Celebrity, casting and The Runaway Bride (2006)

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8 July 2006. The broadcast date for Doomsday in the UK. The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and blimey! It’s TV comedy star Catherine Tate! How very dare you!

Shortly after that (or even before it, as international time zones dictate), the episode is bit torrented around the internet and is being enjoyed by fans all around the world. If you were in Australia, the moment went more like this: The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and um… who is that woman?

The Catherine Tate Show was yet to air in Australia by Christmas 2006. Probably in the US, Canada, New Zealand and all sorts of other Who sales territories, I expect. The point is the casting of a well known performer or a celebrity with a high profile in the UK – stunt casting, as it’s called – doesn’t necessarily have the same impact when viewed around the world.

So let’s say you’re an Australian fan, and you’ve just watched Doomsday. Confused (rather than thrilled) by the surprise ending, you read the credits and discover that the Bride is played by Catherine Tate. Next stop Google: who is Catherine Tate? Why is she suddenly on my favourite show? And why does Doctor Who expect me to know who she is?

And so you swot up on Catherine Tate. Oh, she’s a comedian. Oh, her show’s popular in the UK. OK, she’s stunt casting. Great. Now I’m up to speed.

This is familiar territory to Australian fans (and I suspect to all non-UK resident fans). It went on during the classic series: your Beryl Reids, your Ken Dodds, your Faith Browns. All celebrities whose import was lost on us. Hale and Pace we knew as their show had been shown in Oz. Nicholas Parsons had at least been a punchline on The Goodies.

But the most potent pre-Tate example from the classic years is Bonnie Langford, cast as companion Mel in 1986. Her varied career, which included a lot of song and dance, caused her Who performance to be greatly prejudged. Much of this critical commentary came from the UK, and was reported in the fan press in Australia. Langford was not well known in Australia then (or now, I suspect), and so much of the outcry was hard to contextualise for Australian fans. I found myself trying to imagine an Australian equivalent, and the closest I came to was Rhonda Burchmore, the vivacious, red headed song and dance performer.

(Rhonda Burchmore as a companion. How does that sit, Aussie readers? I think we’re getting close to experiencing the original Melshock.)

The upside of this is that non-UK fans were able to view Langford’s performance without the associated baggage complained of by British Who-heads. (I still have no idea what a ‘Violet Elizabeth Bott’ is). There was no instant reaction of seeing Langford’s celebrity image jump out of a Doctor Who story at you. We viewed Mel in a way UK fans could not.

Sometimes it works in reverse. Langford’s co-star in The Trial of a Time Lord  was Michael Craig, in the early 1990s well known in Australia as a crusty old doctor in medico drama GP. To this day, he looks very out of place in that Vervoid story to me. I expect him to be handing out prescriptions and bitching about patients.

Years later, The Christmas Invasion featured Adam Garcia, latter day dance show judge, but then not widely known in the UK. But in Australia, he’s forever that guy from ‘blokes take up tapdancing’ movie Bootmen. So in every second scene it’s ‘Look! Adam Garcia’s on Doctor Who!’ So it is possible for international viewers to be distracted by celebrity casting. And Peter O’Brien, star of bloody everything on Aussie TV, is a weirdly familiar face in the otherwise gripping The Waters of Mars.

The biggest example though, shared by UK fans, Australian fans and fans all over the world, was Kylie Minogue, guest companion for 2007’s Voyage of the Damned. I found myself watching that episode actively trying to put her celebrity aside. ‘Concentrate on her performance! I can’t, it’s Kylie!’ Does that casting work? Yes, in a sense that it was watched by about a gazillion people. Did she effectively transcend her celebrity identity though? Does it even matter?

New Who started of course by casting a celebrity in Billie Piper (not hugely well known in Australia, but there were more than a few copies of Honey to the B on cassingle lurking in Aussie homes), a move which proved shrewd in many ways, the most important being that she gave a great performance. But like Kylie, she also attracted a fan base and generated media attention.

And it struck an early note for the new series that casting actors with a profile can work. These days it’s the norm; we expect big name stars in the show. Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and John Hurt fall into the ‘respected thesps’ category. David Walliams, James Corden and Frank Skinner are (like Tate) the ‘comedian/actor’ type. Richard Dawkins, Patrick Moore and McFly are the ‘big enough names to exist in both Doctor Who and the real world’ type (but to be fair these are more jokey cameos than legit performances).

Catherine Tate as it turns out is unique; the only stunt casting to transfer to a series regular.(Langford is also stunt casting, but was always intended to be a regular) And a hugely successful one; Doctor Who Magazine‘s first 50 years poll showed Donna to be readers’ favourite companion after perennial favourite Sarah Jane Smith. Proof, if any is needed, that the right person in the right role works regardless of their previous track record. We can expect more of this to come.

We eventually got to see The Catherine Tate Show in Australia. For me, watching it was experiencing stunt casting in reverse; it was ‘that woman from Doctor Who‘s sketch show’. And of course it was excellent. The first episode I caught included a running series of sketches about the persecution of redheads. Tate played some redhead political prisoner. Finally one day her struggles pay off and she’s released from prison. She hears that a biopic of her is in production. ‘Who’ll be playing me?’ she asks. ‘Bonnie Langford’, the answer comes back, and Tate walks proudly off. How appropriate! The original redhead stunt casting companion.

LINK to The Macra Terror. Both have creepy crawly monsters; crabs and spiders respectively.

NEXT TIME… You’re not from Social Services, are you? We’ve got a bad case of the Night Terrors.

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Mind control, mine controls and The Macra Terror (1967)

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“Don’t just be obedient,” the Doctor tells companion Polly during The Macra Terror. “Always make up your own mind.” Good advice, and particularly Troughtony advice, if you ask me. This era of the program is all about the personal freedom to be different.

Think of the second Doctor’s most familiar adversaries, the soulless Cybermen (God knows I have recently, having randomed both The Wheel in Space  and The Invasion). They are an emphatic expression of uniform conformity, and what mankind might look like with all its quirks and peccadilloes removed. Think of The Faceless Ones, where the threat is that humankind might be taken over by the identity-less Chameleons. Think of The Web of Fear or Fury From the Deep where big, intangible bad guys zombify humans and delete their personalities. Think even of off-the-wall bedtime story The Mind Robber, where the ultimate threat is that a computer with ideas above its station that wants to enslave the minds of Earth. “Sausages!” the Doctor says on that occasion. “Man will just become like a string of sausages, all the same!”

The Macra Terror has a slightly different take on the loss of personal freedom, though. It’s not so much freedom of expression that its enslaved human population lacks (there’s too much music and dancing for that), but the lack of free will. Not so much a string of identical sausages as the right to be a sausage in the first place, I suppose.

In this story, the human inhabitants of a futuristic colony mine gas to feed their overlords, a race of giant crabs, the Macra. The humans don’t rebel because the Macra brainwash them as they sleep, and condition them into lives of toil alternated with a series of jolly, holiday camp activities. They sing and chant and hold dance competitions.

(Even for Doctor Who, the combination of threat and jollity is an odd juxtaposition. And it’s signposted in the first few minutes. The story opens with an extreme close up of a desperate man’s eyes and the thump of a heart beat, like some French new wave film. Then we cut to a marching band complete with an eye-watering electronic fanfare. It’s bizarre, arresting stuff.)

So successful is the Macras’ brainwashing that the humans never think to ask why they mine the gas, or why they never see their Controller in person (he always appears to them in a static, Big Brother style photo). They’ve been made passive, unquestioning slaves, spurred on by shrill motivational jingles piped in like musak. (This, combined with one of Dudley Simpson’s harshest electronic scores makes this story a listening experience to put your teeth on edge.)

And people being hypnotised into passivity is a theme that runs through all three of Ian Stuart Black’s Who stories, so it seems that the loss of free will was a prime concern of his. In The Savages one class of people sucked the life force out of another, leaving the victims passive nobodies. In The War Machines, a mad computer hypnotised people over the phone and forced them to make killer robots.

And although the terrible Macra have a similar modus operandi, they remain a mystery to the audience. We see their big crabby carapaces in the dark, and through portals, always obscured (or so it seems from the telesnaps). Their origins are similarly vague. Are they native to this planet or did they travel here? Why the elaborate scheme to oppress the humans? Surely any species clever enough to concoct and operate such a set up can mine its own gas. Or is it as prosaic a reason as that the Macra can’t operate the precise machinery required with those nasty old claws?

But we should never let plausibility get in the way of a Doctor Who story. I think the story’s concerns about brainwashing are more interesting. Because Who doesn’t do brainwashing. Mind control, yes. But the subliminal feeding of information to influence your behaviour and make you work against your allies? The Macra Terror’s certainly the only story that addresses it explicitly (although we can nod in the direction of The Keys of Marinus: The Velvet Web, and a couple of Malcolm Hulke stories). Here we hear the voices infiltrating the sleep of our heroes and see the results of it when companion Ben (played with consistent earnestness by Michael Craze) turns against his friends.

My limited reading about brainwashing indicates that it gained potency as an idea post the Korean War, with the notion that Korea and China both practiced brainwashing on US prisoners of war. So it makes sense that Ben, the TARDIS crew’s military man, is the one who succumbs here (also, Polly had her mind taken over in Ian Stuart Black’s last script, so it was probably time to mix it up).   The method used here is whispering instructions to the subject during sleep. It works a treat on Ben, but our other heroes – notably Jamie – avoid it.

I single out Jamie, because as I noted when randoming The Highlanders, Ben is on the way out and this is his last full story. Jamie gets the heroic young lead storyline, Ben gets the siding with the bad guys one. To me, it looks like a way of trialling what a Doctor-Polly-Jamie line up would look like, and sadly the answer for Ben is, just fine. It wasn’t meant to be as both Polly and Ben jump ship next story, but that line up is one of Doctor Who’s roads untravelled.

Ben’s brainwashing puts me in mind of The Manchurian Candidate, more often attributed as an influence on The Deadly Assassin. Specifically the 1962 film, where a young man is conditioned to commit treason and murder. It doesn’t go so far here, because the story demands that Ben break free of his conditioning and help save the day.  But still, Doctor Who at this time was often about the potential dangers presented by the modern world; it makes monsters out of limb replacement and threats out of holidays abroad. In this context, The Macra Terror seems to be suggesting that brainwashing of citizens is a plausible scenario: it could happen to you.

It may be going too far to suggest the Macras are a stand-in for communism, but then again… the loss of individuality, the loss of free will, the duped populace and a mind control technique allegedly practiced by communist governments and cribbing from The Manchurian Candidate… Put these things together and there’s certainly a reading to be made along those lines. If that’s too long a bow to draw we can at least say that The Macra Terror is rife with Cold War concerns.

But don’t take my word for it. As the Doctor says, always make up your own mind.

LINK to The Invasion. Both Troughtons of course, but both also feature underground threats and, you guessed it, mind control.

NEXT TIME… Santa’s a robot! We walk down the aisle with The Runaway Bride.

 

Reputation, blockbusting and The Invasion (1968)

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We watch The Invasion now in a post-Web of Fear world. We’ve long known that this iconic Cyber adventure was spawned because Doctor Who‘s production team had impressed themselves with the one with the Yetis in the underground. But now we’ve got 5/6ths of The Web of Fear to look at, we can see the similarities writ large. In The Invasion‘s later instalments, Cybermen stalk London’s underground sewer system (it’s lucky they don’t have Cyber noses). But watching those scenes now, it feels more like a retread than it did before we got those missing eps back. Monsters, tunnels, Camfield. If it’s working, don’t change it.

It could have felt even more like The Web of Fear with Cybermen, if that story’s supporting characters Professor and Ann Travers had made an appearance as originally planned. Apparently this would have meant more payment to Yeti writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, but relations between them and the production team might have been a bit frosty since their last story had an episode cut off it for being a bit dull. The Professor (that lazy use of that title again) is halfheartedly replaced by another. But Ann, although not directly replaced, has made her presence felt. We can see now from Web that Ann developed a companion-like rapport with the Doctor. It’s not too hard to believe she’s an influence on subsequent brainiac companions; pocket rocket Zoe who features here and more overtly Liz Shaw who’ll take over next season.

But there’s plenty of other stories which The Invasion steals from. It’s not difficult to see the influence of that other recently returned gem, The Enemy of the World. They both seem to be desperately tying to break away from formulaic ‘monsters attack isolated humans’ stories around them. Both have gunfights, helicopters and hop confidently from location to location. And if we think of Enemy as Who‘s attempt at a James Bond film, it’s got nothing on The Invasion which basically has a Bond villain at its core in slimy Tobias Vaughn (a powerhouse performance from Kevin Stoney).

The Invasion is Vaughn’s show. He’s all style in his Nehru jacket, striding up and down his posh London office (which in a nifty cost saving measure is the same is the same set as his posh country office). Stoney plays him with silky politeness, punctuated occasionally with sudden outbursts of fury. He only needs to be stroking a fluffy white cat to complete the picture. ‘No, Doctor Who, I expect you to die!’ he really should have got to say.

He, of course, has an incompetent henchman, the hapless Packer. Or Packaaah! as Vaughn expansively calls him (this has become a common refrain around Chez Spandrell; ‘Packaaah, take out the garbage will you?’). Packaaah, as played by Who stalwart Peter Halliday, is the picture of floppy fringed dimness. He’s not helped by a communications device strapped to his wrist which has to be constantly repositioned from mouth to ear, making an already twitchy character seem as if he’s developed an inconvenient new spasm.

Vaughn’s made his money in electronics. His company, International Electromatics produces ubiquitous consumer gadgets which are in every home and business around the world. Back in 1993 when this story was released on VHS, this all seemed a bit far fetched. But as I write this on my iPad before checking my iPhone, it now seems prescient. Steve Jobs as a ranting, tyrannical magnate, hurling insults at his subordinates and hypnotizing people via their handheld devices until they become passive, obedient cult followers? I can see it.

The Cybermen are mere guest stars in Vaughn’s story. Think of this as their Revelation of the Daleks, where the monsters are kept in the background and the chief villain gets the limelight. They don’t even turn up until the cliffhanger of Episode 4, and when they do, they are kept as a mysterious presence lurking in the background. We get no scene of the Doctor confronting them. No scenes of them discussing their plans. Indeed, they get very few lines at all (Although there is the Cyber Planner, a free standing talking whatsit that attentive viewers might have remembered from The Wheel in Space. This collection of wires and tubes is kept in a cupboard by Vaughn and is wheeled out from time to time to discuss plot details.). This was the Cybermen’s fifth story in just over two years, so a little variation from their standard modus operandi was probably due.

The major variation was the addition of a human villain to complement those Cybermen. This is an approach trialled in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but in that story, the human bad guys were in addition to, not in partnership with the monsters. So it’s really Vaughn and The Invasion that set the template for nearly all Cybermen stories to come. It’s not until Closing Time that the Cybermen go solo again. And you can see why; the Cybermen are tin cans. It’s hard to get some drama going with talking tin cans, so you need a human nasty to chew some scenery.

The other story it harkens back to is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (our very first random one year ago!).  The Daleks invaded London and marched across Westminster Bridge. The Cybermen invade London and walk down the steps St. Paul’s cathedral. Well, you go somewhere, you see the sights, right? They’re clip show moments.

But more than that, these two stories are sixties blockbusters. Lots of action sequences, lots of location filming and the sense that all stops are really being pulled out. You only have to look at this stories around The Invasion to see that this is story that got all the attention. I wonder if we had The Invasion‘s two missing episodes back would this appear even more of an epic, what with Episode 1’s escape from the IE compound, and Episode 4’s rescue of Zoe and Isobel by helicopter.

My point? That The Invasion is often identified as a template for the Doctor Who  stories which came after it. But just as important as its influence on the future, is its drawing on the past. But to be fair, it’s influence on future Who still hasn’t expired. Dark Water/Death in Heaven after all pays homage to it by repeating the St Paul’s steps sequence. It’s a sign that we’ll still be talking about The Invasion for some time yet.

LINK to… See last time.

NEXT TIME… Well, this is gay! Time to get crabby with The Macra Terror.

Friendship, cleverness and The Lodger (2010)

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Part One: Buddies

Here’s an unusual way to start a Random Whoness post:

NEXT TIME… Don’t look so worried. Fancy a cup of tea? It’s more Cyber hijinks in The Invasion.

My random Who generator sometimes throws up these inconveniences. Obviously, it would have been very helpful to talk about the obvious connections between The Wheel in Space and The Invasion. But here’s The Lodger stuck in the middle, and on first glance it has very little to do with its two Cyber bookends. But then there’s this:

LINK to The Wheel in Space and The Invasion: they all feature ‘buddies’. That is, the combinations of Troughton/Hines and Smith/Corden would fit right into a buddy comedy.

Your classic buddy film, comedy or otherwise, features two main characters, usually men and usually from different backgrounds, with contrasting approaches to problems, forced to work together and through which they form an oddball friendship. Think 48 Hours or Wayne’s World.  Doctor Who‘s  tendency to match the Doctor with a female companion tends to work against the buddy comedy format. But The Lodger is a genuine stab at it.

It’s a story of two men trying to understand each other’s worlds; Craig (James Corden) gradually unpicking the mysteries of his new lodger, and the Doctor (lanky, loping Matt Smith) trying to work out how to fit in what we would call a normal life. This last aspect becomes a theme of Smith’s tenure. It pops up again and again, notably in The Power of Three and The Doctor, The Widow etc. It’s a terrific conceit because when looked at objectively, the Doctor’s life is bewilderingly crazy. And when looked at objectively, most modern life is too. The Lodger seems to be saying the real world is just as mad as the Doctor’s, depending on your perspective.

It works nicely because both Corden and Smith can bring the funny. An important part of the buddy pairing is that there’s no straight man; both buddies are funny in their own different ways. We’re quite happy to watch either one of them on screen, although as viewers, we’re positioned to side with Corden and view the Doctor as a funny, alien fish out of water. And from the DVD extras we know that Corden and Smith are great mates, and that chemistry is evident on screen. It doesn’t seem that big a leap to imagine that Corden might have been persuaded to do a Catherine Tate, and go from one off guest star to ongoing companion for a year.

It would have been an interesting and innovative combination for Doctor Who. A year of buddy comedy. It would have really subverted the series norm or Doctor/Girl. We have to look right back to the Troughton years to find a similar pairing, and that’s the Doctor and Jamie. Like the Doctor and Craig, they are both funny, both capable of holding the audience’s attention and the chemistry between the actors is evident. And of course, all four act like overgrown teenagers, so in each pairing there’s a sense of men behaving badly.

So at its heart, this is a story of male friendship. But…

Part Two: Forehead slap.

Look, I love The Lodger. Everyone loves The Lodger. It’s like that cheery, boozy mate we all have. The one who hangs about a lot, cracks some jokes, gets into a few scrapes but is always up for a good time. He’s brilliant. But you don’t spend too long in this mate’s company. Look too closely, and the shine goes off him a bit.

Here’s what I mean. Part of what The Lodger does is show how the Doctor would react to adopting an everyday suburban life. And it turns out, he’s rubbish at it. Hilarity ensues. Oh that daffy old Doctor. He doesn’t know how much rent to pay. He doesn’t know what football is. He can’t remember why he’s called the Doctor.

But as funny as all this stuff is, we have to ignore much of what we know about the Doctor to make it work. We know he’s not this dumb. He’s spent loads of time in contemporary Britain – more than he spends anywhere else (he was exiled there once, remember). So he knows you don’t air kiss everyone you meet.  Of course he does. Just as he knows that screwdrivers don’t have on switches. He’s a genius, remember? No, on second thoughts, forget it. Because that would spoil the joke.

We also have to ignore the way a Doctor Who story normally works. The threat in this story is an alien spaceship lodged on top of Craig’s house, threatening to spin the TARDIS off into oblivion, with Amy inside it. What the Doctor would normally do is go upstairs and sort it out. Indeed, this is what Amy keeps telling him to do. But no, says the Doctor, it’s too dangerous, I don’t know what it is, I need more info. I’ll just build a wacky machine and talk to this cat instead. Because if I do the most logical thing and behave in the way I normally do, the story will end after about 10 minutes.

Part Three: Ooh that’s a bit clever

But you can’t stay mad at that loopy, boozy mate of yours for long, and so it is with The Lodger. Look at the way Craig is suddenly brought up to speed with everything he needs to know about the Doctor, the TARDIS and the situation at hand. Three big head butts. Funny, but saves precious minutes of dull exposition.

And there’s one particular bit of plotting which is inspired. It starts in the terrific scene where Craig is hoping for a canoodly night in with Sophie (the brilliant Daisy Haggard, see her be hilarious in Episodes if you haven’t already), but the Doctor has unwittingly gatecrashed (oh that silly old Doctor, and so on). ‘Six billion people’, he muses at one point. ‘Watching you two at work, I’m starting to wonder where they all come from’, which is pretty rich coming from the chief gooseberry.

Anyway, the Doctor then tricks Sophie into reconsidering her limited world view:

DOCTOR: Everybody’s got dreams, Sophie. Very few are going to achieve them, so why pretend?  Perhaps, in the whole wide universe, a call centre is about where you should be.

SOPHIE: Why are you saying that? That’s horrible.

DOCTOR: Is it true?

SOPHIE: Of course it’s not true. I’m not staying in a call centre all my life. I can do anything I want.

(The Doctor smiles at Sophie)

SOPHIE: Oh, yeah. Right. Oh, my God. Did you see what he just did?

A lovely piece of dialogue but it includes a hidden plot point which pays off when the Doctor, Craig and Sophie discover the spaceship upstairs. The ship is looking for a pilot, and luring innocent people to their deaths to test them out for the role. The Doctor realises it doesn’t want Craig and…

DOCTOR: It didn’t want Sophie before but now it does. What’s changed? I gave her the idea of leaving. It’s a machine that needs to leave. It wants people who want to escape.

And as preposterous as a spaceship dependent on its pilot wanting to leave is – or perhaps it’s just a little too thematically perfect to ring true – I think the Doctor planting the idea in Sophie’s mind which will eventually be the key to solving the mystery, is neat writing. And hiding it in a jokey, seemingly inconsequential scene is very skillful. Hidden in plain sight, to use a Moffatism.

That funny old mate of ours is a bit smart too. But then, that’s why we’re buddies.

LINK to… Oh, we’ve already done this bit.

NEXT TIME… Oh, we’ve already done this bit too.

Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

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Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.

Companions, character arcs and The Ribos Operation (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNSTOFFE: And did you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mincing, bitching and The Masque of Mandragora (1976)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIERONYMOUS: This is my private room!

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

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

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

HIERONYMOUS: It is not nonsense!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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