their female characters. Thinking back to the Eighth Doctor book, neither of us were very keen on Martin's The Creed of the Kromon, either (that's putting it mildly), and so I think this story has decided it once and for all for me - I simply cannot get in to his stories. Here's hoping that the one final episode may well be enough to bring things around...  

4 November 2014

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

Day 673: Mindwarp, Episode Two (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Six) 

Dear diary, 

I seem to be saying it an awful lot of late (he's not around for long - I'm glad I can make the most of it here and now), but Colin Baker really is fantastic, isn't he? He's got that perfect quality for an actor to play the Doctor, where he can salvage anything, and you really perk up when he's on the screen - and not just because you're looking directly at that coat! In this episode, when tasked with playing a Doctor who's brain has been fried, and isn't quite acting himself, even by this incarnation's standards, he really relishes it and runs with it - there's a few shades of Troughton-as-an-androgum in the performance, and I'm becoming more and more saddened that we've only these two seasons of Colin to watch. I've heard various Big Finish adventures with him in over the years, but I have a feeling that I'll be seeking them out a bit more thoroughly once this marathon is over. People talk about the fact that he had a renaissance on audio, but I love him here and now on screen! 

It's perhaps a good mark of his skill that he's able to stand out so much in this episode... when Brian Blessed has been woken up (oh how tempting to simply write that name in capitals...)! Blessed has become something of a national treasure over the years, and you can sort of see here that he's already started to become a parody of himself. That's not a criticism, mind, because Blessed has managed to go so far into being his own parody, that it's no longer even that - it's just what you want! Philip Martin has said in the past that he was thinking of Blessed for the part and was overjoyed to hear that John Nathan-Turner was thinking along the same lines, and it's not hard to see why, is it? King Yrcanos has been written to be played by Brian Blessed, and you almost get the sense that they've stuck him into a costume, placed him on the set, and told him to just get on and do whatever he wants! 

The actual story today is interesting me a little more than it did yesterday, but only marginally. I can't honestly claim to be enjoying it. Oh, there's lots I am liking here - those aforementioned performances, along with the sets on the whole (there's a story that Colin Baker saw the invoice for that big round door in the set and loudly declared to the rehearsal room that it cost more for these four episodes than Nicola Bryant did! You can almost believe it, though, because the door is a great piece of set, and I'm surprised the cost wasn't deferred by being used lots more in Doctor Who after this, like the modern series does with particularly expensive sets! - on the whole, though, I'm just not all that invested on the events here. 

I wonder if part of it may be that I know Peri will be bowing out in a couple of days, and I've never been fond of her exit (either of them)? There's a vague sense of simply wanting to get that over with, so we can bring in Mel and start the programme off on another new phase. I'm also having what I can only describe as 'Sabalom-Glitz- Withdrawl-Symptoms'... none of the supporting cast in this story are anywhere near as entertaining as Glitz and Dibber! When I was watching Vengeance on Varos, I found myself being rather taken by Sil, and he was often the thing I was enjoying most about the story. Here, though, he's simply boring me, and I can't really decide why. I think it's a combination of the costume not working quite as well here as it did back then (there's a few instances where you can see it's clearly slipped down his face a little), and Nabil Shaban seeming to give a slightly different performance, which just isn't quite working for me. Maybe being surrounded by all these other people in charge of him is lessening the character a bit, where he could be so thoroughly unlikeable the last time around, coming across as being 'the boss'?  

3 November 2014

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

Day 672: Mindwarp, Episode One (The Trial of a Time Lord, Episode Five) 

Dear diary, 

More than once over the years, I've heard Mindwarp described as being the best segment of the Trial season, and yet when I've seen the full series before, I really didn't much care for it, and think I remember it as the opposite end of the scale - as the weakest of the stories here! I'm not sure what it was about the story that I didn't like on the last occasion, but I think I can guess from watching this episode; I'm just a little bit bored

I'm not even entirely sure why that should be, because there's certainly a lot going on in this episode. You've got an alien world that's looking very alien (more on which in a minute), two 'monsters' attacking our regulars, plus the regulation guards chasing after them and taking them as the 'villains' in the situation, the return of Sil, and lots of action in the trial room itself. The episode is positively bursting with things happening, but almost all of them are failing to grab my attention. The big selling point is surely the return of Sil to the programme, having featured in Vengeance on Varos last season... but that story didn't excite me in the way most people enjoy it, either, so I'm not terribly bothered by his return! 

The one area which I do rather like is the planet's surface. A sea of pink, which washes against rocks of blue under a green sky... and all in the most florescent hue they could possibly achieve. It's ridiculously garish, and incredibly of its time, but I'm really rather impressed with it. This feels like the programme really going out of its way to present us with a truly alien world for the first time since... well, in quite some while, anyway. Often enough, alien planets in the series have settled into being a standard quarry/jungle/only seen from the inside/studio set, and while this is shot out on a simple beach, the effects added in post production really make it look like something a bit special. When you compare this to some of the original location footage in the extras on the DVD... you can see how bland it might have looked otherwise! Did it stand out as much on first broadcast as being this garish, or did it just seem fittingly 'of the time'? 

I seem to be flip-flopping in regards to the actual trial scenes as each episode goes by. A few days ago, I started to find them irritating, before Colin Baker giving a rather brilliant performance managed to win them back around for me. Today, they seem to be perhaps a little over-bearing - I'm sure there's more in this episode than any of the others so far? We seemed to be cutting back and forth every few scenes. 

I'm starting to wonder if I may not mind this so much were we given a bit more going on in each of them; there much have been four or five so far this season which boil down to the Doctor asking if what we're seeing is relevant, and the Inquisitor musing that she's been wondering the same. If there's not much to actually say in these moments, then would they perhaps be better left out? Or, at least, confined to the start and the end of episodes, if they need to be included to remind us of the on-going narrative of the season. I thought that the opening of this episode, for example, was rather good, summing up the story we've just watched, reminding us that there's still some lingering questions about it, and then setting the scene for the next adventure. It's only when we start popping back for the odd line here and there that I start to lose patience... I bet all those supporting artists in Time Lord collars got bored of it, too, having to swivel back and forth on those chairs every three minutes! 

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