Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Power Of Kroll

The Fourth Doctor and Romana meet a giant squid and its green-skinned worshippers.

You know, I actually don't think that this story is half as bad as some fans make out. A lot of fans claim this is one of the worst stories ever, but what is actually so dreadful about it? I just don't see anything too horrendous going on here. I would much rather watch Power of Kroll than some of those dreadful later Pertwee stories, like Death to the Daleks. I mean, even if Power of Kroll is that bad, it is still only four parts, while your typical horrendous Pertwee story is in six.

There certainly are some bad things about this story. Apart from Ranquin, the 'Swampies' are all pretty unconvincing. Philip Madoc is wasted in a minor role, while the part of the base commander that he should have been given is played with corpse-like stiffness by Neil McCarthy. The interior set of the rig looks too small to be convincing and looks appallingly like cardboard. John Leeson is surprisingly dreadful when we finally get to see him in the flesh.

Other aspects of the story are a mixed bag. Its nice to see a really enormous monster being attempted in Doctor Who. While the Kroll moster is well designed, the effects used to create it are utterly unconvincing. It is still fun to watch it grabbing people with its tentacles though.

Mary Tamm puts in a good performance as Romana. She gets some good lines, put on the whole her role is handled dreadfully by Robert Holmes in this. She plays no effectve part and ends up as a standard damsel-in-distress. Again, the story is partially redeemed by the brilliant lines given to the Doctor and Tom Baker's performance.

As mentioned above, Ranquin is the only one of the 'Swampies', who gets to shine. He is a total and believable fanatic. His eventual demise in the tentacles of Kroll is well played. Glyn Owen puts in a weirdly bland performance as the gun-runner, Rohm-Dutt. Very disappointing because he is a cool character with a cool name.

There is some interesting politics in this story, with themes of colonialism and racism, but these are not terribly subtle and have been dealt with before in Dr. Who.

The location work is highly effective, with the Norfolk marshes giving the impression of an hostile environment in which one could easily drown in wet mud. The sight of the TARDIS cloaked in overgrown reeds is quite eerie.

Unlike the previous story, The Androids of Tara, the Key To Time story arc actually plays a significant role in the story. Robert Holmes was at least taking the story arc seriously, if David Fisher was not.

I can't be the only one reminded by this story of Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Love and War, by Paul Cornell (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor takes his manipulation too far and finally loses the trust of Ace.

Love and War is the definitive New Adventures novel, where the themes and directions of the series really take shape. Paul Cornell was undoubtedly the best writer of the Virgin New Adventures stable. Love and War occupies a pivotal place in the series in that it gives us Ace's break with the Doctor and the entrance of Bernice Summerfield.

Love and War takes that great theme of Season 26, that of the Seventh Doctor/ Ace relationship and takes it beyond the television show. In Love and War, the Doctor pushes Ace to the limit until the point where she rejects his Machiavellian scheming and apparent lack of concern for her feelings. The novel gives us an apparent climax in Ace's emotional journey. It is a story of personal tragedy.

Here we have the Doctor as Time's Champion, the lonely genius who manipulates good and evil to achieve his objectives. He is detached from the feelings of others, yet desperate to avoid loneliness and desperate for the understanding of Ace. This is not the story for those who want an angst-free Doctor, but Cornell captures the Seventh Doctor perfectly. It is almost an indirect sequel to the Curse of Fenric. It also takes cues from the Seventh Doctor of Delta and the Bannermen, with his cool detatchment from the relationships of others.

Bernice is given a good introduction and is sold to us as a character with an instant chemistry with the Doctor. The book does not, however, spend much time developing her character. She sinks into the background quite quickly.

I am a fan and I am not ashamed of it. I like continuity references. Paul Cornell and other New Adventure writers have been cursed for their 'fanwank', but I resent this charge. We like to see other stories referred to. It creates a sense of the reality of the Doctor Who universe. I appreciate seeing Draconians, references to the Dalek War, IMC and Abslom Daak the Dalek killer.

The presence of New Age Travellers/Crusties is a nostalgic touch. The reference to 80s and early 90s culture is one of the pleasures of reading New Adventures novels today. The presence of Puterspace, a virtual reality world is also a nostalgic cyberpunk element.

We might expect the Doctor, a wandering rogue to be very close in attitude to the Travellers, but instead we find him taking a suspicious view of them, seeing them as dangerous and somewhat parasitic.

Portraying a sexual relationship is something that could never really be done in the television series. This is an interesting element and it is portrayed with some brilliant prose. It is a little hard to believe Ace would really fall so wholeheartedly for a man as obviously unreliable and inconsistent as Jan (does she really expect him to remain faithful to her?). Perhaps being in the TARDIS with the Doctor makes the companions long for human relationships and take them wear they can.

Like many of the Virgin New Adventures, Love and War looks to H.P. Lovecraft for influence. The Hoothi are fungoid, like Lovecraft's Mi-Go, they are an ancient menace like his Old Ones and are worshipped by human cultists. They are an effective Doctor Who monster. It is perhaps a little awkward that it is never properly explained how Ace's old friend Julian came to be in their power.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Invasion

The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe give the newly formed UNIT a helping hand dealing with the Cybermen.

Throughout the Patrick Troughton era, there are hints of what we would get in Season 7 under John Pertwee. Under Troughton, we see more monsters, more scientists, more alien invasions and more near future and contemporary settings. However, more than any of the other Troughton stories, The Invasion stands out as a prototype for the earthbound Pertwee stories. We have the near future setting, the return of Lethbridge-Stewart, the first appearance of UNIT, Benton, an alien menace, scientists, gadgetry, a dastardly tycoon and military leaders turning out to be helping the bad guys. All the vital ingredients of the earthbound Pertwee stories are present. The temptation is to evaluate it purely in terms of what the show would become rather than as a story in itself.

Two episodes of this story have been lost from the BBC archives. Thankfully, these have been reconstructed by animation for the DVD release. These animations are really quite effective, though they slip up by putting Zoe in the wrong outfit. The Invasion is a little long, but it is not too padded, compared to other Sixties and Seventies stories. The story has something of a difficulty with scale. We see a Cyberman invasion that consists of just a few Cybermen in London who do not do very much. There is a UNIT military action that rescues a significant character that takes place offscreen. We have a space battle that is created using a bit of stock footage. Still, the story does the best with what it has. Despite the limitations of what we are shown, somehow The Invasion manages to capture an epic, movie feel.

Troughton is in top form in this story, dominating every scene. One interesting thing to note is how well he gets on with the Brigadier. There is not a hint of the tension between the Third Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart. It seems that the humble, self-effacing (but ultimately rather anarchic) Second Doctor got on much better with the Brigadier than the arrogant, haughty, but still more conservative Third Doctor.

Wendy Padbury is also marvellous as Zoe. I like the fact that as well as doing her usual clever clogs stuff, she gets to dress up in fashionable clothes and act girly. It makes something of a change for the character. This is helped along by pseudocompanion, Isobel Watkins. I love her trendy cocknified received pronunciation. It is a shame she did not become a regular, because she gets on so well with Zoe and Jamie. In fact for a few minutes, the show seems to morph into Scooby Doo with the Brigadier talking about 'those crazy kids.' Jamie, Zoe and Isobel bear a striking resemblance to Shaggy, Velma and Daphne. All we are missing is Fred and that dog! Perhaps if Zoe had been introduced to the TARDIS when Ben and Polly were around the comparison would be more apt, though what this would make the Doctor does not bear thinking about too much!

UNIT in this story seem to have pretty impressive resources at their disposal and are able to carry out effective covert operations. They are a far cry from the Dad's Army we would see in the later Pertwee years. It might be nice to see more of Benton in this story, but their are too many other prominent non-regulars for John Levene to really get the chance to shine.

Kevin Stoney is incredible as the villainous Tobias Vaughan. Although he at times rages like every other Dr. Who megalomaniac, a good deal of the time he maintains a calm demeanour. Particularly impressive is his amusement at Zoe's destruction of his computer. Stoney also shows a great chemistry with Troughton in the scenes they have together. It has been asked why a genius like Vaughan would put so much trust in the hilariously incompetent Packer. Presumably, Packer's skills had never before been sufficently tested.

The Cyberman are a bit of a let down in this story. They act like zombies, showing no real intelligence. They seem to take their orders from a computer. Their metal faces looking strangely happy. Their vulnerability of the week is to artificially induced fear.

I think it is clear that this story is not mean to be set in the Sixties. The computer technology is more advanced and there seems to be peace with Russia. The story is specifically stated by the Brigadier to have taken place four years after Web of Fear which was set in 1975, according to Professor Travers. This is clear evidence that the UNIT stories have an 80s rather than a 70s setting.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Gunfighters

The First Doctor, Steven and Dodo get mixed up in the gunfight at the OK Corral.

This story has a really bad reputation among fans for some reason. When I viewed it, I was preparing for the worst. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps because I quite like westerns or just because I like Doctor Who stories that are light, camp and fun.

I understand 'The Gunfighters' has the remarkable honour of being the first western ever made in Britain. This is probably not surprising as it makes a lot of sense to leave the Yanks to do what they are good at. By the time The Gunfighters was made, the public were getting a little tired of westerns and so the story opts to send up the genre. Hence, we are treated to some hilarious comedy. I think it is much more successful as a comedy story than The Romans, which was a little too daft in places, while in other places being very grim and quite serious.

As might be expected in a British western, the attempt to recreate a western town in a studio leaves a little to be desired. Nevertheless, the production team did their best and gave us a set that is certainly adequate. Unfortunately, most of the American accents on offer are even less successful, but this is Doctor Who.

One odd feature that makes this story stand out is a rather catchy ballad that is sung throughout the serial and provides a sort of running commentary on the action. I think this is quite cute and oddly nostalgic (though it is not a typical feature of westerns).

Hartnell puts in a fantastic performance in a period when his health was declining and he was getting rather lacklustre. Peter Purves also gives a great performance as Steven. Even the much unloved Dodo is reasonably good in this story. The guest cast are rather a mixed bunch; Anthony Jacobs is certainly very good as Doc Holliday.

I think the Doctor's choice of 'Regret'as a psudonym for Steven the 'singer' is fantastic.

Of course, there are plenty of things in the story that make no sense, for instance the fact that it is so obvious that the Doctor is a dental patient and not the dentist. Particularly strange is the Doctor's attempt to prevent the shoot-out. If he knows it happens, why is he trying to change history? Perhaps he has grown weary of watching dreadful historical events unfold and feels like making an hopeless, but well meant attempt.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Androids of Tara

Searching for the Key to Time, the First Romana stumbles into an adaptation of the Prisoner of Zenda and the Fourth Doctor gets to do some swashbuckling.

The Graham Williams era is really fun to watch. I would not hesitate to say I am a fan of this period in the history of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, its big failing of not taking the show seriously had consequences. This is very clearly seen in Season 16, where a story arc is introduced, but is never thought out carefully or executed in a manner that reflects the seriousness of the theme. One almost wonders why they bothered with the idea. This is most clearly seen in Androids of Tara. The Doctor and Romana arrive; she is anxious to find the fourth segment, but the Doctor can't be bothered and goes fishing. Romana then finds the fourth segment in a matter of minutes and the story moves on to other territory. Writer David Fisher does not seem to have seen the story arc as any more than a joke. Happily, this leaves us with a delightful lighthearted story that is immensely enjoyable.

Androids of Tara captures the look and feel of an historical story, but is set on another planet and features androids (unsurprisingly). The plot is heavily inspired by the novel Prisoner of Zenda and the superb costumes reflect that influence.

This story, above all others, shows that Doctor Who does not have to always be about cosmic horrors, threats to the human race or things that threaten the fabric of time and space. Sometimes it can just give us light-hearted stories with swashbuckling and mustache-twirling villains.

Tara is a fairy tale world of castles, princes and scheming villains. This approach to setting refutes any charge that the characters are lacking in depth. Villains are wicked and the handsome princes are good.

The first Romana fits in perfectly to this story, with her air of aristocracy and glamour. While Lalla Ward was patrician enough, I don't think she would have fitted into this story so well. I expect that the second Romana would not only have located the fourth segment on her own, but would also have single-handely dealt with Count Grendel! However, the sucess of Romana in finding the segment herself is an important marker in her character development and we begin to see a more independent Romana emerge.

Tom Baker gives us his usual brilliant performance. His adoption of the role of a 'peasent' is characteristic.

Prince Reynart is a good character who is actually quite fun to watch. He is unbelievably nice and is also a little on the dim side too. However, the show's best performance comes from Peter Jeffrey as the villainous Count Grendel. he really is fantastic. Sadly, despite his survival and escape at the end of the story, he never makes a return in the show.

Friday, 10 September 2010


The Doctor and Romana visit Cambridge and end up as stock footage in a later story.

Shada was never completed so we are left with a collection of disjointed sequences and some narration put together to join them up. We don't even have telesnaps to help us out. This makes it very difficult to review.

Shada seems to be regarded by fans as a great undmade classic. It is thought of as the story that would have redeemed the tragically silly Season 17. This assumption seems to be dependant on giving the missing scenes the benefit of the doubt.

Looking at what survives of Shada, I can't help thinking that it looks like a load of rubbish. The scene with the Doctor and Romana punting is quite lovely and Ward puts in a great performance in her surviving scenes. The revelation that the Professor's room is a TARDIS is well conceived, but other than this I see nothing to make this story stand out from the other stories of Season 17 or that makes it approach the quality of City of Death.

Like other Season 17 stories, Shada looks cheap. The Kraags look like typical Season 17 silly monsters. Skagra wears a hideous silver outfit that looks camp in a really bad way. The spaceship does not look terribly impressive either (of course on the outside it is invisible to save costs).

The script is deeply unimpressive when compared to Adams' other efforts, City of Death and Pirate Planet. A lot of the jokes are just not that funny. Professor Chronotis is yet another cliched bumbling scientist type. Hardly interesting as a Time Lord. The revelation that he is a wanted criminal mastermind not seem to add much to the story. We have seen enough renegade Time Lords to be interested in him. As for Christ and Claire, they are really boring supporting characters.

Tom Baker's linking narration on the BBC Video is really irritating. He plays it in character, which comes across as patronising. He is not dressed like the Doctor and has visibly aged. He is not the Doctor any more!

Maybe my judgement on what is left of Shada is harsh. Perhaps if only fragments were left of City of Death I might not be kind to that story either. I just don't feel like giving Shada the benefit of the doubt, especially given the rest of Season 17.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Not Getting No. 1

The first two multi-Doctor stories The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors are of debatable merits. In my opinion, one of their biggest failings is in their portrayal of the First Doctor (and I am not even going to talk about Richard Hurndall!).

The First Doctor is portrayed in these two stories as older and wiser. In Three Doctors, he is sent by the Time Lords to keep his other two incarnations in line. He takes an air of authority and superiority towards them. In The Five Doctors, he figures out the mystery of Rassilon's game (which the other Doctors somehow forget) and generally acts like his other incarnations are younger men.

This is a total failure to grasp the character of Hartnell's Doctor. Just as the Fifth Doctor was an old man in a young man's body, the First Doctor is a young man in an old man's body. The Doctor's first incarnation has lasted some time and has aged, but in comparison to the other Doctor's (apart from Six, who seems to be going through some sort of crisis) he is easily the least mature. He acts like a selfish, stroppy, and impulsive teenager. He can be lovable, but he is not somebody you want to be with when he is not in the best of moods. He obsesses over small things and frequently endangers his companions with his unwise decisions. In no way is he older or wiser than later Doctors.