Tag Archives: Harry Sullivan

Courage, choices and Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

genesis daleks

“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened,” the Doctor once said, back when he looked like Jon Pertwee. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” It’s the expression of a theme which writer Terry Nation often explored: people under pressure, finding the courage to make choices which challenge them to the core, but which they know are the right thing to do.

When asked to revisit the origins of the Daleks, Nation came up with this titan of a story, a mythic struggle where the Doctor (now looking like Tom Baker), fights to prevent his deadliest enemies from ever being born. But amongst all the bombs and bombast, he included a courageous choice at the story’s heart.

After five hard-fought episodes and with victory only the touch of two detonator wires away, our hero suddenly questions the moral basis for his actions. He asks himself, in a now famous speech, whether by destroying the Daleks he becomes no better than them. He has in his hands the power to save countless future victims, but when he finally has the means to destroy these heinous creatures, he asks himself, “do I have the right?

It’s the payoff to a choice made back in Part One, when an enigmatic Time Lord (John Franklyn-Robbins) asked the Doctor to go on this deadly mission in the first place. The Doctor wasn’t forced to say yes; he agreed to go. Sure, the Time Lord correctly anticipates his agreement and transports him to Skaro as a fait accompli, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor makes a choice to attempt genocide. There’s something of the special contempt the Doctor reserves for the Daleks in this decision. It’s difficult to imagine him agreeing to wipe out any of the other species he’s encountered. But whether it was a choice clouded by hatred or made in haste or made without full appreciation of its implications, the “do I have the right?” moment tells us it was wrong.

Genesis of the Daleks repeatedly shows us people making difficult moral choices. Often this is presented as the choice to rebel against the fascist regime in the bunker. Members of the scientific elite like Ronson (James Garbutt), Kavell (Tom Georgeson) and Gharman (Dennis Chinnery) carefully reveal their allegiances in urgent, conspiratorial whispers, in the style of so many WW2 films where people plot against the Nazis from within. They find the courage to resist, even though their lives are in immediate danger.

The choices they make are made on moral grounds – they abhor the lack of conscience in the Daleks – but they also present a direct challenge to the viewer. Would we, under similar circumstances, have the courage to speak up? Their choices are made even more striking by the moment when Nyder (Peter Miles) mimics their concerns in order to trap Gharman. His famous fake out (“Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!”) shows us how dangerous speaking up is, but it’s also an example of Nyder’s unflinching devotion to Davros. In the whole story, Nyder’s the only character whose moral stance, twisted though it is, remains unquestioned.

Outside of the bunker, others make choices which set them at odds with those around them. Sevrin (Stephen Yardley) for instance, chooses to save Sarah, when the rest of his Muto mates want her killed. Thal soldier Bettan (Harriet Philpin) has to make the choice about closing the bunker’s doors and potentially trapping the Doctor inside. And throughout, the Doctor finds himself trying to convince people to change their behaviour on moral grounds: appealing to Mogran (Ivor Roberts) to stop work in the bunker, appealing to the Thals to abandon their rocket launch and, most critically, appealing to Davros (Michael Wisher) to stop the entire Dalek project.

Davros too, is confronted with choices to make on moral grounds, which he mostly rejects. He does so because his worldview is antithetical to the Doctor’s. He sees the Daleks as a force for good, not evil. He sees democracy as a utopian delusion and totalitarianism as the only way of achieving peace.

In another moment for the clip reels, the Doctor proposes a hypothetical moral choice to Davros: would he use a biological weapon to kill everyone? Davros, seduced by the idea, says emphatically, yes. But he’s not above using the same moral challenges to point out the hypocrisy of others. Later, he uses a similar trick on Kaled opponent Kravos (Andrew Johns): “I saved your life once,” he icily points out to the young man. “In your chest is a tiny instrument which I designed. It keeps your heart beating. Will you now turn that heart against me?” He neglects to mention that he would, and later does, kill Kravos without a second thought.

It’s a clear indication that moral choices work only in relation to your own moral framework. And Davros’ moral framework is particularly perverted. It’s oddly underplayed in the story itself, but when confronted with a threat from the Kaled government to investigate his work, Davros retaliates by helping the Thals use their rocket to kill everyone in the Kaled city. Then, he sends the Daleks to kill all the Thals. It’s Doctor Who’s greatest act of ruthlessness: a double genocide. And in Davros’s twisted philosophy, these are moral choices worth making to ensure the survival of his Dalek children. Again, it’s not mentioned specifically, but this act of mass murder must surely be on the Doctor’s mind when he’s hesitating to connect those two explosive wires.

Davros only sees the error of his ways in the story’s final minutes, when he realises his Daleks have started managing their own affairs. With his life in danger, he suddenly switches tack and makes a moral choice to destroy the Daleks… but his wizened hand never lands on that big friendly “total destruct” button. Finally Davros has joined the legion of characters in this story having the courage to do what’s right, although it’s far too late.

My point is that we rightly praise the Doctor’s “do I have the right?” speech in Genesis of the Daleks (even though it’s effectively neutralised about 15 minutes later, when he decides to go back and have another go). But in fact, the whole story is a series of events in which characters have their convictions challenged, find the courage to act despite their fear and make choices based on what they see is right. Perhaps difficult choices are simply the building blocks of all drama. Perhaps all Doctor Who stories contain them to a greater or lesser extent. But Genesis is infused with them.

But to return to “do I have the right?”, it underlines what Nation had the Doctor say back on Spiridon about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. A future with the Daleks frightens the Doctor – initially enough to want to kill them. Instead, he has the courage to do what he has to do anyway, and let them live.

LINK TO Planet of Evil: same Doctor, companion and production team. Links abound!

NEXT TIME… we’re taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight. What could possibly go wrong?

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Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

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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.

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

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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.

 

Acting, Adapting and The Sontaran Experiment (1975)

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Yesterday, the Doctor Who Fan Police dragged me away to Stangmoor or Stormcage or somewhere when it became clear that I’d never actually finished reading Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment by Ian Marter. I’d made several attempts when I was a kid, but never actually got all the way through it. I have an excuse though; it was never the story I thought it was.

To be fair, the story I thought it was doesn’t exist. Roy Knipe’s cover art led me to think this was a tale of the Doctor landing on a planet and discovering a colossal statue of a Sontaran, towering above the landscape. Then each time I started it, I remembered that this was in fact an adaptation of The Sontaran Experiment, which thanks to ABC’s tendency to frequently repeat Tom Baker’s early seasons, was a story I’d seen many times.

This reminds me of the time a casual viewer of Doctor Who told me his favourite story was the one with the golden Cyberman. I told him there was no such story, and that given the Cybermen’s unfortunate allergy to gold, constructing such a Cyberman would be tricky to say the least. But still, this viewer was insistent; gold Cybermen, it happened and he loved it.

I let it go, though for some time afterwards I did wonder whether he had simply imagined the whole thing, or perhaps if his television had some colour imbalance. But then one day, I idly pick up a copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen, the Skilleter covered one, and the penny dropped. Another case of novelisation cover confusion.

Chris Achilleos’ covers were often to blame. No matter how many times I read Doctor Who and the Three Doctors, Omega never shot rays from his fingers to bore into the heads of the titular three Doctors. Varga, star of Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors never had the ability to generate sparkly energy with a wave of his clamp like hands. And, most disappointing of all, the Yeti of Doctor Who and the Web of Fear never did shoot beams from their eyes which entrapped helpless soldiers in halos of light. This last egregious misleading of young readers was so convincing that when Skilleter painted a new cover for the reprint, he also featured a beam emanating Yeti. These things catch on, obviously.

But back to Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment. Like all Marter’s novelisations, it’s a vivid, sometimes florid, read. Marter’s books were always genuine embellishments on the original stories. He always left the basic plot intact, but often played fast and loose with the dialogue. He would also include additional incidents throughout, which kept the pace moving but didn’t veer the story off course. In a way, it’s that misleading cover problem all over again for those who read the book first and watched the story second. Where Mr Marter, a reader-viewer might have asked, is the part where the Doctor hallucinates about the TARDIS being invaded by rats? Why does the hovering, tentacled robot become a static box on scissor lift legs?

The effect is a confusion about which version of a Doctor Who story is the authentic one. Let’s compare The Sontaran Experiment to the story which followed it, Genesis of the Daleks. The Dalek story was novelised by frequent adaptor Terrance Dicks, and his most common style was a straightforward retelling of the story, following the TV story as closely as possible. If you watched and read to Genesis of the Daleks (or even listened to it on LP), you essentially heard the same story multiple times. The story was reiterated; we know Genesis because it’s been drilled into us. Not so The Sontaran Experiment where we’ve heard two different versions of the story. There’s an air of mystery about it.

For another variation on this, we might look at novelisations which vary significantly from their TV originals, but unlike The Sontaran Experiment were written by the original screenwriters. Take for instance, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, Malcolm Hulke’s retelling of his own Colony in Space. In that instance, we might consider the embellished book version of the story to be the author’s preferred version, as he’s been freed from the strictures of TV production and can re-tell his tale unfettered. That feels different to Marter’s retelling of The Sontaran Experiment where changing the original can be seen as implicit criticism.

Marter was a unique voice in the Target range. If you saw his name come up on the release schedule you knew you were in for something special. He was not just an inventive adaptor of others’ work, he was an alternative to the sparse but efficient prose style of Terrance Dicks. He also developed a reputation for injecting a little more adult content into the range. His adaptation of The Enemy of the World included the word ‘bastard’ and his take on The Invasion is peppered with gory detail.

And in The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment we have the only examples of an actor who inhabited the fictional world writing the book version. In both books, he resists the urge to make them all about his character, solid upright type Harry Sullivan. Marter’s early death in 1987 prevented him from providing further novelisations, and maybe even entries into the New and Missing Adventures lines, which could have been the intermittent treats his Target contributions were.

Digging out my copy of the Target novel made me think about Marter, but it also gave me a chance to play on old game of “make fun of the back cover blurb”, which I’ve reproduced below.  (Look, give me a break, I don’t get out much.)

Landing on Earth, now a barren, desolate planet, Sarah, Harry and the Doctor are unaware of the large, watching robot. The robot is the work of Styre, a Sontaran warrior, who uses all humans landing here for his experimental programmes. (They go out late on Friday nights on BBC4)

What has happened to the other space explorers who have come here?  (Well, as you’ve just said, they’ve been subject to Styre’s experimental programmes.)

Why is the Sontaran scout so interested in Earth and in brutally torturing humans, including Sarah Jane? (Bloody good question. Ostensibly it’s to uncover the human race’s weaknesses so that they might be exploited when the Sontarans invade. But as the planet’s uninhabited, it seems a bit pointless.)

Will the Doctor be able to prevent an invasion and certain disaster, and save both Earth and his companions? (Spoiler alert: yes).

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘Linx!’ Sarah Jane exclaims on her first sight of Styre, mistaking him for the Sontaran she met in The Time Warrior. The subtitles get that first one right. But when she repeats it in Part Two, it turns to ‘Yikes!’ Ah, Commander Yikes, that lesser known Sontaran.

Also on the Part Two subtitles, Erak suddenly announces, “I’ve got cramps!”. That may well be true, but he’s scripted to say “It’s no use, Krans!”

LINK TO A Christmas Carol: the descendants of human colonists are the supporting cast in both.

NEXT TIME… We bung a rock at The Abominable Snowmen.

Machines, personality and Robot (1974)

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“I think you must be the sort of girl who gives motor cars pet names”, sneers icy Miss Winters (Patricia Maynard) to our heroine Sarah Jane (spunky Elisabeth Sladen) during Part Two of Robot. While Tom Baker’s nascent Doctor recovers from his recent regeneration, Sarah Jane takes the lead, chasing down a line on the scientific ratbags at Think Tank. Even once the Doctor’s back on his feet, his contribution is a series of Holmesian deductions, leisurely metered out. Sarah meanwhile is finding the robot, introducing herself to the bad guys, snooping and sneaking in and doling out the sarcasm. It’s like The Sarah Jane Adventures 30-odd years early.

Miss Winters scoffed when Sarah worried about the titular robot’s “distress”. It had just been ordered to kill Sarah but found it could not complete the command. This caused “confusion in its neural circuits” and induced a dangerous swinging and tottering like a Hills hoist in a storm.

Miss Winters though, shouldn’t have been so fast to scoff. Robot  is all about treating a machine like a human. If Doctor Who‘s recent stories have given you cause to worry about its scientific plausibility, Robot‘s here to remind us it’s by no means a recent phenomenon. It’s got a robot which develops emotions. Said robot absorbs energy and grows to enormous size. Said robot’s made of a living metal susceptible to a metal virus. Suddenly Kill the Moon‘s blushing a little less rosily. In the Forest of the Night can stop hiding in those hydrangeas.

It strikes me that emotional machines are a hallmark of seventies Doctor Who. In the 60s, the program viewed computers and robots as being cold and passionless, a threat to human emotions. It wasn’t just embodied in 60s poster boys the Cybermen. The War Machines, The Ice Warriors, The Invasion and so on all feature emotionless computers working in opposition to human ingenuity. And generally, the 70s tends to avoid mechanical baddies; the Cybermen headlined 5 stories in the 60s, and but only 1 in the 70s. Perhaps a growing comfort with automation and computers made them less of a novelty.

So when we get computers and robots in the 70s, the tendency is to move in the opposite direction, towards humanising them. It starts with BOSS, the clearly loopy computer villain in The Green Death. It sings, it quotes Nietzsche, it speaks with a purring smarm. It even cracks a few jokes.  Compare it to the humourless box which was WOTAN, the similarly maniacal computer in The War Machines. Times have changed.

In Robot, the robot is anything but emotionless. It pines for its creator, Professor Kettlewell (Edward Burnham, a contender for owner of the most outrageous hair-do in all Who, a highly contested category). It wails when it inadvertently kills Kettlewell (funnily enough, the hair – wild, white puffballs at either side of the head – brings to mind Astroboy’s many named mentor). It has moments of compassion and of anger. It’s on an emotional rollercoaster. And no-one really treats it like a robot. When Winters and offsider Jellicoe (Alec Linstead) have to give it a tune up in Part Two, it’s conducted like surgery, not an overhaul. Kettlewell dotes on it like a child. “Yes, I think you could say it was human”, concedes the Doctor, unconvincingly at story’s end. Turns out everyone in this story is the sort of person who gives motor cars pet names (Especially, the Doctor who actually has given his car a pet name and drives it around through proceedings).

You could argue that it’s hard to criticise Robot for giving us a robot with feelings, because this is the whole point of the story. Sure, let’s not spoil the fun. But both Robot  and The Green Death are the products of a production team that thinks the idea of a machine which adopts human characteristics is feasible, at least in science-fiction terms. (They’re working not that many years distant from 2001: A Space Odyssey I suppose.)

It’s a theme which endures throughout the 70s. The Face of Evil gives us a computer which goes mad through an excess of personality. Underworld a computer that believes it’s a god. The Robots of Death gave us kind-hearted detective D84. Pompous justice bots in The Stones of Blood. A sultry temptress of a computer in Shada. Even that lone Cyberadventure gave us an unusually emotive Cyberleader. Then there’s K9, a robot dog who jokes, sulks, seeks praise and shows pride. We’re surrounded by machines behaving in very unmechanical ways.

On some occasions, it’s just for laughs. But on most occasions, I think it just makes for better drama. There’s just not much entertainment you can milk from a monotone voice or a faceless metal helmet. So maybe these funny, funky machines weren’t added because they were thought of as feasible, but just because they made the stories better. Funnily enough, it more or less ends in the 80s, save for the odd shape changing android about the place.

But new Who? Crazy computers and wacky androids all over the shop. Comedy robots in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Villainous Gus channels Hal in Mummy on the Orient Express. Computer/human hybrids like Cal in Silence in the Library and Psi in Time Heist. The machines are gradually becoming human; literally in Deep Breath.

But let’s end on a different note. That Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) knows how to keep his cool. He’s there to witness the third Doctor’s regeneration into the fourth. He watches it calmly, then efficiently arranges for the Doctor to be transferred to the sick bay, complete with his own personal physician. Then he’s swiftly back to the paperwork. “Everything seems pretty quiet”, he tells a bewildered Warrant Officer Benton. Considering that only moments ago he saw one man morph into another, he’s got a unique idea about how a day qualifies as “pretty quiet”.

The Brigadier sings some of his greatest hits in Robot. ‘All the rest were foreigners’, ‘I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets’ and ‘Cancel the destructor codes!’. He’s funny and heroic and engaging throughout. He’s the antithesis of robotic, emotionless conformity. Imagine turning him into a Cyberman. What a strange decision. But perhaps it shows that Doctor Who is never going to stop trying to make the machines human.

LINK TO… Time Heist. Both feature robberies. And subterranean bases again!

NEXT TIME. The Ultimate Foe. All together now: there’s nothing you can do to stop the catharsis of spurious morality!

 

Barry Letts, unsung talents and The Android Invasion (1975)

android invasion

You’ve got to hand it to those piggy rhinoey aliens the Kraals, they’re planners. Their invasion of Earth which involves using doppelgänger androids – an Android Invasion if you will – is not something they’ve rushed into.

First they capture an British spaceship, hanging about the outer solar system. Because Britain has a space program, you know. Then they brainwash the pilot. Then they built a replica of a small English town and its nearby space defence station, populate it with android replicas and use it as a training ground. Because you train androids, right? Not program them.

Only when they’re absolutely certain that they can pull this performance off convincingly, do they catch a lift back to Earth on the same space ship and start to infiltrate the defence station. And all this to do what? Release a deadly virus (copyright Terry Nation), which presumably could have been released some easier way, by say, firing plague laden missiles at the planet (also copyright Terry Nation).

Anyway. Let’s not make fun of the plot of The Android Invasion. It’s been done many times before and it’s too easy. Instead, let’s talk Letts. Barry Letts, of course. One of Doctor Who‘s longest serving and most highly regarded producers. But we shouldn’t forget, also one of its most reliable and unsung directors.

The Android Invasion is peppered with understated directorial flair. Letts is not one to allow a idiosyncratic style to show through in his direction, unlike say Douglas Camfield or Graeme Harper, but nonetheless his episodes have plenty of interesting moments. There are the lovely scenes in Part One where Sarah is discovered hiding in a pub full of androids; the vision mixer switches from close up to close up of unsettlingly impassive faces.  There’s the famous cliffhanger to Part Two, where Sarah’s android’s face falls off with startling ease; edited with less precision it could have been laughable. And the scenes inside the Kraals’ dungeon like HQ are textbook stuff. We see the torturing of the Doctor on chief rhino Styggron’s operating table through the unflinching downward stare of a raised camera. A tide of nasty swirling lights washes over him while an whining pulsing sound comes at him like a dentist’s drill. Nasty stuff.

But these are moments, not the whole show. Lots of the rest of the story is shot with the workaday style of someone with a producer’s eye on time and money. Letts doesn’t try to spice up a scene of two people talking in a office, or two space rhinos discussing risk management strategies. It seems that he knows when to flex his directorial muscles and when to concentrate on getting the show in the can.

(Still, there are a few wry asides to spot. When Guy Crayford (played with nervous gullibility by Milton Johns) is about to land back on Earth, our ersatz Brigadier Colonel Faraday says ‘He’s been further into space than any other human being.’ Standing behind him our old mates Harry Sullivan and Mr Benton share a knowing glance. Letts, I assume, had issued an instruction.)

Letts seemed a fairly unassuming fellow in his post Who interviews, rarely allowing any self praise. This modesty has hidden that he was arguably the best director the Pertwee years ever had. Two of the stories he directed – Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters are among the very best of that era, and while a third Planet of the Spiders becomes flabby and self indulgent, its opening episode is pleasingly creepy. Add to this that he also directed much of the studio work for Inferno, and it really does seem that Letts was behind most of that era’s high points.

And of course recently and miraculously, we’ve had Letts’ first go at directing Who, The Enemy of the World, returned to us. Again it’s a mix of outstanding direction (mainly on film) and run of the mill  (mainly in the studio), but when it’s good it’s brilliant. Those action sequences in Episode 1, complete with hovercraft and helicopter – hardware Letts would return to in Planet of the Spiders – are the series’ best location work up to that point. Then there’s the Doctor facing off with his evil lookalike in Episode 6 – an experimenting with camera trickery which Letts uses again in The Android Invasion.

Letts was a frequent contributor to the Doctor Who DVD range, in on camera interviews and on commentary tracks. His calm, pleasant, grandfatherly tones became familiar to regular watchers, modestly and accurately pointing out what he thought worked and what didn’t. He was a mainstay of any Pertwee release.

But then on one DVD (I forget which one) Letts was back again but shockingly different. Bald and drawn, he was clearly unwell. Over the next few releases, depending on when the interview had been recorded, he turned up in various stages of health or sickness. We watched as this man, who we’d come to know only through his willingness to talk about Doctor Who for us, get more and more ill. He’s not on the commentary track for The Android Invasion, released three years after his death in 2009.

And the saddest aspect of the otherwise glorious return of The Enemy of the World, is that he isn’t here to see it again. That’s a commentary track it would have been great to hear. It would have been a fitting tribute to the only man who could justifiably claim to be Doctor Who‘s greatest multi-tasker: writer, producer, executive producer, novelist and director, Barry Letts. If only he had indulged himself and taken an acting role in the series (a Hitchcockian cameo in The Android Invasion, poking his head out of a Kraal’s travelling seed pod, would have done nicely), his reputation as Doctor Who’s auteur would have been complete.

LINK to The Beast Below: Each features a UK built spaceship and each features mechanical goons.

NEXT TIME: Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. And there’s a bit of it about in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.

 

Cyberlove, fandom and Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)

revenge

When does one stop being a regular viewer of Doctor Who and become that oddest of things – a fan? I think it’s when you accumulate more knowledge about the series than would be available to a casual viewer. If you’ve invested time and energy into learning about a series, particularly if you’ve started to read the end credits, note the order of episodes, notice the continuity points between episodes, then I think you’ve crossed the fan threshold.

For me, I think it was 1983. And specifically, the moment I bought that Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. What a great publication that was, full of photos, interviews and behind the scenes details. Best of all – a complete list of serials, including those from the forthcoming 1984 series.

And what news that list brought! Companions leaving and joining! Old monsters coming back! And biggest news of all – a new Doctor!  Now, I had knowledge of the series’ future. I was now more than just an avid viewer. Now, I had entered the fan zone, never to return.

In 1983, if you’d asked me which was my favourite monster, I would have said straight away, Cybermen. No question. They had just made a barnstorming return to Doctor Who in Earthshock. They were the all time greats, I thought, and somehow I had absorbed enough fannish lore to know that Earthshock was a great improvement on the last Cyberman story, Revenge of the Cybermen (see, I knew we’d get round to it eventually). That one, I knew had been somewhat hokey and embarrassing. Not much chop at all.

It was sometime later I realised that due to my age the only Cyberman story I could have actually seen was Revenge. And seen many times via the ABC repeats. It and only it could have been responsible for my Cyber admiration. It must have had something going for it.

Watching it again gave me a few clues as to what. Mostly, it’s the stuff set on Nerva Beacon, not the stuff set on golden planetoid Voga. As the story goes, script editor Robert Holmes didn’t care much for writer Gerry Davis’s script, or for Cybermen in general. When someone found some extra money down the back of the filing cabinet, he expanded the story to include a subplot about the alien Vogans, old enemies of the Cybermen. The production team then secured a great location in some actual caves (Real caves! Not studio bound polystyrene ones, with dead level floors! How often does that happen?) in which to film the Vogan bits and that should have enlivened the whole affair.

Except they really don’t. Voga is inhabited by two different types of rubber faced Vogans, some soldiery ones and some bureaucraticy ones. Their incessant squabbling eventually leads to them shooting at each other, using projectile weapons, the sound of which ricochets loudly and often through Revenge‘s soundtrack (punctuating another saxophone heavy score from Cary Blyton) Now I’ve watched Revenge many times, and once quite recently, and I still can’t remember what that lot are fighting about. Only that scenes of them fighting take up a lot of the story to little impact.

By contrast, some of the Nerva Beacon scenes are eerily effective. The opening scenes, where the Doctor (rangy Tom Baker, vibrant and compelling in these early days of his tenure) and his mates Sarah and Harry (Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, playing their roles with a rare smattering of sexual tension), come across a corridor full of dead bodies, is very creepy. The exhaustion of the crew, the sliminess of double agent Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin, giving a masterclass in snideness) and the threat of the venomous Cybermats… All this is effectively sold to the viewer by the actors and director Michael E. Briant, by creating an atmosphere of ongoing tension. Not bad considering they created this world despite the constraints of the budget and the studio.

But studios are a Cyberman’s best friends. Take the big silver buggers on location and they are never as successful. Here on the beacon, they are imposing and daunting. Out in the murky caves of Voga, they don’t fill the screen with as much menace. And this is what other cyberstories like Tomb and Earthshock avoided, but think of them striding those green woodlands in Silver Nemesis or strolling through that Welsh quarry for The Five Doctors. Not as intimidating, not as threatening. These are creatures who are meant to stalk the corridors of bases under siege.

Conversely, playing against this quiet menace is the Cyberleader himself (Christopher Robbie). Menacing he does a lot of, but he’s by no means silent. In fact, he’s very shouty from within that tin head of his. And he’s quite emotional for a member of a race which have done away with feelings. “In eight minutes,” he opines at one point, “the accursed Planet of Gold will be utterly destroyed”. He even displays a droll Cyber wit. “You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system,” he tells the Doctor and Sarah in Part Four. “It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it.” And he strides off, hands on his silvery hips.

He’s long been singled out as one of the problems with Revenge. But I think he’s loads of fun, and I think I detect Robert Holmes’ hand in his characterisation. Holmes was skilled at creating enemies who would the audience would engage with, either hate or secretly root for. Where, I can imagine him thinking, is the fun in a villain who doesn’t have any emotional responses? Isn’t that the antithesis of drama? Give us someone to boo, and that’s what Robbie’s Cyberleader does. And good for him. And he’s American to boot.

But back to 1983. The Radio Times special included a list of stories to date. Each story had a one to two sentence summary, written by uber fan Ian Levine. Every so often, one of the stories was highlighted as a ‘classic’. I can’t remember what it said about Revenge, but I doubt it was awarded that lofty distinction.

I suppose that reading that list was the first time it occurred to me that some Doctor Who stories were better than others; prior to this the show had, in my uncritical mind at least, just been one consistently brilliant standard. And not only that there were some classic stories and some not so classic ones, but among people who knew such things, there was a shared acceptance about which ones were which. To fans, there was a hierarchy of Doctor Who. And now I was a fan, I’d be assessing them too. And since then, I’ve never really stopped.

LINKS to The Deadly Assassin. The stories both spring from the same era, so have the same producer, script editor and, significantly, designer. Roger Murray-Leach designed a familiar circular celtic-looking symbol for the halls of Voga, which he reused to great effect in The Deadly Assassin, and has since become a kind of brand element for Gallifrey. So these are two stories linked by a logo. God knows if that’s going to happen again.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Lesterson tampers with his Cyber buckle and bites the gold dust.

NEXT TIME: We’re on the bloody moon to witness the meeting of Smith and Jones.