Tom, tricks and Logopolis (1981)

 

logopolis

For some time, my random Who generator was very shy of Tom. Considering he has the most stories of any Doctor, it struck me as a bit odd that for a long time only one had come up. But lately there’s been something of a rush on Tom. We’ve had early Tom in Revenge of the Cybermen, gothic horror Tom in The Deadly Assassin, light entertainment Tom in The Armageddon Factor and now gloomy Tom, in his final story, Logopolis.

So in a relatively short space of time, I’ve seen a fairly representative set of Tom’s stories, and have been thinking about common threads which run through his performance. Because as unpredictable and mercurial as that performance is, it’s still a progression of choices, of specific responses to the material he’s given. It’s not as random as it might seem.

Because having acted now and then myself, I know that actors have a few tried and tested tricks they can pull. These are a few signature moves which they know they can pull off well, and can be used to good effect in a range of situations. I think I’ve spied a few of Tom’s over the years, and by the time he gets to Logopolis, some have been discarded, but some are still hanging around.

For instance, in Tom’s first season, he had a tendency to perch awkardly on bits of furniture, arms and legs dangling.  Seven years later, older and less nimble, this has gone; he leaves Matthew Waterhouse (playing boy genius Adric) to clamber on top of the TARDIS prop in Logopolis (and also, rather hilariously, lie under a bicycle).

First season Tom also had a habit of deliberately playing the opposite of the most obvious reaction, specifically grinning widely at the thought of peril – think of that moment in The Ark in Space when he connects his brain to the Wirrn hive memory, or in Revenge when he smiles toothily while threatening Kellman with a Cybermat. Again gone by the end of his reign. Although there’s a hint of it when he punctuates a batty plan to flood the TARDIS with that big ol’ smile.

There’s the sudden outburst of fury. He does this to great effect in stories like The Seeds of Doom, The Pirate Planet and Full Circle. This is a sudden ramping up of his voice, beyond its usually measured tone, to a roar of pure anger. It’s a trick to use sparingly, but also one to jolt an audience out of its comfort zone. It’s still in place in Logopolis. “Do you want a quick decision or a debate?!”, he bawls at Adric at one point. (“Sorry!”, shouts Adric back, and good for him.)

Then there’s the pulling of a wacky face. This starts around about mid-term Tom, but is there most blatantly in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor briefly considers the temptation of power offered by the Key to Time. Eyes have never been so rolled. And although Tom’s pulled back those elastic faces in by his final season, he still has one last go, in Part Two when Tegan (Janet Fielding, making a not-quite-there-yet debut) shouts in his ear about being taken back home. Face pull! And quite an amusing one too.

There’stherunningallthewordstogethertomakethelinegoreallyfast. Was it a way of rushing through some dialogue he didn’t like? Was it an indication of the speed of the Doctor’s thoughts? Or just another handy alien quirk? It happens all over the last half of his Doctordom, and it’s in his very first scene in Logopolis.

And finally, there’s the refusal to look at any of your fellow actors. This starts just after The Deadly Assassin, once Leela joins and Tom decides he would rather be without a co-star. And, I’m sorry to say, it happens from there on in with an increasing number of actors. Cue Tom staring off into the middle distance, delivering his lines to thin air, face firmly within the frame, but not responding to his fellow thesps.

In Logopolis, there’s barely anyone Tom wants to act with. He seems fine with Anthony Ainley (the latest Master) and John Fraser (all wild hair and clipped accent as the Monitor), but his three new co-stars Waterhouse as awkward Adric, Fielding as shouty Tegan and Sarah Sutton as the far nicer Nyssa, barely get a ’what?’ or an ’aaaah!’ thrown at them. I feel particularly sorry for Waterhouse, who is not bad in this, and best in his scenes with Tom, even though Tom’s disdain for him radiates through the screen.

Or perhaps it’s his disdain for the whole story, the scripts for which he allegedly wasn’t happy with. (Was he ever happy with the scripts, though?) This is a shame, because as well as giving him an opportunity to pull out some old tricks, Logopolis offers Tom some new angles on the Doctor and some new material to play. That’s no mean feat; this is his 41st story as the Doctor. What’s new to find in this character?

Well, self doubt for one. As the wraithish Watcher appears, a signal to the Doctor that his current incarnation is nearing its end, we see for the first time the fourth Doctor as unsure. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he murmurs, almost to camera.

Self disgust for another. In the cliffhanger to Part Three, as the Master brushes some specks of crumbling planet from his arm, the Doctor proposes an alliance in an attempt to save the universe. As he shakes hands with his oldest enemy – in fact the reanimated hand of his friend Tremas – the Doctor’s self loathing is clear through a simple closing of his eyes.

In the documentary A New Body at Last, on the Logopolis DVD, Tom commented on his own performance, and said of himself as the Doctor, that something was clearly worrying him. And again, worry is not something which ever bothered Tom’s Doctor very much.

But he’s worried here, in his final story, another new aspect to this character we know so well. Compare this to the previous series finale, The Horns of Nimon. Whatever its merits, it doesn’t do much to flexTom’s acting muscles. Logopolis occasionally gets criticised for its arcane subject matter, and its dry pseudo-scientific plot. Nonetheless it still delivers some big emotional moments for its lead actor, and gives us something more than Tom’s greatest hits.

(And let me just squeeze this in: this is our third story to introduce a new Master. A nice pattern within our random selection. But talking about this new Master will have to wait till another time.)

LINK to The Myth Makers. Both feature the departure of a series regular and the arrival of a new one. Plus the word Logopolis derives from Greek, and The Myth Makers derives from Greek myth.

NEXT TIME… Eyes front, soldier. We hang around with The Girl Who Waited.

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Mystery, Speculation and The Myth Makers (1965)

myth makers

There are few stories more mysterious than The Myth Makers, the first Doctor’s tragi-comic excursion to ancient Troy. Long lost from the BBC’s archives, we have very little visual evidence left of it. A handful of photos and a few seconds of 8mm footage. We have the soundtrack of course, and it’s a terrifically engaging listen. But that audio is all we have, and of course, it will never be enough for fans. To really assess this story, we need the episodes and the day when those old film cans are found in some remote TV relay station in Asia Minor can’t come quickly enough.

But in the meantime, all we’ve got is speculation as to what these episodes looked like. It’s as much as we can manage, but thankfully, it’s fascinating in itself for a fan. And it starts with the very opening moments of this story, with Achilles and Hector fighting on location at Frencham Ponds. What shots did one-time Who director Michael Leeston-Smith choose? Was it cut with pace and vigour? Did one-time Who composer Humphrey Searle’s bold with brass score help or hinder it?  We have no other examples of these gentlemen’s work to help us guess how they handled Who.

In this opening scene, it seems there’s a interesting entrance for the TARDIS. According to the BBC audio release, Achilles and Hector are mid battle as we follow their fight, the TARDIS stands unnoticed in the background. If that’s right, it’s an unusally low key and beguiling start to a story, signalling to the audience that the story has begun without them. It sounds like there’s a clear visual cue that this is a story trying to play against the audience’s expectations.

Soon enough, the Doctor (crusty William Hartnell, reportedly injured and bereaved while making this story) intervenes in the battle and is mistaken by Achilles for Greek god Zeus. Mistaken identity is something of a recurring motif in 60s historicals, whether divine as in The Aztecs, comic as in The Romans, deliberate as in The Reign of Terror, or sinister as in The Massacre. Here, it gives Hartnell a chance to be haughty amongst the Greeks of ancient myth and strike up something of a verbal sparring match with Odysseus (Ivor Salter).

There are only one or two photos of Salter as Odysseus and no moving footage. But he is the story’s main protagonist and the Doctor’s rougish foil throughout. The soundtrack indicates a full blooded turn, more than matching up to the formidable Hartnell. He gets some great dialogue too. When hearing of Hector’s death, he takes pleasure in baiting Achilles.

ODYSSEUS: But what a year is this for plague. Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector, ha, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
ACHILLES: I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
DOCTOR: Oh yes, it’s true.
ODYSSEUS: And raced him round the walls till down he fell exhausted. A famous victory.

Salter’s performance is hugely enjoyable on audio, but it makes me ponder a question I asked myself several times when listening to The Myth Makers: would this work as well if I could see the pictures? Because it’s a BIG performance. Would it be too big onscreen?  Would all that bluster detract rather than enhance?

It’s a similar story with Barrie Ingham’s portrayal of Paris, of whom I think not one photo is known to exist. Paris is written as cowardly, camp and ineffectual, and it sounds like Ingham has launched his performance from there. In the second episode, he’s creeping around whispering Achilles’ name when he’s meant to be shouting it out in challenge. When he defends his decision to drag the TARDIS into Troy, he splutters and stumbles in classic sitcom cadence. Again, too much or pitched just right? It’s comic sure, but is there any other way to play dialogue like this:

PARIS: And I will not tolerate interference from a fortune-teller of notorious unreliability!
CASSANDRA: How dare you! I am High Priestess of Troy!
PARIS: All right then, get back to your temple before you give us all galloping religious mania. Oh really, Father. I can’t tolerate another of her tedious tirades at the moment.

It’s clearly not meant to be played with great seriousness. Someone who is playing it seriously, though no less exuberantly, is Frances White as Cassandra. If she’s not shrieking, she’s spitting verbal venom and White never misses an opportunity to turn it up to 11. Photos of her have only come to light in recent years and show her as dressed quite simply, and looking rather mild mannered. This wasn’t how I pictured her at all. In my mind she was tall and fierce with banshee wild hair. How does the image match up with the vocal performance? Let’s hope we find out.

And this question – how did this story balance its audio and visual elements – echoes another: how did it balance the comedy and the tragedy?  The story is famous for its sudden u-turn in tone in its final episode. From the sounds of it, the deaths of funny old Priam, Paris and Cassandra, discovered when the audience see their corpses lying on the palace floor, are as stark as they are bleak. What on earth did audiences make of it? Did they stick with it, or turn off in confusion?

Then there’s the story’s unusually adult approach to talking about sex. It’s odd enough hearing Hartnell’s Doctor tell Agamemnon “your wife is unfaithful to you”. But then there’s Odysseus asking the Doctor to tell “a tale or two of Aphrodite” (“I refuse to enter into any kind of vulgar bawdry,” he retorts). Cassandra calls Vicki “some drab of Agamemnon’s” and probably the less said about the matter of fact way in which a 16 year old girl is left to marry a 17 year old soldier the better.

As the story goes on, it gets more and more ambitious. I can just about imagine what scenes set in Agamemnon’s tent or Priam’s palace or the Trojan dungeons looked like. But what about that horse being dragged into Troy? What did that look like? What about the inside of the horse itself, with the Doctor and Odysseus trading barbs like an old married couple? The audio release contains a line of explanatory dialogue which describes the Doctor’s exit from the horse as “the Doctor climbs awkwardly down the rope”. I bet he doesn’t though. I can’t imagine Hartnell climbing down any rope, no matter how awkwardly.

The sacking of Troy in the final episode, is particularly mysterious. It sounds like a grand affair, but I’m sure, knowing Doctor Who’s budget, it’s just hurriedly costumed extras fighting unconvincingly in studio sets. But, more hopefully perhaps we can imagine that it’s an exercise in being economic about what the story actually shows. After all The Myth Makers does a lot of this.

For instance, we never meet Helen, who, along with Paris indulged in the vulgar bawdry that was the catalyst for the war. Vicki is gushing about Troilus before he’s even seen on screen (as far as I can tell, despite being a pivotal character, we don’t see his face until the third episode). And her departure gives this story one last chance to wrongfoot the viewer.

When she’s finally reunited with the Doctor, amid the chaos of Troy falling, she bundles him into the TARDIS and sends new girl Katarina to get Steven. The next thing we know the Doctor is bidding Odysseus a not so fond farewell and the Ship dematerialises (this gives Odyssues a nice character note to end on as he wonders if Zeus really has walked amongst them), for all we know, with Vicki onboard as usual. It’s not until after the TARDIS leaves that we discover she has stayed behind in Troy, to be with her love, Troilus. It’s crafty misdirection, and like so much in The Myth Makers, unexpected.

Does it work? Were viewers fooled? Or was Vicki’s romance too clearly signposted, leaving no surprise? Or another possibility – does the whole thing leave us feeling shortchanged, with not even a farewell scene between Vicki and the Doctor?

Just another of The Myth Makers’ mysteries. And if the missing films turned up tomorrow, I’d be overjoyed. But we’d lose something too – with all our questions answered we’d have nothing left to speculate on. All this story’s mysteries solved, the way we view it changed forever.

Still, it’s a trade I’d make in an instant.

LINK to Smith and Jones. Both are new companion stories. And each has a slightly self-aware comic tone about them, which marks them as similar despite the decades that separate them.

NEXT TIME: The moment has been prepared for Logopolis.

Companions, selection criteria and Smith and Jones (2007)

smith and jones

So, think you’re companion material do you? Smith and Jones is here to help you work out if you’re made of the right stuff. (At least for Doctor Who as written by Russell T Davies).

Firstly, do you have a slightly dysfunctional family? Nothing too real, thanks – no chronic illnesses, financial issues or substance abuse problems. Just a few quirks which make them seem a bit mad, the sort of people who you love but drive you batty. Take Martha’s family for instance, they’re perfect. Slightly bratty younger sister, slightly clueless brother, grumpy Mum (this one’s essential), mid-life crisis Dad and his trophy girlfriend. All quarreling about something, while you get to play at being the sane one.

Next, you’ve got to hold it together in a crisis. Don’t fall apart at the first sight of Johnny Alien. This is a sure way to earn the Doctor’s disdain. He hates to be held up. Better still, you can catch his eye with a bit of clever – or even just imaginative – deduction. He gets turned on by clever. Unfortunately, he’ll expect you keep this up. Before you know it he’ll be barking at you to work out how to operate an MRI machine with 5 seconds’ notice. So, you know, be ready to think on your feet.

Here’s an important one: sometime during your first encounter with him, you’re going to have to save his life somehow. Remember you’ll have only just met the strange, slightly rude man so you may not immediately feel like putting your own life in danger to save his. But if you can, he’ll feel indebted to you and probably offer you a ride in his motor. It’s a small price to pay.

And to be honest, it will help if you’re a looker. The old Doctors never used to care much for that stuff. But the new ones are more than capable of having their head turned by a pretty girl (and sorry fellas, it’s still girls which take his fancy). When he first claps eyes on Martha, Doctor Ten is obviously very impressed. He gives her a flirty wink, and when she walks away, he’s got a very cheeky grin on, almost licking his lips.

He’ll take a few liberties too. Not like that mind, but a few sneaky moves he won’t mention to you before you sign on. He’ll let his machine rummage through your head. He’ll lie to you (that’s rule number one, actually). And as Martha finds out, he may randomly kiss you. Without your consent. Which makes some people a bit cross.

Overall, it’s up to you to impress him, not the other way around. He’ll just take it for granted that he’ll impress you. He’ll eke out information about himself gradually. He’s not human. He’s brainy. He’s got a space ship. And did he mention it also travels in time? And he’s got a couple of party tricks he wheels out. Expelling radiation into his shoe is a good one. Oh he’s a card, that one. Who wouldn’t want to run off with him?

And if you do, you probably will be living your life a little unfulfilled. Perhaps you’re in a dead end job. Perhaps your family’s arguing is getting you down. Or perhaps you said no to him once and have regretted it ever since. Be a little problem for him to fix, he likes that. And if that sounds patronising (and it is a bit), don’t forget that he’s got problems for you to fix too. He’s lonely. He’s insensitive. And occasionally, he’ll become a ruthless killer who has to reminded of his inner compassion.

Because here’s the thing; it’s not all fun and games. As Miss Finnegan says in Smith and Jones, there are great tests ahead, and although Martha’s not there to hear her say it, many of those tests will be for her. The Doctor will make her work for her companion status. He won’t fully commit to her until episode 6. Won’t give her a key till episode 7. He’ll ask her to fight off pig monsters in 1930, hide him from the universe in 1914 and get a job to pay the bills in 1969. He’ll ask more than most of Martha. By the time this series ends, she’ll be put even more through the wringer.

But don’t let that put you off. Be feisty, funky and spunky, look great in a pair of jeans and you’ll be great. Go get ’em, tiger. You’ll be fine. After all he only takes the best.

PS Inevitably, you will fall in love with him to a certain extent. There’s no guarantee he’ll fall in love with you, though. So keep an eye out for that.

PPS If you have a recurring musical motif that follows you around wherever you go, that’ll would be great too.

LINK to Revenge of the Cybermen. Both are partly set on a moon within our solar system.

NEXT TIME: Is there a Doctor in the horse? There is, and a whole lot of gift bearing Greeks, in The Myth Makers.


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.

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)

armageddon

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

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