Cyberlove, fandom and Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)

revenge

When does one stop being a regular viewer of Doctor Who and become that oddest of things – a fan? I think it’s when you accumulate more knowledge about the series than would be available to a casual viewer. If you’ve invested time and energy into learning about a series, particularly if you’ve started to read the end credits, note the order of episodes, notice the continuity points between episodes, then I think you’ve crossed the fan threshold.

For me, I think it was 1983. And specifically, the moment I bought that Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. What a great publication that was, full of photos, interviews and behind the scenes details. Best of all – a complete list of serials, including those from the forthcoming 1984 series.

And what news that list brought! Companions leaving and joining! Old monsters coming back! And biggest news of all – a new Doctor!  Now, I had knowledge of the series’ future. I was now more than just an avid viewer. Now, I had entered the fan zone, never to return.

In 1983, if you’d asked me which was my favourite monster, I would have said straight away, Cybermen. No question. They had just made a barnstorming return to Doctor Who in Earthshock. They were the all time greats, I thought, and somehow I had absorbed enough fannish lore to know that Earthshock was a great improvement on the last Cyberman story, Revenge of the Cybermen (see, I knew we’d get round to it eventually). That one, I knew had been somewhat hokey and embarrassing. Not much chop at all.

It was sometime later I realised that due to my age the only Cyberman story I could have actually seen was Revenge. And seen many times via the ABC repeats. It and only it could have been responsible for my Cyber admiration. It must have had something going for it.

Watching it again gave me a few clues as to what. Mostly, it’s the stuff set on Nerva Beacon, not the stuff set on golden planetoid Voga. As the story goes, script editor Robert Holmes didn’t care much for writer Gerry Davis’s script, or for Cybermen in general. When someone found some extra money down the back of the filing cabinet, he expanded the story to include a subplot about the alien Vogans, old enemies of the Cybermen. The production team then secured a great location in some actual caves (Real caves! Not studio bound polystyrene ones, with dead level floors! How often does that happen?) in which to film the Vogan bits and that should have enlivened the whole affair.

Except they really don’t. Voga is inhabited by two different types of rubber faced Vogans, some soldiery ones and some bureaucraticy ones. Their incessant squabbling eventually leads to them shooting at each other, using projectile weapons, the sound of which ricochets loudly and often through Revenge‘s soundtrack (punctuating another saxophone heavy score from Cary Blyton) Now I’ve watched Revenge many times, and once quite recently, and I still can’t remember what that lot are fighting about. Only that scenes of them fighting take up a lot of the story to little impact.

By contrast, some of the Nerva Beacon scenes are eerily effective. The opening scenes, where the Doctor (rangy Tom Baker, vibrant and compelling in these early days of his tenure) and his mates Sarah and Harry (Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, playing their roles with a rare smattering of sexual tension), come across a corridor full of dead bodies, is very creepy. The exhaustion of the crew, the sliminess of double agent Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin, giving a masterclass in snideness) and the threat of the venomous Cybermats… All this is effectively sold to the viewer by the actors and director Michael E. Briant, by creating an atmosphere of ongoing tension. Not bad considering they created this world despite the constraints of the budget and the studio.

But studios are a Cyberman’s best friends. Take the big silver buggers on location and they are never as successful. Here on the beacon, they are imposing and daunting. Out in the murky caves of Voga, they don’t fill the screen with as much menace. And this is what other cyberstories like Tomb and Earthshock avoided, but think of them striding those green woodlands in Silver Nemesis or strolling through that Welsh quarry for The Five Doctors. Not as intimidating, not as threatening. These are creatures who are meant to stalk the corridors of bases under siege.

Conversely, playing against this quiet menace is the Cyberleader himself (Christopher Robbie). Menacing he does a lot of, but he’s by no means silent. In fact, he’s very shouty from within that tin head of his. And he’s quite emotional for a member of a race which have done away with feelings. “In eight minutes,” he opines at one point, “the accursed Planet of Gold will be utterly destroyed”. He even displays a droll Cyber wit. “You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system,” he tells the Doctor and Sarah in Part Four. “It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it.” And he strides off, hands on his silvery hips.

He’s long been singled out as one of the problems with Revenge. But I think he’s loads of fun, and I think I detect Robert Holmes’ hand in his characterisation. Holmes was skilled at creating enemies who would the audience would engage with, either hate or secretly root for. Where, I can imagine him thinking, is the fun in a villain who doesn’t have any emotional responses? Isn’t that the antithesis of drama? Give us someone to boo, and that’s what Robbie’s Cyberleader does. And good for him. And he’s American to boot.

But back to 1983. The Radio Times special included a list of stories to date. Each story had a one to two sentence summary, written by uber fan Ian Levine. Every so often, one of the stories was highlighted as a ‘classic’. I can’t remember what it said about Revenge, but I doubt it was awarded that lofty distinction.

I suppose that reading that list was the first time it occurred to me that some Doctor Who stories were better than others; prior to this the show had, in my uncritical mind at least, just been one consistently brilliant standard. And not only that there were some classic stories and some not so classic ones, but among people who knew such things, there was a shared acceptance about which ones were which. To fans, there was a hierarchy of Doctor Who. And now I was a fan, I’d be assessing them too. And since then, I’ve never really stopped.

LINKS to The Deadly Assassin. The stories both spring from the same era, so have the same producer, script editor and, significantly, designer. Roger Murray-Leach designed a familiar circular celtic-looking symbol for the halls of Voga, which he reused to great effect in The Deadly Assassin, and has since become a kind of brand element for Gallifrey. So these are two stories linked by a logo. God knows if that’s going to happen again.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Lesterson tampers with his Cyber buckle and bites the gold dust.

NEXT TIME: We’re on the bloody moon to witness the meeting of Smith and Jones.

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Legend, revisioning and The Deadly Assassin (1976)

deadly

Part One: Australia

Occasionally, I’m going to write about the peculiarities of watching Doctor Who in Australia. I grew up watching Doctor Who in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. This meant tuning in to ABC TV – then the only station available nationwide – of a weeknight (sometimes Monday-Thursday, sometimes Monday-Friday) for The Goodies at 6pm and Doctor Who at 6:30pm. This is a shared cultural experience for Australians of my vintage, this regular post-school, pre-dinner treat. It’s our version of the “Saturdayness” experienced by UK fans. It’s historical potency is such that when ABC repeated the entire run of available episodes from 2003-5, it was back in that vicinity, at 6pm weekdays.

What this meant was repeats and loads of them. UK viewers were starved of Doctor Who re-runs, and so engaged in a black market of off air recordings from down under. It’s a funny inversion, which meant that pre the VHS releases, Australian Whoheads were more familiar with the series’ past than UK fans. We got Pertwees and even a few Troughtons. But mostly we got Tom Baker, and specifically 4A to 4Z, Robot to The Invasion of Time. Over and over again.

Well, not quite. Because two stories were routinely omitted: The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin. These stories had been rated as ‘adult’ and so couldn’t be screened in the early evening timeslot. Had you not known, you wouldn’t have missed The Brain of Morbius, but skipping The Deadly Assassin gave the series an odd dislocation. The previous story, The Hand of Fear, ended with the Doctor dropping Sarah back home, saying it was impossible to take her to Gallifrey with him. Suddenly in the next episode, he’s alone on a jungle planet making friends with Leela. Well, who wouldn’t? But what was so urgent that he needed to dump Sarah so unceremoniously?

Anyway, we did eventually get to see Morbius and The Deadly Assassin in 1987 (thanks again broadwcast.org), by which time it couldn’t possibly have lived up to its reputation as one of classics. Personally, I could see the rubber crocodile and the plastic spider, but not what all the fuss was about. But it was my last ‘new’ Tom Baker story, so it sticks in my memory for that reason at least.

Part Two: Gallifrey

But it sticks in fandom’s collective memory to a far greater extent. This is a mythic story, full of firsts. For instance, it’s our first view of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey, a world of emerald green vaulted chambers seemingly carved out of rock. Like America, it has a President, a CIA and a televised assassination. Like the Catholic church, it has cardinals and men in flowing robes. Like mediaeval Britain, it has castellans and a Lord Chancellor. It is a place of immense technology but also of state sanctioned torture. And it feels oddly parochial, with its insipid TV presenters, doddery old men and incompetent policemen. In fact, it feels like home.

This earthly familiarity was famously criticised at the time of its UK broadcast, in a ranty review by Jan Vincent-Rudski, the closing line of which asked in strident capitals WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO? (That always makes me smile). As befits a mythic story, the review itself has become part of The Deadly Assassin’s legacy. It’s often seen as an example of how fans’ tastes change, as this once derided story is now widely praised. But it also shows how fans’ tastes mature over time, as they eventually put aside inconsequential concerns about continuity and focus on more lasting qualities such as writing, direction and production.

But back to that parochialism; that accusation that the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin are not the god-like super beings of previous stories, but familiar human archetypes complete with earthly shortcomings such as pomposity, foolishness and vanity. That accusation is spot on, and thank goodness for it. What would a story set on a planet of superbeings be like? Pretty dull, I expect. Time Lords are, in fact, elevated versions of ourselves, just as the Doctor is a kind of much enhanced version of us. When I stop to think about the affinity between the Doctor and Earth, and when we see it reflected in the Time Lords, I see an obvious plot point that I’m sure the series will get around to one day; that the Time Lords are somehow descended from the human race. You read it here first! (Moffat, call me, we’ll talk).

Part Three: Part Three

Here’s another thing about The Deadly Assassin; it has a superfluous episode. That’s Part Three, famous for being mostly set in the dream world of the Matrix and consisting mainly of the Doctor being hunted down by the Assassin. I know it’s superfluous because on this viewing I skipped it and went straight from Two to Four, and it did the story no harm at all. (Don’t worry, I didn’t cheat. I watched Part Three at the end.)

In Old Who, this sort of episode – the “let’s take a break from the main story” episode – was usually an excuse to try something new. The Daleks’ Master Plan, for instance, had a comedy Christmas day episode. Planet of the Spiders has an episode which is an extended chase scene. Deadly Assassin 3 is no different; producer Philip Hinchcliffe wanted to experiment with an episode made entirely on film (it didn’t end up like that, but it is mainly all shot on location).

But where this ep is different is that it’s usually praised as an inventive experiment, rather than discounted as a lazy indulgence as those other examples sometimes are. And that’s down to two things. First, it’s stylishly directed and tightly edited by David Maloney. Secondly, it’s so unlike anything else in Doctor Who; a physical and mental battle to the death between two men. It’s visceral stuff and ends with a watery strangulation, complete with freeze frame. That’s enough to get you banned in Australia.

Part Four: The Master

And amongst everything else, the Master returns. Having only recently randomed Terror of the Autons, I was reminded that The Deadly Assassin is effectively Robert Holmes’ second go at introducing the Master. He’s a character which could have easily been given a standard Time Lord regeneration (incidentally, why doesn’t Goth regenerate? Or any of the Time Lord guards who get shot? Shh! Look over there!) but Holmes makes him withered and decrepit. A smart choice which pushes the character in a new and lasting direction; from here on in the Master’s ability to cheat death and his quest to hang onto life become his enduring characteristics.

Holmes pulls a few old tricks though. As in Terror of the Autons, the Master kills an innocent as a kind of greetings card. And he allies himself with someone to do the dirty work for him. But unlike the Delgado version, there’s none of that sly Master charm. This is just a snarling goggle-eyed fiend. Instead of the stylish Nehru suit, there’s only rags. There’s very little of the old Master left.

Which is what I think Holmes wanted. He takes one of the icons of the Pertwee era and completely reinvents it. As Who Lore goes, Holmes was never happy bringing back old monsters and early in his tenure as script editor he struggled with Daleks and Cybermen. Here he allows an old enemy to return, but on his terms. And it’s difficult to read his venom spitting, subterranean dwelling troll of a Master as anything but a repudiation of the Letts/Dicks era’s version. You got it wrong, Holmes seems to say. The Doctor’s dark mirror image isn’t a smooth talking, dark suited man-about-cosmos. He’s a vile, repellent ghoul, consumed with hate.

It’s better this way, says Holmes. Just like Gallifrey is better off as a corrupt, overblown oligarchy than a home on the clouds for superbeings. And by the way – you don’t even need a companion. That’s what The Deadly Assassin is about; tearing down the icons of the series and rebuilding them.

But the show can’t always be like this. Next week it’s back to Doctor-Girl-Planet-Monster-Problem to solve. And it doesn’t feel like a step backwards; in fact it’s a relief. In that sense, The Deadly Assassin does its job a little too well.

LINKS to The Armageddon Factor. Both feature black clad villains lurking in gloomy hideouts. And both reference the Doctor’s time at the academy.

NEXT TIME: You know, I sometimes wonder if your friend is quite right in the head. It’s off to the thirteenth moon of Jupiter for Revenge of the Cybermen.

Romana, Romana and The Armageddon Factor (1979)

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Part Five of The Armageddon Factor is my favourite. It’s the one with the two Romanas. Mary Tamm is teamed up with Lalla Ward and they run around the alien planet, confounding the villain and exasperating the Doctor. They’re an unstoppable team; witty, gorgeous and brilliant.

This, of course, doesn’t happen in The Armageddon Factor, or anywhere in Doctor Who. (Though of course it should have; The Two Romanas. Who wouldn’t watch that?) But the sight of Mary Tamm as Romana and Lalla Ward as Astra inevitably makes the imagination stray to what those two Romanas might have got up to. (Stop it! Not like that!) and it made me think that the very act of being a fan means some stories are spoiled forever.

Because it’s impossible to be a fan and watch this story the way it was intended. Because fans know that Ward takes over from Tamm as Romana in the next story. They may also know that the sudden switch was because producer Graham Williams was unable to convince Tamm to stay for another season, and that Tom Baker (at this stage at his zenith of unpredictability, on and off screen) took a liking to Ward. And they will undoubtedly know that Baker and Ward became romantically entangled, eventually wed and eventually divorced.

So from the moment Astra appears in Part One there’s a part of the fan mind, going ‘Ah, there’s Lalla Ward, the second Romana’. And as the story wears on, every arch look reminds us of her future Romana’s archness, every smile future Romana’s toothy grin. Who can watch the way the Doctor gently examines the nape of Astra’s neck (and the Shadow’s lego-like control device) in Part Five, and not sense the growing closeness between Baker and Ward. It’s beguiling to watch. And erm, what was the actual story about again?

Let’s not worry about that just yet. Back in my film theory classes at uni (films on fuzzy VHS , watched on tellies on those big black wheely frames. Hangovers nursed.) I learned about a viewer’s resistance to seeing a well known star in a role too far removed from their public image. The fancy academic name escapes me now, but the example used was of Tom Hanks, all American comic leading man, playing a gay AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. No matter how good his performance is, there’s a part of the viewer’s mind going, ’Ah, that’s Tom Hanks, he was great in Big, wasn’t he?’.

And this phenomenon is all over the place in Doctor Who, but usually because a bit player becomes a series regular later on. Even bigger than The Astra Factor, is Colin Baker’s pre Doctor appearance in Arc of Infinity, but there’s also Ian Marter in Carnival of Monsters, Freema Agyeman in Army of Ghosts and  – one we’re still to feel the full effect of – Peter Capaldi in The Fires of Pompeii. (There are others of course. Do write in).

This spoiling effect – and I think it does unfortunately spoil a story – even works with some of the shows more regular guest players. Oh look, a fan might say watching any one of six stories, there’s Michael Sheard. An actor so regular in Doctor Who his supporting roles in Doctor Who start to blur into one lump of Sheardiness. (His most potent fictional persona – as the grumpy Mr Bronson in Grange Hill – eventually infiltrated his Doctor Who work, when he was cast as a headmaster in Remembrance of the Daleks). Michael Wisher’s another one, he of the recently Random-ed Terror of the Autons. He pops up six times, but that peculiarly pinched voice means he’s forever the first Davros.

And while you’d never wish that any of those actors hadn’t been cast in subsequent roles, it does impact the stories which include original appearances. It’s a constant distraction. A nice one and a fannish one, but one which means the story can never be enjoyed in its original form again.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about Star Wars.

Star Wars was released in the UK in December 1977. Bob Baker and Dave Martin started writing The Armageddon Factor in early 1978. Doctor Who mob members Tom Baker and Graham Williams have talked about seeing Star Wars on its release (and feeling disillusioned about Doctor Who’s production values as a consequence), so I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say Baker, B and Martin would have seen it too. But if it had a disillusioning effect on some Who crew, it doesn’t seem to have dispirited those Bristol Boys. In fact, The Armageddon Factor references Star Wars to an extent which invites (perhaps unwisely) comparisons between the two.

The most blatant example of is the shot out of the cockpit of the Marshal’s escape… er, command module, which mirrors the famous shot out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It’s a direct steal! Then there’s the masked, black robed, gravelly voice villain. The romantic subplot. Romana in a flowing white robe. Dogfights in space. The cutsie robot. The Doctor gets a roguish sidekick. How much of this is intentional we can only speculate, but how like Baker and Martin would it be – never writers to let Doctor Who‘s budget stand in the way of a grandiose idea – to watch Star Wars and say, “yeah… We can do that in TC6!”

Anyway, let them try their best. In fact let ’em all try to grab our attention, from Star Wars mimicry to Tom Baker’s scenery chewing to Dudley Simpson’s bombastic score to the Black and White freaking Guardians. They’re all out shone by one simple aspect of The Armageddon Factor; Mary Tamm was bloody beautiful. Watch any scene she’s in and she lights up those drab sets and makes the whole thing watchable. Impossible to watch her without thinking, ’Ah, there’s Mary Tamm – gone too soon’. Once again, fannish affection intrudes into the story.

LINKS to The War Machines. Both feature mad computers and the departure of a series regular. And cockneys!

NEXT TIME… Come on, you stupid yoik! The assassinations don’t come any deadlier than The Deadly Assassin. ‘Ah, there’s Bernard Horsfall…’

Pace, technology and The War Machines (1966).

war mach

And they say Sixties stories are slow. Not The War Machines, at least not Episode (pause for drum roll…..cymbal clash!) 1. It’s more like one of those disorienting sci-fi films where the hero is trapped in some virtual world and the only clue to its unreality is the sudden jump cuts between locations with barely time to think. Think Forest of the Dead, but made in 1966.

For instance, no sooner has our doddery old Doctor (William Hartnell, at his most erratic) and diminutive young Dodo (Jackie Lane, about to be dumped unceremoniously from the show in Episode 2) arrived in London, than the Doctor decides he must investigate the Post Office Tower, because, of all things, he gets a prickling sensation on his hand.

Suddenly, he’s there, being welcomed into the very heart of operations by Professor Brett. “Ah, Doctor!,” declares Brett, on first sight of this odd old man and his teenage sidekick. “I understand from Major Green you’re a specialist in computer development.” And that kids, is apparently all you need do to gain access to the room that holds the world’s most powerful computer. Just find credulous old Major Green. Security’s not his strong point. Spin him some old bollocks about being an expert. Maybe slip him a fiver.

The computer in question is WOTAN, so powerful that it can derive the square root of a five digit number and knows what TARDIS stands for (it clearly as access to Wikipedia). Dodo, no doubt feeling a bit intimidated, starts to get a bit woozy. Her forthcoming replacement, Polly (Anneke Wills, all legs), finds her a seat and gets her a drink. As she recovers, Dodo says the most unlikely thing:

DODO: I’m so out of touch. What I’d really like is to go to the hottest night spot in town.
POLLY: Oh that’s easy, the Inferno.

Jump cut! And we’re there. Now, I’m too young to have ever visited a hip, basement-style club in 1960s London. For all I know, they were exactly like this. Groovy tunes played on a turntable, just enough room to dance at a respectable distance from members of the opposite sex and telephones on the bar where you can make and receive calls. But here’s the thing about the Inferno: it’s open in the middle of the day. Polly and Dodo seem to skive off their during Polly’s lunch hour and the joint is already jumping. Come down during afternoon tea for a sneaky gin & tonic and a quick flirt with a sailor! I suppose it makes sense in a decadent, Mad Men kind of way.

It’s certainly still daylight outside when the Doctor catches a taxi to the Royal Scientific Club to catch a press conference about WOTAN. There Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn) talks about C-day, when WOTAN will be linked to all the world’s other major computers, forming an internet of about half a dozen. He illustrates this world wide web with a big cardboard poster, with big black texta lines. Take that, PowerPoint!

Anyway, Sir Charles soon falls prey to the Doctor’s charms. The two exchange about three sentences at the press conference, but that’s more than enough for the wily old Doctor to inveigle his way into Sir Charles’ life. The next thing we hear Sir Charles and his family have invited the Doctor and Dodo around to visit. Is this normal behaviour? Does Sir Charles often pick up strays at pressers and invite them home for a sleepover? What did the Doctor say to him between those few introductory sentences and collecting Dodo from the hottest dayspot in town which so endeared him to them? It would be prurient of me to suggest anything untoward is going on, but I’ll just quietly mention that we never meet Mrs Sir Charles and the Doctor takes to putting his arm around Sir Charles’ shoulder in a very familiar fashion in Episode 4.

Meanwhile, WOTAN is up to no good. It’s been quietly running a subroutine plotting plans for world domination. Its opinion is that mankind has reached the zenith of its advancement and will progress no further, which is pretty rich coming from a machine which is still using a dot matrix printer. But it’s hard to take over the world when you’re an inanimate object the size of a newsdesk, so it hypnotises Dodo, Green and Professors Brett and Krimpton to be its hands, legs and everything else.

Let’s pity, for a moment, the actors playing Brett and Krimpton (John Harvey and John Cater respectively). Once hypnotised they have nothing to do but stare rigidly into the middle distance and spout expositional dialogue at each other.

And let’s marvel, for a moment, at Doctor Who’s long tradition of the casual use of the title “Professor”. Exactly which professorial chairs and which universities do Krimpton and Brett hold? How many years of work and research did they need to achieve the heights of academia. Answer: who cares? Everyone in a lab coat’s a bloody professor in Doctor Who.

And let’s linger, for a moment, on the idea that a computer could hypnotise anyone. Some ideas about technology in The War Machines are quaintly outdated; WOTAN for example takes up an entire room, a visual expression of the belief that a big computer is a powerful computer. We can put that down to The War Machines being a product of its time.

But other ideas are pure superstition – like the notion that a computer might develop sentience and turn bad was a kind of phobia that lingered in popular culture well into the 1980s. Could you sell a mad computer story today, I wonder? Surely not. Let alone a story about one which could exert control people’s minds. And yet… New Who has dabbled with technophobia. Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel made a threat of bluetooth headsets. And more recently, The Bells of St. John made the wi-fi the method of attack. So it’s obviously still good fodder, even if it runs the risk of eventually making a story seem as dated as The War Machines.

But back to WOTAN’s plan. Remember that it has just procured itself some human slaves. It’s only now it can start building its War Machines (and what a terrifying, slimline design it chose. Like a trundling vending machine). And this is where The War Machines slows down as we get two episodes of building the machines. First you see, you hire some workers, then you find a warehouse (make sure it’s conveniently located near the hottest nightanddayspot in town). Then you have to build the things, test them and kill a tramp before you can unleash them on an unsuspecting public. Has there ever been another Doctor Who story which basic structure is “Ah ha! I’m the villain! Now can you amuse yourselves for a couple of episodes while I build some monsters?  Won’t be long.”

It all works out in the end. The Doctor, in a deeply unthrilling sequence, traps a War Machine is a kind of electric pen after it wobbles slowly into it. Then, in what is eventually established as one of the show’s most reliable tropes (which started, as we did, back in The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the Doctor turns the villain’s foot soldiers against it. Specifically, he reprograms the War Machine to attack WOTAN. He must have also programmed it to fit through the doors of the Post Office tower and squeeze itself into a lift. It’s all a bit odd really, because of all the Doctors, Hartnell seems the least computer savvy of the lot. But he stabs randomly at a few buttons on the side of the vending machine and that seems to do the trick.

It’s been a busy story. Companions have come and gone. A new modern tone is established. The army have become allies. The Doctor seems to be wearing a bit thin. It’s all been a bit clumsy and disjointed, but it smells of the show’s future. How ironic then, that this is a story about our deeply held unease with the future itself.

Links to Terror of the Autons: Both introduce new companions. And The War Machines as a proto-UNIT story is in some ways an ancestor to Pertwee’s earthbound stories.

NEXT TIME: I think one of us is being extremely stupid… We’ll next discover The Armageddon Factor

Change, expectations and Terror of the Autons (1971)

tautons1 tautons 2

Terror of the Autons is a story I’ve grown up with. And it’s grown up with me.

My first exposure to it, and I suspect that of many other fans of my vintage, was its Target novelisation. Second edition, the one with a terrifically moody painting of a gruesome monstrosity, staring balefully out at the reader with its solo eye. Creepy stuff.

Inside the cover, writer Terrance Dicks told the story of UNIT ingénue Jo Grant’s first meeting with the Doctor. Which was odd because another novelisation, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, told that story too. Never mind, it’s a vivid read. I particularly like Dicks’ description of the story’s climactic moment when the Nestene Consciousness descends to Earth via a radio telescope: “It crouched beside the radio telescope tower, dwarfing it, a many-tentacled monster, something between spider, crab and octopus. At the front of its body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and deadly hatred.”

The first time I saw the story would have been its 1984 repeat screening on Australian TV (with thanks to this glorious site for jogging my memory), in grainy black and white. It still strikes me as odd that the ABC in the 1980s were happy to interrupt their otherwise full colour broadcasts with monochrome episodes of Doctor Who, but I was glad they did. That’s me there, sitting inches from the TV screen. 10 years old, a fan but with no concept of fandom. Just an avid watcher.

Anyway, Terror of the Autons was perfectly fine in black and white, although I couldn’t help but notice that the many-tentacled monster on the book’s cover turned out to be a fuzzy white vaguely hand-shaped blob above Mike Yates’ head. Well, the disappointment experienced when finally watching a Doctor Who story after having expectations unreasonably raised by its novelisation is a familiar sensation to Whoheads. I’m sure it didn’t stop me watching the story on its next repeat in 1986. By then, I was a genuine, fanzine reading tragic. I may have even tried to watch the story while simultaneously flicking through the book to see how close the two versions were. The things fans do.

So the book matured into the black and white TV version, at least from my perspective. And even if you happened to have seen the story in the UK on its original transmission, chances are you saw it on a black and white TV anyway. For most fans therefore, Terror of the Autons was a colourless experience until 1993, when a colourised version was released on VHS.

Now, the Pertwee era is a patchwork of picture quality, especially for its first three seasons. Most of the original colour videotapes for these stories were wiped, leaving us with a mix of black & white film prints, some NTSC versions sent to North America and the occasional episode that survives in its original PAL format. (Oh, I love a PAL episode. Despite the immense efforts which have gone into restoring these episodes, you still can’t beat them. Watching the first three episodes of The Dæmons is fine, but when episode four comes on, it’s like you’ve taken off a pair of grimy spectacles).

For the viewer, this makes for a slightly disjointed experience if watching the stories in order, as you’re constantly adjusting to the slightly different look each episode has. We’re lucky to have every Pertwee episode in some watchable format – and now every one in some sort of colour – but nonetheless, Terror of the Autons is one of those Imperfect Pertwees.

The growing up continues with the 1993 VHS release (I’m 19, at university and while rich enough to buy beer, too poor to buy a copy. Luckily the local video store had a one.) where the restoration boffins merged a NTSC colour version with a black and white film print. And colour really suits it. Although as you might expect from working with vintage AV material, the colour hardly leaps off the screen. But even in these muted hues, it’s still a vivid experience, all pinks and yellows and wood panel browns. It’s indicative of a series’ growing confidence in its use of colour. And while a story like The Dæmons (also colourised in 1993) was a unique, and in some ways better, experience in black and white, Terror of the Autons, was bigger and bolder in colour. Its highs (like the skirmish with the policemen Autons in the quarry) were higher, its lows (that fuzzy blob of a Nestene again) lower.

Then it’s a big jump to 2011 and the DVD release. And Terror of the Autons looks and sounds better than it ever has. It even has a bit of PAL footage from episode one in it. And me, being a man of what we might laughingly call means these days, buys it. In fact buys the UK version because the cover art is better and has it air mailed around the world to my door. Extravagance!

All the Imperfect Pertwees – your Silurians, your Ambassadors of Death – have gone through similar evolutions, from scratchy monochrome to digitally remastered clarity. But here’s the thing, they’re still imperfect. Compare them to the all PAL Day of the Daleks, and you’ll see what those DVD wizards are aiming for. Problem? Oh no.

Because it means there will always be some further enhancement to make – and a further variation to sell. We’ve already seen it happening. I’m not 100% sure I can see the picture quality improvement on the special edition DVDs for The Claws of Axos and Inferno, but I bought them anyway. If they hand colourised episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and special edition-ed it, I’d probably buy that too. Imperfect those Pertwees may be, but they offer a repeatable income stream.

And the story itself? It’s a mixed bag. Less an Auton story than a series of increasingly bizarre assassination attempts by the Master. The start of the UNIT family. The beginning of the dumbing down of the Brigadier. A grumpy, snobby Doctor. But you know all this. You’ve heard it all before. Because you, like me, have grown up with Terror of the Autons.

LINK to Dr. Who and the Daleks. In both, the Doctor attempts to make a trip in the TARDIS mid story, only to be foiled by a faulty component.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who is required! We dig the fab gear of The War Machines.

Same, different and Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

dr who daleks

Did you hear? There’s going to be a Doctor Who film. Dr. Who: The Weeping Angels Take Manhattan. Andrew Garfield as the Doctor, as Emma Stone as Amy, Eddie Redmayne as Roddy and Helena Bonham-Carter as Prof. Alexandra River. Together they take on the Weeping Angels, but they’re redesigned – bigger, muscular gargoyle type things. Ogrons with wings. And it’s not just in New York! They go all around the world, backwards and forwards in time. It ends with a showdown with a giant Statue of Liberty monster, wreaking havoc on the city. 3D natch. 48 fps. Awesome!

This is something Steven Moffat says will never happen. “Any Doctor Who movie would be made by the BBC team, star the current TV Doctor and certainly not be a Hollywood reboot,” he tweeted, back when he was still tweeting.

But it did happen once. Well, not the Hollywood bit. But back in 1965, there was a big screen reboot of Doctor Who, made outside the BBC, with a new actor in the lead. It’s Dr. Who and the Daleks and it’s a gaudy, action packed ride. And when watching it recently, it was Moffat who kept springing to mind.

He’s clearly very influenced by this film and, presumably, its sequel. OK, so we get that he thinks the TV Doctor should also be the movie Doctor, so he clearly doesn’t like that about it. But he likes the TARDIS exterior and nicks that. He likes the big colouful Daleks, and nicks them. And this no-good imposter Doctor, him with the narrow trousers and the short jacket and the young/old face and the natural affinity with children… Isn’t he a bit Matt Smithy? All he needs is a bow tie.

“Why did they adapt an existing story?” asked Mrs Spandrell, casting an irritated glance at the screen. “Why not write a new one?”. It’s a fair point. I’m sure expediency – getting the film produced and in cinemas before Dalekmania petered away – is part of the answer. Not to mention it’s a safe bet; the original Dalek story rated its castors off.

But I think it’s also to do with the ephemeral nature of TV. With no repeat screenings, if you missed The Daleks on its TV transmission, there was no way of watching it again. Make a film of The Angels Take Manhattan and it would seem a bit pointless when you can watch the original. But Dr. Who and the Daleks meant 60s audiences could relive one of the show’s greatest hits.

Well, I say ’relive’. It’s not exactly the same as the original, to put it mildly. In fact, it goes out of its way to be different. Every frame seems to be saturated in colour. The petrified jungle is various shades of green and purple throughout. The theme music and the TARDIS interior – these days so integral to the show’s identity – are both disposed of. The Daleks themselves have given away the suckers for mechanical claws. And there’s a number of shots taking advantage of the 35mm, such as the one when the Daleks emerge from their city and you can see them on one level, and the cliff face below, stretching the full length and height of the screen. Try doing that in Lime Grove Studio D.

And the characters are different too. Susan (Roberta Tovey) becomes a child. Ian (Roy Castle) becomes a bumbler. Barbara (Jennie Linden) becomes – well, no-one in particular, sadly. And the Doctor, of course, becomes someone else entirely. Patrick Troughton may have shown a TV audience that the Doctor could be a new person, but Peter Cushing got there first. Cushing plays a paternal, doddery and genial Doctor. There’s a tendency to think of him as a substitute Hartnell because he’s playing Hartnell’s role in a Hartnell story. But this isn’t a substitute first Doctor, such as Richard Hurndall gave us in The Five Doctors. Cushing’s is a new Doctor entirely.

And we know this because… Well, he’s just much nicer than Hartnell’s Doctor. Cushing is a scamp. His trademark gesture is a conspiratorial wink. He’s kindly but cunning. He’s entirely the right choice for a film seeking as broad an audience as possible. History doesn’t tell us if Hartnell was annoyed to be overlooked for the part, though I’d bet he was. But it’s hard to imagine his irascible presence in this bright, funfair ride of a film.

It’s interesting to see which other elements did and didn’t make it to the big screen. The famous moment where a Dalek claw emerges from under a cloak is included, but the equally famous moment where Barbara is menaced by a Dalek plunger is gone. Left in is the bit which always mystifies me where the Daleks give the Thal anti-radiation drugs they’ve discovered to the time travellers (why, exactly?). But gone is any rancour towards the Doctor when he reveals his deception about the fluid link. And twitchy Thal Andotus survives his fall down the ravine which killed him on TV.

Interestingly, a pivotal moment in the TV story, where Ian threatens to take Dyoni to the Daleks in order to show the Thals they still have a fighting spirit is given to the Doctor. It’s still Ian who gets punched, but it’s the Doctor who thinks up the scheme. A small indication that while the TV story might have been an ensemble piece, the Doctor is the film’s hero.

So it’s a rare thing this film; an alternative version of an existing story. Imagine if they’d kept going after the first two. If they’d done The Chase it might have improved upon the original. If they’d done The Daleks’ Master Plan, or Power or Evil of the Daleks, they’d be the only complete versions of those stories around. And would they have kept or ditched Cushing?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. He made an impact with these two films and people like me still think of him as a legitimate Doctor. Moffat’s one of those people. As he recently said in DWM, that he tried to find a way of shoehorning Cushing into The Day of the Doctor. Well I say there’s still time. We never actually saw John Hurt change into Christopher Eccleston did we? That’s right, it goes McGann – Hurt – Cushing – Eccleston. Moffat’s onto it right now. *conspiratorial wink*.

LINK to Love & Monsters and Mindwarp and Turn Left, as it happens. All four feature popular contemporary TV comedians in lead roles. It’s a record!

NEXT TIME: You ham-fisted bun vendor! Settle back into your plastic sofa for Terror of the Autons.

Happy, sad and Love & Monsters (2006)

love and mon

So, Love & Monsters. I’m very tempted to write about representations of fandom in Doctor Who. But I think there’ll be other opportunities to do that. And I’m very tempted to talk about its structure, which is a thing of beauty; unique in its narrative approach, metatextual and rhythmic in its plotting. But instead, I’m going to talk about tone and, believe it or not, a bit more about Mindwarp.

My last post was all about structure and how Mindwarp’s was pretty clever (or at least cleverer that it’s usually given credit for). But I refrained from talking about tone, because, well… I’m trying not to include every single idea I have about a story in one blog. But watching Love & Monsters straight after Mindwarp reminded me that tone goes a long way in helping or hindering a story.

Mindwarp’s tone is all over the place. It’s an uneasy mix of violence and comedy. Time and again it shows an unpleasant event followed by a joke, usually delivered by Sil. It says something that on Varos Sil was a real figure of threat; Thoros Beta is so grotesque that his threat becomes impotent and he switches to being a punchline machine. It culminates in Peri’s death, a truly chilling moment, which is then punctuated by Sil grumbling about her supposed ugliness. Add to this the eye-watering colour palette, and the bombastic incidental music, and you’ve got a real assault on the senses. It jars.

But Love & Monsters’ tone is spot on; just as dichotomous as Mindwarp’s, but more balanced and consistent. We know from then showrunner Russell T Davies that part of New Who‘s pre-production process is a tone meeting, where he would equip the key production staff with a word or phrase to sum up the feel of an episode. I wonder what Love & Monsters‘ was?

My guess is that it was two words. The clue is in the title: Love & Monsters. Salvation & Damnation. Happy & Sad. Comedy & tragedy.  Side by side.

Let’s start with comedy. Or if it’s not quite a comedy, it’s still pretty comic (or comedic, I suppose. What’s the difference?). Which comes as a relief on its original broadcast, as the preceding story The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit was very dark indeed. New Who, like Old Who, is full of humour, but this was the first time it became the focus of an entire episode.

The humour is delivered not by the plot (a group of friends is infiltrated by an alien seeking to use them to track down and kill the Doctor) which is as serious as any other Who story. It comes instead from the characters themselves. The friends themselves are a ragtag group of oddballs brought together by their awareness of the Doctor. They come from different walks of life and all have different stories. But their common factor, and the reason they’re funny, is that they’re all dags.

For those unfamiliar with the term “dag”, it’s a brilliant Australian slang word. It originally meant, ignominiously, a bit of dried poo hanging off a sheep’s bum. But its usage these days is, as wikipedia puts it: “as an affectionate insult for someone who is, or is perceived to be, unfashionable, lacking self-consciousness about their appearance and/or with poor social skills yet affable and amusing.” I can think no better word to describe the members of LINDA; they’re not social misfits, they’re not outcasts, they’re dags.

Take Elton (Marc Warren, being endearingly goofy), our chief dag. He’s speaks just a little too earnestly. He tucks his shirt into neatly pressed jeans. He dances like a white man. To ELO, of all things. He’s still a nice guy, but he says funny things without realising it. Like when he says: “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system, just to reach my boots.” What a dag.

Then there’s Victor Kennedy, funnier than all of LINDA put together (and as he’s played by comedian Peter Kay, you’d expect him to be). He’s a fan turned bad. His obsession and self-importance have turned him into parody. He dresses like an impresario. He’s inherently theatrical; his first line is “Lights!”. He can’t be touched because of his ’exzeema’. “I don’t like to be touched,” he pronounces. “Literally, or metaphorically, thank you very much.” Even when he transforms into the corpulent Abzorbaloff, he’s still cracking funnies (although now in a working class accent). “Tastes like chicken”, he quips after devouring Ursula.

So we have a load of funny characters but we also have some deliberate references to classic comedy. The opening sequence of the Doctor, Rose and monster-of-the-week the Hoix running in and out of doors is classic slapstick. And there’s a mimicking of the comedy structure. The sequence, staged twice, where separate characters christen the villain the Absorbaloff, could have been lifted out of any number of sketch comedy shows. Later on, there’s this exchange of dialogue, which is only missing an “I say, I say, I say” to kick it off:

DOCTOR: Not from Raxacoricofallapatorius, are you?
VICTOR: No, I’m not. They’re swine. I spit on them. I was born on their twin planet.
DOCTOR: Really? What’s the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius?
VICTOR: Clom.

This comic tone allows the story to get away with what might otherwise be seen as some plotting misteps. The story requires a massive coincidence – that Elton finds Jackie almost immediately the vastness of London – but that moment is played for laughs (Elton talking about how massive the task is, then a jump cut to him meeting Mrs Croot who identifies Rose from a photo), so we forgive this huge plot contrivance. It’s a joke; we get it and we move on. The tone helps paper over a few other bits and pieces. Who is the Abzorbaloff? How did he get to Earth? What’s he doing here in the first place? And Elton’s encounter with the Doctor and the Hoix might make for “a brilliant opening” but shh, say it quietly, it’s unnecessary to the plot.

Using a story’s tone to disguise its narrative gaffes is a neat trick. But Love & Monsters’ real success is that among the laughs, it tells a couple of very sad stories too. One is about Elton’s Mum. Being reunited with the Doctor at the story’s climax allows Elton to find out what happened on the night she died. Director Dan Zeff shows a haunting deftness when Elton’s Mum disappears and the picture flares white to the closing chords of Mr Blue Sky. It works because we’ve grown to love Elton through the story’s comedy.

And it works with Jackie as well, a character often used as comic relief in New Who’s first two years. And she’s funny here too, but she gets a cracking scene where she confronts Elton after she discovers Rose’s photo in his jacket. Camille Coduri, always brilliant, is especially so in this scene. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind”, she bawls at him. “Because it’s hard. And that’s what you become, hard.” Just as with Elton, she’s gone from a figure of fun to someone we genuinely feel for.

Appropriately, the story ends in both victory and triumph. The Absorbaloff absorbed by the earth, but Bliss, Bridget and Mr Skinner, lovely dags the lot of them, all killed. Ursula lives, albeit trapped within, of all things, a paving stone. And as Elton worries about Jackie and Rose’s safety as long as the Doctor’s around (salvation and damnation are the same thing), he’s told not to be so morbid; there’s still time for his final video diary entry to raise a smile with some surprisingly filthy innuendo.

That’s Love & Monsters for you. Sticking to that happy/sad tone right to the end. And appropriately enough, it’s a story which fans love or hate. Well, chalk me up as one of the lovers, because it shows how to use a story’s light hearted highs, to make us we feel its lows all the more poignantly.

LINK to Mindwarp and Turn Left, as it happens. All three feature popular contemporary TV comedians in lead roles.

NEXT TIME: So close you can feel the heat! We’re off to the cinema for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

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