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Desperation, depravity and Underworld (1978)

Underworld

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Doctor Who production office in 1977, when designer Dick Coles broke the news to producer Graham Williams that finally – after 15 years of eking out alien worlds and space operas out of budgets smaller than the tea lady had access to – the budget of an average Doctor Who story had finally proven impossible to work around.

DICK: So the good news is that the set designs look terrific.

GRAHAM: That’s brilliant! You’re a genius.

DICK: The bad news is there’s no money left to build them.

GRAHAM: All the designers say that.

DICK: They are all right. But this time it’s not, “there’s no money to make the sets, but I’ll find a way.” This time it’s “there’s no way in Television Centre we can make this work.”

GRAHAM: OK, well what are our options?

DICK: Well, you can cancel the story.

GRAHAM: I’m pretty sure my contract says to deliver 26 episodes this year.

DICK: Or you could cancel the next story.

GRAHAM: The Killer Cats of Gin-Sengh?! No way! It’s gonna be an epic.

DICK: Or we make all the sets as models and use CSO to matte the actors in.

GRAHAM: Will that be convincing?

DICK: Not for a minute.

GRAHAM: Give me a moment to think it over. (Opens drawer, takes out a bottle of whisky and takes a large slug.) OK. Let’s go.

In one way, it’s a pity that Underworld‘s makers had to resort to this, because their decision has come to define the story. It’s the thing it’s remembered for. Often, the only thing it’s remembered for. And like many of Doctor Who’s most egregious shockers, it’s so infamous that it makes you search even harder for the story’s redeeming features. Surely, so the theory goes, if only Underworld (or insert name of story here) hadn’t had the misfortune of having to rely so heavily on CSO (or insert other production misfortune here), it would have been a success, because at heart, it’s a really good story.

Well, if there is a decent Doctor Who story buried deep within Underworld, it’s very difficult to unearth. It was a story borne of pragmatism; writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, knowing script editor Anthony Read’s predilection for stories based on myth and legend figured they could get an easy sale by basing a Doctor Who story on the tales of ancient Greece. They were right, but the sheer convenience of their inspiration shines through. Yes, as a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts it’s obvious enough but you can just sense no-one gives a hoot about the Minyans and their deathless quest for the race bank of their ancient peoples. Not Baker and Martin, not the actors and certainly not the audience. They’re too boring a lot for that.

The Greeks, of course, loved a monster: the Hydra, the Minotaur, Medusa and so on. But for some reason, there’s no such big bad in this underworld. So we have to be content with human baddies, who, in the story’s second biggest design fail, are dressed in hooded felt jumpsuits. We can’t see their faces most of the time, so most of the time, it’s hard to care about who they are and what they want. Perhaps, the hopeful audience member might think, when they eventually pull off those shapeless hoods, there’ll be some ghastly but exciting monster underneath. But no, beneath those hoods are the faces of fairly ordinary looking middle-aged white men. You kind of wish they’d kept the hoods on, which is saying something.

I have this theory (unburdened by any actual evidence, mind) that there must have been some rule in the 1970s that extras whose faces were entirely obscured were paid less than those who showed their face. This would explain the prevalence of fully masked guards in late 70s Who. It’s a costume design quirk which starts here in Underworld, but see also The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Creature from the Pit.  It would be the only good reason to explain why we see so few faces of the ruling guards in Underworld. It’s particularly mystifying when director Norman Stewart cuts to a close up of one the featured guards (Rask? Tarn? Who would know?) for them to deliver their line, and it’s like looking at talking sack. I mean really, what’s the point? (If not that when present on the set of the Oracle, complete with chains and swords, the hooded men fit right in with what is apparently Doctor Who’s only sex dungeon. Oh sure, they had enough money to build that one.)

To be fair on Stewart, he had his work cut out for him. If this is Doctor Who’s most poorly directed story, then we need to remember he didn’t have a full complement of cameras to work with, because at least one, and sometimes two, had to be pointed at the miniature sets for the actors to image they were on. It’s easy to criticise the astonishingly boring cliffhanger to Part Two and the clumsily shot cliffhanger to Part Three, but given the pressure he was working under, it’s amazing we got to see anything at all.

Where the whole plot is going, is that the Minyan crew has come to edge of the universe to find their race bank, which is held by the R1C, a spaceship which a planet has formed around. The ship’s despotic computer, the Oracle, has fashioned a society out of this protoworld and its crew, with a caste of gun-toting guards and a lower class of rock mining Trogs. Never mind ripping off the ancient Greeks; here Baker and Martin baldly rip off the previous year’s The Face of Evil. In that story, a mad computer created a society of warriors and technicians as an experiment in eugenics and things were only put to rights when the Doctor (Tom Baker) cured it of schizophrenia. Here, things are far more pedestrian. The Minyans fight their way towards the Oracle over the course of three episodes and then the computer tries the ol’ switcheroo and tries to blow them all up. The Doctor fixes everything by doing a reverse switcheroo. Vamp until explosion and end credits.

Sadly, the conclusion must be drawn that an overreliance on CSO is only one of Underworld’s many problems, and even with a budget which stretched to caves of expertly pained jablite, this would still have been a dog of story. To redeem it, it would need a design, writing and directorial overhaul. And an approach to Doctor Who which sees the program as worthy of more of just a retelling of some old mythic tale with a few name changes.

If only its makers had had the confidence to play one final wild card: a wild card named Tom Baker. In Underworld, the great man has yet to decide that he’s the most interesting thing on screen and attempt to steal every scene with a joke, a smile, an overplayed gesture or all of the above. Only he could spark something of interest in Underworld, but that version of Tom hasn’t arrived yet. Move this story to Season 17, give Tom his head and a few stiff gins and see what happened. If only they’d lit that blue touch paper. No amount of CSO could have dampened that.

LINK TO The Return of Doctor MysterioAll right, this is a bit desperate, but Underworld  and Superman were both released in 1978, and Superman‘s a big influence on Mysterio. (Better links are welcome, comment away!)

NEXT TIME: Get in! We’re treading on Thin Ice.

 

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The tin dog, its legacy and The Invisible Enemy (1977)

Even by Doctor Who’s variable standards, The Invisible Enemy commits a lot of sins. Its acting is even hammier acting and its effects even dodgier than usual. It’s got a standard runaround, shoot ‘em up plot, when it’s not moonlighting as a disaster movie or ripping off Fantastic Voyage. But for many, the greatest crime a Doctor Who story can have is a rubbish monster and The Invisible Enemy has a particularly egregious one, twice. It’s the Nucleus of the Swarm –  first a bin bag with a hairy eyeball and then a giant prawn which needs assistance to walk around. I mean, any monster which needs two attendants to help it trundle down a corridor is never going to convince as a serious threat. When it first appears, fronds waving in Tom Baker’s face, he’s trying to swat it away like the embarrassing irritation it is.

But this story’s place in Doctor Who is assured because it introduced K9. K9’s a controversial figure in Doctor Who, some loving him like a surrogate pet and others thinking him a childish indulgence. But one thing is undeniable. K9 is, by any measure, hopeless.

He moves at a top speed of “glacier” and even that causes his motors to whine loudly throughout. Good thing he never has to sneak up on anyone. His nose laser is strangely anaemic and its aim is variable. Sometimes it will strike someone in the knee but injury them in the stomach. His movement is erratic; at one stage he drives straight into a wall. And he can’t roll over the lip of the TARDIS doorframe, meaning he has to enter and exit the Ship via means of discrete cutaways.

What makes K9 worth persevering with is his voice, delivered by John Leeson. Think of all the different ways Leeson might have gone with this. Looking at the squared off metal terrier, he might well have adopted an excitable, yappy tone. Or perhaps delivered all his lines as a kind of halting bark. But instead, he went for the tone of a mildly exasperated mid-career accountant. Unexpectedly, this works beautifully and makes you want to hear from K9, hoping he’s going to contribute to a scene. And of course it allows some character relationship to develop between him and the other characters.

K9’s function within the show veers from being exposition machine to mobile (or immobile, depending on the terrain) gun, but frequently he rises above this to demonstrate the wry charm of a sufferer of the Doctor’s silliness. Plus Leeson’s deadpan delivery allows K9 to occasionally deliver nicely self-referential gags. Like in The Pirate Planet (yes, I’m still going on about that one!), when he predicts the Doctor’s imminent arrival because he can sci-fi smell him coming, and when the Doctor finally booms in with a “Are you surprised to see me, K9?”, K9 dryly replies, “Amazed, Master” and steals the scene. Or in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor idly says, “I think one of us is being extremely stupid” and K9 says quietly but knowingly, “Affirmative.”

So technically a nightmare, but narratively useful and, with Leeson behind the microphone, a charismatic addition to the TARDIS crew. The production team had every chance to get rid of K9, and given the challenges presented by the prop, they’d have been sensible to do so, but they brought him back for three seasons in a row, until John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead thought he was altogether too convenient and sent him packing  (and even JN-T brought him back for a special, hoping a spin-off series could be cobbled together around him). The reason why, of course, was that the audience, and particularly kids, loved him.  In 1977, Doctor Who needed to be popular with kids.

K9 was an acknowledgement – the first for a very long time – that children are part of the Doctor Who audience. He’s a potent signal that the show is conscious of its younger audience; incoming producer Graham Williams had been instructed by his bosses to take them into consideration by lightening the tone of the show. If K9 seemed like an unnecessarily childish element to older viewers who had got used to the show’s mix of gruesomeness and black humour, then he did exactly what he was designed to do.

He’s also the first of a different breed of companion, which I like to call the “secondary companion”. In Season 15, Leela (Louise Jameson) is the primary companion and main foil for the Doctor; she’s in every episode and gets plenty of dialogue and action. K9, however, gets plugged in and out of stories as he’s needed. He isn’t in it all the time. If the terrain is too boggy this episode or you don’t want him to compete with the Daleks for attention or you don’t want to take him on holiday, you leave him in the TARDIS. No biggie. No wonder the Doctor refers to him as his second best friend. He utterly is.

It’s a companion configuration that the 21st century version of the show uses all the time. Jack and Rory are secondary companions and Mickey even self-identified as the tin dog.  They’re the Doctor’s second best friends. But the character where K9’s influence is most keenly seen is Nardole.

Like K9, Nardole acts as the Doctor’s confidante and aide-de-camp. Like K9, he does the boring technical stuff the Doctor doesn’t want to do and turns up occasionally to spout exposition. Like K9, he’s a fussy, uppity butler-type and he drops in and out of the series depending on whether he’s needed or not. I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise, but Nardole basically is K9, but better able to cope with hills and able to walk in and out of the TARDIS without assistance. And just as it’s difficult to imagine a spin-off series for Nardole, the various K9 solo vehicles, are, I fear, doomed to ignominy. His value is as an adjutant to the Doctor and as brilliant as he is at that, he’s not lead character material.

Back to The Invisible Enemy, and the story’s end where Professor Marius (Frederick Jaegar, of which university) appeals to the Doctor to let K9 travel aboard the TARDIS. Leela is delighted, but the Doctor says nothing. Tom Baker looks distinctly grumpy about the whole idea. He’s already got one scene stealing companion, in a skimpy outfit which makes it impossible for her to not steal focus from him. Now he’s got a robot dog as well!

For years after he’ll complain about the unreliability of the prop or the need for shots with him crouching down, but I’ve always thought that his antipathy towards K9 is mainly about competition for being adored by children. In that regard, he at last has a companion to give him a run for his money. Just not one that could actually run.

LINK TO The Leisure Hive and The Pirate Planet: Three stories in a row with Tom and K9! But we’re about to random it up again…

NEXT TIME… If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you? It’s back to the very beginning for 100,000 BC.

Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

So the story goes that writer Robert Holmes got in a huff about paying his tax bill and, seeking revenge, wrote The Sun Makers as a barely disguised rant at the tax system. If true, this was a terrible idea and would surely have only ended up driving Holmes, a well-known hater of bureaucracy, spare. Because it must have lead to a particularly maddening type of recursion where writing a television show about how angry you are about your tax bill, results in you earning more money, on which you’ll need to pay more tax. It’s kind of like trying to get even at your hangover by having another drink.

Some Doctor Who reference book (forgive my vagueness on this, I’ve read so many over the years and have now all but given them up) once said that this story makes the mistake of confusing government taxation with the profit making of a company, which it argued, are completely different things. I think this utterly misses the point of The Sun Makers, in which Holmes imagines a world in which government has taken on the trappings of capitalism so completely, as for the two to become intertwined. Given the state of governments around the world in 2018, this is surely not so unbelievable.

It doesn’t seem much more of a leap to imagine that a company selling the very basics of life – sunlight, oxygen, water – would come to the conclusion that a far more efficient way of selling universal services, is to simply take the cost directly from each worker’s pay packet. As a way of making money, taxation is not a bad business model.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because for Holmes, the Company and its staff of blowhards, incompetents and sadistic creeps isn’t just a stand in for capitalism or government or even the BBC (complete with a revolving globe of Pluto and its six suns). It’s an amalgam of everything he hates; pointless bureaucracy, compassionless authority and unsanctioned environmental meddling. Wrapped up in one of his most fervent concerns: what are we going to do when the Earth can no longer sustain us? His answer, as always, is make all the same mistakes again. But with new scenery.

***

The Sun Makers sits quietly in Season 15, not drawing attention to itself – but it’s a pivotal story. It marks a subtle change in the series where the creepy thrillers of Holmes’ era as script editor, give way to stories which are lighter in tone, but more narratively ambitious. For the first time in years – probably since Holmes’ own Carnival of Monsters – we have a story where naturalism is abandoned, real life is satirized and characters are exaggerated caricatures. It’s a Sylvester McCoy story ten years too early. This doesn’t feel like a story Holmes would have commissioned for one of his own seasons, but one that refreshes him, now he’s finally free from the pressure of having to make a whole series of the damn thing.

What this liberation means in practice is that Holmes gets to write some of his wittiest dialogue and the cast eat it up. Tom Baker is still playing it quite seriously, but he’ll shortly change his approach to being more outlandishly comic. I think The Sun Makers plays a role in that. Douglas Adams is on record as saying that the problem with writing something funny, is that some actors feel they have the license to send up the material and add comic embellishments of their own (I wonder who he could have been speaking about?). It’s surely the change in tone in this story which Tom picks up on, and takes as a signal to start injecting more of his own humour into the show. Whether anyone asks him to or not.

It’s not just that there’s more humour in the show than before, nor that it’s pointed towards uncommon targets. It’s more that The Sun Makers is showing a way to tell Doctor Who stories which had, up to that point been occasional, but which was about to become the norm. You can see its influence in the next two seasons where villains become larger than life, situations become more absurd and jokes start to set the rhythm of each episode. And like those subsequent seasons, there’s always a grim sentiment behind the jovial approach.

In this episode, the flamboyant pooh-bah of the Company, Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) is thrown off a building by the company’s revolting workers (even to the end, he’s in wide-eyed amazement at the insolence of this action). And the mole-like Collector (Henry Woolf), a pasty little sadist who likes listening to people being steamed alive, might come with a bag of one-liners, but is also only just prevented from poisoning the entire population with gas, like someone fumigating a house.

Luckily, the Doctor is on hand to feed in a particularly tricky sum into his computer to trigger a lightning-fast global financial crisis. In panic, the Collector does what all companies do in their death throes and liquidates. That’s Holmes’ whole approach – the approach to this new way of doing Doctor Who – right there in that one villain’s demise. It’s gross, funny, highly stylised and self-referential all at the same time.

***

The irony is that there’s another financial crisis impacting on The Sun Makers; the story’s budget restrictions are shockingly apparent. Corridors are made from shabby old flats. Prop guns are cardboardy. A number of sets, such as the Others’ lair, the Gatherer’s office and the steaming chamber, can’t afford walls, giving the show the air of being performed in a theatrical black box. It’s at this point in the series’ history when inflation is galloping (as it does in the story itself) and the lack of money really starts to show on screen. The next story, Underworld, has to be almost completely greenscreened.  The story after, The Invasion of Time, makes villains out of aluminum foil.

Faced with similar restrictions, other Doctor Who makers have limited the show’s scope to fit. Derrick Sherwin exiled the series to Earth. Andrew Cartmel set more stories in history. But just as the show’s new lighter tone doesn’t really stop it from being gruesome, the Graham Williams era’s budget restrictions don’t limit its ambitions. If anything, the show’s scope broadens – more space faring, more alien planets, the biggest monster ever out on screen. The show never looked cheaper, but it flatly refused to cut its suit to fit its increasingly expensive cloth. But when watching Tom Baker concoct a cliffhanger from within a wobbly shower cubicle, or tinker with a couple of pieces of plumbing junctions glued together in an approximation of a security camera, the theme of the story seems to intrude into its production: everything, it seems, comes back to money.

***

Holmes might have enjoyed getting his own back at internal revenue, but I think the taxman would have had the last laugh. Every royalty cheque from every overseas screening must have brought with it the sharp reminder that some of that £2.39 he got from El Doctor Misterio – los Fabricantes de Sol screening in Nicaragua must go to the tax man. I bet the irony wasn’t lost on Holmes, as he filled out his tax return each year. “Praise the Company,” I like to think he muttered under his breath.

LINK TO The King’s Demons: oddly enough, they both start with someone getting in trouble for not handing money over to the ruling class.

NEXT TIME… It’s insane and it’s about to get even more insanerer. We’re off to meet The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

Isolation, introspection and The Invasion of Time (1978)

invasion of time

Doctor Who is gonna fix it, Doctor Who will put it right
As he moves across the galaxy at twice the speed of light!
Back into the future, the TARDIS travels time
With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9!

The Ballad of Doctor Who (AKA Doctor Who is gonna fix it). Written by S. Watson, D. Ovenden and R. Young. Performed by Bullamakanka

I write this from a hotel room in Alice Springs. For those of you outside Australia, Alice Springs is smack bang in the centre of the country. It’s about as far from everything as you can get, nothing but desert for hundreds of kilometres. It’s a funny old place –  beautiful in some ways, deeply troubling in others. But despite its contradictions, one thing you can say about it for sure, is that it’s remote.

What, you must be thinking, does this have to do with The Invasion of Time? Well, only that being in Alice Springs has reminded me that watching classic Doctor Who was something done all throughout Australia, including in its most isolated pockets. When I grew up watching Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s, I watched it on ABC TV. It was one of two channels we had when growing up (how ridiculous that must seem to today’s kids) but out here in Alice, there would only have been one, the ABC. Luckily, that’s the one which showed Doctor Who.

The Invasion of Time was a landmark story in ABC TV’s regular repeat runs of Doctor Who. It marked the end of a set of familiar stories repeated often, from Robot to this one. So as a viewer, I noted whenever The Invasion of Time lobbed around. It marked the end of the current run of Doctor Who.  To be replaced by… who cares? Something boring. And the start of the wait until the series was shown again. Probably starting with Robot.

For many other, more casual viewers, The Invasion of Time would be quintessential Doctor Who. It has Tom Baker, being funny and eccentric and putting things right. With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9. It has aliens made of tinfoil and the Doctor shoots the bad guy with a big space gun. For many viewers in Australia of a certain age, this is what Doctor Who is. And any doubt that watching Doctor Who could be a distinctly Australian experience was put to bed by Australian bush band Bullamakanka, singing about the shared experience of watching the show.

Well I was sittin’ in front of the TV set, there were nothin’ much else to do
Then along comes this amazing co’, they called him Doctor Who
It was half-past-six on the ABC, just before the news
No ads to interrupt me, on an interspatial cruise

Half past six on the ABC, before the news, no ads to interrupt me… that describes the viewing experience pretty well. Sittin’ in front of the TV set, nothin’ much else to do. That’s certainly how it felt out in regional NSW where I grew up. Which is nowhere near as remote as Alice, where there was surely even less to do, and at an average temperature of stinking hot, next to no motivation to do it.

I’ve been thinking about the Australian experience of watching Doctor Who for a while now, but Alice has made me think about watching Doctor Who in isolation. I bet there are tales like this from all over the world – fans who found Doctor Who while living in remote corners of Asia, Europe and America, for whom the show was a regular dive into fantastic adventure. I bet there are people from Alice Springs who became fans. And I bet there are people in cities who found Doctor Who to be a respite from isolation of other kinds: bullying, loneliness or family dislocation.

It’s an experience now lost, because people who love Doctor Who today – the old series, the new series or both – are linked by the internet. Want to talk/argue/rant about the latest episode? You’ll find thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Gallifrey Base who want to join you. You could do it from Alice Springs or from any other far-flung corner of the earth with wifi. You can do it instantly and easily. It was not always like this. For many, watching in isolation was the norm.

It’s not that Doctor Who is special in this regard. All television – all media really – has the power to relieve isolation and to forge connections with people. But for me, I am often bemused by how different the modern experience of watching Doctor Who is to how I watched it growing up.

For a start, nearly all of the show is available at the flick of a cursor. That alone is mindblowing enough. Then there’s that it’s a mainstream phenomenon; not an odd, niche filler of a program, beloved of dorks and loners, but a palpable TV hit. All this plus the instant global community of Whoheads one can join with only a login, a password and a few thousand opinions.

Watched from this perspective, The Invasion of Time is just another story among many. One where all six episodes can be devoured at once, your enjoyment of it supplemented by special features, partwork magazines and online reviews. But watched from Alice Springs or a rural town in Canada or a village in New Zealand or wherever it is, I think it was something else altogether.

It was a weeknightly treat, an interspatial cruise. And something of a special event, too. The Doctor’s transformation into to roaring, bellicose tyrant was unsettling. The return of the Sontarans was a rare rematch with an old enemy. A tour through the labyrinthine TARDIS interior, which for some reason never looked, through a child’s eyes, so much like a shabby old hospital. The mythos of Gallifrey explored. The Vardans… well, they always looked rubbish, but you can’t have everything.

It was a lifeline, this show, to people watching all over the world. In a way which it isn’t as much anymore – or at least not in the same way. Which is good, right? We wouldn’t trade away the show’s newfound popularity and the technology that links us to fans all over the world.

But watching the show now is a completely different experience for those who used to watch in isolation. Sitting in front of the TV set, with nothing much else to do.

LINK TO The Unicorn and the Wasp: because Christopher Benjamin is in Unicorn etc, both feature cast members of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

NEXT TIME: It’s always been you, Craig. Please finalise your purchases and head to the checkouts, it’s Closing Time.

Class, crankiness and Horror of Fang Rock (1977)

fangrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injury, insult and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)

talons2It’s never mentioned very loudly, but Philip Hinchcliffe is the only producer to have been quietly moved on from Doctor Who. Not sacked, mind – you don’t get sacked for delivering the kind of ratings the first three Tom Baker seasons garnered. But if your work causes the sort of public outcry which creates headaches for BBC hierarchy, then you might be gently moved sideways.

This is what happened to Hinchcliffe after the broadcast of The Deadly Assassin, with its graphic end to Part Three where the Doctor was strangled underwater. Never has a cliffhanger had such an impact; the subsequent complaints from Mary Whitehouse and her band of moral crusaders sealed the producer’s fate. But to me, the tea-time terror Hinchcliffe presided over is nowhere near as objectionable as the casual racism which peppers his last story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Yet it’s the violence which cost Hinchcliffe his job. Seems you can offend as many Chinese people as you like, but you get those white Christians angry at your peril.

Despite its racism, Talons is a towering classic of Doctor Who. It’s a paradox which speaks to how much this story is loved; we know it’s racist, but look – written by Robert Holmes! Victorian London! A murderous ventriloquist’s doll! But because of this paradox, it’s increasingly difficult to watch with any degree of comfort. I note that it has slipped down a few notches in DWM’s 50th Anniversary poll (oh yes, you know I love that thing!) and I predict that slide’s going to continue. It will always be somewhere near the top because it’s full of engaging characters, witty dialogue, suspenseful direction and the sort of flagrant budgetary extravagance you engage in when you’ve just been told to move on from your job. It’s a great story in many ways, but enjoying it involves either consciously excusing some offensive production choices or enduring a Whoish form of white man’s guilt.

(Incidentally, Talons is so ethnically dodgy that Canadian broadcaster CBC refused to screen it. In his book From A-Z, Gary Gillatt notes that the story was never repeated by the BBC. No such qualms in Australia. We screened it over and over again and were the first country to give it a VHS release. Meanwhile, in echoes of the Whitehouse effect, The Deadly Assassin wasn’t screened until 1987 because it was too violent. Violence again trumps racism as the more serious offence.)

As is well documented elsewhere on the interwebs, Talons is racially insensitive in many ways, but it is at least the last Doctor Who story to engage in yellowface, the practice of using make up to make a Caucasian actor appear Asian. Here second tier villain Li H’sen Chang is played by the very white John Bennett (you can see just how white he is in Invasion of the Dinosaurswhere he plays a very British general), He sports heavy make up and a general Asian accent. (Even the DVD’s subtitles pick this up, talking about the conjurer’s ‘tlicks’.) Bennett, a skilled actor, does well, but it’s hard to believe there was no genuinely Asian actor who could have taken this role.

Doctor Who has a track record here. The Daleks’ Master Plan‘s bad guy was Mavic Chen, a yellowfaced Kevin Stoney. Sans accent, but with inappropriate Asian make up. And as noted before, there’s another Chang in The Wheel in Space who sounds highly suspect. Then there’s a whole cast of people in the lost Marco Polo, a story we all long to be recovered, but I wonder how we’d feel about it if we could see it. And although these are stories from the distant past, this problem still lingers. US director Cameron Crowe was recently criticized for casting Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian in his feature film Aloha. No, I haven’t seen it either.

Li H’sen Chang as played by Bennett may be an unfortunately cliched character, unfortunately cast, but he has a line in self referential commentary which might suggest a critical subtext. Although he speaks in cod Chinese English (“Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas”), he has a few barbed retorts which could also convince a viewer that Holmes is making some social commentary. When the Doctor (Tom Baker, at the height of his powers) thinks he recognises Chang, the magician says “I understand we all look the same”. Later when the Doctor playfully absconds from the magician’s cabinet, he tells a knowing audience “one of us is yellow”. Could it be that Holmes is seeking to give his character some satirical bite?

Well, if Chang’s too self knowing a character to offend, there are couple of other ways this story might oblige. What about its treatment of women? True, in companion Leela (Louise Jameson) we have a brave, smart and proactive female character. Just her though. The story’s other women are helpless victims and one old ghoul. And here Leela is a stand in for Pygmalion‘s Eliza Doolittle, an uncultured waif being ‘educated’ by her male seniors; hardly the most empowering of archetypes. And even though Leela is a strong, resourceful character she still ends up in her underwear, being attacked by a bug eyed monster. That’s never happened to the Doctor.

Then there’s the unfortunate habit Holmes has of equating physical deformity with evil. His villain here, foe from the future Magnus Greel (Michael Spice), hides behind a mask. In Who, no-one wears a mask unless their face is terribly mangled (well, almost no-one), and so it is with Greel, whose facial contortions get their own cliffhanger. It’s the same with other Holmes creation Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani, and not that different from Holmes’ hideously disfigured Master, seen just three stories before this one. So you see, Talons offers insult to all sorts of people.

And even just as TV drama, it’s not without its faults. Two episodes end with attacks by the giant rat. Two others end with attacks on Leela in Litefoot’s home. Part Five features a long sequence of padding where Jago and Litefoot escape and get recaptured. Chang’s dying clue to Greel’s whereabouts is left unexplained. And the plot hangs off the villain finding a cupboard, which just happens to be in Litefoot’s house, only to forget the key and thus have to kick start the plot.

I think this is going to be Talons‘ curse. Once you start falling out of love with it, you just can’t seem to stop.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Bit of a nightmare, actually. ‘Smoking pipe of poppy’ becomes ‘slugging type of toddy’. ‘Lombard St’ becomes ‘Lumber St’. ‘Time agent’ becomes ‘Time ancient’.

LINK TO The Rescue. Masked villains terrorising young girls.

NEXT TIME. It’s Destiny of the Daleks. So spack off!

People, unappealing traits and The Robots of Death (1977)

robots death1

I wonder what normal people would make of The Robots of Death. You k’now normal people, not fans. We love it, natch. Loved it for years. Not gonna change.

But I suspect that for a certain set of viewers, this story is the epitome of what’s rubbish about Doctor Who. It’s got people with silly names and even sillier costumes. The special effects are hokey. The Doctor’s assistant is barely dressed. The monsters have cardboard shoes. They use bike reflectors as props. Even the title is generic sci-fi tosh.

And there’s one other thing which might put the not-we off;  it’s about a thoroughly hateful group of people.

We’re introduced to the crew of the Sand Miner in an ensemble scene early in Part One. So difficult to get right, but writer Chris Boucher nails it, telling us all we need to know about life on a Sand Miner without resorting to plodding exposition. One by one he introduces us to the cast of characters, all of whom have names like Romanian villages. Pompous, spoilt, smug, entitled types. These lot are argumentative whiners: they don’t want to take orders, they stop work to take breaks arbitrarily, they needle at each other.

In that first scene, government observer Chub (Rob Edwards) taunts mover Borg (Brian Croucher). Borg is getting a massage from a robot, its cold steel fingers on his unprotected flesh, and Chub chooses this particular moment to tell a story about how a robot masseur once went berserk and ripped someone’s arm off. (“I heard it was a leg”‘ says fellow crewmember Zilda (Tania Rogers), offhandedly.) It’s a nice foreshadowing of what’s to come, as Chub is the first chump to be killed.

It’s classily done. Chub stuck in a storage room, calling for a robot to help him get a package from a storage rack (spoilt, y’see. And lazy). When it comes, its eyes glow red with blood lust (a trick Russell T Davies would later borrow for the Ood). We see a distorted POV shot with Chub slowly being backed into a strangle hold. Suspenseful direction from Michael E Briant.

Next up, it’s Cass’s (Tariq Yunus) turn to die (Well, apart from Kerrill, who’s dead before we can work out how annoying he was). Cass isn’t around for long, but while alive he’s ready to argue with anyone at the drop of an outlandish hat. His murder, like Kerrill’s, happens off screen. But we might feel a bit sorry for Cass because resident boofhead Borg thought it might be funny to stick a corpse marker (our murderer’s calling card and favourite bike shop spare) on his hand as a joke. Sick puppy.

Next to get necked, it’s rich kid Zilda, sulky and bitchy, probably because her costume resembles that of a Fish Person from The Underwater Menace. Zilda sneaks into commander Uvanov’s (Russell Hunter) office and uncovers incriminating details about him and broadcasts them to the ship. It’s at exactly this moment that she’s murdered, a convenient plot convergence of two (as it turns out) unconnected events. It’s meant (in plot terms) to shed suspicion on Uvanov, but it’s still a contrivance.

Uvanov could have escaped from Horrible Bosses. Smarmy and bullying, he’s a typical middle management type. When he finds out about Chub’s murder, he has to be forcefully persuaded to abort the mining of a lucrative storm. Then once he’s seen the body, he sets out breaking the news gently to his traumatised crew. ‘Now you all know Chub is dead. One of you killed him’  he announces.

He’s winning no people management awards theree. Later he leans into Zilda’s personal space, face almost touching face, and demands to know ‘why do you hate me?’ Well, she suspects him of killing her brother, but it could just be because he’s a knob.

As the end of Part Two beckons, the Sand Miner is sabotaged. Exactly why remains a mystery. Except perhaps for this; in the midst of the chaos, Borg, he of the hilarious gallows humour, is killed (again off screen) so perhaps letting the mine sink into the ground is a simple case of distraction.

We don’t get to see Borg’s body, which leaves open the possibility that he might have faked his death and be the murderer. Uvanov’s another suspect, but he’s been locked up (he later escapes, off screen of course). As for the saboteur though, the Doctor (Tom Baker, in a filthy mood throughout) is not fooled. ‘I’m sure Dask knows exactly where to look for the damage,’ he says subtly as Part Three opens.

Dask (David Bailie) as it turns out, is our resident murderer. He grew up with robots, a kind of mechanical Romulus or Remus, and thinks he’s one of them. His plan, apparently, is to start a robot revolution, but why the first step towards this is to murder everyone onboard a mobile mine miles from civilisation is a unclear. In the final two episodes, for a want of characters left alive, it becomes clear he’s our man.

But oddly enough, once we get to the final two episodes, the robots don’t succeed in killing anyone else. Instead of robots of death they become robots of close shaves. Leela (Louise Jameson, an element of jungle savagery in this corporate, futuristic world) can fend for herself, but helpless Toos (Pamela Salem) in her clamshell bed is as vulnerable as Botticelli’s Venus. (There’s an unnerving sexual tone to a robot’s attack on her, with that porn star bed, the lurid pink lighting and the shot of the robot lunging back and forth as it attempts to throttle her.)

But any thought Toos might be the one human to sympathise with disappears when she’s nursing a sore arm, first aid tended by Leela. She sulks an order to a waiting robot. ‘And find that girl Leela’, she says, as if summoning the hired help. ‘My arm hurts,‘ she moans. Oh that’s a shame. Why not ask Zilda or Borg how their arms feel?

That leaves undercover detectives Poul (David Collings) and robot sidekick D84 (Gregory De Polnay). Poul’s the closest thing to someone to like, but he’s also the resident smart arse. He loses his mind at the sight of a blood stained robot, so he may not have been the ideal choice of investigator for this mission. He nastily tries to betray Leela to the robots while cowering under a desk (‘Help! She’s in here!’), but we’ll forgive him because, as Leela says, his mind is broken.

D84, on the other hand, is sweetness itself. He stutters and makes dry jokes and tries to please. He’s got an adult’s voice and a child’s innocence. He’s too nice to make it all the way to the end, and so he gets his head blown off. And he was the nicest of the lot.

The Doctor doesn’t hang around to bid the survivors farewell. Who can blame him? A couple of seasons later, the Doctor meets some more robot killers in The Androids of Tara. One of the humanoids says to him that he never feels entirely comfortable around androids. ‘Funny thing’, says the Doctor. ‘Some androids feel that way about humans’. Surely he’s thinking of the Sand Mine Suckers as he says it.

LINK to Delta and the Bannermen. Hmm, two very different stories! But how about this; both are about one race of beings trying to eliminate the other, based on the fact they’re different.

NEXT TIME… I don’t like your face. Nor your hair! What’s that in the sky? It’s The Tenth Planet.

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