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Best, brightest and The Claws of Axos (1971)

axos

In a swirl of psychedelic colour and with a fanfare of tinny electronica comes The Claws of Axos. So Pertwee it hurts, this marks the point when the third Doctor’s era turns from hard nosed grittiness to something more comfortable and familiar. The bouffant starts here, you might say, as the show becomes more fantastic and more confident in its bold, brassy house style.

Somewhere, there’s a fan for whom The Claws of Axos is his or her favourite story. I mean, every story is probably someone’s favourite, maybe even Time-Flight. But a recent online conversation has got me thinking about the difference between “favourite” and “best”. With all the love in the world for it, I don’t think Axos has featured too much on anyone’s “best of” list.

So let’s award it a few unexpected best ofs, because there are a few lurking in there, waiting to emerge in a flurry of orange tentacles.

Best obnoxious government official. In a highly competitive field, including a strong contingent from the Pertwee era, Axos comes out of top here. Chinn, as played by Peter Bathurst, is surely the grubbiest, most infuriating of the lot. He blusters and bullies his way through four episodes. He’s obnoxious, he’s annoying and he doesn’t even have the good grace to be killed by Stuart Fell in a rolling orange duvet. But here’s the real kicker about Chinn, with his bull at the gate, Britain for the British nonsense. He was right all the time.

First thing he wanted to do when Axos flew its big yellow leechy self into the atmosphere was blow it up. That namby-pamby Doctor (Jon Pertwee, something dancing in front of his eyeline) wanted to make friends with the bad guys just because they were asking for help. If only Chinn’s plan had worked, a nuclear power station would have been saved, a tramp would have lived and, most tellingly, the Master (Roger Delgado) would have been destroyed.

Best performance in a yellow unitard. You can’t look past (literally, no matter how hard you try) Bernard Holley as the cheerily named Axon Man. I imagine it takes some guts to climb into a lycra bodysuit, but ironically once inside, you must spend a lot of time sucking that gut in. Fair play, Holley pulls it off, after pulling that saffrony horror on. And on top of all that, a mumsy golden wig and ping pong balls for eyes. That he manages to come out of the affair with his dignity intact is testament to his acting talent and a rigourous fitness regime.

Best unnecessary American. Step up Bill Filer (Paul Grist, clearly auditioning for an unmade cop drama). To create a character who features so heavily in a story, and yet is so uncalled for, is quite a feat.

Filer, y’see is a US special agent, billeted out to UNIT in order to capture the Master. Why the US is suddenly interested in the Master is as unremarked upon as why they are never interested in him again. At no point does he need to be American for the plot to function. At no point does he do anything which would require him to be American. He gets captured, duplicated, has a fight with himself, gets a bit suspicious of the Doctor. Nothing which couldn’t have been done by say, an expanded role for Captain Yates (Richard Franklin).

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin would go on to create other great unnecessary characters, like Mr Ollis or Tala in Underworld. Characters who add little, but are there anyway. But none so prominent as Bill Filer and none with an unnecessary nationality. It’s a real achievement.

Best unintelligible yokel. Imagine going into a script meeting these days and saying, “here’s an idea. Let’s spend 5 minutes of an episode on a character who interacts with no one else. He’ll be a kind of mad, homeless person and he’ll talk to himself, but we won’t be able to understand anything he says! Then he’ll ride his bike into a pond and get eaten by the monster. It’ll be awesome!” I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of it again, so well done Axos.

Best Mastery Stunt. In Episode Two, the Master jumps off a bridge and onto a moving truck, clambers down the side of it, clings on like a limpet and hypnotises a UNIT driver (Nick Hobbs) via the side mirror. Roger Delgado seems to perform a significant portion of it too, crawling along the top of the truck’s canopy, inches from the top of a tunnel the truck’s travelling through. The Pert used to say Delgado was a committed coward, but this sequence shows what a mistruth that was. And if an impressive stunt starring the Master wasn’t enough, there’s also in this sequence, at least according to some corners of Twitter which have bred the most lascivious things…

Best hunky UNIT soldier. Apparently, the sight of Nick Hobbs jiggling up and down on that car seat, eyes glazed over through hypnosis gets a certain set of the viewing audience’s hearts racing. Pity for them that when he returned to the show, they covered him up in a big furry bear outfit. And while we’re talking about lascivious things…

Best giant cock shaped prop. You know the one I mean. You can’t miss it, it’s hanging from the bubbly ceiling of Axos, staring at everything with its big circumcised eyeball. Put a cloak on it and it could be Alpha Centauri.

Best unnecessary Special Edition DVD. Now with slightly better picture quality! All the better for you to see the big penis dangling from the ceiling!

And finally…

Best throwaway line. Really, this blog is supposed to avoid the same old, same old about Doctor Who. But in compiling a list of Axos’s best ofs, I can’t avoid the old “freak weather conditions.” A piece of impromptu genius from script editor Terrance Dicks to paper over deficiencies in the location footage. It says something about the way fans view the show, that they’ve embraced that line as a knowing insight into the way the show’s made. But still, it says something about this story that it’s most memorable piece of dialogue is a workmanlike covering line which has discovered a second life as a celebrated in-joke.

LINK TO The Vampires of Venice. Axos’s original title was The Vampire from Space. The loved things either from or in space in the early 70s, didn’t they? Spearheads, colonies, frontiers, arks…

NEXT TIME: Okay, kid. This is where it gets complicated. It’s The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.

 

 

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Realism, fantasy and The Mind of Evil (1971)

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“We no longer execute our hardened criminals and killers,” witters Professor Kettering (Simon Lack) in the first episode of The Mind of Evil. “Modern society has progressed far beyond that primitive form of retribution.” Yup, capital punishment’s right out, but performing brain surgery in order to leave them passive dullards is absolutely fine.

The Mind of Evil‘s central premise is a little iffy, with more than a hint of social engineering about it. After the mysterious Keller process is undertaken on hard case Barnham (Neil McCarthy), Professor Kettering (of Which University) promises, “he will take his place as a useful, if lowly, member of society.” His place. Useful. Lowly. It’s all a bit Orwellian. It’s just as well the Doctor (the Pert, with authoritarian front) takes a dislike to it from the start.

But it would be nice if he directly objected to it. He’s worried about the Keller machine, sure, but he’s worried about the threat it might cause to the outside world, seemingly about what happens to the “evil impulses” sucked out of convicts and stored in a natty little tank. He really should at some point say that apart from any external risk it represents,what is in effect lobotomising people is a pretty sucky thing to do.

It’s just one of many things going on in this story. Russell T Davies has talked about Doctor Who‘s ability to gobble up plot like no one’s business and you can see it on display here. The Master (Roger Delgado), this season’s house villain, has no less than three wicked schemes: sabotage a peace conference, steal a nuclear missile and unleash an alien mind parasite (the creature lurking inside the Keller machine) on the world. And even so, there’s still not quite enough going on to sustain six episodes. Like most six parters, it should have been four. Events keep repeating: riots, cliffhangers, locking the Doctor and Jo up.

Part of the problem is the Keller machine itself. Being essentially a brain in a box, it might be dangerous but it’s not very mobile. So for it to pose any threat, our heroes have to keep finding excuses to go into the room it’s locked up in. It’s not until Episode Four that our monster of the week makes up for its lack of legs, by magically learning how to teleport itself to exotic locations, like the next room along. Director Timothy Combe does what he can to make this mini juke box look menacing with some giddying swoops of his camera and some jaunty angles. Composer Dudley Simpson helps with some portentous music, but it’s a tough job to make it look menacing.

It has also changed its modus operandi by the time it starts beaming itself short distances around the set. In the early episodes, it kills folk by amplifying their greatest fear. Kettering for instance, is terrified of water so he drowns in a dry room, and again as if by magic, his lungs fill with water. “We believe what our minds tell us too,” flubs the Doctor, to cover over this implausibility.

The Doctor turns out to be terrified of black and white cut outs of old monsters flying at his head. The Master is scared of staring up a giant Pert’s nostrils. But by the time the Keller machine gets round to killing a few extras, it’s forgotten about dredging up the dreads, and just zaps people in a shower of static. Which leaves us to imagine what the crippling phobias of the expendable prisoners and guards are. I like to think they are of the oddly mundane variety. Buttons.The colour yellow. The lack of a fulfilling acting career.

The prison setting makes The Mind of Evil feel quite different to other Whos. I’m reluctant to use the overused term ‘gritty’ (although it is an adjective often applied to these earliest of Pertwee stories) because I think Doctor Who is always too fantastic for that. But still, we’re in a prison, which is not as cosy a setting as Doctor Who normally inhabits.

But this attempt at realism is countered by an air of unreality. This looks like a very BBC prison to me. The prisoners are all neatly dressed, all the way to their neckties. The walls aren’t brick, but vac formed plastic sheets. We never actually see a prisoner in a cell. (Oh, and yes, that whole alien mind parasite thing’s a definite challenge to realism.)

This strange mix of reality and unreality runs through The Mind of Evil. For instance, real world tensions between the US and China are mirrored here, though the very notion of them attending a ‘peace conference’ is fanciful. Not to mention that the Americans have sent a chief negotiator to this conference who has a profound fear of the Chinese, which results in the Keller machine prescribing death by oriental dragon. How did that sneak through Senator Alcott’s (Tommy Duggan) personality profiling?

Or what about how the Doctor drops the real world name of Mao Zedong (not something he’d rush to do these days I suspect) and enters into a conversation in Hokkien, to give the impression of someone familiar with Chinese culture. But earlier in the story, in I think my favourite bit in the whole story, he deduces that the assistant who accompanied the Master to install the Keller Machine at Stangmoor, and peace conference delegation member Captain Chin Lee (Pik-Sen Lim), must be the same person because they’re both described as “attractive Chinese girls”. I mean, of course! How many of them could there be?!

No actually, that’s not my favourite bit. My favourite bit is when the story acknowledges the very fine line it’s walking between realism and fiction. It comes when the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) and Major Cosworth (Patrick Godfrey) are plotting a break-in to Stangmoor. Problem is Stangmoor’s an old fortress so getting in is going to be quite a task. But then Cosworth seems to speak with the writer’s own voice as he works out a solution to this plotting problem:

COSWORTH: I suppose there couldn’t possibly be a secret underground passage or something?

Of course there could! And what’s more…

BRIGADIER: Yes, you’re right. It hasn’t been blocked off either. It probably leads to the old dungeons.  

I’m sure it does! Problem solved.

COSWORTH: It’s rather like making a film, isn’t it Sir?

Yes, Cosworth, that’s certainly what it feels like watching it.

LINK TO A Good Man Goes to War: prisons in both.

NEXT TIME… The monkey house is nearly full, but there’s room enough for you. Cue the Ghost Light.

Establishment, anti-establishment and The Curse of Peladon (1972)

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Is Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, he of the sweeping capes, velvet jackets and patrician tone, anti-establishment or deeply embedded in it? Some people (late producer Verity Lambert among them) have argued that by aligning himself with UNIT and setting up base on Earth, the Doctor became part of our society’s power structures and quite different to the anarchic force for change he had been previously.

Others (like writer Gareth Roberts) have argued that he’s utterly anti-establishment, that barely a story goes by without him clashing with bureaucrats and soldiers and anyone who represents the powers-that-be. I’m not sure that being anti-authority precludes you from being part of the establishment, but I think the Doctor’s flamboyant presence among the suits and uniforms around him is a potent contrast. If the Doctor has sold out, it doesn’t sit comfortably with him.

You could read it either way. But it surprises me to find on this random trip through Who that the more I see of him, the more it’s clear that the Third Doctor is a tricky character to pigeon hole.

Most recently, I’ve accompanied him and dolly bird assistant Jo Grant (played by dolly bird Katy Manning) to the stormy planet of Peladon. It’s only the second time the Doctor has managed to slip the Time Lord shackles which have grounded him on planet Earth, so it’s a rare trip to another world. But while in the confines of a UNIT laboratory the Doctor may have sneered at enough civil servants to convince us he’s still a maverick at heart, I have to report that once on Peladon, he becomes a resounding advocate for the establishment.

Peladon is a rustic kind of place. Its cavernous citadel is lit by fiery torches and its soldiers dress like Romans and carry swords. It’s governed by a King, who’s advised by long robed lords. Like its mascot, the furry fanged beast Aggedor, Peladon’s an untamed beast. But civilisation beckons, in the form of a Galactic Federation of planets. To assess Peladon’s application to join the Federation, representative delegates have been sent, all of them green: Ice Warriors, Arcturus (an alien head in a mobile jukebox) and Alpha Centauri (a phallic hexapod).

(A quick diversion – Alpha Centauri, WTF? It is the oddest thing: it looks like a cock, sounds like a woman and is labelled a hermaphrodite. It’s every gender you can think of, with six tentacles and wrapped in a cloak. It pulls focus in every scene it’s in: Katy Manning even throws in a cheeky ad lib about it upstaging everyone. But putting aside its sheer mind boggling weirdness, I wonder if there’s an argument for Alpha Centauri being the first queer character in Doctor Who. After all, actor Ysanne Churchman was instructed to give it the voice of ‘a homosexual civil servant’. And is there something uncomfortable in positioning gays as bizarre, unearthly creatures?)

The Earth delegate is missing, but the Doctor is on hand to adopt the role. And he’s clearly a method actor, because he utterly embeds himself in the part. So much so, that he adopts an unquestioning support for Peladon joining the Federation. So fervent is his belief in this cause, he seems to forget that he’s not actually there to ensure it happens.

In Episode Three, this unusually committed impostor talks to chief recalcitrant Hepesh (Geoffrey Toome):

DOCTOR: You slap the Federation in the face by sabotaging the commission. Why?
HEPESH: Because I’m afraid.
DOCTOR: Afraid? Afraid of what? The Federation is your safeguard.
HEPESH: That is not true! I know the Federation’s real intent.
DOCTOR: The Federation’s real intent is to help you.
HEPESH: No! They’ll exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology. The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away, and everything that I know and value will have gone.
DOCTOR: The progress that they offer, that we offer, isn’t like that.

How does he know? Does he know about the Federation from some previous adventure? If not, how can he be so sure it’s the benign force for progress he paints it as? Hepesh’s argument, though paranoid and fear-driven, might have some merit. Unusually for the Doctor, he doesn’t give the other side of the argument any consideration.

Compare this to Curse‘s Season Nine stablemate,The Mutants. In that story, the planet Solos is fighting for its independence from an imperialist regime. In that adventure, the Doctor is firmly on the side of self-determination. Sure we’re dealing with two different allegories here; The Mutants rails against colonialism, whereas Curse reflects tensions about the UK joining the European economic community. Peladon is making a choice of its own, whereas Solos is occupied. But still, it’s odd to see the Doctor urging one society of strength in unity, while pointing out to another the strength of standing alone.

I suppose though it depends what we’re calling ‘the establishment’. The Doctor is certainly against Hepesh’s attempts to keep Peladon shackled to tradition and the old power structures. In this sense, he’s a true advocate for change and firmly questioning the wisdom of sticking with the status quo.

But I can’t help wondering how Peladon’s going to fare in this galactic federation. It’s a feudal society, lacking in technological sophistication but rich in natural resources. Surely there’s a possibility it’s going to extorted and bullied by its more advanced co-signatories. Hmm Doctor? Hmm?

Curse has a sequel, the quite similar, but two episodes longer, The Monster of Peladon. It concerns itself with rebellious miners mostly, so perhaps writer Brian Hayles missed a trick. What if 50 years later, Peladon finds itself wanting out of the Federation? What if Hepesh’s fears were borne out? The Doctor would have to face the consequences of his actions and perhaps strive for the opposite outcome he sought in Curse. There’d have to be Ice Warriors and Aggedor and funny hairstyles, natch.

At the end of the adventure the Doctor tells Jo that he suspects their arrival on Peladon was no coincidence. He reckons it was those wily old birds the Time Lords sending him on another mission. What possible benefit they see in Peladon joining the Federation remains unknown, but they had their man in the field go and sort things out. Once again, the Doctor’s on hand to do the establishment’s bidding. Whether he likes it or not.

LINK to Blink. Both feature deadly statues. And as it happens…

NEXT TIME… You might want to find something to hang on to. It’s back to not blinking for The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

AND ONE LAST THING… The Curse of Peladon means that Season 9 is the first season to be completed on Randomwhoness! You can find links to its stable mates, and indeed all my posts, right here.

Congregation, cinema and Day of the Daleks (1972)

day of the daleks

Two Days stick in my mind. Day of the Daleks and The Day of the Doctor. Because I saw them both at the cinema.

The Daleks’ Day  escaped onto DVD a few years back with a very special Special Edition, complete with new very special effects and new very special Dalek voices and other bells and whistles. To celebrate, there was a new very special screening of the story at cinemas around Australia. Now, I wasn’t that keen to go. I’m not that keen on public displays of fandom. As you can probably tell by my nom de plume and headless profile pic.

But unusually it was Mrs Spandrell who insisted we go. She had no desire to sit through Doctor Who movie-sized except for two things: one, she’ll do anything to eat cinema popcorn, with which she is obsessed and two, she was curious to see Who fans out after dark.

Fans fascinate her, even though she has been shackled to this one for years and has had ample time to examine it up close. She likes to see how far people will go for their love of something, particularly those who express it by dressing up in public. And she was in luck this night. As we walked in with the rest of the audience, she gripped my arm ever tighter with each Tom Baker scarf she spotted. I suffered bruising.

Anyway, it was a hoot. But one of the things it showed was that Day of the Daleks, even in its new ever so very special Special Edition, is irrevocably a TV programme. It’s not meant to be seen on a cinema screen. Blow the picture up to that size, and all sorts of flaws become evident. You notice every little thing. That pencil that rolls off the TARDIS console has never been so obvious. Props have never looked so plasticy. And Katy Manning’s unintended underwear cameos gain undue prominence.

But it’s not just production flaws though, it’s also the odd grammar of studio based TV which is exposed by the big screen. There’s a moment in Episode Three where the Doctor is in a tunnel hiding from the Daleks. Director Paul Bernard chooses a big close up of the Pert’s face. As his pursuers give up, he notices something. We pull away to reveal that the camera was peering through the rungs of a ladder, inches in front of the Doctor’s face – although he acts as if he just noticed it.  Cue peals of laughter from the assembled nerds. It’s a moment which looks fine on TV, but terribly contrived writ large.

Still, the niggles enlarged on the cinema screen are made up for by the joy of watching Doctor Who  in public. Now this, I have done before. As a teenage nerd I would sometimes attend earnest meetings of the Doctor Who Club of Australia. These were held in echoey halls at Sydney Uni, abandoned for the weekend. In darkened lecture theatres they would show the latest episodes smuggled in from the UK. The seating was hard and unforgiving, political commentary was carved into the benches, the TV monitors bracketed to the ceiling were distant. We loved it of course – sneakily watching The Trial of a Time Lord, Dragonfire et al. There would be laughter at the funny bits, groans at the awful bits. It was fun, this group reaction to something you normally watched in private.

And that’s how it was with Day of the Daleks. The audience cheered when the Pert karate chopped a guerilla without spilling a drop of his wine. They dutifully giggled at the ‘rank has its privileges’ line. They knew this story and its greatest hits and were all to happy to sing along in chorus.

The next Day at the movies, was on anniversary weekend, November 2013. This time I knew I’d attend, it being my only chance to watch the thing in 3D. Mrs Spandrell was happy to join in. The popcorn, you see.

But this time, there was very little chance to play spot the cosplaying fan. The cinema was packed, but with new fans, not old. And kids! Kids everywhere. I subconsciously know that kids love Doctor Who but it’s not till I see them en masse and dressed like Cybermen that it really kicks in. Parents, students, yuppies and pretty young things. This was a mainstream crowd, not us ming mongs. It was one of those moments when the new widespread popularity of the show hits home.

And there’s one more recent example: Deep Breath at the State Theatre, part of the Doctor Who world tour. Again, Mrs Spandrell was keen, again there was popcorn, again there was much cosplay. We bought merch, we took selfies. Terrible seats, right at the back, high in the heavens. The usher actually laughed when he checked our tickets. But then it was on and of course there were cheers and laughs and a crowd having a whale of a time. 2,775 Whoheads entranced.

When it ended, Peter Capaldi took to the stage (well, I have it on good authority it was him. I couldn’t quite be sure from our seats) and was witty and modest and charming. And then he let us in on a secret. While the episode was screening he’d snuck into the back of the auditorium, and watched a bit with us. But no one had noticed, their attention entirely focussed on the screen. A collective gasp from the audience. How close they had been to the man himself and never knew! They sobbed into their Tom Baker scarves at an opportunity missed.

So that’s my history of watching Doctor Who off TV. From grotty auditoriums crowded with hard core fans, to a one off movie screening for a mix of the we and the not-we, to a packed weekend screening with the general public lining up to watch the Daleks invade Gallifrey, to a lavish extravaganza with the Doctor himself watching along with his fans.

It still makes me shake my head in disbelief. This strange little show. It used to be ours. Now it’s freaking everyone’s. As commonplace as a trip to the cinema.

LINKS to Planet of the Daleks. Hmmm, not even worth typing is it?

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Haven’t had one of these in a while. But here, rebel Shura blows up Auderley house at story’s end.

NEXT TIME… I preferred it when it seemed impossible! Brace yourself for a Nightmare of Eden.

Hues, Heroes and Planet of the Daleks (1973)

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Planet of the Daleks bursts on to your screen in a barrage of green, purple and sandy yellow. This is a story set on a jungle planet, so the green is given. The purple comes from the Doctor (the Pert at the height of his powers) dressed head to toe a kind of grape Austin Powers outfit, and from the native Spiridons, who wear bolts of purple fake fur around their otherwise invisible frames. That sandy yellow is from a squadron of Thals; the colour of their hair and of their bulky Michelin man style spacesuits. It’s a garish combination.

The overall effect is that each episode is a televisual assault on the eyes. Luckily the gun metal grey Daleks provide some chromatic relief, at least until their big badass gold and black Supreme turns up. He’s an escapee from the 1960s Dalek movies. Can you imagine if the production team had taken more of his multicoloured ilk? All the colours of a Skarosian rainbow.

So it’s a colourful story, but also a cramped one. I don’t know if the studios were particularly small or the sets particularly bulky or that the necessity for the Daleks to have thoroughfares of clear floor meant that no one had much room to move. But so much of the action takes place very close to the cameras, with the jungle being a sort of impenetrable border leaving not much space for the actors to work in. It reaches a peak in a scene in Episode Five where Thals Taron (Bernard Horsfall) and Codal (Tim Preece) mug a Spiridon for his fetching purple furs. It’s shot so close that it looks ridiculous. Actors struggling to swing clubs, manoeuver those shag pile furs and ski jacket spacesuits and stay in shot. The things you do for your art.

All this makes Planet of the Daleks a difficult story to look at. But as an adventure story, it lays on action in spades. Writer Terry Nation, returning to the series after eight years, doesn’t let the pace falter; it’s incident after incident. An attack, then a rescue, then a plan, then a stunt, then a dispute… You get the idea. It’s not always particularly interesting incident, but Nation’s skill was always in the broad brush strokes of plotting, not the close detail of dialogue and character. That’s not to damn him with faint praise. Shrewd plotting which gives a story momentum is incredibly hard and Nation makes it look easy.

It’s often said that this is a retread of Nation’s very first Dalek story. But the similarities are actually pretty superficial. There’s a Dalek city for example, and a Thal-led expedition to infiltrate it. And a few set pieces are the same, such as the use of a Dalek casing as a disguise. Otherwise quite distinctly different things happen in them.

And their key messages are different. The initial Dalek story said that there is a point where even peace loving people have to stand up to an aggressor (an allegory, it seems, for Britain’s decision to join WW2). Planet of the Daleks seems simply to say, war is hell. The Doctor’s advice to Taron at the story’s end, to be careful not to glamourise war, may well be cloyingly moralistic, but it shows a significant shift in Nation’s position. Influenced, perhaps, by nightly TV news images of jungle warfare in Vietnam.

If Planet of the Daleks is a reheating of old Nation classics, I think it’s of his favourite elements of the last Who story he wrote, The Daleks’ Master Plan. That also had humanoid heroes on a secret mission to a jungle planet, a planet where the hostile vegetable life acted more like animal life, a Dalek stronghold, invisible aliens and a plan on a grand scale. But unlike that story, in which the Doctor was front and centre, here he shares the focus with the blond wigged Thals, and specifically their tall rugged front man, Taron.

Taron is more than your average guest character, he’s a genuine challenge to the Doctor’s status as leading man. He gets as much screen time as the Doctor, and he holds many scenes exploring plot points which directly impact his character, but not the story, like his reproaching of Rebec for turning up and turning his head, and the ongoing power struggle with second in command Vaber (an twitchy Prentice Hancock). When the action reaches the Plain of Stones, Taron takes charge when mutinous Vaber goes to blow up some Daleks (he helpfully leaves a note stating his intention):

TARON: Codal, will you come with me? Doctor, would you stay here?

DOCTOR: If that’s what you want.

“If that’s what you want”? That’s not the gung-ho Pert we’ve grown to know and (mostly) love. It’s odd to see the program try to balance two action hero leads. But it’s no contest really: Taron’s the military hero, the Doctor’s his scientific adviser and defers to Taron’s authority. The Doctor comes up with all the ingenious schemes, Taron’s the muscle. It is as if Nation is still writing for Hartnell’s Doctor, who was always accompanied by a young male companion to do the athletic stuff.

So it’s a story written like it’s still the sixties but filmed in all the vibrant hues of the seventies. But if that doesn’t float your boat, it also has Jo Grant hanging out with an invisible alien. This is Wester, the friendly Spiridon with a name like an accountant. How does she keep track of him? Well luckily he’s in the habit of carrying around random objects. A bowl. A stick. And so on.

That’s not when he’s wearing his purple yak outfit. Then he just looks like any other Spiridon. But there must be something distinctive about the way that fur clings to his frame, because when the Doctor sees him from across a Dalek filled room in Episode Five, he spots him immediately. “That’s Wester!”, he exclaims. Ha! (Or should I say ‘Hai!’). Recognise an invisible alien just by the way a day-glo rug hangs off him? Like to see you try that, Taron.

LINKS to The Time Monster. Well, they’re both six part Pertwee stories featuring a returning villain. Seeming a bit less random isn’t it? Still, after 12 Pertwee episodes in a row, I’m looking forward to something different.

NEXT TIME… Good grief! It’s Day of the Daleks.

Sexism, soggy biscuits and The Time Monster (1972)

time monster

In 1971, producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman co-wrote a season finale for Doctor Who.  It was about the Master disguising himself to infiltrate a small community from where he could summon up a powerful alien creature. It transpires that the Master can’t control the creature, whose long presence on Earth had caused it to be entwined in ancient mythology and who caused the destruction of Atlantis.

The next year, they did it again and called it The Time Monster.  And I think it might win some ignominious prize for being the most sexist Doctor Who story ever. Quite a feat for a series whose basic premise – super intelligent man is accompanied by a subordinate female companion – is inherently sexist to begin with.

Let’s start with the Lady Jo Jo Grant, played as ever with perky enthusiasm by Katy Manning. The script doesn’t miss any opportunity to call her stupid.  “Look, I know I’m exceedingly dim, but would you mind explaining?”, she says to the Doctor (the Pert in full white bouffant glory) in the very first scene. Even ironically, why would you ever give a companion that line? A few minutes later there’s this horribly condescending exchange when Jo is set an impromptu test about the Doctor’s latest gadget.

DOCTOR: Well, what’s it do then?

JO: Well, it, er.

DOCTOR: Mmm hmm?

JO: It, er, detects disturbances in a time field.

DOCTOR: Well done, Jo. You’re learning!

What’s most annoying about this is that Jo’s not stupid. There are plenty of examples of her being smart and resourceful, which presumably is why she can hold down a job at UNIT. But I think Manning was so good at looking boggle eyed at any gobbledegook the Doctor spouted each week that it became easy for the writers to script her as a dizzy blonde.

Later on, she’s told off for making conversation.

JO: It’s a doomy old day. I mean, just look at that sky. Just look at it.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Jo, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

JO: Sorry, Doctor.

“Sorry Doctor”? How about “Sod off Doctor, I was just making a passing comment?” Still, we’re only in Episode One so the story is still young. By now, we’ve also been introduced to the second of three major female characters, Dr. Ruth Ingram (Wanda Moore). She’s almost an alternative version to Jo; she’s still the assistant to a capricious scientist (Professor Thascalos, aka the Master), but she’s smart, qualified and witty (well, as witty as this laboured script gets). She’s a bolshy, wise cracking Liz Shaw.

But one thing is emphasised about Ruth at every opportunity. She is that strangest of alien creatures, a FEMINIST. It is commented on, again and again, most commonly in a resigned sigh of a comment after she makes a strident observation. Take this for example:

RUTH:  There’s no need for you to be so patronising, Professor. Look, just because I’m a woman, there’s no need to treat me like…

HYDE: Here we go.

But her attempts to point out how patronising the men around her are only cause them to be more patronising. Like this:

RUTH: It’s all the same, really. A bland assumption of male superiority.

HYDE: May God bless the good ship women’s lib and all who sail in her.

Or even, irritatingly, this when her male colleague, mustachioed beanpole Stuart Hyde (Ian Collier) attempts to coax her into doing what he wants:

RUTH: Well, it is his project. I mean, he’s the boss.

HYDE: Nominally. But you think how much you’ve put into it. It’s a joint affair. I reckon you’ve as much right to take a decision as he has.

RUTH: Well.

HYDE: Of course if you need a man in charge.

RUTH: That does it. We go ahead.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

And still, we’re not out of Episode One yet. That a writing, editing and directing team of men in 1970s couldn’t realistically or maturely depict a feminist character isn’t surprising. But watching it from a modern perspective, what is weird is the use of women’s equality as a defining character note; women’s lib is Ruth’s “thing”. It sets her apart, rather than simply being a sensible way of looking at the world for any character, male or female.

It is of its time, sure. But by the end of Episode One we’ve been presented with two different female characters; Jo and Ruth. One is labelled as a feminist and one isn’t (again, feminism as optional, not the norm). And Ruth the feminist comes off as much less fun than Jo. So not only is feminism something only some women adopt, it’s also something of a bore. Of course, what we really need is a few scenes of Ruth and the Doctor together.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Ruth, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

RUTH: Stick it up your stovepipe trousers, Doctor.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

RUTH: Bite me, stringbean! (Pow! RUTH punches HYDE in the face.)

By Episode Five we have travelled to ancient Atlantis and met our third major female character Queen Galleia (the Hammer film star Ingrid Pitt). Galleia is smart, calculating and ambitious. But any chance that we might be about get an interesting, well thought out female character is undermined by her costume, which brazenly shows off her considerable cleavage. The Time Monster is telling us from the beginning that this is a character defined by sexuality. She’s there – at least in part – to be ogled. A clear double standard when you compare her to Atlantis’s young male lead, Hippias (Aidan Murphy), who is about as dowdy and unappealing as one could get. Never has there been a soggier biscuit (though to be fair Ryan Gosling would struggle to be sexy under that wig).

It’s not just Galleia’s eye popping costume which signals her as this serial’s sexpot. Her interactions with the male characters are mostly sexual. Firstly, there’s her attraction to the Master, which emerges in her very first scene. She and the Master seduce each other, both motivated more by power than romance, but still there’s a sexy undertone. Fair dues, she’s married to 500 year King Dalios (George Cormack) so perhaps we can’t blame her for a little window shopping.

Between Episodes Five and Six she’s shacked up with the Master and staged a bloodless coup. But it also turns out that she’s been round the block with Hippias as well. In a fairly stilted exchange, Hippias basically implies that she’s slept her way to the top to serve her ambitions for power. And least she gets to tell him to bugger off. So just to sum up: Dalios, Hippias and the Master – Galleia’s had ’em all.

All this adds up to an uncomfortable image of Galleia. She’s a power hungry social climber and her main weapon is sexuality. Sure, she’s a minor villain in the story, so we can hardly expect her to be a sympathetic character. But has Doctor Who ever drawn a clearer picture of female sexuality as dangerous and corrupting? How this sits with the story’s treatment of Ruth’s feminism – as something to be warily mocked – is just as unpleasant. I wouldn’t like to read too much into something as insubstantial as The Time Monster, but in transferring its attention from Ruth to Galleia, it seems to say, ‘Look at all this women’s equality nonsense! Let it get out of hand, and this is where it will lead!”

So to be blunt, The Time Monster gives us three female stereotypes: the bimbo, the shrill feminist and the slut. Just yuck.

LINK to The Visitation. The Time Monster features a scene with Roundhead soldiers. It’s the third story in a row to reference the seventeenth century.

NEXT TIME… I got rescued by this bowl! We touch down on the Planet of the Daleks.

Change, expectations and Terror of the Autons (1971)

tautons1 tautons 2

Terror of the Autons is a story I’ve grown up with. And it’s grown up with me.

My first exposure to it, and I suspect that of many other fans of my vintage, was its Target novelisation. Second edition, the one with a terrifically moody painting of a gruesome monstrosity, staring balefully out at the reader with its solo eye. Creepy stuff.

Inside the cover, writer Terrance Dicks told the story of UNIT ingénue Jo Grant’s first meeting with the Doctor. Which was odd because another novelisation, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, told that story too. Never mind, it’s a vivid read. I particularly like Dicks’ description of the story’s climactic moment when the Nestene Consciousness descends to Earth via a radio telescope: “It crouched beside the radio telescope tower, dwarfing it, a many-tentacled monster, something between spider, crab and octopus. At the front of its body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and deadly hatred.”

The first time I saw the story would have been its 1984 repeat screening on Australian TV (with thanks to this glorious site for jogging my memory), in grainy black and white. It still strikes me as odd that the ABC in the 1980s were happy to interrupt their otherwise full colour broadcasts with monochrome episodes of Doctor Who, but I was glad they did. That’s me there, sitting inches from the TV screen. 10 years old, a fan but with no concept of fandom. Just an avid watcher.

Anyway, Terror of the Autons was perfectly fine in black and white, although I couldn’t help but notice that the many-tentacled monster on the book’s cover turned out to be a fuzzy white vaguely hand-shaped blob above Mike Yates’ head. Well, the disappointment experienced when finally watching a Doctor Who story after having expectations unreasonably raised by its novelisation is a familiar sensation to Whoheads. I’m sure it didn’t stop me watching the story on its next repeat in 1986. By then, I was a genuine, fanzine reading tragic. I may have even tried to watch the story while simultaneously flicking through the book to see how close the two versions were. The things fans do.

So the book matured into the black and white TV version, at least from my perspective. And even if you happened to have seen the story in the UK on its original transmission, chances are you saw it on a black and white TV anyway. For most fans therefore, Terror of the Autons was a colourless experience until 1993, when a colourised version was released on VHS.

Now, the Pertwee era is a patchwork of picture quality, especially for its first three seasons. Most of the original colour videotapes for these stories were wiped, leaving us with a mix of black & white film prints, some NTSC versions sent to North America and the occasional episode that survives in its original PAL format. (Oh, I love a PAL episode. Despite the immense efforts which have gone into restoring these episodes, you still can’t beat them. Watching the first three episodes of The Dæmons is fine, but when episode four comes on, it’s like you’ve taken off a pair of grimy spectacles).

For the viewer, this makes for a slightly disjointed experience if watching the stories in order, as you’re constantly adjusting to the slightly different look each episode has. We’re lucky to have every Pertwee episode in some watchable format – and now every one in some sort of colour – but nonetheless, Terror of the Autons is one of those Imperfect Pertwees.

The growing up continues with the 1993 VHS release (I’m 19, at university and while rich enough to buy beer, too poor to buy a copy. Luckily the local video store had a one.) where the restoration boffins merged a NTSC colour version with a black and white film print. And colour really suits it. Although as you might expect from working with vintage AV material, the colour hardly leaps off the screen. But even in these muted hues, it’s still a vivid experience, all pinks and yellows and wood panel browns. It’s indicative of a series’ growing confidence in its use of colour. And while a story like The Dæmons (also colourised in 1993) was a unique, and in some ways better, experience in black and white, Terror of the Autons, was bigger and bolder in colour. Its highs (like the skirmish with the policemen Autons in the quarry) were higher, its lows (that fuzzy blob of a Nestene again) lower.

Then it’s a big jump to 2011 and the DVD release. And Terror of the Autons looks and sounds better than it ever has. It even has a bit of PAL footage from episode one in it. And me, being a man of what we might laughingly call means these days, buys it. In fact buys the UK version because the cover art is better and has it air mailed around the world to my door. Extravagance!

All the Imperfect Pertwees – your Silurians, your Ambassadors of Death – have gone through similar evolutions, from scratchy monochrome to digitally remastered clarity. But here’s the thing, they’re still imperfect. Compare them to the all PAL Day of the Daleks, and you’ll see what those DVD wizards are aiming for. Problem? Oh no.

Because it means there will always be some further enhancement to make – and a further variation to sell. We’ve already seen it happening. I’m not 100% sure I can see the picture quality improvement on the special edition DVDs for The Claws of Axos and Inferno, but I bought them anyway. If they hand colourised episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and special edition-ed it, I’d probably buy that too. Imperfect those Pertwees may be, but they offer a repeatable income stream.

And the story itself? It’s a mixed bag. Less an Auton story than a series of increasingly bizarre assassination attempts by the Master. The start of the UNIT family. The beginning of the dumbing down of the Brigadier. A grumpy, snobby Doctor. But you know all this. You’ve heard it all before. Because you, like me, have grown up with Terror of the Autons.

LINK to Dr. Who and the Daleks. In both, the Doctor attempts to make a trip in the TARDIS mid story, only to be foiled by a faulty component.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who is required! We dig the fab gear of The War Machines.