Monday 31 January 2011

Wirrn Dawn, by Nicholas Briggs (Big Finish Audio)

In the grim darkness of the far future, humanity is at war with the Wirrn. The Eighth Doctor and Lucie sort of get involved...

This is the first Eighth Doctor audio that I have listened to, unless you count Paul McGann's appearance in Survival of the Fittest. I thought he gave a reasonable performance, even if not the most inspiring Doctoral performance I have heard.

Deep down every Doctor Who fan wants to see old monsters return and so a story like this has an obvious appeal. Being on audio, we are freed from the disadvantage of seeing unconvincing monster props.

The CD booklet contains some really good artwork. This is thankfully not the only good thing about this drama. It does a great job of capturing the horror and destruction of a space war and has plenty of menace and visceral horror (without the realistic violence and gore of Project: Twilight). Starship Troopers is an obvious influence, but this is rather more serious. There is wonderful dramatic tension created when the female military officer harvested by Wirrn begs for death.

Call me a bit gung ho, but would a battle between giant bugs and humans last so long? I mean, the Wirrn can't manufacture bombs or bazookas can they?

This story is far from perfect. It is absurd that the Doctor should be puzzled by what an 'Indig' is. The characters are rather one-dimensional. Worst of all, the Doctor does very little in this story. I think most listeners, even those who like a darker side to the Doctor, will be troubled by the Doctor's too easy acceptance of the idea of humans being sacrificed to the Wirrn. Surely he has always hated the idea of individuals being sacrificed for the good of the many? It seems higly likely that the sacrificial system would be abused, with the disabled and those who are unpopular (for whatever reason) being given up to the Wirrn.

Sheridan Smith is not at all bad as Lucie, but her character is not terribly interesting in this drama. I have never heard any of her other stories, so I know little of her character in general.

A Plea to Big Finish

Dear nice people at Big Finish,

I very much enjoy your Doctor Who audio dramas. They are really enjoyable and totally recreate the feeling of watching a classic Doctor Who serial.

However, there is one thing missing.

What is going on with all these regional accents and very working-class sounding actors? Doctor Who does not sound like that at all. We all know that apart from the odd Mummerset peasent and a few cockney UNIT soldiers, everybody in classic Doctor Who is supposed to sound posh.

It would really improve my enjoyment as an enthusiastic listener to hear a bit less of these strange northern accents and a bit more proper BBC English. If we Dr. Who fans can accept that Ace comes from a London council estate while sounding incredibly posh, I am sure we can accept a few more aliens and far future human colonists sounding a bit more Home Counties.

So please can we have more received pronunciation in Big Finish Doctor Who dramas?

Thank you very much

Saturday 29 January 2011

Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell (Virgin New Adventure)

Battling the Timewym, both the Seventh Doctor and Ace confront their inner demons.

You could say this is the only book in the Timewyrm series that really matters. Exodus was a great novel, but it did not really deal much with the Timewyrm herself and in Genesys she was a fairly uninteresting and standard alien villain. In Revelation, the Timewyrm is given real significance as both a character and a concept. In this novel, the Timewyrm is portrayed very much like the female version of Kronos the Kronovore in The Time Monster, only with a good deal more malevolence.

The New Adventures promised us stories that were "too broad and deep for the small screen." Timewyrm: Revelation finally delivers on that promise. Genesys gave us a child prostitute and open references to sex, Exodus gave us a much vaster scale of events and Apocalypse gave us nothing of the sort. Revelation takes us into the very mind of the Doctor, challenging his entire raison d'etre. This is the first truly 'Rad' Doctor Who novel.

None of the first three Timewyrm novels had taken much lead from the last season of the television series, apart from Exodus' emphasis on the manipulative side of the Seventh Doctor. In contrast, Revelation fundamentally grounds itself in the ideas and concepts explored in Season 26, with the inner torment and angst of Ace and the sinister scheming of the Seventh Doctor. We see the conflict between Ace and the Doctor become increasingly volatile, preparing the way for their parting in Cornell's next novel. Like Season 26, Revelation deals with the theme of Ace growing up and becoming a mature woman.

As with Seasons 25 and 26, Ace has to confront a lot of inner demons; a childhood bully, the agonies of growing up, her relationship with the manipulative Doctor and the shallowness of the culture she has come from. Yet this story is much more about the Doctor's inner demons, for much of it takes place within his own mind.

Timewyrm: Revelation is a story of a confrontation between the Doctor's past mistakes and his conscience. It is a story of his redemption. In the realm of his mind, he encounters ghosts of Katarina, Sara Kingdom and Adric, who identify themselves respectively as the First, Second and Third Sacrifices. He also meets ghosts of the Eocene reptiles. These echoes of the past serve to remind him of his failures. We also meet his Third incarnation who reveals the shocking revelation that the leader of the Fascist England in Inferno was an alternate version of himself. The Doctor's interaction with Ace reveal his continued involvement in suspect schemes.

It is Ace who helps to redeem the Doctor. She recognises the darkness of the path he is walking and journeys into the deepest part of his mind to free his conscience. Beautifully, the Doctor's conscience turns out to be the Fifth Doctor, who is tied to the world tree (a very 80s Doctor Whoish reference to Norse mythology) and suffering from a grievous wound to his side. This revelation of the Doctor's moral self is so inspired. The Doctor finally get's to choose "another way." Instead of sacrificing Ace in a bid to destroy the Timewyrm he traps the Timewyrm in the body of a newborn child, giving her the chance to live an human life and to learn a better way.

Timewyrm: Revelation is such a beautiful story. It takes on so many literary references and allusions to mythology. Dante's Divine Comedy is one very prominent source. It has a deep spirituality to it. Revelation is definitely one of the most deeply moving of the New Adventures. It also features a wonderful recreation of the Fourth Doctor in the person of the ferryman.

Friday 28 January 2011

Planet of the Giants

The original TARDIS crew in a microcosmos.

This story fits in to it's era rather oddly. Not only is it the unusual length of three episodes, but it is neither an historical or "science fiction" First Doctor story. It is also, along with The War Machines, the only First Doctor story set on contemporary Earth after An Unearthly Child.

Despite the lightweight nature of the plot, there are very clear nods to the future of the show. It has an obvious environmental theme, something that would be common in the Pertwee era. Forrester is a kind of villain we don't see much of in the Hartnell era, the self-serving, ruthless capitalist. Yet his type would become very common in the show from the Third Doctor era onwards.

The sets are very well-designed despite not everything being quite to scale. Most of the guest cast performances are unfortunately mediocre. Perhaps it is also disappointing that they never get to interact with the regulars. The regular cast are on top form, even if Carol Anne Ford ends up moaning and whining yet again. Barbara's refusal to admit that she has been affected by the pesticide comes across as a little odd.

At the end of the story, Forrester is led away by the cops. Had this been the Hinchcliffe era, we can be sure that he would have died a gruesome death, probably through his own pesticide. I prefer stories like this where the bad guys don't get killed. There is often far too much death in Doctor Who.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Season 8

Despite disliking Pertwee, I quite like Season 7. That had been a very experimental period in the history of the show in which a rather gritty realistic approach had been taken. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks felt that this approach would not chime well with the viewers and so quite a number of changes were introduced. UNIT were given a new set of uniforms and were changed from being a serious military unit into a sort of Dad's Army. The Brigadier was increasingly used for comic relief. The Doctor became increasingly chummy with him, yet also became even more arrogant and obnoxious.

Liz Shaw had been a bit boring, but she was intelligent and independent minded. This was not to the taste of Letts and Dicks, who decided to replace her with a companion who was rather less intelligent. Thus, we see the arrival in this season of Jo Grant, who is in my opinion the worst of all Doctor Who companions. Yes, Adric was annoying but teenagers often are. In Jo Grant we see the spectacle of a grown woman who talks and acts like a thirteen year old girl. She was an infantilised companion to accompany the infantilising of the show.

Season 8 also introduced Roger Delgado's Master. Letts and Dicks liked him so much that they stuck him in every story of this season. You might think even the Master deserved some annual leave. To be fair, Roger Delgado gave us some brilliant performances and few Whovians can fail to enjoy the camp fun he brought. However, in my judgment, the introduction of the Master was a bad move. In this season it lead to some rather lazy storywriting and with every appearance, his schemes became ever more ridiculous. Another problem of the Master was that he in effect acted as the Doctor's evil alter ego and this forced the Doctor to become a less ambiguous, more saintly figure. Thus, we had the Pertwee Doctor always moralizing and acting as a white knight in shining armour. The Third Doctor could never bring himself to find a final solution to the Master problem. We can well imagine that the First and Second Doctor would have made sure the Master died a violent death.

This season had some reasonable stories, but on the whole was rather lacking the inspired quality of the previous season:

Terror of the Autons- 6/10
Arguably it has a tighter plot than Spearhead from Space, but lacks the impact of the first Auton story. It also introduced an element of gimmickiness, with everyday objects becameing killing machines. RT Davies unfortunately had the idea that this was the way to do Doctor Who and gave us too many of such gimmicks in the BBC Wales series.

Mind of Evil- 5/10
This has something of the gritty realism of Season 7 and has UNIT acting as an effective military unit. However, it has an absurdly complex plot that makes little sense. The Doctor is incredibly unpleasent in this story, his worst moment being when he completely humiliates the Brigadier and boasts of being a friend of Mao Tse-Tung.

Claws of Axos- 7/10
The plot is a little silly, but it is a pretty decent production. The Axons are a well-conceived alien menace and their ship is one of the finest sets in the history of the show.

Colony in Space- 1/10
Oh dear. This has got to be the most boring story in Doctor Who ever.

The Daemons- 6/10
This story has some good ideas that were very suited to the earthbound setting, but it lacks the vital capacity to terrify. The ending is really stupid.

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Sea Devils

"He used to be a friend of mine once... a very good friend. In fact, you might almost say we were at school together."

I love the idea that the Doctor and other renegade Time Lords were at the Academy together. You can just imagine the scene- The Doctor trying to prove he's cleverer than Borusa, the Master pulling the Rani's pigtails, Runcible hiding a porno mag in his textbook, Drax making paper spaceships and Borusa holding his head in despair and thinking that going into politics would be a pushover after this.

Fans of the Pertwee era tend to rate this story very highly, considering it to be a classic of it's era. Those who are less favourable in their opinion of the Pertwee years have strong reservations about the merits of The Sea Devils. As somebody with a very low opinion of the Pertwee era, I find myself in the latter category. I think this is an extremely disappointing story. It is not without some great moments, but fails to deliver on the whole. It is well produced and has an awful lot of action, as well as some great moments with the Master, but very little that could be described as thoughtful or intelligent.

The Sea Devils is often described as a sequel to Doctor Who and the Silurians because it features an aquatic variation of the prehistoric creatures in that story. A sequel needs to justify itself with some fresh ideas and variations on the original story. The Sea Devils has the Master and it has a maritime setting, but this is all. There is not much exploration of the fascinating idea of the Eocenes as the original inhabitants of the earth. The race memory thing that was so important in Doctor Who and the Silurians is noticeably absent.

The Sea Devils is far too long. Doctor Who and the Silurians was also a very long story, but each episode made a real impact and pushed a complex and effective plot. The plot of The Sea Devils does not sustain itself so well. The material is fairly strong up until the death of Trenchard and the end of the prison plot. After that point the story gets boring very quickly.

Like many other Pertwee stories, The Sea Devils spends an awful lot of time indulging the lead actors love of different modes of transport. The Doctor is not James Bond. It does get tedious to see Pertwee pretending he is an older version of 007. The story also spends a lot of time acting as a recruitment poster for the navy. There is a clear message-

"The Royal Navy is cool! Doctor Who says sign up now, kids!"

On the other hand, as somebody who is generally hawkish on foreign policy and a bit right-wing, it is refreshing to see an alien menace that can easily be dispatched by our armed forces. There is never any sense that the Sea Devils are any real threat to our Queen and country and we are left in no doubt that our forces could wipe them out of the water with a few coordinated missile strikes. For once, mankind actually has the upper hand. This might make a nice change, but it does not fit at all with the Quatermass-like ethos of Doctor Who and the Silurians, where an ancient alien intelligence was a clear menace to humanity.

The Eocene 'Sea Devil' creatures are well designed. Terrance Dicks cruelly mocked their netting tunics, but I think they look good. The problem is not with the appearance of the Sea Devils, but the way they are presented. Only one of them speaks. They are summoned and directed by the Master's radio device, which rather makes them seem like zombies. There is a real lack of personality and identity about these creatures, in great contrast to the Eocenes in Doctor Who and the Silurians. For a change, these monsters are not immune to bullets, though given his fact it is surprising none of them are killed or seriously wounded in the firefight at the prison.

I am not a fan of the Master. I think giving the Doctor an evil alter ego was a bad idea, as it just makes him into a shining white knight in armour, a figure of unambiguous saintliness. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Roger Delgado steals this show and makes it worth watching. He has some wonderful moments, his swordfight with the Doctor, his exasperation at Trenchard's inability to get his joke and his laughter after pretending to have reformed. The Master might have been a bad idea of Letts and Dicks, but he is good camp fun.

Trenchard is also a great element in this story. Clive Morton really captures the part of a stuffy old colonial governor with a paranoid tendency. There is a real sense of tragedy in the way his patriotism has been exploited and manipulated by the Master. It's great the way the Master sends him to distract Captain Hart by harping on about his golf tournament.

As with many Pertwee stories, there is a pompous civil servant/ minister type to act pig-headed and overbearing. This time it's parliamentary private secretary Walker. His character is unfortunately far too caricatured to be convincing, particularly when he is revealed to be an horrendous coward. He is given some terrible dialogue.

In this story and in others of the season, we have that awful Jo Grant woman to torment us. She really was the worst companion, far more irritating than Adric in my opinion. Thankfully, she is a little more bearable in this story than in many of her other serials.

Please don't be fooled into thinking this story is a classic.

Friday 21 January 2011

Revelation of the Daleks

D.J. : Is that your real accent?
Peri: I should hope so!

Despite the title, it's not really about the Daleks, is it? It is a story about Davros, how he worms his way into an human society, manipulates others and attempts to build a new power base.

Revelation of the Daleks is a very good story that suffers from one major flaw; the fact that the Doctor plays so little part in the plot. All of the major events in the story would have happened without his being there. He is effectively reduced to being a bystander, much like in an Hartnell historical. In Caves of Androzani, the Doctor essentially took a passive role in the plot, getting captured, having to rescue Peri and then dying and regenerating. Nevertheless, he acted as a catalyst for the story. His mere arrival set in motion planet-shaking events. I think it is this irrelevance of the Doctor in Revelation of the Daleks that keeps it from being a classic like Caves of Androzani.

Despite this flaw, Revelation of the Daleks is a very good production. It evokes a very surreal, dream-like atmosphere. This is helped enormously by the snowy weather. This dreaminess makes the revelation of the mutant in the glass Dalek seem like the stuff of nightmares.

Like Snakedance before it, Revelation of the Daleks really creates the sense of an actual world inhabited by real people. The sets are a jumble of different styles, but this is much more true to life than the uniformity we usually see in Doctor Who sets. There is a sense of scale in the exterior shots of Tranquil Repose. We also get a bizarre cast of characters from all walks of life. The irrelevance of most of these to the plot about Davros and the Daleks makes this seem as though we are seeing a snapshot of the turbulent life in this future epoch. There is no real point to Davros' manipulating of Tasembeka and her subsequent murder of Jobel, except to provide an incredible piece of drama and a vision of a violent, nasty world.

William Gaunt plays the part of Orcini with an incredible stiffness and self-importance; yet this is so true to the character. His character evokes such a sense of world-weariness, yet he is resolved to the discipline of an inflexible code of honour. With his affectionate relationship with his squire, Bostock, he seems so much like a Robert Holmes creation. Or a character from a Shakespeare play. He is also really bad-ass with his leather outfit and casual flick knife killing of Kara. The faulty mechanical leg is a nice touch too!

Alexei Sayle comes across as quite deliberately annoying in his D.J. voice. What is clever about the character is the way that he is revealed to be a very shy, nervous chap. It is rather tragic the way he is shut up alone in his studio with only his records for company and then to die a tragic death. I was quite surprised at the quality of Sayle's acting after his quasi-standup performances in The Young Ones.

Terry Molloy really shines in this story. He gives a chilling performance as Davros that could rival that of Michael Wisher in Genesis of the Daleks. His moments with Tasembeka are particularly impressive. It is nice to see Eleanour Bron in Doctor Who again after her cameo appearance in City of Death. She is awfully good in the role of Kara. Does anybody else think her costume is awfully similar to that of Lady Adrasta in The Creature from the Pit?

I am not sure I like the idea of the Daleks being created from humans. Daleks are not Cybermen. The whole point of Daleks is that they are totally removed from any connection with humanity. I think Daleks created from human beings compromises this.

As with other Eric Saward stories there is an awful lot of violence in Revelation of the Daleks. I think he sometimes went too far and his habit of killing off nearly every non-regular character can get very irritating. However, I find the excessive violence in the Saward era easier to handle than the violence of the Hinchcliffe era. The violence of Saward stories might be more realistic but it is an essential part of his vision of a brutal, amoral cosmos in the far future. Saward was attempting to adopt a moral posture towards the violence in the show. On the other hand, Hincliffe seemed to include cruelty and death simply to arouse a morbid curiosity in the viewer. Hincliffe might not have gone so far in the realism, but he had a clear desire to shock and push the boundaries of what was acceptable. I find a lot of what Hinchcliffe introduced in Seventies Doctor Who to be rather tasteless. Doctor Who fans are far too quick to criticise Saward for excessive violence, while celebrating the torture and death in Hinchfliffe stories while sneering at Mary Whitehouse's sometimes legitimate criticisms.

Along with Earthshock, Revelation of the Daleks represents the best of Saward's script writing. I don't think it can called a classic, but it is undoubtedly one of the stronger stories of the Colin Baker period.

Thursday 20 January 2011

The One Doctor, by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman (Big Finish Audio)

The Sixth Doctor and Mel arrives on a planet in the far future to find that the wonderful time traveller known as 'the Doctor' and his pretty assistant Sally-Anne have saved the day.

Whatever people say, I think Colin Baker was a great Doctor. Despite his being sacked after two seasons, Big Finish thankfully granted us the chance to hear him again in audio and in this medium he really has the chance to shine. In this audio play, Colin Baker is given the opportunity to display his aptitude for comedy, something that he was not able to display so much during his television stint.

The One Doctor is a full-on comedy. This is something that the television series never did. Even the most comedic serials such as The Two Doctors and The Pirate Planet had plenty of serious elements. In fact, Delta and the Bannermen one of the stories that comes closest to comedy was probably envisioned as a much more serious story. One could even argue that the generally more po-faced Star Trek: Deep Space 9 came closer to full-on comedy than Doctor Who. I am all for experimentation with different styles of Doctor Who, so I think it was worth the effort. I can't help thinking though that an attempt to pastiche Doctor Who would work better in a more serious story, which I would argue is what The Two Doctors comes close to doing, though with an anarchic sense of satire. I would argue that the comedy in Bang-Bang-a-Boom! actually works better because it is aimed at Star Trek rather than Doctor Who, effectively neutralising the incongruity of it.

The One Doctor is funny, if not hiliariously funny. It is a lightweight story that you can enjoy and pick up all cool fan references in. The central concept of a conman impersonating the Doctor is a great one and this element works pretty well, even if the story get's a bit tired halfway through.

The plot structure closely follows The Keys of Marinus, with the characters splitting up on a quest to receive certain objects. Thus, we have three very lightweight mini-adventures. One of them has been rather upstaged by the BBC Wales series, though thankfully this story felt no need to make the Anne Robinson send-up so obvious (though Jane Goddard does a great impression). I am not a big fan of Matt Lucas' work, but it's nice to hear him in this drama. I would say pretty much all the cast of this story do a fantastic job.

It is lovely to hear Bonnie Langford alongside Colin Baker again. They worked so well together in season 23, so it was such a shame that they only had two televised stories. Big Finish have done their work well and enabled us to relive that era of the show. Bonnie is such a great actress. Admittedly, she does sound rather different to how she sounded on t.v. However, in this story she comes a lot closer to the television Mel than she does in some of her other Big Finish stories. Mel in The Juggernauts almost comes across as a different character to that of seasons 23 and 24. The One Doctor does not miss the chance to send-up the character:

Sally-Anne: Drop the goody-two shoes act!
Mel: What act?

Mel's 'Bush's never give' speech is delightful, even if you can see the punchline coming.

This story is set in what the Doctor describes as the 'vulgar end of time,' when everything has been explored, everything that can be known is known and there is no longer any mystery about anything. The Doctor hates this period and seldom travels this far into the future. This is probably the same period as that of Delta and the Bannermen, as in that story all the alien races seem to know about the Doctor and they all posess time travel.

Monday 17 January 2011

Timewyrm: Apocalypse, by Nigel Robinson (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace pursue the Timewyrm into the far future, towards the end of the life of the universe.

The cover is quite good. It looks like a mass market science fiction novel of the sort published in the 1980s. The sort that invariably has a better cover than the story inside.

Timewyrm: Apocalypse is one of the weaker New Adventure novels. It attempts to tell a fairly old fashioned Doctor Who story, but ends up feeling rather little uninspiring and predictable. What is remarkable is how different this is to Nigel Robinson's second NA novel, Birthright. That was not only a far more interesting and better written story, but which also experimented more with the possibilities of what a Doctor Who novel can do.

Timewyrm Apocalypse is written in far more readable prose than Transit or Lucifer Rising, however it very much feels like reading a Target novelisation (and the author had written a few of those).

Like the previous novel, Timewyrm: Exodus, the Timewyrm arc is kept in the background. While Exodus was a great novel, it was only in the concluding part of the story arc that the Timewyrm emerges as an interesting narrative concept.

The idea of the Seventh Doctor receiving a warning from his second incarnation. It is interesting that three out of the four Timewyrm books incorporate a multi-Doctor element. I think this shows John Peel and Nigel Robinson's lack of interest in pursuing the Seventh Doctor's character and relationships. Thankfully in the Timewyrm conclusion, Paul Cornell starts to address the issues brought up in season 26, while still incorporating the multi-Doctor element.

The plot of this story takes on obvious influences from The Macra Terror, The Krotons and Revelation of the Daleks.

Sunday 16 January 2011

The Aztecs

In an attempt to alter the timeline, a being from the far future masquerades as an Aztec goddess.

There have been a fair few advanced beings masquerading as deities in the Doctor Who universe- Magnus Greel, Cessair of Diplos, Sutekh, the Jaggoroth, the Mandragora Helix and that wicked creature, Barbara Wright! It is ironic that in this early story, Barbara, who is portrayed as far more noble and heroic than the Doctor, is doing exactly the sort of thing that Doctor Who villains do! The villain of this story, Tlotoxl shows the sort of sceptical and questioning mind that would usually be celebrated in Doctor Who. I think this adds to the sense that season 1 is so enjoyable because it differs in so many ways from the very tightly defined ethos of later Doctor Who.

The story has a very melancholic mood. Nothing has really been acheived at the end. Barbara attempted to do something incredible in changing a whole culture, but discovered the hopelessness of this task. The Doctor and Cameca part with not a little sadness and Autloc's life is torn apart. This downbeat ending really sets the story apart from others across the history of the show. In my opinion, Genesis of the Daleks would have benefited from a similar ending. It seems manifestly obvious that when the Fourth Doctor claimed that he had set back the progress of the Daleks he was talking nonsense (probably to cheer Sarah and Harry up). The Daleks were hardly going to have too much trouble clearing away a bit of rubble. The Doctor had attempted to do what Barbara did here and like her, he failed.

Despite the melancholy tone, a good deal of the plot has a somewhat comedic structure with a lot of coincidence and irony. There is a certain of comedy of manners in Barbara's brilliantly scripted exchanges with Tlotoxl. Susan's preference of torture and gruesome execution over forced marriage seems (probably unintentionally funny). It's not like she is being forced to marry an ugly old man, and the bridegroom-to-be was going to be offered as a sacrificial victim anyway, so she would be a widow pretty quickly.

The Doctor's brief affair with Cameca at first seems grossly out of character. We never again see the Doctor falling in love in the classic series. Yet given what we see of the Doctor in his first season this makes sense. There are two things that are distinctive about the First Doctor. The first is that he is, contrary to appearances, a younger version of his future selves. Contrary to the impression given by The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, the First Doctor is not older and wiser than the others. He is consistently shown to be less moral, less responsible and less emotionally mature (except when compared with the Sixth Doctor). If the Fifth Doctor is an 'old man in a young man's body,' then the First Doctor is a teenager in an old man's body. It should not thus be a surprise if he takes a woman on an emotional ride. Secondly, he is unlike the others, a family man. We don't know anything about the Doctor's sexual partner or children, but if we accept Susan at face value (there is no evidence whatsoever that Susan is only an adopted 'granddaughter'), then the Doctor has had a family (the novels Cold Fusion and The Infinity Doctors offer an whole backstory about the Doctor's marriage to a nurse called Patience, but this is of debatable canonicity). The later Doctors may have forgotten the joys of love and marriage, but they are a more recent memory to this one.

It does seem a bit odd that Barbara, an historian and apparent expert in Aztec history, believes that the abandonment of human sacrifice might save Aztec civilization from the Conquistadors. Surely, she must know that the conquest of South America was motivated but greed for gold and the ambition to create a new Christian empire on the continent, not moral disapproval of Aztec sacrificial practices. The Conquistadors were hardly men who were ashamed of bloodshed!

The Doctor tells us in this story that one cannot change history. I think it is clear by this that he means it is impossible, rather than that it is morally wrong. There is never any suggestion that any of the actions of the other members of the TARDIS crew could affect history. Given how fragile the timeline appears to be in Big Finish stories, one might imagine that Susan attending an Aztec school could easily have major implications. The Doctor is trying to show Barbara the futility of her actions. In my opion the premise that history in Doctor Who is immutable is the 'correct' one. I think it is unfortunate that later stories suggested that history could easily be altered. I am particularly concerned by Steven Moffatt's belief that Doctor Who is all about funny things happening to the timeline and parallel versions of history. I think that is a complete distorion of the ethos of the show.

The Aztecs is a great story. Given the loss of so many historical serials, we can be thankful that this one survived.

Great post on 'Topless Robot' blog

Topless Robot: 6 Ways the Sixth Doctor from Doctor Who Got Screwed

Colin Baker was not the best Doctor, but he was very good. I think he is also the most likeable and pleasent actor to have played the character. He completely lacks the ego of some of the other former Doctors. Nevertheless, he was treated so badly by the BBC.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Doctor Who for Goths

Since the 80s there has been a signficant contingent of Goths within Doctor Who fandom. The Goth subculture is all about non-conformity and the Doctor is the ultimate nonconformist. Your typical true and tragic Goth will probably be just as much a geek as a typical Whovian, loving role-playing games, H.P. Lovecraft and old horror movies.

I can't really claim to be a Goth (though I have been described as one) as I don't dress that way. Black is just not my colour and I have yet to see a Goth wear flip flops. I do have a fair amount of gothiness in my soul. I love Gothic rock bands like Joy Division, Lacrimosa and Faith and the Muse. I love industrial music even more and I am a big Lovecraft reader.

Here are ten Doctor Who stories that are especially for Goths:

1. The Curse of Fenric

A really dark bleak story with a new twist on the old vampire myth. It has a thumping industrial soundtrack. True, not all Goths like industrial music, but there is a certain amount of crossover between the Goth and Industrial subculture.

This story also brings in H.P. Lovecraft (Fenric is an ancient evil deity) and has something of a role-playing game ethos (the Doctor in a cosmic game against the powers of evil).

2. State of Decay

Season 18 was the beginning of Doctor Who in the 80s. It is in that decade that the Gothic rebellion began. State of Decay is a really Gothic story, the soundtrack, the vampires, the medieval castle and the emphasis on visual style.

Every other fan will disagree with me, but I think State of Decay is much better than all those faux Gothic Hinchliffe stories.

3. Warriors' Gate

Another Gothic story at the start of the 80s. Visually influenced by the Gothic fairytale movie, La Belle et le Bette, Warriors' Gate gives us a very Gothic looking set.

Warriors' Gate is a tale of despair, tragedy and futility, yet not without hope.

4. Talons of Weng Chiang
Gothic Victoriana

5. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

As with The Curse of Fenric, there is the Lovecraft and role-playing element. You also have a strange girl who is dressed like an 80s Goth and who happens to be a werewolf.

6. The Happiness Patrol

One for the 'Perky Goths.' This may be colourful, but it has that Tim Burton darkness to it.

The Happiness Patrol celebrates misery and blasts conformity. What could be more Goth than that?

And of course, the title is a reference to a certain dark band whose singer had a tragic fate.

7. The Brain of Morbius

A reworking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Creepy but camp.

The Sisterhood of Karn give us some Gothic exoticism. Dead Can Dance could have given this a great alternative soundtrack for the DVD release.

8. Pyramids of Mars

A dark homage to Hammer Horror films. Extremely bleak. Not a story that I enjoy very much, but dreadfully popular.

9. The Five Doctors

Doctor Who turns into a big game of Dungeons and Dragons.

We get hints of the very gothic past of the Time Lords, back in the 'Dark Times.' Despite the sentimental nostalgia, there are some quite dark elements to this story.

10. The Chase

Episode three is set in a creepy Gothic castle and features a mock-up version of Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Alone in a darkened room. Undead! Undead!

Sunday 9 January 2011


"I'm getting a little tired of hearing about your mother."

I really like Battlefield. It's definitely among my favorite Doctor Who stories. Yet at the same time I have to try hard to be really objective about it. There are an awful lot of things about Battlefield which really drag it down. Just like Ghost Light in the same season, it is a story badly weakened by a clear failure in both script editing and direction. Oddly, however, Ghost Light seems to have a better reputation among fans. I find this surprising because Battlefield seems to me a much more enjoyable and much less dense story than Ghost Light. Both stories suffer from the same problem of having too many characters, subplots and ideas, yet Battlefield is not confusing in the way that Ghost Light is and it has many far more memorable scenes. I suspect it comes down to an additional problem; that is the attempt to do a very epic story on the cheap. It is probably fair to say that Battlefield has the lowest production values of Season 26 and they are very noticeable.

This is certainly not the first story to deal with an Arthurian theme; that had been done rather less obviously in The Stones of Blood (Vivian Fay is very clearly Morgana Le Fay, despite also being a green-skinned alien and a former Brown Owl). We are given the fascinating concept of a world in which the Arthurian legends were true and in which powerful magic sat alongside incredibly advanced technology. Obviously, such a world could never be created on a BBC budget. The real genius of this serial is that it gives us a very vivid glimpse of this world simply through the dialogue. Thus, we cleverly learn something about their technology through the reference to ornithopters. We discover that Morgaine is the battle queen of 13 worlds, a truly titanic notion. Our imagination is fed by the discovery that Merlin, the future Doctor, is imprisoned by Morgaine in the ice caves. Morgaine gives us a beautifully vivid description of her happy childhood in the company of Arthur, her brother. This is a story for romantic, poetry reading Kate Bush fans.

The story begins with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart enjoying his clearly very comfortable retirement with his new wife Doris. Doris was o course mentioned in Planet of the Spiders. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood point out the incongruity of Doris' portrayal in Battlefield. The reference to the Doris the Brigadier met in Brighton is clearly a girl of rather loose morals and probably from a working-class background. This is a very striking contrast to the very upper-middle class Doris we meet here. Doris is clearly one very expert social climber (and given the simplicity of the Brigadier's lifestyle in Mawdryn Undead and the very plush house and garden in Battlefield, it looks like Doris is the one with the money).

A major selling point of this story for many is the return of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. This point saves this story from damnation for many fans. Personally, I would have liked to have seen this element left out. There are simply too many other characters and elements going on this story to do the return of the Brigadier any justice. Something has to go. Given that Battlefield offers us a newer model of Brigadier in Bambera, it would make sense to my mind to simplify things and leave Lethbridge-Stewart out of it. I doubt many fans would agree with me, however.

UNIT get a bit of an update in this story. Their international character is manifested in the presence of foreign troops. The presence of Czechslovakians should not be seen as a goof. In the Whoniverse, the Cold War ended in the Seventies and Britain was a neutral power (see Day of the Daleks), so there is no reason why we should expect Cxechslovakia to have broken up in the nineties. Sergaent Zbigniev is a bit puzzling; he claims to have served under Lethbridge-Stewart. Given that he does not look middle-aged, this supports my contention that the UNIT era is the 1980s, not the 1970s. Given that the Cold War ended before the UNIT era and Britain was not an ally of America in the Whoniverse it is possible that there were Eastern European troops on British soil in the UNIT era. What I find troubling is that we never saw this in the earlier UNIT stories. I suppose it is possible he was here as an individual on some sort of military exchange program, but it would be unlikely that a raw recruit (as Zbigniev must have been given his age) rather than an officer would be on such a program. It's nice to see UNIT wearing the UN blue berets (this was not possible before, because of the limitations of CSO). UNIT also have a lot of new military hardware, of which Lethbridge-Stewart has a remarkable awareness given that he is retired.

The new Brigadier, Bambera is both black and female. If this was a development in the BBC Wales series this would no doubt be read as an ironic joke about political correctness. However, this is the 80s when the politically correct agenda was taken seriously (we even get an Asian character thrown in for good measure as well). These politically correct values continue in the Virgin New Adventures. In Transit (by the same writer), we find out that Lethbridge-Stewart had an affair with an African woman and so starting an African branch of the Lethbridge-Stewart family. I quite like the 'right-on' NA values. It is tedious the way people trash political correctness these days. There is nothing funny about taking a stand against racism and prejudice. Angela Bruce gives a very butch performance as the new Brigadier. Some viewers are irritated by her bad language substitute, 'Shame!' I find this rather funny.

I am surprised that more reviewers do not pick up on the similarity between this Battlefield and Delta and the Bannermen. They both have a rural setting and a summery vibe that gives them something of a pastoral quality. They both feature a rather odd invasion of earth. They also both feature a very strange relationship; in Delta and the Bannermen, between Delta and Billy; in Battlefield, between Bambera and Ancelyn. It is so cute the way Bambera and Ancelyn fall asleep on top of each other after their beating each other up. As with Delta, there is a real sense of a classical celebration of love in a pastoral setting. Thus, the two stories can be seen as light-hearted and comedic, despite the violence (and you can find violence in Shakespeare's comedies too).

Morgaine is a strange lady. Ben Aaronovitch does an unusually brilliant job of portraying a completely alien mindset in her. She can't start fighting until her men have venerated the dead of our world wars; she kills a female soldier in cold blood, then heals a woman of blindness because her son has drunk without paying and she wants vengeance against Arthur, yet she gives the most beautiful lament when she learns he is dead. She is not a totally warped and evil being, because the Doctor persuades her in the end of the evil of unleashing nuclear warfare on earth. Jean Marsh definitely makes a cracking return performance to Doctor Who.

I tend to appreciate stories where the bad guys are not killed off Hincliffe style. In the end, both Morgaine and Mordred are taken prisoner by UNIT. The Doctor tells them to 'lock them up.' A lot have fans have suggested this is absurd; surely with her magic powers, Morgaine will have no trouble escaping? However, the Doctor must know what he is doing. Perhaps there are certain drugs that will prevent Morgaine from using the part of her mind that controls her magic. The Doctor also has a lot of occult knowlege. He knew that a chalk circle would keep Morgaine out. Perhaps there are runes or magic inscriptions that will have the similar effect of keeping Morgaine imprisoned. It would definitely make a great prison movie, with a title like 'Deathless Morgaine and other Bad Girls Behind Bars.'

Mordred is defintely a fun character. He is such a mummy's boy. Lethbridge-Stewart puts him in his place with the immortal line "Just between you and me, I'm getting a little tired of hearing about your mother." That Knight Commander is a bit awful, however.

LIn Tai gives a pretty unimpressive performance as Shou Yuing. She seems to be in the story simply to be one of the few Asian characters in Doctor Who outside of Marco Polo, Talons of Weng Chiang, and I almost forgot, Mavic Chen in Dalek Masterplan. Lin Tai did make an earlier appearance as an extra in Warriors of the Deep. The scene with her and Ace in the chalk circle is quite effective. Warmsley is a bit irritating. His part suffers from competition with the many other characters in this story. It is a bit odd that an archaeologist would suggest that it does not matter what period the scabbard is from (or that he would hang up a major find in a pub).

The idea of a future incarnation of the Doctor turning out to be a Merlin in another universe is awfully interesting. The Seventh Doctor is awfully mysterious through this serial, always appearing to know a good deal more than he is letting on. That said, this is clearly not McCoy's best performance. He comes across as quite bizarre, and rather unintentionally hilarious. He is incredibly manic and tries too hard to come across as scary. The moment when he tries to growl menacingly "If they are dead..." just cracks me up. Sorry, Sylvester, you just aren't that scary.

The moment when Ace says 'boom!' just as Ancelyn crashes into the building has been mocked by fans, but I think it makes an interesting point. It seems to challenge Ace's passion for destruction, pointing out the reality of violence and war.

The Destroyer is one of the most effective monsters ever. True, it is killed rather easily, but this is used to make a point about violence and death. As is typical of Cartmel-era Doctor Who, the Destroyer is used as metaphor. He represents the destruction and horror of nuclear weaponry.

With it's Arthurian theme, Battlefield reminds me of CS Lewis' offbeat novel, That Hideous Strength. Like Battlefield, That Hideous Strength threw in a mass of characters, ideas and subplots. It also had the pastoral vibe and the demonic element, though I doubt a Leftie like Aaronovitch would use such and influence. Speaking of CS Lewis, it would appear that as with Narnia, time in the Arthurian universe moves differently to ours, as both Mordred and Acelyn are contemporaries of Arthur, who has been dead in our world for over a thousand years.

There are a fair few places in this serial which are really cheap-looking. The costumes of Morgaine's knights for instance. And of course the interior of Arthur's spacecraft. When you compare that to the brilliance of that other biological spacecraft in Claws of Axos, it looks just pathetic.

This is a very flawed production, but it is definitely a very enjoyable one. It seems to have a paricular appeal to younger viewers. I remember this serial being on television when I was a child, before I started liking Doctor Who. Other boys at m school really loved it, with all those knights and soldiers, plus a big scary monster.

Doctor Who Effects and Ironic Pleasure

On the DVD commentary of The Stones of Blood, Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and Susan Engel (who played Cessair of Diplos) seemed to agree that a major part of the enjoyment of Doctor Who is the cheapness and tackiness of a lot of the effects. So they said in episode two. Yet when they got to the next episode and saw the Megara Justice Machines, they immediately started complaining about how awful the effects were and how much it ruined the final two episodes! This goes to show that the comment that fans always love the tacky effects is in fact patronising nonsense.

We fans know the limitations on the classic series resulting from BBC budgets. We know this and accept it. We are able to suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the story despite tacky effects. That does not mean that we always take a completely uncritical stance towards anything they put on the screen. There are some stories where we fans want to scream "You're not even trying!"

I think it is different with what you might call 'casual fans' of the show. I have a colleague who has always enjoyed Doctor Who (though he hated the Matt Smith season and gave up watching that), but who does not own a single DVD and could not name a single Doctor Who title. The other day he said to me that a major part of the enjoyment of Doctor Who is the lameness of the special effects. I am convinced that if he were to start watching DVDs of the classic series on a regular basis, his perspective would totally change.

Imagine somebody who has not watched classic Doctor Who since the 80s or maybe the handful of repeats shown in 1993. He purchases a DVD of The Creature from the Pit. The major part of his enjoyment is likely to be the contrast between his innocent delight he took in the show when he was younger and his present day consciousness of the cheapness of it all. It's a dreadful story, but he can still get a real kick from laughing at that.

Suppose this person then becomes a more committed fan and purchases other Doctor Who DVDs. He then has a framework of reference by which to compare different stories. Now that he is watching other stories he begins to look beyond the cheap effects and notices the quality of the direction, the acting and the script writing. The big rat in The Talons of Weng Chiang starts to appear more painful because of the awareness of how brilliant the other elements of that production are. The cheap effects in The Creature from the Pit start to look less charming because they are not backed up with the redeeming features of a story like The City of Death. The pantomime Myrka in Warriors of the Deep starts to become more painful when you realise how effective it might have been if it had just been filmed differently. In contrast the cheap horror effects of The Image of the Fendahl are made to work through the intense atmosphere that the production manages to generate.

There is so much to appreciate in Doctor Who. Yes, the cheap effects can be a laugh sometimes, but a really critical appreciation of the show can add so much more to one's enjoyment.

Thursday 6 January 2011


"MORE POWER!!" (clenching my fist very tightly)

Earthshock is at heart a story built around the return of the Cybermen to the screen after a pretty long absence. It thus reflects the tendency of 80s Doctor Who to look to it's past to revitalize itself. While Earthshock attempts to recreate many of the elements of 60s Doctor Who, it dresses it all in a very 80s packaging, confidently at home in the screen culture of movies such as Terminator and Alien. Despite the miserable bickering at the beginning and the mournfulness of Adric's death, Earthshock shows a new energy and vitality that had been missing in much of season 19 (and which did was not to be seen so much again until season 21).

A lot of harsh things have been said about Eric Saward, perhaps some of them deserved. Nevertheless, in Earthshock, Eric Saward introduces his vision of Doctor Who and it's an impressive one. Lots of action, bleak design, enemies that have real menace, realistic violence and a sense of despair in a very dark cosmos. More was yet to come when Saward took over as script editor.

The story opens with a bunch of futuristic soldiers. They are mixed-sex platoon, with an about equal number of male and female soldiers. Some of the female soldiers are awfully cute. I love the fact that even as late in 80s everybody onscreen uses received pronuniciation. Being somebody who generally sounds pretty posh, I would have stood out less back then. Hence, most of the dolly soldiers speak very well. The military unit reminds me of the soldiers in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. I can't help wondering whether, like the mixed-sex units in The Forever War, the platoon in Earthshock have mandatory confraternity. The troops are lead by Lt. Scott (James Warwick) who acts incredibly butch throughout the serial. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood argue that though the soldiers are very similar to marines in countless American films, like Aliens, they are a new breed in Doctor Who. These soldiers reflect a new kind of gritty professionalism which had come to be the public perception of the military in the 1980s.

At the start of the first episode, the TARDIS crew are falling out with each other again. In particular, Adric is throwing tantrums and being obnoxious. Adric is not the companion-I-love-to-hate (for me that is Jo Grant), but when I watch Adric's behaviour in the first episode I understand why some fans cheered at his death. Still, it's fun to see the Fifth Doctor losing his temper.

The action get's started pretty quickly in episode one, with some very impressive, sleak androids killing several of the soldiers. I must say, showing the melted remains of those killed by the androids was pushing the boundaries of taste a bit. Towards the end of the episode, all is revealed and the Cybermen turn out to be the bad guys. I imagine thousands of young fans must have punched the air at the time.

The Cybermen have been given a new look in this story. I have mixed feelings about the new version of the Cybermen. They look reasonably impressive; the visibly human mouth is an excellent touch. However, I prefer the blank features or cloth face mask of the Sixties version. They come across as a lot more malicious. It is also very obvious that they have emotions. It is of course perfectly possible that Cybermen really do have emotions and all that talk about them being purely logical is a delusion. However, this does render dialogue about them being emotionless a bit irritating. Why does the Doctor not just point out the obvious fact that they are emotional beings? I can imagine the Fourth Doctor getting a real kick out of doing that. On the other hand, it must be said that the Sixties versions of the Cybermen (apart from in The Tenth Planet) often came across as brainless zombies. The Earthshock Cybermen are a far more intimidating on an individual level. I always crack up when I hear the Cyberleader command "More power!" and clench his fist to add emphasis! Whether they have emotion or not, they certainly have testosterone! I agree with Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in About Time, that the Cybermemn are time travellers are time travellers from the future. This makes sense of both their strategy and their knowledge of events in Revenge of the Cybermen.

There are an awful lot of problems with the plot of this story. I do not think, however, that they particularly detract from the power and excitement of it. Doctor Who at the best of times has always required viewers to occasionally make a leap of logic. I think it is fair to recognise plotholes, but you will find them in the best of stories. This story is so filled with action, that you are likely to miss at least half of them.

Peter Davison's performance still shows the lack of charisma that bedevils his first season and much of his second. This is unfortunate, because this story is so reminiscent of season 21, where he really came alive.

Tegan gets to do her Ripley bit, putting on a futuristic jumpsuit before going into action and blasting a Cyberman. It is rather convenient that Kyle was wearing a full set of clothes underneath her jumpsuit, though I suppose she could have borrowed one of the outfits in the TARDIS wardrobe (were there no practical outfits in there for Tegan to use?). Nyssa, as usual, does next to nothing in this story. You have to wonder why they even bothered creating this character.

The casting of renowned actress Beryl Reid to play the Captain Briggs was an odd choice, but there is something delightfully surreal about the standard sci-fi role of starship captain being held by a grumpy, bitchy old lady.

This story is by no means the best story of the Peter Davison years, but it certainly is a strong one and a memorable turning point in the history of the show.

Survival of the Fittest, by Jonathan Clements (Big Finish Audio)

The Seventh Doctor shows Klein the universe, but can they stay friends?

* Spoiler Alert!*

This is the second part of the Klein trilogy, which sees the Seventh Doctor taking the unusual companion, Elizabeth Klein on a voyage to discover the universe. Klein is a Nazi scientist from an alternate timeline in which the Nazis won the war. This timeline was wiped out by the Doctor, leaving Klein stranded in real history.

I personally don't care for Doctor Who dealing with history being altered. I think it goes against the initial premise of Doctor Who that history cannot be altered, not one line. I know that later stories challenged that assumption and that Big Finish delight in alternate timeline stories, but I don't think it is territory that is natural for Doctor Who. Nevertheless, I really like the Klein trilogy, despite my dislike of time alteration stories. It is fascinating to see the Doctor taking on a companion who holds to a very different philosophy. Plus, it is great to see the Doctor hanging out with a sophisticated mature woman, as opposed to endless teenage and twenty-something girls. I find it easier to see the Doctor debating ideology with an intelligent lady like Klein than falling head over heels for a young girl as shallow as Rose. I might even go so far as to say that Klein is my favorite Seventh Doctor companion; I certainly prefer her to Bernice Summerfield.

This drama is preceded by Klein's Story a bonus episode-long tale, in which Klein narrates the circumstances in which she travelled back in time to the Second World War. This story features Paul McGann ("dark and handsome in a rather Gothic way"- Klein). This is pretty good. Of course, those who have listened to Colditz will know the basic story of this, but Klein's Story adds a little flesh to it. We find out that the regenerated Doctor in the alternate timeline had been aiding the victims of Nazi oppression. It is interesting that the Eighth Doctor chooses to help the oppressed even in a timeline that he is working to eradicate. It seems hard to imagine the Seventh Doctor being so distracted from his purpose.

After Klein tells her story, she is unable to understand who the mysterious 'Schimdt with his gothic good looks really was. The Doctor then makes the mistake of explaining that this is his regenerated self manipulating her within the lost timeline. Klein is horrified to realise she has been manipulated by the Doctor and determines to get even at the game. Here we come back to that old chestnut of the early Virgin New Adventures; the dark side of the Doctor. I imagine those listening who don't like the NAs must have groaned. Ace came to hate the Doctor when she realised that he was taking advantage of her with his constant Machiavellian games. Klein also comes to realise that she has been taken for a ride by the Doctor and comes to hate him.

At the start of the story, the Doctor has already shown Klein a number of worlds. This brief continuity gap opens the possibility of other audio dramas or novels featuring the companion team of the Seventh Doctor and Klein. Am I being too optimistic? Well, they can count on me to buy them. I love Klein.

The insectoid Vrill are wonderfully conceived. Jonathan Clements has thought really hard about just how sentient insects might think. Remarkably, we learn that the TARDIS gives the Doctor (and every other character, including the human adventurers on the planet) the ability to communicate with a species that use scent as a language. As much as I like the New Adventures, I am not convinced by the view taken (and later adopted by RT Davies for the BBC Wales series) that it is the TARDIS that enables communication between the crew and those from other cultures and species. The Doctor's comment about language in Masque of Mandragora suggests that it is a personal ability that he posesses as a Time Lord and grants to his companions. Given that the TARDIS crew are often separated from the TARDIS, sometimes by time and space, it makes sense that this linguistic ability is independent of it. It may be that the grant of this Time Lord gift is a permanent bestowal; Vicki did not seem worried that she would not be able to communicate with her new husband Troilus.

The human adventurers in this story are a great bunch and well played. I like the way Klein adopts a posture of superiority towards them. Despite being a Nazi, Klein oddly comes to share the Doctor's stance of opposition towards the humans' exploitation and abuse of the native Vrill. It seems that her experiences are affecting her values.

I find it unconvicing that at the climax, the Doctor ends up losing his key. I know even the Doctor is fallible, but you would think with a Nazi who is desperate to steal the TARDIS and get even on the team, he would be a bit more careful. After all, it's not like he has not been protecting that key from evil villains, renegade Time Lords, Daleks and Cybermen for hundreds of years. Needless to say, we fans know that in some stories, only the Doctor can use the TARDIS key.

The musical score is really excellent. This is a great second part to the Klein trilogy and if one has listened to Colditz and A Thousand Tiny Wings, this is definitely worth getting hold of.

Monday 3 January 2011

The Highest Science, by Gareth Roberts (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor and Bernice investigate a mysterious power known as the 'Highest Science.'

Like many of the New Adventures, The Highest Science divides opinions. Many fans regard it as one of the best of the New Adventure novels. On the other hand, a fair few readers, including NA diehards were unimpressed by it. I found it more enjoyable to read than Lucifer Rising and Deceit, but it is certainly not one of my favorite NAs. In fact, I found the next novel, Neil Penswick's much maligned The Pit, much more fascinating. I read Gareth Roberts' later novel, Tragedy Day before this and was very impressed, so I had rather higher hopes for The Highest Science.

The Highest Science is written in very readable prose and shows plenty of wit. The influence of Douglas Adams is very obvious. Some readers will enjoy that, though I am not a Douglas Adams aficionado.

This novel sees the introduction of the Chelonians, a very aggressive turtle-like race who reappear in several NAs and also get a reference in Pandorica Opens. They are a very well conceived alien race.

I agree with many readers that the Doctor in this story seems much more like the Fourth Doctor than the Seventh. Bernice does not get an awful lot to do and ends up in a rather cliched separation from the Doctor. The three young drop-outs stranded on the alien world are quite interesting.

The biggest problem with the story is the lack of resolution at the end. The Doctor leaves without really resolving all the narrative threads to the satisfaction of the reader.

Sunday 2 January 2011

The Romans

Doctor Who does Carry On with a pinch of Ben-Hur

No fan should underestimate the importance of the historical stories. However, the difficulty in terms of appreciating then is that so few survive. I can't help thinking that it is a shame that this one survives and not Marco Polo or The Massacre.

The big problem with The Romans is that it combines a really camp attempt at Carry On style Roman comedy with a very dark set of subplots about Ian and Barbara being taken as slaves. The gulf between the to moods is a little too disorientating for the viewer. I think it would have been better to have come up with a more light-hearted subplot for Ian and Barbara that would have maintained the comedy vibe througout. Personally, I find a lot of the comedy in this serial a bit silly and not that amusing, but I know a lot of fans love it.

The Romans does not make much effort in terms of historical accuracy. The real Nero was absolutely nothing like the buffoon we encounter in this story. Ofc ourse, the same can be said of Peter Ustinov's rather more well known performance. I also wonder how likely it was that slave traders would just pounce on a bunch of strangers in Roman Italy. True, the slave traders know Ian and Barbara are travellers, but it is not inconceivable that they might not be recognised. They seem to be taking a big risk. Slave traders were not kidnappers in general, but traded in men and women taken in war or the children of slaves.

Hartnell gives a very manic performance. It is very easy to see in this story the wild, immature side of the First Doctor. I like to think of him as a 'teenager in an old man's body,' the very reverse of the Davison and Smith Doctors. Maureen O'Brien has a few nice moments of interaction with Hartnell, but as usual her performance is far from convincing.

Ian and Barbara's moments together have often been described as 'post-coital.' Watching this story, it is difficult to doubt that they might have been sleeping together, at least here in the villa, if not on the TARDIS.

Dating The Seeds of Death: The Miles-Parkin Debate

For fans obsessed with continuity, the dating of The Seeds of Death is a key question. It is one of the few classic series stories that are set in the 21st century. One reason why this is a puzzling question is that one of the companions for this story is Zoe who is also from the 21st century. Is this story set in her past (in which case it is odd that she knows nothing of the events) or is it set in her near future (in which case, is there an older version of Zoe on earth at the same time as 15-20(?) year old Zoe?)?

Two key Doctor Who guidebooks take opposing stances on the question. Lance Parkin wrote A History of the Universe for Virgin books which gave a detailed history of the universe. In this guidebook, he argued that Seeds of Death is set in 2044, before Wheel in Space (Zoe's first story). Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood About Time, wrote a gargantuan six-volume guide to Doctor Who. In the second volume, they placed The Seeds of Death after 2070. Parkin published a massively enhanced second edition, AHistory which responded to the arguments of Miles and Wood.

We know this story is set in the twenty-first century because the rocket is said by the Doctor to be a 21st century technology and because we know that space travel was in a far more advanced state in the early 22nd Century (see Nightmare of Eden). It cannot be too early in the 21st century because the 21st century rocket program was abandoned when Eldred was a much younger man and because weather control was invented in 2016 by Salamander (see Enemy of the World). So either we go with Parkin's mid-21st century date or Miles and Wood's late-21st century date.

Key arguments:

Zoe's lack of knowledge of T-Mat

Zoe does not show any prior knowledge of T-Mat technology or recognition that this is something used in her own time period. This suggests that the story occurs in her future. Zoe is also unaware of any Martians, like the inhabitants of earth in this story.

On the other hand, Parkin pointed out that Zoe shows a peculiar ignorance of history in general.

Zoe's knowledge of rocketry

Parkin pointed out Radnor's comment that Zoe knows more about space travel than Eldred. He argues that this is a clear indication that Zoe is from a more advanced period.

Miles and Wood argued that Parkin reads too much into this statement. They argue that Radnor is not an expert in space travel himself. It is the Doctor who shows the most knowledge of the field and Zoe's main contribution is in making calculations. I would also point out that Zoe's experience of space travel is more recent, whereas Eldred has not travelled in space for many years.

The history of space travel

Parkin argues that the space program must have been in a very primitive state before this story. In Wheel in Space, spaceships have been sent at least as far as the asteroid belt. There are fleets of spacecraft and a space personnel training program has been in place for years. We know from The Sensorites that interstellar missions with crews in suspended animation were sent out in the 21st century. Parking finds this evidence quite conclusive.

I am not so convinced. Eldred does not say how far his space program reached or how extensive it was. It could be that it was as spectacular as what we see in The Wheel in Space. It may be that there were a few spacecraft that were more advanced than the ion-jet rocket designed by Eldred. Possibly there may even have been one or two one-way deep space missions launched with crews in hibernation, allowing colonies like the one on Vulcan to be established in the 21st century. If the story is set no later than about 2080, it is possible that deep space missions could be well on their way at the tail end of the 21st century.

Parkin made much of the dating of the insurance firm Galactic Salvage. This firm was apparently set up in 2068 and went bust in 2096. He argued that it is unlikely that firm insuring spacecraft would be in operation during a period in which they have been abandoned. Miles and Wood reply by pointing out that their market might be no more restricted to spacecraft than Scottish Widows are restricted to insuring Scottish widows. In any case, we can be sure that they are offering coverage to the unmanned satellite rockets that are still launched in the Seeds of Death era.

War or peace?

Parkin argues that Seeds of Death is set in a time of world peace. This does not fit what we see in Warriors of the Deep, set in 2084, in which the world is divided up into power blocks at enmity with each other. Both New York and Moscow are connected by T-Mat.

Miles and Wood replied that China is not included in the T-Mat network. It could be that China and it's allies could be one of the power blocks in Warriors of the Deep. They also point out dialogue in Seeds of Death that suggests that the relationship between the west and Moscow is not all that cosy.

The first Moonbase story

It is clearly stated that the story Moonbase is set in 2070. This features the Gravitron, a technology that controls earth's weather. Clearly, this technology either replaces the weather control technology seen in Seeds of Death or else it is replaced by it.

Miles and Wood argued that the weather control technology seen in Seeds of Death is much more advanced and efficient than the Gravitron, but Parkin is not at all convinced of that. It seems uncertain which of these two technologies is the more advanced.

A more impressive argument was levelled by Miles and Wood concerning the appearance of the moonbase in Seeds of Death. They pointed out that it seems much larger, suggesting expansion. They also pointed out that the moonbase seems to be filled with unused and abandoned equipment, suggesting that it no longer serves it's original purpose. I find this argument very convincing.

One problem with putting Moonbase before Seeds of Death is that we might wonder why, having seen the moonbase invaded by Cybermen, they did not foresee it being invaded by other extraterrestrials.

Technology in Wheel in Space

Parkin points out the use of laser guns in The Wheel in Space, whearas projectile weapons are used in Seeds of Death. In response, I would point out that projectile weapons are used in a number of Doctor Who stories further in the future. It may be that the lasers are used in space because they are more effective there, rather than because they have greater destructive capabilities than projectile guns.

Parkin also points out the advanced robots in use in Wheel in Space. These are of course designed for use in a spacetravelling environment. It may be that these are just not necessary in the earthbound and lunarbound technological environment of Seeds of Death.


The New Adventure novel Transit is set in the early 22nd century and seems to be set in a world in which Seeds of Death was recent history. The novel assumes a late 22nd century date for the T-Mat incident.


While Parkin offers strong arguments for a mid-21st century date for Seeds of Death, I am more inclined to go with Miles and Wood and place the story in the late 21st century after both Moonbase and Wheel in Space.

Saturday 1 January 2011

The Ark in Space

Ridley Scott's Alien movie- We got there first

Ark in Space is the first story of the Hinchcliffe era. The first story of Season 12 was produced by Barry Letts, the outgoing producer. The Hinchcliffe era is seen by many fans as a golden era of Doctor Who. I differ from most fans in not holding this period in high regard. I certainly think it is the most consistent period in the show. While it had a few disasters, most notably The Android Invasion, on the whole it maintained high standards. However, the Hinchcliffe was far from as perfect as many fans would have you believe. There was something of an overreliance on borrowing plots from horror movies. More controversially, I believe that Hinchcliffe allowed the violence to get a little out of hand. I think there is something of a sadistic tendency in his stories. They seem to indulge a morbid curiosity about pain and death. I think Ark in Space is a good start to this period and while including a powerful horror element, it avoids the excesses of some of his later serials, such as The Robots of Death and Pyramids of Mars (in my opinion the two most overrated Dr. Who stories ever).

Ark in Space introduces a powerful element of body horror; the terror of being transformed into something inhuman; the complete destruction of the personality. This theme would be repeated in the Seeds of Doom. The serial also plays considerably on childish fears, such as the fear of being eaten by monsters while one is asleep.

Doctor Who has made several attempts to create B-movie style giant insects, mostly unsuccessfully. One has to admire them for trying on a limited budget. The Wirrn are not an exception; they are a rather clumsy and very unconvincing creation. Probably, it was a mistake to show a dead Wirrn early in the story, thus reducing their later impact. The metamorphosis effect on 'Noah' is also rather poor; it is very obvious that his hand is covered in bubble wrap.

We are given a very bleak vision of the future. Not only has the earth been devastated by solar flairs and it's surviving population in hibernation, but society seems to have changed. The survivors on the Ark, with the strange exception of Rogin, are very cold and callous. We are given a fleeting glimpse of a very regimented society that looks down on outsiders as 'regressives.' They appear to regard those humans that have colonised other planets as having an almost subhuman status. It is clearly not a future we would relish. This effect is a little ruined by the character of Rogin (Richardson Morgan). His character and posture is just completely out of character with the society in which he is supposed to be living. He even makes a gag about a trade union. So are there trade unions in this apparently fascistic future society?

The musical score is very good and helps to enhance the overall sense of doom. At times the suggestion is made that the entire future of humanity rests with the survival of the Ark's inhabitants. While they might well feel so with their peculiar distrust of space colonists, it does not seem a correct assumption. The story acknowledges that there are human colonies on other worlds and this is supported by many other Dr. Who stories.

Wendy Williams is very good as Vira, showing at first a coolness towards the TARDIS crew, then an increasing warmth. Kenton Moore has often been praised for his performance as 'Noah,' but I am not very convinced. He seems a little awkward in the role and at times hams it up rather too much.

Tom Baker still seems a little uneasy in his role as the Doctor. It is probably only in Genesis of the Daleks that he really makes the part his own. Elisabeth Sladen gives her usual decent performance. It is Ian Marter who really shines as Harry Sullivan. Being a diagnosed Dyspraxic (clumsy child syndrome), I really identify with Harry's clumsiness and apparent stupidity. What is so delightful about Harry is that he takes his reputation for being a clumsy fool with such good grace. As a naval officer and a doctor, he has status in society and is perfectly at ease with himself. After his shoes are destroyed in the first episode, he spends the rest of the story in his stocking feet, which must have been rather comfy.

The similarities between this story and Ridley Scott's Alien movie have often been pointed out. It would be nice to think that this serial was an influence on the film. Nevertheless, it should never be thought that Ark in Space is better. Not only was Alien a landmark science fiction film, but it showed a much greater sophistication, playing on subconscious male fears about female genitalia, childbirth and breastfeeding.

While Ark in Space is not a story that gets me particularly excited, it is a great introduction to the Hinchcliffe era and a worthy second story for Tom Baker.