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.



Second nights, roads untaken and The Beast Below (2010)

beast below

Way back when talking about The Highlanders, I mentioned the odd appeal of a Doctor’s second story. It’s the place where we get our first true glimpse of what a new Doctor’s going to be like, without all the opening night hoopla of his first story. But we also get to see a few missteps and a few character traits which eventually get left on the cutting room floor.

I don’t think it’s any disrespect to say that Matt Smith took a while to step out of David Tennant’s shadow. Having been cast as a young, funny, handsome Doctor immediately after the last young, funny, handsome Doctor was a tough gig. And his early stories don’t help him. I don’t think there’s anything in The Beast Below (aka Song of the Space Whale) or the stories around it for Matt Smith to do that David Tennant couldn’t.

It seems hard for the series’ writers to shake Ten off, and for everyone – Smith included – to realise that the Eleventh Doctor’s goofiness, distractedness, childlike glee and his strange knack of being physically graceful and awkward simultaneously is what distinguishes him from the Tenth. In fact, I don’t think it’s until Vincent and the Doctor (aka Two Ginger Scots and the Doctor) that Smith’s Doctor is fully formed, although there are glimpses of it earlier. Perhaps the first peek of it is when he springs from Rory’s buck’s night cake (do buck’s nights have giant cakes? If so, I’ve been going to the wrong ones) in The Vampires of Venice (aka The Fish Girls of Croatia).

But back to Smith’s performance in The Beast Below. The sudden enthusiasm for small details, the tendency for unexpected physicality (leaping over benches for example) and the mix of levity and gravitas – so far so Tennanty.  But there are moments when you can begin to see Smith differentiating himself from his predecessor.

Take the moment where Amy asks if there are any other Time Lords. We can imagine how Tennant would have played this from a host of similar moments during his tenure.

AMY: So there are other Time Lords, yeah?

TENTH DOCTOR: (Suddenly stops. Face falls.) No. There were, but there aren’t. Just me now. (For a moment, looks like he might cry. Runs hand through hair, spiking it up further.) Long story. There was a bad day. Bad stuff happened. (Pause, determined now, the old soldier is back) And you know what? I’d love to forget it all, every last bit of it, but I don’t. (Anger in his voice, rising to a crescendo. A sudden flurry of activity.) Not ever! Because this is what I do, every time, every day, every second! This! Hold tight! (Turns, pauses, looks Amy in the eye, brings his voice down, adds a hint of glee.) We’re bringing down the government. (Hits the ‘protest’ button). Ooh, that’s done it! Oh yes!

Smith plays it much cooler. In his version, when the Time Lords are mentioned a pensive look comes over his face. He says the dialogue quietly, as if explaining it to himself as well as Amy. Almost as if remembering a bad dream. Then he gently ramps up towards the end of the speech, less showily than Tennant would have, before smacking that button with vigour.

There are other moments that don’t play as easily. Later in the episode, the Doctor is dismayed to learn that the humans are torturing Mr Astro Cetacean.  He lists the options open to him before erupting in an unexpected outburst:

DOCTOR: Look, three options. One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.

LIZ: There must be something we can do, some other way.

DOCTOR: Nobody talk to me. Nobody human has anything to say to me today!

(Quick aside: it’s interesting that writer Steven Moffat is already referencing the last day of the time war and the Doctor’s name, both of which will the focus of crucial episodes at the end of Smith’s tenure).

These sudden furious outbursts were stock in trade for the Tennant, but they become rarer and rarer for Smith. A notable exception is the tirade at Colonel Manton in A Good Man Goes to War (“…trying to get to me through the people I love“); on that occasion he even notes that getting angry is new to him. As the Eleventh Doctor develops, Smith prefers to play these moments with quiet menace or distain. And that suits the slippery, manipulative figure his Doctor becomes in later seasons. It’s not that Smith plays the star whale rant badly – quite the opposite – but it’s another remnant of a past era that he sheds.

Finally, there’s a moment of pure pig headed vindictiveness from the Doctor which doesn’t suit him at all.

AMY: I voted for this. Why would I do that?

DOCTOR: Because you knew if we stayed here, I’d be faced with an impossible choice. Humanity or the alien. You took it upon yourself to save me from that. And that was wrong. You don’t ever decide what I need to know.

AMY: I don’t even remember doing it.

DOCTOR: You did it. That’s what counts.

AMY: I’m… I’m sorry.

DOCTOR: Oh, I don’t care. When I’m done here, you’re going home.

Of course, it is completely unreasonable of the Doctor. As Amy points out, she doesn’t even remember doing it. And it’s an odd moment because it just doesn’t seem like a hanging offence or something that would particularly irk the Doctor. In short, it’s out of character. Although it does provide a dramatic moment after which Amy can redeem herself by working out the mystery of the star whale. But it feels contrived; as if providing that spur for Amy is its sole purpose, rather than being a natural thing for the Doctor to say.

And we never see another Eleventh Doctor moment like it. It’s one of those character roads which is partially ventured down but ultimately left unexplored. Charm, daffiness and childlike enthusiasm won out. Brooding, unpredictable grump was left behind. And his Doctor was all the better for it.

One last thing: the story ends with a Hartnellesque lead-in to the next episode. Winston Churchill rings the TARDIS phone and asks for the Doctor’s help, the silhouette of a Dalek sliding into view on a nearby wall. It’s a moment which echoes our first, partial glimpse of a Dalek sucker back in 1963. But it’s also one which indicates how much Doctor Who has changed since then.

The Doctor was once an edgy anti-hero lost in time and space, with no control over his capricious machine. Now he’s a superhero, getting phone calls for help from his celebrity historical friends. It’s another big shift. And this one, I’m not so sure is for the better.

LINK to Nightmare of Eden. Both are set on spaceships and have creatures that are not what they seem. Hmm, that will have to do!

NEXT TIME… There’s a bit of a brouhaha at the Space Defence Station in The Android Invasion.


Collision, crisis and Nightmare of Eden (1979)


It’s 28 August 1979. Graham Williams, 34 years of age, sits in the gallery of TC6 during the final recording session for Nightmare of Eden. The clock is ticking ever closer to 10pm and he’s got to get this show in the can. He’s recently stepped in as the story’s director, having just had to sack the last one, 63 year old TV veteran Alan Bromly.

Bromly didn’t get on with Tom Baker. By all reports, he was not Robinson Crusoe there. Williams himself is not on the best of terms with his leading man. The year had, after all, started with an awkward ‘it’s him or me’ type of meeting in front of Williams’ boss, after which neither man had walked and so here they both are. Trying to get this tale of madmen and Mandrels on time and under budget.

It took something pretty serious for Williams to side with Tom over a director. But this was something more than the kind of volcanic strop Tom was renowned for. This was something new, with cast and crew united in mutiny against Bromly. Arguments and insults from the studio floor are regrettable, but can ultimately be worked around. Williams must have thought the only way to get the show finished would be to do it himself.

I can imagine Williams sitting in that darkened room, looking at the output of the cameras on the monitors. I wonder if he had time to consider the production in front of him. As he lines up those shots in that horrid yellow spaceship corridor, does he speculate that this could be the cheapest looking story in the series history? With inflation running rampant he was finding it harder and harder to make his budget stretch. This season of stories was showing the strain, from that enormous green weather balloon of an alien to the shabbiest bunch of patched up Daleks that ever graced a quarry. Ah well. At least the Paris stuff looked nice.

Perhaps he wonders what went wrong with those Mandrel costumes. The heads look all right, if a little too cute to be monstrous. The main problem is those inflexible forearms, which look like someone has added a length of plumbing pipe to each arm. In fact, that’s probably what happened. If you could shoot them in low light, add a bit of fog, you might get away with it. But the footage already shot has everything drenched in standard bright flat BBC Sci-fi lighting. Every flaw on those Mandrels is unforgivingly apparent, as they waggle those rigid arms in the air.

The human characters are having costume issues too. The crew of the Empress have sparkly lame tabards over spandex body suits. Turns out that in the future, space cruiser crew members will dress like first year dance students. The idea seems to be the more sparkly a costume the more spacey it is. Even Taxmen Fisk and Costa, bureaucratic bores, have their black uniforms shooshed up with glittery stripes and natty hats. (Incidentally, what sort of society exists on planet Azure, that when a space collision takes place on their doorstep, they send not police or medicos but tax officers?) And who put Lalla in that dowdy, drab grey number?

At least she seems to be getting on well with Tom.

What, he may have wondered, is going on with Tryst, played with zeal and an outrageous German accent by Lewis Fiander? Is he trying to out-Tom Tom? Well, good luck to him. Few have tried and even fewer have succeeded. Has he not noticed that everyone else is playing this straight?

Look, for example, at David Daker giving it his all as Rigg. Daker successfully portrays the downfall of a man having a hell of a day at work. It starts with the space equivalent of a car accident, and continues with intruders, drug smuggling and ends with having his drink spiked and becoming a gibbering, crazed addict. ‘Let’s talk about life’, he slurs at one point, in exactly the tone Williams recognises from too many late night conversations with actors in the BBC bar. It’s an authenticity absent from any number of witless Tryst lines like ‘We worked on this idea together before he died, of course. Then we stopped.’

I like to think that Williams calmly steered his cast and crew through those final scenes, engendering a dogged team spirit to get the work done. Even Tom, I hope, pulled his head in and helped get everything done. Surely a cast must never have empathised with a script as greatly as with Eden’s when Della’s delivers the line: ‘I’m relieved the nightmare’s over.’ Let’s assume Williams got some exhausted votes of thanks as they cleared the studio for the night.

A week or so later he turns up for the post session, where he’ll supervise the addition of visual effects. It’s not without its own challenges. A flying insect looks too big and blobby. A gun shot misses Della’s belly where its meant to hit. But it’s on putting together the shots of the colliding spaceships that I imagine Williams sitting up in his seat, suddenly taken by a thought.

The story starts with the collision of the two ships, and it transpires that a passenger on one ship is smuggling drugs to the captain of the other. But what’s the link between these two events? Did Tryst and Dymond plan the collision? That would make narrative sense.

But the transfer of the Eden projection, drug constituted Mandrels and all, takes place via lasery gizmo between the two ships, with no connection to the collision. It could have been done at any time. In which case the collision was just co-incidental.

So either the the collision was caused by the bad guys, but the script forgets to mention it.

Or the collision wasn’t caused by the bad guys and was just a credulity straining unlucky break.

At this stage, I imagine, Williams drains his coffee, takes two aspirin and heads back to the production office to draft his resignation.

LINKS to Day of the Daleks. Both involve two locations linked by a sci-fi magic door, which the Doctor and his companion travel through. And both have big lumbering monsters.

NEXT TIME… This isn’t going to be big on dignity. We unleash The Beast Below.


Congregation, cinema and Day of the Daleks (1972)

day of the daleks

Two Days stick in my mind. Day of the Daleks and The Day of the Doctor. Because I saw them both at the cinema.

The Daleks’ Day  escaped onto DVD a few years back with a very special Special Edition, complete with new very special effects and new very special Dalek voices and other bells and whistles. To celebrate, there was a new very special screening of the story at cinemas around Australia. Now, I wasn’t that keen to go. I’m not that keen on public displays of fandom. As you can probably tell by my nom de plume and headless profile pic.

But unusually it was Mrs Spandrell who insisted we go. She had no desire to sit through Doctor Who movie-sized except for two things: one, she’ll do anything to eat cinema popcorn, with which she is obsessed and two, she was curious to see Who fans out after dark.

Fans fascinate her, even though she has been shackled to this one for years and has had ample time to examine it up close. She likes to see how far people will go for their love of something, particularly those who express it by dressing up in public. And she was in luck this night. As we walked in with the rest of the audience, she gripped my arm ever tighter with each Tom Baker scarf she spotted. I suffered bruising.

Anyway, it was a hoot. But one of the things it showed was that Day of the Daleks, even in its new ever so very special Special Edition, is irrevocably a TV programme. It’s not meant to be seen on a cinema screen. Blow the picture up to that size, and all sorts of flaws become evident. You notice every little thing. That pencil that rolls off the TARDIS console has never been so obvious. Props have never looked so plasticy. And Katy Manning’s unintended underwear cameos gain undue prominence.

But it’s not just production flaws though, it’s also the odd grammar of studio based TV which is exposed by the big screen. There’s a moment in Episode Three where the Doctor is in a tunnel hiding from the Daleks. Director Paul Bernard chooses a big close up of the Pert’s face. As his pursuers give up, he notices something. We pull away to reveal that the camera was peering through the rungs of a ladder, inches in front of the Doctor’s face – although he acts as if he just noticed it.  Cue peals of laughter from the assembled nerds. It’s a moment which looks fine on TV, but terribly contrived writ large.

Still, the niggles enlarged on the cinema screen are made up for by the joy of watching Doctor Who  in public. Now this, I have done before. As a teenage nerd I would sometimes attend earnest meetings of the Doctor Who Club of Australia. These were held in echoey halls at Sydney Uni, abandoned for the weekend. In darkened lecture theatres they would show the latest episodes smuggled in from the UK. The seating was hard and unforgiving, political commentary was carved into the benches, the TV monitors bracketed to the ceiling were distant. We loved it of course – sneakily watching The Trial of a Time Lord, Dragonfire et al. There would be laughter at the funny bits, groans at the awful bits. It was fun, this group reaction to something you normally watched in private.

And that’s how it was with Day of the Daleks. The audience cheered when the Pert karate chopped a guerilla without spilling a drop of his wine. They dutifully giggled at the ‘rank has its privileges’ line. They knew this story and its greatest hits and were all to happy to sing along in chorus.

The next Day at the movies, was on anniversary weekend, November 2013. This time I knew I’d attend, it being my only chance to watch the thing in 3D. Mrs Spandrell was happy to join in. The popcorn, you see.

But this time, there was very little chance to play spot the cosplaying fan. The cinema was packed, but with new fans, not old. And kids! Kids everywhere. I subconsciously know that kids love Doctor Who but it’s not till I see them en masse and dressed like Cybermen that it really kicks in. Parents, students, yuppies and pretty young things. This was a mainstream crowd, not us ming mongs. It was one of those moments when the new widespread popularity of the show hits home.

And there’s one more recent example: Deep Breath at the State Theatre, part of the Doctor Who world tour. Again, Mrs Spandrell was keen, again there was popcorn, again there was much cosplay. We bought merch, we took selfies. Terrible seats, right at the back, high in the heavens. The usher actually laughed when he checked our tickets. But then it was on and of course there were cheers and laughs and a crowd having a whale of a time. 2,775 Whoheads entranced.

When it ended, Peter Capaldi took to the stage (well, I have it on good authority it was him. I couldn’t quite be sure from our seats) and was witty and modest and charming. And then he let us in on a secret. While the episode was screening he’d snuck into the back of the auditorium, and watched a bit with us. But no one had noticed, their attention entirely focussed on the screen. A collective gasp from the audience. How close they had been to the man himself and never knew! They sobbed into their Tom Baker scarves at an opportunity missed.

So that’s my history of watching Doctor Who off TV. From grotty auditoriums crowded with hard core fans, to a one off movie screening for a mix of the we and the not-we, to a packed weekend screening with the general public lining up to watch the Daleks invade Gallifrey, to a lavish extravaganza with the Doctor himself watching along with his fans.

It still makes me shake my head in disbelief. This strange little show. It used to be ours. Now it’s freaking everyone’s. As commonplace as a trip to the cinema.

LINKS to Planet of the Daleks. Hmmm, not even worth typing is it?

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Haven’t had one of these in a while. But here, rebel Shura blows up Auderley house at story’s end.

NEXT TIME… I preferred it when it seemed impossible! Brace yourself for a Nightmare of Eden.

Hues, Heroes and Planet of the Daleks (1973)

planet daleks

Planet of the Daleks bursts on to your screen in a barrage of green, purple and sandy yellow. This is a story set on a jungle planet, so the green is given. The purple comes from the Doctor (the Pert at the height of his powers) dressed head to toe a kind of grape Austin Powers outfit, and from the native Spiridons, who wear bolts of purple fake fur around their otherwise invisible frames. That sandy yellow is from a squadron of Thals; the colour of their hair and of their bulky Michelin man style spacesuits. It’s a garish combination.

The overall effect is that each episode is a televisual assault on the eyes. Luckily the gun metal grey Daleks provide some chromatic relief, at least until their big badass gold and black Supreme turns up. He’s an escapee from the 1960s Dalek movies. Can you imagine if the production team had taken more of his multicoloured ilk? All the colours of a Skarosian rainbow.

So it’s a colourful story, but also a cramped one. I don’t know if the studios were particularly small or the sets particularly bulky or that the necessity for the Daleks to have thoroughfares of clear floor meant that no one had much room to move. But so much of the action takes place very close to the cameras, with the jungle being a sort of impenetrable border leaving not much space for the actors to work in. It reaches a peak in a scene in Episode Five where Thals Taron (Bernard Horsfall) and Codal (Tim Preece) mug a Spiridon for his fetching purple furs. It’s shot so close that it looks ridiculous. Actors struggling to swing clubs, manoeuver those shag pile furs and ski jacket spacesuits and stay in shot. The things you do for your art.

All this makes Planet of the Daleks a difficult story to look at. But as an adventure story, it lays on action in spades. Writer Terry Nation, returning to the series after eight years, doesn’t let the pace falter; it’s incident after incident. An attack, then a rescue, then a plan, then a stunt, then a dispute… You get the idea. It’s not always particularly interesting incident, but Nation’s skill was always in the broad brush strokes of plotting, not the close detail of dialogue and character. That’s not to damn him with faint praise. Shrewd plotting which gives a story momentum is incredibly hard and Nation makes it look easy.

It’s often said that this is a retread of Nation’s very first Dalek story. But the similarities are actually pretty superficial. There’s a Dalek city for example, and a Thal-led expedition to infiltrate it. And a few set pieces are the same, such as the use of a Dalek casing as a disguise. Otherwise quite distinctly different things happen in them.

And their key messages are different. The initial Dalek story said that there is a point where even peace loving people have to stand up to an aggressor (an allegory, it seems, for Britain’s decision to join WW2). Planet of the Daleks seems simply to say, war is hell. The Doctor’s advice to Taron at the story’s end, to be careful not to glamourise war, may well be cloyingly moralistic, but it shows a significant shift in Nation’s position. Influenced, perhaps, by nightly TV news images of jungle warfare in Vietnam.

If Planet of the Daleks is a reheating of old Nation classics, I think it’s of his favourite elements of the last Who story he wrote, The Daleks’ Master Plan. That also had humanoid heroes on a secret mission to a jungle planet, a planet where the hostile vegetable life acted more like animal life, a Dalek stronghold, invisible aliens and a plan on a grand scale. But unlike that story, in which the Doctor was front and centre, here he shares the focus with the blond wigged Thals, and specifically their tall rugged front man, Taron.

Taron is more than your average guest character, he’s a genuine challenge to the Doctor’s status as leading man. He gets as much screen time as the Doctor, and he holds many scenes exploring plot points which directly impact his character, but not the story, like his reproaching of Rebec for turning up and turning his head, and the ongoing power struggle with second in command Vaber (an twitchy Prentice Hancock). When the action reaches the Plain of Stones, Taron takes charge when mutinous Vaber goes to blow up some Daleks (he helpfully leaves a note stating his intention):

TARON: Codal, will you come with me? Doctor, would you stay here?

DOCTOR: If that’s what you want.

“If that’s what you want”? That’s not the gung-ho Pert we’ve grown to know and (mostly) love. It’s odd to see the program try to balance two action hero leads. But it’s no contest really: Taron’s the military hero, the Doctor’s his scientific adviser and defers to Taron’s authority. The Doctor comes up with all the ingenious schemes, Taron’s the muscle. It is as if Nation is still writing for Hartnell’s Doctor, who was always accompanied by a young male companion to do the athletic stuff.

So it’s a story written like it’s still the sixties but filmed in all the vibrant hues of the seventies. But if that doesn’t float your boat, it also has Jo Grant hanging out with an invisible alien. This is Wester, the friendly Spiridon with a name like an accountant. How does she keep track of him? Well luckily he’s in the habit of carrying around random objects. A bowl. A stick. And so on.

That’s not when he’s wearing his purple yak outfit. Then he just looks like any other Spiridon. But there must be something distinctive about the way that fur clings to his frame, because when the Doctor sees him from across a Dalek filled room in Episode Five, he spots him immediately. “That’s Wester!”, he exclaims. Ha! (Or should I say ‘Hai!’). Recognise an invisible alien just by the way a day-glo rug hangs off him? Like to see you try that, Taron.

LINKS to The Time Monster. Well, they’re both six part Pertwee stories featuring a returning villain. Seeming a bit less random isn’t it? Still, after 12 Pertwee episodes in a row, I’m looking forward to something different.

NEXT TIME… Good grief! It’s Day of the Daleks.

Sexism, soggy biscuits and The Time Monster (1972)

time monster

In 1971, producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman co-wrote a season finale for Doctor Who.  It was about the Master disguising himself to infiltrate a small community from where he could summon up a powerful alien creature. It transpires that the Master can’t control the creature, whose long presence on Earth had caused it to be entwined in ancient mythology and who caused the destruction of Atlantis.

The next year, they did it again and called it The Time Monster.  And I think it might win some ignominious prize for being the most sexist Doctor Who story ever. Quite a feat for a series whose basic premise – super intelligent man is accompanied by a subordinate female companion – is inherently sexist to begin with.

Let’s start with the Lady Jo Jo Grant, played as ever with perky enthusiasm by Katy Manning. The script doesn’t miss any opportunity to call her stupid.  “Look, I know I’m exceedingly dim, but would you mind explaining?”, she says to the Doctor (the Pert in full white bouffant glory) in the very first scene. Even ironically, why would you ever give a companion that line? A few minutes later there’s this horribly condescending exchange when Jo is set an impromptu test about the Doctor’s latest gadget.

DOCTOR: Well, what’s it do then?

JO: Well, it, er.

DOCTOR: Mmm hmm?

JO: It, er, detects disturbances in a time field.

DOCTOR: Well done, Jo. You’re learning!

What’s most annoying about this is that Jo’s not stupid. There are plenty of examples of her being smart and resourceful, which presumably is why she can hold down a job at UNIT. But I think Manning was so good at looking boggle eyed at any gobbledegook the Doctor spouted each week that it became easy for the writers to script her as a dizzy blonde.

Later on, she’s told off for making conversation.

JO: It’s a doomy old day. I mean, just look at that sky. Just look at it.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Jo, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

JO: Sorry, Doctor.

“Sorry Doctor”? How about “Sod off Doctor, I was just making a passing comment?” Still, we’re only in Episode One so the story is still young. By now, we’ve also been introduced to the second of three major female characters, Dr. Ruth Ingram (Wanda Moore). She’s almost an alternative version to Jo; she’s still the assistant to a capricious scientist (Professor Thascalos, aka the Master), but she’s smart, qualified and witty (well, as witty as this laboured script gets). She’s a bolshy, wise cracking Liz Shaw.

But one thing is emphasised about Ruth at every opportunity. She is that strangest of alien creatures, a FEMINIST. It is commented on, again and again, most commonly in a resigned sigh of a comment after she makes a strident observation. Take this for example:

RUTH:  There’s no need for you to be so patronising, Professor. Look, just because I’m a woman, there’s no need to treat me like…

HYDE: Here we go.

But her attempts to point out how patronising the men around her are only cause them to be more patronising. Like this:

RUTH: It’s all the same, really. A bland assumption of male superiority.

HYDE: May God bless the good ship women’s lib and all who sail in her.

Or even, irritatingly, this when her male colleague, mustachioed beanpole Stuart Hyde (Ian Collier) attempts to coax her into doing what he wants:

RUTH: Well, it is his project. I mean, he’s the boss.

HYDE: Nominally. But you think how much you’ve put into it. It’s a joint affair. I reckon you’ve as much right to take a decision as he has.

RUTH: Well.

HYDE: Of course if you need a man in charge.

RUTH: That does it. We go ahead.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

And still, we’re not out of Episode One yet. That a writing, editing and directing team of men in 1970s couldn’t realistically or maturely depict a feminist character isn’t surprising. But watching it from a modern perspective, what is weird is the use of women’s equality as a defining character note; women’s lib is Ruth’s “thing”. It sets her apart, rather than simply being a sensible way of looking at the world for any character, male or female.

It is of its time, sure. But by the end of Episode One we’ve been presented with two different female characters; Jo and Ruth. One is labelled as a feminist and one isn’t (again, feminism as optional, not the norm). And Ruth the feminist comes off as much less fun than Jo. So not only is feminism something only some women adopt, it’s also something of a bore. Of course, what we really need is a few scenes of Ruth and the Doctor together.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Ruth, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

RUTH: Stick it up your stovepipe trousers, Doctor.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

RUTH: Bite me, stringbean! (Pow! RUTH punches HYDE in the face.)

By Episode Five we have travelled to ancient Atlantis and met our third major female character Queen Galleia (the Hammer film star Ingrid Pitt). Galleia is smart, calculating and ambitious. But any chance that we might be about get an interesting, well thought out female character is undermined by her costume, which brazenly shows off her considerable cleavage. The Time Monster is telling us from the beginning that this is a character defined by sexuality. She’s there – at least in part – to be ogled. A clear double standard when you compare her to Atlantis’s young male lead, Hippias (Aidan Murphy), who is about as dowdy and unappealing as one could get. Never has there been a soggier biscuit (though to be fair Ryan Gosling would struggle to be sexy under that wig).

It’s not just Galleia’s eye popping costume which signals her as this serial’s sexpot. Her interactions with the male characters are mostly sexual. Firstly, there’s her attraction to the Master, which emerges in her very first scene. She and the Master seduce each other, both motivated more by power than romance, but still there’s a sexy undertone. Fair dues, she’s married to 500 year King Dalios (George Cormack) so perhaps we can’t blame her for a little window shopping.

Between Episodes Five and Six she’s shacked up with the Master and staged a bloodless coup. But it also turns out that she’s been round the block with Hippias as well. In a fairly stilted exchange, Hippias basically implies that she’s slept her way to the top to serve her ambitions for power. And least she gets to tell him to bugger off. So just to sum up: Dalios, Hippias and the Master – Galleia’s had ’em all.

All this adds up to an uncomfortable image of Galleia. She’s a power hungry social climber and her main weapon is sexuality. Sure, she’s a minor villain in the story, so we can hardly expect her to be a sympathetic character. But has Doctor Who ever drawn a clearer picture of female sexuality as dangerous and corrupting? How this sits with the story’s treatment of Ruth’s feminism – as something to be warily mocked – is just as unpleasant. I wouldn’t like to read too much into something as insubstantial as The Time Monster, but in transferring its attention from Ruth to Galleia, it seems to say, ‘Look at all this women’s equality nonsense! Let it get out of hand, and this is where it will lead!”

So to be blunt, The Time Monster gives us three female stereotypes: the bimbo, the shrill feminist and the slut. Just yuck.

LINK to The Visitation. The Time Monster features a scene with Roundhead soldiers. It’s the third story in a row to reference the seventeenth century.

NEXT TIME… I got rescued by this bowl! We touch down on the Planet of the Daleks.

Old, New and The Visitation (1982)


Set in the seventeenth century, but scored throughout with twinkly electronic music,The Visitation  feels both old and new – or at least 1980s new.

It also has one the best opening scenes in Doctor Who. A gentrified family in restoration England are home at night. We get to know this little family; grumpy father, son, daughter and manservant. We start to like them. Then their house is infiltrated by an alien something and all are killed. We fade through a few shots of the empty house in daylight, as alien machinery thrums. Tightly written, stylishly directed.

But leisurely. New Who does these sort of opening gambits – monstrous nasty kills people we’ve just met – all the time, but they’re much shorter and pacier and usually done before the opening credits. Think Tooth and Claw, Gridlock or The God Complex, to name but a few.

But back to The Visitation. After the opening scene, it’s over to the TARDIS to see what our heroes are up to this week. The Doctor (Peter Davison, early in his term, but firmly established as the Time Lord next door), awkward teenager Adric (played by awkward teenager Matthew Waterhouse) and alien noblelady Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, in the sensible shoes) are preparing to take mouthy air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding, all hair and purple power uniform) back to Heathrow Airport in 1982. It’s all very domestic: the Doctor and Adric are bickering about things which happened last episode. Tegan is busy putting on some very 1980s make-up. Nyssa is standing in the console room reading a magazine (of all things. Woman’s Day? DWB?).  There’s a family squabble when they realise that they’ve landed at the right spot, but three hundred years early. Tegan cracks it and storms out of the TARDIS in a huff. The other three follow her out and into the story proper.

Scenes like that one – Neighbours with roundels, I think they’ve been called – seem too inconsequential for modern tastes. Enough with the day-to-day dramas of the TARDIS crew, and get on with telling the story, the argument goes. And fair enough too. But it’s worth remembering that this sort of interaction between TARDIS crew members, unnecessarily argumentative though it is, was a novelty by Doctor Who’s 19th season. For years, the Doctor and his companion would just leap out into a story, leaving us no hint of any life lived between adventures, let alone any ramifications of such. It’s refreshing to briefly peep through that console room door, and see what goes on when they’re not battling power mad loons or giant frogs.

Once outside, our pals quickly meet actor turned highwayman Richard Mace (a fruity performance from Michael Robbins). Now as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve no beef with having three companions on board, and The Visitation – at least in its first two episodes – does a good job of splitting the action up between them. But I find it perplexing when writers feel a need to add a de facto fourth (The Impossible Astronaut, I’m looking at you too). It’s clear that writer Eric Saward is more interested in Mace than any of the three companions he has to hand, and gives him all the best lines.  “It is only with the aid of these properties,” he says waving his flintlocks around, “that I am able to command the attention of an audience nowadays.”

He also performs useful plot functions such as explaining the set up. He’s on hand to describe the strange events of the last few days, from which the Doctor can deduce that there are likely to be survivors nearby. And so there are, the reptilian Terileptils. As Doctor Who monsters go, they’re not bad, their leering lizardy heads being most effective. Unfortunately their arms seem permanently affixed to their bodies down to the elbow, making them look like they’re continually miming the carrying of a box. When they lash out at someone it’s not done with a savage swipe of a claw, more a gentle nudging of the forearm.

Still, everything rolls along at quite a clip in those first two episodes. Tegan and Adric are captured by the chief Terileptil, giving the Doctor a chance to escape in the TARDIS with his favourite companion. He doesn’t though. He decides to attempt to elicit help from the local Miller and sends Nyssa back to the TARDIS to build a machine which will vibrate (stop it) the Terileptil’s bejewelled android to pieces.

This leads to some of the dullest scenes ever committed to videotape. Nysaa collects her tools. Nyssa puts the frame of the machine together. Nyssa pushes the frame from the console room to her bed room. Nyssa tinkers with the machine. And so on. This is her whole contribution to Part Three. On and on these scenes go, with only the incidental music to (and I use the word cautiously) enliven them.

Adric drops by briefly, having escaped from the Terileptils, but he’s of no use building the machine and after a quick mope leaves again and is quickly recaptured.  ‘Poor old Adric’, sighs Nyssa in that first TARDIS scene, and I can’t help but agree. There’s a gradual degrading of Adric’s character over his time in the series. Back in season 18, he was technically competent; remember it was he who built the story ending gizmo in The Keeper of Traken with Nyssa’s help. But here their roles have reversed; Nyssa is the technician, Adric the assistant. ‘And I try so hard’, he sulks at one point, his outsider-ness a neat foreshadowing of his forthcoming demise in Earthshock.

Anyway, back to Nyssa and her box of tricks. She puts on some big ear muffs and tests the machine, vibrating a few nik naks of her dressing table. Goodness know how she plans to attack an android with this thing, which is the size and shape of a small petrol-powered generator. Luckily, in an extremely contrived bit of plotting, the Android comes to her. It boards the TARDIS, helpfully walks rights into Nyssa’s room and is shaken to death. It lies smoldering on the floor. Nyssa rushes to get a fire extinguisher. Nyssa puts out the fire. Nyssa sits on her bed and quietly wonders why she never got her own spin off series.

The story picks up towards the end when the Doctor and his four companions take the TARDIS to London where they blow up the Terileptils and their hideout. There’s a particularly gruesome shot where the lead lizard’s face bubbles and pops in the heat of a freshly started fire. Leaving Mace to fight the fire, the Doctor and company leave, and the final shot is of the sign ‘Pudding Lane’, instantly indicating to anyone au fait with the period that the fire in question is the Great Fire of London (but leaving little 9 year old Spandrell watching in Australia completely mystified).

And like The Visitation’s opening scenes, its closing scene is something special. It’s Doctor Who‘s first use of the ‘closing moments’ surprise reveal. And it’s still an impressive trick if you can pull it off; Steven Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace repeats it years later, right down to the tell tale writing on the wall.

Something old, something new and half an hour of Nyssa building a story stalling gizmo. The Visitation is ahead of its time, but also deeply embedded in it.

LINK to The Smugglers. Both are set in the seventeenth century. And both feature Squires. Love an easy one.

NEXT TIME… Suffering catfish, it’s The Time Monster. Come Kronos, Come!  

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