Thursday, 28 October 2010

Exile (Big Finish Unbound Adventure)

* Spolier alert! *

What if the Doctor regenerated into a woman to escape the Time Lords?

In a series of non-canonical, 'what if?' Dr Who stories, doing a script about a female Doctor is an obvious choice. The problem then comes as to what sort of story one would write about a female Doctor. Would she become a mother? If she had a relationship with a male character, would that be 'undoctorish,' seeing as the Doctor generally avoids that sort of thing. We might suppose that a female Doctor might adopt a different modus operandi, but how could that be shown in just one story? Sadly, Nicholas Briggs took the easy route and just wrote a gross-out comedy with lots of great laughs. Very funny, but one feels that something much more interesting could be done with a female Doctor. Still, it has a lovely pink CD case.

The story opens at the conclusion of the The War Games, with the condemnation of the War Lord. The Time Lords then find that the Doctor has escaped. Having regenerated into a woman, the Doctor then finds herself working in a supermarket and indulging in some rather heavy drinking at the weekends. A lot of the humour is a bit on the lavatorial side, one gets the impression that Briggs is aiming to make a serious point about the banality of the binge drinking culture. What is a bit disappointing is that very few of the jokes deal with the obvious subject of the Doctor being in a female body. Perhaps Briggs was concerned that jokes about women's bodies might not be appropriate if boys of the age I was when I became a fan are listening. This story would probably have been little different if the Doctor had been a just a newly regenerated male Doctor. He could just as easily have got a job in a supermarket and started binge drinking.

Call me politically correct if you like, but it has to be asked if there is something horrendously misogynistic about the idea that as soon as the Doctor becomes female s/he becomes a drunken loser. I suppose you could look at it the other way and consider that it is making a point about the underprivileged status of a lot of thirty-something single women who do turn to drink.

The affectionate parody of this story is mostly aimed at the Second and Third Doctor era. The inclusion of the War Lord's trial is quite nice and references to those dreaded Quarks are frequent. Exile also brings in the TV Comic's version of Season 6B with the inclusion of those freaky scarecrows that the Time Lords used to capture the Doctor. The theme music for this audio is based on Second Doctor era theme, but sounds rather more wobbly and scratchy.

Arabella Weir puts in a wonderful performance as the Doctor. Despite the comedy and the weird circumstances in which she is placed, she manages to come across as genuinely Doctorish. As with the mean, brutal Doctor in Full Fathom Five (who in that story came across as a bit of a moron, despite a brilliant performance by David Collings), one feels that one would like to see more this alternate Doctor in some rather more serious stories. Nicholas Briggs gives a good contrast by playing the voice of the previous Doctor.

The two Time Lords who hunt down the Doctor are hilarious, particularly the one played by David Tennant.

One of the other big let downs of this story was the ending. It really was a bit of a disappointment.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

All-Consuming Fire, by Andy Lane (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice team up with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson and tangle with an eldritch entity.

Definitely one of the more light-hearted and fun New Adventures. All-Consuming Fire is a Doctor Who/ Sherlock Holmes cross-over (which is also a Doctor Who/ Sherlock Holmes/ Cthulhu Mythos crossover).

I think it is fair to say that a Holmes crossover would not have worked with John Pertwee or Tom Baker. The reason being that in those periods of Doctor Who the philosophy of the show was essentially that of the Holmes mythos: everything can be explained rationally. Inevitably, the Third Doctor and Holmes or the Fourth Doctor and Holmes would have clashed for having too similar a methodology. One would be the loser of such a crossover. Once we move into McCoy territory, everything is a bit more esoteric and not every weird story is given a rational explanation. This is the worldview of the New Adventures and it puts Holmes at sea and creates a welcome contrast between his world and that of the Doctor's.

The first half of the book is set in London, where Holmes is in his element. The second half moves to the planet Ry'leh (a borrowed Cthulhu Mythos name). The use of narration by Watson is a very good element, providing an 'everyman' perspective on the events of the narrative. His descriptions of Bernice and Ace are very enjoyable.

As I said, this is also a Cthulhu Mythos crossover. This story effectively takes the Old Ones, the strange alien deities of the Mythos and incorporates them into the Dr. Who canon. The Great Intelligence, we are told is Yog-Sothoth, Fenric was Hastur the Unnameable, the Nestene consciousness is said to be the offspring of Shub-Niggurath,the Goat With A Thousand Young and the Animus of Vortis is said to be Lloigor, a lesser known Mythos entity. The Doctor has not yet encountered Nylarthotep, who is said to be the most powerful of the Old Ones. These beings are all survivors of a universe that pre-existed this one. Azathoth, probably the most powerful and supercosmic of H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones is said to be the weakest. Perhaps disapointingly the chief monster of this story turns out not to be one of the Old Ones, but an alien impersonating Azathoth.

It is odd that writers try to cross Sherlock Holmes with Lovecraft's Mythos because they are completely at odds in terms of their worldview. For Holmes, the world is ordered and rational, for the Mythos, the world is ultimately chaotic and without meaning. Doctor Who in its supposed glory days with Pertwee and Baker very much echoed the Holmesean view (with a few nods to Lovecraft here and there), but with the Sevent Doctor territory we are very much away from that world of rationality and there is room for a Cthulhu crossover. On the whole, All-Consuming Fire steers away from the darkness of Lovecraft. While Neil Penswick's The Pit did not explicity cross Doctor Who with Mythos fiction, its depressing style was much more in the spirit of Lovecraft than this rather cheerful story. There is an element of Lovecraftianism here in Holmes depressed and despairing reaction to the world of Ry'leh, but we could have done with a bit more of this.

Bernice is well portrayed here and is shown to a truly effective companion. Like Terrance Dicks in Blood Harvest, Andy Lane portrays the brutal, gung-ho Ace as a figure of fun, rather than a source of angst. The Seventh Doctor also comes across well in this story, Having him described by Watson helps to maintain the mystery of his character.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Claws of Axos

The Third Doctor and Jo help UNIT deal with alien invaders, but the Master gets involved (again..).

As I have said before, I hold a generally low opinion of the Pertwee era after Season 7. I hate Pertwee's interpretation of the Doctor. I hate Jo Grant with a passion. I hate the way that the Brigadier and UNIT became really lame and I think the Master is a silly villain. However, despite my dislike of this period of Doctor Who, I very much enjoy Claws of Axos, even though fans with a higher regard for the Pertwee era have harsh things to say about it.

There is plenty of silly science in Claws of Axos. UNIT are starting to decline. The Master turns up yet again, a sign that the writers were running out of ideas. Jo is as irritating as ever and she is paired up with a bloke with an appalling American accent. Yet despite the tendency to slip into silliness, the Claws of Axos avoids much of the gimmickery of this era. Terror of the Autons oversold the idea of everyday objects being alien weapons; Invasion of the Dinosaurs thought it was clever to stick Dinosaurs in London and Green Death gave us horrible maggots in a Welsh coal mine. Claws of Axos just gives us a straight and simple alien invasion (with some infiltration tactics). Surprisingly very few of the UNIT era stories actually concerned alien invasions.

The Axons are a pretty inspired alien menace. I love the way they appear to be golden, angelic beings, yet are really evil, tentacled spaghetti monsters. They have a slightly Lovecraftian feel about them. As a Christian I also believe in angelic beings that are evil, Satan and the heavenly powers that follow him.

The Axon spaceship is an incredible creation. It is fascinating to look at. It looks so unusual in its organic structure. It is arguably one of the best sets ever used in Doctor Who. Some of the CSO used in the Axon spaceship is also very effective. Sometimes the Pertwee era production team went a bit too town on CSO, but in this colourful story it works rather well.

Although the overuse of the Master in Season 8 is an irritation, Roger Delgado puts in a great performance. His role in getting the TARDIS working is interesting. The Brigadier has not yet morphed into a complete buffoon, and although he is more chummy with the Doctor, he still manages a certain tension with the Doctor through his shoot-first methods.

Pertwee's performance is uneven in this. He manages some very convincing suspicion when dealing with the Axons, but he lacks conviction when pretending to abandon the earth and Jo.

As with every UNIT story, there is a dreadful civil servant type, this time in the shape of Chin. He is wonderful creation, gobbling a chicken leg and scared witless by the merciless minister he serves under. I love the bit where the minister pulls out Chin's pre-written letter of resignation, just awaiting his signature.

In short, Claws of Axos is a textbook Pertwee era story with lots of silliness, but its a visual feast with an excellent alien monster. You could do a lot worse and watch the appallingly boring Colony in Space.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

An Unearthly Child

The first ever Doctor Who story! Two teachers unwittingly find themselves on a time machine with a strange old man and his granddaughter.

How do you review the first Doctor Who story? Obviously, everything else is just a sequel to this story. The temptation is to either write gushing stuff about how exciting it must have been to have seen the Doctor and the TARDIS for the first time, or else to point out all the ways in which it differs from the later, refined version of Doctor Who.

There is a tendency among fans to argue that the first episode, which introduces the Doctor, Susan and the TARDIS is absolutely brilliant and the stone age adventure with all the cavemen and cavewomen is just a stupid filler story that can be forgotten. I very much disagree with this view. The stone age story, beginning with the episode, The Cave of Skulls, is well written and acted and is vital in elaborating on the characters that are introduced to us in the first episode.

The story opens creepily, with the strange objects in the junkyard, among them the police box. This sets up the surprisingly dark atmosphere of the first episode.

The character of Susan is cleverly introduced slowly, through the recollections of Susan, enabling the viewer to build up a picture of this unearthly child. Its interesting to see how disturbed Barbara and Ian seem to be at the thought of Susan being a 'foreigner.' We see a snapshot of a much more suspicous and xenophobic society, which adds poignancy to the themes of racism in this same period that are dealt with in Remembrance of the Daleks.

Jacqueline Hill and William Russell come across brilliantly as two people thrust into a bizarre situation that they have no power to escape from. At this point, the show has not established the Doctor as the hero figure and this role falls to them. The caveman subplot reveals to us Barbara's compassionate nature and Ian's heroic resolve and ability to cope with danger and threats.

I think the moment where Susan is doing her 'Balinese dancing' to John Smith and the Common Men is such an iconic moment. It also introduces her well. We get the picture of a girl who obsesses with the popular culture and music of this society, but is somehow out of touch with it; like a British person living in Japan who obsesses over Japanese culture. Carole Ann Ford puts in a wonderful performance as the Doctor's strange granddaughter. She comes across as genuinely alien.

William Hartnell is truly the star of this story. He truly believed in the character and put his whole being into creating this strange person. Those who are used to later Dr. Who stories may be very surprised at the way the character is portrayed in this initial story. The first model of the Doctor is a character who is selfish, sinister and ruthless. It is as though the writers have not quite decided whether the man is an hero or a villain. Nevetheless, the circumstances of Barbara and Ian's first trip, into the prehistoric era, forces the Doctor to work together with his reluctant companions.

There is some uncertainty about the Doctor's motivations for taking Ian and Barbara prisoner. The pilot episode has the Doctor being concerned about changing the course of history, in the televised version, his concern is simply keeping the knowlege of himself and his craft secret. It is hard not to agree with Susan's suggestion that human minds are closed and nobody will believe what Ian and Barbara might claim about what they have seen. Remembrance of the Daleks provides a possible explanation. If the Doctor was involved in a plot to conceal an ancient Gallifreyan weapon, he might be concerned that the discovery of his ship could lead to the discovery of the Hand of Omega. It has been suggested that the Doctor might have been stealing electronic equipment, which would account for the presence of the policeman at the beginning.

It is when we leave Sixties London and head to the prehistoric age that fans let rip with a barrage of criticism. The story about the stone age cave dwellers is commonly held to be overlong, lightweight and silly. I cannot understand these criticisms. What is remarkable about episodes 3-4 of this story is how seriously all the cast are taking the story. It would be easy to send up a story about hairy cavemen and make it into comedy, but the direction has made it so earnest. It has been suggested that its hard for the viewer to identify with these primitive people. However, their struggle for survival is presented starkly to us. The power struggles amongst the tribe seems like natural territory for the drama at which Dr. Who excels. I find it hard to see any significant faults in the prehistoric part of An Unearthly Child.

The suggestion that the writers should have taken us straight from the first episode in Sixties London to Skaro and the Daleks is deeply wrong and fails to appreciate the way this narrative works. The Doctor is perfectly comfortable on an alien planet. It is an environment he is prepared to deal with. In the Stone Age, the two modern people are at sea, but so is the Doctor. The first episode sets up the Doctor is an all-powerful figure who holds all the aces, the second episode in the Stone Age has him helpless at the hands of cave dwellers. In contrast, Ian, with his boy scout ability to make fire is much better equipped to handle himself in the Stone Age. The first episode builds up the Doctor, the following episodes build up Ian and Barbara and establish the need for the TARDIS' disparate crew to start working together as a reluctant team.

Don't be fooled by the people who say only the first part of An Unearthly Child is decent; it is entirely a gripping story.

One trivial point, notice that all the cave people are barefoot. This seems much more realistic than a lot of other primitive peoples' in science fiction who are wear unlikely leather boots. A prominent example of this is Leela and the Sevateem in Face of Evil. Leela wears a very fine pair of leather boots. Is very doubtful that the Sevateem would be able to make such finely crafted footwear. It seems much more likely that Leela would have gone barefoot like the cave people in this story.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


The Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough travel to the far, far future and find humanity struggling to survive and are menaced by giant woodlice.

When completing my viewing of the entire classic series, the serials I had left until last were most of the better Peter Davison stories. The Peter Davison era is quite a mixed bag, with dreadful stuff like Time Flight and some excellent stories like Kinda. Frontios finds itself on the classier side.

Frontios presents us with a dark and bleak vision of the far future, where humanity is scattered and struggling for survival in a cold, uncaring cosmos. Its a vision that works well in Doctor Who. The grey set and costumes reflect this barren idea of the future. The sets really are very well created and present a convincing snapshot of a grim colony planet.

The Tractators are a great monster. There is something really visceral and creepy about big woodlice. They really make your flesh crawl, even if the they don't look quite as menacing at first as some monsters. The suggestion of humanity being prey to such lowly life forms adds to the sense of hopelessness of this vision. The Tractators use of humans as cyborg slaves operating tunnel machines is very macabre.

A significant problem with this story is the destruction of the TARDIS. It just does work together with the Frontios plot very well. The destruction of the TARDIS ought to be an highly significant event in Dr. Who, but it is here just a minor subplot against a much more interesting tale of rugged colonists and giant woodlice. The regular cast also fail to give us a very believable reaction to the destruction of their home and their only way off Frontios.

Despite not quite reacting believably to the destruction of the TARDIS, Peter Davison's Doctor is acting at his best here. The lack of charisma and presence that characterised his first season is long behind him. Mark Strickson is good, while hamming it up a little too much when overcome by race memories. Janet Fielding is great as Tegan. Some of the supporting cast are a little wooden.

I am a bit puzzled by the supposed dangers and illegalities of interfering in the far future. Surely there is far more danger in interfering in the past and the future would be more of a free for all? The Doctor has usually shown less concern about getting involved in the past, on earth and beyond.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Warriors' Gate

A slave ship is trapped in a void between universes. The TARDIS becomes a trapped there as well.

I think Warriors' Gate is a nearly flawless story. The superior production values of Season 18 are honed to absolute perfection in this story. Yet strangely, while being one of the finest and best produced Doctor Who stories ever, it departs radically from the conventions of the show.

The most notable feature of Warriors' Gate is that its plot is not explained and the viewer is left to make sense of a quite puzzling narrative, that takes place across the time stream in a not-quite-linear sequence. Some fans might be tempted to compare Warriors' Gate to the Season 26 story, Ghost Light. This is a significant and interesting comparison, not least because both Season 18 and Season 26 are highly regarded by fans. I would argue, however, that the comparison is wrong.

Like Warriors' Gate, Ghost Light leaves making sense of the plot to the viewer. All the clues are there, but you have to figure them out and this requires viewing it several times. Ghost Light is not so fun a story to watch on first viewing. A significant difference between Warriors' Gate and Ghost Light is that in the latter, the clues to make sense of the narrative are mostly in the dialogue and thus the imperative nature of a repeat viewing. In the former, the dialogue is much sparser and the varied visual images are used in place of a lucid plotting. The emphasis on the visual means that Warriors' Gate can be enjoyed much more than Ghost Light without a repeat viewing. Ghost Light also differs from Warriors' Gate in its annoyingly frantic pace; so many things are going on in a short time, so many subplots and weird characters have been thrown in. In contrast, Warriors' Gate has a much more relaxed space, allowing the viewer to soak in the visual images and dwell on them.

This story is a visual feast. We are treated to a fantastic spaceship set, one of the best on Doctor Who, echoing the Nostromo of the Alien film, to a strange white void with a medieval gateway (taken from a Caspar David Friedrich painting) surreally deposited,to a race of aliens that are based on the French film La Belle et le Bette to a creepy gothic castle with some quite impressive robots and finally a fascinating monochrome world that looks very much like a gothic English country garden. There is a wonderful contrast between gothic, fairy tale images and the bleak functionality of an Alien-style spaceship and its rugged crew. This reflects the way the story blends tragedy with bleak comedy. We have the rather Shakespearean duo of the two crewman, Aldo and Royce who act as a sort of Hellenic chorus, while making some very morbid jokes.

The use of out of sequence narration regarding the events of the fall of the Tharil empire is deeply clever. It is rare that Doctor Who does clever stuff with time. In this case, the out of sequence narration enables us to put together the background of the Tharils piece by piece, rather than being giving an annoying info dump. This trick makes excellent use of the set, showing the gothic chamber both in desolation and in splendour at the height of the Tharil empire. We are able to see the tragic way that history unfolds.

The Tharils are a masterfully constructed. Their time-sensitive ability and leonine grace gives them a great nobility. We initially see them as wretched slaves of their brutal human masters, but then we are lead to see that they themselves the masters, tyrannising over captured humans. My favorite moment in the whole story is when we see the Tharils feasting with the Doctor. One of the Tharils suddenly punches the human serving girl brutally in the breast. Some people have made the silly suggestion that we ought to be told a bit more about this serving girl; who she is and what happened to her. This completely misses the simple beauty of this scene. In that one image of a girl being brutalised, we have a glimpse of what might have been centuries of tyranny and abuse by a decadent empire. we don't need to know more about her; that punch on the breast tells us everything. The Doctor protests by filling his goblet to the brim and knocking the wine over. The Tharil chillingly responds "They're only people!"

Rorvik is a fantastic character. A villain who, for once, does not seek ultimate power over the cosmos or the domination of the earth, but simply to get to his destination and make a reasonable profit. As he becomes trapped in an impossible situation, he loses his grip and desires only to make a difference to his dilemma, no matter how futile; his incredible final words are "Now I'm finally getting something done!" He is a man of action trapped in a situation where all action is hopeless and it destroys him. Doctor Who has showed us plenty of madmen, but Rorvik is a character who is convincingly losing his hold on sanity. Nevertheless, he is a villain, a man who will enslave, abuse and kill to make a profit. His crew are no better. They show not the slightest nod towards a conscience about their enslavement and ill-treatment of the Tharils, going about their work with a mixture of dark humour, bored indifference or casual sadism. In Rorvik's crew we get a taste of the banality of evil shown by those who try to profit from injustice.

Tom Baker's performance has lost the exuberance that characterised the Williams' era. It has been replaced by a very convincing image of a character wearied by the darkness of the things he has seen. The Doctor is confident and relaxed when threatened by Rorvik and unflinching in his condemnation of the Tharil's past tyranny. Peculiarly, in this story, the Doctor is left with no role to play in determining events. His only recourse is to do nothing.

Lalla Ward gives us one of her best performances as Romana. When she first meets Rorvik and company, she comes across as genuinely alien. Her departure is rather hasty, but it is an appropriate ending for her. She effectively becomes a female Doctor, helping the Tharils to right their wrongs, though the way Biroc says "You will be OUR Time Lord," I can't help wondering if the Tharils are back to their old tricks and thinking the universe is their garden once again. I rather dislike the way that the novels and audios have seen her return to Gallifrey and become Lord President. That would make sense if the Season 16 Romana had returned to Gallifrey, but it does not fit the way Romana developed after her regeneration. The wardrobe department was evidently left a bit short of cash, as Romana has a much less interesting costume than her previous outfits.

Matthew Waterhouse is a bit annoying as the waddling Adric, but he would get worse in the next season. As I said, this is a nearly perfect story. And of course, the "Kilroy was here" graffiti is a nice reference to The Invasion.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Return to the Web Planet (Big Finish Audio)

The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa go to Vortis, the planet of Menoptera and Zarbi.

I really like The Web Planet. There seem to be a large contingent of fans who like to mock and criticise that story. They are probably the fans who are not into the black and white era anyway. Its true that there are plenty of problems with the production of The Web Planet, but you have to admire the boldness of what the production team were attempting in creating a world without any humanoid inhabitants.

The Web Planet might have been poor in some respects, but it was rich in atmosphere. There was really a sense of being taken to a strange, unearthly planet. Return to the Web Planet is also rich in atmosphere. This time, instead of the creepy, barren lunar landscape, we are treated to a world of dense flora; a vast and unearthly cosmic garden, a suitable habitat for the weird insectoid lifeforms. This atmosphere is created to a large extent through an absolutely magnificent musical score. Of the Big Finish plays I have heard, I think this one has the best music. It is a deeply mystical score, one that takes on into another world. It reminded a little of some of the work of the ambient group, Delerium. This score is included on the CD as a music only track.

Sadly, while the play has a lot of atmosphere it does not have an awful lot else to commend it.

It has been sometimes commented that it is unfortunate that Big Finish has seldom been able to recreate the TARDIS crew in the Davison era. With Janet Fielding, until recently unwilling to perform for Big Finish, a good deal of their Davison plays have been forced to use an hypothetical TARDIS crew of just the Doctor and Nyssa during the supposed gap between Time Flight and Arc of Infinity. This is not helped by the aging apparent in Davison's voice. He simply does not sound like he did when he was the Doctor. His performance has not particularly improved either.

Nyssa is as boring as she ever was. Making this worse, I found it at times difficult to distinguish her voice from that of the female Menoptera character. The Doctor and Nyssa riding Zarbis is a fun idea, but the supporting characters aren't terribly interesting. We have an outcast scientist/ politician type and his dutiful daughter.

On the other hand, Claire Wyatt is great as 'The Speaker For Mother Life.' She puts in a real urgency into her repeated decleration "I am the Speaker for Mother Life!" Its amazing what an actress can do just by repeating one single line.

We get to the conclusion in rather hurry. There is little conflict or narrative depth at work here. Its a story to enjoy for the atmosphere and the music, but not much else.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace tangle with mobsters in 1920s Chicago, while Bernice takes a blood-chilling trip to E-Space.

Don't we all just love Terrance Dicks? It is so tragic that the new generation of Who fans, raised on the new series have never known the pleasure of reading a Terrance Dicks novelisation. I became a Doctor Who fan in between the cancellation of the show in 1989 and the launch of the Virgin New Adventures series, so my first experiences of Doctor Who were for the most part reading Target novelisations borrowed from the library. Dicks was for many years a writer I knew and loved. His magnificent Timewym: Exodus was the first New Adventure I read and it forever coloured my experience of Doctor Who, setting me on course to be a total New Adventure fan.

Dicks stood out from other New Adventure writers like a sore thumb. He wrote fun, old-fashioned Dr. Who stories in the mould of his novelisations, with lots of returning villains and mosters. Nevertheless, despite his Trad leanings, he still had a great feel for the New Adventures Seventh Doctor, with is manipulative and Machiavellian ways and for Ace. However, he dealt with these characters in a rather more light-hearted way and without the heavy angst of other NA writers. In Blood Harvest, Dicks seems to make the violent, gung-ho Ace of the New Adventures into something of a figure of fun.

Blood Harvest is very much a story of two-halves. The first half is a gripping tale of gangsters in 1920s Chicago at the time of the prohibition. The Doctor's schemes lead him to open up an illegal bar and act as a mediator in a turf war between the famous Al Capone and his rivals. This is narrated by the wonderfully film noir private detective, Dekker. This is a delightful period piece. It is only slightly marred by the attempted rape of Ace. Why was this necessary? A rape scene would have worked fine in an NA like Transit, which is a grim and bleak book. Blood Harvest is far too light-hearted for that scene to come across as anything other than tasteless or insensitive.

The second-half is a little odd. The action moves from 1920s Chicago to E-space, where Bernice is investigating the vampires. Bernice comes across very well here. Her portrayal seems rather more realistic than the hard-drinking wise-cracker we see in some other stories. Bernice meets up with Romana, who is portrayed delightfully as an aristocratic snob. I love Romana and I love her as a snooty posh girl. I know some fans feel Dicks has rather caricatured her. I like Bernice's reflection that the while Romana chose to work amongst the nobility of the E-space planet, the Doctor would inevitably have hung out with the peasents. Terrance Dicks gets the left-wing bias of the show.

What we have in the second-half of Blood Harvest, a sequel to State of Decay. This ties into the Missing Adventure, Goth Opera. Blood Harvest is an odd kind of sequel, in that it alters some of the premises of State of Decay. In State of Decay, the village was apparently the only village on the planet, but in Blood Harvest, we learn there are other villages, ruled by other lords, some vampires, some mortals. This is a rather more realistic scenario than the rather half-imagined world of the original serial.

At the climax, events shift to Gallifrey. At this point, Dicks seems to stop taking the story seriously and creates a pastiched sequel to The Five Doctors, with a group of rogue Time Lords attempting to free Borusa from his imprisonment in Rassilon's tomb. This is all rather funny, but its comic tone is a little out of step with the more serious (but still fun) elements in the novel. It certainly is fun to read the Doctor exclaiming 'No, not the mind probe!' Oddly, we see the return of Castellan Spandrell (who also makes an appearance in Goth Opera). We have already seen two of his successors has he come out of retirement, like the sort of aging, gristle heroes played by Clint Eastwood?

I am not terribly happy with the idea of Romana returning to Gallifrey. I know it has become established continuity that she becomes lord president of the Time Lords, but I don't feel this fits her character. She was desperate not to go back to Gallifrey. We saw her develop into a sort of female Doctor and her departure to help the Tharils, however rushed seemed a fitter conclusion to the character. Besides, if she were in E-space its more likely that she might return to the New Series (dream on..).

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Tomb of the Cybermen

The Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria discover the curse of the Cyberman's tomb.

There is something rather cruel about the way fan opinion has shifted on this story. At one time, Tomb of the Cybermen was spoken of with awe as the great lost story that everybody longed to see. Then it was finally discovered in Hong Kong and fans discovered that actually it was really nowhere near as good as they had imagined. In fan circles, it became cool to rubbish and demean this story. Which shows how shallow and fickle we Doctor Who fans can sometimes be. On account of this, my inclination is to be as kind and gentle to this once well-remembered story as possible.

Probably one element that added to the high expectations of the story is the title. It might be a bit of a Dr. Who cliche for stories to be the something of something, but this one is distinctive. The title raises the obvious question in the audience mind, how did the Cybermen come to be entombed and are they going to get out? It is a clever and evocative title.

Shall we get the faults with this serial over with as quickly as possible? I suppose the first thing to mention is the horrendous racial stereotyping. You have Toberman, the strong, mostly silent black servant who saves the day only out of faithfulness for his mistress (incidently, the Cybermen's rectangular mouthes rather reminds me of a Golligwog or the Black and White Minstrel Show!). Then there is Klieg, who seems to be an Israeli Jew and his accomplice, Kaftan, who is probably also intended to be Jewish. I suppose we can also mention the pathetic attempts at American accents. A good deal of the acting from the guest cast is uniformly bad, though Shirley Cooklin is not too bad as Kaftan. The characters are all cliched stereotypes. Some of the science in the story is rather dodgy. The plot is not the strongest.

Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses this is an effective story because it has atmosphere. It is like a cheesy horror movie that still manages to scare one. There is a real sense of foreboding when the archaeologists explore the tomb. The Cybermen have real menace when they emerge from their tombs covered in slime. The Cybermen are frightening because they share with Mummies and Zombies that sense of body-horror. They are beings that were human, but are now something less than human. And they can make you into one of them. 'You belong to uzzz. You shall become like uzzz.'

For my part, I prefer the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet who were more human and less robotic. These Cybermen are still very effective with the Controller's mechanical voice and their blank expressions. The Controller' costume is great, with his oversized cranium. On the other hand, giving the Cybermen a super-intelligent leader reduces the individual Cybermen to just being heavies. In previous Cybermen, stories, the ordinary Cybermen had more menace. In the later story, The Invasion, the Cybermen came across as useless and brainless zombies.

Tomb of the Cybermen is of course Victoria's first appearance as a companion proper, after her first appearance in Evil of the Daleks. Deborah Watling is not the strongest of actresses, but she endears herself in this. Victoria's reactive chemistry with Kaftan is great; she instantly picks up that Kaftan is up to no good.

Frazer Hines is fun and funny as Jamie, with his usual perfect camaderie with the Doctor. Patrick Troughton is glorious as the Doctor. You can see touches of McCoy's later dark and manipulative Doctor here. He shows great tenderness in the way he comforts Victoria and tells her of how incredible her new life can be.

Trivial point: Notice that Kaftan is wearing sandals. Once you get into the coloured era of Doctor Who, you find that characters in space or the future rarely wear sandals. Later directors seemed to think that in the future, everybody would either wear rubber ankle boots or big knee-high jackboots.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Armageddon Factor

The Fourth Doctor and the first Romana look for the sixth and last segement of the Key to Time in a warzone.

I think the Key to Time season shows how story arcs don't really suit Doctor Who. Character driven story arcs are fine. The first season with the original TARDIS crew was one long story about the characters. That works. However, plot-driven arcs that span multiple serials or episodes do not work so well. Despite some of the excellent and delightfully witty writing in Season 16, the writers never really made the Key To Time into a convincing or interesting concept. Androids of Tara almost sends up the whole idea of the quest, with the Doctor's indifference to finding it and Romana's remarkably immediate success in finding the fourth segment. The nature of story arcs is that they build up audience expectation and thus require an epic conclusion. The problem is that Doctor Who does not do epic terribly well. The Armageddon Factor makes a brave attempt at a epic finale, but ends up looking just a little too tacky and cheap. Even worse, it gives us a resolution to the Key To Time quest that is a little confusing and unsatisfying.

Armageddon Factor has a wonderful opening, with the scene in the dreadfully melodramatic war movie. This imaginative move suggests good things for the serial and indeed, it does have good ideas. A pointless war to the death, a paranoid general, an enemy fleet controlled by a computer and the Doctor tempted by god-like powers. The script is really excellent with some great lines. Tom and Mary do their customary great job, though its sad to know this is the last performance of Mary Tamm. Of the guest cast, John Woodvine is brilliant as the Marshall and he is ably supported by Davydd Harries as Shapp. Woodvine gives a subtle performance, acting quite woodenly in a way that suits the character. The early scenes set on Atrios create a wonderfully bleak and dystopian atmosphere, reflecting Orwell's 1984. Unfortunately, this is lost as the story progresses and we are left with a lot of sci-fi silliness.

As I said, The Armageddon Factor needed to be epic and here the problem of scale comes in. We have a story set in three locations, the underground city on Atrios, Zeos and the Shadow's HQ (is it a space station or a planet?). Atrios is represented by a lot of grim and dark corridors, Zeos is represented by some brighter, cleaner-looking corridors and the Shadow's HQ is made up of some sinister, cavern-like corridors. Despite its cheapness the Atrios sets work because of the claustrophobic, war-torn atmosphere. Once we move away from Atrios, the cheapness of the sets prevails in the viewer's mind.

While the Marshall and Shapp are great, the rest of the cast are rotten. Lalla Ward gives a rather uninspiring performance. It is amazing that she managed to prove her worthiness in the next season. Ian Saynor is simply appalling as the princess' drippy lover, Merak. The Shadow's costume is not bad, but he has the most embarassing evil laugh in the history of the show. His silent servants are given shockingly bad cotumes, complete with sensible lace-up shoes. I suppose there is no reason why an alien moster might not wear lace-ups, as opposed to jackboots or sandals, but it just adds to the overwhelming feeling of cheapness in this story.

The subplot with Princess Astra was clever, but the ending is just too confusing. Did the White Guardian restore balance to the universe instantly when the Key was assembled? Or was the quest pointless? Was the White Guardian really the Black Guardian? We are left without any decent resolution. On the other hand, Tom Baker's speech about having absolute power is a brilliant moment.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Awakening

The Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough run into those weird people who do historical reenactments.

A lot of Doctor Who stories suffer from the problem of being far too long with loads of padding, but this story has the misfortune of being too rich and deep for just two episodes.

The Awakening could have been a really excellent story, one of the best of the Davison era. It has some great elements. The rural location in an English village and a decaying church is really effective. Its nice to enjoy some English countryside in spring. The Malus idea evokes a strong sense of horror in the style of Stephen King. The idea of ordinary, modern people participating in violent actions is even more horrific. Historical reenactment societies are a bit weird, so a horror story about them is a smart move. Will Chandler is a good character who fits well into the story.

The problem is that these elements are not allowed sufficent time to work. There is a real lack of explanation for too many things. Like the psychic projection met by Tegan. How has an entire village been convinced to take part in an horrendous act of brutality? Why does the Malus bring Will Chandler?

With the shortness of the story, the development of the characters suffers. We never really get a feel for what these people are like and why they do the things they do. Tegan's uncle is the least important part in the story, when really he ought to be central to it.

The image of the Malus emerging from a crack in the church wall is very inspired. The problem is that it is too static to be truly frightening. It is just one example of how this story comes so close to being good, yet fails.

On the plus side, Peter Davison puts in a superb performance. Season 21 was the point at which he really makes the Fifth Doctor his own and loses the weakness of his first season. On the other hand, Mark Strickson and Janet Fielding do not come across too well in this story.

One small point, why does Tegan not think of using one of her high heeled shoes as a weapon? It could help to make a quick getaway as well as any sharp object. There are probably other occasions in the show when she could have used her shoes to fight back. Maybe the BBC was worried that woud be too violent.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

State Of Decay

The Fourth Doctor, Romana and Adric discover a coven of vampires in E-Space.

Disconcertingly, after the attempt to break into 'hard science' territory with Full Circle, we are back in Hammer horror territory with a story about old fashioned fanged vampires. This story seems like it is in the wrong season and ought to be a Hinchcliffe-era story (Terrance Dicks originally wrote it to open Season 15, but it got shelved until it was picked up again by the economically-minded John Nathan Turner). What sets it apart from all those Hinchlife Hammer re-workings is its magnificent production values which put the Seventies stories to shame.

I find it remarkable that fans , in general, do not consider this story to be a classic. The usual verdict tends to be that State of Decay is a good story, but not that interesting. In my opinion, it is better than Brain of Morbius, much better than Pyramids of Mars and easily the equal of Horror of Fang Rock (which Dicks hastily wrote to replace this story in Season 15). Like all of the classic stories it has faults, but these do not stand out because of its well-paced narrative and highly effective production.

Terrance Dicks has a reputation as a 'Traditionalist' Doctor Who writer and certainly State of Decay takes many stock elements of Doctor Who- tyrants needing to be overthrown, 'Creature Feature' horror the value of scientific knowlege and ancient evil. This takes the risk of cliche, but Terrance Dicks knows them well enough to make them work. The revelation that the tower is a spaceship is brought out early on in the story. Other Doctor Who writers would probably have made this overly dramatic and brought it out towards the end, under the misguided notion that this is something of great interest to the viewers. State of Decay has a much faster and more exciting pace than the Seventies stories in a similar style. Dicks was a master of his craft.

A good deal of Doctor Who fails to generate atmosphere and this is always a big failing. In contrast, State of Decay is dripping from bucketloads of atmosphere. The woodland and the gothic sets both contribute to this, as well as the scripts descriptions of the ancient menace involved. This is the perfect story to watch on a cold, dark winter evening, with a glass of red wine or a pint of ruby ale in one's hand. Thanks for this go to Nathan-Turner's push for strong production values. We see some marvellous camera-work and effective use of location filming, as well as some brilliant sets- the gothic tower and the rebel HQ with its abandoned machinery.

I love the fact that this story ties into the lore of Gallifrey. The idea of the powerful Time Lords having an ancient arch-enemy in the vampires is very inspired. Despite the clear 'Trad' leanings of this story, the Virgin New Adventures have been considerably inspired by it. As I have said on this blog, I am a huge fan of Neil Penswick's The Pit that deals with the theme of horrors from the Gallifreyan Dark Times. It is not made clear in that story whether the Yssgaroth Old Ones are the vampires or some other Lovecraftian extra-dimensional monstrosity. Strangely, when Terrance Dicks himself used this story in his New Adventure novel, Blood Harvest, he re-wrote the background of State of Decay, introducing the idea that there were far more inhabitants of the planet including other vampire lords. I suppose this makes a bit more sense that their being just one village on the planet.

I think that it was a very smart move to leave the Great One largely to the imagination of the viewer. Imagined terrors are always better than clumsy monster props and suits. We could probably have done without the fleeting image on the scanner, though I think the claw emerging from the ground is more effective than some people allow.

The vampires are brilliantly characterised, with the cunning and ambitious Aukon and the more venal Zargo and Camilla. Aukon seems to be the real power amongst The Three Who Rule. He also comes close to stealing the show with Emrys James' camp but chilling performance. Their final disintegration is very convincingly done. The peasents are a little cliched, but they fit perfectly into the pseudo-medieval world of the story.

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are at their best, with Romana showing genuine terror and the Doctor clearly chilled by the thought of horrors from the Dark Times. There is plenty of humour and Baker's 'St. Crispin's Day' speech is a classic moment. Adric is a little annoying, but it is more interesting to have a companion who does the dirty on the Doctor instead of turning into an instant hero. What makes him work here is that he gets an instant telling-off by Romana. Adric's blaming his brother's death on the Doctor would probably have evoked sympathy from the soft-hearted Fifth Doctor. Adric was a companion for the Fourth Doctor and Romana and needed them to keep him in line. Without them, he became a nuisance.

There is something of an irony in this story in that while it supposedly holds out the value of learning and scientific knowlege, in the end it is the brute fore wielded by an ex-guard and his fellow rebels tha brings down the vampires misrule. The scientific studies of Kalmar are shown to be rather useless.

Two obvious faults with State of Decay stick in my mind. Firstly, what in E-Space is the 'Wasting?' It sounds an intriguing idea, but it is never explained. It reminds me a little of 'The Nothing' from the film NeverEnding Story, a kind of unstopable force of existential decay. What the theologian Karl Barth had in mind when he wrote of the 'Nothingness.' Or maybe some kind of cosmic terror, a vague entity we might see in a H.P. Lovecraft story, like The Colour Out Of Space. Sadly, we never learn anything about what it is meant to be. The second fault, is the bizarre desire of Kalmar to return to earth. There has never been any suggestion in the story that his people are from earth; they are certainly not descendants of the Hydrax crew.

Maybe its because I am a bit of a Goth at heart, but I love this story despite my preference for more 'Rad' elements in Doctor Who.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Full Fathom Five (Big Finish Unbound Audio)

*Spoiler Alert!*

What if the Doctor was a ruthless and cold-blooded swine?

This full-cast audioplay is part of Big Finish's Unbound Adventures series, a set of stories imagining the Doctor Who universe with key canonical notions rejected. This play portrays a Doctor who is prepared to commit cold-blooded murder to achieve his ends.

Part of the thunder of this story is stolen by the fact that the Doctor's ethics have never really been shown to be consistent. The First Doctor lied to his companions in The Daleks and endangered their lives (and then manipulated the Thals to risk their lives to rectify the situation). The Second Doctor wiped out the Macra (after Gridlock we all know the Macra were alien colonialists, but this was never established back then) as well as jumping for joy after blowing up the two Dominators. The Third Doctor aspired to pacifism, but did not seem to have too much difficulty killing alien monsters. The Fourth Doctor kills Solon with poison gas and threatens to blow himself up along with Davros (and allows two human slaves to get killed before releasing Davros). The Sixth Doctor happily dealt out death and violence, accompanied by James Bond style quips. The Seventh Doctor arranged the total destruction of Skaro and shamelessly manipulated Ace. I have absolutely no idea how that stupid Dalek in The Big Bang thought the Doctor would offer it mercy. So the Doctor already seems to believe the end justifies the means. Not that it bothers me too much. I find the pacifist sentiments of thr Third Doctor rather cloying and a bit hypocritical. But then I am a Pertwee-hating McCoy fan.

Full Fathom Five is an exciting drama that will entertain any Dr. Who fan, even if it is a little short. A longer story might have given us a better feel for this strange new Doctor. It might also have cleared up whether the brutality of the Full Fathom Five Doctor is part of his normal personality or a result of this being a later regeneration.

I have to say that the impression I get of this Doctor is that of his being incompetent and second-rate. He has botched a situation with the result of his being stuck on earth. He fails to stop Ruth accompanying him. Most importantly, he sees killing people not as a last resort, but as an only resort. So this new biological technology endangers the human race. Is killing everybody who knows about it really the only way to stop it? Is killing Ruth really the only way to ensure her silence? There is an incredible narrowness to this Doctor's methodology. Worst of all, it is implied that he meets his end at the hands of a girl and a mutant. The Doctor has survived the traps and gloating of Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, mad scientists and Fu Manchu-types. Could he really be defeated that easily. I can't remember the strategy of killing the Doctor every time he regenerates mentioned in any other story. If this is so easy, it is an obvious weakness with the process of regeneration. The Christmas Invasion seems to suggest that this is not so easy; the post-regenerative Tenth Doctor possesses superhuman ability and can regrow a limb.

The Full Fathom Five Doctor is redeemed by David Collings' brilliant performance. He really comes across as vitally Doctorish and brings to life this mysterious character. Despite the seeming incompetence of this Doctor, I do feel like I want to see more of him. I want to see how he would deal with other Doctorish situations.

Collings' brilliant portrayal is supported by a good cast. Particularly notable is Siri O'Neal as the Doctor's earthbound companion, Ruth.

Like the New Adventures, this is for people who like Doctor Who bleak and gritty.