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Adolescence, adulthood and Full Circle (1980)

full circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINK TO The Caretaker. Teenagers on the TARDIS.

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

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Ideas, imagery and Meglos (1980)

meglos

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

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

Why? Well, two reasons, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEEDRIX: A savant? Or one of her madmen?

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Reason two: Tom Baker in cactus make up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

school

In New Who‘s first year, references to Old Who were few and far between. The odd Cyberman head, a fleeting glimpse of UNIT and a surreptitious mention of the Isop Galaxy were the few, whispered call outs to the show’s long heritage. New Who was like a teenager who has suddenly become cool, deliberately shunning any links to her previous dorky self. Don’t mention the old show, this reboot seemed to say. It’s not me at all.

School Reunion changed all that, with guest appearances from two figures which, at last, firmly linked the new series to the old. Showrunner Russell T Davies’ choice of returning characters is interesting. He could easily have gone with, say, the Brigadier or Susan Foreman or Ace, or indeed any of the surviving classic Doctors. But he went with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and K9 (voiced by John Leeson).

In doing so, he links his version of the program, not just to all of classic Who, but a particular part of it. Sarah Jane was a crucial part of the early Tom Baker years, and K9 an integral feature of the later Tom Baker seasons. Between them, they span a period of the program fondly remembered by many adult viewers. And for younger viewers, they provide an entry point for the classic series. School Reunion is signalling the new show’s intention to be as fondly remembered as the Tom Baker episodes while fondly remembering them itself.

****

Sarah’s bittersweet meeting with the Doctor (a nascent David Tennant) is the standout element of this episode, contrasting strongly with cartoony main plot of bat creatures, brain slaved children and the quest for an oblique universe altering equation (“The Skasis Paradigm!” says the Doctor, appalled. I hate those moments when we’re supposed to react to some invented sci fi term like it means something.) You can keep the school, I’ll take the reunion, thanks.

Sladen brings an emotional depth to her character, which she was only ever allowed to hint at in the old series, and explore only in the dying minutes of her tenure. Forget all that unedifying and frankly sexist rivalry with new, younger model Rose (Billie Piper). What makes this story is Sarah’s letting long held trauma burst through her cool demeanour.

It doesn’t take long. Only seconds after meeting the Doctor, it’s bubbling to the surface. “I thought you’d died,” she sobs. “I waited for you and you didn’t come back and I thought you must have died.” Later she calms down, but still her dialogue is punctuated with the raw pain of someone abandoned.

SARAH: Did I do something wrong, because you never came back for me. You just dumped me.

DOCTOR: I told you. I was called back home and in those days humans weren’t allowed.

SARAH: I waited for you. I missed you.

DOCTOR: Oh, you didn’t need me. You were getting on with your life.

SARAH: You were my life.

So among all this nostalgia for the old days of Doctor Who, there’s the longing for past days of youth and adventure. “I got old,” Sarah admits at one point, as if shamefully acknowledging a human shortcoming. K9 too is worn down and tarnished. These are companions left damaged and bereft by their time with the Doctor and the message isn’t lost on Rose. “This is really seeing the future,” she says.

****

School Reunion asks us to remember Old Who, but selectively. Remember The Hand of Fear, it says. And what about The Invisible Enemy, that was a corker wasn’t it? But don’t remember The Five Doctors, because that would spoil the story.

We have to ignore The Five Doctors because School Reunion gets its emotional kick from the idea that Sarah hasn’t seen the Doctor since he left her behind on that street in Aberdeen. We should be recalling the image of Sarah left alone on that road, white tassly jacket, suitcase and stuffed owl. We shouldn’t be recalling that she did meet the Doctor again – a whole lot of them actually – for his twentieth birthday party.

We also have to buy into the new idea that Sarah held a strong romantic affection for the Doctor, as strong as Rose’s.

ROSE: What do I do? Do I stay with him?

SARAH: Yes. Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.

As the Doctor says goodbye, she admits she’s never found someone to settle down with. “Well, there was this one guy,” she says wistfully. “I travelled with him for a while, but he was a tough act to follow.”

Mrs Spandrell gets confused by this moment. She says incredulously, “Are they saying she was in love with Pertwee?” And she has a point, not because it’s hard to believe anyone falling for the Pert or for Tom Baker for that matter, but because Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor was always platonic. In her time with Tom, which this story is specifically asking us to recall, their relationship was one of two knockabout mates seeing the universe together. Never once was their the sense of a deeper connection, certainly not of the boyfriend/girlfriend vibe that Tennant and Piper cultivated.

Remember some things, School Reunion says. Forget others. And completely reimagine some more. Which shouldn’t bother us too much really, as that’s what Doctor Who does all the time.

****

Sladen was evergreen, but time is doing School Reunion few favours. Unusually, the art direction lets the side down, with dodgy school crests blu tacked to walls and corridors randomly painted a lurid green. The guest performances are also a tad hammy and some of the CGI effects, such as the climactic explosion, fail to entirely convince. This doesn’t feel like the bold, mature sci-fi drama presented the previous year.

Instead, it all feels a bit juvenile; appropriate enough for an episode set in a high school. But I mean ‘juvenile’, in terms of its intended audience; this feels like children’s TV. Still, something about it worked enough for the potential of Sladen and The Sarah Jane Adventures to shine through. That’s this episode’s real legacy; not that it at last paid respect to the old series, but that it showed how to create something new and exciting out of its greatest hits.

LINK TO The Curse of the Black Spot: both feature prominent roles for young boy characters (Toby and Kenny)

NEXT TIME: Lush, aggressive vegetation. A plant, a xerophyte to be precise! It’s Meglos, last Zolpha Thuran!

Whiskers, writers and State of Decay (1980)

state1

State of Decay, Season 18’s tale of long lost spaceships and even longer lost vampires, is a collision between two contrasting views of Doctor Who. On the one hand, there’s script editor Christopher H Bidmead and his attempts to bring some scientific rationality to the series and erase the undergraduate frivolity of the previous season. It’s from him we get the pocket universes, the forgotten data banks and a society in technological stagnation. On the other hand, there’s writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks, master of 4 and 6 part structures, who knows exactly where to put the monsters, the jokes and the helpless assistants.

It’s no wonder the two didn’t get on. At this stage Dicks had written or edited about 40 Doctor Who scripts and Bidmead had edited one. Goodness knows how the conversations about the script went down.

BIDMEAD: Terrance, I think there should be a scene here where we investigate the system file structures of the computer’s operating system and discover a theoretical universe inside the negative universe of e-space.

DICKS: Chris, that’s BORING! I think this is where Romana is tied to a post screaming while the vampires menace her! Cue cliffhanger, you see!

BIDMEAD: Terrance, Romana doesn’t scream, she’s a super intelligent Time Lady. But suppose the post she’s tied to is really a TARDIS, with another TARDIS inside…

DICKS: You know, it’s about this point in the story that the Master usually turns up.

BIDMEAD: The Master? As if!

DICKS: That’s it. From now on I talk to Barry and no one else!

Still, something intriguing comes out of the creative marriage between these two men with very different ideas about what makes Doctor Who tick. Originally devised for season 15, we can guess at what State of Decay would have been like if Dicks had had his way; traditional gothic horror, set in England perhaps in an old manor house. Small number of people isolated from the outside world. Music by Dudley Simpson. Horror of Fanged Teeth perhaps.

What we get from Bidmead, I speculate, is the stuff about the latent power of lost technology and a society being held back by ignorance, under the baleful influence of an outside force. These are themes flowing through his one distinctive season of Doctor Who and on his two Davison stories. A Bidmead rewrite of this story was prepared but the director rejected it as not Gothic enough. No doubt it was all consonantal shifts and closed vacuum emboitments but without any, y’know, vampires sucking people’s blood. My bet is he was responsible for the story’s dullest patch where the Doctor temporarily leaves the story to go and do some TARDIS based research with punch cards and ticker tape (what prompts him to go is more interesting, but I’ll get to that)

But I wonder which of them is responsible for the ingenious plot ending. I’m talking about when the castle, which turns out to be a spaceship, has a small scout ship which can serve as the mighty bolt of steel needed to kill the awakening giant vampire (we’ll politely ignore the fact that the ship is conveniently spike shaped, that it lands in exactly the right spot, that its somehow penetrates the ground to reach the underground cavern…). The story’s very setting turns out to hold the solution to the problem, which is neat storytelling I think.

Because it involves technology coming to save the day you may think this was a Bidmead conceit. Except that Dicks pulled the very same trick in Horror of Fang Rock, where the lighthouse itself turned out to be the story problem solver. Something scientifically implausible about a diamond being placed in front of the lighthouse lamp to produce a laser beam. God knows what Bidmead would have thought of that.

********

Meanwhile, Tom and Lalla are in love. You can tell by the way they’re so grumpy with each other. And then so sweet with each other. And then grumpy again. And so on. It must have been a very confusing time. One moment Tom’s vehemently refusing to help his lady love down off a ladder. The next he’s beaming at her with that voracious smile of his as if to say, oh it’s all a bit of a joke, isn’t it? Lalla wisely seems to maintain a cool reserve throughout, not getting too excited as if to guard herself against Tom’s unpredictable changes of mood.

There’s one scene in particular where they both let their guards down and let the affection for each other shine through the TV set. It’s in Part Three, when it’s time, as Uncle Terrance would know, to indulge in a little plot exposition. Our heroes are locked in a dungeon so they have some time to kill. Tom and Lalla have done this scene before, lots of times. They know all its variations. And so rather than play it with the breathless earnestness of “we’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late” etc., they decide to play it like avant garde theatre, both facing away from each other, lost in their own dream worlds.

So the Doctor tells the story of the Time Lords’ battle with the giant vampires and in return, Romana talks about an old job she once had working in an archive (do Time Lords work? Did she get flex time and penalty rates?). She casually mentions that an old book which might help them defeat the vampires was installed on certain time vehicles.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: (feigning disinterest) Oh, I don’t know. I forget.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: Type Forty, I think.

Tom is quietly delighted.

DOCTOR: Psst. The TARDIS is a Type Forty!

ROMANA: (feigning surprise) Is it? Oh.

Then Tom looks at her and says with genuine adoration:

DOCTOR: You are wonderful.

Lalla in turn is utterly delighted.

ROMANA: Me? Wonderful? I suppose I am. I’ve never really thought about it.

And then Tom punches a guard and the story rolls on. But just for a moment, we were let in on a beautiful romance, happening right in front of us.

******

The planet of State of Decay has no name so let’s give it one. I nominate Whiskeron because of the popularity of unconvincing beards. They are everywhere. From village head man Ivo (Clinton Greyn; long, straight and grey) to vampire king Zargo (William Lindsay; teased into fetching curlicues). Silver surfer Kalmar’s (Arthur Hewlett) face is shaved, but he makes up for it with a strange assortment of plaits lying half heartedly across his pate. It’s a perplexing look for an old fella. Well, for anyone.

But most peculiar of all is the strange brushy beard on feisty rebel Tarak (played by the terrifically named Thane Bettany) which seems to radiate in all directions. Perhaps feeling a little foolish under that unconvincing number, Bettany chooses to play every line with wide eyed intensity. I’m not sure which is my favourite. Is it… “The wasting is… the wasting!!” Or is it “I was a guard once…(turn directly to camera, beard faithfully following) I can be so again!“?

But if this is a scenery chewing competition then the clear winner is Emrys James as chief bad guy Aukon (little chin beard, sticking out in front). There’s not one line he doesn’t milk for maximum portent. He gets lots of zingers, but I love the bit when Habris (Iain Rattray) the captain of the guard asks for help from Aukon’s colony of carnivorous bats to see off the rebels. Aukon gives him the harsh truth. “Then die!,” he coos. “That is the purpose of guards!”

Surely that’s Uncle Terrance again, pointing out that it’s now the part of the story when minor characters become cannon fodder.

LINK to Planet of the Ood. Both are stories of an oppressed people revolting. One men over monsters, one monsters over men.

NEXT TIME… KKLAK! We find ourselves in the golden age of Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Companions, character arcs and The Ribos Operation (1978)

ribos2

That Robert Holmes was an old slyboots, as the fourth Doctor might say. In the opening scenes of The Ribos Operation, he can’t resist having a jab at his leading man, the by-this-time-in-his-tenure increasingly temperamental Tom Baker. Holmes has the ethereal White Guardian (well, I say ethereal. He’s an old safari-suited gent in a wicker chair sipping an verdant looking liqueur) assign the Doctor a new assistant to, well, assist on his quest for the segments of the Key to Time.

The Doctor hates the idea. ‘In my experience,’ he pleads ‘assistants mean trouble. I have to protect them and show them and teach them and couldn’t I just manage with K9?’ But the man in the big chair insists. He clearly knows K9 can’t even get himself out of those Police Box doors without the camera cutting away, quite apart from the fact that more glamorous help is going to be needed to keep those Dads watching. So a new female sidekick is delivered.

Tom… I mean the Doctor, shoots the White Guardian a mutinous look. I can imagine Holmes watching this episode go out and chuckling into that pipe of his. During his stint as script editor, I bet he would have frequently heard Tom’s opinion that he didn’t need an assistant. Indeed he wrote the story designed to prove Tom wrong. But here he indulges in some self-referential commentary; the powers that be have deigned that Tom/the Doctor gets a new companion, whether he likes it or not.

(But Tom’s no fool and my bet is he would have spotted Holmes’s art mirroring real life. The interesting thing is he doesn’t try to hide his feelings; he puts it all there on screen. Now that’s the sign off a star who knows the extent of his power: he can see someone poking fun at him, he’s pissed off and he won’t bother to hide it.)

The new assistant is Romana, played with ice cold snootiness by Mary Tamm. Romana is an apprentice Time Lord, designed to be a better intellectual match for the Doctor than companions past. This she is, but being a know-it-all also gives her the ability to comically undermine the Doctor by sometimes being more competent than him; she can fly the TARDIS better than him, not walk into animal traps and scored higher than him in the HSC. It seems familiar to us now, because Romana’s direct descendant is River Song; both women point out the Doctor’s pomposity and silliness by outDoctoring him. But this is the first time in the series we see a companion with the ability to do this consistently.

Of course, she’s not allowed to be too clever. She turns out to be smart but inexperienced. So the Doctor still has plenty of opportunities to do all the clever things and point out to Romana that she’s wrong. In some ways this is even more sexist than Doctor Who normally is; to introduce a strong, funny and appealing character and then undermine and patronise her frequently.

Some have said this is demonstrated when Romana’s very first episode ends with her screaming at a monster (it doesn’t, by the way). I think it’s more clearly symbolised by a moment in Part Four, when she ends up pushing vainly against a polystyrene rock. Doesn’t matter how bright you are, Doctor Who‘s basic template reasserts itself. You’re the assistant. The Doctor’s the clever one, you’re the asking questions, pushing jablite one. Now put on this ridiculously inadequate costume and let’s go.

That’s unless you’re able to throw away the template. And I think the next story, Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet is a case in point. Romana is a much more active figure in that story. She can land the TARDIS properly, she deduces and solves as much as the Doctor… It short she’s allowed to be the character she was designed to be. Perhaps what we can see in these two stories is the different approach of two brilliant writers. Holmes, a veteran, committed to the old ways. Adams, a young Turk, ready to tear them all up.

But enough of that, it’s time to invoke a fan cliche and consider the ‘Holmesian double act’, which is overused shorthand for Holmes’s tendency to pair characters together within his stories. On first sight there are two in The Ribos Operation, exiled soldiers the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh and galactic con men Garron and Unstoffe. Both are superior/subordinate pairings which is another pattern Holmes uses regularly. But the more interesting pairing is one no one seems to mention, that of Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) and Binro (Timothy Bateson).

To step back a bit… The Ribos Operation is sometimes summarised as the story of Garron trying to fool the Graff into buying a planet based on a lie that it contains great mineral wealth. But that plot ends halfway through Part Two, when the Graff discovers Garron has bugged his room and the game is up. From then on, The Ribos Operation becomes a simple man hunt; Unstoffe has the Graff’s money and a lump of space crystal called jethryk and the chase is on.

Unstoffe is assisted by a homeless man known as Binro the Heretic. Binro is a stand in for Galileo; both believe, in opposition to the prevailing view, that their planets circle their suns. Both are persecuted for adhering to these ideas and both are forced to recant. There’s quite a nasty instance of suggested violence in The Ribos Operation when Binro retells his story.

BINRO: They said that if I did not publicly recant my belief, the gods would destroy our world.

UNSTOFFE: And did you?

BINRO: In the end. See these hands? (He raises his gnarled, twisted hands) Useless for work now. That’s why I live here.

That’s brilliant writing. In just a few short sentences, we know the whole story. Torture, specifically breaking of Binro’s hands, the tools needed for writing and conveying ideas. Without his hands, he couldn’t work. Without work, he was forced onto the streets. Doctor Who may well have adopted a lighter tone when Graham Williams took over as producer, but the darkness is always there, just a little better hidden than before.

Binro helps Unstoffe conceal himself because, as he says, ‘I know what it’s like when every man’s hand is against you.’ In return, Unstoffe confirms what Binro believes about planets and their movement. So grateful is Binro that he becomes Unstoffe’s guide through the catacombs in an effort to outwit the Graff. It fails in the end, and Binro gives his life for Unstoffe, killed by the Graff and his men. And although this prompts Unstoffe to make a headstrong rush at the guards, he is otherwise untouched by Binro’s intervention in his life.

The pay off is as clear as it is absent. Binro’s friendship should have meant that Unstoffe changed his thieving ways. Certainly he shouldn’t stick around with Garron, as he does at story’s end. Perhaps he should have stayed on Ribos, to take up Binro’s ideas and convince people of them. His character’s journey would be complete.

Or perhaps he should have left with the Doctor, and join the quest for the Key to Time. How about that? The Doctor, Romana, K9 and a light fingered, artful dodger type. Nah, that’d never work. Besides, we know how Tom feels about assistants.

LINK to The Masque of Mandragora: Catacombs! Three stories in a row.

NEXT TIME: Just you watch your lip or I’ll put you across my knee and larrup you. Then I’ll make you watch/listen to The Wheel in Space.

Collision, crisis and Nightmare of Eden (1979)

nightmare

It’s 28 August 1979. Graham Williams, 34 years of age, sits in the gallery of TC6 during the final recording session for Nightmare of Eden. The clock is ticking ever closer to 10pm and he’s got to get this show in the can. He’s recently stepped in as the story’s director, having just had to sack the last one, 63 year old TV veteran Alan Bromly.

Bromly didn’t get on with Tom Baker. By all reports, he was not Robinson Crusoe there. Williams himself is not on the best of terms with his leading man. The year had, after all, started with an awkward ‘it’s him or me’ type of meeting in front of Williams’ boss, after which neither man had walked and so here they both are. Trying to get this tale of madmen and Mandrels on time and under budget.

It took something pretty serious for Williams to side with Tom over a director. But this was something more than the kind of volcanic strop Tom was renowned for. This was something new, with cast and crew united in mutiny against Bromly. Arguments and insults from the studio floor are regrettable, but can ultimately be worked around. Williams must have thought the only way to get the show finished would be to do it himself.

I can imagine Williams sitting in that darkened room, looking at the output of the cameras on the monitors. I wonder if he had time to consider the production in front of him. As he lines up those shots in that horrid yellow spaceship corridor, does he speculate that this could be the cheapest looking story in the series history? With inflation running rampant he was finding it harder and harder to make his budget stretch. This season of stories was showing the strain, from that enormous green weather balloon of an alien to the shabbiest bunch of patched up Daleks that ever graced a quarry. Ah well. At least the Paris stuff looked nice.

Perhaps he wonders what went wrong with those Mandrel costumes. The heads look all right, if a little too cute to be monstrous. The main problem is those inflexible forearms, which look like someone has added a length of plumbing pipe to each arm. In fact, that’s probably what happened. If you could shoot them in low light, add a bit of fog, you might get away with it. But the footage already shot has everything drenched in standard bright flat BBC Sci-fi lighting. Every flaw on those Mandrels is unforgivingly apparent, as they waggle those rigid arms in the air.

The human characters are having costume issues too. The crew of the Empress have sparkly lame tabards over spandex body suits. Turns out that in the future, space cruiser crew members will dress like first year dance students. The idea seems to be the more sparkly a costume the more spacey it is. Even Taxmen Fisk and Costa, bureaucratic bores, have their black uniforms shooshed up with glittery stripes and natty hats. (Incidentally, what sort of society exists on planet Azure, that when a space collision takes place on their doorstep, they send not police or medicos but tax officers?) And who put Lalla in that dowdy, drab grey number?

At least she seems to be getting on well with Tom.

What, he may have wondered, is going on with Tryst, played with zeal and an outrageous German accent by Lewis Fiander? Is he trying to out-Tom Tom? Well, good luck to him. Few have tried and even fewer have succeeded. Has he not noticed that everyone else is playing this straight?

Look, for example, at David Daker giving it his all as Rigg. Daker successfully portrays the downfall of a man having a hell of a day at work. It starts with the space equivalent of a car accident, and continues with intruders, drug smuggling and ends with having his drink spiked and becoming a gibbering, crazed addict. ‘Let’s talk about life’, he slurs at one point, in exactly the tone Williams recognises from too many late night conversations with actors in the BBC bar. It’s an authenticity absent from any number of witless Tryst lines like ‘We worked on this idea together before he died, of course. Then we stopped.’

I like to think that Williams calmly steered his cast and crew through those final scenes, engendering a dogged team spirit to get the work done. Even Tom, I hope, pulled his head in and helped get everything done. Surely a cast must never have empathised with a script as greatly as with Eden’s when Della’s delivers the line: ‘I’m relieved the nightmare’s over.’ Let’s assume Williams got some exhausted votes of thanks as they cleared the studio for the night.

A week or so later he turns up for the post session, where he’ll supervise the addition of visual effects. It’s not without its own challenges. A flying insect looks too big and blobby. A gun shot misses Della’s belly where its meant to hit. But it’s on putting together the shots of the colliding spaceships that I imagine Williams sitting up in his seat, suddenly taken by a thought.

The story starts with the collision of the two ships, and it transpires that a passenger on one ship is smuggling drugs to the captain of the other. But what’s the link between these two events? Did Tryst and Dymond plan the collision? That would make narrative sense.

But the transfer of the Eden projection, drug constituted Mandrels and all, takes place via lasery gizmo between the two ships, with no connection to the collision. It could have been done at any time. In which case the collision was just co-incidental.

So either the the collision was caused by the bad guys, but the script forgets to mention it.

Or the collision wasn’t caused by the bad guys and was just a credulity straining unlucky break.

At this stage, I imagine, Williams drains his coffee, takes two aspirin and heads back to the production office to draft his resignation.

LINKS to Day of the Daleks. Both involve two locations linked by a sci-fi magic door, which the Doctor and his companion travel through. And both have big lumbering monsters.

NEXT TIME… This isn’t going to be big on dignity. We unleash The Beast Below.

 

Energy, kinkiness and The Creature from the Pit (1979)

creature

For me, there are very few spots in Doctor Who’s history where there’s a string of mediocre episodes in a row. But I must confess I find the end of season 16 is a bit hard going. It all gets a bit, well, dull.

But turn the corner into season 17, and things change almost immediately, most noticeably in the dialogue. Suddenly it crackles with an energy that the last couple of seasons lacked. It’s not hard to pinpoint the new factor at play here; it’s script editor Douglas Adams. He certainly brings more humour into the scripts, but it’s not just that. There are more elegant turns of phrase, there’s more bite to the lines. It gives the actors more to play with.

The funny thing is, I was brought up to hate season 17. When I undertook that fateful move from casual viewer to fan during the Davison era, the fan press I was reading put the boot into this season as being too silly, too cheap and not taking the whole thing seriously enough. And it’s true that this season lacks that creeping menace which imbued Tom Baker’s early seasons, which are often hailed as the pinnacle of Who.

But over the years, the tide has changed a little bit, not least of all because we’ve all grown to adore City of Death and have looked around and thought, surely its stablemates can’t be that bad? And sure enough we’ve come to appreciate the groundbreaking direction in Destiny of the Daleks, the surprisingly adult themes of Nightmare of Eden and the zany brio of The Horns of Nimon. Season 17 has gone from being bad Who, to being just Who.

The Creature from the Pit though, few people have anything nice to say about. I’ll attempt to break the drought because I rather like it. But first, we have to forgive the creature itself; a deeply unconvincing mélange of garbage bags painted green. And famously, it extrudes a tentacle which is distractingly phallic. Yep, it’s awful and yep, that’s a big green dick. But Doctor Who has lots of awful effects (although rarely so, um, cocky) so we should just move on, as best we can.

(Except to ask, what was producer Graham Williams thinking? It’s often mentioned that this was period when inflation was playing havoc with the show’s budget, so given that, why did he think an enormous, shapeless blob was possible on a Who budget? And hadn’t they just tried a similar trick – with some particularly underwhelming results – two stories ago?)

The first thing that strikes you about Creature is that terrific first TARDIS scene; terrific, that is, if you like Doctor Who written like a sitcom. It’s joke after joke in rapid fire succession, between the wacky old Doctor, his sensible and long suffering companion and a cute robot. And if you think this approach to writing Who is dead, I refer you to the last randomed The Time of the Doctor, and its opening scene which, with a couple of spaceships added, is exactly the same in tone.

It’s also apparent from that first scene that the show expects its audience to be very well read. That first scene references Greek myth, the biblical tale of Samson and the Peter Rabbit books. And later we’ll be introduced to characters who take their names from ancient Greece (Erato and Organon) and one whose name suggests the latin for ‘to the stars’ (Adrasta, in conception ad astra). Frustratingly, there seems to be no common purpose to these allusions, thrown in seemingly at random. But none the less, they are clues the story leaves for its audience to collect; like the best Who, this story respects its audience’s intelligence.

The plot itself differs from the standard ‘land on a planet, discover a problem, identify a villain, solve problem, defeat villain and go home’ formula. Here, the story’s villain, Lady Adrasta (played with relish by Myra Frances) captures our TARDIS team, and is initially interested in the Doctor’s scientific expertise.

But when he jumps down the pit, she turns her interest to K9. She sees in him a weapon which she might use on Erato, the well hung blob, whom she has imprisoned in the pit. So she forces Romana and K9 into an underground search to find and eventually get K9 to kill Erato. It’s not the world’s greatest plan, particularly as K9 seems to drain power as regularly as a vintage iPhone and Erato’s the size of a cathedral.

At any rate, this leaves the Doctor and his new astrologer chum Organon (Geoffrey Balydon, basically getting another chance to play Catweazle. Now’s there’s a show which needs a reboot.) to attempt to communicate with Erato. And although the show’s budget couldn’t stretch to convincingly constructing an alien who’s basically an enormous pile of snot, at least it is varying its approach to monsters from ‘bung an extra in a rubber suit’.

Erato, it transpires, is an alien ambassador, and  needs a shield-like translator device to communicate with others. This is rather neat, as it fits with the character (a traveling ambassador would need such a device) but also gets around the problem of how every alien speaks BBC English (doesn’t explain for everyone else on Chloris does, but hey).

Once Adrasta’s storyline and the Doctor’s converge, and the shield is wheeled on by some possessed bandits (the story’s weakest and least necessary element), the gig is up. Erato explains that Adrasta trapped him in the pit to maintain her stranglehold of the planet’s scarce metal reserves. An angry Huntsman sets a pack of carnivorous weeds on her, and she dies as best as one can when being molested by some green papier mache balloons.

Everything’s wrapped up, but we’re only 8 minutes into Part Four. The Doctor knows it can’t be over yet; he usually ends things back in the TARDIS wrapping things up with some more jokes and a big old grin and it’s far too early for that.

This tactic – you think the story’s over! But it’s not! – rarely works well in Doctor Who, or anywhere else for that matter. Creature does it as well as can be expected; Erato has been lying by omission and a neutron star sent by his fellow blobs is on its way to devastate Chloris. The Doctor must talk him into a dangerous manouevre with the TARDIS to neutralise it.

It’s hard to restart a story which has already met its natural climax, especially when the new threat is entirely countered from within the TARDIS console room with some enthusiastic turbulence acting and some quaint video effects. Still, it gets the episode to 25 mins, along with some more nonsense from those pesky bandits. (But even that has a clever line in it. While chief hairy Torvin is rhapsodizing about his haul of metal, old slyboots Karela stabs him in the back, adding “there’s six inches more to add to your collection”.)

It’s not the duddest of endings, but you do get the impression this is a three episode plot stretched to four. But I come to praise Creature, not to bury it. If nothing else it has some extraordinary costumes in it, courtesy of June Hudson. Her costume for Adrasta seems to be referencing Disney’s evil queen, complete with stockings, heels and a breastplate. The Huntsman is dressed head to toe in leather, it seems, and wields a mean whip. Romana’s wafty white dress is primly virginal. Add Erato’s aforementioned appendage and surely Doctor Who has never looked so kinky.

So, literate, funny, structurally novel, extravagantly designed, way too ambitious for its budget and a bit suggestive – but never dull. So far, so season 17.

LINK to The Time of the Doctor. Both feature extravagantly dressed female protagonists. Hmm, not great is it? But it’s all I’ve got.

NEXT TIME… I can foresee oodles of trouble! Arr me hearties, it’s The Smugglers.