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Audio, visuals and Fury from the Deep (1968)

fury

One of the benefits of watching Doctor Who stories out of order is that sometimes the lack of context improves the story you’re watching. At the distant end of Season Five, Fury from the Deep can come off as just the latest in a long line of base under siege stories. Younger audience members watching at the time probably didn’t care, but I like to think the intelligent fourteen year olds in lounge rooms everywhere cottoned on quickly after Episode One and, having clocked this week’s base and its truculent commander, worked out that they could come back around Episode Four, by which time the monsters would have arrived and the supporting cast whittled down to a few gamey survivors. Freed from its familiar stablemates, though, Fury is as engaging a monster fest as the series has presented.

It’s also, for most of us, an audio only experience. Luckily, it’s a story which translates to audio well, because its source material was a radio serial (The Slide, also by writer Victor Pemberton). This means it has peculiarly audio-friendly dialogue, like (to choose just one example) the bit where Victoria (Deborah Watling) picks the lock of a door to aid an escape and Jamie (Frazer Hines) says, “Pick a lock with a hair pin? Don’t be daft!” thereby negating the need for any added narration.  It also features various audio elements which add to both the tone and plot of the thing: the thumping heartbeat of the weed creature, Dudley Simpson’s playful but sinister music, and an audio-based plot solution, when Victoria’s screams prove instrumental and meta-textual in defeating the rampaging sea weed creature.

All this makes for a satisfyingly complete adventure for the ears, but of course, I’d love to see the actual episodes themselves. I’d love to see the weed creature attack the base, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) erratically flying that helicopter and any number of the story’s tantalizingly pictureless action set pieces. But the pictures would also be useful to add some nuance to on some of the um… unusual characters who populate this standard Season Five scientific complex by-the-sea.

*****

The boss of this week’s monster infested base is Robson (Victor Maddern). He’s spectacularly unsuited to running a large industrial operation, but that never stopped anyone else in Season Five. Everyone around Robson tells him there’s something blocking the pipes and that he should shut down the gas flow and take a look, but he refuses because, um, male ego or something. His favourite mode of communication is the angry shout and he regularly loses his rag at his staff like he’s been to the Steve Jobs school of personnel management. Supporting characters talk in hushed tones about the four year stretch he once spent out on a rig, but everyone’s too polite to add, “and that’s what sent him batshit crazy.” If we could see the episodes themselves, I like to think we’d see actors in question shooting meaningful glances at each other, while quietly sidling towards the nearest exit.

Robson is particularly cranky at 2IC Harris (Roy Spencer) for being exactly the sort of smarmy Oxbridge type who hasn’t spent four years on a rig and has therefore avoided significant mental trauma. Harris’s main characteristic is a constant concern for his wife, Mrs Harris (June Murphy). She is having a bad day, having been stung by some vicious seaweed, asphyxiated by two men with bad breath and compelled to walk into the sea. They are the sort of sickly devoted couple who can’t get enough of calling each other “darling” and “love”. Some sample dialogue:

MAGGIE: Darling, you couldn’t even boil an egg.

HARRIS: You shouldn’t have married a scientist then. (She gasps suddenly, ill from that nasty seaweed) Maggie!

MAGGIE: Darling! Darling! Darling!

HARRIS: Maggie!

Now if only we had the pictures, not only could see whether the two actors managed to sell all this matinee-movie dialogue with some pathos, but also whether Harris takes offence at the suggestion that a scientist of his education is unable to boil water, which if not covered in first form science you would have thought would be on the curriculum at Oxbridge.

What about Van Lutyens, played by soon to be Who stalwart John Abineri? We can imagine the sternness he would have brought to the character, having seen him be grim and misguided in The Ambassadors of Death and green and in a misguided costume in The Power of Kroll. Here, he plays an expert adviser who is from Europe and so not to be trusted. The telesnaps tell us he’s wearing a sports jacket and turtleneck combo which makes him look very louche like he might walk off set and into a jazz club, lighting a cigarette filled with a different sort of mind-altering weed. No wonder Robson’s suspicious of his unhelpfully sensible suggestions such as, “turn off the gas and see what’s blocking the pipes.” I can imagine how may looks of Dutch exasperation we would have got from Van Lutyens, but I’d also love to see how he steals the Episode Two cliffhanger with a line which should really be Troughton’s: “It’s down there, in the darkness, in the pipeline, waiting.” Surely Abineri would have furrowed that magnificent brow of his to add maximum foreboding to that line.

I’m also keen to see board director Megan Jones (Margaret John) and her hapless adjutant Perkins (Brian Cullingford). Jones is your standard corporate headkicker who gets to say things like, “Now, pull yourself together man!” and generally stride around being the late-arriving voice of scepticism. But it’s Perkins’ frightened little face I want to see most. I bet it’s full of unrequited love for Jones, whom he follows around like a lost toddler. There’s a bit where Jones, always the business, chides him for looking so worried (“Don’t look so worried, man. You might as well go home!”) and then there’s a pause before Jones is forced to apologise, presumably for hurting Perkins’ feelings. Did his face crumple into dismay? Did he pout with injured pride? We must know.

Finally, there’s a pivotal moment for Victoria and Jamie. Victoria has been mooching around all story, wondering if she can keep doing all this (and who can blame her? She spends the whole story being kidnapped or wailing in terror). Jamie tries to convince her to keep travelling with him and the Doctor and ends his entreaties with a kiss. But what sort of kiss is this? Platonic or achingly romantic? Longing or merely fond? The telesnaps missed this moment, so until someone finds the episode down the back of a BBC cupboard or something, we’ll never know.

*****

It’s like Inferno, in many ways. There’s a stubborn base commander, ignoring the advice of the experts around him. A young couple in love and um, pipes everywhere. And the threat, although never entirely made clear, seems to spring from nature itself, a response to humanity’s exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.

But unlike Inferno, the defeat of the weed creature (creatures? The script isn’t quite sure) has a restorative effect on everything around it. Everyone infected by the thing just wipes the patches of foam of themselves and is fine. It’s Steven Moffat’s “everybody lives!” forty years or so early. And Robson seems to come out of the affair in much better humour than when it started, even taking dinner with loved-up upstart Harris. Sure, that stint on the oil rig sent him crackers, but being possessed by a sinister vegetable has done him the world of good.

The cost of all this happily-ever-after is that Victoria decides to stay behind (much to the disappointment of intelligent 14 year olds everywhere) and not be traumatised on a daily basis. Her last scenes are on that grim grey beach, waving the Doctor and Jamie goodbye. It’s a touching goodbye, but also a silent one; no handy exposition here. It’s the part of this audio friendly adventure which needs no words, but needs its accompanying pictures the most.

LINK TO The Space Pirates: the second Doctor and Jamie, of course.

NEXT TIME: O tempora, o mores! It’s time we dropped in on The Romans.

Troughton, trouble and The Space Pirates (1969)

spacepirates

28 February 1969. A bitter night. Michael Troughton, 13, is waiting for his father to come home from work. He’s been rehearsing today, part of the all-too-familiar treadmill of working on Doctor Who: rehearse all week, unless you’re called away for pre-filming, then record on a Friday night, in a tense and often fraught race against the clock. Then, forget all that and do it again next week. Rinse and repeat for 42 weeks of the year.

Normally, his father walks through the door ebulliently, complete with a jaunty whistle. But tonight is different. As he walks through the front door, his Dad -TV’s Patrick Troughton – is solemn and pensive. “He looked haunted,” Michael would write years later in his biography of Patrick, “and highly stressed.”

Over dinner, it transpires that Patrick is far from happy with his lot on Doctor Who. He’s fighting with the producer. And the director. The problem at hand is the current story, in which Troughton’s Doctor and his companions are stuck in a one-room spaceship for two episodes. So irritating are these problems that Troughton seems to have lost his love for the show.

And the production which has driven the show’s usually affable star to despair?

Welcome to The Space Pirates. The story which broke a Doctor.

*****

Troughton, like Hartnell before him, and Tom Baker after him, became “difficult to work with” TM after a few years of being Doctor Who. Troughton described it to a friend as the role making him feel schizophrenic, although he could also be forgiven for simply being exhausted. In the series fifth production block (from The Abominable Snowmen to The Mind Robber), they made an incredible 46 episodes, at a rough rate of one a week. That pace seems not just punishing, but also mentally disorienting. Who would know which base was under siege by which monster from week to week?

Troughton famously complained about the workload and scored a few concessions such as shorter episodes and better scheduling of pre-filming. The Space Pirates feels like it was written in response to that, and the Doctor and his companions’ involvement in a plot about mineral stealing bandits being chased by po-faced space policemen and a moustache-faced space cowboy, is correspondingly minimal. If it was a deliberate strategy to give Troughton a break, it doesn’t seem to have placated him. His son remembers him complaining about the story being boring. And although he was right on that count, it does begin to sound like Troughton was so exhausted he didn’t know what he wanted.

He asked for and got a reduced workload, but this resulted in less involvement in the story and thus less screen time; few leading actors would ever be happy with that. This strikes me as reflective of Troughton’s contradictory relationship with stardom, which seems to have both attracted and repelled him. From all accounts, he was a deeply private man, who had taken on one of the highest profile jobs in television. He created a character beloved by a generation of children but avoided doing public appearances. He seems to have been a man who wanted to have his cake and eat it quietly, out of sight of anyone.

Then on top of all this, there’s an actor’s understandable concern about stability. Michael Troughton’s book paints a picture of a man who worried about typecasting and about not being able to find work because of it. This was not unwarranted fretting; after all, the man had not one but two families to feed. It seems he wanted the stability of income which being Doctor Who brought but also wanted the creative freedom to do new things. With all this on his mind, no wonder he was a bit tetchy as the end of his Doctordom loomed. The rest he longed for was within reach but so was the precariousness of freelancing.

*****

Even though it represents the fag end of his era, The Space Pirates pushes Troughton’s Doctor into some new places. There is, for example, an emphasis on his Sherlockian deduction, like noticing a wound up clock in a supposedly long abandoned room or that an intact but fragile bowl at the bottom of a pit indicates a secret entrance. He also seems to have gained Felix the Cat’s ability to pull exactly the right piece of random ephemera out of his bag of tricks as needed to get out of trouble: marbles, magnets, drawing pins and tuning forks. As written by Robert Holmes (whose second Doctor Who story offers no hint of the greatness to come), his Doctor has suddenly turned into a man with a quirky fix for all occasions.

Holmes is also using The Space Pirates to dry run a few of his favourite set pieces. The Doctor and his companions being locked in an airless room, for instance, ala The Two Doctors and The Ark in Space. And also reused in that later story, the risk of the Doctor being trapped in the exhaust of a departing spaceship. But in other ways, it feels distinctly unlike the cinema horror pastiches Holmes would regularly offer the series in future. Never again would he give us goodies and baddies chasing each other in space. And never again would he dabble with familial drama as he does here, with Madeleine Issigri (Lisa Daniely) re-discovering her long lost father Dom (Esmond Knight), who’d been locked in Edwardian study for years. Holmes doesn’t seem comfortable with this element at all; he leaves their eventual reunion offscreen.

Madeleine, who turns out to be in league with the pirates, at least until they start to get all murdery, is Holmes’ only concession to complexity of character. Again, it’s not what we’ll grow to expect from him, but the other characters are one-note, like bad guy Caven (Dudley Foster), and space cop Hermack (Jack May, he of the fruitiest voice ever). The only variation is the first of Holmes’ mavericks, prospector Milo Clancey (Gordon Gostelow), and he is so overplayed that any potential pathos Holmes gives him when he discovers his old friend Dom is alive is lost underneath an absurd cowboy accent.

We might blame director Michael Hart for these all-too-obvious approaches to characterisation. Or we may need to look again at the working atmosphere our leading man was engendering. As Jack May recalled (and please, imagine him saying this in the world’s plummiest accent): “In rehearsals (Troughton) would sound off at the smallest thing… He seemed paranoiac and unusually serious about the whole thing.”

*****

28 March 1969, Lime Grove Studio D. The recording of the last episode of The Space Pirates. Troughton’s scenes have all been pre-filmed so he doesn’t have to turn up. Presumably, no-one missed him.

That it had come to this: a show which doesn’t need its star and a star who doesn’t want to make his show. Whatever strengths and weaknesses The Space Pirates has, they’ll always pale in comparison to the languorous impression it leaves, that of a show in desperate need of change.

PLEASE CHECK OUT: Patrick Troughton: The Biography by Michael Troughton, much referenced in this post.

LINK TO Demons of the PunjabLong lost family secrets in both.

NEXT TIME: It’s down there. In the pipes. Waiting! Time to unleash the Fury from the Deep.

Gerry, Geoffrey and The Underwater Menace (1967)

underwater menace

Doctor Who production office, late 1966.

GERRY: (on phone) No, no, it’s the windjammer jacket, the blacked-up face and the Harpo Marx wig. No, he’s going to look great. Don’t let him out of the building. OK, marvellous. Thanks.

Imperious knock on the door.

GEOFFREY: Pray, good fellow! Grant me access to these… impoverished premises!

GERRY: Call you back.

Hangs up and opens door. There stands an imposing man, opera cape, wild hair, crazy eyes.

GEOFFREY: Thank you, good man! Run and fetch the Script Editor, would you?

GERRY: I’m the Script Editor.

GEOFFREY: Good lord, you’re Mr Davies?

GERRY: It’s Davis, actually.

GEOFFREY: Davies, I am the esteemed writer Geoffrey Orme! No doubt you’ve heard of me. I have written many high quality feature films and TV programs, enjoyed by the masses!

GERRY: Oh, yes, right…

GEOFFREY: And the good news is, I have decided to write for your children’s program, Mr Who!

GERRY: Well, it’s Doctor Who, and…

GEOFFREY: Now, Davies, I submitted a perfectly brilliant Mr Who script to you a good fortnight ago and yet I have heard nothing! Nothing! Me, the writer of What would you do, chums?, Ramsbottom Rides Again and no less than four Old Mother Riley films!

GERRY: Oh right, Mr Orme. What was the name of that script again?

GEOFFREY: Mr Who Under the Sea!

GERRY: Oh yes, hang on, I’ve got my notes on it somewhere.

GEOFFREY: Notes? Of sheer gobsmacked admiration, I trust! Haw haw haw!

GERRY: (fishes the script out of the bin) Here it is.

GEOFFREY: Misfiled, eh? You should sack your incompetent wretch of a secretary.

GERRY: Yes… So, Mr Orme, thank you, but we will not be making your script.

GEOFFREY: No! No! You cannot do this to me! You are turning me down? I, who wrote 6 episodes of Ivanhoe? I demand to know why!

GERRY: Well, it doesn’t make any sense.

GEOFFREY: So you’re just a little man after all, Davies, like all the rest. You disappoint me.

GERRY: I mean, it’s set in the ancient city of Atlantis. And these people live under the sea…

GEOFFREY: But of course! The people there survived due to in air pockets in the mountain’s caves! But they long to lift Atlantis from the ocean. Make it dry land again!

GERRY: They could just take the lift.

GEOFFREY: What?

GERRY: There’s a lift leading to the surface. If they wanted to be on the surface, they could do so whenever they want. Rebuild Atlantis there. And really, why would they stay hidden for thousands of years rather than rejoin humanity? Why not go and ask people on the surface for help to raise Atlantis?

GEOFFREY:  But you see, Professor Zaroff has promised them…

GERRY: Yes, that’s another thing. Zaroff wants to blow up the world, under the guise of raising Atlantis from the sea bed, but there’s no good reason why.

GEOFFREY: Why? You, a script editor of a lowly children’s programme ask me why? The achievement, my dear Davies! The scientist’s dream of supreme power!

GERRY: See, the mad scientist thing is a bit clichéd, Mr Orme and most scientists actually want to advance humanity.

GEOFFREY: You are a fool! An idiot!

GERRY: What about how all the Atlanteans live on plankton?

GEOFFREY: What’s wrong with that?

GERRY: They live in the ocean, Mr Orme! They are literally surrounded by seafood, yet they choose to eat plankton. And although they have the world’s greatest scientist living amongst them, and they have the technology to perform transformative surgery on human beings, they haven’t got any refrigerators.

GEOFFREY: But that’s the genius of it, don’t you see? All the food goes bad in a few hours, and that’s what sparks the revolt which spells Zaroff’s downfall. That’s how Mr Who wins!

GERRY: Look, it’s not Mr Who. The lead character’s name is the Doctor. And sometimes Dr Who when I want to mess with people. In any case, I just don’t think you’ve got the structure right.

GEOFFREY: What do you mean, you little man?

GERRY: You see in our show, Mr… I mean Dr Who wins through intelligence and ingenuity. In your script, the villain just tells the Doctor his plan at the start of Part Two. There’s nothing for him to work out if Zaroff gives the game away as soon as they meet. And the Doctor’s big plan to stop Zaroff destroying Altantis is to… destroy Atlantis. He might as well let Zaroff blow it up.

GEOFFREY: Blast! Blast! Blast!

GERRY: Well, exactly. In any case, I think it’s beyond our budget. It’s got a shark tank, an octopus and a whole underwater ballet with loads of floating fish people. We showed the script to one director and he ran away in panic.

GEOFFREY: Just put flippers on some extras and hang them up via wires! I really think you’re making too much fuss about all this, Davies. A silly little children’s program doesn’t need to make any sense or look convincing!

GEOFFREY: Yes… I think that’s your whole problem right there. Now if you please Mr Orme… (Ushers him out the door)

GEOFFREY: (In the corridor, shouting at closed door) The man is a fool. Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis shall rise again from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I? What are you staring at?

CLEANING LADY: Nothing. Nothing at all.

*****

One week later

GERRY: (on the phone) The t-shirts say what? Tell him it’s just a joke. No, don’t let him phone his agent, I’ll come down straight away. (Hangs up). Okay, thanks for coming in Mr Orme. I wanted to tell you that we will be producing your script for Doctor Who after all.

GEOFFREY:  Well, how delightfully wise of you, young Davies! You must have read the script again and realised what pure, unsullied genius it is!

GERRY: Well, no. Another script fell through and as I’m writing the story before it and the one after, I just don’t have time to write this one as well. Frankly, it’s either your story or we put on reruns of… I don’t know, Ivanhoe.

GEOFFREY: I wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe!

GERRY: I know you wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe. Plus, we’ve found a director who didn’t have a conniption at the thought of making the thing, so we’re on.

GEOFFREY: Capitol! Excelsior!

GERRY: Sure. Look, I don’t have time to do much rewriting on it, so just take on all the notes from our last meeting. Plus the octopus has got to become a fish and add a bit where the Doctor dresses up as a gypsy. Dressing up’s his new thing. And you’ll need to write in a new assistant, a Scots boy called Jamie.

GEOFFREY: No problem there, good fellow. I’ll just give him some of Mr Who’s girlfriend’s lines.

GERRY: Um, sure. And change the title.

GEOFFREY: Yes! To Geoffrey Orme presents the extraordinary tale of Mr Who and the Fish People!

GERRY: Keep working on it. Oh, and one other thing… there’s a terribly hackneyed line in it somewhere. I forget what it is just at the moment, but it’s a real howler. Anyway, we’ll fix it later. I’ve got to get to the studio. (exits)

Geoffrey savours the moment.

GEOFFREY: Nothing in the world can stop me now!

CLEANING LADY: Good for you, ducks.

*****

LINK TO Cold War: Setting, the sea.

NEXT TIME:  We get ensnared in The Web Planet. What galaxy is that in, Doctor?

 

 

 

 

Gore, gall and The Two Doctors (1985)

twodoc

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teasing, traumatising and The Web of Fear (1968)

webfear

Prior to the miraculous discovery of nearly all of The Web of Fear in 2013, this story was a teasing, tantalising experience. Unique among all Doctor Who stories, we had only its first episode and that instalment is a taut, intriguing affair. (Well, I say “taut”. It does have several explanation-free minutes of  padding about the TARDIS being immobilised by web in space). 

Still, it does what all first episodes are meant to do – hook us and leave us eager for the next chapter. But it was a promise which couldn’t be fulfilled, so more so than any other missing story, it felt like The Web of Fear kept us hanging.

With the recovery of four of its five missing episodes, the picture has changed again. There’s much to love in this story, but with Episodes 2, 4, 5 and 6 now back for us to lap up, it’s now clear they have a different tone to that opening segment we knew so well. We shouldn’t be surprised – first episodes are meant to entice and ensnare. If the remaining episodes feel more talky, more stagey, more filled with running in and out of rooms, that’s fine because that’s what episodes two to six are always for.

The continuing absence of Episode 3 (fallen into the hands of some Bondian super villain, I like to think. “How do you like my film print of The Web of Fear Episode 3? Exquisite, don’t you think? I keep it with my six Mona Lisas and four Detective Comics Issue 1s, because it’s important to surround oneself with beauty in this cruel world. But I’m afraid you’ve seen too much. Gerald, take him to the shark-infested dungeon….”

Sorry, I got carried away there. The continuing absence of Episode 3 reshapes the story again. It divides it into two, quite distinct portions; almost like we’ve had two separate missing stories returned to us. Episodes 1 and 2 form a precursor to the story proper. There’s scene setting galore, but without the catalytic presence of the Doctor (a galvanised Patrick Troughton), the second episode is really only gently elaborating on material offered in the first. Really, if we had to be robbed of any episode of this story, 2 is the standout candidate.

Instead, the search for Episode 3 goes on in car boot sales, Mormon church halls and remote African relay stations everywhere. It’s a pity it’s missing because it’s where the story kicks into gear. 

It’s where, with the arrival of Col. Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the ensemble cast is finally complete.  From here on in, it’s all inter-character suspicion, sporadic attacks from the Yeti and trips forward and back between Fortress and platform, with a few peeps getting knocked off as they go. Ep 3 is the bridge between the more sedate opening instalments and the action runaround of the second half.

You can see this shift in gear most clearly be comparing episodes 2 and 4. Ep 4 is outstanding, helped no end by a bumper battle sequence shot on film. It’s a contender for the best single episode of the sixties, and one of the best of the whole classic series. 2 is a little office bound plodder by comparison. Without Episode 3 to link them, it almost seems like they’re from different stories.

So Episodes 4 to 6, cut off from the rest of the story, feel like a standalone three-parter. 5 and 6 aren’t quite as glorious as 4; the constant game of to and fro between locations starts to wear, Professor Travers’ (Jack Watling) possessed acting is a little too eye-rolling and there’s an unnecessarily large coterie of characters hanging around in that climax in the Intelligence’s lair. But it does have that pervading sense of menace that characterises the best Doctor Who, and that’s largely down to director Douglas Camfield.

In fact, it’s Camfield, with his pinpoint accurate casting and his ability to ramp up the tension, who is key to this story’s success. Far more so than writers Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln, whose script is a standard monstery runabout with some added “who’s the traitor” intrigue and some conspicuous trappings of mysticism thrown in. Pyramidal structures become important and voodoo-like totems of the Yeti spell doom for those who carry them. Possession, which we now think of as standard Doctor Who fodder, was pioneered by Haisman and Lincoln in The Abominable Snowmen and is repeated here.

But even putting aside its fascination with the supernatural , the script is not outstanding. The dialogue is pretty basic and the premise itself is shaky. London underground at a standstill would be a major national crisis, so why is the whole place not teeming with soldiers? Is the rest of the world just looking on helplessly, not stepping in? What is the web and what is the fungus? Are they the same thing? How does this all work?

What Camfield manages to do, is to divert our attention from the script’s shortcomings. As always, he pushes his cast further than any other Doctor Who director does. John Rollason, as oily journalist Chorley is particularly good in Episode 6, driven to near hysteria after running around unseen in the tunnels for an episode or two. Another terrific moment is given by Nicholas Courtney at the end of Episode 4, as he returns to the fortress having lost a number of his men in the fight with the Yeti. He looks genuinely traumatised. It’s the sort of visceral reaction that Camfield gets out of his actors and which raises the dramatic stakes.

People often point out that this story set the template for Seventies Doctor Who, and they’re right. But we don’t often credit Camfield as one of the architects of that, even though he directed this and its close cousin The Invasion. By directing the progamme as action adventure so well, he shows the way for others to follow. He’s as much an instigator of that new version of Who as producers Bryant and Sherwin.

All this is clear from having most of The Web of Fear back. It used to be the story that teased us with a single episode. Now it’s teasing us by missing a single episode, being tantalisingly close to completion. And when that Blofeld decides to release the episode back to us, and we can see the whole thing, the story’s shape will change again. May that day come swiftly. I’ll be sitting cross legged under my pyramid, holding my little Yeti totem close until it does.

LINK TO Empress of Mars: again, returning Season Five monsters.

NEXT TIME: Fingers on lips! Pick up your Olympic torch, we’re off to Fear Her.

Women, men and The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)

tomb2

Here’s a story which has taken a long and winding path. Fondly remembered from its original screening, then lost for 25 years. Found in Hong Kong and rush-released to an eager fandom, some who found it matched every rosy memory they’d ever had, some who found it disappointingly hokey.

Some subsequent critical analyses found it lacking; the plot sags in the middle, the Doctor’s (Patrick Troughton) modus operandi is illogical and its attitude to race is highly suspect. But still, it commands affection, scoring highly in various polls. Steven Moffat still loves it and talks about it all the time. Famously, it’s the story that turned Matt Smith into a gushing fan. We’ve been around the block with this one.

Me, I came to it in 1992, like so many others. I bought it on VHS, even though my family didn’t own a VCR to play it on.(My mother, always suspicious of television, having read an alarmist book on its effect on children, luridly titled The Plug-in Drug, only had a TV set in our house under sufferance, to borrow a phrase from Tomb. The thought of shelling out for a machine which recorded TV programs for repeat viewings was a bridge too far.) So I rented a VCR for a weekend. God knows how many times I watched that tape that weekend. Etching it into my memory.

What a glorious thing watching a previously missing episode for the first time is. That sense of utter amazement at what you’re seeing. And how equally amazing that it’s become a periodic treat for Doctor Who fans in the 25 years since Tomb was found and rushed into our homes. Tomb, The Lion, Day of Armageddon, Air Lock, The Underwater Menace 2 and most stunningly The Enemy of the World and nearly all of The Web of Fear. Those exhilarating days when you hit play and watch long lost Who. May there be many more.

****

So raking over the ashes of Tomb is something we’ve been doing for a long time. Every frame of it has been pored over and no doubt by undertaking that detailed look, we’re also trying to recapture some of the magic of that first, revelatory viewing. But here’s something I don’t see talked about much: among its towering monsters, tangled storyline and bad guys with foreign accents and dark skin, it’s a peculiar place to find an old fashioned battle of the sexes.

That we only get two female characters – tremulous new companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) and exotic villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) – is a stereotypical norm, hardly surprising for 60s Doctor Who. But there’s also the funny positioning of how a woman should behave. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, of all things.

Victoria develops a sparring relationship with Captain Hopper (George Roubicek) who clearly thinks Victoria is too mouthy for his conception of femininity. “Who’d be a woman?” complains Victoria at one stage, having been prohibited from heading down to the Cybermen’s subterranean tombs. “How would you know, honey?” he snaps back.

Such a strange observation about Victoria, who this story positions as the terrified female of so much pulp fiction; worried about what to wear, potentially frightened by the TARDIS taking off, needing to be coaxed and chaperoned into the adventure itself. Suddenly, she’s so pushy she’s not even female anymore? Not to worry, it’s not long before she reverts to type and needs to be rescued from something.

Except that she gets her own back on Hopper later on, saying sarcastically to him, “It’s comforting to know that we have your superior strength to call on, should we need it.” Apart from being a very strange thing for Victoria to say, it’s part of a macho strain running through Tomb, where male characters are judged and needled about their physical strength.

It starts with a light-hearted moment, where Jamie (Frazer Hines) finds himself unable to open the doors to the tomb. Embarrassed, he claims, “well, I’ve no’ had much exercise lately!”, to which the Doctor archly replies, “Quite.” Muscleman Toberman (Roy Stewart) is on hand to take over and succeeds at this feat of strength, where Jamie, no slouch in the physical fitness department, failed.

Later on, chief whiner Viner (Cyril Shaps) is similarly taunted about his lack of brawn. When investigating the restoration room with Kaftan, she tells him that she’s sent Toberman away. “We do not need any other protection now that you are with us,” she says, with a subtle but loaded squeeze of his bicep. At once, she positions the women as needing protection and Viner as the one to supply it. But Viner is a slight, weedy chap. It’s clear the comment is meant to undermine him.

Why all this focus on whether men are physically strong or not? Perhaps it’s simply part of the boy’s own adventure theme of this story. Or perhaps it’s related to the fact that there are two feats of male strength which will bring the story to its climax: Toberman’s defeat of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff) in single combat and his shutting of the tomb’s doors. It’s odd that a story which is meant to be about intelligence and logic, hinges on the physical prowess of blokes.

Back to our lady friends and we still have Kaftan to deal with. She’s clearly the Lady Macbeth of the piece, as she’s the one who has to strategise on behalf of fellow conspirator Klieg (George Pavell). Even though he’s supposed to be the master planner, it’s her who has to constantly pull him into line and tell him which bit to do next. She’s also the one who has the money to fund the expedition in the first place, so in many ways she’s a powerful instigator within the story.

She’s a strong, influential presence in the story; no one taunts her about her gender, as she does to others. She’s also a figure of devotion by Toberman. It’s his fury at her death at the hands of the Cybemen which provokes him to defeat them. And in a way, it’s a failure of that physical power that he has such a glut of. He was meant to protect her, in both the literal sense that he’s her bodyguard, and in the thematic position this story takes that that’s what men are supposed to do. He’s basically made impotent; all he can do now is destroy.

So who’d be a man? Who’d be a woman? And what does it mean to be either? Amidst all the thrills and spills of Doctor Who’s adventures underground with Cybermen, here’s a story that wants to talk about gender roles. Maybe not in a very sophisticated way, but still it’s there.

This is why we’re still examining and debating Tomb after all these years. Because despite it being a familiar and straightforward story, there’s still lots of it to unearth.

LINK TO The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: Subterranean Cybermen.

NEXT TIME… Space. The final frontier. We take a big gulp of Oxygen.

ADDENDUM: How would you know, honey?

Over on Twitter, two learned Whoheads, Will Brooks and Darth Egregious have pointed out something about the “how would you know, honey?” exchange referenced above. I’ve read this moment to be Hopper having a dig at Victoria’s ladylike-ness for being too mouthy. Both these guys have read it as a reference to her age, saying Hopper is pointing out that Victoria’s still a girl. Which has led me to consider the question, how old is Victoria meant to be?

As far as I can tell, her age is never mentioned on screen. Deborah Watling was 19 when The Evil of the Daleks entered production, so we could suppose that Victoria is the same age. Moreover, there are a few other indications that she’s an adult, albeit a young one, rather than a child.

Firstly, she’s a replacement companion for Polly, who was an adult character. While this in itself doesn’t prove anything, we know that the production team was looking for another young woman (rather than a girl) to be the new companion, because their first choice was Pauline Collins as Sam. Again, they could have changed tack after Collins declined the offer to join the show, but it does seem that the production team wasn’t planning on matching Troughton and Hines with a child.

Secondly, Victoria’s subsequent stories position her as character with sex appeal. In The Ice Warriors, Jamie jokes with her about wearing more revealing clothing. In The Enemy of the World, she’s frequently referred to as Jamie’s girlfriend. Again, it proves nothing definitively, but it’s to be hoped that the show saw her as above the age of consent and wasn’t deliberately sexualising an underage girl.

Finally, if the line was meant to signify that Victoria’s a child, why isn’t it “how would you know, kid?” or something similar? The use of the word “honey” is a little more suggestive of a romantic relationship. And that fits better with Hopper and Victoria’s ongoing sniping at each other throughout Tomb.

So as far as I can work out, Victoria’s an adult and Hopper’s line is a kind of eye-rolling snark to a woman being too argumentative for his taste. Think I’m on the wrong track? Comment away!

Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

wargames

Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.