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Late response, lasting impact and Vengeance on Varos (1985)

Radio times letter

Dear Harry,

I am a little late responding to your letter in the Radio Times, 9-15 February 1985. To be fair, there were a few impediments to me to doing so.

For a start, when your letter was published, I was only 10 years old and living in Nowhere, Australia. Also, I’d never heard of the Radio Times, its letters page or indeed, you. And on top of all that, I’ve only just become aware of your letter, via what is now, in the space year 2019, called a website. And if you think entering into correspondence about your thoughts on a program broadcast 34 years ago, expressed in reply to a letter which wasn’t addressed to you is both unusual and obsessive, well, you obviously haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Doctor Who was the subject of your disgruntled letter back then. Specifically, the story which stoked your objections was Vengeance on Varos. You’ve probably forgotten all about it and gotten on with your life, like a norm. Good for you.

But to jog your memory, VOV (as no one has ever called it) is about a dystopian society where capital punishment and torture are served up as entertainment to an oppressed public. The planet’s governor (Martin Jarvis) is trying to negotiate a trade deal with a capitalist slug called Sil (Nabil Shaban) but is hampered by a corrupt police state and regular public votes from the viewing public, which if lost, result in painful retribution. The Doctor (Colin Baker) and his friend Peri (Nicola Byrant) turn up and get caught up in all this.

Your letter ends with the memorable phrase, “the kids deserve better than this…” and after reading it, I suddenly remembered that I was one of those kids.

In 1985, I had made the transition from casual viewer to book collecting, t-shirt wearing fan. And I was just becoming aware of other Doctor Who fans and their complex organising principles. Through fan clubs and their newsletters, I knew what was coming up in Doctor Who’s 1985 season and I was looking forward to Vengeance on Varos. I knew that it had attracted some criticism about the levels of violence in it; I even remember worrying about whether it was going to edited for local transmission, or perhaps even omitted (Doctor Who‘s Australian broadcaster, ABC, had a habit of doing both these things). The things you worry about when you’re 10.

Oddly enough, Doctor Who tended to worry its fans a great deal in 1985. Having just started to make contact with my fellow Whoheads and read their opinions in homemade fanzines (cheaply printed but lavished with extensive outrage), I was confused to find that most of my fellow TARDIS followers seemed to hate Doctor Who, at least in its current iteration. Which you might think is a contradictory position for people who loved something enough to form themselves into a fan club to take, but then, as I’ve speculated above, you’ve probably haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Like you, they worried about its violence. But also, they worried about this new Doctor, dressed like a demented fairground attendant and with a fractured personality to match. His newfound tolerance for, and occasional participation in, violence signalled a relaxation of the Doctor’s moral code, and they hated it.

On viewing VOV, fans concentrated their ire on the “acid bath scene” where the Doctor makes a tasteless quip after two men fall in a pool of acid, and the last of a string of set pieces in the planet’s “punishment dome,” where the Doctor engineers the deaths of two bad guys by slapping them with poisoned vines. (They didn’t worry that the only two black people in the show are voiceless, musclebound servants or that the only female characters are two housewives and Peri, costumed to accentuate her breasts, but there you go).

But Harry, I’m here to tell you I survived the ordeal of watching VOV when I was 10. In fact, I loved it. It was my favourite of the season. At 10, I don’t think I could fully grasp the satirical points it was making about the corrosive effect both television and violence have on a society, or the dangers of tying government to populism – a message which seems particularly relevant in 2019. Mainly, I think, I liked the character of Sil, a slimy but hilarious business type, who laughed like a broken propeller when fortune deserted our heroes. Plus, the Doctor being bold and ingenious, and more prepared to dive into immediate action than his cautious predecessor.

I certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify its faults and contradictions, most glaringly that it seems to be indulging in the sort of gratuitous gore it was busy criticising. But also that the Doctor and Peri take ages to arrive on Varos, with loads of valueless TARDIS scenes delaying their entrance into the story. There are a few dodgy performances. And special effects. And buggies. And mysteriously, two old men in nappies. But none of this stayed with young me, only the afterimage of an engaging and witty story, inhabiting some of the darker corners of Doctor Who, which I always liked to explore.

What has the lasting effect of VOV been on me? Well, it didn’t scar me for life. It didn’t turn me into a violent sociopath. It has, along with the rest of that visceral 1985 season of Doctor Who, made me fonder of this difficult era of the show than most. That’s partly as a rebellious response to the vehemence of its critics I found inhabiting fan clubs; I’ve never liked being told what to like and their strident complaints served only to draw me closer to it, to search harder for the good stuff in it. I’m glad I did.

But perhaps it also made me more tolerant than others of a sort of darker version of Doctor Who, one which can test its own boundaries about violence and grimness from time to time, as long as the Doctor’s core values are maintained. It’s something the show does occasionally – it went this way in Tom Baker’s second and third years and does it again in Colin Baker’s first and Peter Capaldi’s first. Each time, it emerged with a greater commitment to the Doctor as a figure of compassion, empathy and intelligence over brute force.

But did I, as one of those kids you mention, “deserve better than this”? Well, what we kids got was the first Doctor Who story teaching us to read television, and to think about how television is constructed by producers and politicians alike. We got a story mixing the storytelling traditions of Greek theatre and contemporary television. One which had something to say about democracy, entertainment, colonisation and violence. One that blurred its fictional world with the techniques of its own production (watch the end of Part One to see what I mean).

At 10 years old, it was my introduction to metatextuality and post-modernism. More than any other Who story up to that point, it prompted me to think beyond the surface level of a story. And despite its faults, it’s remained a story which Doctor Who fans (a far nicer bunch these days), return to time and again to deconstruct and find new meaning in.

So no, I don’t think we did deserve better than Vengeance on Varos. On the whole, we were pretty well served with what we got. And we still are.

Love to the kids,

Johnny

 ***

LINK TO Snakedance: JN-T produced both. Plus both have guest stars called Martin.

NEXT TIME: Talking of questionable levels of violence, we match wits with The Brain of Morbius, you chicken brained biological disaster!

Gore, gall and The Two Doctors (1985)

twodoc

I idly glanced at the cover of my DVD of The Two Doctors and was surprised to see it had been granted a G rating, for a general audience. That’s a bold call, given this is a story which features, among other things, a stabbing, a dismembered leg, the murder of an old woman, a character eating a rat and another lapping up spilled blood. Perhaps when determining the rating back in 1993 for the VHS release, the overworked assessor simply slept through most of his/her viewing of story. Or maybe they were genuinely content with giving a story which shows an attentive viewer how to poison someone with cyanide the same rating as other G rated titles from 1993 like Bananas in Pyjamas and Babar.

(Mind you, Australia’s classification of Doctor Who home video releases has always been a bit eccentric. Other stories confidently rated G for “go kids, go!” include The Seeds of Doom, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. All rated lower than PG (parental guidance recommended) outings like City of Death, Arc of Infinity and The King’s Demons. Only two classic stories scored an M (mature audience) rating, and while we might nod worthily about Attack of the Cybermen, you do have to wonder what it was about The Ambassadors of Death that so twisted the classification bureau’s knickers. It’s not like anyone clubs an old woman or eats a rat in that one.)

When DWM’s Time Team of fresh-faced millennials came to view The Two Doctors Part Three, they were so appalled they couldn’t finish the episode. “I certainly wouldn’t show that to children,” said Beth, who should clearly be applying to Australian Classification for a job. As a father of two little Spandrells, I can report that lots of kids’ entertainment contains surprisingly adult concepts and the average kid can probably safely absorb more of it than you might think, but I take her point. I’d hesitate to let my 6 year old watch this. I’d veto Arc of Infinity too, but for different reasons.

This is a violent story, but no more violent than say The Seeds of Doom or The Deadly Assassin. What differentiates The Two Doctors and Season 22 in general, is its love of gore, which it adds to the punch/shoot ‘em up violence of the Hinchcliffe years. A Hinchcliffe story might blow up an alien monster but only Season 22 waves about the resultant, bloodied limb.

It’s interesting that for the Time Team members, drawn to the show by its carefully crafted 21st century version, the tone and content of The Two Doctors makes it unwatchable. We’re an age away from both 1985 and 1993, when it was considered by broadcasters and censors alike to be suitable for children. But seeing as the Time Team were recently counselled that “you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present,” I think it’s only fair that we consider what was happening in 1985 to make the show take this alarming turn towards blood and guts.

*****

“It’s the eighties,” Matt Smith’s Doctor says in next week’s random story. “Everything’s bigger.” This is certainly true of The Two Doctors, which lies smack in the middle of that garish decade. This is a story bigging it up in order to be a blockbuster. It’s got two Doctors, two companions and two sets of monsters. It’s got an overseas location. It’s the longest story for seven years. It’s huge. It’s also the story which was on air when Doctor Who got cancelled for the first time.

One of the things that gets lost in the retelling of that drastic intervention in the show is how much of a surprise it was to everyone involved. The Two Doctors, brash and brutal as it is, is no example of a show in crisis. If anything, it, like the rest of Season 22, is supremely confident about the changes it’s making to the show. Its move towards a tougher, bloodier aesthetic was made in the assumption that that was what a public watching The A-Team and Miami Vice wanted. And on average, it rated almost exactly as the previous season, so you could argue the production team were giving the public what they wanted. Doctor Who’s budget couldn’t compete with the stunts and action of those US imports, but it could use cut price gore instead. And it could put a busty girl in a halter top just as exploitatively as The Dukes of Hazzard.

It’s tempting to point to The Two Doctors’ early evening timeslot, its generous ratings classification and the more action oriented milieu of the 80s and say that the Time Team’s disgust for this story shows how tastes have become more conservative over time. But it wouldn’t be true; this story’s gross out violence had its fair share of criticism in 1985. Not least of all from Michael Grade who called the show violent and its makers complacent when cancelling the show. So times haven’t changed that much.

No, the point is that The Two Doctors has always polarised views. For some, this story is so over the top and cartoony that its violence appears no more confronting than that of your average Doctor Who story. For others, this is Doctor Who turning bewilderingly and offensively to the schlock horror genre for inspiration. But it was done loudly, confidently, unapologetically and in response to the colourfully tasteless 1980s themselves. It’s the narrative equivalent of the sixth Doctor’s coat of many clashing colours.

*****

Into the colourful but blood-splattered world of Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor lands Patrick Troughton’s second, looking quietly out of place. You’d think that if you were going to bring back Troughton’s shabby, sly aging schoolboy of a Doctor, you’d attempt in some way to harken back to those base under siege stories of old. Rassilon knows, Season 22 doesn’t mind asking its audience to recall stories from the 1960s.

But this feels nothing like a Troughton story and it’s partly because the second Doctor’s not allowed to do anything particularly Doctorly. He starts as an emissary from the Time Lords, is captured and tied up for an episode and then transformed into a permanently hungry Androgrum. He’s this story’s damsel in distress and had Troughton suddenly become unavailable to shoot the story, his role could have easily been reassigned to some generic Time Lord diplomat.

So although it’s called The Two Doctors, we only really get one. And that’s a shame when you think of the fun which could have been had two Doctors. Steven Moffat has said the show doesn’t really work with more than one Doctor (didn’t stop him writing it like that twice though), but surely we needn’t have had The Two Doctors prove that. Couldn’t we have had each Doctor unwittingly working against each other, unaware of each other’s presence, one comically undoing the other’s efforts? Or could they not have been farcically just missing each other all the time? Some mechanism which would have shown the different modus operandi of each Doctor.

But perhaps we should be grateful that the second Doctor is relegated to the status of a more interesting than normal guest star. Had he been fully integrated into Season 22’s gratuitous tone, perhaps he, rather than the boisterous sixth Doctor, may have been the one smothering someone with cyanide. And for an encore, he could have beaten a Sontaran to death with its own severed leg. Surely that would have bumped it up to PG.

LINK TO The Woman Who Fell to Earth: Hmm, not much here, except that the Doctor briefly gets excited about eating in both.

NEXT TIME… Rug up, we’re off to fight a Cold War.

Confidence, conspicuousness and Attack of the Cybermen (1985)

attackcyb

Part One

Here is a story which has a number of objectives: to be a bold and brilliant season opener, to be a celebration of Doctor Who’s history and to be a kickass Cyberman story. Script editor Eric Saward was so committed to this vision that when BBC rules prevented him from writing the story, he did so anyway and put his girlfriend’s name on it. Extraordinary really, that he had such a burning ambition to tell this story of gangsters, Cybermen and ice maidens that he’d deliberately deceive his employers to allow him to do so. Imagine risking your job and career so you could give the world Attack of the Cybermen.

The first episode gives the best indication of what Saward was seeking to achieve. He offers us space mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) and his gang of crooks, apparently trying to break into a bank through the sewers. In fact, Lytton’s out to contact a random group of Cybermen, who are hiding out underground. These sections are sharply written and stylishly directed by Matthew Robinson. Although a common criticism of 80s Who is that it moved too far away from the creepy,  tea time suspense that won the show so many fans in its earlier years, these sections are textbook Doctor Who. Interspersed with a subplot of events of the planet Telos, where Cyber-converts Bates (Michael Attwell) and Stratton (Jonathan David) are plotting rebellion, there’s a sense of something interesting and exciting developing, although through a bleak, mostly humourless filter.

Weirdly enough, what really jars in this episode are our heroes, the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He is in his trademark red patchwork coat, she in an eye poppingly tight, hot pink leotard. Whether it be against the stark white of the TARDIS or the sunny location work in some London backstreets, they stand out like dayglo paint splashed across a newspaper.

Nor are they pleasant company to be with (to borrow a Saward-ism). They bicker and moan and swap needless continuity references. He’s a bully and a boor, she’s tremulous and shrill. And because they chase a couple of red herring plot elements for most of the episode, it’s not until they eventually descend into the sewers and tussle with some Cybermen that they finally intersect with the story. Frankly, up until that point, they are a garish distraction from more interesting things.

Saward is on record saying that 45 minute episodes, an innovation in this season of classic Who, afforded greater opportunity for character development. But his approach to them is misjudged. It seems to have been to simply expand a 25 minute structure to 45 minutes; the same sort of scenes happen in the same order, they all just take longer. The result is that the typical first half of each of the episodes in season 22 seem unnecessarily slow. That approach would be unthinkable today, where there’s a constant need to engage and re-engage audiences with new incidents, ere they get switch channels or devices. And now we’ve had ten seasons of 45 episodes of 21st Who, we can see that what the 45 minute format needs is rapid, not leisurely pacing.

Even if he was right, that with longer episodes comes a better opportunity to develop character, that surely demands that the characters are worthy of being developed. But these two fluorescent quarrelers, banging on about the chameleon circuit? Really Eric?

Part Two

And suddenly everything switches around. The Doctor and Peri become more agreeable and everything else goes a bit potty.

The change in the Doctor and Peri’s relationship, and in the likeability of their characters is immediate. It’s tempting to say that this is because they’re separated for most of the episode, but even when they’re together, there’s a concern for each other and a rapport which could have developed into a formidable combination (particularly if Peri could have been given more a  proactive role in the story. It should also be noted that when given a chance to change out of that leotard, she opts for a more practical jumpsuit number, but still in retina burning hot pink. That is some commitment to colour.)

But although we now have a TARDIS team we can feel comfortable watching (albeit with sunglasses on), the rest of the story loses focus. Where Part One concentrated on two or three plotlines, in Part Two they multiply like cybernised rabbits. Suddenly there’s a race to steal a time machine, the plight of the indigenous species (the waggily fingered Cryons, played by skilled performers giving carefully crafted performances completely hidden behind anonymous vac formed masks), a brave rebel waiting for her chance to a room full of conveniently stored explosives, rogue Cybermen bursting out of tombs, a plot to blow everything up, another plot to divert a comet into Earth, a reminder of what happened in some Doctor Who from 1966 and a quick shoutout to the Time Lords.

It’s traditional to bash Attack for its overreliance on continuity details, long forgotten by anyone but the most devoted of fanboys (and blimey, if that twists your Tom Baker knickers, just wait until next week). But although it’s clunkily delivered, I don’t think that’s this episode’s worst sin. The Tenth Planet stuff is, after all, confined to one scene and is quickly moved on from. It’s more that Saward seems to suddenly want to include every possible plot line, as if he’s worried he’ll never get another chance to write anything ever again. This seems to blind him from some plot basics. For instance, the Doctor, although getting plenty of action is kept well away from the story’s centre, never gets a chance to confront his old enemy, the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff). Considering Earthshock put the Doctor’s ideological differences to the Cyber Leader (David Banks) front and centre, that’s a conspicuous omission.

The story ends with a sudden escalation of violence including the bloody crushing of Lytton’s hands and the Doctor in a firefight with the Cyberfolk. There’s no attempt to show the Doctor’s ingenuity or problem solving. There’s no attempt to sum up what the central theme of the story has been, which leads to the conclusion that this story’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Except perhaps that the Doctor was wrong to assume that a ruthless mercenary was working for one side of an internecine war and not the other.

Although Attack may not be “about” anything, it’s infused with one palpable characteristic: confidence. It has absolute confidence that it knows its fannish viewers and what they want. It has absolute confidence that they will be so fascinated, that they’ll stick around through a tricky format change, embracing the change of pace. It’s confident in its brash new Doctor, its ability to shock and thrill. When you think that a few short weeks after it went out that confidence would be shattered by the series’ first cancellation, there’s also something grand and tragic about its hubris.

LINK TO Rosa: More Americans. Three stories in a row!

NEXT TIME… Get your own stick! I’m in one of your hot countries to meet The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

Mavericks, manouvering and The Mysterious Planet (1986)

mysterious planet

At the start of Doctor Who’s 23rd season, the show called up its most reliable writer to provide a series opener. As the show had only narrowly avoided cancellation the year before, it needed Robert Holmes to apply a reinvigorating shot in the arm, as he’d done before with Spearhead from Space and The Ark in (also) Space. But the story Holmes provided, The Mysterious Planet, proved to be, in the opinion of most fans, one of his lesser works.

Still, it’s a favourite of mine. Sure, it lacks the high stakes tension of The Caves of Androzani or the laser sharp focus of The Deadly Assassin. But it’s got a bitingly funny script and a world of intrigue to ponder over. In a standard Doctor Who year, this oddly charming tale, minus its trial room trappings, would have been a cheeky mid-season treat, a la Carnival of Monsters or The Sun Makers.

It’s got its problems, of course. Any prosecutor worth their salt would point out that the direction is flat, only occasionally mustering up any energy and never concocting any real suspense. Its design work is uneven, its performances a mixed bunch. But, its defence counsel might counter, it has one of Holmes’ wittiest scripts, with much quotable dialogue and plenty of engaging characters. Plus it reengages Holmes with many of his favourite tropes.

Like The Ark in Space, it wonders how humans will survive a future global apocalypse. Like The Sun Makers, it imagines a subterranean world where humans live, frightened of going onto the surface. Like The Krotons it gives us a present but unseen menace holding a society hostage and kidnapping their smartest youths. And it provides a new version of Holmes’ favourite supporting character, the colourful maverick.

It’s a trope with starts with Milo Clancey, runs through Vorg and Garron and ends here with Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby). All are miscreant versions of the Doctor. They have his charm, his eccentricity and his colourful turn of phrase. But each come from a seedier place than the Doctor, who in case we forget, is a Lord. Clancey is wild frontierman, Vorg is a carnie and Garron’s a galactic con-man. Occupations the Doctor’s altogether too wholesome and scholarly to consider.

Glitz is something quite different from those previous oddballs. He’s been characterised as a dodgy dealer; as Selby puts it on the DVD documentary, an “Arthur Daley in space”. But this slant on Glitz comes more from his two subsequent stories than this introductory tale. Here, he’s articulate and witty. Sardonic even. He’s a mercenary, not the used car salesman he becomes. And although he might become a cuddly geezer slash ally to the Doctor later on, in this story, he’s a ruthless criminal.

His first act on screen is an aborted attempt to murder the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He’d cheerfully shoot his way out of the Tribe of the Free’s camp if he could. Most chillingly, he wants to gas Marb Station in order to kill its inhabitants. Just because he’s given a few funny lines doesn’t change that.

In fact, I’d wager that it’s the casting of Selby which led the character down the Arthur Daley in space path, not the other way around. With lines like, “I should like to stand in paterfamilias for your absent father and give you away, my dear, but I always cry at these moments of deep sentiment.” and “whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex.” it’s not hard to imagine a different take on the character. Think, for instance, of Holmes’ Time Lord messenger in Terror of the Autons as Glitz, all bowler hat and establishment suit. Or an ice-cold businessman like Trau Morgus. Either would be valid takes on Glitz as scripted here. But the wide boy version sticks and by the time he gets to Dragonfire he’s been completely Daley-fied, an altogether less cultured, less witty piece of work.

His unscrupulousness remains constant though, and it’s that which sets him apart from the crusading sixth Doctor. After a season and a bit of being spiky and boorish, we finally get a version of this Doctor we can truly root for; compassionate, heroic and funny. I suspect that Holmes rather liked writing for the sixth Doctor. It’s an incarnation that seems closest to his conception of the Doctor – a slightly superior but affable character, but with an acid tongue. Baker embraces the chance to play the Doctor with this lighter aspect to him, looking for every opportunity to go for the physical gag or the emphasized word. He’s a vibrant, showman of a Doctor but one who cares about this planet, its people and crucially, his companion. His scenes in Part One where he tries to console Peri, distraught about the fate of her world, are the best of his era.

Despite this change towards a more accessible, likeable Doctor though, there’s still a fundamentally problematic approach to his character. He’s basically ineffectual when it comes to solving the story’s big problem. This isn’t uncommon in 1980s Who; look at the climaxes to Earthshock, Terminus, Resurrection of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos for other examples where the Doctor’s efforts in winning the day are minimal. But here his impotence is underlined twice.

It happens first when the Doctor is in an argument with robotic underground despot Drathro (Roger Brierly). The Doctor is trying to convince Drathro that human life is of more value than that of machines. But Drathro is shown to outmanoeuvre the Doctor’s arguments every time. In the end, in very characteristic style for his sixth incarnation, the Doctor resorts to abuse, accusing the robot of hubris. These are actually a great couple of scenes, highlighting the Doctor’s love of life and humanity. But still, he loses that argument and that diminishes his strength as a character.

The second instance comes at the story’s conclusion. The black light system, upon which Drathro depends, is about to explode and the horned metal beast has decided that everyone should perish with him. The Doctor’s powerless to stop it, so it’s left to Glitz, our cold blooded criminal, to comes up with the solution. He tricks Drathro into leaving his castle, with promises of more black light on his ship. “Strange how low cunning succeeds where intelligent reasoning fails,” sighs the Doctor. Not just strange, Doc, but sad. Because it leaves you trying to contain the inevitable end-of-story explosion and doing little else. The colourful maverick saves the day, and our colourful hero is sidelined.

That’s ultimately why this story wasn’t enough to propel the series to new heights. Not because it isn’t clever or funny or interesting; it’s all those things. (We haven’t even got to Holmes’ use of the trial scenes to annotate the show’s narrative structure). But because even though it gives us a more likeable hero, it’s still undermining him throughout.

LINK TO Partners in Crime: Both are set in London, although separated by millions of years.

NEXT TIME: Will there be strawberry jam for tea? More from Holmes in The Power of Kroll. Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!

 

Polls, potential and The Twin Dilemma (1984)

twin-dilemma

We fans keep changing our collective mind about which is the best ever Doctor Who story. Is it Androzani? Is it Genesis of the Daleks? Is it The Day of the Doctor? We can’t decide. There are too many contenders.

But when it comes to the worst Doctor Who story, we’re unanimous. Time after time we say, The Twin Dilemma. There’s been nothing as bad as that one, we’ve said, in the last three Doctor Who Magazine all-time surveys. As long as we disregard Dimensions in Time, which I’m more than happy to do.

Ranking his debut story last among all Who makes Colin Baker sad, as we know from his 2015 interview with DWM. So sad that he questions the whole practice of mercilessly listing every story or every Doctor from best to worst. Unfortunately, this is what fans do. We list, we score, we compare. We ignore the good intentions, the extenuating circumstances and the mishaps beyond everyone’s control. We know which is the worst Doctor Who story ever, but we forget that no one on its production team deliberately set out to make the worst ever Doctor Who story. Quite the opposite, in fact, in the case of The Twin Dilemma where they sought to kickstart a new, vibrant era for the program.

This blog is not about casting judgement on Doctor Who stories. I try not to tell you which ones I think are good, better or best. Although I’m sure I fail, maybe on every single post, I’m not here to review or rate. Partly because there are loads of other websites that do that already. And partly because I want to hear fresh ideas about Doctor Who. I don’t want to read another article telling me that City of Death‘s brilliant and Time-Flight’s not. If anything, I want to read the opposite.

Facing The Twin Dilemma is a problem though, when something’s so famously, patently bad. It may or may not be the worst Doctor Who story in either my opinion or yours, but I think it can be overwhelmingly agreed that it’s not good Doctor Who. So I’m going to try to put that aside, in order to think about why we need a worst Doctor Who story in the first place.

Apparently showrunner Russell T Davies described this story as “the beginning of the end” for old Who. Having just watched Survival, I have been wondering if this is true – if a five year wind down of the series started with The Twin Dilemma. If you subscribe to that reading, I think that helps explain our need for a “worst story”. We’re looking for a scapegoat to blame for the old series’ cancellation.

I also think identifying the best and worst of something is an inherent part of fandom. I’ve written before about when I think fandom starts; for me, it’s when you seek out more information about the show than an average viewer would have access to. As part of this quest for knowledge, fans are building up a kind of expertise on the program. They develop opinions about what’s good and bad Doctor Who, as opposed to casual viewers who I suspect see any Who they watch as being roughly the same in quality. Fans are connoisseurs, and the ultimate expression of this is choosing not just good and bad, but best and worst.

Then there’s a tendency to ‘pile on’ a particular story. Once The Twin Dilemma started to get its reputation as the worst story ever, it became harder and harder to watch it without being aware of that tag. It became easy for everyone to agree. A similar thing is happening to Fear Her, which seems to be gaining the unwanted notoriety of the worst new series episode. The more we all buy into this idea, the less likely it is to shift.

So there’s scapegoating, piling on and fandom’s need to assess. The Twin Dilemma falls victim to all of these. Still, no smoke without fire – none of these things would gain any traction unless the story in question was dodgy to begin with. And there’s loads of material to work with here – ugly design work, flat direction, clunky dialogue.

On top of it all, it ends with a direct challenge to the audience, daring its audience to dislike it. “I am the Doctor,” declares Colin Baker, delivering the story’s final line from within that colourful maelstrom of a costume, “whether you like it or not!” An extraordinary way to end a story, which speaks of a vast but misplaced confidence. This story was already playing hard to like, and then it ends with an invitation to its audience to bugger off.

****

If The Twin Dilemma is about anything, it’s about the darker side of people, hidden under the surface. The sixth Doctor, in his post regenerative illness, releases a nasty, violent side which would have been unthinkable emerging from the gentle fifth Doctor. The story’s villain, the sluggy Mestor (Edwin Richfield) may be a laughably immobile, crosseyed panto costume, but the idea behind him, that he inhabits people’s minds, filling them with dark thoughts while lurking in shadows, is quietly sinister. Even the titular twins have the mental ability to destroy the universe, so we’re told. And it’s a theme that lasts throughout the sixth Doctor’s era, and culminates in the creation of the Valeyard, a supervillain created from the Doctor’s dark side.

So the seeds of something interesting are there, along with a bold ambition to try something new – to present regeneration not as a blessing, but a dangerous gamble, and to move the Doctor to being louder, ruder and, in many ways, harder than ever before. Here is a strikingly different Doctor, inherently theatrical in words and action and openly confrontational with friends and foes alike. It’s near impossible to imagine The Twin Dilemma as a fifth Doctor story, but not so impossible to imagine a universe where it worked as an innovative and invigorating launch for the sixth Doctor. The beginning of something brilliant, not the end.

Ultimately, being bad Doctor Who is only the first of this story’s crimes. The second is that it posited a brash new vision for the series that failed to convince the audience to go along with it. And while there have been lots of below par Doctor Who stories before and since, there have been none which managed that.

So that’s why I think fans insist on having a worst story, and why we’ve collectively decided it’s The Twin Dilemma. None of which is any comfort to Colin Baker or to anyone else involved in the story’s production.

What I hope is some comfort is that it wasn’t the beginning of the end. The series lives on loud and live, with a spiky, bad tempered Doctor at the helm. Plus the sixth Doctor hasn’t been shunned or quietly ignored; books, comics and audio dramas have crafted new Sixie eras which have garnered new fans. None of which would have been possible without The Twin Dilemma showing what didn’t work, but also what had the potential to work.

LINK TO Survival: wildlife (birds and cats) anthromorphised into alien species.

NEXT TIME: Life depends on change and renewal. Time to switch on The Power of the Daleks.

 

 

 

Crisis, chaos and The Ultimate Foe (1986)

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1.

It’s a Monday morning in 1986. Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, aged 38, sits restlessly in his office, smoking not-his-first cigarette of the day. Also in his office, a lawyer who’s been seconded from some dry and dusty corner of the BBC to witness the forthcoming meeting. The lawyer looks around JN-T’s office, filled with Doctor Who paraphernalia and wallpapered with showbizzy photos, and imagines that this is not going to be an ordinary day at the office. An awkward silence ensues as they wait for the meeting’s other attendees to arrive.

JN-T has been producing Doctor Who for six seasons, and he’s used to crises. He’s pulled stories out of oblivion, he’s saved doomed shoots, he’s made the unworkable work. Last year when his series was effectively cancelled, he resorted to leaking torrentially to the newspapers and whipping up a media outrage to force his bosses to back down and reinstate the show. But nothing compares to the mess he finds himself in as the last episodes of Season 23 loom.

His script editor, Eric Saward – the only other ongoing staffer on the program – has resigned in acrimony. JN-T is now doing his job as well as his own. Over the last year, he and Saward have been supervising the making of the longest Doctor Who story in history; fourteen episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. But the two have clashed over the story’s climax and Saward, who was writing the final episode, has withdrawn permission for its use.

JN-T needs a new script which concludes the longest and most complicated narrative the show has ever seen, at a time when its survival has never been more precarious. And he needs it in a week.

As he stubs out one fag and lights another, perhaps he wonders how he got to this predicament. The show’s hiatus was a blow, but at least it offered the production team time, a luxury they rarely had in the past. Plus they had 12 fewer episodes to produce this year. Where had all that time gone? How had it all fallen apart?

(And perhaps the lawyer wonders how soon this will be over so he can get to morning tea.)

In this sort of crisis, a producer usually turns to his script editor. But that’s no longer an option. What JN-T needs is someone who can work fast, who knows the program, who knows the Trial and who’s crazy enough to take the brief. Writers are few and far between. The great Robert Holmes who wrote Parts 1-4, has died. Philip Martin, writer of Parts 5-8, could be around. After that, the ranks are thin. But JN-T has a writer in mind. In fact he has two.

‘John, are you there…?’

A knock at the door!

The meeting’s hitherto absent participants had at last arrived. The producer’s face flushed, matching his Hawaiian shirt.

He rushed to answer the door.

There stood an elderly looking couple.

Pip and Jane Baker!

‘Where the hell have you been?’ John cried. ‘I need a script!’

From Doctor Who: A Script in Time (unpublished), Target books, 1987.

So JN-T explains the situation to the Baker Twins. Part 13 is written and ready to go, but he can’t use Saward’s Part 14. In fact they can’t even discuss it for fear of being accused of plagiarism, hence the presence of the lawyer. Locations are secured, cast are booked. Shooting starts next week. Can they write a new Part 14?

To their merit, Pip and Jane don’t run from the room. Nor do they refuse what sounds like an impossible task. They say yes. And off they scurry to do the work. The lawyer heads off for a coffee and a cake. JN-T allows himself a brief sigh of relief, lights another ciggie and starts script editing Parts 9-12. Written by Pip and Jane Baker.

And as far away as Australia, news of the production debacle is spreading. Young Spandrell reads an issue of fanzine Data Extract with a lyrical headline: Holmes dies, Saward quits, Brigadier returns. Like most fan news of the time, it proves to be partially correct.

2.

Born out of chaos, The Ultimate Foe feels chaotic. How could it not? This 55 minutes of television has a total of four writers between it. Holmes wrote the first half of Part 13, and it’s solid enough, delivering the season’s two big revelations: that the Time Lords destroyed Earth and that the Valeyard’s a future version of the Doctor. Saward wrote the rest of that episode, plunging the Doctor into the nightmare world of the Matrix. And it’s good stuff, producing some of the most memorable images of Colin Baker’s tenure, such as the set piece where he’s sucked into a beach.

P&J attack Part 14 with gusto. Their solution to the problem presented is incident. Part 14 has its characters embroiled in incident after incident before it ends with the Valeyard attempting to let off a big bomb. Inspired it’s not. What’s most obviously missing is a big confrontation between Doctor and Valeyard, with all those future regenerations at stake. Perhaps it ends with a moment of ruthlessness from the Doctor which shows us that his journey towards becoming the Valeyard has begun. But anyway, Pip and Jane delivered an episode which has never ranked among the series’ worst (they saved that for their next story), nor its best. But sadly that’s what the series really needed at this point.

Still completing that episode with all its predetermined strictures in record time, is a considerable achievement, one the Bakers are rarely given credit for. Years ago, someone interviewed them for DWM and in a smarmy little trick to end his piece with, asked the bemused pair was a ‘megabyte modem’ was, throwing a particularly lame piece of dialogue from this episode back at them. The elderly couple of course, had no idea what he was talking about, having no doubt long forgotten the exact wording they misused in a script decades ago. What a cheap, rude way to treat these people. Yes, they indulged in awkwardly pretentious dialogue and preposterous concepts, but on this occasion they saved the show’s bacon and produced, I think, their best work on the show. So credit where it’s due, and come back with your cheap jibes when you can write your way out of a mess like Trial.

Saward wanted a cliffhanger ending to their epic serial, where the Doctor and his dark alter ego the Valeyard fell struggling into a time vent. JN-T, it is said, wanted a happy ending to lessen the chance of his bosses taking the show off air again. This could be true, but on the making of documentary on the DVD of this story, he gives a slightly different reason that makes more sense. He said that after 14 weeks of this story he wanted a definitive conclusion. An end to the story, which the Bakers delivered. JN-T was often accused of not understanding stories, but on this occasion he was spot on. Imagine getting to the end Part 14 of The Trial and thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s still not finished!’

LINK to Robot: Holmes worked on both, script editing one and co-writing the other. That works for our next story too.

NEXT TIME… It will be the end of everything, even your pension! We germinate The Seeds of Doom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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