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Adolescence, adulthood and Full Circle (1980)

full circle

During the five years of the Pertwee era, with its 24 stories and 128 episodes, only four new writers were introduced into Doctor Who: Don Houghton, Robert Sloman and Bob Baker & Dave Martin. During Tom Baker’s first six seasons? 35 stories, 144 episodes and again, only four new writers: Robert Banks Stewart, Chris Boucher, Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

(We might quibble over Lewis Griefer, who initiated but wasn’t credited on Pyramids of Mars, and production team members Barry Letts, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, who were all well acquainted with the show when they turned their hands to writing for it.)

That’s a whole decade of Doctor Who that relied on tried and tested writers, rather than seek and try out newbies. It makes the show’s 18th season even more remarkable. On taking up the job of Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead had barely any scripts ready for production. Pragmatically, he led with what little he had; scripts from old hands Fisher and Terrance Dicks. But then, he started a wave of writerly regeneration which resulted in more new writers coming to the show in the space of two years than had been seen in the last 10. John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch, Steve Gallagher, Johnny Byrne, Terence Dudley, Christopher Bailey, Eric Saward, Peter Grimwade and, most remarkable of all, Andrew Smith, who gave us Full Circle.

I say “most remarkable of all” because Full Circle was Smith’s first professional credit and he was only 17 years old when he wrote it. On one hand, it’s a sign of how desperate the script situation was in 1980, that Bidmead even considered an unsolicited script, sent by a novice writer who was barely out of school.

On the other hand, it demonstrates what a remarkable feat it was, for such a young writer to write such a promising script. Think back to when you were 17; I don’t know about you, but there would be no way I could have written something as mature and erudite as Full Circle when I was that age. Of course, it’s possible for teens to write great stories, but it’s rare for them to write for TV, and, as we’ve seen, unheard of to write for Doctor Who.

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to imagine that the script is really Bidmead’s with some scant input from wunderkind Smith. But both writers have spoken candidly about the show since then and both have described it as a true collaboration. So what we have in Full Circle is a real first; a Doctor Who story written by someone in its target audience. What happens when the show is written by a teenage boy?

Well, the first thing to note is that it has teenagers in it. I’ve written before about what a  rarity it was in 20th century Who to have young people on screen. Only the previous year’s The Horns of Nimon had any juvenile actors in sizeable roles. In Full Circle, there are no less than four young characters, who form a group of Outlers. These are young tearaways who want to leave the stultifying world of the Starliner, a place where boring adult authority holds sway. So far we have a pretty typical view of teenage life; the desire to run away, to rebel and to shun what adults say they should do.

The Outlers are an interesting bunch. Their leader is Varsh (Richard Willis), who must be this planet’s heartthrob because he keeps his tunic as open as possible to show a tantalising amount of torso and at one stage there’s an ogling creeping camera move towards his tightly panted arse. There’s Tylos (Bernard Padden), the nervous, mousy type who’s never going to work his way out of Varsh’s dreamy shadow. And there’s Keara (June Page), a pleasant, smart girl who – thankfully – holds her own in this group, without being the predictable apex of a love triangle. Keara is the only one with a parent around; her father is village elder Login (George Baker), but otherwise, these are a self-governing band of wastrels.

Varsh’s brother Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, the other teenage boy becoming a part of Doctor Who history in this story) wants in on the gang, but he’s not an easy fit. He sees himself as superior to the others, and he has a badge for being a maths genius into the bargain. The maths swot joining the street gang… this has never gone well, has it? As ever with these things, there’s an initiation ceremony to go through, and in this case, it involves stealing watermelons from a riverside camp of locals. Which given as watermelons seem to be the key focus of everyone on Alzarius, is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

Teenage stories are often about the transition to adulthood and the initiation test, which Adric fails, is one element which is part of that theme. But another is Mistfall, the natural change of climate and atmosphere which is befalling Alzarius. It mirrors the physical and emotional change from adolescence to adulthood which Adric and the Outlers going through.

Except Varsh won’t make it that far. He dies trying to defend the Starliner from the monstrous Marshmen. When he does, Keara bequeaths his belt to Adric. “This is our badge,” she had told Adric of it before. “It has to be earned.” It seems Adric has finally passed his test, but more than that, he’s no longer a child.

It turns out that the Marshmen and the Alzarians are all part of an evolutionary loop; they are each other’s kin. The planet, its inhabitants and the Outlets, all are undergoing existential change. And by rights, we know what should happen to Adric now. As an adult and a hero in the Starliner’s society, he should be the one who pilots the ship to its new destination. Perhaps even put on the puffy jacket of a Decider.

That would make thematic sense. But this show, with its newfound interest in teenage boys, has other plans for Adric. Instead of staying on the Starliner and cementing his newfound adulthood, he makes a move which actually reverts him into adolescence again. He joins the TARDIS crew and finds a replacement family, complete with Dad, Mum and the pet dog.  It makes him again that awkward young thing constantly trying to prove himself. It delays his graduation to adulthood until he stands on the burning deck of that doomed space freighter.

Still, that’s the end of his story. This is the beginning, a story of not fitting in and coming of age. And of running away from it all to join the Doctor and travel in the TARDIS. Who better to write that story than a teenage boy?

LINK TO The Caretaker. Teenagers on the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… it’s 1580 and we’re in Venice, for (you guessed it) The Fish Women of Croatia.

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Skin, swamps and The Power of Kroll (1978/9)

kroll

Well, after we finish filming they get us in the coach and we go to RAF Bentwaters which is about 10 miles down the road. And we go in… That’s an American Air Force base. We go into the gym and there’s all these 6’ 10” negroes all playing basketball, saying, “Hey man! You must come from Mars! Wow! One black bloke said, “Now you know what I feel like.” Unnamed Swampie actor, talking about how he and his fellow actors washed off their green body paint. (Variations segment on the making of The Power of Kroll, TX 15 December 1978.)

In one of those odd pairings that comes from watching Who in random order. We go from The Mysterious Planet to The Power of Kroll, making our LINK between the two nice and easy: they’re both by veteran writer Robert Holmes. But also, they both feature “primitive” Indigenous cultures at threat. In The Mysterious Planet, it’s the Tribe of the Free – humans in the far future who have been released from their hermetic survival chamber to eke out life in the wilderness. In The Power of Kroll, it’s the Swampies, scantily clad, green skinned humanoids, living in the swamps of a far distant moon.

Both show us what Holmes thought were the key ingredients for sci-fi depictions of Indigenous races. They live in huts, worship heathen gods and perform ritual sacrifice. They are aggrieved by their treatment and want to wage war on their enemies. They are on the verge of rebelling against their oppressors – both eagerly await guns which will allow them to attack the opposing side – though they lack the skill and strategy to win through. (And oddly enough, both have wildly miscast actors as their leaders. Carry On’s Joan Sims as a space age Boudicca? Dignified, straight laced John Abineri stripped to his underwear and painted green?)

The Tribe members of the Free are just colour-by-numbers standard Doctor Who primitives, but the Swampies are far more worrying. On first glance, they seem to be stand-ins for native Americans. But the set dressing around their camp seems to have a Polynesian influence. On top of all that, when chief bad guy Thawn (Neil MacCarthy) talks about them, his sneering hatred seems to be a critique of the treatment of Africans under South Africa’s apartheid (“Not you!” he growls at a Swampie butler who tries to follow him into a room, and he laughs when the Doctor tries to include said Swampie in a head count of personnel). But then, he accuses one of his crew of being a “Swampie-lover” which sounds like it’s referring to race relations in the USA’s Confederate South.

So in the first instance, it’s irritating that multiple, diverse cultures are conflated to produce a generic Indigenous species… like anyone who’s not white is more or less the same. And there’s also something slightly icky about the decision to paint all the Swampies green, from toe to matted bewigged head. By 1978, it’s clearly too offensive to brown or black all the tribesmen up. But is greening them up any better? Green or brown, aren’t they both just symbols for “not white”?

To me, painting them all green is not all that different to blacking up. The significant thing is that they’re not white and there’s no good reason to make the ruling class white and give the oppressed natives coloured skin. Surely it’s not that hard to imagine a version of The Power of Kroll where the Swampies are loin clothed, but white (a la the Sevateem of The Face of Evil). Or even a version where the refinery staff are green skinned aliens and the Swampies are white (or is that too redolent of The Savages?) Or better still, where the refinery staff and the Swampies are played by actors of all skin tones, representative of the diversity of our communities. (Blimey, you might even make one of them… a woman).

Doctor Who’s heart is nearly always in the right place though. Kroll, like that other 70s take on colonialism, The Mutants, might be a bit iffy in its details but in broad terms is rightly critical of racism. It’s clear enough in its characterisation of bad guy Thawn, who makes no attempt to hide his prejudice towards the Swampies (as per the Marshal from The Mutants). He openly admits to the Doctor (a rangy Tom Baker) that his plan is to use the Swampies’ arming themselves as an excuse to wipe them out. He lays out that plan in Part One, so there’s no secret about it. (What he does conceal is that he’s behind the arms dealing in the first place.) Throughout he’s presented as unadulterated bad guy, ranting, unhinged and unapologetically racist – even his co-workers look at him with the sideward glances of those counting the exits. So Thawn and the racism he represents is clearly condemned, and he gets his just deserts when he’s skewered by a Swampie spear.

But that American serviceman’s comment – “Now you know what I feel like” – sticks in my mind. And here’s another interesting quote from 1978, when politician Margaret Thatcher said on a TV news program that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Swamped. Maybe Robert Holmes was watching. Maybe out chatty American friend was.

Or maybe they’d watched The Goodies’ episode South Africa – featuring Kroll’s Phillip Madoc as a ranting racist – a few years back. Or maybe they were watching repeats of Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death do us Part. Or maybe they caught the final episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978. Whatever, it’s fair enough to say that television in the UK in the 70s was questioning and critiquing race relations with gusto, sometimes sensitively, often not. And The Power of Kroll is a vivid part of that.

Also, there’s a big squid in it.

NEXT TIME… There you go, big fella! A new Doctor and a new festive tradition in The Christmas Invasion.

Light, dark and City of Death (1979)

Steven Moffat once said that when you write a Doctor Who story, you give up your feature film idea, so rapacious is the series’ appetite for strong, action filled plot. It was never truer than of City of Death, which has a plot almost too good for Doctor Who – an alien splintered through time plunders the art treasures of the world in a plan to go change history. A Doctor-less version would make a cracking popcorn movie, full of action, comedy and romance. The Thomas Crown Affair meets Back to the Future. Moff should make it now his showrunning days are done.

This story, in which Exec Producer Julie Gardner saw a template for 21st century Who, is one of the series’ undisputed triumphs. It was born from a last minute script crisis and a mammoth weekend-long rewriting session by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, fuelled by coffee, whiskey and desperation, but emerged as an elegant European supermodel of a Doctor Who story. With location filming in Paris, a whip smart script and performances to match, it’s a piece of art.

And of course, it’s funny. A Doctor Who parlour comedy. But to talk about how funny it is would be to repeat everything that has ever been written about it. So instead, let’s talk about how it works as a piece of drama, because it absolutely does.

Here’s my favourite piece of dialogue from it. It’s got nothing to do with Paris telephone directories, violent butlers or beautiful women, probably. The Doctor (Tom Baker, at maximum power) and Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover) have been firing one liners at each other for four episodes. Now the climax is approaching, and the Doctor has realised (somehow) that if the Count goes back in time to prevent his own destruction, the human race will never evolve. Suddenly the funny stuff drops, and both play it dead seriously.

DOCTOR: Count, do you realise what will happen if you try to go back to the time before history began?

SCARLIONI: Yes. Yes, I do. And I don’t care one jot.

I love the wit of City of Death, but I love these moments of sudden sobriety just as much. Take for instance, the cliffhanger to Part Two. Once again it’s an abrupt change from jokes to gravitas. The Doctor has travelled to Florence in 1505 to find out if Leonardo really did paint seven Mona Lisas and to swap gags with a dopey guard (Peter Halliday). The Doctor’s laughing off having a sword at his throat, but when a door opens and a shadowy figure looms. His levity’s instantly turned off.

DOCTOR: You. What are you doing here?

SCARLIONI: I think that is exactly the question I ought to be asking you… Doctor!

It’s one of those beautiful cliffhangers that progresses the plot as well as leaving us begging for more: how can Scarlioni be in both 1505 and 1979? And its Part Three equivalent is equally impressive and far more grim. Scarlioni convinces the hapless Kerensky (David Graham) to step inside his time bubble. With trademark urbanity, the Count tells Romana (Lalla Ward) “You will now see, my dear, how I deal with fools.”

He speaks not with the grandiose roar of a standard Doctor Who villain left in charge of an episode ending, but with chill politeness. He switches on the machine and Kerensky ages to death. Then, pre-closing credits, he smiles smugly at Romana, as if to say, “aren’t I clever?” It’s the understatement of it which makes it work.

Think also about Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schell), a guileless dupe of her husband. Up until Part Four the Doctor’s been content to humour her, but time is running out and everyone’s about to die. He asks how much she knows about the Count and she mentions the importance of discretion and charm. Baldly, the Doctor calls her out.

DOCTOR: There is such a thing as discretion. There’s also such a thing as willful blindness.

COUNTESS: Blind? I help him to steal the Mona Lisa, the greatest crime in the century, and you call me blind?

DOCTOR: Yes! You see the Count as a master criminal, an art dealer, an insanely wealthy man, and you’d like to see yourself as his consort. But what’s he doing in the cellar?

COUNTESS: Tinkering. Every man must have his hobby.

DOCTOR: Man? Are you sure of that? A man with one eye and green skin, eh? Ransacking the art treasures of history to help him make a machine to reunite him with his people, the Jagaroth, and you didn’t notice anything? How discreet, how charming.

She tries to laugh it off, but then recalls an old Egyptian scroll parchment in her collection. On it, a man with one eye and green skin. The spell is broken.

And although she’s been played for a fool by Scarlioni, he still feels fondly enough of her to come and say goodbye to her before setting off to erase all mankind from history. She’s ready to shoot him, but can’t quite do it. He gets to her first, but not before he’s coldly dismissed her, as nothing but a money loving dilettante. “It has not been difficult keeping secrets from you, my dear,” he matter-of-factly states. “A few fur coats, a few trinkets, a little nefarious excitement.” Then he zaps her. Not much to laugh at there.

And that’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine, it’s exactly right. Because Adams and Williams knew that the best stories aren’t just funny, or just scary or just sad. They are all of the above. So here they turn up the dial on the funny, while leaving the scary and sad controls on their standard settings. It’s just dumb luck that they happen to perform this experiment on one of Doctor Who‘s best ever ideas.

Composer Dudley Simpson gets it. To accompany that glorious last shot from the top of the Eiffel Tower, gazing down at the Doctor and Romana running from the scene of the crime, he provides a musical finale which sums up the story perfectly. A whimsical clarinet picks out a charming melody, before it slips into a minor key, getting serious. Then a low, ominous sting to end the story, bass notes and timpani drums. He’s summed this story up completely. For all its lightness of tone, the darkness is always right behind.

LINK TO Asylum of the Daleks. Both refer to the Daleks and Skaro.

NEXT TIME: what is this horrendous place? Next stop, Terminus. And probably a bit more about City of Death.

AND ONE LAST THING: I’m indebted to @EalaDubh for pointing out this about City of Death, which I had not previously known and is now one of my favourite things.

Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

terrorzygons

You’ve got to admire the creative commitment displayed by Broton, Warlord of the Zygons (John Woodnutt). He’s disguised himself as the patrician Duke of Forgill – he’s got the coat, the hat and the cold, aloof exterior of the minor aristocrat down pat. He flaunts his performance at every opportunity, even though it brings unwelcome attention to his real agenda, which is to destroy oil rigs with his fearsome, half-mechanical Skarasan. Skarasan being a Zygonian word meaning ‘sea cow’.

Broton must simply love the theatrics of it. How else to explain why he drives into town (picking up three oddly dressed hitchhikers on the way) specifically to heckle oil man Mr Huckle (Tony Sibbald) about his employees trespassing on his appropriated estate, deliberately mangling the poor bloke’s name to press home his disdain. A few oiks skyving off on the moors for a quick ciggie can’t pose much of a threat to the warlord of an advanced technological race.

But Broton really throws himself into the part anyway. “If my ghillie catches them on my land again, they’ll be shot,” he burrs menacingly. Surprisingly, no one present – not the Doctor (a gruff Tom Baker), the Brigadier (an amiable Nicholas Courtney) nor Mr Huxtable himself – mentions that is a fairly drastic step up from a stern warning and a markdown at their next performance review.

Terror of the Zygons is full of these odd moments. Not ineffective, mind. Just the opposite. They are usually well acted, stylishly directed vignettes. But they’re just strange enough to jolt you out of the story for a moment. Either that, or they’re completely superfluous to the plot.

For example, take hard hitting journalist Sarah Jane Smith (a stylish Elisabeth Sladen) and her interview with bagpipe-playing, sooth-saying Angus McRanald (Angus Lennie). With wide eyes and hushed tones, he tells her the sort of spooky stories that teenage girls use to freak each other out at sleepover parties. Of the man from the Black Isle who went missing on the Moor in 1922. And of the Jamieson boys of 1870: “They went out cutting peat and the mist came down. Donald just disappeared. They found the older brother, Robert, two days later, wandering about, off his head. His eyes, his eyes were terrible to see.” Look, it’s lovely stuff, but unless we find out later in the story that the disappearances were part of the Zygons’ nefarious plans (and we don’t) it’s pleasantly creepy scene setting, but of no plot value.

Then there’s a series of land rover related coincidences, which kick off with Broton driving past the Doctor, Sarah and Harry (a dependable Ian Marter) at exactly the right time to pick them up (why not just have them land in the town itself?). Not long after, Harry is driving a land rover down a random road at exactly the right time to find an injured oil rig worker and get shot himself (Broton wasn’t bluffing, as it turns out). And not long after that, the Doctor is driving a land rover, trying to draw off the aforementioned hungry sea cow, when it mysteriously breaks down. Inconvenient for the Doctor who then has try to outrun the beast, but handy for a cliffhanger.

Back to the Zygons’ penchant for dramatics for a moment. Not all of them are as skilled as Broton. He must have gone to RADA, given his commitment to a role, but the others have clearly graduated from the diploma of performing arts at Wollongong TAFE, so clearly do they signpost their evil intentions. The one masquerading as Sister Lamont (Lillias Walker) is giving a Botcherby worthy performance in sinister, which is surely exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to hide out in a local hospital. (And by the way, why impersonate Sister Lamont? Is to finish off all those poor injured oil rig workers?) The Zygon who copies jolly, avuncular Harry gets his performance spectacularly wrong, making him a study in cold, sneering disdain. Sarah sees through him immediately, which was surely not the intention.

Like an actor in an hot, uncomfortable rubber costume, the Zygons must hate dressing up as humans, which might account for their inconsistent performances. “I loathe this abomination of a body,” the Lamont Zygon says at one stage, managing to keep a straight face. To be fair, those Zygon bodies are a terrific design, the bloated heads giving the impression of big orange embryoes (zygotes, I suppose). The new series Zygons seem to have done away with that association, which is probably wise. When Broton reveals that they feed off the milk of the rubbery Skarasan, the immediate mental image of a half a dozen Zygons suckling at the numerous teats of the puppety thing is another one of those story jolting moments. New Who can do without that.

Inside the Zygons’ spaceship, they’ve clearly gone for design over practicality. On the outside, it just looks like your standard tin box affair, but inside it looks like some something that’s been growing in the back of your fridge has got ideas above its station, and sprouted protuberances everywhere. The Zygons operate it by gently squeezing and fondling the various spongy bits which emerge, and it’s all very suspect in a masseur-who’s-crossed-the-line kind of way.

The Doctor, taken prisoner aboard the springy craft, is unfazed. He can instantly identify a fire sensor, a vacuum mechanism and a self destruct button even though they all look like indistinguishable orange growths. He’s that kind of guy. Anyway, his meddling forces the spaceship to land in a disused quarry (which for once is not code for an alien planet), which proves to be a good place to blow the whole thing up.

Except, in one of those annoying narrative dog legs, the story’s not quite over yet. Broton and the Skarasan are still on the loose. Earlier, Sarah and Harry, realising they had nothing in that episode to do, decided to go and rifle through Forgill castle, looking for clues to Broton’s plans. There Sarah discovered:

SARAH: The Duke is Chieftain of the Antlers Association, Trustee of the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip, whatever that might be, and President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

But then our investigative duo decided this was a waste of time and went back to the main plot. Once we get to the quarry, our heroes start to put all this together. Broton, it transpires, wants to go to an energy conference in London.

BRIGADIER: Yes, but he’d need a pass to get in. The security’s very tight.

SARAH: But he’ll have a pass. The Duke, the real Duke, is President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

DUKE: That’s right. I am!

Nice one Sarah. Except because the Duke is actually present in this scene, he could have told everyone that himself. Meaning that whole little detour of yours to the castle was meaningless padding. Still, I suppose it beats listening to more ghost stories with wee Angus McRanald.

Personally, I wish Broton would have staged his final endgame at the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip. That sounds much more fun than an energy conference which consists of a cellar, a corridor and a balcony, which cries ‘we spent all the design budget on the Zygon pizzamobile’.

It all ends with Broton dying with true Olivier-style gusto and the Skarasan wobbling unconvincingly on a CSO backdrop before heading back to Loch Ness. Weirdly, our heroes all follow suit, catching the train from London. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just put the TARDIS on the back of a land rover and driven it to them? No wait, on second thought, we know how unreliable those things are. You wouldn’t risk it.

LINK TO The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: both feature Americans, or at least characters with American accents.

NEXT TIME: We count how many beans make five with Mawdryn Undead.

Class, crankiness and Horror of Fang Rock (1977)

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There is much about British television from the 1970s which is concerned with class. It’s in The Good Life, where the greenies move next door to the toffs. It’s in George & Mildred, where the toffs move next door to the oiks. It’s in Fawlty Towers, where the toffs go on holiday with the great un-poshed in Torquay. And it’s the very basis of Upstairs Downstairs where they all live together under the same roof. It’s the stuff that happens, be it funny or tragic, when the haves and the have nots are forced to mix, which seemed to fascinate TV makers of the time.

Doctor Who, being the kind of far out space fare that it is, generally bucks this trend. Until Horror of Fang Rock, when a boat full of the upper class crashes into an island of the working class.

It’s the turn of the last century. Fang Rock is home to nothing but a lighthouse, and to no one but three men and some chatty seals. The three men Ben (Ralph Watson), Reuben (Colin Douglas) and Vince (John Abbott) are briny, hard working types, plain speaking in various regional accents. Ben doesn’t get out of the first episode alive; he’s quickly done for by the monster of the week. But the other two are on hand when a particularly flimsy looking yacht disintegrates on a model stage at Pebble Mill.

Rescued from the doomed vessel are MP Skinsale (Alan Rowe), lordly Lord Palmerdale (Sean Caffrey) and his secretary Adelaide (Annette Woollett). They have few redeeming features. They arrive in the lighthouse in Part Two, soaking wet and full of complaints. As soon as he arrives, Palmerdale’s barking orders and demanding brandy. He’s a scoundrel through and through; desperate to get to London so he can make good on some shady deal. It was he, it turns out, who caused the boat to crash, as he was insisting it go faster in terrible weather. So says boatman, Harker (the very theatrically named Rio Fanning), the one member of the working class brought to Fang Rock by the ship, and it infuriates him so much he briefly tries to throttle Palmerdale. Class warfare in front of our eyes.

Palmerdale’s also at odds with Skinsale, a kindly, older gentleman who seems like he might be the toffs’ one sympathetic voice. But then he goes and spoils it all by doing something stupid like wrecking the telegraph machine. This might seem an unreasonably reckless thing to do, when you’re in a lighthouse under siege by a murderous snotball, but he’s locked in a subplot with Palmerdale and is very keen to stop the little moneygrubber getting a message to London. The corrupting power of money is an underlying theme in this story. Palmerdale’s the epitome of it (he even tries to bribe our two working class heroes Vince and Harker) and when he dies, it’s the diamonds kept in his body belt that Skinsale dies scrabbling to collect.

It’s tempting to conclude that it’s greed that leads all the characters on Fang Rock to their doom, but the alien blob in question, the electrifying Rutan, cares nothing for social class or human foibles. It sets out to kill all the humans on the island and that’s what it does, be they sympathetic or not. “Everybody dies, Leela! Just this once… everybody dies!’ we can imagine the Doctor (Tom Baker) saying and given the foul mood he’s in, I wouldn’t put it past him adding one of those enormous grins of his. Just to emphasise that although that Rutan might think it’s the scariest alien on the rock, it’s got nothing on the ol’ teeth and curls.

****

Yes, Tom is cranky. He’s been dragged away from his favourite drinking holes around Television Centre to Birmingham. No-one’s listened to him when he’s requested that his new companion be a talking cabbage and so he’s stuck with scene stealing Leela (played with fortitude by Louise Jameson). He’s being directed by Paddy Russell, who’s taking none of his nonsense. The comfort of a few dozen pints and a cohort drinking companions to raconteur at seems as distant as Fang Rock is from Brighton Beach.

Still, out of this funk comes something brilliant – a proto Capaldi. The popular image of the fourth doctor may be of a jolly, jokey fellow, but he’s nowhere to be seen on Fang Rock. If he smiles at all, it’s only to counterpoint some appalling turn of events. “Gentlemen, I’ve got news for you,” he announces at one point. “This lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead. Anyone interested?” he beams.

Of course, he looks at none of his fellow actors, but here it seems less like the by-product a Baker tanty and more a deliberate ploy to make every interaction more awkward and unsettling. As the death count mounts, he barely displays any interest, let alone remorse for the lives being snuffed out. He’s as remote and as unfeeling as a lighthouse, save for the chilling realisation that he voices at the end of Part Three, when he tells Leela that he locked the creature they’re fighting inside, not out.

This is the beginning of Season 15. Skip forward to the end of that season, to The Invasion of Time, and we see a very different fourth Doctor – one that gives jokey asides to camera, balances pot plants on his head and takes tips from the ministry of silly walks. The brooding loner of Fang Rock has been banished. Somewhere along the line, Tom decides to start having fun. But then by that stage, he’s back at Television Centre. Holding court. King Tom.

Horror of Fang Rock is highly regarded these days but it wasn’t always. In fact, it used to be the marker stone between good Doctor Who and bad; it was the point where it all went wrong. I remember a very stern letter to Doctor Who Magazine back in the eighties, where some people declared “we are of the opinion of that the show has declined in quality from Horror of Fang Rock onwards”. Or something like that. I’m not about to rummage through my stacks of DWM to find the exact quote.

I think what they meant was that this was the point where everyone started having too much fun (and as I said about The Androids of Tara, that’s a dangerous thing). If that’s right, then their aim was off a little bit. They should have gone for the other end of the season not this one.  This one’s pitch black. A vicious alien killer, a grumpy alien doctor and human greed everywhere you look. Fang Rock’s impressive in many ways, but no-one ever accused it of being fun.

LINK to The Ark in Space: Both are Toms, and both have aliens infiltrating a group of isolated humans, killing them and adopting their form.

NEXT TIME: I thought you were dead. Either you were dead, or you’d gone to Birmingham. (Tom would know how this feels). It’s a fight for Survival.

Imagination, bubble wrap and The Ark in Space (1974)

arkspace

I don’t eat fish. No seafood at all, actually. I just don’t like the taste of it. Never have. This doesn’t stop people always trying to convince me to eat fish. “It’s good for you,” they say. “It’s delicious. Here try this. You’ll like it. It hardly tastes fishy at all!” (Note to everyone: seafood always tastes fishy.)

Some people don’t like Doctor Who. I mean, not just “I don’t watch it” or “I’m indifferent to it”. I mean those who say “I can’t stand it”. But unlike my fish advocating friends, I never try to convince them to like it. What’s the point? And what would I say? “Watch Black Orchid. It’s hardly like Doctor Who at all!”

I am interested, though, in what they don’t like about it. There are those who say, “it’s so cheap” (that this is still an accusation after a decade on well funded, new series episodes says something about the potency of that tag). There are those who say, “it’s too camp”. And there are those who say, “it’s too weird. I just don’t get it”. These last lot seem to me to be the most entrenched in their views; there’s something too far out about the program which just makes it innately unappealing to them. They’ll never get it. It’s not for them. It’s their fish. Let’s call them the Doubters.

Consider now, the random clutch of stories I’ve been watching, all of which come from Doctor Who’s mid 70s heyday. Last random, Planet of the Spiders. NEXT TIME… Horror of Fang Rock. And this entry, The Ark in Space. All stories which are well regarded by fans, and each which have created memorable imagery, which cause them to linger in the public consciousness. The one with the spiders, the one in the lighthouse and the one with the bubble wrap monster.

Watched from a fan perspective, they are better than average fare. But watched from a Doubter’s perspective, I fear they are irretrievably duff. Those plasticky spiders and the tacky green screen effects. Is that a tennis ball climbing up that model lighthouse? And c’mon – that monster really is made of bubble wrap!

This makes me recall recent statements by showrunner Steven Moffat and Doctor Peter Capaldi, that the show somehow inspires creativity amongst its viewers. I think they are right, and surely the mother of creativity is imagination.

I don’t want to say that the Doubters among us lack imagination. But I’d say that to enjoy a Doctor Who story like The Ark in Space requires the viewer to use their imagination. It takes a certain type of viewing, I think. One that enables the viewer to transcend the tacky elements on screen. Doubters see an actor unconvincingly writhing with his hand encased in a bubble wrap glove, snarling hammy lines like, “the Ark is ours! It must be ours!” Those who buy in see the terrifying concept behind it, a man losing control of his body to an alien infection.

The Ark in Space marks a point in the series’ history where those underlying concepts became more confronting. In Planet of the Spiders, only two stories previous to this, but made by a different production team, the villainous spiders wrapped up their human victims in cotton wool cocoons to store in the pantry for future snacking. In The Ark in Space, the insectoid Wirrn go a good deal further. It lays its eggs in your sleeping body, and when those eggs hatch, the larvae eat you from the inside out. It’s next level gruesome.

We even see it happen, or at least the start of it. Crew Member Lycett (John Gregg) is taken alive by a Wirrn grub. Again, it’s stagey and unconvincing. Lycett has to conveniently slip to allow the grub (Stuart Fell, caterpillaring across the studio floor in bubbly sleeping bag) to pinion him against the wall. But once you start imagining it, and thinking about the implications – eggs hatching, eating you from the inside – suddenly poor old Lycett’s fate seems far more real.

The bubble wrap monsters have become our shorthand symbol of The Ark in Space‘s ability to transcend its low budget production values. But let’s face it: the whole thing’s pretty tacky. Yes, the sets are nice (although why access to the transmat bed in the control room has to be by climbing over an enormous control panel has always left me scratching my head). But the video effects are rudimentary, the Ark itself sits unsteadily on a CSO backdrop and the Wirrn totter precariously, spindly static arms sprouting out of Mr Hanky style bodies.

None of this should work. But it does because of the quality of this story’s ideas. It’s those ideas which inspired Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat; this is a favourite story for both. No doubt because it offers many examples where those big, bubble wrap transcending moments, where the human impact of events becomes piercingly clear.

My favourite is the moment when Noah (Kenton Moore), on his way to full Wirrndom, forgets which human he is. He’s succumbs to confusion while trying to give an order, and Vira (Wendy Williams) asks if it’s something about Dune, the crew member first ‘digested’ by the Wirrn. A look of sudden calm comes over Noah as he says, “But I’m here! I am Dune.” And the assembled group of onlookers are stunned, realizing something awful has happened to this man’s mind.

Ages ago, when talking about The Aztecs, I suggested that Doctor Who fans watch the show in a way which is inherently forgiving. And we might pause here to remember the recently randomed The Ark which I think involves an even greater level of forgiveness, be it for the rubbery Monoids, the dodgy acting or the lazy expediency that results in a security kitchen. Both of the show’s arks in space offer big ideas on a tiny budget. But only the later story offers a plot strong enough to fire the imagination. There’s no “I am Dune” moment in the earlier story. You forgive The Ark, but you buy in to The Ark in Space.

It’s also a story which celebrates the human spirit. In an almost sentimental way, which is very unlike the usually gloomy outlook of writer and script editor Robert Holmes. Early on, the Doctor (an early Tom Baker) offers his awestruck appreciation of humanity’s indomitability. By the time we get to Part Four, it’s not the Doctor, but Noah, now almost all Wirrn, who saves the day by luring his fellow monsters into a rocket (who knows how they got up the entry ladder) and blowing them up. His last line, a simple “Goodbye Vira” to the woman he was to be “pair bonded to for the new world”. Indomitable indeed.

It’s a thing of beauty. And it’s just for us. Don’t bother showing it to a Doubter. It won’t convince them. Which is just fine. The Ark is ours. It must be ours.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Noah.

LINK TO Planet of the Spiders. Sarah Jane against the insect bad guys.

 

Ideas, imagery and Meglos (1980)

meglos

In an alternative universe (such as the one we’ll be heading to next random), we’d be talking about this as the first Meglos story. Yes, Meglos, that mostly mocked one note joke of a Doctor Who villain, a talking cactus of all things, could have made a comeback.

Writer Gareth Roberts wanted to include him as the bad guy behind shenanigans in the Matt Smith story The Lodger. Whether this idea bit the dust because it was too ridiculous, too self-referential or because bringing back a rubbish monster as a statement of irony wasn’t the best idea to start with, is kind of irrelevant. The point is, Meglos lingers in our Whoish memories.

Why? Well, two reasons, I think.

Reason one: because within the schlocky fiction of the piece, there are some interesting ideas being almost talked about.

Doctor Who has often presented the conflict between science and superstition, and between science and magic. It rarely wades into the dangerous waters of comparing science and religion. So it’s an unexpected reminder to find it popping up in this inauspicious story.

The planet Tigella is populated by two castes: the scientifically minded Savants and the religiously inclined Deons (their plainly descriptive names being typical of this story’s unsophisticated approach. Even the title character’s name – he’s a megalomanic cactus – is clearly signposted.)

The Savants see the planet’s mysterious power source, the Dodecahedron, as an artifact to be analysed and its potential tapped. For some reason, they also see hair as being best hidden under shockingly white wigs, cut into bobs and plastered on their heads, so their judgement is called into question from the start.

The Deons believe the Dodecahedron to be a gift from the great god Ti, and thus the subject of reverence and worship. We only really meet one Deon, the majestic Lexa (Jacqueline Hill) and she wears her white hair in an outrageously long pony tail. Good hairdressers are obviously hard to find on Tigella.

It’s unsurprising that Doctor Who comes down on the side of science over faith. The Dodecahedron does turn out to be an artifact and the Deons are nutters who still practice human sacrifice, so the Savants, despite the hair, are the ones to listen to. To hammer home the point, Lexa dies and as she’s the only one of the Deons who speaks, it will be difficult for them to prosecute their ideas from then on. (Incidentally, Lexa dies saving Romana (Lalla Ward), which is remarkably compassionate considering she’s only met her minutes before and never spoke an onscreen word to her.)

In between Savants and Deons, there’s Zastor (Edward Underdown). He dresses like a Deon but listens patiently when the Savants complain about not being allowed to run a tape measure over the Dodecahedron. Zastor represents the sensible middle ground, and when his two quarreling tribes refuse to play nice, he calls in an independent arbitrator:

ZASTOR: Some fifty years ago, I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break.

DEEDRIX: A savant? Or one of her madmen?

ZASTOR: A little of each and a great deal more of something else.

It’s interesting that Zastor positions the Doctor halfway between science and religion. Religion has never been his bag, but science most definitely has. The Doctor is described as a scientist regularly throughout the 60s and 70s eras, but Season 18 is the last to emphasize this side of his nature. After this season, he becomes an adventurer and a traveller. Has the 21st century version of the show ever described a him as a scientist?

Sadly, we never get to see the Doctor adopt his role as mediator between science and religion. It would have been interesting to hear him say, “well, you Savants want to solve the problem like this, you Deons want to solve it like that, and in fact you’re both wrong, you do it like this.” But due to Meglos’s unorthodox approach to plotting, the Doctor arrives so late in the story, that Meglos has infiltrated the Tigellan city and made off with the Dodecahedron before the Doctor’s has even learnt his opponent’s name. From then on, there’s no time to question the bigger issues of rationalism vs faith. It’s just a case of, “Quick! Follow that cactus!”

*****

Interlude: How to plot a Doctor Who story a la Meglos:

Part One: while your villain hires some henchmen and explains his plan, and you introduce the setting, your supporting characters and their main non-hair related problem, contain the Doctor and his friends to the TARDIS.

Part Two: while the villain travels and arrives at aforementioned setting, continue to delay the Doctor getting there by letting him land halfway through the ep, and then some distance away from the action. Split him up from his companions. Have the companion keep some henchmen company for a while.

Part Three:  Have the companion keep those henchmen company for a while longer. Have the villain complete his plan, but hang around for a bit to talk to some minor characters. Have the Doctor slowly take all episode to work out what’s going on, while the villain escapes.

Part Four: Doctor and co chase the villain back to his base. Doc turns table on villain with some rudimentary bait and switch. End with explosion.

*****

Reason two: Tom Baker in cactus make up.

Meglos has an ace up its sleeve in that it’s got a brilliant lead actor to play the villain: Tom Baker. In some ways, there’s no more qualified person to play a Doctor Who villain. After all, at the time of recording Meglos, Tom had seen at least 36 people play Doctor Who villains up close. He knows how it’s done.

He seems to relish being Meglos, playing him utterly seriously, if just on this side of melodramatics. Everything we’ve heard about how temperamental Tom was getting towards the end of his time on the show tells us that he should have been bored out of his brain playing this ranting bad guy. God only knows what he said when they told him they were going to make him up like a cactus.

Actually I have a theory that when he saw how good that cactus make up was, he realised that this was going to be the scene stealer of the show, so if anyone was going to wear it, it might as well be him. It’s a terrific effect, this green, spiny Doctor, and gives this last Baker year a vividly memorable image to match any of the previous 17. There’ll be many a fan, young at the time this story went out, who remembers the Cactus Doctor, struggling to contain the rebellious Earthling (Christopher Owen) within his spiky body.

It’s a much better look than either of Meglos’s other forms; a dull, plasticky cactus prop, or later when he’s defeated, a giant sized snot rag, scurrying across the floor. At least Romana’s impressed at the transformation from Time Lord to mobile booger. ‘He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light… that would make him virtually indestructible!’ she helpfully explains. See, even then they were thinking about Meglos 2. Or The Meglos in the Room Upstairs. Or perhaps a spin off series: Meglos & Company.

Presumably that’s the line upon which Roberts was going to hang the premise of Meglos’s return. Maybe it’s not too late. Peter Capaldi sporting that spiny cactus make up? You can see it can’t you? That Meglos, you know, he can modulate himself on a particular wavelength of light. He’s virtually indestructible.

LINK TO School Reunion: both feature the return of actresses who had played the Doctor’s companion. And they both have K9 in them.

NEXT TIME: The sound of a planet screaming out its rage! Welcome to the Inferno.