Wednesday 29 December 2010

The Seeds of Death

Slaar: You have dessstroyed our entire fleet!
The Doctor: You tried to destroy an entire world.

Jamie! Zoe! Let me in! Oh! Oh no! Oh my word! Let me in!

I don't get Doctor Who fans. This story is an absolute classic. It is the best surviving Troughton story. Yet for some reasons a lot of fans think it is a bit rubbish. Why? Because it is too long? Lots of stories are too long. Each episode of this story is full of action. Because it has holes in the plot? So does Pyramids of Mars. Gaping big holes. Because the 21st century costumes look silly? The costumes in Robots of Death look a bit silly too and most people seem to like that. Because the Ice Warrior Grand Marshal wears a spangly, disco helmet covered in glitter? Well, I think he looks cute. I just don't see what the problem is with this story. It is a brilliant one.

The Seeds of Death was among the first ten or so novelisations I borrowed from the library when I first got into Doctor Who back in 1990. And then to my delight, it turned out that my parents had bought me the video that Christmas. I was both surprised and delighted when I unwrapped it back in Xmas 1990. Oh memories, aren't they sweet? The BBC Video had not remastered the original recording so the sound and picture got a bit jittery towards the end. In my childhood innocence, I thought this was my fault because I paused the video too many times.

Some people seem to think that Seeds of Death is not as good as Ice Warriors. Personally, I never compare complete stories to incomplete stories. I found the Ice Warriors rather boring, but then the missing episode probably did not help.

What is so great about Seeds of Death? Well, for one thing, it contains some of the most inventive camerawork of the black and white era, such as showing the moonbase crew from the Martians point of view and the projection of numerals onto Gia Kelly's face. It also has one of the best musical scores in the history of the show. It is an highly cinematic score. At times it feels like it belongs in a Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy film.

The Seeds of Death is a base-under-siege story. Yes, the Troughton era was a bit overcrowded with those kind of stories, but this one is different. For one thing, we get the relief of more than one location. We see the concern of the Earth command centre when the moonbase is no longer in contact with earth. The Doctor does not conveniently turn up in the base-under-siege in the TARDIS (oh hello, problem with alien invaders is it?) but has to travel there in an antiquated rocket.

The premise behind the story is remarkably original. Back in the late Sixties rockets were at the cutting edge of technology and interest in space travel was at it's peak. A story about rockets and space travel being made obsolete would have been pretty radical. Given that our society no longer has much interest in space travel now, the serial may be seen as prophetic. We might wonder that governments would completely rely on one form of technology to keep the world fed and organised, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they could be so complacent (though how it is that only Gia Kelly understand T-Mat is another question). The moment where Eldred and the Doctor indulge in their boyish enthusiasm for rockets is beautiful and might awaken in older viewers a nostalgia for that old Dan Dare vision of space exploration. One of the things that brings this sense of the future-obsolete is the way the moonbase seems so big and deserted, filled with rooms stuffed with unused equipment.

Seeds of Death is full of fantastic supporting characters. Osgoode is not on for very long, but he is great while he is there. His look of grim defiance in the face of death is stunning. Eldred and Radnor are a great pair. There is a real sense of history between them. They are too old men whose friendship was spoiled by politics. When Kelly defies Radnor and goes to the moon, Eldred dryly comments "She's after your job, Julian." Kelly herself is great. Somebody who knows she is indispensable; cooly efficient, but rather too quick to seek somebody to blame. I love the fact that as soon as the crisis is over Eldred, Radnor and Kelly are back to the old arguments about the merits of rockets over T-Mat. Terry Scully is also brilliant as Fewsham. When he wails "I want to live!" you believe him. He is helped of course, by being blessed with a very expressive face that helps to enhance his misery.

The Ice Warriors look great in black and white. The lack of colour helps to attract attention to their crustiness and makes them look especially scary. It has been suggested that with the introduction of an officer class, a 'Davros Factor' was added, reducing the impact of the ordinary Ice Warriors. I am not so sure. With Davros, you had somebody who was not a Dalek bossing the Daleks around and thus making them look stupid. Slaar, on the other hand is very much one of the Ice Warriors, despite his differing armour. Alan Bennion at times gives Slaar an hilariously camp posture, though on the whole he is pretty menacing.

The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe were such a brilliant team. Zoe was so cute and sassy. She is pretty useful and effective in this story. You have to feel for Jamie, however, he is patronised mercilessly through this story by both the Doctor and Jamie. Though he does get a good comeback, stating the obvious fact that they will die of thirst before they drift into orbit around the sun.

Patrick Troughton clowns around an awful lot in this story. The contrast between this and his rather more straight performance in Tomb of the Cybermen is striking. He is wonderful entertainment throughout the story, though he becomes deadly serious when he confronts Slaar towards the end. The Second Doctor was certainly the most ruthless Doctor. He was prepared to destroy the entire Martian fleet, even knowing that they were a dying race. He was no pacifist and in this story goes into action, killing Ice Warriors with his make-shift solar energy weapon.

This story definitely deserves a better reputation than it has so far received.

Sunday 26 December 2010

A Christmas Carol

The plot of 'A Christmas Carol' recreated in the far future with Steampunk visuals and flying sharks.

I did not have high expectations for this story, but I have to say that even I was surprised at how bad this was. This has to be the biggest load of garbage we have ever seen from the BBC Wales series. What surprises me most is that this story seems to be getting so many positive reviews and on comment threads, critics of the special are being dismissed as 'scrooges.'

Critics of the BBC Wales series have harboured hopes that the producership of Steven Moffatt would be a major improvement on the RT Davies years. Well, A Christmas Carol has satisfied me that Moffatt has all the faults of Davies and more.

As with so much of the BBC Wales series, this story has been written with visual impact in mind. Moffatt wants a visual spectacle, so the plot is purely subordinate to making the wonderful things he has imagined happen.

A Christmas Carol is built around an utterly contrived attempt to re-create a classic story. It fails in this because it tries to translate the basic plot of a fairy tale-like story into a sort of science fiction disaster movie. Dickens' story was about the individual grasping with his conscience; it was about the responsibility of one man to his fellows in the human race. This Christmas special is about the Doctor trying to prevent a disaster by manipulating somebody.

There are two basic problems with the situation that we are given in A Christmas Carol. The first problem is that there is no plausible motive for Sardik's unwillingness to do anything for the spacecraft in peril. So he is a nasty, mean-hearted old man, but there seems little indication that saving the spacecraft will be any great loss to him. It seems unlikely that the Doctor could not easily find ways to persuade him to act, either through bribery or pressure. Does Sardik really want people to die merely out of spite?

Secondly, the Doctor's strategy of saving the spacecraft fails to work both in terms of continuity with the history of the show and purely on a narrative level. In narrative terms, it is jarring to see the Doctor leaving the scene of a life-threatening adventure to travel back in time and have a long series of light-hearted adventures over a long period. While time travel presumably makes that possible, it seems to trivialize the significance of the disaster and rather makes one wonder that the Doctor could not come up with a more immediate answer to the situation. However, what is even more worrying is that the Doctor's strategy is such a departure from the way Doctor Who normally works.

Steven Moffatt has shown a worrying tendecy to use time travel as a plot mechanism. We saw this in his spoof Curse of Fatal Death, though nobody would have taken that seriously. More recently, he had the Doctor interfering in his own timeline in The Big Bang, despite his insistence that this was not possible in Parting of the Ways. I'm a 'Rad' fan and all for experimenting with different kinds of stories, but completely re-writing the way Doctor Who works is not a good idea. Throughout the history of the show, the Doctor enters a difficult situation and he gets on with dealing with it. He never travels back in time and alters the past. If the Doctor can do this, he has a 'get out of jail free card.' We can no longer enjoy him as a protagonist. If he can do this, he is nearly a god. Are we to just ignore the fact that the Doctor has never worked like this before? Are we to ignore the fact that the Doctor has said that you can't change the past, as he did in the Hartnell era (a notion which while not carried through consistently, still makes sense within a lot of later stories)? Are we to imagine that the Doctor's alterations to the past would not have massive and unpredictable results, such as the machinery for controlling clouds no longer being available?

A Christmas Carol even features the Sardik the boy meeting Sardik the old man. I know the notion that meeting your self causes an explosion, as seen in Mawdryn Undead makes absolutely no sense, but surely the fact that we never see this happening in Doctor Who (except in multi-Doctor stories) indicates that it really is a bad thing? I don't think we can just ignore the way time travel works in the continuity of the show and imagine that the Doctor can do anything he likes. That is just too easy and if it continues, we may see some seriously lazy script-writing.

This story features the greatest use of Steampunk visuals in a Doctor Who story. Personally, I am not a big fan of Steampunk. It is all just a bit too knowing and consciously cool. There is something of an air of unreality about Steampunk, given that it is trying to visualize a past/present/future that never was or is likely to be. Surprisingly and refreshingly, however, the crew of the spacecraft are wearing very retro-futuristic uniforms. This makes a refreshing change in BBC Wales Dr. Who. I have commented before about the tiresome tendency of the show to always make the future look like contemporary earth.

In my mind the casting of Katharine Jenkins was a seriously bad idea. Clearly, the woman is quite unable to act, but this is hardly a surprise given that she has never played a serious dramatic role in her life. At least when they cast Kylie Minogue, they had somebody who had some considerable acting experience.

Finally, seeing a carriage pulled by a flying shark as though it were Santa's sleigh just made me want to throw up. Far too much icing...

Thursday 23 December 2010

The Dark Flame, by Trevor Baxendale (Big Finish Audio)

The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice encounter a sinister cult and an eldritch entity.

This is the second of Big Finish's audios that are set within the New Adventures continuity. That they have not made any further audios with the NA TARDIS crew indicates that there can't be that many weirdos like me who view the Virgin New Adventures as a golden era of Doctor Who. I think it's a shame. Big Finish appear to want to concentrate on a period they have 'discovered' in between Survival and the new Adventures. Judging from Colditz, they wanted a kinder, gentler Ace than the one seen in the New Adventures. This reflects the fact that Big Finish is all about pleasing people who want good old fashioned Doctor Who rather than people who like the challenging, experimental approach of the Virgin range. Still, I am glad they appreciated us NAstalgics enough to give us two NA era audios.

Perhaps a little oddly, this story is not by one of the NA writers. Maybe they were all tired of this era and wanted to do other stuff. Like many of the New Adventure novels, you can see the influence of Lovecraft, with the presence of a sinister cult, worshipping a godlike extra-dimensional entity. The other NA-like offering from Big Finish, Shadow of the Scourge was much more creative in terms of plot and ideas than this. Unsurprisingly, Shadow of the Scourge was by Paul Cornell, one of the greatest of the NA writers.

Ace comes across as a good deal more aggressive than she was in Shadow of the Scourge, though as with that play, Sophie Aldred fails to capture the New Adventures version of the character. Lisa Bowerman is fun as Benny, though her constant joking does strain credibility. McCoy's performance is full of enthusiasm.

If you are a New Adventures enthusiast you will want to listen to this, if not, you can be assured that Big Finish have released better audio dramas than this.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Timewyrm: Exodus, by Terrance Dicks (Virgin New Adventure novel)

Pursuing the Timewyrm, the Seventh Doctor and Ace discover an alternate post-war Britain under Nazi rule.

This is the first New Adventure novel I read. This is where the New Adventures began for me. I read this when I was eleven years old. Then I read it again and again. It was my favorite book for about a year.

When I was eleven years old, Terrance Dicks was a name I knew and loved. I had read dozens of his Target novelisations and I knew he had written The Five Doctors, which was the first Dr. Who video I ever watched. Dicks' novelisations were easy to read, and so was this. It was exciting, fun and full of great characters and humour that I could mostly appreciate at that young age (mostly).

What is more, it was about the Nazis. Like so many other English boys, I was fascinated by the Second World War and thought the German uniforms were cool. Timewyrm: Exodus was just written for my younger self. This book hardly curbed my fascination. I learned so much about the history of the Third Reich from this book and it got me reading lots of history books to find out more. That was what Doctor Who was originally supposed to do. We all know how Doctor Who started out with an educational agenda, featuring those two teachers who were supposed to help young viewers to learn about both science and history. Well, Timewym: Exodus helped me to learn so much about Twentieth Century history and if I ever meet Terrance Dicks I would shake his hand and thank him for it.

Timewyrm: Exodus was my first introduction to the Seventh Doctor and Ace (apart from that lame BBC science program that the BBC kept repeating back in the early 90s). I had never seen any Seventh Doctor stories, bar ten minutes of The Curse of Fenric which terrified me. I was fascinated by the character of this Doctor. He was sligtly sinister, manipulative and with incredible powers of persuasion. His willingness to be ruthless was obvious, despite his unwillingness to use violence himself. Looking back, I can see that Terrance Dicks gives us a Seventh Doctor who is at times closer to the Third Doctor in his occasional patronising of Ace and his enjoyment of the luxury hotels in the story, but it is still the dark, manipulative Doctor of the New Adventures; however 'Trad' Dicks' leanings might be.

After this, I went on to read other New Adventure novels, though I found most of them much more difficult than Timewyrm: Exodus. Nvertheless, I look back on the era of the Virgin New Adventures as a golden era in the history of the show. It was a time when being a fan really meant something and the mythos of Doctor Who was being explored from new angles. This was the only Doctor Who that was current when I was a young fan, so as I have said before, the Seventh Doctor of the New Adventures was 'My Doctor.'

This is quite a personal review for me to do. I could write some more critical comments about Dicks' style and about the development of the characters. I could make a number of criticisms of this story, but I don't feel I want to. This is a story that meant a lot to me when I first read it and I am sure that anybody who reads it will find it to be one of the most enjoyable of the Virgin New Adventures.

The Ultimate Foe (Trial of a Time Lord parts 13-14)

"I'm as honest, truthful and about as boring as they come."

You could sum up this story simply as "Deadly Assasin goes pantomime." I don't mind the pantomime feel of the next season after this, but Trial of a Time Lord was a story arc that cried out for a dramatic conclusion. What we get is a rushed and half thought out mess.

Offscreen circumstances can largely be blamed for the failure of this story. Robert Holmes wrote the first episode of this, but his illness and subsequent death prevented it's completion. Eric Saward wrote a concluding episode in his absence, but then resigned and kept the copyright to it. Pip and Jane Baker were hastily called in to write a conclusion to a story that they had not written, without knowing how it was all supposed to end. Hence, what we are left with.

The idea that the Valeyard is the 'dark side of the Doctor' is a bit bonkers. Of course, he never really admits this himself and we find out this from the Master, who might just as well have made it all up for a laugh. Onscreen evidence actually suggests that the Valeyard may have been the Keeper of the Matrix all along.

We find out that the Time Lords have been up to some pretty shady stuff, though we pretty much knew this already. As I said before, the whole backstory about the earth being moved by the Time Lords is a bit of a continuity nightmare.

Despite the poor script, Colin Baker put's everything into it. He is stunning in his condemnation of the Time Lords and his apparent surrender to fate. The real tragedy is his becoming a scapegoat for the failings of his two seasons and his dismissal as a result. Bonnie Langford's Mel is less effective. I like her, but this story really does not suit her style. Anthony Ainley gives his worst ever performance as the Master. Michael Jayston is good as the Valeyard, but he does lose the chilling restraint of previous stories and become another gloating, cackling villain.

It is fun to see Sabalom Glitz again, though it is odd that he seems to be friends wiht the Doctor, despite being a cold-blooded killer. Perhaps Glitz met the Doctor a second time after The Mysterious Planet.

The pseudo-Victorian world of the Matrix and Mr. Popplewick are cool, though with the massive Steampunk obsession that has been goig since the 80s, perhaps too consciously cool. The problem with virtual reality stories is that they don't engage very well with the viewer. If the events depicted are not real, why get excited about them?

The Dallas-style reversal of Peri's horrifying fate is very disappointing. On the other hand, there is something delightfully surreal about Peri marrying Ycarnos and becoming a barbarian warrior queen. According to the novelisation, Ycarnos goes with Peri to California, where he comes a champion wrestler with Peri as his manager. This is amusing, but rather silly.

The really remarkable thing about The Trial of a Time Lord is that of it's segments, the two which are written, or in this case half-written, by Robert Holmes are the worst. Mysterious Planet was a derivative runaround, this conclusion was a confused piece of scripted chaos, while Mindwarp was very good and the nice-but-mediocre Pip and Jane Baker gave us a reasonably decent story in Terror of the Vervoids.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Terror of the Vervoids (Trial of a Time Lord parts 9-12)

"Your defence is that you improved? This I must see!"

Having witnessed in the Matrix the death of his companion, Peri, the Doctor has lost the arrogance and cockiness that he showed in the first story of the Trial series. He is now far more subdued and rather melancholy.

The Doctor is given the chance to make his defence. He does so by presenting an adventure that takes place in his future, involving a companion he has not met. His defence is that his conduct improved and that his intervention was requested by somebody in authority and that it was vital to the protection of countless human lives. I am not going to begin to discuss the complexities and anomalies involved in the Doctor knowing about a future adventure. Let us just say it is a bit of a mind-boggling notion. As I mentioned when reviewing The Mysterious Planet, if this was an American sci-fi show or made by an independent television company, this season would have included a story featuring stock footage of at least one older story. This would make sense as I can think of plenty of adventures that could have been forcefully used by the Doctor in his defence. He could have mentioned the many occasions in which his intervention was arranged or ordered by the Time Lords. He could have mentioned the stories of Season 16, when he was asked by the White Guardian to retrieve the Key to Time. He could have mentioned the Dominators and those dreaded Quarks- hang on, he already did that last time he was put on trial.

Judging from the DVD commentary, Pip and Jane Baker are absolutely lovely, kind people who one would just love to meet. Unfortunately, they seemed unable to write convincing dialogue. The script for this story is really bad in places. On the other hand, they have created a really effective Agatha Christie style murder mystery. I would argue that this story works much more effectively as a murder mystery than the dreadfully overhyped Robots of Death. In Robots of Death, you knew a robot did it (if the title did not give you the clue), so it is not difficult to work out which member of the crew is most likely to be the culprit. The detective element works better in this less well regarded serial.

With vicious monsters on board a spaceship, we know we are in Alien territory. Doctor Who knows this territory well, after all, it got there first with Ark in Space. The production team certainly don't let us down with the Vervoid costumes, bar the odd moment when you can see what the actors are wearing underneath. I am a bit puzzled by their intelligence, knowlege of human technology and their command of English (or whatever language the crew and passengers speak). Some fans have raised the question of how the Vervoids have come to be armed with stings when they are bred as servants. Probably, they are crossbreeds of various plants, one variation of which must have possessed a poison sting. On the other hand, it could be that they have really been bred for military purposes. The mutated woman is very well created, though she is rather superfluous to the plot.

I struggle a little with the notion that the arrival of the Vervoids spells the extinction of animal life on earth. There is hardly an army of them on board. I am sure they would not stand up to a sustained bombardment of weed killer. One also wonders why the Doctor does not mention, when charged with genocide, that the Time Lords ordered him to commit genocide against the Daleks and that the Time Lords committed genocide against both the Vampires and the Fendahl. For all people complain about the excessive continuity of mid-80s Dr Who, it all get's forgotten in the Trial of the Time Lord.

It really does seem in this story that the Sixth Doctor has changed and improved. Colin Baker plays him as a much more affectionate and likeable character than before. I also think his new waistcoat and tie are an improvement, though I am sure a lot of fans will hate both versions of his costume. Baker has a real chemistry with Bonnie Langford. Mel is a companion who is tailor made for the Sixth Doctor. Her cheerful disposition counterbalances his tendency to moodiness. I am not quite sure how she manages to get him to exercise against his will. It is impossible to imagine Peri forcing the Doctor to do anything against his will.

Mel is a rival to Adric for being the most hated companion, but I really like her. As much as I like Tegan and Peri, it is refreshing to have a companion who enjoys being with the Doctor. I have said before that I cannot stand Jo Grant. I find it hard to reconcile in my mind how I can like Mel, but hate Jo Grant when both characters share a number of qualities. I think perhaps it is because at this period of the show, it was all being taken less seriously. There was room for a larger than life character like Mel. Pertwee played his part absolutely straight and his stories were written to be taken seriously, hence the presence of the childish Jo Grant was an irritation. Bonnie Langford gives her best performance here in Terror of the Vervoids.

The guest cast in this story are decent enough, though none of them particularly stand out. It is nice to see Honor Blackman doing her turn in Doctor Who. The spacecraft set is very well designed, even though it wobbles once or twice. The black hole special effect really is awful.

This is truly an enjoyable story in the good old-fashioned Doctor Who style. Quite a switch from the rather 'Rad' second part of ths series.

Friday 17 December 2010

Mindwarp (Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8)

The Sixth Doctor's relationship with Peri becomes abusive (again).

The Mysterious Planet was full of running around and getting captured. Mindwarp is also full of running around and getting captured; the difference is that Mindwarp has real quality, while Mysterious Planet was a derivative mess.

Right from the start of the story in the trial scene, we learn that something has happened to Peri and we are left waiting to find out what this is. This adds an immense sense of tension and foreboding to this story. We start to see the Doctor lose his cockiness and become desperate to make sense of what he sees in the evidence.

Despite it's many camp elements and despite it looking in many place like a video for a multi-racial 80s pop band, Mindwarp is one very bleak story. Mindwarp is the ultimate elaboration of Eric Saward's vision of the cosmos. Throughout the Saward era, we were given a glimpse of a dark future filled with violence and carnage. Yet Mindwarp is the darkest of all these stories. Caves of Androzani was bleak. There were no nice people in that story; only a lunatic with a deformity and a massive grudge, brutal mercenaries and self-serving capitalists. Nevertheless, for all it's darkness, in the midst of Caves of Androzani, we had the faithful and compassionate Doctor, steady as a rock. Mindwarp takes away that last security. In Caves of Androzani, Peri could depend on the Doctor in an hostile universe, here he has finally succumbed to the sheer monstrosity of the cosmos and given in to it. The Doctor who gave his life for her has become a coward, a traitor and a perversion of what he was before. This makes this the darkest of Dr. Who stories. This is a story about how the Doctor who once saved Peri comes to betray and fail her.

The tragic nature of this story makes one feel that it would make a great opera. This is Peri's tragedy, a story of betrayal by the one man she could rely on. The story focuses on her, showing her growing realisation that she could die alone, away from everything she knows and loved. We see her finding solace and camaraderie in the only characters who come across as sympathetic, Ycarnos and Dorf. There is a sense of irony in this, in that they are bloodthirsty barbarians who delight in killing.

Practically everyone agrees that the best part of this story is the climax when we see Peri, her head shaved and her personality replaced with that of Lord Kiv. Nicola Bryant is quite chilling when she speaks in the deep voice of the new personality invading her body. Peri's shaved head may be an allusion to the holocaust, the ultimate scene of dehumanisation. Since the introduction of the Cybermen, Doctor Who has often dealt with the theme of dehumanisation. The destruction of the human personality seems to many people a fate worse than death. In the figure of the shaven-headed Peri speaking with Kiv's voice, we have a far more stark image of the destruction of the human personality than the Cybermen ever were. Many of us fans feel deeply disappointed that the decision was made to reverse Peri's fate and let her survive this story Dallas-style. It makes sense aesthetically that Peri whose life was saved by the Doctor should die in the end because of the Doctor's failure. It creates a much greater sense of tragic pathos.

A good deal of the unpopularity of this story is no doubt down to the agony for fans of watching the Doctor become so selfish and cowardly. When we see Peri chained up and alone with the Doctor, we are made to hope that the Doctor is going to explain his plan to her, but we become horrified when we find that he really has betrayed her. Of course, we are not helped by the fact that Colin Baker had absolutely no idea how to play this role; the scripts had not been clearly explained to him. There are in fact four possible explanations of why the Doctor is acts the way he does in this story. It may be that he is suffering the effects of Crozier's brain tampering. It may be that the Matrix has been altered to distort the record of the events (which we find out has occurred in some places, but not necessarily those relating to the Doctor's odd behaviour). It may be that this really is a trick and the Doctor is pretending to descend to evil; though this is difficult to believe when he could easily have proven his good faith when he was alone with Peri on the rocks by the sea. Most disturnbing of all, it could be that the Doctor realy has succombed to the cowardice and malice that he showed after his regeneration in The Twin Dilemma. To my mind, this is the most interesting possibility. The Doctor's fifth regeneration does seem to have been particularly traumatic and the unstable beahviour he showed in his first story can be seen throughout season 22. It seems to me that the Doctor was going through some sort of mental crisis throughout his sixth incarnation that reached it's climax in this story. No doubt this crisis intensified by Crozier, but it cannot be separated from the instability that he had shown prior to this. I understand that a lot of viewers find the uncertainty rather confusing, but I find it quite interesting. The fact that it is not explained leaves us room to think about it and puzzle out the Doctor's out of character behaviour.

Brian Blessed is hilariously over the top as Ycarnos. Some viewers might find his performance irritating, but he does inject some life into an otherwise rather bleak serial. Some people feel that Patrick Reycart (Crozier) is a bit wooden. I feel that this reflects the character. Crozier is a totally amoral figure. He has no politics, agenda or even cruelty. He simply wants to perfect the techniques he is researching. He is the cold face of science without ethical resraint. The moment when he sips tea from an old fashioned cup and saucer before carrying out his surgical procedure is beautiful. It just sums up the banality of the character.

It is fun to see Nabil Shaban again, as the slimy Sil. Some fans feel he is less effective here as a flunky and sycophant, rather than as the big villain. I think it is interesting to see him in a different position, and it allows us to see him in a double act with Kiv (who is ably played by Christopher Ryan and later Nicola Bryant). After all, we got to see Darth Vader twice as a flunky and only once as head honcho. The rest of the guest cast are pretty awful, the worst offender being Gordon Warnecke as Tuza. The monstrous Raak is unusually well filmed for a Dr Who monster. We only get brief glimpses of the creature, which is a lot better than the usual full frontal view.

This is a really brilliant story that is often too quickly dismissed by fans who have no love for this troubled period in the history of the show. I think for those of us who have grown up with the New Adventures, Mindwarp is probably not so shocking. The New Adventures followed up Eric Saward's bleak vision of the universe and also occasionally bring ambiguity and doubt about the Doctor's workings.

The Mysterious Planet (Trial of a Time Lord Parts 1-4)

The Doctor is charged with conduct unbecoming a Time Lord.

Although I tend to think of the Trial of the Time Lord as four individual serials, they are united by such a tight story arc across Season 23, that it is quite a challenge to review them as such. The reason I prefer to review them as separate stories is the huge variety in quality between them.

The trial makes use of evidence in the form of three of the Doctor's adventures, one in the recent past, one which has just taken place at the time of the trial and one which, bizarrely, has not yet occurred. You can be sure that if this was an American science fiction show, this season would have included an adventure from the show's past. American sci-fi shows, and those made by Independent t.v. companies in the UK so often throw in an episode where old footage is used just to save the budget at the end of the season. Generally, those sort of episodes are very disappointing and a bit cheap. However, given the lack of repeats of Doctor Who in the UK, fans would have welcomed a story in which footage from a classic story, such as The Seeds of Doom was used. It would have been quite interesting to watch the Doctor and the Time Lords commenting on such an adventure.

The model shot of the space station in which the trial is held looks great. The problem is that it does not look in any sense Gallifreyan. The space station looks just like something from Star Wars or the Alien movies. A Time Lord space station (we are never told why this trial is not held on Gallifrey) would surely have an ethereal magnificence to it.

The trial room with its rather miniscule gathering of Time Lords looks a little pathetic when compared with the model shot of the space station. Nevertheless, as with most court scenes in television, there is plenty of room for effective drama. Colin Baker get's the chance to be rude, rebellious and arrogant. Michael Jayston is brilliant as the sinister Valeyard. The contrast between his angry restraint and the Doctor's brashness is delightful. I just love watching the way the Valeyard glares at the Doctor.

A lot of people find the periodic switch from the action of the story to the trial scenes rather intrusive. I find them rather fun, though it must be said that in the case of this first serial, this is not difficult because the Ravolox story is so dull. The plot of The Mysterious Planet is completely uninteresting; a dull runaround that is largely derived from other stories. One just feels a sense of deja vu on watching Mysterious Planet.

Sabalom Glitz and his young accomplice, Dibber help to keep the story from being unwatchable. They are a glorious Holmesian double-act. What is most hilarious is the way that Glitz takes pride in the way he is an object of speculation by criminologists and prison psychologists. He offers some biting satire of the field of criminology. It is a little hard to be sure how thick Dibber really is. At times, it seems that his wit is a little sharper than that of his boss. The rest of the guest cast are not terribly impressive. Joan Sims is especially disappointing as Katryca.

Colin Baker was clearly playing the Doctor in the Ravolox scenes as a nicer character than we experienced in Season 22. While it is nice to see him actually appearing to like Peri, it does jar a little with what we see in the courtroom, where he is as obnoxious as in Season 22. It also does not fit with what we see in the next story, Mindwarp.

The location work is quite good and the village is well designed and created. On the other hand, the suggestion that the London Underground would still be recognisable on a ruined earth a million years into the future is ludicrous. The robot is pretty good.

One thing that baffles me is that Katryca wants to give Peri some fine husbands, yet she locks her up with two scoundrels who might easily molest her. A rather perplexing decision.

Being a fan who obsesses over continuity; I really struggle with the issue of how to fit this story in with the future history of earth in other Dr. Who stories. I am not quite convinced by Tat Wood's view that the removal of Earth by the Time Lords is the same apparent destruction of earth in The Ark.

What is most interesting about the Trial of the Time Lord is the way it deconstructs the narration of Doctor Who. We are forced to ponder how accurate the reporting of these stories are. If crucial bits have been missed out of this story about Ravolox, how do we know crucial bits have not been left out of say, The Brain of Morbius?

Thursday 16 December 2010

I'm a Doctor too

This is me at the graduation ceremony where I was awarded my PhD (University of Gloucestershire). The ceremony was held at Cheltenham racecourse.

I am a doctor, but I am not a doctor of many things; my research was in theology. The paisley tie is my salute to Sylvester McCoy. Then again, I was wearing a blue suit like David Tennant.

Monday 13 December 2010

The Rescue

"I would have got away with it too, if it hadn't been for that meddling old man and those pesky teachers!"

The Invasion is not the only story in which the TARDIS crew come to resemble those meddling kids in Scooby Doo. The Rescue is pretty much a reproduction of the standard format of Scooby Doo. You have a villain dressing up as a monster ti scare away honest folk who gets unmasked in the end. Unlike Scooby Doo, the villain on being unmasked is not lead away by the police but attempts to kill the Doctor. Thankfully, he is thwarted and comes to a nasty end.

It is a bit of a cliche that Doctor Who is all about men in rubber suits. In this story, for once the monster really is supposed to be a rubber suit.

The Rescue is one of those rare two-part stories in classic Doctor Who. Some of these are two rushed, like The Awakening and King's Demons. This story, like Edge of Destruction works effectively as a two-parter. It is refreshing to see a Dr. Who story without any padding at all.

We are introduced here to the new companion, Vicki. Played by Maureen O'Brien, Vicki seems to be regarded as a much more popular companion than Susan. I find that disappointing. Susan was a bit wet and she could be annoying, but I still liked her. She had a genuinely alien quality about her that fitted in well with her situation as the Doctor's granddaughter. I am not convinced by the way that Vicki becomes a sorty of surrogate granddaughter in place of Susan. I also don't like the way Maureen O'Brien played the part. Too often it seemed like she was not taking the role seriously and she often looked like she was about to start laughing. When her experiences as a child of the future are mentioned, they are played for laughs. It is all a bit too knowing.

William Hartnell puts in a beautiful performance as the Doctor. I just love the moment at the beginning when he asks Susan to open the doors, then falls silent when he remembers Susan is not there any more. It makes me cry! There is a real emotion to Hartnell's performance. He is also pretty impressive when tracking down and confronting Bennett at the end. Jacqueline Hill is as great as ever. She immediately takes on a protective big sister role towards Vicki.

Bennett/ Koquillion is played by Ray Barrett, who was the voice of the mighty Titan, ruler of the undersea, in Stingray. As a massive fan on Stingray, it's really cool to see Ray Barrett in the flesh, even though his performance is a bit wooden. Aside from the unconvincing nature of his deception, fans often wonder why Bennett keeps Vicki alive instead of killing her. It is hard not to imagine that he is subjecting her to some sort of abuse.

The appearance of the natives of Dido at the end is a bit of a deus ex machina. There is no explanation of how they have survived. Still, if we were to see some more of them in this story, we would have needed another episode and I am not sure that was needed for a less consequential story like this.

I really liked Sandy, Vicki's pet giant centipede. A great friendly monster! Shame it had to die when Barbara got her Ripley moment.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Ghost Light

The Seventh Doctor takes Ace to a place where she has been before, where mad aliens have a Victorian tea party.

Ghost Light is the story I ought to love, but I don't. There are so many elements in this story that I like, yet I don't particularly enjoy watching it.
I love Season 26. Check. I love Sylvester McCoy. Check. I love the Dark Doctor and his manipulative ways. Check. I love the weird relationship between Ace and the Seventh Doctor. Check. I love the thematic depth of the McCoy era. Check. I love the Virgin New Adventures which are very much influenced by this story. But I still don't like Ghost Light.

This story has so much going for it. You have a performance from McCoy that is pretty strong (I love McCoy, but I understand why people see him as a second-rate actor) and a marvellous performance from Sophie Aldred. You have a drama that put's the Doctor/ Companion relationship in a completely different light. You have an intelligent exploratin of a number of themes. The gothic interior of Gabriel Chase looks magnificent, with all it's stuffed animals. Ghost Light has some wonderful dialogue and a reasonable dose of humour. Yet these elements are let down by a failure in both editing and direction.

You must have seen the sitcom Fawlty Towers. In every Fawlty Towers episode there is a climax where the entire hotel descends into chaos. Basil is ranting like a lunatic, his wife is having a nervous breakdown, Manuel is doing something hilarious and the guests are shouting and demanding their money back. Even as a viewer, you feel overwhelmed by the frantic atmosphere and you just want to get 'out' of that hotel and into the fresh air. Ghost Light is like that all the way through. It is frantic and frenzied. When I watch Ghost Light, I feel like I need to get out of Gabriel Chase and have a space to breath.

Ghost Light suffocates under the weight of too many characters, too many subplots, too many themes, too many ideas and too much clever dialogue. There is just too much going on. Stories can be complex. They can be intelligent. However, they need to be carefully edited so that we can enjoy them without being completely baffled. Battlefield had too many characters and suffered as a result, but it was a fun story that made sense in a beautiful country setting. Curse of Fenric was a really complex story, but it had great action scenes and terrific drama. Survival had some really deep themes, but there was a subtlety to the way they were brought in that did not detract from the story. Ghost Light does not succeed in the way the other stories of Season 26 did, including the equally badly edited Battlefield.

I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing if a story does not immediately make sense. I think Warriors' Gate is a flawless story even though it requires deeper thought to make sense of. In my review of Warriors' Gate, I explained why I think Warriors' Gate works and this one does not. I argued that the main difference is the sense of space and pacing in that story. Ghost Light requires one to take in and make sense of masses of dialogue, while Warriors' Gate works brilliantly on a purely visual level. You can enjoy Warriors' Gate purely through looking at the visual elements and the slower pace gives you the chance to puzzle over what is going on. Ghost Light is like a three-course gourmet meal being served at a fast food restuarant. You don't have the space to take it in and enjoy it.

I agree with viewers who think this story is a lot like the Rocky Horror Show. It has the transvestism, the camp alien, the creepy house and the critique of conventional society. Most of all, it has the crazy frantic pace and incomprehensibility. When I watched Rocky Horror Show, I thought to myself 'What was all that about?' I am sure most of us asked that question the first time we watched Ghost Light.

One casting decision that I think was a mistake was John Hallam as Light. Hallam puts in a good performance, but he does not fit the way the character was meant to be perceived visually. Light's costume was clearly a visual reference to angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, in keeping with the neo-gothic Victorian theme. The problem is that such angels were generally portrayed as adolescent, or at least youthful. Hallam is too old to fit this look and his high-pitched vocal delivery ends up making him seem too camp.

My favorite moment in this story is the Doctor's conversation with Ace about fear. It is perhaps the best bit of dialogue McCoy was ever given:

Ace: "Don't you have things you hate?"
Doctor: "I can't stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations - terrible places full of lost luggage and lost souls."
Ace: "I told you, I never wanted to come back here again!"
Doctor: "And then there's unrequited love. And tyranny, and cruelty."
Ace: "Too right."
Doctor: "We all have a universe of our own terrors to face."

Saturday 11 December 2010

Bang-Bang-a-Boom! by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman (Big Finish Audio)

The Seventh Doctor becomes commander of the space station Dark Space 8 which is hosting the Intergalactic Song Contest.

This is the second Christmas 'pantomime' that Big Finish produced. The first was The One Doctor which was a sly send-up of our favorite show. With their second Xmas comedy story, Big Finish decided to pastiche science fiction shows like Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Babylon Five and Space 1999, as well as the Eurovision Song Contest.

As I have said, I find it delightful that Big Finish put out several plays starring Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford. I am one of those rare fans that actually likes Season 24 with it's guady pantomime. This light-hearted comedy romp is perfect for the camp duo of Sylvester and Bonnie.

A lot of fans think this production is not nearly as good as The One Doctor. I am surprised, because I found this audio a lot funnier than The One Doctor. I think Bang-Bang-a-Boom! is absolutely hilarious.

Much of the humour is found in sending up the crass dialogue of mainstream science fiction shows, hence space station doctor Eleanour Harcourt continually exclaims 'I feel so helpless,' endlessly reminisces about previous adventures and makes some appalling attempts at developing a romantic relationship with her 'commander.' Bonnie also get's to say 'He's dead' a few times too.

Patricia Quinn steals the show as the Valkyrie/ Klingon-like warrior queen, Angvia. She makes a hilarious and possibly successful attempt to seduce the Doctor, who she calls her 'leetle man.' Wisely, the writer leaves it uncertain whether the Doctor has actually had sex with her and Bonnie's reaction to his seduction is glorious. Her number in the song contest is very funny too. Angvia's entry in the song contest is pretty funny too.

David Tughan gives a good and vital impersonation of Terry Wogan, as the character Logan. In the character of Nicky Newman, we get a parody of some of the Pop Idol winners. Geri Pakhar, the rodent-like ambassador seems remarkably similar to Alpha Centauri in the Peladon stories.

It is remarkable how well the Agatha Christie mystery format works in Doctor Who and this story is no exception. Mel and the Doctor make great detectives and they get to do the final expose scene in Poirot style. Sylvester McCoy gives us his eternally manic performance and Langford is great, even though as I said when reviewing Flip Flop, on Big Finish she does sound different to how she sounded in the 80s.

Gareth Roberts did a splendid job with this, giving us a memorable cast of characters and some great comic melodrama. It was amusing to find out the Earth anthem in the far future, presumably this is a sly reference to the Doctor's comment about the human race in Ark in Space.

Friday 10 December 2010

Timewyrm: Genesys, by John Peel (Virgin New Adventure novel)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace visit ancient Mesopotamia and encounter an alien maquerading as a goddess.

Yes, this is the blog to read for NAstalgia!

This bok is where the Virgin New Adventures began. I remember reading about the launch of the New Adventures in Doctor Who Magazine back in 1991. I was ten years old then. The idea of new Doctor Who stories in print felt very exciting.

Back in 1991, all of us fans had read hundreds of Target novelisations. It is weird to think that today there are Doctor Who fans who have never picked up a Target novelisation. Timewym: Genesys is very much like a Target novelisation in style. It lacks some of the liteary sophistication that later New Adventures would offer.

The thing which most sets this novel apart from the Target books is the openness about sex. Having a bare-breasted teenage temple prostitute as a character was a pretty bold signal that the New Adventures were meant for adults! Yet the historical setting and references of the book does remind one an awful lot of the educational nature of the black and white era. One rather feels that the author was attempting to educatate his young readers about ancient Mesopotamia.

Sadly, the Doctor and Ace are not characterised too well in the book. The Seventh Doctor lacks the mystery and depth that he showed in Seasons 25 and 26. Many of the later New Adventures would become preoccupied with exploring the Seventh Doctor's manipulative ways, something we don't see in this debut. We are suddenly told that Ace has a talent for singing, which she had previously denied. Gilgamesh is a fun character, but not drawn consistently. At times in the novel, he appears an idiot, at other times he comes across as rather smart. Making Enkidu a Neanderthal was an interesting idea.

John Peel should never be forgiven for having Ace refer to Paradise Towers when she was never there!

Timewyrm: Genesys was not a bad start for the New Adventures series, though it lacks the depth and themes of later offerings.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

The Two Doctors

Flesh-eating Androgum Apocalypse.

This is a story that really divides fan opinion. Delta and the Bannermen also divides fan opinion, but not in the same way. Fans who don't like Delta and the Bannermen just dismiss it as rubbish, while fans who don't like The Two Doctors seemed to exhibit a real hatred towards this story. I think it's a shame because I think The Two Doctors is brilliant. It is the best story of the Colin Baker era and the best story between Caves of Androzani and Delta and the Bannermen. It is certainly better than the other multi-Doctor stories.

We might have expected The Two Doctors to be a self-congratulatory nostalgia trip like The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, but instead, writer Robert Holmes serves us up a story that satirises key aspects of Doctor Who and completely defies the expectations of Doctor Who.

Given that Colin Baker was not a terribly popular Doctor, The Two Doctors could easily have made his position worse by bringing back the charming, delightful old Patrick Troughton. Instead, we are actually made to like the Sixth Doctor because the Second Doctor is presented as quite repulsive. Right from the beginning, we see the Second Doctor being obstinate, rude, bullying, arrogant and displaying an attitude that appears very much like racism. No doubt this is why a lot of traditionalist fans hate this story; instead of giving them the Doctor they love, the Second Doctor is shown up as an arrogant bully. Holmes completely sends up the rather lame idea of a multi-Doctor story and reminds us why it makes sense to have just one Doctor in a story. Amusingly, we are made to agree with the Colin Baker Doctor who says of his predeccessor "I liked you better as an Androgum."

Robert Holmes was never a writer of 'returning monster' stories; it was just not his style. He always worked best with human villains with plausible motives. In this story, Holmes got really clever and deconstructed the idea of the returning monster. Faced with writing a dull plodder about a fix with Sontarans, Holmes gives us another monster, the Androgums. As the Doctor is familiar with them, they are from his perspective a returning monster. The Sontarans in this story are deathly dull; yet the Androgums are a fascinating creation. The reason they are both fascinating and entertaining is that they are so human in manner and appearance; thus proving that actually the 'returning monster' idea is a bit naff.

Viewers of this story are often shocked by the violence of Colin Baker towards Shockeye the Androgum at the end of the story (violence which seems pretty justifiable in the circumstance). They are also shocked by the Doctor's hatred and apparent prejudice toward Androgums. Surely the Doctor would have a more 'progressive' attitude, as Dastari suggests he should? Again, Holmes is deconstructing the standard Dr. Who idea of the monster. Imagine a story in which a character suggests that Sontarans can be improved and taught to be 'nice.' We can well imagine the Doctor desperately trying to persuade this character that this is a hopeless venture and that the Sontarans are brutal and warlike to the core. We know that this is what the Doctor would do because we have such a similar story in Power of the Daleks. Because Sontarans are 'monsters' we are not shocked when the Doctor shows distrust towards them and we accept it perfectly when he deals out death and destruction towards them (as he does in this story). Our own racism is exposed when we find ourselves sympathizing with Androgums because they look like us.

Oscar's death is another satirical take on the Doctor Who format. Countless minor characters meet grisly deaths in this show. We do not bat an eyelid when five or six minor characters are killed off. Yet when Oscar's death is treated with real emotion (as well as an entertaining dose of black humour) fans are shocked and say that is is 'pointless and unnecessary.'

Doctor Who fans are often fascinated by the Time Lords and there has always been a hunger to see the Doctor's own people amongst fans. Thus, we are given stories like Deadly Assasin and Arc of Infinity where we get to see the Time Lords. There does seem to be a tendency of the Time Lords to disappoint when they appear. Holmes demonsrated this in The Two Doctors by giving the Time Lords an incredible presence in the story, without them ever actually appearing. We are very conscious that they are keeping a close eye on the proceedings, right from the first appearance of the Second Doctor as their errand boy. The unseen Time Lords of the The Two Doctors have a much greater impact as the guardians of time and space than the doddery old men of Deadly Assasin and Arc of Infinity.

The Two Doctors is the ultimate 'Rad' story; it is a serial in which the conventions of the show are turned on their head. The story also has a wonderful holiday feel, with it's Spanish location shooting, guitar music and bright mood. It shares a sense of the pastoral with the equally contentious Delta and the Bannermen. It has a delightfully witty script, together with superb performances from the regulars and guests. The only real fault with this story is the appallingly bad Sontaran costumes.

Robert Holmes intended this story to champion vegatarianism and show the evils of meat-eating. This agenda gives it a thematic depth that is very like the Sylvester McCoy era. I am afraid, as with the horizontally challenged Colin Baker himself, Holmes has not succeeded in winning me to his cause. Whenever I watch this story, all that talk of food always makes me ravenously hungry. I find it incredibly difficult to watch this story without tucking into some sort of snack, usually a massive bag of crisps or pork scratchings.

Sunday 5 December 2010

The Sontaran Experiment

On a desolated earth in the far future, the Fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah bump into a Sontaran.

The best thing about this story is that it is so short. I can't believe the writers was so generous to us as to cut this story short. Just imagine how awful this story would be if it was stretched to four episodes. That would be real torture.

I am really not sure what the point of this story was. Did they just want to fill in a gap? Or were that desperate to bring back a Sontaran that they could not bother to write a decent story for one?

Followin the grand tradition of Terry Nation Dalek stories, the viewer is supposed to be surprised at the cliffhanger to see a Sontaran, despite the story being entitle The Sontaran Experiment. This does not make any sense, but neither does the central premise of the story. Why are the Sontarans wanting to experiment on humans when the earth is uninhabited? Why are they holding up their invasion fleet for the completion of a bunch of experiments that actually seem rather pointless? You might also think that Styre would look a bit like Linx if they were both clones too.

The fact that there is hardly any story just makes the rather horrible torture scenes unpleasent. If there was an exciting story going on, it would be rather more forgiveable. It is fun watching Styre shrivel up at the end, however.

Harry is great in this story. Sarah is a bit wet. Tom Baker is good, though the writer's don't quite seem sure of his personality at this point. The guest performances are not terribly interesting. It does not last long enough for one to generate much interest in them anyway.

You only need to watch this one if you are a true fan who watches every story.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Doctor Who and the Silurians

The Third Doctor and Liz discover intelligent reptiles that ruled the earth millions of years ago.

Get the title right! Its not 'The Silurians,' it's Doctor Who and the Silurians. He really is called Doctor Who. 'Who' may not be his real name, but it is at least a pseudonym that he has used on occasions. Fans who insist that he is not 'Doctor Who,' but 'The Doctor' betray their ignorance of the show.

As I have said on many occasions, I am really not at all keen on John Pertwee's Doctor. However, Season 7 is a really excellent period in the history of the show. Season 7 gave us a new format, a new style and fresh ideas. Of the stories in Season 7, I think Doctor Who and the Silurians is the best. It is a lot better than the rather overrated Inferno. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, fans seem to be a little too faint in their praise of Dr Who and the Silurians. I am not sure why, but there is a peculiar reluctance to accord it the classic status it deserves. Fans make various criticisms of this story that are really not deserved or justifiable. This story should be recognised as one of the best written and most intelligent Doctor Who stories.

This story deals with the destructive power of nationalism. It considers the issue of immigration with some irony (mankind as immigrants). It deals with the inadequacies and wilful blindness of government departments (Lawrence and Masters). It questions the morality of a violent military response to threats, but avoids passing judgment (the Doctor gives his opinion, but Liz gives no reply- the viewer is left to decide).

Timothy Coombs gives this story some brilliant direction. On the whole, it has a really dark, gritty atmosphere. The location work creating the moor is excellent, the caves are convincing and the scene of people dying of the plague in London is really disturbing. The Silurians (or more correctly, Eocenes) are very well created. Their costumes are rubber suits with zips occasionally visible, but they have a texture that later monster creations lack. In the first episode, they are hidden from view which helps to build suspense. The acting in this serial from both the regulars and the guests is of a very high standard and the characters are given space to develop.

A common complaint is that this story is too long at seven episodes. It is suggested that with the story about the plague and then the attempt to destroy the 'Van Allen Belt' it loses the way. I disagree. It's easy to fall back on the old defence that it was never intended to be watched on DVD like a feature length, but even without this, the story is full of meaty bits. The slower pace allows the characters to develop and take on a life of their own, such as the mental breakdown of Lawrence, the paranoia of Barker and the relationship between Quinn and Dawson. We simply would not get this richness in a four-parter, let alone in the single or double episode format that we are tragically served up by BBC Wales.

Another complaint is that Eocene society is not well developed in this story, making it difficult to sympathize with the Eocenes. The example of the young Eocene killing the old Eocene is particularly pointed out as a sign of their violent and dangerous nature. The answer to this is that Eocene society is not portrayed in this story because it no longer exists. They have woken up out of hibernation and their civilization has been lost forever. It would be ludicrous to think that it is normal for an Eocene subordinate to kill his leader and take over. Surely you have seen how people behave in post-apocalyptic films and stories? It is to be expected that with the loss of Eocene civilization, the normal chain of command would be weak and a dispute might be resolved through a violent coup.

Some suggest that we will inevitably agree with the Brigadier's military response at the end in blowing up the Eocenes and will have little sympathy for the Doctor's disapproval. I am not sure that I don't disagree with the Brigadier's action. I think the story leaves it open to the viewer to agree or disagree with the Doctor. Note that Liz gives no response to the Doctor. We don't know what she thinks about it.

It would have been nice if the tension between the Brigadier and the Doctor had been maintained throughout the Pertwee era. The two men become just a bit too cosy during Season 8. We see a little of the disagreement about methods in Claws of Axos, but this is largely dropped after that serial. I cannot help thinking, however, that the Brigadier/ Doctor conflict is largely the Doctor's own fault. When I watch Dr Who and the Silurians, I get really frustrated at the Doctor's contempt for the Brigadier. He shows no enthusiasm for going where the Brigadier sends him at the beginning, he avoids sharing information with him and takes action without consulting the Brigadier. The Doctor wants the humans to trust the Eocenes and the Eocenes to trust the humans, but he deviates from this ideal in his own behaviour. If he cannot even trust his own closest ally, how can he expect his ally to trust an enemy? I suspect that the Doctor would have done a much better job of persuading the Brigadier to seek peace with the Eocenes if he had been open and honest with him right from the beginning. We see in this what I really dislike most about the Third Doctor, his arrogance. I really dislike the high-mindedness and contempt for others that this Doctor shows. This contrasts enormously with the more self-effacing Second Doctor, who had a very effective relationship with the Brigadier in The Invasion. It is also difficult to imagine the Second Doctor being at all bothered by the destruction of the Eocenes. He had taken enormous pleasure in blowing up the Dominators and had no moral objection to wiping out the Macra.

Quatermass and the Pit is clearly an influence on this story, with its idea of a prehistoric alien race on earth and the race memory stuff. There is that Quatermass sense that the alien holds an unimaginable terror for humans. Where it differs from Quatermass is in the belief that peace and goodwill is a real possibility.

I have no idea whether writer Malcolm Hulkes ever read any Lovecraft stories, but there are clear similarity of themes here. The fact that people are driven mad by the Eocenes is very much a Lovecraftian element. At the Mountains of Madness deals with a pre-human civilisation, though a very different kind of creatures. Lovecraft refers to a number of reptilian races in his stories, most notably The Nameless City.

John Pertwee looks absolutely terrible in a t-shirt.

Friday 3 December 2010

A Thousand Tiny Wings, by Andy Lane (Big Finish Audio)

During the height of the Mau-Mau rebellion in British-ruled Kenya, the Seventh Doctor meets an old adversary who has no place in space or time.

Given that the fate of Elizabeth Klein was left uncertain at the end of Colditz, it was fairly likely that she would return as a villain. But who would have guessed that Big Finish would bring her back as a companion? The Klein trilogy is an absolutely brilliant idea, perhaps one of the best that Big Finish have come up with.

To set the scene, Elizabeth Klein (played by Tracey Childs) was a Nazi scientist from an alternate timeline in which the Third Reich won the war. This timeline was erased by the Seventh Doctor in the events of Colditz. Klein was left stranded in our timeline, unwilling to accept that 'our' version of history was correct (presumably two Elizabeth Kleins exist at the time of this story; the alternate Klein and the real one, as Klein was born before the war. Thankfully they do not meet). At the start of this story, Klein is trapped with a group of British women in a remote house in Kenya, fearful of Mau-Mau rebels. Add the Doctor to this situation, plus a series of horrific killings.

A Thousand Tiny Wings is very much in the vein of traditional Doctor Who and is effectively a 'base under siege' story. The incredibly high standard of acting helps to reinforce a real sense of claustrophobia, as a small group of strong characters have to deal with a terrifying situation. The alien menace they face is a very interesting and unusual one (no spoilers here). Unsurprisingly, given this is by Andy Lane, it has very much a Virgin New Adventure feel. The Thing From Another World is a definite influence in terms of the format, but the tropical setting helps to give it some originality. The music score is very effective in setting the mood.

The Doctor and the fascist Klein have a great chemistry together and spend a lot of time arguing about ideology and philosophy, though they make a very effective team. Klein's insight of seeing history in her timeline plays a key part in helping the Doctor to deal with the alien menace. In the end, the Doctor invites Klein to come aboard the TARDIS to 'expand her horizons,' and invitation she accepts. The idea of making Klein a companion is brilliant, not just because her way of thinking clashes so much with the Doctor's, but also because she is an older companion (she must be in her forties following on from her displacement in Colditz). It does get tedious that the Doctor so often takes young people as companions. It's nice to have an attractive, elegant mature woman on board the TARDIS.

The guest part of Sylvia O'Donnell, played by Anne Bell offers some friendly right-wing camaderie for Klein. The British upper-class woman turns out to be a bigger racist than Klein. Personally, I thought it was unnecessary for O'Donnell to have been played as such a clear Nazi sympathizer (were there that many in 1950s British Kenya?). Would it not have been enough for her just to be a racist colonial? My favorite line was Klein's comment that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, the BBC World Service would still be playing light classics to an audience of mutated cockroaches!

I also love the fact that the Seventh Doctor is wearing his New Adventures safari suit. I absolutely hated the tweed suit and waistcoat combination that he wore in the TV Movie. It simply did not suit his character. That the Seventh Doctor is wearing his safari suit indicates that this story is set sometime in the New Adventures continuity during the absence of both Ace and Bernice.

This is a truly great Dr. Who drama that is well worth ordering.

Tragedy Day by Gareth Roberts (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice turn up on a planet that the Doctor has visited before. There are lots of horrible things going on at this planet, meanwhile some mysterious monks are hunting for the Doctor.

Doctor Who has always had left-wing tendencies, but these tendencies particularly came to the foreground in the Sylvester McCoy era, where the writers pursued a very 'right-on' agenda. The 'politically correct,' left-liberal values continued in the Virgin New Adventure novels. You can see these politics in fandom; those who like the Sylvester McCoy era tend to be more left-leaning, while their opposites who love the Pertwee era tend to be more conservative. My enjoyment of the 'right-on' tendency in 80s/90s Doctor Who is with a certain irony, as I am a Tory (though a very moderate, centrist Tory).

Gareth Roberts' Tragedy Day is as politically left-wing as Doctor Who can possibly go. It aims its satire in all different directions, but all of them associated with capitalism. He attacks police brutality, the class divides perpetuated by wealth and bureaucracy. With extra venom, he attacks the way charity, particularly celebrity endorsed charity, fails to solve problems of poverty and ends up becoming hypocritical. He also takes a swipe at the way sitcoms reinforce conservative ideas about society.

This novel is written for fans who think that The Happiness Patrol is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever (like me). It would be an understatement to say that Tragedy Day is inspired by The Happiness Patrol; rather it grounds and defines itself in the both the style and the agenda of that story.

Gareth Roberts writes with a really sharp and dry wit. He brings in dozens of minor characters, some of whom are only referred to on one or two pages (like the bureaucrat who manages the barrier diving the city up). These minor characters help to build up a massive picture of what this society is like.

It is not perfect; I am not sure that Gareth Roberts quite gets the Seventh Doctor right. He does a good job at portraying NA Ace and Bernice, however. A lot of reviewers felt that the bad guy's change of heart towards the end did not seem quite plausible.

I am not going to spoil anybody's enjoyment of the surprise regarding what the cover depicts. The scene depicted involves one hilarious character!

I think this is one of the best New Adventure novels. I know not everybody likes it. If you are a Daily Telegraph reading Pertwee fan, you probably won't like it. But if you are a Guardian-reading McCoy era fanatic, you will love it.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

The Chase

The Daleks have acquired a time machine and hunt for the TARDIS crew throughout the fourth dimension.

I never watched The Chase when I was a child fan, but I was well aware of it and reasoned that it must be a pretty exciting story given that it is when the Daleks first use time travel. Indeed, the discovery of time travel by the Daleks is a truly momentous point in Doctor Who because it lifts them above the level of every other monster and makes them into near equals to the Doctor. In the BBC Wales series, we see the fruits of this with the far more terrifying and deadly Daleks that have overthrown and eradicated the Time Lords in the mysterious Time War. As momentous as the event is, the mood of The Chase does not register it and we are served the most light-hearted comic affair in the history of the show. It is very difficult to forgive the light tone and lack of seriousness in this story, particularly given that this is a Dalek story. The odd appearance of the Daleks means that if they are not taken seriously in the reactions of the cast, they end up looking ridiculous and lose their power to terrify. On the other hand, it is not lacking in imagination and each episode is very fun to watch.

In episode 1, The Executioners, there is a nice, relaxed atmosphere. We have some pithy enjoyment with the Time-Space Visualizer. Aridius is well conceived with the dunes of Camber Sands. There is a minor continuity error here, with Vicki appearing to have removed her shoes when running up the sand dunes (we see this from the distance and it does look like she is holding her shoes) and has them on again when we see her closer up in the studio. The Aridian costumes are rather unconvincing. I think the Mire Beasts look quite good and are shot effectively. The ploy to attract the attention of the Dalek was camp in a really irritating way.

Episode 2, Flight through Eternity has an absolutely brilliant title but in no way lives up to it. We do have to ask why the TARDIS crew get out at every destination they arrive at when they know they are safe in the ship. Peter Purves makes a cameo appearance as an hillbilly from Alabama visiting the Empire State Building. He is absolutely hilarious. Unfortunately, his mockery of the Dalek completely undermines any impact that Terry Nation's creatures have ever made. The Marie Celeste scene's comic vibe is rather jarring given that the crew and passengers all drown. This seems a little tasteless.

The next story Journey into Terror will be enjoyed by anybody who likes Scooby Doo. The set for this episode is incredibly well designed. Roslyn De Winter makes a brilliant appearance as the Banshee-like Grey Lady. She had been excellent in The Web Planet, even with her un-alien plummy voice. I do wish Roslyn De Winter had made other appearances in Doctor Who, because she had enormous talent. The Daleks are once again demeaned by being defeated by funfair robots.

It seems bizarre that the Doctor would conclude that the TARDIS entering the realm of the human mind is a real possibility. I have a pet theory that the TARDIS does eventually take the Doctor into a realm of psychological terrors. I think it does this in... Inferno! I believe that the Fascist Britain visited by the Third Doctor is not a parallel universe but is some kind of inner dimension in which the Doctor confronts his anxieties about the world in which he lives. Think about it; is it not a bit coincidental that in another universe there would be an almost identical drilling project featuring exactly the same personnel? Why is there no Doctor (because its in his mind.)? The Doctor has seen the destructive capabilities of UNIT in Dr. Who and the Silurians and has real reservations about military organisations. These fears are realised in the Fascist versions of the UNIT personnel. The Doctor is concerned about the consequences of continued drilling and in his psychological world, his fears are realised in the destruction of the earth. I think my theory about Inferno makes perfect sense. Now, back to The Chase.

Inside the Dalek time machine, Vicki witnesses the Daleks create a robot double for the Doctor, played by Edmund Warwick. Warwick looks nothing like Hartnell and fails to copy his mannerisms. The robot double plot is dreadfully cliched and is an unfortunate piece of predictable plotting.

The jungles of Mechannus look dreadfully cheap. Unlike a lot of fans, I think the Fungoids look rather good. Its quite sinister the way they shuffle up to the characters. According to the Missing Adventures novel, The Chrystal Bucephalus, the Fungoids, or Gubbage Cones as they are also known, were once the dominant empire in the galaxy. This suggests that the Fungoids we see are regressive and have lost their former intelligence and civilization.

The Mechanoid city is beautifully designed as a model shot. It looks so ethereal. The Mechanoids are not bad, but their voices are difficult to follow. The fight between them and the Daleks is pretty impressive. A lot of viewers will have noticed in the scene on the roof that Ian puts his hand down Barbara's trousers to keep her from falling off. His hand comes pretty close to her behind on the bus later.

The final episode introduces new companion Steven Taylor, played by Peter Purves. Purves is quite brilliant at playing a man who has been without human company for a long time. He seems a little unhinged and positively deranged when he risks his life at the end to save a teddy bear. It is unfortunate that Steven would lose this lunatic qualuty in his future appearances and just become a standard square-jawed hero (though arguably one better played than Ian). The current regulars give unimpressive performances, with the exception of the ever-brilliant Jacqueline Hill. The regular cast seem like they have given up taking the whole thing seriously.

The departure of Ian and Barbara is the best ever departure from the TARDIS we have seen. It is hearbreaking to hear Barbara plead "We want to go home" like a lost child. Hartnell manages to recover his gravitas and give us some real anger. The Hartnell years were built on scenes like this between Barbara and the Doctor. The final still shots of Ian and Barbara on their return are lovely. If we accept the Virgin Missing Adventures as canon then the two of them married and lived very happy lives together. If you want some fluffy romance, then just read some of the fan fiction about Ian and Barbara.

It's interesting that Barbara is always described as wearing boring old-fashioned clothes. In this story she wears a sleeveless dress with the Aztec-like sandals that have been very popular with young girls in the last couple of years.

I think most would agree that The Chase shows how the format of early Doctor Who was becoming tired and this is reflected in comments by viewers at the time. Doctor Who deserately needed some new ideas and these would come in the next story, The Time Meddler, the first to feature another of the Doctor's people.