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Roderick Donald

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10 February 2013
 Day Forty-One: A Bargain of Necessity (The Reign of Terror, Episode Five)

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

Day Forty-One: A Bargain of Necessity (The Reign of Terror, Episode Five)

Dear diary,

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the animation on the DVD release of The Reign of Terror is that by five or six minutes into this episode, I'd sort-of forgotten about it. It still looks as lovely as it did in the last episode, and there's still plenty to marvel at, but it just becomes a very good way of telling the story.

Once you're used to the style of it, and the way that the direction has been handled, it soon becomes apparent that this is much easier to follow than a tele-snap recon. Despite there being some fantastic examples of those out there, I'm a little sorry that I won't get any more animated episodes for months and months (right the way through until The Invasion, unless rumours of others on the way shortly hold true…)

The one gripe that I did have with the animation in this episode; it didn't hold still for the title! It's become something I enjoy about the series through to this point that while the episode title (and usually for the writer's credit, too) is on screen, everyone pauses and hold their position for a bit. Yesterday's episode held true to this convention, with the Doctor and co standing still for a few seconds while the captions played out, but today's title is placed over quite a bit of movement. It's only a little thing, but it's still a bit of a shame.

As for the story… well… I'm sorry to say that I'm still not quite as into it as I'd like to be. There's been more to entertain me in today's episode; the Doctor trying to outwit the jailer is a particular highpoint, and it's a partnership that I've been enjoying right the way through the story. It's nice to see it still in motion here.

I'm also rather liking that character's keep asking the Doctor how he managed to escape from the burning farmhouse - first Barbara in yesterday's episode, then today Ian asks for the information from her, and Susan makes it her first question to her grandfather. It seems like quite a little thing, but it's a nice touch. The cliffhanger with the burning house was several days ago, and on original transmission, it would have been more than a month before this point, so it's good to see it being brought in.

It's also a lovely moment when Barbara confides in Ian that she's so 'sick and tired of death', but that she 'never seems to be able to get away from it'. I mused the other day how these two had taken to traveling and the adventures, but they've been through quite a lot. The recap at the start of The Sensorites made it all sound like something of a jolly romp, but they've seen a fair few harrowing things over the last few stories.

Another beautiful thing between the two schoolteachers is the debate over sides in the Revolution. I have to confess that I've rather struggled to keep up with who's on what side during all of this - especially in regards to Jules (it's nice that he explains his position here; he's on neither side, really, just acting for 'the middle' to ensure the best for France.)

It's nice to see that the character's are able to express their own voices, and that the programme isn't taking one specific side over another. I don't know if it's going to remain so flexible into the final part - will one side be seen to win? Or will we just leave with the Doctor and his companions slipping away to leave the revolution in full swing?

Next Episode: Prisoners of the Conciergerie

9 February 2013
 Day Forty - The Tyrant of France (The Reign of Terror, Episode Four)

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

Day Forty - The Tyrant of France (The Reign of Terror, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

Right then, let's get this bit out of the way first, shall we? I'm going to have to mention the animation. Of course I am, it's only been available on DVD for a couple of weeks, so it'll look a bit remiss if I just ignore it! Do bear in mind, though, that my episode score is based on the episode itself - not the animation.

It has to be said - I loved the look of it. The details on the faces (especially that of the Doctor) is gorgeous, and the movement is extremely fluid. It perhaps doesn't look so good when it cuts out to a wider shot - Barbara closing the door, for example, or another character putting on his coat. Without the emphasis on the faces, the detail gets rather lost in those moments.

The one thing that I've seen listed as the biggest complaint about the episodes is the style of the cutting back-and-forth between shots. I've seen it heavily argued that it's so out of keeping with the surrounding episodes as to be completely jarring to the experience. I can see where the argument comes from (though, really, the only time I found it noticeable was during the first wine-pouring scene), but I can't say it bothered me that much. Having just come from five weeks of 1963/64 vintage Doctor Who, this didn't feel too out of place.

In all, it's a great way of plugging the missing episode gaps, and at this stage, I'm really hoping that we'll see some more of the animations. I've enjoyed this one, so if they get even better with time, then that's only a bonus.

Anyway! The episode itself! Well, I've had plenty of opportunity to examine the animation because things plot-wise are all a bit boring, aren't they? It's a tricky one, because I'm liking the setting of the story, and it's great to have a number of well-sketched charters, but… well… the story itself just feels too bloated.

You've got the Doctor having an in-depth discussion with Robespierre about the state of Paris, Susan's illness getting progressively worse, and the situation between her, Barbara and the Physician (though it's nice to see, as I'd hoped yesterday, that Susan feeling unwell does have a bearing on the story), Ian being recovered and then led into a trap…

There's plenty going on, I just don't care about any of it. I'm hoping that it's merely a result of fourth-episode-sagging, which we had with The Sensorites, too. After that point, the story got better again.

I wonder if part of the problem here is that it feels too well researched. In Marco Polo, or The Aztecs, the history felt vivid and real - it was more than clear that Lucarotti knew his stuff about the two periods - but it was just sort of there in the background. Here, it feels like the hard work that has gone into researching the period is just being stuffed into the character's mouths.

Still, I'm crossing my fingers that things improve for me with Episode Five. Taking the beautiful visuals out of the equation, I'm going to have to give this one;

Next Episode: A Bargain of Necessity

8 February 2013
 Day Thirty-Nine: A Change of Identity (The Reign of Terror, Episode Three)

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

Day Thirty-Nine: A Change of Identity (The Reign of Terror, Episode Three)

Dear diary,

There's something of a conception of the First Doctor as being a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He's often thought of as a bit of a bumbling, kindly grandfather figure, who's not quite the Doctor, but fills the same role. It's not helped by the regular occurrence of 'Billy Fluffs', either.

Here, though, the First Doctor is absolutely fantastic. The way he handles himself in the clothes shop, and the way he them presents himself to the jailer, it's an image of a man who's in full control. It's easy enough, when looking at these scenes, to imagine the 'old man' stuff is little more than an act - a way to disguise a devilishly intelligent man, who knows how to manipulate the situation to get what he wants.

Of course, it all seems to have backfired come the final scene, in which the ring that the Doctor has bartered away comes back to haunt him.

It's also nice to see the series starting to make use of its new ability to shoot in TV Centre itself. Though a few episodes I've already been through were made there, this is the first time, really, that the full implications of this can be seen on the screen. An early scene of a busy French street, into which the Doctor enters is fantastic - it's grander than I'm used to seeing on the show, and really does help to make this story feel bigger than usual.

The shots of William Russell's scenes, still shot on film (he was, presumably, still in Spain!) continue to look like something from a production other than Doctor Who. In this episode, he makes an escape from his prison cell, and the more I watch it, the more I lament that fact that more of the show doesn't look like this. The film really does give these scenes a rich texture that's sadly lacking in other places. Mind you, they still remind me of early Eastern European cinema!

I'd not considered it when writing yesterday's entry, but a lot of that feel may come from the director himself. I'd forgotten that Henric Hirsch had directed the story, and was from Hungary. There could well be intention behind the style, rather than it simply being a side-effect of shooting these scenes early on. It's almost a shame that we'll be loosing this style.

Oh, and all right. I didn't want to mention it too much yesterday, but let's be honest; Susan is rubbish in this story, isn't she? I'm wondering, now, if this may be where my entire dislike for Susan had come from. All the way through this marathon, I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I've taken to her - but here…!

All she's done so far is whine and moan… here, she nearly ruins their only chance of escape by complaining instead about her headache and her bad back and how tired she is… I'm hoping this is all leading somewhere, or there's no reason to be kicking up such a fuss! If she'd not been on holiday back during The Aztecs, I'd think they were getting ready to pack her off on one now!

Tomorrow is going to be interesting; I'll finally reach one of the new animated episodes! I've been excited to see them for quite some time, so I'm sure it's going to be a sleepless night, tonight. It's like Christmas Eve - I'm waiting for Santa to come!

Next Episode: The Tyrant of France

7 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Eight: Guests of Madame Guillotine (The Reign of Terror, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

All the regulars have managed a bit of a break for a trip to Spain, now, then! I'm surprised that I've never noticed it before, but the last four stories have each seen time taken off by one of our regulars. I think watching in order like this makes things more apparent, as does the shift between videotape and film. There was a time that I'd never really noticed the shift, but now I spend more time watching archive telly than modern stuff (I don't even own a television!), I've become more accustomed to it.

The absence of William Russell from the story is done in a slightly odd way; it's a mixture of the 'cutting right out of the story' that we had in The Keys of Marinus and The Sensorites with a bit of the 'only there for pre-filmed inserts' seen in The Aztecs. I say this because Ian still appears in his cell, and during a brief shot early on, but there's some bizarre attempts to hide him in other scenes.

One particularly noticeable one starts with Ian having just been chucked in the cell, and not responding to Susan's calls. I'm a bit surprised they didn't at least play in a recording of William Russell reassuring her or something!

I think it's also quite noticeable simply because of how different the Ian bits of the story look. The fact that they're shot on film, combined with what seems to be an unusually high exposure rate make them look like Russian cinema of the 1920s (my specialist subject at degree level. That came in useful…). It's never more noticeable than when we cut to a reaction of Ian while they're trying to appeal - you almost expect it to cut away to a caption!

All of this sounds like I'm complaining, which I'm not, really. This has been another episode I've enjoyed, although I'm not overly sure that a lot has happened. In many ways, this feels like the second half of an Episode One - everyone is being moved into the right position, and the strands of the story are being introduced. On the one hand, we have Ian being given a mission to seek out James Stirling. Susan and Barbara are being carted off to meet the Guillotine (setting up, I'm sure, a daring escape for tomorrow's episode!), and the Doctor is making his way to Paris.

With the Doctor's part in the story, we're given the series' very first location footage - and it's really quite good! The shots linger on a bit, perhaps; there's one show of the Doctor crossing a cornfield that seems to hold on just to say 'look! It's not a painted backdrop! He can keep walking!', but they're all really effective. The locations chosen are great, and it's pretty easy to picture them as being in France. It helps that the weather seems to have stayed nice for the day!

A lot gets made of the scene in An Unearthly Child, where the Doctor considers using a rock to smash a caveman's skull. It's often cited as an example of the Doctor's callousness at the very start of the series. I even talked about it for this very blog about a month ago (and concluded that, actually, it's not as bad as people make it out to be).

Why, then, does no one mention this episode? The Doctor - in an attempt to escape from a captor and get back on with his mission - tricks him into bending down… then whacks him with a shovel! You could argue that he just knocks him flat on the back, but that doesn't seem to be the implication from the way its been directed. Crikey! This is by far the most violent we've seen the Doctor so far. I'm baffled that it doesn't get brought up more often!

Oh, and I don't want to dwell on it, but blimey, Susan must be driving Barbara mental.

Next Episode: A Change of Identity

6 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Seven: A Land of Fear (The Reign of Terror, Episode One)

Dear diary,

I love it when this marathon throws up odd little coincidences. The first recon I watched - for Marco Polo - came on the same day that I saw The Hobbit in its 48fps version. Coming home from that to a tele snap recon that was less than 48 frames per minute? Bit of a culture shock.

Today, I've embarked on The Reign of Terror having spent my afternoon in a cinema watching Les Miserables . It's a full on French Revolution Day for me! Thankfully, having spent two-and-a-half hours trying to stay awake in the cinema (the misses loved it, though, so that's something…), I've really rather enjoyed this.

I should say, before I discuss the episode itself, that I've been purposely avoiding the Reign of Terror DVD for quite some time, now. I started thinking about this marathon several months ago, before we had any preview clips, and so I've avoided them ever since. It's been a tricky ten days or so since the DVD turned up, because I can hear the newly animated episodes calling to me… Still, it's only another few days, and I'm sure I'll appreciate them more by watching them in context like this.

I didn't mention it yesterday, but the cliffhanger comes rather out of nowhere, doesn't it? I've just spent a while praising how far the Doctor has come as a character over the course of this first series, and how much he's bonded with Ian and Barbara, and then one slightly mis-stepped sentence, and the Doctor's throwing them off the ship!

It still feels a bit odd here, when he sets them down and tells them to be off. I'm not sure if it's all going to come round by the end of the story, with him announcing that he doesn't really want them to go (Ian muses early on that he's not really that disappointed that they're off on another adventure together), but for now it feels more than a little jarring. It seems like the Doctor has gone right back to his old self again. Still, i I like the idea that the faults we've witnessed with the TARDIS are quite recent, as is the Police Box look, and that the Doctor isn't used to not having control over his ship yet.

And then we're off! The first time I saw Reign of Terror (many years ago, on a poor quality VHS) I knew that it was the first time the series had done any location work - and I thought it was these opening scenes in the woodland! Looking at it now, on a freshly spruced-up DVD, and having spent just over a month looking at the show's sets, it's quite clear that this bit is only a studio, but it's still looking pretty good.

I was also a bit surprised to work out that this is the first child we've seen in the series since the kids at Coal Hill right back in the first episode. Coming at it from the Matt Smith era, where lots of stories revolve around children, it seems quite bizarre! I'm guessing from his panicked look towards the end of the episode that he'll be back to help the Doctor out during Episode Two.

The cliffhanger here is pretty good, and certainly better than the last episode's. Ian, Barbara, and Susan getting carted off to Paris while the Doctor remains stuck in a burning farmhouse is very typical of Season One - splitting the team up ready to get the adventure going - but it works well enough. I'm also quite keen on the model of the burning farmhouse; The effect of the roof caving in is particularly well done.

All in all, it's a good start to the story, as I've come to expect from historical stories. I'm looking forward to following it on…

Next Episode: Guests of Madame Guillotine

5 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Six: A Desperate Venture (The Sensorites, Episode Six)

Dear diary;

It's nice to have Barbara back, but this is the first time that one of the regular cast's absences hasn't really worked. In The Keys of Marinus, it didn't feel strange that the Doctor was missing, because the rest of the characters were busy moving from place-to-place anyway. In The Aztecs, Susan gets a few brief scenes in every episode anyway, even if she is separated from the rest of the group.

Here, we see Babs returned as a part of the plot - she's reading the letter Carol was forced to write - and it just feels wrong. The rest of the cast have been down on the Sense Sphere for two-and-a-half episodes, so Barbara feels out of place here. It's even more jarring to have her taking part in the story, which has shifted considerably since we last saw her.

As for the rest of the story; it's been rather good. The story changes route again, as much of the action is set down in the aqueduct, moving us away from the Sensorite city, where things have started getting desperate. When the (former) City Administrator starts making people write letters to explain their absences, it all starts to get a bit too much.

It's a shame, having seen him plotting and scheming for so long, that the entire subplot about his character is swatted away so simply at the end with a very basic 'The map proves his treachery. We'll sort him out'. I was hoping for a grander denouement.

It's something which has become something of a theme with these longer stories - both The Daleks and Marco Polo stretched on for a long time, but the final episode had me wanting more. It always feels as though five episodes are sent setting things up, and then 25 minutes at the end isn't enough to pay it all off. A shame.

Meanwhile, with the Doctor and Ian, I really enjoyed the stuff about the survivors of the previous visit to the Sphere. I'd (sort of) pieced together what was happening in the Aqueduct, so it's nice to see that coming to fruition. What did surprise me, considering my complaints earlier in the story about how obvious the script was (the whole water instance, for example…) is how well it all ties together.

We're told early on that the previous spaceship had blown up when it tried to take off and that they suspected the other humans had stowed away on board. Here, we find that they'd been hiding down in the Aqueduct, and the destruction of the ship was their doing.

The warfare angle is an interesting one, and again, it all ties in to the way we've seen the Sensorite's mind-reading powers affecting John early on in the story. The captain of the little group is particularly fun, and it's a bit of a shame that we only get him for the one episode.

On the whole… The Sensorites is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be.

There are times - Episode Four, to be precise! - where I thought the reputation this story has gathered over the years was going to turn out to be entirely accurate, but then it manages to swing itself round quite well during the second half.

There's enough variation in the story to keep things interesting. The first two episodes are heavily focussed on the spaceship, before shifting to the city for episodes three, four, and five, and then to the Aqueduct for the final part. The dialogue is possibly the story's biggest failing, but even that improves as time goes on.

One thing, though… What was the 'monster'? Was it just the rebel group of humans trying to keep the Sensorites out of the Aqueduct? Why did they batter up the Doctor's coat if they'd been waiting for a 'human' as a sign that the war was over? That was a bit of a letdown…

Next Episode: A Land of Fear

4 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Five: Kidnap (The Sensorites, Episode Five)

Dear diary,

It's strange, really. We're back to a situation where not much happens in this episode, and yet it's held my attention throughout. It looks like the third episode really was just a blip - The Sensorites isn't half bad.

There's quite a lot to love in this episode, too. I enjoyed the continuing schemes of the City Administrator, and the way he turns the death of the Second Elder to his advantage, trying to frame the Doctor was rather good work. As soon as the jacket defence came up, I thought it would be a case of drawing it out a bit to fill some time, so I was glad to see it dealt with immediately.

The whole situation with the jacket is something to praise, actually. In so many episodes (and this isn't something that Doctor Who is uniquely guilty of), our heroes go through all manner of things, and then return to the TARDIS looking as pristine as the moment they stepped out of it. It's quite odd to see the Doctor's jacket torn to shreds, but it's effective.

The only other story to use this to such a good effect is right back in An Unearthly Child - the regulars are all much worse for wear by the end.

It's nice, too, to see them making plans for the return of Jackie Hill in the next episode - I'd worried that she'd either just appear from nowhere, or that she wouldn't turn up until somewhere near the end, when the rest of the cast make it back up to the space ship. I wonder what she's been doing up there all this time?

Something I've been meaning to talk about for a few days (but keep forgetting!) is the TARDIS' role in the stories to this point. In every story (with the obvious exemption of The Edge of Destruction), the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan all have to be forcefully separated from the ship in some way - the story is usually about them trying to get back to the TARDIS.

In An Unearthly Child, they're banged up in the Cave of Skulls. In The Daleks, they can't leave until they get the fluid link back from the Dalek City. Marco Polo has the TARDIS physically taken away from them, and the same is true of The Keys of Marinus, when Arbitan puts it inside a force field until they do his bidding. The Aztecs sees the ship shut away inside the locked tomb, and here the Sensorites steal the lock.

I've mentioned (lots!) how the Doctor has changed over the last month or so, but it's interesting to note how the others have, too. Ian and Barbara are a part of the adventure, now, not just looking to get home (though they do still have that ambition). Susan gives the impression that she's always quite enjoyed the adventures.

The point is; following the Doctor's announcement yesterday that he wasn't content just curing a problem if he could stop it at the source, the idea of having to take the TARDIS away from him is growing less important. We're at a stage, now, where the crew will get involved in the adventures because they want to, not because they're forced to. That's going to be interesting to keep an eye on as we move forward…

Next Episode: A Desperate Venture

3 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Four: Race Against Death (The Sensorites, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

It's not something you often see said, but actually, I quite like the design of the Sensorites. No, genuinely! I've been meaning to mention it for a few days now. There's one or two obvious flaws (those feet are very impractical. You'd better hope they never have to run anywhere…), but on the whole it's a good design.

It's quite well realised, too. There's one or two instances where the joins are perfectly visible, but as I've said before, I'm watching a VidFIREd version of this story on a 21.5" iMac screen. This isn't the natural format for this show. On the whole, I really like them.

Shortly before watching this story, I stumbled across a redesign of the creatures on the blog 'Mels Art Stuff'. I really liked it, and I've had it in mind while watching… but it's not a million miles away from what we've got here! It's this exact design with a bit more freedom of budget.

Now then, if that opening has sounded pretty positive, it's because I've enjoyed today's episode! I know! I resolved to go into it with a positive outlook, as assuming it would be like yesterday's installment was going to get me nowhere. It's a good thing, though, because this one's been rather good.

The Doctor very quickly deduces that it's the water infecting the planet, which is good. I'd worried that even after it was so spelt out in the last episode, they'd leave it running as a mystery for a while. The main complaint that I hear about The Sensorites is that it's dull, and I feared that would be because the solution was clear to us long before the characters arrived at it.

And once that deduction is out of the way, the story rattles on at quite a pace! There's even chance for a montage, with the Doctor working on an antidote, Susan caring for Ian, and the Sensorites testing water for the poisons. Part of the fun of watching the montage is seeing everyone get into position ready for the shot to return to them, as cutting was out of the question due to time and budget. Plus, Hartnell pulls some wonderful faces while trying to look as though he's concentrating.

Alongside this, we've got the thoroughly evil City Administrator trying to get rid of 'The Humans' as best he can. There's some interesting parallels to The Aztecs, here, but with the morality angle almost completely removed. There, Tlotoxl was desperate to show up the TARDIS crew as false (when they actually were being), while here, the City Administrator is trying to prove that Ian's 'illness' is false (though it's not).

And then there's the Doctor. His transformation into the character we know and love is pretty much complete, now. He's found the solution for curing Ian, and it can be scaled and applied to the rest of the planet, but that's not enough for him. To quote the Doctor himself; 'Why cure something when we can stamp it out?'. It's great to see him at this stage, finally.

Oh, and then there's even room for a cliffhanger involving a monster! Brilliant!

Next Episode: Kidnap

2 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Three: Hidden Danger (The Sensorites, Episode Three)

Dear diary,

Oh, all right, then. This one was a bit of a slog. I'm starting to worry that my desperate attempt to find good in a story usually considered to be terribly dull may be a tougher task than I'd anticipated.

I'm not even completely sure what the problem is. Plenty happens in the episode; they have another encounter with the Sensorites, they leave Barbara on the ship so that Jackie Hill can take a couple of weeks in Spain, we meet another group of Sensorites, and Ian falls victim to the disease that's been wiping them out, as we discover by the filling on of a lot of back story.

Actually, that's it. That's the problem. The 'filling in'. It's not the greatest writing of all, is it? There's a very real attempt to make the Sensorites seem like a three-dimensional race, but it's not done very subtly. Perhaps the worst offender is the scene where two of them set up a disintegrator machine to use against our heroes.

The dialogue between the two is along the lines of 'Is their hurt on the left, or the right? Or is it in the centre, like ours [because we're aliens! See? Aliens! Our hearts are in a strange position! Because we're aliens!]'. As if that wasn't clunky enough, they then decide to set it to the centre anyway. If they have no reason to assume that their hearts wouldn't be in the centre, then why bring it up? Poorly done.

And the disease is none-too-subtle, either. It's actually quite a nice set up, and a good way of shifting the focus of the story slightly for the remaining episodes; the first two were about encountering the Seonsorites, the other four are about curing their ills. Except…

When the Doctor, Ian and Susan are given glasses of water, a big point is made that they've been served the 'basic' water, which is filtered down through an aqueduct from the hills. The Elders don't drink this water, but Ian takes a sip. A few minutes later, a point is made that the disease affects all of the Sensorites. Except the Elders. Who don't drink that water. And then Ian suddenly starts to show symptoms of the illness. Shortly after drinking the water.

I know that Doctor Who is aimed at a family audience with a large number of children watching, but after we've sat through four episodes of The Aztecs, which is rich in history and very deep, this just feels… well. patronising.

The dialogue, aside from being so clunky, continues to be functional as in the last episode. There's even one exchange which goes along the lines of 'But how?' / 'I will explain…'. I think this is the main thing making The Sensorites a bit of a chore now.

Still, we're at the half-way point. Maybe things get better from here as Peter R Newman gets used to writing for the series? Once the world of the Sensorites is set up, he may be able to tell a decent story to keep me hooked…

Next Episode: A Race Against Death

1 February 2013

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

Day Thirty-Two: The Unwilling Warriors (The Sensorites, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

It's January 2008. I've recently moved out of home for the first time, and I'm living with a fellow Doctor Who fan called Alex. I don't know if Alex reads the 50 Year Diary, but I hope he does. Hi Alex.

Anyway, around the same time, I'd gained a new girlfriend, who when she was back from university on one occasion told me she wanted to watch Doctor Who. Hooray! Good times! What was even better is that she wanted to watch it from the start. Apparently, I was raving about the classic stuff so much, she wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

So the deal was made, we'd watch one story a week, during her couple of days back from uni. We started, of course, with An Unearthly Child, followed by The Daleks (Though I seem to recall skipping most of this one because it was boring!) and then The Edge of Destruction. We skipped Marco Polo, as a description of a recon had met with a stoney stare. For some reason, we ended up skipping The Keys of Marinus and The Aztecs, too. If I had to guess, I'd say that by this stage, she'd given up on wanting to watch them all, and decided to just go for ones she liked the sound of, instead.

So, The Sensorites was the next on the list. I was excited, I'd never seen it before! What's more, living with Alex meant that I suddenly had access to all the Doctor Who stories that I'd never owned on VHS or DVD. The whole library! In the same house as me! I remember setting up The Sensorites in the VHS player (having to take the plastic wrapper off first. Evidently, Alex hadn't ever watched it, either…), watching Episode One, thinking it was quite good, starting Episode Two…

And the tape cut out. The tracking went all weird, then the screen went to static. Fast forwarding back and forth brought some brief images of men in a sewer (I'm guessing that's still to come) and not a whole lot else. We more-or-less gave up on trying to watch the classic ones after that.

The one thing I did get to think at the time, thanks to seeing the first few minutes of this second episode before the tape cut out, has still held true today, though. Basically; 'How does the cliffhanger look so good at the end of Episode One and so stupid at the start of Episode Two?!'. The cliffhanger works so well because of the eerie way that the Sensorite is pawing at the window. Here, he just stands there like an over-familiar neighbour watching you eat dinner through the window.

Thankfully, standing around staring is still very effective when used in the right way - and John is pretty unnerving while he's in contact with the Sensorites. There's something about the way he stares right down the camera lens at us that really jars with what we're used to in the series, so it leaves you feeling a bit on edge. It's one of the things that's saving the story for me.

I can't say I've yet seen why it's got such a reputation among fandom. Sure, it's not the most action-packed of stories, but it's not bad (at least so far). If anything, I found that this episode held my attention even more than the last had. There's some unusual things in here, such as a full two minutes in which only two lines of dialogue are shared, while Ian and Barbara explore the ship looking for the Sensorites.

What does strike me as odd, though, it the way Ian reacts to them. He finds something to use as a weapon, and scares them with it if they try to move. Doesn't he even think to try talking to them? It seems a bit strange, especially given that they're perfectly willing to have a chat just a few minutes later…

So far: not as bad as reputation suggests. It's just bog-standard Doctor Who

Next Episode: Hidden Danger

31 January 2013

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

Day Thirty-One: Strangers in Space (The Sensorites, Episode One)

Dear diary,

The Sensorites has a bit of a reputation, doesn't it? It's the 'boring' story of Season One, and one of the most boring ever, supposedly. I've seen it said that many people give up trying to do a Doctor Who marathon while trying to get past these six episodes. A shame, really, because this first episode offers up a lot of promise.

Oh, now, don't get me wrong. Even in this first episode there were a couple of minutes when I noticed my attention wandering (Still, nowhere near as badly as during The Screaming Jungle*…). It's very much a *talking episode, isn't it? But although we've got all these characters talking to each other, none of them are actually saying anything. Whereas The Aztecs was full of lovely dialogue between the cast, this feels much more functional. It's all very much descriptive dialogue.

It's a good thing, then, that this episode sports some of the best direction that we've had in the series to date. Over Christmas recently, BBC Wales was singing praises to the heavens for the shot of Clara entering the TARDIS for the first time, in a camera move that takes us from outside the small box to the inside in one sweeping motion.

Here, though, we've got the opposite - a shot that follows the TARDIS crew from a discussion inside the ship, out through the doors and directly onto the spaceship. As if that wasn't a grand enough moment, Susan then turns back around… to face the police box exterior. It's very well done, so much so that I actively had to skip back on the DVD to watch it again and make sure that my mind hadn't just filled in some gaps itself.

The direction continues to be great throughout, as we see closeups of hands, with the Sensorite removing the TARDIS lock, and then John cutting out the door opening system so that he can stalk Susan and Babs around the corridors. It has to be said, John is one of the most disturbing things we've had in the series. Forget the Daleks, here we've a man staring solely down the camera lens in silence before clutching his head and breaking down. It's genuinely un-nerving, and the direction only serves to help.

And then we've that stunning cliffhanger, as a creepy figure paws at the window of the ship. I've seen that cliffhanger before, and it's still a bit off-putting now. The sheer weirdness of the creature helps to make it one of the best we've had…

…Which is certainly more than can be said for the cliffhanger to the last episode. The whole thing hinges on the fact that the TARDIS says that it has stopped, but is also still moving. The Doctor is stumped. Susan hasn't ever seen anything like it. It's Barbara who hypothesises that they've landed inside something, and then they're all surprised to find that it's a spaceship.

Coming at the same time as a scene in which our regulars reminisce over recent events, and the Doctor even talks of adventures he's had 'quite some time' before Ian and Barbara joined them, are we really supposed to believe that this is the first time the TARDIS has ever landed on a moving spaceship? Really? The Doctor even helps to fly it later on in the episode!

Still, it's a strong start to the story. Now fingers crossed that this is one which might surprise me. You see, I've seen this first episode before, but I've never made it to the end. But not because I was bored! That's a story for tomorrow… (how's that for a cliffhanger!)

Next Episode: The Unwilling Warriors

30 January 2013

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

Day Thirty: The Day Of Darkness (The Aztecs, Episode Four)

Dear diary,

The Aztecs is something of an odd one, morally. There's a moment in this episode where Autloc - the time traveller's only supporter among the Aztecs for some time now - declares that Ian and Susan 'serve a false goddess', and out heart really sinks. Their final friend has turned against them, and joined sides with the evil Tlotoxl.

Except… well… he's only stating the truth! Barbara is a false God! She is deceiving Autloc, and trying to deceive the rest of the Aztecs for her own reasons, however 'right' she may believe her reasons to be. It's an interesting stance for a Doctor Who story, when villains are often painted as far more black and white.

During Marco Polo, I commented on how Tegana was almost a pantomime villain. He was evil for his own reasons, planning to steal the TARDIS and use it to help wage war. The only reason that he was a part of Polo's caravan was so that he could assassinate Kublai Kahn. He was just pure evil, in the same way that the Daleks, or the Voord have been in this season, too.

Tlotoxl, on the other hand, while still being prone to a few pantomime outbursts, is only trying to seek the truth. He knows that Barbara is lying to them (even more so after yesterday's episode, where she specifically tells him she's fake!), and seeks only to prove this to the others. Oh, sure, he goes about it in something of a devious way (trying to get them all killed on more than one occasion is one way to deal with your problems!), but it's hard to dislike him entirely.

What's interesting is that the character's painted throughout as truly believing in sacrifice. After an attempt to halt one earlier in the story sees the intended victim throw himself from the temple, Tlotoxl claims that his death is still the cause of godly intervention. During this episode, though, it's made much more clear that he knows it's all a farce, commenting that 'the darkness will come and go! A sacrifice must be made!'.

While on the subject of Tlotoxl, I've been waiting until now to praise John Ringham's performance. He's simply fantastic throughout this story. He's genuinely chilling when he wants to be - never more so than during his stare to camera during the story's first cliffhanger - and great fun throughout. I'm going to miss him as we move on to a new time and place.

It's nice, too, to see the Doctor gently supporting Barbara, as he tells Cameca that the gods really do want sacrifice to stop. He knows it's all fruitless, but it's nice to see him siding with his companion when he knows how strongly she feels about it.

As the story's rating will attest, I've really rather enjoyed The Aztecs. I've always known that it's quite a good one, somewhere in the back of my mind, since the first time I saw it, but it's nice to have that confirmed here.

I won't go into much detail about the story as a whole, as I've done that through the various entries on the four episodes. It's lovely to see Barbara given a story that is so totally 'hers'; the series at this stage is still very much an ensemble piece, and it works so well as a result of it.

Next Episode: Strangers in Space

29 January 2013
 Day Twenty-Nine: The Bride of Sacrifice (The Aztecs, Episode Three)

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

Day Twenty-Nine: The Bride of Sacrifice (The Aztecs, Episode Three)

Dear diary,

There's some fabulously elaborate hats in this story, aren't there? Barbara's, Tlotoxl's, even Autloc's. If you're something of a hat fan, this really is the story for you.

But actually, the design of this story on the whole is really rather good. I spent a lot of time during the last story praising the design and the thought that had gone into the world, especially during the later episodes. A similar praise can be given to this story, as well. The temple, in particular, is a wonderful design, and there's a lot of great detail involved - occasionally, the camera follows characters as they roam from the inside to the out, and you can see the 3D effect on the patterns carved into the surface - it's all really effective.

Less attractive is the school they've got Susan shut away in. During the last episode I wondered why they'd shot Carole Ann Ford's scenes on film, when there were no fights or stunts involved. It was only today that I realised she must be on a holiday (and a quick check confirms that, yes, she was away for these two weeks, her scenes in the school being filmed alongside Episode Five of The Keys of Marinus), and so only just involved in the plot.

It's to the story's credit that I've never noticed this before. Just as the Doctor's absence was successfully explained away in the last story, they've managed to keep disruption to a minimum here. This feels much more like the 'Doctor-lite' episodes of the 21st century incarnation of the show - I'm thinking in particular of Midnight, in which Donna appears for a couple of minutes at the top and tail of the story, but you never realise she's not there.

What surprised me, when we cut to a pre-filmed insert of Susan during this episode was that I actually smiled to myself. I was pleased to see her! I stated a few weeks ago that I wasn't the biggest fan of Susan, and that I'd likely spend a lot of time complaining about her, but actually, she's nowhere near as bad as I recall. Oh, sure, there's a few moments of over-reaction and one or two instances where I'm less-than-keen, but I've warmed to her more than I'd expected. I like that.

The downside to all this, though, is that while I was glad to see her, I hadn't actively missed her from the plot. If you'd asked me before her scene what was missing from the story, 'Susan' wouldn't have been my first thought. I sung praises yesterday for Ian and Barbara as characters, and the pair of them with the Doctor is more than enough to keep me satisfied.

Speaking of which, we've another one of those moments where I praise how far the character of the Doctor has come! Oh, I know, I do it every few days, it seems, but we keep on getting these moments! I'll stop doing it at some point. Promise. Here, as he tells Ian of the secret tunnel into the tomb;


Where did you get hold of this?


My fiancée.


I see. (beat. He realises.) Your What!?!

It's a great little moment, and it's beautifully played by both men. I couldn't let it pass without a mention…

Next Episode: The Day of Darkness

28 January 2013
 Day Twenty-Eight: The Warriors of Death (The Aztecs, Episode Two)

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

Day Twenty-Eight: The Warriors of Death (The Aztecs, Episode Two)

Dear diary,

There are several things about Doctor Who in the early days that are, quite simply, clever. The character of the Doctor, a mysterious old man from another world. That's clever. His bigger-on-the-inside time machine, that externally looks like a run-of-the-mill police telephone box. That's clever. A format that jumps back and forth between bug-eyed-monsters and historical tales. That's clever.

You know what my favourite bit of ingenuity is, though? It's the characters of Ian and Barbara. Two school teachers, one who specialises in history, to guide us through the stories set in the past, and the other learned in science, for the futuristic tales. Now that's clever.

And the magic of the pair is that they never feel like they've been shoe-horned in to satisfy those bits of the plot. Right from the moment that they first follow Susan home to the junkyard, they feel as though they're meant to be there. When they apply their respective areas of study to the situation they've found themselves in, it just works, because that's not their only function in the narrative.

No writer understands this quite as well as John Lucarotti. I commented on it more than once during the course of Marco Polo, but he takes the show's initial intention to be educational very seriously. He never makes it feel like a chore, but he's making you learn while you watch his episodes.

Here, it's being used by both the teachers in different ways. Barbara uses her knowledge of the Aztec period to answer questions put to her by Tlotoxl and Autloc, in an attempt to prove that she's really a reincarnation of their god. Ian uses his knowledge of pressure points on the body to win in a fight over his rival, Ixta. Well, he does the first time, anyway. By the time they get to heir big, climactic battle, he seems to have forgotten about that a bit…

Something else I enjoy is the way that the Doctor advised Ixta of ways to win in the fight, too. When the warrior first asked him for help, I thought the Doctor was going to show him the same trick that Ian had used, and in my head I was already thinking it a bit lazy that he'd have thought of the same way of winning. It's great, therefore, that he goes a completely different route, and uses scientific ideas in a completely different way, advising Ixta to drug Ian, while describing it as 'magic'.

Hartnell is on blazing form here - never more so than in his opening fight with Barbara. It's quite possibly the best performance he's given in the series to date (scrap that, I think it is the best), and he really goes for it. In many ways, this acts as a counter-balance to the argument they have during The Edge of Destruction, where Barbara berates him for not treating them with the respect they deserve.

I claimed that moment was one of the key turning points for the Doctor changing his character, becoming more affable, and closer to the character we watch in the series through to the twenty-first century. Here, we see an anger in him which isn't even close to the way he acted when we first met him. There, he was crotchety and unpleasant. Here, he's downright terrifying.

And yet, there's still hints of the more lovable Doctor we've started getting used to. Following the fight, he apologises to Babs, telling her he 'didn't mean to be so harsh'. People praise David Tennant and Matt Smith for the way their Doctor can go from 'Angry God' to 'Playful Child' in the blink of an eye, while forgetting that it's a part of the Doctor's character first developed by Hartnell, right back here toward the very beginning. It's a great moment, and one I've never appreciated quite so much before.

While I'm praising performances, I need to bring up Jackie Hill again. I've touched on her performance briefly in the past, but she's on top form here - as always. It's nice to see a story that gives her a chance to shine like this, because she really is a fantastic asset to the series. The highlight comes while she is being questioned by Tlotoxl - the way she delivers the lines is spot on. Casting her and William Russell as the teachers? That's another one of those clever things they did…

Next Episode: The Bride of Sacrifice

27 January 2013
 Day Twenty-Seven: The Temple of Evil (The Aztecs, Episode One)

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

Day Twenty-Seven: The Temple of Evil (The Aztecs, Episode One)

Dear diary;

Back in 2004, The Aztecs was the very first William Hartnell story I ever saw. I picked it up from what was then the BBC Shop in Norwich, along with a couple of other titles, excited to be delving right back to the very start of the series. At the time, this was the earliest Doctor Who story available on DVD. Shamefully (Fair warning, I'm about to make myself sound stupid), I completely mis-read the back cover of the DVD case, and mistakenly believed that the character mistaken for a God was an Aztec called 'Bar-Bara'. No, I don't really know how I managed it, either.

Now, I've not seen The Aztecs since that first occasion (all previous attempts at a marathon had fizzled out by around now), so I've been greatly looking forward to getting round to it this time. Especially now that I can watch it in context, knowing that the last John Lucarotti story was something of a gem. After a couple of off-putting episodes of The Keys of Marinus, it's nice to be back in history again.

The one downside is that, as I write this, we're about six weeks away from a shiny new 'Revisitation' of the story on DVD. Much as I'd have loved to wait and see it cleaned up to the standards seen on some recent DVDs, I'll be making do with my original copy. It's so old, there's not even artwork on the disc. Just a logo. Crikey, it seems like a lifetime back!

Right then! Where to start? You can tell instantly that we're back to the series trying to be educational again; we're treated to a couple of history lessons fresh out of the TARDIS, about the Aztecs and their way of life. Susan even not-so-subtly brings up the dates that the Spanish first came into contact with them, while taking an extremely one-sided view of the situation. I'm not going to go massively into the history of the period here (Aztecs for me are, like Barbara, an area of interest!), but I'll likely return to it before the story is over.

There's some great design work on display, here. The Aztec temple and the garden are both very well realised, and only serve to make me wonder what it would have been like had we seen the episodes of Marco Polo moving. I've seen people complain about the studio backdrops in some of the Hartnell stories, but actually, I think that they work quite well here. Certainly, it helps that the story isn't as polished as some of the ones I've seen lately (for the time being, at least).

You can't discuss this episode without bringing up another one of those lines that's become famous from the series' past - arguably one of the most famous from this early period; 'You can't rewrite history! Not one line!'. I think it's fair to say that this has become such a famous line because of how wonderful it is, and the way Hartnell performs it. The show has changed its stance on this matter over the years - especially since the Eleventh Doctor has been in the TARDIS! - but it's a great way of looking at the series here.

It also helps to highlight the difference between this story and Marco Polo. There, our heroes were caught up in events, with little opportunity to change things around them. Here, thanks to Barbara's position as a 'reincarnated God', they've got a chance to tell a very different story, and it's one that's caught my attention right from the word 'go'.

Next Episode: The Warriors of Death

(Incidentally, I understand that The Aztecs is being repeated today on BBC America. Do check it out if you've not seen it before - based on this first episode alone, it's a corker!)

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