Cover art, saxophone music and Death to the Daleks (1974)

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Some Doctor Who stories are defined by what happens in them. The Green Death, for instance, will forever be The One With The Giant Maggots (an episode of Friends we’d all like to see, I think). Earthshock, The One Where Adric Died. Victory of the Daleks, The One with The Dalek Design Everyone Hated. (Bit harsh, but a bit true).

To me though, Death to the Daleks is the ’burning Dalek’ story, and is defined not by what happens in it, but by the one image most associated with it; that of a Dalek on fire. It comes from an incident in Episode Two, when the Daleks have come under attack from the local inhabitants of this week’s planet, the quarry-like Exxilon. The Exxilons are armed only with spears, arrows and a can-do attitude, and they set on one Dalek, who (inexplicably) explodes and catches fire.

That provided the on set photographer with a great opportunity to snap away, and so we have lots of photos of the Dalek flambe. I think I’m right in saying that’s the first (only?) time we’ve seen a Dalek on fire. It’s a moment which must have stuck in the audience’s collective memory. When Roy Knipe came to paint the cover of the Target novelisation, the exploding Dalek was the image he chose. And it’s a great cover; colourful, eye catching, unit shifting. It had a life beyond the novelisation too; there was certainly a poster of it and I think it was used as a promotional image for the book range too. If there was a Doctor Who art prize (and there should be), this would surely be a contender.

That image pursues Death to the Daleks through all its incarnations; the VHS release, the Target reprint, the DVD release all feature an exploding or burning Dalek. It seems you can’t release Death to the Daleks in any format without a Dalek in distress on the cover. The story’s unusually declamatory title probably skews the cover designs in this direction, but there is some form here in other stories.  It’s understandable Horror of Fang Rock needs a lighthouse on it no matter the format, but you also, apparently, must have an image of the Doctor carrying a load of old rope. It’s mandatory, it seems, to have clockwork cogs on any release of The Invasion of Time.  And so on.

The other element which, um, distinguishes Death is its groovy, saxophoney music. It belongs to a subset of Doctor Who stories from the late sixties and throughout the seventies which I think of as the “not Dudleys”. And as genius as regular series composer Dudley Simpson’s work is, you can have too much of a good thing, and so the handful of stories from this period he didn’t score stand out. Cary Blyton (whose most famous work is not from Doctor Who, but the theme song to Bananas in Pyjamas, long burnt into the memory of Australians and their kids) produced three eclectic Not Dudley scores, and Death‘s is the oddest.

It’s difficult to imagine the train of thought which starts with “what’s the most effective way to score a Doctor Who?” And ends with “Why, with a saxophone quartet, of course!”. Dudley never had many players at his disposal but he did seek to use a variety of instruments. Blyton on the other hand must have been a passionate advocate for saxophone’s versatility to devote a whole serial to showcasing it. The score is at its most distinctive when it uses Blyton’s theme for the Daleks, which climbs and falls through a series of scales, giving them a faintly Clouseau-esque appeal. You know the one I’m talking about, don’t you? Stuck in your head now? If not, relive it here .

So those are the stand out elements of Death to the Daleks: it’s book cover and its music (and I’m tempted to add the Dalek which stands in shot idle, operator-less, hoping the viewers won’t notice). Jeez, that must make it a fairly unremarkable story in its own right?

Um, yes. Yes it does. Well, more generic than unremarkable. At this stage, writer Terry Nation was well into recycling elements from his previous stories. Once again, a small group of space exlporers are at odds with the Daleks. Once again, there’s a hostile indigenous species. Inevitably, there’s mining. Even the Exxilon’s living city, sometimes cited as the story’s stand out idea, is really just a bigger badder version of a similar machine which got too big for its boots from The Keys of Marinus.

But there is one fresh and unique idea at this story’s heart: that robbed of power, the Doctor and the Daleks are forced to collaborate. That scenario has legs even today. Imagine: the current Doctor discovers a colossal threat – a new breed of vicious, power-mad Time Lords wannabees perhaps. So he’s forced to align himself with the only force we knows can beat such a threat – his oldest enemies. The Doctor standing alongside legions of Daleks. A new time war is declared. Cue end of episode. 

I’d watch that. Even if they drenched it in saxophone music.

LINK to The Awakening. In both, the Doctor’s female companion is threatened with being burned alive. At least I think that’s what’s suggested in Death; it’s never actually stated how the Exxilons are going to sacrifice Sarah, but there’s a shot of her staring into some flames. Good enough for me. After all, The Awakening is the story of tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… You’re so gay! Random’s first Eccleston story is Aliens of London/World War Three.

Showing, telling and The Awakening (1984)

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In my head, this is how The Awakening starts: a fierce pitched battle between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Clashing swords, battle cries, whinnying horses, soldiers falling. It’s chaos, restoration style. The viewer knows straight away; we’re in the seventeenth century.

Suddenly, a car drives through the melee, lights flashing, horn beeping. It’s local stick-in-the-mud Jane Hampden. She jumps out imploring the combatants to stop. Grumpily they do, their fun spoilt. A few apparently dead soldiers get up, helped by their faux opponents. The viewer realises it was all a game, and we’re actually in the 1980s. It’s a great way to start an episode of Doctor Who, confounding expectations in a (oh, must I say it?) timey-wimey way.

Why doesn’t The Awakening start this way? Time and money, of course, Doctor Who‘s greatest enemies. Instead, it starts with Jane being mildly frightened by three men on horses.

Now I’m not here to criticise this charming but often bewildering little two-parter for what it’s not. But it’s clear from the beginning that we’re never actually going to see Little Hodcombe’s famous war games in action. And that critically undermines the story.

’cause here’s the thing: the entire plot hangs around the war games. The idea is that the mock battles between the villagers have awoken an alien being called the Malus. It’s been sleeping in an old church since the olden days, and it’s stirring because it feeds off the “psychic energy” generated by the games. The fake battles have been gradually getting more boisterous and, as the Doctor deduces, the ultimate battle will descend into actual violence where the participants will be killed, and the Malus will fully awake.

“Show, don’t tell” is a pretty good rule for screenwriters, and breaking that rule is what The Awakening does throughout. We never see the war games between the villagers, so we can’t imagine them getting out of hand. As a viewer, we don’t know (or care) what’s at stake. In fact, we only ever meet three war gamers: local loon Sir George Hutchinson, good egg Ben Wolsey and nasty piece of work Joseph Willow. They might be a bit wacky, but it’s hard to imagine them actually hacking into their neighbours with swords.

Luckily Sir George (played with relish by Denis Lill), is a delightfully barking creation. It eventually transpires that he’s possessed by the Malus, which might go some way to explaining his dedication to historical reenactment. As far as I can work out, his story goes something like this: he’s the local magistrate in Little Hodcombe. One day, village historian Andrew Verney tells him that he’s discovered a passage linking the local courthouse to the church, where, he suspects, a creature from local legend, the Malus, is buried. Sir George somehow comes in contact with the Malus and then concocts the plan (is it his own? Or is he being subconsciously influenced by the Malus?) to stage a series of war game reenactments.

So then what? Well, I can only imagine Sir George is an active member of the Little Hodcombe Amateur Dramatic society, and thus knows a good costumier. “Mrs Snodgrass, I need Roundhead and Cavalier outfits for the entire village! They must be perfect in every detail!” “Oh Sir George, I don’t think we have that many of those. What about the Wild West? I’ve got plenty of duds left over from Oklahoma! Last year.” “I want costumes, Mrs Snodgrass, not excuses!”. Anyway somehow he manages it, and finds all the weapons too, and the horses, and closes off the village into the bargain. He never takes off his costume either. It’s that sort of dedication to a cause which surely got him knighted.

It’s also got moments of unusual violence. There can’t be many Doctor Who stories where people are decapitated (off screen, thankfully) – The Reign of Terror, maybe? – but The Awakening is one of them. There’s another moment when Verney and Turlough knock two men unconscious with stone debris from the damaged church. It’s one of those moments of casual, incidental violence, depicted in a tame, knock-the-guards-unconscious-and-let’s-be-on-our-way manner, so common in Doctor Who as to be unremarkable.

But just think about that for a moment: if someone smashed your head from behind with a lump of concrete, you wouldn’t just be momentarily stunned, you’d be seriously hurt. It’s odd that a certain type of violence is “safe” for a Doctor Who audience. The Doctor doesn’t mind; he even congratulates Turlough, as he and his coterie run past the prostrate pair and get on with the story.

Which reminds me that the entire cast of The Awakening save batty old Sir George (who dies when he’s pushed over a small ledge into the Malus’s big polystyrene face – which just goes to show that for every shocking act of violence in Doctor Who there’s usually another, utterly lame one to make up for it) ends up running around with the Doctor until the story expires. The mob steadily grows throughout Part Two, until we’ve got six, then seven, people running between church and TARDIS with him. Some amusement can be gained by seeing them all try to ensure they’re in shot in the church scenes. By the time this clump of people have made it inside the TARDIS, the director gives up and does one long pan to fit them all in. I ended up daydreaming about which ones should have met a sticky end earlier in the episode to save space (Willow, I reckon. Probably Ben too.) (For similar crowded antics see Delta and the Bannermen and Journey’s End).

So the story ends with the Doctor flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console while the crowd looks on. But in my head, it ends in that final battle of the war games, much promised, but never seen. The battle rages, more frenetic and aggressive than before. Turlough is in the middle of it, shanghaied into service on one of the sides. Tegan is tied to the maypole, flames licking at her feet. The giant Malus strides across the battlefield, rejoicing in the carnage, while the Doctor struggles to destroy it, beset by phantom swordsmen. A story with everything shown, rather than told.

LINKS to The Next Doctor. Both feature an invading alien colluding with a human villain and ultimately destroying them. Which, I realise, hardly makes them unique among Doctor Who stories. But as The Awakening was released on DVD in a boxset with, of all stories, The Gunfighters based on the fact that both are set on Earth, I figure this story is probably the patron saint on tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… I can sink anywhere. It’s Death to the Daleks.

Fans, women and The Next Doctor (2008)

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These days, everybody’s a fan. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You there – you kept the faith, right? You’ve been a fan since 1963/1974/1985/1996. You liked Doctor Who when no one else did. You’ve been there, done that, bought the novelisation. 

But now, the world is filled with Adric-come-latelies. They’ve been watching since 2005/2006/2010. They just jump on the bandwagon now it’s cool, right? With their Adipose squeeze toys and TARDIS iPhone covers. Pah!

But it’s not just new Whoheads (who we love, by the way. Don’t write in), it’s the general viewership. They have, I suggest, a much higher baseline level of knowledge about Doctor Who than back in the old series days. Take The Next Doctor; its very title needs a basic understanding of regeneration to decode it.

Not only does it speak to the fact that then current Doctor David Tennant was about to leave the show, but also that inevitably there will be a “next” Doctor because that’s how the series works. And those a little more familiar with the show will know that former Doctors periodically return to the show, but we’ve never met a genuine future Doctor. All this, I think, the casual viewer understands (and I say “I think” because I can’t remember a time when I was a casual viewer. Blimey, what must that be like?).

Anyway, let’s talk women. Two women, to be precise. The two women who have speaking roles in The Next Doctor: Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) and Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). They’re outnumbered eight to two by adult male speaking roles, but this is nothing new. In most Doctor Who stories, both old and new series, men outnumber women. The exceptions are stories like Galaxy 4 and The Happiness Patrol where the sci-fi cliche of a female dominated society is presented as the inverse of our own, and latter day exceptions to the rule such as The Name of the Doctor.

Putting that bias aside, The Next Doctor presents Rosita and Hartigan as smart, capable women in the male dominated world of Victorian London. But there’s something else going on because both are also positioned as representations of female sexuality and contrasted with male impotence.

Both costume and dialogue signal the female characters’ sexual expression. Hartigan wears a dress of deepest red, a scarlet woman, if you will. “Dressed like a harlot,”Mr Cole says at one point. Red represents passion, and in it, Hartigan contrasts strongly with black and white world around her. Her dialogue is laced with entendre: “The CyberKing will rise, indeed. How like a man.”

Rosita’s costume, low cut and corsety, shows more flesh than might be expected for someone walking around London on an icy Christmas eve. We never find out who Rosita is or what she does for a job, but there’s a strong implication she’s a prostitute. She says she met Jackson Lake at a wharf late one night, raising the obvious question of what she was doing there. And Hartigan herself pinpoints the issue when she says to Rosita,“You can be quiet. I doubt he paid you to talk.”

So there are only two female characters onscreen in The Next Doctor and both are defined by their sexuality. In comparison, the male cast are chastely sexless. The Cybermen of course have no interest in such things. The workhouse owners are dried old twigs of men and the Doctor, now divested of his female companions, is back to his normal unromantic self. Only Jackson Lake, mourning for his lost wife by hanging around with the lovely Rosita, seems to take an interest in matters saucy.

It’s weird enough to have the only female roles both signified so closely with sex and both labelled at various points, prostitutes. But in Hartigan’s case, there’s also the implication that she’s been the victim of sexual assault. Post her Cyber-conversion, when confronted by the Doctor she says “Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night.” (Once again these random trips are revealing unexpected links; I wrote about sexual assault against a woman in my last post on The Time Meddler. This is really not what I thought was going to happen). And there’s the further suggestion that her overt sexiness is Hartigan’s reaction to a history of abuse.

What all this means I’m not sure, but it makes The Next Doctor an unsettling episode to watch. Can we imagine an episode where a would-be companion was a young gigolo, rescued by the Doctor from a wharf late one night? Or one which features a male villain whose evil scheme was informed by a history of sexual abuse? Or one where male characters are accused of being whores? Or maybe we should just give The Next Doctor the benefit of the doubt, and point to the many other episodes of the series which show women as being smart, capable and, yes, sexy, just because women are all those things, without having to label them as prostitutes or rape victims.

But onto lighter topics. There’s one other thing that perplexes me about The Next Doctor. It’s the rescue of Jackson’s son from the Cybermen’s child labour camp and specifically, who gets to perform it. It’s the Doctor who sails up a pulley system to rescue him from the high jump, while Jackson stands by watching. To me, in story terms, it should by Jackson who does that, inspired into action by the need to save his son and showing that one doesn’t have to be a Time Lord wannabe to be heroic. This would still leave the Doctor with the story’s big finale, saving London from the CyberKing from a balloon, but round out Jackson’s story a bit better.

And just as title The Next Doctor needs a little fan knowledge to decode, so does Jackson himself. I’m sure I’ll get a chance to write about Doctor Who representing its fans on screen whenever our random trips takes us to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy or Love & Monsters. But for now let’s just say that Jackson’s the sort of fan who likes a bit of cosplay, has a fairly hazy recollection of the series’ history and use improvised objects as stand ins for the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver. He’s pure new fan.

LINKS to The Time Meddler: In a stroke of luck, the flashback sequence of Doctors includes a clip of Hartnell from The Time Meddler.

NEXT TIME… Something wonderful and strange. Get up early for The Awakening.

Rape, history and The Time Meddler (1965)

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Oh good, I thought. The Time Meddler! That’s a bit of fun. The first pseudo-historical. The first meeting with another time traveller. First outing for a new TARDIS crew. A few nice jokes, a few unconvincing wigs and a few verbal stuff ups from Hartnell. What a jolly old romp!

But I’d forgotten that in the second episode, a woman gets raped. Which makes this story a lot harder to like.

It happens like this: Saxon woman Edith (Anthea Charlton) is home alone when Viking raiders attack her. The next time we see her is when her husband Wulnoth returns home with fellow villager Eldred. Edith is so traumatised she can’t do anything but lie rigid, wide eyed and babbling. Eldred thinks it might be the newly arrived TARDIS crew, but Edith manages to spit out the word “Viking”. The Saxon men then attack the Vikings, killing all but two. Next episode, Edith is up and about and quite chatty with the Doctor, and although shaken, is almost fully recovered. By Episode Four, she’s cheering the Saxons on to raid the monastery and kill the remaining Vikings.

The strong inference – and as the DWM Fact of Fiction (issue 393) points out, it is only an inference – is that she was raped. Nigel Robinson’s novelisation hints at this too (“She recognised the mad lustful gleam in their eyes, and her screams died in her throat”, he luridly writes). As an admirer of this story’s other virtues, I’d like to believe that it’s not intended to be a rape… But I don’t think that stands up to any scrutiny.

What else could have put Edith in that babbling catatonic state? She could, I suppose, have been physically assaulted only. But the lack of any visible injuries does not indicate that. Could she simply be terrified? This doesn’t fit with her rousing calls to action to the Saxon men in episode four. So no, I think the inference rings true.

It’s unthinkable that a modern Doctor Who story would include a rape in its storyline, implied or explicit. In fact, it’s rare for any modern TV drama to cover a topic like rape (Downton Abbey is a notorious recent example) but when done, it is never the casual event shown in The Time Meddler. But 60s Doctor Who has form here; The Keys of Marinus from the show’s first season features an attempted assault on companion Barbara with clear sexual intent. It’s unpalatable but clear that Doctor Who’s early producers saw no problem in portraying rape as a moment of sideline jeopardy in a children’s adventure series. And as if its very inclusion is not distasteful enough, the way it’s dealt with is facile. It happens, it’s over, the woman recovers. We move on.

Let’s look at this problem in story terms. Imagine you’re the script editor and you want to avoid the rape. What are your choices here? In plot terms, the Viking raid on the Saxons’ hut is the catalyst for the fight in the second episode. It’s a husband’s rage for the attack on his wife which lights the spark. The fight is a bit of action in a Doctorless episode, so it’s useful to keep in it place. Plus the aftermath of it leads both Saxons and Vikings to the Monastery (the former with an injured Eldred, the latter seeking sanctuary), where their plot lines will intersect with the Monk’s and the TARDIS crew’s. So if we want to keep that structure in place, can we change the catalyst event – the assault on Edith – so that we lose the rape, but keep the rest intact? (And let’s set ourselves some typical Doctor Who production restrictions; we’re allowed no extra sets nor extra speaking roles.)

The answer is yes. It’s as easy as having Wulnoth interrupt the attack, and have he and Edith fight the Vikings off together. The next scene becomes about rejecting Eldred’s suspicions of the TARDIS crew, because Wulnoth and Edith have now seen the Vikings. Off to fight they go. That’s one solution – no doubt there are others. The point is that another way is easily found if one wanted to.

On to lighter topics, and to the Monk himself. Surely the only one of the Doctor’s enemies to cook him breakfast. He’s a jolly fellow and a creation of Dennis Spooner. He likes to meddle with time, and he’s brought lots of 1960s technology to 1066, like a gramophone and a pop up toaster (way out, man!). And time meddling, as the previous season’s The Aztecs famously tells us, is forbidden. For those who haven’t seen it (how on earth did you get here?), in that story the Doctor rails against Barbara who has plans on tempting some 16th century Mexicans away from human sacrifice, and thus ensuring the civilisation survives the Spanish invasion. “You can’t change history,” barks the Doctor. “Not one line!”

Except that you can, and Spooner himself told us so in his last story, The Romans. In it, the Doctor accidentally starts the great fire of Rome in 64AD. It’s little orphan Vicki who points out to him at the story’s end that he’s changed the course of history. At first, he rejects the assertion vehemently. Then he thinks about it… And laughs like a drain. The Romans says you can change history, and more than that, it’s a bit of a wheeze.

It’s like Spooner watched The Aztecs and said, “well that’s no fun”. Having contradicted its “history is sacrosanct” message in The Romans, he repeats his rejection of it in The Time Meddler by creating the Monk. He’s the first of a long line of characters to be presented as a mirror of the Doctor, and he wants to change established history as much as the Doctor wants to maintain it. He stands for everything the Doctor doesn’t, except perhaps having a good time. His eyes light up when he talks about his time-tastic plans, not with Who-standard maniacal gleam, but with utter joy. Time meddling isn’t just possible, it’s fun. We only need look to Steven Moffat’s series of Doctor Who to see how far that idea’s come.

LINKS to Army of Ghosts/Doomsday: Both have pivotal cliffhangers which are firsts for the series (the respective reveals of the Daleks and the Monk’s TARDIS). And both have the Doctor finding an unexpected guest in the TARDIS who’s destined to become a companion.

NEXT TIME: That was designated… a lie! Get ready for The Next Doctor.

Cliffhangers, magic switches and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006)

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In Doctor Who’s olden days, we had cliffhangers. We get them occasionally in New Who as well, but these days we’re more likely to get throw forwards, otherwise known as trailers. How much a throw forward is part of an episode is debatable; sometimes they add little to an otherwise just completed episode. But sometimes they bring something new and interesting to its dying seconds.

Army of Ghosts has a great cliffhanger and an intriguing throw forward. First though, let me witter on about how it gets to those, because this is a smartly structured episode. Writer Russell T Davies has no time to waste, so this week’s alien incursion is already well underway by the time the Doctor (David Tennant, at the end of year one) and Rose (Billie Piper, about to wave the show goodbye) arrive to visit Jackie (Camille Coduri, hooray). They learn about the infestation of ghosts and the Doctor sets about disproving it in a typical “I’m having none of that superstitious nonsense” kind of way.

The quest leads them to Torchwood, much hinted at during this season and about which we’ve been learning about throughout the episode. With the Doctor and Torchwood plot strands combined, Davies splits his story again almost immediately: the Doctor and Jackie discover Torchwood and its role in generating the ghosts, while Rose finds the mysterious sphere and former squeeze Mickey (Noel Clarke). So the stage is set for a two-pronged episode ending.

Meanwhile, Davies has been indulging in a little misdirection. The Doctor assumes that the Sphere is the work of the Cybermen, and Mickey guesses that it contains a big bad Cyber-daddy. The episode is approaching its end when the Cyberleader says they know nothing about the sphere, confounding (hopefully) audience expectations. We end on a double cliffhanger: the Doctor confronted with the prospect of millions of Cybermen around the world, and Rose trapped when a posse of Daleks emerge from the sphere. Fangasms worldwide.

Now for the throw forward, and specifically, its last seconds. Over shots of the Cyberleader, a Dalek and a worried looking Rose and Mickey, we hear a Cyberman saying: “Cybermen plus Daleks. Together we could upgrade the universe”. A tantalising ending, which raises the prospect of something new and nerdy; a match-up between the series two biggest baddies.

Again, its misdirection. No such alliance is forged in Doomsday. One is proposed by the Cybermen and brutally rejected by the Daleks. And of course, when you think about it, that makes sense. As Davies has pointed out, the Daleks are cosmos-conquering, time travelling geniuses. Cybermen are us with bits added. The former has no need for the latter.

But it also reminds us that Cybermen and Daleks are not the same; their technologies might be compatible, but they themselves are not. Davies emphasises that Cybermen are emotionless and Daleks are anything but. They are boastful, quick to anger, goading and they scream inside their bonded polycarbide armour. They can even be tricked into revealing their names by appealing to their pride. Sometimes, even in Doctor Who itself, the Daleks are portrayed as emotionless, rational robots, incapable of imagination and inventiveness. But that’s the Cybermen. Daleks are creatures of pure emotion, specifically hate.

Interestingly, although Doctor Who generally avoids monster match ups (unlike say the 1960s Batman series, which, when ratings were failing, would wheel out a double bill of the Joker and the Penguin, for instance. Zonk!) it often puts supplementary monsters alongside the Daleks to indicate what they are not. They are not, for example, the Robomen, who are brainless slaves. They’re not the Slyther or Varga plants which are simple unthinking beasts. They’re not muscly grunt like the Ogrons or aestheic show ponies like the Movellans. And they’re not Davros, who can hold a (admittedly megalomaniacal) conversation.

So the Daleks are the main game. They outsmart and outgun everybody in order to get their Genesis Ark primed and ready to spew forth millions of themselves in the skies above London. But the Doctor has a trick up his sleeve. He’s worked out that because the Daleks and Cybermen are covered in voidstuff, he can open the breach and they’ll be sucked into it.

Davies can sometimes be accused of employing a quick, convenient solution to his stories; I call it the magic switch. For a classic example, consider New Earth; a cocktail of medicines spreads itself amongst the infected experimentees. Game over, nice and easy. And hey, who can blame him? He’s only got 45 mins an episode, he doesn’t have time to muck around. An ending, albeit one achieved by throwing a magic switch, is still an ending.

But Doomsday does it better. Here the fictional explanation about the voidstuff makes a kind of sense, and is signposted early enough in the episode to make it seem less of an arbitrary quick fix, rolled out as time ticks away. The Doctor’s plan takes time to set up as well; it’s no instant cure all and that also helps sell it to the audience. And it’s not perfect – opening the breach puts the Doctor and Rose at risk too – so it’s hardly convenient. In story terms, it’s no less a magic switch than any other pulled in the series’ long history, but it’s sold to us better.

And so an epic story comes to and end. Daleks and Cybermen thrown into hell, and the Doctor and Rose separated by the walls of parallel universes. And just at the end, we get a surprise; there’s suddenly a bride in control room. Cue the first of our “what? What? What?!” moments. The cliffhanger lives to fight another day.

LINKS to Pyramids of Mars: Torchwood has an Egyptian sarcophagus in it’s collection of stolen alien goods. Surely a hat tip?

NEXT TIME… A space helmet for a cow? It’s back to the Hartnell era for The Time Meddler.

Guns, unlikely talents and Pyramids of Mars (1975)

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It’s Part Three of Pyramids of Mars. The Doctor (Tom Baker) is dressed as a mummy and is grumpy about it. He and a very plucky young girl called Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) need to stop a pyramid shaped rocket from getting off the ground. The plan is for the disguised Doctor to plant a box of gelignite near the rocket and for Sarah to detonate it by shooting it with a rifle from a safe distance away. The Doctor stresses to Sarah that they only have one shot at this. “Don’t worry”, says Sarah, grimly loading the gun (quite a feat that; the thing’s nearly as big as her). “I know what I’m doing.”

But do you, Sarah Jane Smith? Do you? Because where exactly did you learn to load and fire a rifle? And how did you become such a crack shot? I can’t imagine where in this character’s back story this happened. Did Aunt Lavinia take her duck hunting as a young girl? Were there a few awkward dates with that dishy Mike Yates at the local rifle range? Even if we accept that at some stage Sarah gained enough experience firing a rifle to hit a small box surrounded by robot mummies from some considerable distance away, how does she know how to fire one of 1913 vintage? After all, she’s from 1980 (don’t worry, I’m not going near that one), as she never shuts up about!

It’s a blatant example of an amusing occasional feature of Doctor Who – a companion suddenly and inexplicably displaying a hitheto unmentioned talent, which is wildly out of character. Had the Doctor been the one to fire the rifle, that’s just about believable. Even if the militarily trained Harry had still been around, he could have got away with it. But Sarah? Sorry, that’s weird.

But we should be used to it. There’s lots of it about. In The Gunfighters, Dodo, who’s shown no musical tendencies to date, can suddenly play the piano. And quite brilliantly too; she sight reads a jaunty, fiddly little opus without hesitation or mistake. She’s quite the virtuoso. Much later Australian air hostess Tegan, reveals she can fluently speak an ancient Aboriginal dialect in Four To Doomsday. Even though there would have been little call for that on the job application for Air Australia. And lately, Clara discovered that although she and the TARDIS don’t get on, she can pilot it with remarkable accuracy through a opening into a pocket universe and carry the Doctor home in Hide.

Right back at the series’ beginning, Ian Chesterton showed a remarkable prowess for fighting, seeing off Aztecs and Saracens and lots of other trained killers. I wonder how he picked that up in his day job as a science teacher? And at the other end of Doctor Who, lovable nurse Rory Williams suddenly discovers he can ride a motorbike when the plot of Let’s Kill Hitler demands it. At least on that occasion, writer Steven Moffat apologetically points to this sudden turn of convenience. “Can you ride a motorbike?”, asks Amy. “I expect so”, says Rory, “It’s been that kind of day”.

(And in that very episode, the Ponds also demonstrate that companions don’t just suddenly acquire unlikely talents, but also friends when we unexpectedly meet their best pal, the awkwardly named Mels. About whom they have said precisely nothing in the last year and a half. It’s so weird, you wonder for a moment if they’re suffering some sort of shared delusion.)

And lucky old us, there’s yet another example in Pyramids of Mars. As mentioned above, the Doctor is disguised a mummy. Now, with its bandages off, we can see that the mummy is a robot built with a burly humanoid frame (with a hefty cleft of a chest; Mrs Spandrell frowned at the TV and said, “look at the cleavage on that monster”). Now the Doctor as played by Tom, is tall and skinny. If you tried to wrap him up in bandages, he’d look nothing like the robot mummy. In fact he’d look like a beanpole covered in grey toilet paper. Also, because we can’t see his trademark coat and scarf discarded on the floor, we can only assume he’s wearing them under all those bandages.  So now it’s an awkwardly lumpy beanpole covered in grey toilet paper.

So let’s assume that actually, he climbs inside that robot’s frame, and that’s what Sarah wraps up. Personally, I can’t see how he fits in it, but OK whatever. But here’s the thing: Sarah wraps up a Time Lord, fully dressed, squashed into a robot frame and on her first attempt… she does it up perfectly. It’s identical! Amazing! That Sutekh doesn’t stand a chance against Sarah Jane Smith – journalist, crack shot and expert mummy wrapper!

LINKS TO The Caves of Androzani: Both are written by Holmes and both feature masked villains. Both use the word “perfidious”.

NEXT TIME… I’ll show you where my ankle’s going! It’s Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.

Drugs, subversion and The Caves of Androzani (1984)

androzani

Hmmm. I’m meant to be ignoring accepted fan law about Doctor Who. I’m meant to be looking at everything afresh. But it’s hard to ignore when I’m aware of The Caves of Androzani’s reputation as one the greats. In fact, according to DWM’s 2008 Mighty 200 survey, the best ever Doctor Who story, up to that point at least. But it’s important to the first point I want to make about it: for me, this is the least Doctor Who-like story in the entire run. Which is ironic if you think, as many do, that this is also the best story in the entire run.

It’s breathtakingly audacious on the part of writer Robert Holmes. He tells a story that breaks all the series’ rules. There’s no planet to save. There’s no oppressed people to liberate. Hell, there’s not even any sympatheic characters for the Doctor to side with. The plot is the struggle for power of the supply of a youth-prolonging drug by three different forces: Sharaz Jek, Morgus and the Androzani army represented by Chellak. The sub plot is that the Doctor and Peri are poisoned and need to escape this world in order to survive.

That’s worth restating: the Doctor is the sub plot. In fact, he doesn’t intersect with the main plot in any meaningful way (save for one moment in Part Three, where Morgus – a unblinking and steely performance by John Normington – suspects the Doctor of being an agent of his enemies and changes his plan accordingly).  When Eric Saward tries this trick a year later in Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor is at least involved in the main plot’s resolution (when he collaborates with Orcini to blow up Tranquil Repose). And in the new series’ Doctor-lite stories like Love & Monsters and Blink, the Doctor is absent, but always woven into the plot; he’s active without being present. Not here.

On any ordinary day, you could not get away with this. But this is no ordinary day. It’s Peter Davison’s last story and also it’s the return to the series after five years of Robert Holmes, former script editor and…wait, you know who Robert Holmes is, right?

Then you’d appreciate the irony in Holmes, the series’ most celebrated writer, essentially writing an anti-Doctor story. And this is a regeneration story, one of the series’ milestones! Holmes knows how big the writing out of a Doctor is, but still he chooses this critical moment to experiment with the show’s basic format. That takes, I think, an unshaking belief as a writer that you know what you’re doing, and of course, Holmes does.

But he doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that there’s no Doctor Who story for the Doctor to engage with on Androzani Minor.  It’s that there’s a perfectly good one waiting for him on Androzani Major. He just landed on the wrong planet.

On Androzani Major, there is a problem to solve – it’s a planet full of drug addicts, so desperate for their elixir of youth they’ll go to war for it. There’s a corrupt government, intertwined with big business. And there’s a villain to overthrow, the insidious Trau Morgus. It’s textbook Who. It’s just where you’d expect the Doctor to show up and save the day. Holmes pushes it to the sidelines, to tell a different story.

Let’s dwell on Major for a moment. Parts One to Three tell us this planet’s story through a series of finely crafted scenes set in Morgus’ office. Normally, these sort of scenes are workaday stuff. Here, they are fascinating, rivaling the noisy action on Minor. For me, the peak of them are Morgus’ sly dealings with the President (David Neal).

Like everyone on Major, the President is desperate for Spectrox. The first thing we see him do is accept a gift/bribe from Morgus of a soupcon of the stuff. The war is being bankrolled by Morgus, so he wields as much power on this planet as anyone, as the President knows and resents. The President wants to sue for peace, but this doesn’t match with Morgus’ plans.

In Part Two, there’s a terrific scene where Morgus suggests rounding up the unemployed and sending them to ’eastern labour camps’ (such a cold war phrase), an idea the President says he’ll take further. But he also notes that these are the very people Morgus sacked from his own factories, and as the labour camps are Morgus owned too, his former employees will now be his slaves. “I hadn’t thought of that”, Morgus deadpans. And the President’s face says it all; he hates Morgus, and hates himself for consorting with him, but he and his society are too dependent on spectrox to take a stand against him.

And in Part Three, Morgus grows paranoid that the President is plotting against him, so he pushes him down a lift shaft. It’s a brutal act, with its aftermath is peppered with black jokes (“It could have been worse,” says Morgus, “it might have been me”). More importantly thought, it’s a logical conclusion to the power struggle between these two men.

Or so we think, because while Holmes has been sketching out a whole alien society in a few short scenes with two main characters, a third has been lurking in the background. It’s icy PA Krau Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn). Once Morgus, post assassination, has legged it to Minor to sort things out, his not-so-loyal deputy Timmin, usurps him. It’s delicious and she tells him the bad news via video link, feet on his desk.

So ends a series of scenes which started with Morgus at the height of his power, arranging for one of his agents to blow up a mine, and ends with his secretary bringing him down. Edited together, those scenes would make a compelling drama of their own. And the Doctor barely shows his face.

Talking of faces being barely shown, let’s talk masks again (Frontier in Space just keeps on giving). Christopher Gable’s turn as the psychotic Sharaz Jek is often praised. It’s less often pointed out that he creates this multi-faceted character from behind a sort of gimp mask splattered with white-out, making his achievement all the more impressive.  Actually though, I think the mask aids rather than obscures his performance.  If you listen to his dialogue, it’s often soaringly OTT. “I want to feast my eyes on your delicacy”, it floridly goes at one point. Gable gives it all he’s got… And I can’t help but wonder if we could see his face, wouldn’t it be a bit too much? It’s the mask that masks what might otherwise be too melodramatic a performance.

One last thing: it’s a blokey story. It surely can be no mistake that this story’s setting draws its name from the Greek word for man, ’Andro’. As pointed out in Cornell et al’s The Discontinuity Guide, all the men die and the two women survive. But even with Timmin victorious, this is no blow struck for feminism. This is because companion Peri’s (played with anxious fragility by Nicola Briant) role in the story is unforgivably limited; she’s sick and helpless throughout the whole thing, she’s characterised constantly by her physical attractiveness and she is effectively the prize for which Jek and the Doctor compete. It’s an unfortunately old fashioned element, in this otherwise groundbreaking story.

LINKS to The Eleventh Hour: They both feature newly regenerated Doctors (although in Androzani’s case briefly). Um, that’s all I’ve got!

NEXT TIME… Abase youself, you grovelling insect! The next stop on our journey is the Pyramids of Mars.

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