Friends, faith and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (2018)


Dear past Johnny,

Hello from 2019! Back where you are, it’s 2013 and you’re thinking about writing a blog about Doctor Who. Because apparently the world really needs to hear what any old Johnny Spandrell has to say about a kids sci-fi TV show.

I get it. You’re full of nerves and misgivings: you’re thinking, can I keep up the pace? Can I really hope to say something new about every story? Will anyone read this thing? Is it all going to be a colossal waste of time?

I’m here with some good news. The answers to those questions are, yes, you’ll keep up the pace. In fact, you’ll publish at least one post a week (and sometimes more) for five and a half years. That’s nearly 300 posts and well over 300,000 words. And yes, you’ll more or less say something new about every story. Occasionally, you’ll even manage to be funny. (Though you make lots of typos. My favourite is when you go on about a “rouge Cyberman”, closely followed by when you talk about a female military officer’s rack, when you mean “rank.” You like that one so much you never bother to change it.)

Will anyone read it? Surprisingly, yes. They’ll even contact you to say so. From all around the world. You’ll make new friends and that’s something that hasn’t even crossed your tiny little 2013 mind has it? As for a waste of time… no, it’s the opposite of that. It’s hugely enjoyable. You won’t regret it.

(In other news, there’s gonna be a new showrunner, a female Master, a female Doctor, a gay companion and the Fish People make a triumphant return to the series. One of those things is a lie, have fun finding out which. And Donald Trump… oh, probably best not to think about it).

Your last post is this one and it’s on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. No, not more typos, that’s what the episode is called. You haven’t heard of it yet, because it’s years away from being conceived of. It’s an understated season finale, in which the Doctor (her off Broadchurch) stumbles across an old enemy (*cough Zaroff! cough*) who is merging super-advanced technology with the faith of an ancient race of mystics to steal the plot of The Pirate Planet.

It’s an odd piece of work. It’s not a big, bombastic season closer as we’ve seen in previous years (the Doctor even has dialogue which refers to a couple of them fondly, just to hammer home the point). It’s kind of about chickens coming home to roost; the Doctor’s humiliation of said old enemy (no, not Zaroff. But wouldn’t that be great? This one is called Tim Shaw. No, not him off the Demtel ads.) has caused him to stew for three thousand odd years, during which time he’s managed to convince two of the ancient mystic race (the Seussical sounding Ux) to help him build a super weapon.

They are a bit slow on the uptake, these Ux, having taken three thousand years to work out that guy with his enemies’ teeth embedded in his head and an army of robots (who, by the way, have the shoddy marksmanship of those old UNIT soldiers of yore) at his disposal may not have the best interests of the universe at heart. But I suppose the point this episode is making is that blinkered adherence to faith can lead you some distance up the garden path.

The other question it poses is whether the Doctor’s pal Graham (him of the UK version of The Chase) is going to give in to his desire for revenge and shoot Tim Shaw for killing his wife, back in the first ep of this season. Which technically he didn’t actually do, but that’s probably unhelpful to point out. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ve watched enough Doctor Who to know by now that it’s unlikely to produce an episode celebrating revenge as a satisfying and justifiable course of action. So it’s probably enough to point out that for our two characters contemplating murder here as a cathartic act, one friend and one foe, it works out OK for one of them.

The Battle of RAK, as I’ve just christened it, is surprising only in its determination to not be surprising. You, 2013 Johnny, are in the tangled midst of the Steven Moffat era where everything is complicated and moral decisions are painted in many shades of grey. Not so much anymore – the show is now in a place where its messages on good and bad are much simpler. Its pace is slower and the Doctor’s back to travelling with three companions. I’m not the first to say that it’s reminiscent of the Hartnell era, and that, as we know, is a double-edged sword.

Talking of Hartnell, you’ll start your random journey with The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and oddly enough, it and The Battle of RAK have things in common. The TARDIS crew is battling to fight an enemy whose plan is well underway and reaching its climax, they end up saving loads of trapped extras running away in a quarry and the plot involves moving planets across the cosmos. If your blog has a theme, it’s thinking about what each story is about and why that matters (well, most of the time. Sometimes you just take the piss). At heart, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Battle of RAK and everything in between is about how cruelty and tyranny can be countered with intelligence, bravery and wit.

And throughout, the Doctor is the same character you’ve always loved and admired, fighting against the odds, battling brawn with brains and generally putting things right. And she still has that same faith that people are basically good and if you give them the chance to be, they’ll make the right decisions.

“Keep your faith. Travel hopefully,” the Doctor tells the Ux at the end of this episode. “Go forward in all your beliefs,” her predecessor said all those years ago, at the end of that Dalek invasion. The Doctor’s still urging her audience to have confidence in their abilities and just go for it. It’s good advice. You should take it.

And here’s one more spoiler for you: for all the randomness you’re about to dive into, the surprising part is that the things that make Doctor Who the best TV series ever made never leave it. It never gives up on being smart, funny and engaging. It always seeks to fire up its audience’s imagination, armed only big ideas, compelling performances and charmingly inadequate production standards. When you think about it that way, it’s not random at all.


Future Johnny.

LINK TO The Seeds of Death: Oh and this thing. It seems like a good idea at the start, but let me tell you, it will drive you mental. “It’s late,” Mrs Spandrell will say, “go to sleep, you fool.” “No!” you’ll retort. “There must be something linking Inferno and Love & Monsters and I’ve got to find it! Does anyone turn into paving stone in Inferno? Or does Elton Whatsit wear an eyepatch?” So many times you’ll want to quietly retire this part of the blog like a long running DWM feature suddenly dropped without comment.

But against all odds, we’ve made it and linked every story in this random chain to each other. And by pointing out that because The Battle of RAK has an opening sequence set in 2018, both it and The Seeds of Death have scenes set in the 21st century, my work on this particularly pointless feature of the blog is done. You have been warned!

NEXT TIME: An afterword.

Future visions, rear views and The Seeds of Death (1969)

seeds of death

How are you enjoying the 21st century? Did you enjoy your last instantaneous T-Mat trip to the Moon? What about your three-month stint on an orbiting space station, complete with cute astrophysicist librarians? And don’t you just love this glorious weather we’re enjoying, thanks to our climate control system on that lunar base? If not, perhaps you’d prefer a holiday in the Central European Zone, only a two-hour rocket trip from Australia?

I know what you’re thinking. From where you sit it’s all wifi and reality TV and Taylor Swift and global warming. Where are all these wonders from the 21st century that Doctor Who ­(specifically it’s cosmically hoboish Troughton years) sold us? Wouldn’t you just trade in all the smart watches and streaming and geopolitical instability for a vinyl jumpsuit, a hovercraft and electronic doctor to monitor your condition if you’ve injured yourself during a walk on the Moon?

Turns out the Troughton era is quietly obsessed with the 21st Century. The Moonbase, The Enemy of the World, The Wheel in Space, The Space Pirates and our latest random, The Seeds of Death are all set there. The Power of the Daleks too, if you believe the voice over on its trailer. That’s six more visits to the 21st century than in the whole of the rest of classic era Who (Warriors of the Deep, just to save you rushing back to your copy of Lance Parkin’s A History of the Universe. No, I’m not counting The TV Movie. But not as much as I’m not counting Dimensions in Time.)

I’m not sure why this particular three-year period of the show was suddenly so interested in the near future. And I’m not sure why it was never quite as interested in it again. Perhaps subsequent producers realised it was a little too close for comfort, at least for correctly predicting what technology, fashion, culture etc would be doing.

If we judge the 21st century from the Troughton era, it presents a world coming closer together; where travel across the globe takes no time and where people working in multi-cultural teams is the norm. Where space travel has been mastered, where weather control is possible, where Earth has set up colonies and new cosmic frontiers are flush with space police, space pirates and space cowboys.

(Meanwhile, in actual 2019, I have about 27 login/password combos and can remember precisely none of them.)

Faced with this carefully conceived view of future history, The Seeds of Death then cheerfully throws it all out the window. An expansive human world of rockets and space stations? All obsolete, replaced by T-Mat! You’ve got to hand it to writer Brian Hayles. In the midst of moon shot obsessed 1969, he looks sardonically up from his typewriter and says, “well this space travel stuff is all well and good, but what happens when we’re sick of that?”


But anyway, to the story itself. As in The Ice Warriors, Hayles presents us with a society which has become overly dependent on technology: then it was outsourcing our decision making to computers, here it’s adopting T-mat at the expense of all other transport. The result is a strategic weakness the Ice Warriors can exploit to invade the Earth, by use of seed pods which expand, explode and start transforming the Earth’s atmosphere. This echoes another of The Ice Warriors’ themes – that of catastrophic climate change. Plus it’s yet another excuse to wheel out the BBC foam machine and suds up the joint.

(The seed pods, by the way, are clearly just balloons, being inflated and burst on demand, suggesting there was no budget or inclination left to realise them more convincingly. There’s a similarly ramshackle feel to the rest of the production; not only are the Doctor (the Trought), Jamie (Hineszy) and Zoe (the Padberry) forced to travel to the Moon via rocket without any spacesuits, they’re also forced to simulate their own g-force effect by pulling their skin tight across their faces.)

Director Michael Ferguson compensates for this with some stylish film work on location, and even in studio he manages some nifty shots, like silhouetting characters against a wall of glowing lights. Although why a Moonbase needs a wall of glowing lights is about as clear as why its floors slope up and down randomly, why it contains a hall of mirrors specifically for wacky chases, or why it needs a thermostat capable of turning the temperature up to a deadly 70 degrees.

It’s a diverting enough runaround between the Moon and T-Mat control on Earth, as the Ice Warriors’ plan sedately reveals itself and the Doctor takes his time to foil it. Turns out the seed pods, the foam and the whole bubbly affair washes off with H2O. It was always going to be a risky plan, therefore, to invade a planet with so much of the stuff, but there you go. And to launch the invasion plan in England, a country famous for its rain. But that’s the daring Ice Warriors for you, they fear nothing! “Yesss, our plan can wasssh off with water, and yesss, 70% of the Earth is covered by it, but why do you think that would put usss off?! Of courssse it will work!”

Since they last turned up, the Ice Warriors have gained a new sub-breed. Hayles must have realised that impressive though they are, those big egg shaped masks come helmets reduced the chance of actors offering compelling performances. So he gives us a more streamlined officer class, represented here by Slaar (Alan Bennion).

Slaar is far more louche than his Warrior chums. Apart from his sibilant middle management accent, he also likes to stand around conspicuously making sure his tightly clad arse is kept in shot. (Actually, it’s a busy story for bums, what with so many of them being pointed at the camera and hugged by black trimmed space pants. Choose your favourite behind, but it really should be Miss Kelly’s.) They should have given him an elegant cigarette holder and a big armchair from which he could slouch, while sending deadly foam emitting balloons to exotic cities of the world like Oslo, Hamburg, Zurich and, um, Canberra.

Though he’s completely upstaged when the Ice Warrior Grand Marshall (Graham Leaman) turns up for a grump, flourishing his helmet which has been bedazzled with fetching gemstones! Slaar seethes in jealousy at the sight of such unabashed glamour. Well, he does in my head canon anyway. In the same head canon, my daily commute is by T-Mat, I can use rain control to break the drought and I holiday among the picturesque mercury swamps of Vulcan. You live in your 21st century, I’m quite happy in the Trought’s.

LINK TO The Daleks’ Master Plan: So here’s a thing: because Bret Vyon was “bred on Mars Colony 16”, both stories feature Martians.

NEXT TIME: We reach the end of our random journey, with our last story The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

Epic, episodic and The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965/66)


Here, have twelve random observations about The Daleks’ Master Plan on me.

  1. Steven (Peter Purves) is injured and the Doctor (William Hartnell) arrives on the jungle planet Kembel, in desperate need of help. Unfortunately, the only help he has is Trojan waif Katarina (Adrienne Hill). Katarina’s limitations as a companion are evident immediately. Anything even slightly technical or contemporary needs to be explained to her. ‘Are these tablets?’ she has to ask at one stage, when administering medicine to Steven. Once the script points out her lack of modern nous, it’s hard to not to question everything she does. Would she really know to get Steven out of the TARDIS when it’s threatened by the Daleks? Would she even know how to operate the airlock switch which eventually dooms her? She’s not long for the Whoniverse and you can see why.
  2. Day of Armageddon, returned to us in 2004, is a precious little gap-filler – the only episode we’ve got that features Kembel and the Delegates and Katarina the permanently dazed. Years ago, long before it was returned, Andrew Pixley wrote about this episode in Doctor Who Magazine, speculating about the things we didn’t know about it and funnily enough, they are still things we don’t know about it even though the episode is back. For instance, we still don’t know when Steven changes from his Trojan outfit into his corduroy ensemble and we never get to see the futuristic playing cards promised in the script. And here’s another mystery… when the Doctor disguises himself in seaweedy Zephon’s (Julian Sherrier) robes, is it Hartnell dressed up? Or, as he has no lines to speak in those scenes, did they get someone else to do it and let him get to the pub early? Back to work, Pixley!
  3. In the third episode, we head to a Devil’s Planet. It’s an episode of not-very-much-happening, except it does give us the character of Kirksen (Douglas Sheldon) who hangs around to take Katarina to the end of her contract next episode. It’s set on a penal planet, probably writer Terry Nation’s stand-in for colonial Australia, albeit a few rungs further down civilisation’s ladder. There’s a particularly icky bit early in the episode where (according to the audio at least) seedy crims Garge (Geoffrey Cheshire) and Bors (Dallas Cavell) battle for control of a knife, and also for two women standing helplessly watching nearby. Not nice.
  4. On the other hand, there’s Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) who’s certainly not helpless, nor nice at this early stage. She’s Katarina’s replacement and the chalk to her cheese. She’s a space special agent, so she’s ultra-capable and not flummoxed by complex concepts like pharmaceuticals or doorknobs. She can even fix the TARDIS’s “scanner eye” after being resident in the Ship for about 5 minutes. She only makes two mistakes while in the Doctor’s company, but unfortunately, they’re doozies. First, she kills her own brother, under the mistaken belief that he’s a traitor (luckily she gets over it after a few minutes). Then she hangs around the Daleks’ time destructor for too long and heads to the big Big Finish studio in the sky.
  5. For a couple of episodes we meet bald-headed conspirator Karlton (Maurice Browning). He’s a smooth talking, obsequious type with a baritone which must enrich the SSS’s light operetta society. When space dictator Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney) starts to panic that the Daleks will turn on him for losing the Taranium Core to a doddery old man disguised as six foot of walking kelp, it’s Karlton who suggests a crafty lie about deliberately trapping him on marshy planet Mira. There’s a strong hint that Karlton is biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to supplant Chen. And then… he completely disappears from the story without explanation. Maybe he also fell out of an airlock.
  6. On Mira there are invisible monsters, the vicious Visians. Season three is fond of invisibility. There’s another set of invisible aliens in The Ark and Galaxy 4’s Rills, while visible, spend a lot of time off screen, represented only by a fruity, world-weary voice. Even the Doctor is afflicted with a touch of invisibility in The Celestial Toymaker. Lovely and cheap, invisibility. How the production team managed  to show a posse of invisible Visians attacking the Daleks is another mystery which will stand until someone finds a copy of Coronas of the Sun. Unless they can’t because, you know… it’s invisible.
  7. OK, I lied. It’s not twelve random observations, it’s only eleven. ‘Cause the other one is here.
  8. So big deal, The Feast of Steven is the show’s first Christmas episode. No one ever mentions that Volcano is its first New Years’ Day episode. It even features a countdown at the end, as if to midnight. And it hasn’t entirely given up the jolly tone of the previous episode. It finds time for a jaunty trip to a cricket match mid-episode. This incident, and the funny business about the fate of two experimental mice in Counter Plot, are pretty good hints that a young Douglas Adams was influenced by the story. Both incidents are used in his Hitchhikers, as is the notion of a space ark harbouring the last of humanity (as seen in The Ark) and an all powerful computer which answers inane questions (as per The War Machines). Poor Season Three. It should have got a royalty.
  9. The Doctor is eventually forced to hand back the Taranium Core to the Daleks in a showdown in Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile our heroes and villains are being played off each other by the time meddling Monk (Peter Butterworth), making a return appearance here. It all sounds much more thrilling than it actually is. The Monk’s fun, but a distraction. He adds some comic spark to these later episodes, but Butterworth’s performance is so good and the character so enjoyable that you end up wishing for a second fully-fledged Monk story. Rather than one in which he’s used as local colour to enliven a double length version of The Chase.
  10. Meanwhile, Chen is busy going coco bananas. Like so many bad guys, he starts to believe his own hype, which eventually results in an epic level of delusion about his own infallibility. One of the benefits of having an eleven part story is that we can see this change happen gradually. How often in Doctor Who does the villain “go mad” in the final episode, usually between scenes, to allow him/her to burst into a room at the last minute, froth at the mouth a bit and die with a final evil cackle? Here, Stoney unhinges his character in small almost unnoticeable increments until by the final episodes, Chen’s trademark grandiose announcements of “I, Mavic Chen!” are a regular reminder that the bigger Chen’s ego, the more distant from sanity he becomes.
  11. Things go a bit awry in the penultimate episode, The Abandoned Planet, when the Doctor, without warning, abandons the planet. Our heroes return to Kembel, only for the Doctor to disappear about halfway through. He turns up again, without adequate explanation halfway through the next. Where does he go? Did he fall into an airlock?  Meanwhile, the Daleks have turned on their allies from all around the galaxy and locked them all up. It was only here that I realised that the story never explains why the Daleks need them at all. Chen supplies the Taranium. What do the others do? And as their presence is presumably what makes all this a master plan (as opposed to your common or garden evil plan), surely they should have more importance to the plot than attending the odd meeting and occasionally getting bumped off?
  12. Appropriately, it ends where it began: on Kembel with the Doctor turning the time destructor on the Daleks (and Sara), leaving him and Steven the only survivors. It sounds like a great episode, galloping away at a very modern pace. It’s the Earthshock of its time, and not just because a companion dies at the end. Still, all this could have happened after Day of Armageddon. After all, the Doctor had stolen the Taranium, the time destructor itself is on Kembel, the pieces were all in place. In some alternative timeline there’s a perfectly serviceable three part version of The Daleks’ Master Plan. Sure, its episodic nature – a new planet and problem to solve every episode or two – is part of its charm. But when you finally reach the end of this mammoth story, there’s a real sense that most of it was mad, but glorious, padding.

LINK TO It Takes You Away: in both, the Doctor travels with family members (brother/sister, grandson/grandad). And they both feature talking frogs. No, they don’t because that would be mental.

NEXT TIME: Bipeds, reptilian, armed with some kind of sonic device. Let’s fly to the moon and plant The Seeds of Death.

Thespians, amphibians and It Takes You Away (2018)


Laurence Phibbs takes a long draw on his cigarette, jammed between his webbed fingers and smiles. “When my agent rang to say I’d got the part, I was jumping off the walls with excitement. Literally, and there aren’t many actors who can say that!”

We’re sitting at a quiet table in charming old school pub, not far from Laurence’s pad in South London. Well, I’m sitting and Laurence’s squatting. If any of the regulars are surprised to see a larger than normal frog sitting on a toadstool – sorry barstool – talking to a journalist, none of them are showing it.

Is Laurence a fixture here? “I hop in every now and then. It’s never very busy, so you’re unlikely to be bothered by people wanting to take a selfie or get your autograph. Although with Doctor Who, now everyone wants a high four!” He laughs and holds up the four fingered hand which expelled Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor from a mirror universe in the now-famous climactic moment of series 11 oddball It Takes You Away. “You’re kind of public property once you’ve been on the telly.”

Laurence should know. Already a familiar variegated green face from appearances on stage and screen, he’s now finally made it to Doctor Who. Laurence played the sentient universe the Solitract, which takes the form of a frog for a crucial resolution with the Doctor. Lucky for him that the universe decided to take on amphibian form. Laurence would have been out of luck if the production team had gone for, say, a talking donkey?

“They wouldn’t have gone for a donkey,” says Laurence matter of factly, whipping out his long, sticky tongue to catch an unwary passing fly. “Very difficult to dub voices over, donkeys. Their mouths are very inflexible. That’s why they’re so often CGI. Like Shrek, right? Can’t do that in studio. Though many have tried.”

Why didn’t they go for a CGI frog on Doctor Who? Laurence rolls his eyes, which is quite a feat considering they’re on opposite sides of his head. “Well, they did think about it but it’s a very emotional scene. With CG, you just can’t get the full range of emotion that a trained actor like myself can bring to a role. I mean, that’s what you’re paying for when you book me. You don’t want to embarrass an actor of Jodie Whittaker’s calibre by having her perform a scene with some shoddy imitation of a frog. You want the real thing!”

If Laurence sounds slightly arrogant about his acting chops, he can afford to be. His track record in film and TV is admirable. Roles in programs as diverse as live action versions of The Wind In the Willows and Danger Mouse have made him the go-to actor for frog roles in the UK. Is there enough work around for him? “You’d be surprised actually. I mean, wherever there’s a story with a handsome prince there’s a role for me in it, so panto’s a godsend for me. Plus I always get kissed by the princesses!” he adds, with a grin.  Is it true he’s attached to the new Kermit bio pic, Rainbow Connection? “I can’t talk about that,” he says coolly, scratching his eye with one of his hind legs.

Laurence may be the charming green face of the Solitract, but its voice belongs to Sharon D Clarke, who has played Grace throughout the season. Did Laurence mind not delivering the vocals to go along with his physical performance?

For a moment, he inflates his throat sac in bubble of what could be frustration. “Look, it was a hangover from when they were thinking of it being CG. They’d booked her and recorded it and everything, so I just said, “fine”. I mean, it’s part of the story too, but I told them I was happy to do it and of course, I said the lines on the day, to give Jodie something to work with. But they stuck with Sharon, who of course did a marvellous job, and that’s great. But I thought I brought a nice croaky quality to those lines, so I do regret it a bit. Perhaps it will turn up on a DVD extra one day.”

Take us through the day of the shoot. “Well, it was quite hilarious really. Because as you know, security is so tight on Doctor Who. They smuggled me in in the back of a car, in a shoebox which thankfully they’d remembered to punch some airholes in. Then they took me straight to make-up, where they spent a long time giving me a slightly rubbery, artificial kind of look. They were going for a slightly unreal, fantasy feel, in tune with the whole episode really. And then it was straight to the studio where Jodie was waiting. I must admit she seemed little taken aback when she saw me – overawed maybe, I don’t know – but after that initial hesitation, I thought she did very well. I gave her a few tips, cracked a few jokes to put her at ease.”

He pauses for a moment, to secrete a moisturising fluid from the glands at the back of his head. “Actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you this… but hey, what does it matter now. They were thinking about keeping me on.” What, as a regular? “Yeah, as a member of the TARDIS crew. You see, they were sort of worried that they didn’t have quite enough companions, and they were thinking of the range of stories they could tell if the Doctor had a talking frog sitting on her shoulder But the dates wouldn’t have worked out. I’m mean they shoot for six months of the year, I hibernate during winter plus I shed my skin every few weeks, so continuity would be a nightmare.” But if those logistical problems could have been ironed out, would Laurence had said yes? “I’d have jumped at the chance. I mean, I’ve loved Doctor Who ever since I was a tadpole. It would have been amazing.”

I get the sense that Laurence might be holding out for an even greater prize. Would he ever consider playing the Doctor? “Well, it’s very interesting, isn’t it?” he says, gently lifting his suction pad fingers off the stool, and bringing his hands together, contemplatively. “We’ve now got a female Doctor… why not a frog Doctor? I think it could work. Frogs naturally metamorphose anyway, so regeneration’s a doddle. Plus imagine how quickly I could out hop those Daleks! Yes, I’d certainly consider it if it ever came my way.”

Our time is up, and Laurence’s got to get to a photoshoot for National Geographic. I ask him for some final thoughts on his time on Doctor Who. “It was a hoot and I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. And who knows, maybe the Solitract’s reality isn’t entirely incompatible with the known universe and will turn up again to be Jodie Whittaker’s eternal BFF. I think she’d be delighted with that.”

He raises his hand for a trademark high four, which I happily take. Then he flies through the door with a few leaps of his powerful frog’s legs, as enigmatic as the Solitract itself. Onwards, to his next froggy theatrical triumph.

LINK TO The Horns of Nimon: the Doctor uses string to leave a path when entering into the anti-zone, a tactic famous from the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur which, the astute among you will have noticed, bears a faint resemblance to The Horns of Nimon.

NEXT TIME: The Daleks are doing something drastic in The Daleks’ Master Plan. Now will you, SHUT UP, SIR?!!!

Opera, silliness and The Horns of Nimon (1979/80)

horns of nimon

I wonder what Barry Letts thought of The Horns of Nimon. Presumably he viewed it, when he was about to rejoin the show in a specially created Executive Producer position and this was, at that time, the most recent story the production team had managed to complete. I imagine him, stony faced in some tiny BBC viewing suite, watching a tape of this story which drew the curtain on the decade of Doctor Who he launched, and wondering quite where it all went awry. Probably also wondering how long it would take to fix the old girl up and how soon he could head back to making Great Expectations or something.

If you watch any number of the extra features on the recently released Season 18 blu-ray box set, you’ll hear script editor Christopher H Bidmead tell the story of his job interview, in which he said the previous season of Doctor Who had been “silly” and claims Letts nodded sagely and agreed. It’s pretty easy to guess that they were both thinking of The Horns of Nimon. There are number of moments here which are clearly intended to be funny but which fall flat (and that’s my personal definition of “silly”). There’s the whizz bang noise when the console blows up. There’s “oh my gravitic anomoliser!” There’s the Doctor giving K9 mouth to mouth and a prize rosette. And so it goes hilariously on.

But others choose different words to describe contributions to this story. Tom Baker, also on the Season 18 box set, likes to use “operatic” to describe big, bold offerings like June Hudson’s costume designs, which make everyone on the planet Skonnos look like their heading to a mardi gras themed funeral (or a funeral themed mardi gras, I suppose) and Graham Crowden’s performance as Soldeed, which leaves no scenery unchewed. Crowden is often singled out for praise by Tom, because he doesn’t so much say his lines as propel them through the screen at you with ballistic force, powered by bulging eyes and bared gums.

So what’s the truth of The Horns of Nimon? Is it silly or operatic? It’s got to be said that apart from the efforts of La Hudson and Lord Crowden, there’s little that’s operatic about it. Certainly not Anthony Read’s script, which is as safe and sensible as you’d expect from a previous script editor who knows exactly how big the budget will be for the studio bound fifth story in a season of six and has scaled everything back by 5% just in case. Read’s well-documented favourite approach to Doctor Who was to raid mythology for stories which would easily translate by rearranging a few consonants in the names of characters and locations, and the result here is a thoroughly producible script. Its plotting is sound, its pacing spot on and its dialogue thoroughly unremarkable. I can imagine Letts nodding in appreciation of it in that viewing suite, perhaps grumbling about an old pro’s script being meddled with and an egocentric lead actor given too much head.

Whether it’s silly or operatic or both, it’s undeniably tatty. In fact, its whole look is a homage to late 70s glam rock on a bargain bin budget. The Nimons themselves balance precariously on vertiginous platform boots which force these towering bulls to swap charging and bucking for tottering. The Anethan tributes (made up of Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent), Teka (Janet Ellis) and five nameless, voiceless others, whose entire job is to fill up a tight nine shot with eyes wide with fear) wear costumes made out of that textured wallpaper you used to see in suburban Chinese restaurants. Seth’s only needs a zodiac symbol medallion to complete the picture, a rare oversight from Hudson. Back in 1965, The Beatles turned up for a cameo on Doctor Who and if KISS had done the same in The Horns of Nimon, they wouldn’t have looked out of place. (Nimon’s made for lovin’ you, baby? No?)

It’s worth reflecting again on Season 18 and how much better it looks than, well… all of Season 17, except perhaps City of Death. Producer John Nathan-Turner is sometimes criticised for prioritising style over substance, but when looking at Nimon’s all pervading shoddiness, you can see that the show’s look really did need attention. Perhaps the success of this makeover can be put down to Nathan-Turner’s much documented ability to spend money where it would show on screen, but whatever it was, the show needed it. Compare this story to, for instance, next season’s penultimate studio bound tale The Keeper of Traken and see how much more attention is given to making the show look presentable. For better or worse, this stuff matters.

The wobbliness of the whole production – costumes, sets and performances alike – has made The Horns of Nimon a target for disdain for the longest time. Since then, many have made attempts to rehabilitate its reputation which have bordered on the, well, operatic. It’s loads of fun, they say and yes, it absolutely is. The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping (mentioned here for the first time in nearly 300 posts, which is something of an omission) calls it, generously, “rather wonderful with some friends and a bottle of wine”, but I fear such a dinner party would be doomed to break up around the end of Part One, with your friends looking exaggeratedly at their watches and saying, “oh, is that the time?” while you are left trying to coax the last few drops out of the bottle solo, hoping you can hang out long enough to hear Lalla Ward shout, “how many Nimons have you seen today?” at Soldeed while he cackles his way through his death scene.

The truth of it is that The Horns of Nimon is a story which people have been attempting to breathe life into from conception all the way through to reception. It starts with a fine but basic script by Read. Then Baker, Crowden & Hudson try to resuscitate it through ad libs, overacting and sweeping grand designs. (Only Lalla Ward finds a way of dealing with the material given to her, giving it authority and conviction without going over the top. No small feat when you’re trying to acting intimidated by unsteady ballet dancers in body suits, spangly loin cloths and big plasticky bull heads). Then since its initial reception, we’ve been trying to counter the evidence of our own eyes, desperately clinging to the occasional line that lands or the rare genuinely witty beat to say, “no, c’mon, it’s really quite good and it’s funny.”

I can’t imagine this is what Letts thought. Neither Read or director Kenny McBain were invited back for Season 18. But maybe he and Chris Bidmead sat down for dinner, cracked opened a bottle of wine and smashed through four episodes of The Horns of Nimon. On to be a fly on the wall. That really would have been, to quote Cornell et al, rather wonderful.

LINK TO The Waters of Mars: more Australian actors! Bob Hornery (Pilot) is of this village.

NEXT TIME: I’ve always fancied the idea of Norway. So, let’s take ourselves away to It Takes You Away.

Rules (fictional), rules (personal) and The Waters of Mars (2009)


If action packed, edge-of-your-seat thrills is what you want from Doctor Who, then The Waters of Mars is satisfying stuff. It tells the story of Earth’s first colonists on Mars, systematically picked off by a sentient micro-organism which transforms its victims into water exuding monsters. History says that the colonists are doomed and the Doctor (David Tennant, nearing the end of his Doctordom) is torn between saving these legendary astronauts and allowing established events to play out as recorded. Directed by the show’s great galvaniser Graeme Harper, it’s fast, frightening and foreboding. It’s as good an example of that particular genre of Doctor Who as we’ve ever got and given that particular strain gives us The Seeds of Doom, Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani, that’s impressive.

So, as I’ve mulled over this one, I’ve been surprised to find myself returning to something much more contemplative about this noisy, nervy tale: about what it says about the Doctor and his inherent contradictions.

Let me take a step back: I’ve been debating the merits of The Waters of Mars with Nathan Bottomley of the Flight Through Entirety podcast. He’s got a problem with its central premise, which hangs on one of Doctor Who’s long established rules: that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. But that rule has no basis in the real world; it’s just a made-up piece of sci-fi flim flam. So we have a Doctor Who story seeking to create drama out of a fictional conceit and that weakens the whole story, making it less compelling for the audience.

He has a point, I think. Who can blame an audience for not caring about the transgression of some obscure Whovian law. But for me, the drama of The Waters of Mars feels more important than that. As the Doctor’s curiosity about solving the mystery of what happened on Bowie Base One gives way to anguish about whether or not he should save these brave, compassionate humans, this becomes more than an argument about the console room’s state of temporal grace or the favourite colours of the Prydonian chapter. It feels like there’s more at stake than that. I think the reason why, is that the made up sci-fi laws are not as insubstantial as all that: they’re a stand in for the Doctor’s moral code.

Which brings us around to asking, “what exactly is the Doctor’s moral code?” And to answer that, we need to know who he is. And that’s difficult to answer because who he is changes. Initially, he was a scientist, an engineer and a researcher, as well as a fugitive from his people. Later, he becomes a hero and a renegade. Sometimes it’s more straightforward than that, when he’s positioned as “simply a traveller.” None of these suggest someone who sticks to too many rules. But he definitely has an authoritarian streak: he can’t abide people mucking about with time.

It’s a contradiction which has grown to mythic status; in the New Adventures range, he was called “time’s champion” but it’s more accurate, at least in the classic series view, to call him “time’s policeman”. He’s not a defender, but an enforcer. In The Time Warrior, he characterises his own people as “galactic ticket inspectors” and that’s basically the role he takes.  One of his earliest recurring enemies was specifically a time meddler, whose meddling the Doctor was intent on stamping out.

Of course, his stance on the sanctity of history is not without its own contradictions. He meddles in future history and the history of other planets all the time. The basic rule is if it was taught on the history syllabus of one the show’s writers, it was inviolable. And he himself frequently brags about his influence on history – dropping apples on Isaac Newton’s head, for instance – and he loves starting famous historical fires, be they in Rome or London.

These hypocrisies aside, I think the weight of evidence tells us that the sanctity of history is part of the Doctor’s moral code. From The Aztecs all the way through to The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor hangs on to his lost civilisation’s rule about history, as if it were a lifeline to his own. For a universally famous rule breaker, this is the one rule clings to. It’s as important to him as treating all life with respect or that blue people have the same rights as purple people.

And he believes it like a dogma, something so ingrained into him that he struggles to explain it. Like when he says to Adelaide Brook (Lindsay Duncan), this mission’s steely commander, “Your death is fixed in time forever. And that’s right.” It’s the sort of thing you say when you can’t quite describe a complex operating principle, but you know that it’s true. It’s the sort of thing a religion might preach. Don’t question it, because I fundamentally believe it to be true, the Doctor is saying.

So that’s why it’s such a lurch when he then rejects his own rule and turns around to rescue what’s left of the crew. It’s not dramatic because he’s breaking the fictional laws of time, it’s dramatic because our hero is breaking his own moral code. That’s a conflict as old as the hills, and it’s a good one. Because it signals two things: 1. That the Doctor’s in conflict with himself and you can tell that in Tennant’s hair quivering performance. He’s forcing himself to do things which he knows are against his own personal beliefs. 2. That if the Doctor’s prepared to throw this part of this moral compass aside, then – blimey (as he himself might say) – what’s next? The sanctity of life? The commitment to peaceful co-existence?.

When the Doctor abandons his moral code, bad things happen. When ground down by acts of violence and injustice all around him, or when isolated from his human companions, he’s prone to going too far. It happens here but also in The Girl Who Died, where he makes a rash decision to create an immortal teenager and in Hell Bent, where he steals, shoots and bullies his way into rescuing his friend who should be dead. And of course, the foundation of the new series was that he destroyed his own people in a moment of war-inflicted desperation, an act so incompatible with his morals that it caused him untold anguish.

The Waters of Mars asks the question, how can these various aspects of the Doctor’s personality be squared away? In the choice between being a hero and being a rule enforcer, the Doctor has chosen enforcer time and time again, from the streets of Paris to the streets of Pompeii. Here for the first time, he chooses to be a hero, but in doing so he unleashes his inner monster. It’s that internal conflict which provides the real drama here, and we care about it because we care about the Doctor. What he stands for matters to us.

(At least until The Day of the Doctor when he decides to change history, rescue everyone and everything stays fine. And in the next story, there’s a whole plot based on Whovian lore on the regeneration limit of 12. But hey – Vive la contradiction.)

SACRIFICIAL BLAM: Poor hapless Ed, played by Australia’s own Peter O’Brien.

LINK TO Kerblam!: written by Australia’s own Pete McTighe.

NEXT TIME: So this is the great journey of life! We’re stuck on The Horns of Nimon, you meddlesome hussy!

Big Business, The Green Death (1973) and Kerblam! (2018)

Part Two

“Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame,” says factory worker Dan (Lee Mack) in Kerblam! “While we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs.” Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame. Some might say the whole of series 11 has had that feel about it. So racism’s a thing, and Trump’s a thing and exploitation of workers is a thing, but *shrugs shoulders* whatya going to do? It’s kind of your fault for wanting a new fez in the first place.

Dan’s one of the 10% – the mandated proportion of job holders that Kandokan society requires to be human. The other 90% it fills with creepy robots of long held Doctor Who tradition. Dan and his fellow Kerblam! worker Kira (Claudia Jessie) are grateful for their jobs, even though they are lowly paid, monotonous and their performance is constantly monitored by passive aggressive androids. Not for them the kind of protests you see out the front of Global Chemicals. They’d never dream of going on strike. In their own way, they’re as trapped and as compliant as BOSS’s brain drained zombie workers.

There’s 45 years and a world of difference between The Green Death and Kerblam! The Green Death said clearly – emphatically – that the power big business wields is a problem. It showed us a business which had politicians in its pocket, its own militia to deploy and a colonial upper class (all the management types are English, all the milkmen and cleaning ladies are Welsh) calling the shots. The Green Death is saying, f*ck that. It’s angry and is advocating radical change. It starts a sub-genre of Doctor Who which we might call “protest” stories, in which we can include The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol and The Long Game. All of which involve overthrowing an oppressive regime.

And, up until its last ten minutes, Kerblam! seems to be telling us a similar story, that the power Amazon wields allows it to reduce working conditions to the minimum because employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Make no mistake, there’s enough for Kerblam! to be angry about. (In fact, in preparation for this piece, I read a number of online stories of Amazon’s appalling treatment of its employees until I had to stop because it was so infuriating.) But this story pulls its punches in two significant ways.

Firstly, it makes the person protesting against this awful state of affairs the villain. That’s Charlie (Leo Flanagan) and misguided and murderous though he is, his arguments about what’s wrong with Kerblam! are hard to argue with. “Ten percent?” he says incredulously. “They want us to be grateful that ten percent of people get to work? What about the other ninety percent? What about our futures? Because without action, next time it will be seven percent, then five, then one.” If this was a Malcolm Hulke story you might expect Charlie to be overpowered at the end of the story and quietly walked away, the Doctor gently noting his misguided good intentions. But here, there’s no acknowledgement of moral ambiguity. He’s blown up like every other bad guy. It’s like if Professor Jones turned out to be the villain in The Green Death, and all his environmental concerns were blown away with him in the inevitable Part Six explosion.

Secondly, the Doctor declines to sanction Kerblam! for the shocking way it treats people. Here is the hero who once brought down Harriet Jones with one sentence, because she disagreed with her politics. Only last season, she fought against the suits, and started a chain reaction which meant that “corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalism”. But capitalism lives on at the end of Kerblam! The Doctor could end the story with a piece of sabotaging software or some other magic switch to meter out justice on Kerblam! Instead, we’re left with a promise from Judy, Head of People (Julie Hesmondhalgh) that “All our workers have been given two weeks’ paid leave, free return shuttle transport. And I’m going to propose that Kerblam becomes a People-Led Company in future.” Two weeks off and a promise to do better. I’m sure that will do the trick.

Look, let’s not be too lefty bleeding heart about it. I think it’s fair to say that Kerblam! chooses a different ending to a Big Business Doctor Who story partly out of a search for originality. If we’ve come to expect, from lengthy experience, a protest story complete with a Doctorly takedown and an exploding factory and the end, then perhaps it’s time to subvert that expectation. And perhaps, it’s just not realistic to wipe out a huge company over the course of an afternoon. Maybe slow, incremental change makes more sense. And perhaps, as I noted last post, the 10% of the human workforce still needs jobs and money and livelihoods, so blowing the company up is too blunt a resolution.

But I can’t help but think back to the episode’s beginning, where a packing slip with a desperate message for help found a sympathetic receiver in the Doctor. That opening premise could have led us to a story of how the Doctor helped an ordinary person being crushed by a corporate giant. Instead, it turned out to be a call for help from the company itself, asking the Doctor to protect it from someone trying to point out that it had a social responsibility to give more people jobs and to treat them humanely when it does.

The Doctor gives voice to the story’s model in the confrontation with Charlie. “The systems aren’t the problem,” she says. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” That’s precisely the opposite of the position taken by The Green Death. It says the system is fundamentally flawed and dangerous to boot. You don’t change how people use the system, you’ve gotta change the system. Even if we cut Kerblam! some slack and say it’s trying to present a more nuanced political argument than Doctor Who normally does, and that it’s trying to invert our expectations of what a protest story is, there’s still a fundamental conservatism to saying “the system’s basically fine, we’re the ones who have to get used to it” which feels very odd in a series which usually challenges the status quo.

The Green Death will always be the first and loudest of Doctor Who’s battle cries against the world’s wrongs. Kerblam!, despite its explosive title, is not the fiery exclamation mark on the end of that cry. It’s something far more ambiguous, signalling a series which, while responding to its times, is exploring murky moral territory. That will be interesting and thought-provoking, but let’s hope it never loses its anger. We need it as much as we needed it in 1973.

PREVIOUSLY ON RANDOMWHONESS: Part One of this post can be found here.

NEXT TIME: The very first humans on Mars? We’re soaking ourselves in The Waters of Mars.

A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting

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