Companions, character arcs and The Ribos Operation (1978)


That Robert Holmes was an old slyboots, as the fourth Doctor might say. In the opening scenes of The Ribos Operation, he can’t resist having a jab at his leading man, the by-this-time-in-his-tenure increasingly temperamental Tom Baker. Holmes has the ethereal White Guardian (well, I say ethereal. He’s an old safari-suited gent in a wicker chair sipping an verdant looking liqueur) assign the Doctor a new assistant to, well, assist on his quest for the segments of the Key to Time.

The Doctor hates the idea. ‘In my experience,’ he pleads ‘assistants mean trouble. I have to protect them and show them and teach them and couldn’t I just manage with K9?’ But the man in the big chair insists. He clearly knows K9 can’t even get himself out of those Police Box doors without the camera cutting away, quite apart from the fact that more glamorous help is going to be needed to keep those Dads watching. So a new female sidekick is delivered.

Tom… I mean the Doctor, shoots the White Guardian a mutinous look. I can imagine Holmes watching this episode go out and chuckling into that pipe of his. During his stint as script editor, I bet he would have frequently heard Tom’s opinion that he didn’t need an assistant. Indeed he wrote the story designed to prove Tom wrong. But here he indulges in some self-referential commentary; the powers that be have deigned that Tom/the Doctor gets a new companion, whether he likes it or not.

(But Tom’s no fool and my bet is he would have spotted Holmes’s art mirroring real life. The interesting thing is he doesn’t try to hide his feelings; he puts it all there on screen. Now that’s the sign off a star who knows the extent of his power: he can see someone poking fun at him, he’s pissed off and he won’t bother to hide it.)

The new assistant is Romana, played with ice cold snootiness by Mary Tamm. Romana is an apprentice Time Lord, designed to be a better intellectual match for the Doctor than companions past. This she is, but being a know-it-all also gives her the ability to comically undermine the Doctor by sometimes being more competent than him; she can fly the TARDIS better than him, not walk into animal traps and scored higher than him in the HSC. It seems familiar to us now, because Romana’s direct descendant is River Song; both women point out the Doctor’s pomposity and silliness by outDoctoring him. But this is the first time in the series we see a companion with the ability to do this consistently.

Of course, she’s not allowed to be too clever. She turns out to be smart but inexperienced. So the Doctor still has plenty of opportunities to do all the clever things and point out to Romana that she’s wrong. In some ways this is even more sexist than Doctor Who normally is; to introduce a strong, funny and appealing character and then undermine and patronise her frequently.

Some have said this is demonstrated when Romana’s very first episode ends with her screaming at a monster (it doesn’t, by the way). I think it’s more clearly symbolised by a moment in Part Four, when she ends up pushing vainly against a polystyrene rock. Doesn’t matter how bright you are, Doctor Who‘s basic template reasserts itself. You’re the assistant. The Doctor’s the clever one, you’re the asking questions, pushing jablite one. Now put on this ridiculously inadequate costume and let’s go.

That’s unless you’re able to throw away the template. And I think the next story, Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet is a case in point. Romana is a much more active figure in that story. She can land the TARDIS properly, she deduces and solves as much as the Doctor… It short she’s allowed to be the character she was designed to be. Perhaps what we can see in these two stories is the different approach of two brilliant writers. Holmes, a veteran, committed to the old ways. Adams, a young Turk, ready to tear them all up.

But enough of that, it’s time to invoke a fan cliche and consider the ‘Holmesian double act’, which is overused shorthand for Holmes’s tendency to pair characters together within his stories. On first sight there are two in The Ribos Operation, exiled soldiers the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh and galactic con men Garron and Unstoffe. Both are superior/subordinate pairings which is another pattern Holmes uses regularly. But the more interesting pairing is one no one seems to mention, that of Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) and Binro (Timothy Bateson).

To step back a bit… The Ribos Operation is sometimes summarised as the story of Garron trying to fool the Graff into buying a planet based on a lie that it contains great mineral wealth. But that plot ends halfway through Part Two, when the Graff discovers Garron has bugged his room and the game is up. From then on, The Ribos Operation becomes a simple man hunt; Unstoffe has the Graff’s money and a lump of space crystal called jethryk and the chase is on.

Unstoffe is assisted by a homeless man known as Binro the Heretic. Binro is a stand in for Galileo; both believe, in opposition to the prevailing view, that their planets circle their suns. Both are persecuted for adhering to these ideas and both are forced to recant. There’s quite a nasty instance of suggested violence in The Ribos Operation when Binro retells his story.

BINRO: They said that if I did not publicly recant my belief, the gods would destroy our world.

UNSTOFFE: And did you?

BINRO: In the end. See these hands? (He raises his gnarled, twisted hands) Useless for work now. That’s why I live here.

That’s brilliant writing. In just a few short sentences, we know the whole story. Torture, specifically breaking of Binro’s hands, the tools needed for writing and conveying ideas. Without his hands, he couldn’t work. Without work, he was forced onto the streets. Doctor Who may well have adopted a lighter tone when Graham Williams took over as producer, but the darkness is always there, just a little better hidden than before.

Binro helps Unstoffe conceal himself because, as he says, ‘I know what it’s like when every man’s hand is against you.’ In return, Unstoffe confirms what Binro believes about planets and their movement. So grateful is Binro that he becomes Unstoffe’s guide through the catacombs in an effort to outwit the Graff. It fails in the end, and Binro gives his life for Unstoffe, killed by the Graff and his men. And although this prompts Unstoffe to make a headstrong rush at the guards, he is otherwise untouched by Binro’s intervention in his life.

The pay off is as clear as it is absent. Binro’s friendship should have meant that Unstoffe changed his thieving ways. Certainly he shouldn’t stick around with Garron, as he does at story’s end. Perhaps he should have stayed on Ribos, to take up Binro’s ideas and convince people of them. His character’s journey would be complete.

Or perhaps he should have left with the Doctor, and join the quest for the Key to Time. How about that? The Doctor, Romana, K9 and a light fingered, artful dodger type. Nah, that’d never work. Besides, we know how Tom feels about assistants.

LINK to The Masque of Mandragora: Catacombs! Three stories in a row.

NEXT TIME: Just you watch your lip or I’ll put you across my knee and larrup you. Then I’ll make you watch/listen to The Wheel in Space.


Mincing, bitching and The Masque of Mandragora (1976)


There’s a word I’ve been searching for to describe The Masque of Mandragora, and here it is: fruity. Fruity as in overly theatrical. Deep voiced, round vowelled. Boldly proclaimed. It’s a RADA-trained, received pronounced, tighted, codpieced, heavily spiced fruitcake of a story. It’s as if the Doctor Who production team have seized their chance to take a month off from Gothic pastiche and obscene vegetable matter and go all Zeffirelli on us.

Atmospheric, sure. Stylish and Hinchcliffe slick, sure. But fruity. I mean after all, this is a story whose opening gambit – the TARDIS’s run in with intangible energy creature the Mandragora Helix – ends with a hearty villainous chuckle. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering that this is a story which centres on (and is named after) a costume party. This is a story with theatricality at its heart.

The cast have certainly noticed. Take Norman Jones, playing astrologer and old slyboots Hieronymous. He’s got a rich, deep voice and he plays each line with maximum portent. His eyes bulge with fanaticism and his beard sprouts in two unlikely prongs jutting towards camera. He doesn’t exactly chew Barry Newbery’s exotic scenery, but he certainly takes a nibble here and there, which in fact, suits the whole piece very well. Interestingly, he recalls Tom Baker’s performance as that other mad monk Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. Goodness knows what the big curly haired fella thought about that.

But there’s an even bigger performance by Jon Laurimore as the power hungry Count Federico. He sneers and snarls his way with aplomb through three episodes. He anchors plenty of scenes without the Doctor or Sarah or their alien foe, and in these you can momentarily believe you’re watching a 70s BBC classic serial, albeit a particularly florid one. He knows just how to deliver lines like ‘fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals’ and ‘say I’ve been stricken by an ague’ and pull them off. And not even a Prince Valiant wig can impede his acid wit. ‘You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot’, he snipes at Hieronymous. Hmm, there’s a vivid image.

It’s no surprise that the most entertaining scenes in this story are those between Federico and Hieronymous. And it’s not all murder and plotting; a lot of it is just plain old fashioned bitching like a couple of teenage girls. I particularly like this exchange about entering a room without knocking.

HIERONYMOUS: (mad brooding) The entire Earth, mine! (The Count enters) I did not say enter!

FEDERICO: In this palace I come and go as I please!

HIERONYMOUS: This is my private room!

FEDERICO: Whatever room you have here it is because I allow you to have it! Do not get above yourself. I’ve warned you before, Hieronymous.

HIERONYMOUS: I have studying to do. Is there something urgent you want?

FEDERICO: Yes, there is something urgent! I cannot wait till Mars or Saturn or whatever other nonsense it was you said.

HIERONYMOUS: It is not nonsense!

Seriously, change a few words here and there and it’s Neighbours. Next they’ll be fighting over who gets to take Sarah to the masque and debating what Giuliano actually means when he introduces that strapping redhead as ‘my companion, Marco’.

Giuliano is played with wide eyed enthusiasm by Gareth Armstrong. And while he’s very effective, but he has his scenes consistently stolen by Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco. Both strut confidently around in doublet and hose like any aspiring British actor should be able to, but Marco gets to hang around in the background, spoiling for a fight at every opportunity, glowering at any mention of the bad guys.

At some point, he gets kidnapped and tortured in a dungeon, giving him a great moment when he defiantly spits in Federico’s face. Such drama! But there’s a less flashy but more telling moment which shows this actor knows how to capture attention. It’s a moment where he has nothing to do but pour wine into some goblets. Piggott-Smith chooses a pose as perfectly composed as a Renaissance statue, but with face still to camera and decants at just the right angle. Here’s a guy who knows how to be part of a RSC tableau.

But we still haven’t got to my favourite performances in Masque. They come from two actors playing bit parts and only have four lines between them. They are two of Federico’s guards and they deliver their lines in thick, unadulterated Cockney.

SOLDIER 1: I swear ‘e came in ‘ere, and there’s no way out. ‘Ere, are we chasin’ a fantom?

SOLDIER 2: Or a worshippa of Demnos! Those devils know a ‘undred secret ways under the city.

SOLDIER 1: A passage? Quick, ven, let’s find the trick!

SOLDIER: No, I ain’t going in there, Geo Vahny! Not for all the gold in Rome!

There’s a famous bit in this story where Sarah asks the Doctor how she can understand everyone speaking when she can’t speak Italian. The fact that she’s asked now, and never before, means the Doctor twigs that she’s under the ‘fluence of Hieronymous. (It’s something of a insult to Sarah really; it’s as if he’s saying ‘you’d never have been able to come to that conclusion yourself without assistance. But well done!  Later on I might get you to do some simple sums for me’.) But our two Cockney Italians remind us that there’s never been an explanation for that other mysterious language convention – that even on alien planets or on Earth’s part or future, the ruling class are posh and the workers aren’t.

Naturally these two grunts don’t get invited to the main event, the Masque itself. It’s for bigwigs like the Duke of Milan, the Doge of Venice and Leonardo da Vinci, although they don’t actually turn up. As helpful plot-expounding Marco points out, the headline acts can sense something is up. They send various extras and dancers instead. They are no doubt thankful for their precognition when the powered up Brethren arrive and start zapping people. There’s a sense of the revenge tragedy with a shot of all those dead party goers littering the floor.

It doesn’t rain on Sarah’s parade though. Once the Doctor has saved the day, she and he head swiftly back to the TARDIS. Giuliano’s there to wave them off. When saying goodbye to him, Sarah adds ‘Hey, thanks for inviting me to the ball. Smashing!’. Come again, Sarah Jane? That ball where several people were ruthlessly murdered? That TARDIS translation protocol is good on Italian, but it obviously can’t help with tact.

THE DRINKING GAME OF MANDRAGORA: Have a shot when ever someone is insulted. Make it a double when the insult involves an animal. You inept clod.  You fox faced old blowhard. You dung head! (Our scatologically minded Count, again, if you couldn’t guess.)

LINK to Revelation of the Daleks. Catacombs! And baddies shooting electricity from their hands.

NEXT TIME… According to Bartholomew’s Planetary Gazetteer, it’s The Ribos Operation. You cringing cur!

Small business, big plans and Revelation of the Daleks (1985)


The run of Dalek stories from Genesis to Revelation (I know it actually goes to Remembrance but it’s not as cool a phrase, OK?) is the closest Doctor Who gets to an ongoing chain of sequels. Revelation of the Daleks in particular has the sickly sweet aroma of a late, late sequel about it. But the star of this popcorn movie is not the Daleks, but Davros. This is really Davros 4: Weekend at the Great Healer’s. And like many a third sequel, things have taken a bizarre turn for our favourite mutant in a chariot.

Life used to be so simple for him. Standard villainy. First he was raising a new race of monsters from the mutated remains of his own race. Then, he was breaking the deadlock between them and a race of disco robots. Then he was curing a deadly virus while starting a factional war. But in this fourth installment, he’s done something far more challenging. He’s opened a small business.

Wisely, he’s chosen the funeral business, so there’s never any shortage of clients. And because they’re not so much dead as in suspended animation, he can upsell them some addition extras, like music and ongoing commentary from Alexei Sayle. But in an even shrewder move, he’s found two different ways of making use of the bodies on the sly. The smart ones he turns into Daleks. The dummards he sells off as food to a galaxy of hungry mourners.

Unfortunately, he’s plagued by many of the problems that beset small business. Firstly, he’s got problems with his suppliers. Relations have soured so much with factory owner Kara (a Disney villainess brought to life by Eleanor Bron), that she sends a hired killer to bump him off. Somewhat extreme; most people just pay their bills late. Sensibly, Davros acts like any good CEO would do and constructs an elaborate machine bound clone of himself as a decoy for the assassin’s bullet.

Then there’s corporate espionage, with a pair of grave robbers infiltrating the place just by putting on some blue dental gowns. Somewhere within that chariot of Davros’s there should be a post-it note saying ‘beef up security’.

And of course, there’s the common pitfall of being distracted from your goals. So Davros goes to the trouble of constructing a giant statue of the Doctor (Colin Baker, in acerbic form) to lure him to Necros to um, what exactly? Why attract the one man who could, and probably will, thwart your plans? Send that one back to the working group, Davros, it’s not thought through properly.

But as any business owner knows, it’s the staff which are the main problem. Take embalmers cum brutes-for-hire Takis and Lilt (Trevor Cooper and Colin Spaull). Sure, they’ll take time off from the flower arranging to rough up some intruders for you. But then later on they’ll get a bit squeamish and call in your rivals for a hostile takeover. Very disloyal. That’ll come up in their performance reviews.

And then there’s always the problem of your staff getting romantically attached to each other. A boss should never get involved in these situations, but that’s just what Davros does with ageing Lothario Mr Jobel (a quite aggrieved Clive Swift) and hapless attendant Tasambeker (Jenny Tomasin). She adores him, but he couldn’t care less about her. And there the whole thing could rest, except Davros wants to interfere.

He cranky at Jobel, you see, because he offered to turn him into a Dalek and he refused. Why this should bother Davros so much, or why indeed if he really did want Jobel Dalekified he didn’t just take him by force, is never explained. Nevertheless, Davros plots his revenge. Shall he set Takis and Lilt on him? Should he simply send a Dalek to exterminate him?

Too simple! A better idea is to slowly needle at Tasambeker’s psyche, preying on her insecurities until she wants to kill the man she loves. ‘Watch him’, Davros purrs through his clone’s rubbery mouth. ‘Use the security cameras to observe his activities, then tell me if your hate doesn’t grow.’ Slowly he turns her against Jobel. Then one day his insults prove too cutting and she stabs the oleaginous creep with a hypodermic needle.

So Davros took the long way round to murder his chief embalmer by proxy. Overly complex, perhaps but gruesome enough to appeal to the mind of a despot, you might think. But then he immediately rewards Tasambeker by exterminating her. Now that’s not only tough on Tasambeker, but utterly bewildering. What did she do except exactly what Davros wanted her to? Meddling in your staff’s love life is bad enough, but needlessly killing the obedient ones is just poor human resource management. Sure, she’s no Nyder, but at least she could follow an order.

In the end, grey Daleks swoop in making a corporate raid. They of course, have no interest in commerce, but they have a newfound interest in justice, and they vow to put Davros on trial (in the proper legal wigs and gowns, I trust.) And as they whisk him away, no doubt he’s thinking about giving up this business lark; long hours, hard work and limited rewards. That day job he used to have as a super villain must seem ever more appealing. And so it is that when we get around to Davros 5: The Emperor’s New Polycarbide Casing, he’s restricting himself to stealing an alien super weapon. After all, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your strengths.

LINK to Dalek: Apart from the obvious, there’s the underground setting and both feature levitating Daleks. And Davros is referred to in Dalek as well.

Sacrificial BLAM!: Orcini blows himself up with a great big bomb.

Adventures in subtitling: When Davros says “You are a fool, Jobel. I have offered you immortality, but you are content to play with the bodies of the dead, so you will join THEIR NUMBER!”, the DVD subtitles suggests he’s saying “you will join THE DOCTOR!”. Now there’s a thought; Jobel as a companion. Yeesh.  Now I’m the one who’s quite aggrieved.

NEXT TIME: I love a knees up! You’re cordially invited to The Masque of Mandragora.

The Monster, the Doctor and Dalek (2005)


We are so used to Doctor Who these days. We get new episodes every year and a special at Christmas. We’ve had eight series and over 100 new episodes. We take it for granted that every year there’ll be more of it. But it wasn’t always the case.

Back in 2005, each new episode was a miracle. Everyone had thought Doctor Who was dead. The idea that it might come back was only a dream. The news that it was coming back for a 13 episode series on BBC1 was almost unbelievable. Then on top of all that it turned out to be good…  Well, to steal a word from Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, it was fantastic. Meaning it was like a fantasy.

Episode 6 in that joyous run is Dalek. Cunningly held back to counter any mid season slide in ratings, this was an event within the bigger event of the show’s return. And while the other episodes had been good,  I distinctly remember watching this on broadcast and thinking this was where it really felt like the series was clicking. If it weren’t for those gas mask zombies, it would surely be the stand out episode of that first year of Doctor Who‘s revival. Perhaps it still is.

Its job was to reintroduce the Daleks as an integral part of the series iconography, to an audience who had not given a flying Thal about them for about twenty years. Who didn’t even know them, unless they had seen them as the butt of jokes on TV ads and sketch shows. It pulls off this trick by concentrating on just one Dalek, running amok in a billionaire tyrant’s underground headquarters. And look, we all want this for Murdoch, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that it does it methodically and effectively; it drip feeds information about the Dalek, gradually revealing its powers, confounding expectations about its limitations, so that by the end of the episode, they are firmly established as big metal badasses. In the season finale, there’s a moment when Rose acknowledges a job well done in this episode when she says, ‘There’s thousands of them now. We could hardly stop one. What’re we going to do?’. We know what she means because the Dalek in Dalek is so formidable.

But I think the really clever thing this episode does is the role reversal between the Doctor and the monster.

We’re used to having villains presented as a dark mirror of the Doctor. In fact that might be essential to any hero/villain relationship. Anyway, you can list them off by heart. The Master, Davros, the Valeyard… but even comparatively b-list villains, like Borusa or Professor Lazarus to choose two random examples, are always there for us to compare to the Doctor.

To directly compare the Doctor to a monster is rarer, but that’s what Dalek does, through role reversal. The Doctor for instance, played with saliva propelling emotion by Eccleston, behaves in a very un-Doctorly way. Upon first discovering the Dalek, the Doctor does not do any of his normal tricks. He doesn’t negotiate or befriend or cajole. He just tries to exterminate it. The first instinct of a Dalek.

The Dalek meanwhile demonstrates its Doctory ingenuity at every turn. It absorbs energy from Rose and escapes by tricking its enemies into a false sense of security before suckering their faces. Its next step is to absorb information. ‘The Dalek’s a genius,’ the Doctor warns. So just like him then, but murderous. Oh, he’s that too now.

For the rest of the episode, the Doctor is largely impotent. He can merely react to what Dalek does. It’s his own tactic turned against him. While the Dalek methodically climbs the levels of Van Statten’s space museum, countering every attempt to destroy it with silent determination, the Doctor’s reduced to tapping on a laptop, shutting bulkheads by remote control.

This culminates in a famous scene where the Dalek chooses to destroys a room full of soldiers by setting the sprinkler system off and electrocuting them with one zappy shot. It’s interesting because there’s no plot reason for it to show such an innovative approach to death; we all know it could just pick off those guards one by one. It chooses the showy way of killing, presumably as a display of strength and to terrify any onlookers. It certainly seems to work on the Doctor, who ends up bawling at the screen, like a showrunner who’s reading on that his season premiere has been leaked online: ‘why can’t you just DIE?!’ But this is surely the Doctor’s modus operandi: come up with a clever solution which not only does the job but underlines your point.

The Dalek gets a bad dose of mercy from being touched by Rose, meaning it thinks twice before exterminating all and sundry. But it also uses Rose as a hostage, manipulating the Doctor’s emotions by threatening to kill her so that he will open a bulkhead (cue more laptop tapping). Now that in itself is not overly Doctor-esque, but when it says “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?” its awkward lack of familiarity with human relationships sounds a bit like someone else we know.

By episode’s end, the Dalek has used guile and intelligence to work its way to freedom, and stands at the finale with the spunky girl by its side. The Doctor on the other hand has resorted to wielding a big gun. Rose says to him, ‘What the hell are you changing into?’ making the implied point explicit. As it turns out, the story’s conclusion has very little to do with him. The Dalek commits suicide with Rose’s consent, while the Doctor is reduced to a bystander. In a strange way, the Dalek has won, while the Doctor has failed at every turn.

We’re so used to Doctor Who these days, but back when we had just 13 episodes of new Who, this one felt like a keeper. It does its job. It brings back the Daleks. But it also forces us to look at the Doctor in a new light. And that’s an astonishingly confident move only 6 episodes in.

‘You would make a good Dalek’ the monster tells the Doctor. He could at least be polite enough to repay the compliment.

LINK to Silver Nemesis. Because there’s a Cyberman’s head on display in Van Statten’s museum, this is the first time we’ve seen one since Silver Nemesis. Unless you count Dimensions in Time, and if you do, god help you.

NEXT TIME: Are you picking your nose? More bubbling lumps of hate in Revelation of the Daleks

Juxtaposition, timidness and Silver Nemesis (1988)

silver nemesis

In Industrial Action, the ‘making of’ featurette on the Silver Nemesis DVD, writer Kevin Clarke says, ‘I would never again have the chance to write a show that included neo Nazis, creatures from outer space, Jacobean theatre characters, the Courtney Pine quartet and featuring an appearance by the Queen.’ But why stop there, Kevin? Throw in a couple of skinheads, a talking statue, a chess motif, a wacky American tourist and a pair of indifferent looking llamas. That’s Silver Nemesis for you – probably the strangest melange in Doctor Who history.

It takes the show’s penchant for juxtaposition to an extreme. And the funny thing is most of it’s irrelevant. How odd to think that there’s loads of unused footage from this story – nearly enough for an additional episode – when what would really perk this tale up is to strip it back to a taut two-parter. So much of the story’s incident is superfluous; the visit to Windsor castle, the skinheads stuff, Mrs Remington – all this and more could hit the cutting room floor and all the better for it.

You’d expect some colour and variety from Who’s 25th anniversary story. But despite all the hoopla listed above, it’s actually a low key affair as far as celebration’s concerned; more a subdued afternoon tea listening to jazz, than the raise-the-roof knees up of The Five Doctors. That’s all right, though. In 1988 we didn’t need a new multi-Doctor story or legions of returning companions. We were just happy the show was still on air.

More recently, to mark the 25th anniversary of Silver Nemesis, we got The Day of the Doctor, and it’s a kind of hybrid of two types of anniversary stories. One, the full-on retro-looking multi-Doctor shenanigans, your Three and Five Doctors. And the other, a traditional runaround that also draws a line under the series’ past and pushes it in a new direction, as Silver Nemesis does. Or, I should say, as Silver Nemesis tries to.

Andrew Cartmel, script editor for Old Who’s final years had correctly diagnosed a problem with the program; that we had grown to know too much about the Doctor, a character whose initial premise was one of mystery. So fundamental was the mystery around him that they named the series after it, but now the show seemed to be actively working against this idea.

But Cartmel’s solution to this problem was frustratingly impotent. It was to hint that there was more to the Doctor than we knew, that he still had secrets left for us to discover. In Silver Nemesis, this idea is given a specific voice in the character of 17th century sorceress Lady Penelope Peinforte (Fiona Walker). Well, someone had to give her a first name. Somehow, Painfart has found out something scandalous about the Doctor. She skites about it at every opportunity, mainly to hairy offsider Richard (Gerard Murphy), who unsurprisingly, has no idea what she’s talking about.

(Although he’s bewilderingly devoted to mad old Panadeine Forte. He’s meant to be a hardened crim, but he dotes on her, saves her life and looks heartbroken when she meets her inevitable demise. It can only be love, but once back in his own time it doesn’t take him long to hook up with a cute recorder player. Men, eh?)

It’s a risky gambit, saying to the audience: ‘Hey! There’s something you don’t know’. OK, what is it then? ‘Not telling’. What is this dramatic piece of news which will have such an impact on our hero?

The answer is of course… Nothing. Even if there was some ground shaking bit of info we didn’t know, revealing it would inevitably be an anti climax. It’s why, as Russell T Davies once said, we’ll never find out that the Doctor’s real name is Keith, because ultimately, the revelation adds nothing to what we know or care about.

Silver Nemesis hints at a massive revelation about the Doctor, but then leaves it unspoken. Convenient really, because there isn’t actually one. The futility of this exercise is commented on in the last episode when Lady P finally gets around to spilling the beans, no one cares. ‘The secrets of the Time Lords mean nothing to us’ drones the Cyberleader, and sadly it’s true for the audience as well.

The Day of the Doctor, on the other hand, pulls no such punches. It’s full of big, series shifting developments; the retconning of the Time War, the saving of Gallifrey and of course, introducing us to a hitherto unknown Doctor. It fires the bullets which Silver Nemesis merely loads. It’s got a confidence that Doctor Who in 1988 could only dream of.

Unsurprising really, as modern Doctor Who has the unstinting support of the BBC and all the fanfare and marketing support of a major television event. Silver Nemesis was just another three episodes in a series it wanted rid of. As such, who can blame the production team – if not Cartmel then certainly producer John Nathan-Turner – for being risk averse. There would be no big narrative shifts which might make the programme’s position even more precarious. A couple of years before JN-T had vetoed a cliffhanger style ending to The Trial of a Time Lord  for fear it would give the higher-ups an excuse to axe the show. This timidness survives in Silver Nemesis.

Never mind, there are plenty of distractions to found along the way. It’s very 1980s for the Doctor and Ace to cart an enormous ghetto blaster around with them wherever they go, but I suppose patent law stops him from making her an iPod instead. Lady Paintcart goes completely eye rolling doolally in the final episode, delivering each line to some distant point on the horizon with increasing gravitas. Star of many a WW2 epic Anton Diffring was apparently baffled by the whole experience of making Doctor Who, but that steely gaze of his helps him transcend the whole videoy, synthy soundtrack look and feel of the thing. But really, it’s all a bit mad. You can see the whole approach to Doctor Who that ultimately leads to Dimensions in Time.

But, amongst all the nonsense, Part Three suddenly livens up, with a sequence with Ace battling the Cybermen with a slingshot and an arsenal of goal coins, through an abandoned warehouse and atop its rusty old gantry. Suddenly there’s tension, with some nifty handheld camerawork making the viewer feel like they’re racing alongside the action. Ground breaking and courageous, Silver Nemesis is not. But it never stops surprising.

LINK to The Impossible Planet/Day of the Moon. In both, the TARDIS flits around like mad between time zones and locations. The Eleventh Doctor asks for a fez and the Seventh Doctor wears one. And in both the monsters are tricked into initiating their own demise.

NEXT TIME… You would make a good Dalek.

America, Amnesia and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (2011)

astro 2

I want to be in America

A few minutes into The Impossible Astronaut, Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill)  have arrived in Middle of Nowhere, Utah, dropped off by an iconic yellow school bus. As the bus drives away, we see the Doctor (lanky Matt Smith). Not leaning nonchalantly against the TARDIS, that blue police box, a little outpost of Britain where e’er it goes. But lying on the bonnet of a bright red Edsel wagon (is it his TARDIS with a working chameleon circuit?), a stetson pulled down over his face.  The message is clear; the Doctor has swapped UK for USA.

This story, New Who‘s series six opener, is the first of two pivotal Matt Smith stories set and partially shot in the US. Both are steeped in Americana. The Angels Take Manhattan features Central Park and a rampaging Statue of Liberty, but also uses the tropes of US film noir so that it feels authentically American. The Impossible Astronaut goes even further. Apart from the breathtaking starkness of the Utah desert (and this story surely has the best location footage of any Doctor Who story), there’s a classic roadside diner, NASA and its space paraphernalia, Area 51 and the monstrous Silence, who echo long rumoured saucer headed alien visitors, familiar from texts as diverse as This Island Earth  and Whitley Strieber’s Communion. And of course the White House and the President.  I’ll come back to them.

The US is a huge market for Doctor Who, the brand as much as the TV show. It seems completely logical that the show should start paying America more attention in its fictional world. I would be very surprised if there aren’t more episodes shot State-side in the future. And that’s a good thing. Courting a new audience or pandering to US broadcasters it may or may not be. But more practically, filming away from Wales is vitally important to save the series ‘filming out’ its locations. It keeps the series looking fresh. After all, how many times can you redress Millennium Stadium or the Temple of Peace?

Series Six is also where overseas viewers got a specially filmed pre credits primer on the program, narrated in character by Karen Gillan. It was odd watching these in Australia, a country which has been broadcasting Doctor Who almost as long as the UK, and whose audience does not really need to have the basics explained to them. But these little intros weren’t designed for us, but for the US.

So in more ways than one, The Impossible Astronaut is where the series starts directly addressing America. And that’s quite a leap when you consider the rather cartoonish way the old series had presented America in the past: the lampooning of The Gunfighters, caricatures like Morton Dill, Bill Filer and Mrs Remington. The old series’ introduction of an American companion (played by a British actress) seemed like a crass attempt to appeal to the fan convention circuit rather than a genuine attempt to recognise a potential new market. And if you think about the string of new series episodes set in the US (Dalek, Daleks in Manhattan, The Impossible Astronaut, A Town Called Mercy), they gradually become more invested in the US; not just stories set there, but stories about there.

But where does it end, worried fans sometimes ask? A US reboot of the series? An American Doctor? Both feasible, but unlikely I think. But what might be possible to garner if you can point to a sizeable US audience, is interest in a Doctor Who movie. That may or may not be the game plan, but a few more episodes set in America couldn’t hurt.

Hail to the chief

Steven Moffat’s favourite TV series is presumably Doctor Who, then Sherlock. Maybe the other way around. Either way, what comes in third?

I reckon there’s a good chance it’s The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated White House drama which ran for seven series from 1999 to 2006. Moffat mentions it every so often, sometimes in relation to Doctor Who‘s ability to speak to a US audience without losing its fundamental UK trappings. His argument (and it’s a valid one) is that you didn’t have to have a detailed understanding of US politics to enjoy The West Wing.

Fast moving, funny and at times mind bendingly complex, The West Wing is addictive stuff, particularly in its first four seasons where Sorkin was showrunner. And it’s a hallmark of the iconic success of the show, that it’s impossible to leave any TV depiction of life in the White House uncompared to it. Even a science fiction version such as The Impossible Astronaut, because knowing that Moffat is a West Wing fan, he must have been influenced by it. But what can a series about a fictional Presidency, striving for realism, have in common with a fictionalised one with alien monsters?

For a start, Sorkin and Moffat have similar styles; rapid fire dialogue, peppered with jokes. And a recurring habit of not spelling everything out; trusting that the audience will get the joke or reach a conclusion without it being didactically spelt out. But the main similarity is that both The West Wing and The Impossible Astronaut put the President front and centre. In its initial conception, President Bartlet was meant to be only a tangential presence in The West Wing before Martin Sheen’s powerhouse performance pushed the character front and centre. In a similar manner, The Impossible Astronaut features President Nixon heavily, eschewing the approach of The End of Time which kept President Obama on the sidelines.

Nixon (deftly played by Stuart Milligan) adds a note of winking postmodernism to proceedings. History’s judgement of him flavours much of the script, including the Doctor’s instruction to him to tape every call that comes to his office. Nevertheless, Nixon is an almost loveable presence, with Milligan’s knack for mimicry helping sell a number of comic moments. He even gets to travel in the TARDIS, which must be a first for any world leader. But despite the fun that Moffat has with Nixon, you can’t help thinking that if he’d had the chance, it would be Sheen’s President Bartlet stepping through those doors to the tune of ‘Hail to the Chief’. Maybe that’s a crossover which could still happen.

Things I’ve forgotten

The Impossible Astronaut is a thing of beauty; slickly directed by Toby Haynes, and lovingly shot by Stephan Pehrsson. But there are a few details about it which seem to have slipped my mind.

Why, for instance, is Canton’s three month mock hunt of the TARDIS crew necessary? Sure it gives the second episode a brilliant opening, but as the Doctor’s investigations have the President’s blessing, why the need for subterfuge? Why does the Silent in the White House tell Amy to tell the Doctor about his death? If she does, doesn’t this spoil their plan to use River to kill him? And what exactly possessed that imprisoned Silent to say such an ideally convenient sentence as ‘you should kill us all on sight’? Lucky it did though, because the Doctor had already gone to all the trouble of rigging Apollo 11 for its broadcast.

No doubt there were perfectly good reasons for these things but maybe my memory has been edited. Along with how those flipper handed Silents did up their ties.

LINK to The Android Invasion. As someone who isn’t Gary Gillatt pointed out in the DVD review of The Android Invasion, its white suited, helmetted androids are a bit similar to the eponymous Impossible Astronaut.

NEXT TIME: We ride to destiny with Silver Nemesis. We surely do, honey!

Barry Letts, unsung talents and The Android Invasion (1975)

android invasion

You’ve got to hand it to those piggy rhinoey aliens the Kraals, they’re planners. Their invasion of Earth which involves using doppelgänger androids – an Android Invasion if you will – is not something they’ve rushed into.

First they capture an British spaceship, hanging about the outer solar system. Because Britain has a space program, you know. Then they brainwash the pilot. Then they built a replica of a small English town and its nearby space defence station, populate it with android replicas and use it as a training ground. Because you train androids, right? Not program them.

Only when they’re absolutely certain that they can pull this performance off convincingly, do they catch a lift back to Earth on the same space ship and start to infiltrate the defence station. And all this to do what? Release a deadly virus (copyright Terry Nation), which presumably could have been released some easier way, by say, firing plague laden missiles at the planet (also copyright Terry Nation).

Anyway. Let’s not make fun of the plot of The Android Invasion. It’s been done many times before and it’s too easy. Instead, let’s talk Letts. Barry Letts, of course. One of Doctor Who‘s longest serving and most highly regarded producers. But we shouldn’t forget, also one of its most reliable and unsung directors.

The Android Invasion is peppered with understated directorial flair. Letts is not one to allow a idiosyncratic style to show through in his direction, unlike say Douglas Camfield or Graeme Harper, but nonetheless his episodes have plenty of interesting moments. There are the lovely scenes in Part One where Sarah is discovered hiding in a pub full of androids; the vision mixer switches from close up to close up of unsettlingly impassive faces.  There’s the famous cliffhanger to Part Two, where Sarah’s android’s face falls off with startling ease; edited with less precision it could have been laughable. And the scenes inside the Kraals’ dungeon like HQ are textbook stuff. We see the torturing of the Doctor on chief rhino Styggron’s operating table through the unflinching downward stare of a raised camera. A tide of nasty swirling lights washes over him while an whining pulsing sound comes at him like a dentist’s drill. Nasty stuff.

But these are moments, not the whole show. Lots of the rest of the story is shot with the workaday style of someone with a producer’s eye on time and money. Letts doesn’t try to spice up a scene of two people talking in a office, or two space rhinos discussing risk management strategies. It seems that he knows when to flex his directorial muscles and when to concentrate on getting the show in the can.

(Still, there are a few wry asides to spot. When Guy Crayford (played with nervous gullibility by Milton Johns) is about to land back on Earth, our ersatz Brigadier Colonel Faraday says ‘He’s been further into space than any other human being.’ Standing behind him our old mates Harry Sullivan and Mr Benton share a knowing glance. Letts, I assume, had issued an instruction.)

Letts seemed a fairly unassuming fellow in his post Who interviews, rarely allowing any self praise. This modesty has hidden that he was arguably the best director the Pertwee years ever had. Two of the stories he directed – Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters are among the very best of that era, and while a third Planet of the Spiders becomes flabby and self indulgent, its opening episode is pleasingly creepy. Add to this that he also directed much of the studio work for Inferno, and it really does seem that Letts was behind most of that era’s high points.

And of course recently and miraculously, we’ve had Letts’ first go at directing Who, The Enemy of the World, returned to us. Again it’s a mix of outstanding direction (mainly on film) and run of the mill  (mainly in the studio), but when it’s good it’s brilliant. Those action sequences in Episode 1, complete with hovercraft and helicopter – hardware Letts would return to in Planet of the Spiders – are the series’ best location work up to that point. Then there’s the Doctor facing off with his evil lookalike in Episode 6 – an experimenting with camera trickery which Letts uses again in The Android Invasion.

Letts was a frequent contributor to the Doctor Who DVD range, in on camera interviews and on commentary tracks. His calm, pleasant, grandfatherly tones became familiar to regular watchers, modestly and accurately pointing out what he thought worked and what didn’t. He was a mainstay of any Pertwee release.

But then on one DVD (I forget which one) Letts was back again but shockingly different. Bald and drawn, he was clearly unwell. Over the next few releases, depending on when the interview had been recorded, he turned up in various stages of health or sickness. We watched as this man, who we’d come to know only through his willingness to talk about Doctor Who for us, get more and more ill. He’s not on the commentary track for The Android Invasion, released three years after his death in 2009.

And the saddest aspect of the otherwise glorious return of The Enemy of the World, is that he isn’t here to see it again. That’s a commentary track it would have been great to hear. It would have been a fitting tribute to the only man who could justifiably claim to be Doctor Who‘s greatest multi-tasker: writer, producer, executive producer, novelist and director, Barry Letts. If only he had indulged himself and taken an acting role in the series (a Hitchcockian cameo in The Android Invasion, poking his head out of a Kraal’s travelling seed pod, would have done nicely), his reputation as Doctor Who’s auteur would have been complete.

LINK to The Beast Below: Each features a UK built spaceship and each features mechanical goons.

NEXT TIME: Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. And there’s a bit of it about in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.


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