Tag Archives: master

Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

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Transformation, transition and Survival (1989)

survival

Even with its dying breaths, old school Doctor Who was taking us to strange, exotic worlds. Survival is set somewhere the series had never been, not in 26 years and over 150 stories: planet Surburbia.

It’s a world that has little to recommend it. It’s the boredom capital of the universe, according to Ace (Sophie Aldred). It’s a dump, says gloomy charity collector Ange (Kate Eaton). Even the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, wise and still a little wacky), a man who finds interest in everything, can’t stifle a yawn.

It’s a world inhabited by moaning shopkeepers swapping lame dad jokes, shrill NIMBY women complaining about cats and a boorish military wannabe, teaching boys to brawl. We see inside a  dingy youth club, the dowdy corner store and a grim council estate. This is a place Ace’s friends want to escape from, but their options are unappealing; get a job as a window cleaner, marry a brain-dead plumber, or fall through an interplanetary cat-flap to a disintegrating world inhabited by carnivorous cat-people.

We’re used to the Doctor and his pals inhabiting suburbia these days. It’s a mainstay of New Who. But for nearly all of its run, the classic series was a strangely arch experience; it specialised in the bizarre tales from alien places, delivered in received pronounciation. It took to the end of the series for it to get to the street where you lived and to meet the people you know.

*****

Perivale is a place of stasis and stagnation. The unnamed world of the Cheetahs is the opposite – a place of violent upheaval and transformation, with a pink sky and Spanish guitar music. Stay too long there and it turns you into an animal, hungry and eager to hunt. “This place,” says the Master (Anthony Ainley, in the performance of his Who career), “bewitches you.” It’s a phrase chosen carefully; not only is the planet’s transformative effect more magic than science, but the mention of witches reminds us that cats were traditionally their familiars of choice. And this is a story which celebrates femininity.

We see three characters physically changed by the planet. Two are men – the Master and young roughnut Midge (Will Barton). For both of them, the transformation is a base, animalistic thing. It seems to revolt the Master, that a Time Lord of his standing should succumb to such an infection. Only at the story’s end, when he’s past the point of no return, does he surrender to his new bestial urges. Midge puts up no such fight. In a Lord of the Flies moment, he skewers a dying Cheetah with a tusk, loses any remaining innocence he has, and goes all big hungry cat immediately.

The other victim of the planet is Ace, and for her, the transformation is a far more ambiguous experience. She revels in the strength and stamina it gives her. She too finds a Cheetah in trouble, and unlike Midge, nurses her back to health. This forms the basis for a powerful attraction to the feline, Karra (Lisa Bowerman), and so begins a proto-romance, Beauty and the Beast-style. Writer Rona Munro, has talked about this being the lesbian subtext running through the story, but in reality, there’s not much ‘sub’ about it.

Above the Cheetah people’s planet hangs an ominous moon, a potent symbol of femininity, as indeed are cats. Why shouldn’t this bewitching place be a world where women can control the magic around them and be invigorated by it? While men struggle and fight against the inevitable, Ace embraces her physical change. And learns to control it enough to deliver the Doctor and her friends back home. To the boredom capital of the universe.

*****

The Doctor has undergone a subtler transformation. He has spent the rest of Season 26 being manipulative and bringing all manner of schemes to completion. In Survival he reverts to stumbling into a situation and working out what’s happening as he goes along. In Part One, he even seems to hark back to his clownish Season 24 persona, cackhandedly trying to lure cats and pratfalling off garden walls.

The exception comes in Part Three when, in an absurd stunt that undermines the rest of this stylish and lyrical story, the Doctor and Midge duel using motorcycles. They crash head on and there’s an unfeasibly large explosion. From which the two combatants are flung away long and unlikely distances. Midge is badly injured, as indicated by the smudges of charcoal on his face, and is talked to death by the Master. The Doctor is unscathed, and luckily lands on a strategically placed sofa and some bags of old rubbish. “Oh very good,” he says as he extricates himself. “Very amusing.”

I suppose that indicates that some unseen benefactor placed the soft furnishings in advance, anticipating the Doctor’s fall exactly. Presumably, it’s some future version of the Doctor and so, hooray, the master manipulator is back, this time with with bin bags. It strikes an odd note in this story, which has otherwise been made up of elements which fit thematically and logically together (if we ignore the bit when a horse clips a trip wire which somehow leaves the Doctor hanging from a tree).

But if the Doctor is in the business of leaving cushioned landings for himself, I see no reason why he should stop on the grassy slopes of Horsenden Hill. His fourth incarnation could do with a crash mat at the Pharos Project. His tenth with a foam pit in the Naismith mansion. And so on, throughout eternity.

****

In the end, the Master embraces his inner beast and returns to the Cheetah planet, his new home, a world of fire and chaos. Ace learns to control her inner beast, but loses her newfound soul mate, when Karra dies. The Doctor reaffirms his abhorrence of violence, refusing to fight, and thus finds his way home to the TARDIS. He finds Ace wearing his hat and clutching his umbrella, on her way to becoming a younger, more vital version of himself. They walk off, arm in arm, having changed Suburbia from being boredom central, to being the battleground between humans and aliens, and between reason and animal instinct.

That the old series ends here is almost incidental. No one intended it to end here. No one designed this to be the last Doctor Who story. Which is both apparent and ironic, because Doctor Who was rarely, if ever, so boldly and breathtakingly new as in Survival.

LINK TO Horror of Fang Rock: both stories feature women as key parts of the creative team (director Paddy Russell and writer Rona Munro). Pretty rare for Doctor Who.

NEXT TIME… It’s what I’ve always feared. We’re on the horns of The Twin Dilemma.

Underground, overground and Colony in Space (1971)

colony

There’s no small measure of irony in the fact that when the Time Lords finally allow the Doctor (the Pert, in imposing form) a temporary respite from his exile on Earth, they send him to the drabbest planet around. It’s the grey old world Uxareius and although Jo (perky Katy Manning) finds a sole multicoloured flower to spark her interest, all else is bleak. Our heroes soon come across some pioneering colonists from Earth, who are wondering why their crops won’t grow. I can tell them why: their planet’s a clay pit.

The colonists, a dowdy group of would-be farmers with unlikely facial hair (well, the blokes at least) are also being terrorised by giant lizards, because after all, this is a Malcolm Hulke script. (When we catch a glimpse of the creatures, the production team wisely uses some back projection of existing reptile footage. Unfortunately the footage is a of a friendly looking iguana.) The lizards, it transpires, are being faked by some new arrivals, a survey team from intergalactic mining concern  IMC, and the battle for control of this mudball of a planet is on.

The arrival of the men from IMC in Episode Two kicks the story into second gear. Hulke (let’s call him Mac, like we knew him an’ all) is often praised (even by me) for bringing a moral complexity to his Doctor Who scripts, and creating characters whose motivations are a mix of good and bad. Not here, though. Here there are stark boundaries between good and evil. Colonists are good, miners – or more specifically the world of big business they represent  – are bad. They resort to intimidation, infiltration, blackmail, environmental degradation and murder in pursuit of profit. They’re bad ‘uns, through and through.

Their chief is Captain Dent, played with sombre gravitas by Morris Perry. Dent has a steely glare underneath a bizarre combed forward fringe, and even when under pressure, he never raises his voice beyond a quiet ruthlessness. His first meeting with the Doctor is played like aristocratic Generals exchanging pleasantries prior to engaging in battle. And though it soon becomes clear that they’re each other’s enemies, neither loses their cool.

DENT: I can see we’re on opposite sides, Doctor.

DOCTOR: Perhaps. (Toasts with what appears to be a tall glass of Ribena) Your health, sir!

Dent’s the kind of man who flies his spaceship a couple of kilometres to the colonists’ dome because he doesn’t like walking. He engineers a situation where the colonists are forced to blast off from Planet Sludge in a spaceship which is bound to explode, and his only care is that IMC personnel are cleared from the blast site. He facilitates/suffers the various shifts in fortune between miners and colonists which see saw through the story, so it’s a shame that when we reach the climax, he seems to get forgotten. He doesn’t get to go out in a blaze of glory. The last we see of him he’s sitting behind a desk and then events move on without him.

Dent’s the embodiment of cold, calculating villainy, played in contrast to the story’s other bad guy, the Master (stylish Roger Delgado). The Master’s in charge of the story’s subplot, which is far more cartoony and fun than the tit for tat between colonists and miners. He arrives to search for an ancient alien civilisation and steal its galactic doomsday weapon so that he might take over the universe. Pulp sci-fi stuff it might be, but this is the section of Colony in Space which is most engaging. I think Mac himself realised that when he was considering the title for his novelisation of this story, and plumbed for Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, instead of Doctor Who and the Quarrel in the Quarry.

Mac is often credited by script editor Terrance Dicks as the insightful fella who first saw the plot limitations inherent in the show’s early 70s format whereby the Doctor’s stuck on earth and allied with UNIT. Alien invasion or mad scientist was all the series could offer its viewer, he predicted. If only he was as quick to spot the problems with having the Master turn up on a regular basis. “Well Terrance, you have two plots: Master aligns himself with big alien baddies or Master attempts to gain control of some powerful gizmo.” And that generally fits for every Master story until, what, The Five Doctors?

Mac goes for the latter here, and said powerful gizmo is hidden within a underground society with a three strata of aliens: the green, mute Primitives (whose bulbous faces make them look like they’re suffering a nut allergy), the short, mute High Priests (whose even more bulbous faces look like a stone fruit left in a bath) and the Guardian, a… what exactly? A bulbous head on a puppet toddler’s body dressed in a toga. It emerges and retracts into a hatch in the wall with that wavy video effect which usually signifies a bizarre dream sequence, which, to be fair, is what it feels like you’re experiencing this far into Colony in Space. And it speaks like a teenage boy with a ring modulator. All in all, a surprising creature to leave in charge of a device which could destroy the universe.

But then, any surprising incidents are welcome in this sedate six parter. The best parts are when Pertwee and Delgado get to thesp at each other in equal pomposity. While locked in an underground office with some helpful plot-explaining frescos, they stumble across a secret of this long diminished civilisation. Apparently after developing the Doomsday Weapon…

DOCTOR: the super race became priests of a lunatic religion worshipping machines instead of gods.

Oh Mac! Tell us that story! That one sounds interesting!

*****

MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF EXPOSITION IN COLONY IN SPACE AND PERHAPS ALL OF DOCTOR WHO:

MASTER: You know the Crab Nebula?

DOCTOR: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course.

I think this style of dialogue should make a comeback:

MASTER: You know the foot bone?

DOCTOR: The bone which is connected to both the ankle bone and, via that, to the leg bone? Of course.

But here’s the best bit. Recently, Mrs Spandrell and I went to Uluru in central Australia (if you’re thinking of going, do. It’s amazing). There we went on a excursion to view the night sky with an astronomer as a guide. And half way through, I shit you not, this is what he said to our little group of star gazers.

ASTRONOMER: Has anyone heard of the Crab Nebula?

Folks, I felt as if all my Christmases had come at once. I put on my best Pertwee impression and boomed:

ME: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course!

No, I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t.

But I really wished I had.

I bet Mrs Spandrell would have loved it.

****

LINK TO Nightmare in Silver: er, is it un-PC to say little people?

NEXT TIME I shall not be so lenient! We swash our buckles with The Androids of Tara.

Inside, outside and Castrovalva (1982)

castrovalva

Act 1: Part One and half of Part Two

Perhaps the oddest way to start a new Doctor’s era is with a re-tread of Inside the Spaceship. In that curious little adventure from Doctor Who’s dawn, the Doctor and his three companions are trapped in the Ship and have to deduce that the rickety old thing is careering towards the creation of a sun. In the first act of Castrovalva, much the same thing happens, and in both, the theme is of strangers getting to know and respect each other through adversity.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) is suffering from the post-regenerative tremors and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has been kidnapped by the Master and replaced with a mathematical model of himself (this is presumably what CGI is going to lead to. Somewhere in his TARDIS the Master must have the future equivalent of Andy Serkis in his green body sock trying to mimic Adric’s body language. “Put your hand in your pocket now, walk stumblingly forward now”. Hopefully he wouldn’t have had to mimic the young lad during his famously priapic moment suffered whilst caught in the Master’s hadron web. Yup. Totes awks, boy wonder.)

With the blokes out of action, our heroes of this segment are bold and brash Tegan (Janet Fielding) and prim and proper Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). These two become mainstays of the Davison era, but in this story’s terms, they have only just met, sharing precious few scenes together in the previous story, Logopolis. So it’s an interesting decision to put these two women – strangers to themselves and to us – at the heart of the story, and put the fate of the TARDIS and the Doctor in their hands.

Luckily, Tegan and Nyssa make for a surprisingly interesting paring. They are certainly smart, proactive characters: it’s they who steal the ambulance in Part One to rescue the Doctor, they who work out that the TARDIS is in the middle of a death plunge and they who eventually have to jettison 25% of the Ship to escape oncoming disaster. It’s refreshing for Doctor Who to so prominently place two female characters and for them to take charge while the Doctor plays a diminished role.

I love this first segment of Castrovalva and a lot of it is down to Sutton and Fielding selling the dangerous situation they’re in. Which is no small feat considering all they’ve got to help them is some ‘it’s too hot’ acting, a few TARDIS lurches and some overlaid smoke. The new Doctor wandering around the TARDIS interior and impersonating his former selves is entertaining too, but it’s the idea that the two newcomers are in charge while everything goes to hell with roundels which maintains the tension. Paddy Kingsland’s music and Fiona Cumming’s direction help to sell it as well. If only they have turned down the lights a bit we would have got a real sense of our safe, familiar spaceship truly being on the edge of destruction.

Act 2: The rest of Part Two and a bit of Part Three

Castrovalva is continually about getting lost and finding a way out. In the first act, the Doctor and his companions lose themselves in the labyrinth of TARDIS interior, the second time in as many stories for Tegan. In the third, they’re befuddled by the kaleidoscopic dimensions of Castrovalva. The second act is set in the lush, airy outdoors of the planet, but even here our heroes struggle, with their destination seemingly moving about mid journey. You can’t trust any of this story’s settings to stay stable or make sense.

This second act is the most sedate of the three, a kind of mid-story breather. It consists of an increasingly strenuous stroll through the woods for Nyssa and Tegan, while they carry the Doctor in a faux coffin. Writer Christopher H Bidmead seeks to liven things up with stumbles into creeks and misdirection about a hunting party who turn out to be gentlemen, but there’s no hiding that this is the picturesque but otherwise dull shuttle between two more interesting stops. I mean, at least have our TARDIS crew pursued by a Castrovalvan wood beast or something.

Act 3: Most of Part Three and Part Four

Once we actually get to Castrovalva, the story turns into something unique. A gentle puzzle of a story, set in a quiet, refined castle/city filled with librarians, pharmacists and washerwomen (gender stereotypes are hard to shift, clearly). Presumably there’s a milliner around somewhere too because nearly everyone wears elaborate hats. In addition, all the Castrovalvans speak in a lyrical, arcane style which means there’s a sense of poetry being interrupted whenever the regulars have some dialogue. So there’s must be a dialogue coach about the place too.

It’s here that the Doctor realizes the Master (Anthony Ainley, heh heh heh) has maneuvered him into a trap, and that trap is Castrovalva itself. As traps go, it’s elaborate: ‘on the off chance that the Doctor survives the tumble into Event One, I’ll just use space maths to create a fake city which will collapse in on itself, and lure the Doctor into it. I’ll go as far as to populate it with oddly hatted characters who speak like 19th century butlers. Hell, I’ll even dress up as a doddery old codger and wander about in it myself.’ You’ve got to give it to him, he puts some thought into these things.

The Master’s plan is undone when the Doctor realises that the accumulated history of Castrovalva is faked, because although the books appear old, they are also paradoxically up to date. It’s an oblique point to rest a plot on, but there you go. Personally I wonder what 23 volumes of fake Castrovalvan history had in them. Tegan claims unconvincingly that the history is ‘fascinating’, but what could those dusty tomes possibly say? “Day 10,003: clothes were washed, medicants were prepared, wild boar for dinner again.” Surely the Master never expected anyone to actually read those books, as he stayed up, carefully staining the pages with cold tea.

In the end, Adric is torn out of the web, Castrovalva goes to pieces and the Master has his fancy dress torn from his body by angry fake people. The Doctor mobilises his friends into a brisk jog back to the TARDIS. Hard to imagine Tom Baker agreeing to that, and indeed although this hasn’t been an action packed story, it has consigned the fourth Doctor to hazy  memory. A hungover Matthew Waterhouse looks very queasy in these scenes, and while the cameras weren’t rolling, he had a spew on some of that delightful scenery. Poor lad. An erection and gastric ejection in one story. That never happened in Inside the Spaceship.

LINK TO The Enemy of the World: in both stories, the villain keeps a small community of people in ignorance of the shocking true nature of their world.

NEXT TIME: This is a WARNing! We become companions of The Krotons. Great jumping gobstoppers!

Realism, fantasy and The Mind of Evil (1971)

mind1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course there could! And what’s more…

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

I’m sure it does! Problem solved.

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

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

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

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

Violence, sex and Dark Water/Death in Heaven (2014)

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She has two hearts, right? The Doctor abandoned her, right? (Er, sort of) And Missy is short for Mistress, just like K9 used to call her. So I was well prepared. I had it all worked out. When Michelle Gomez purred in our hero’s ear “Well, I couldn’t really go on calling myself…” I was utterly convinced the next word would be… Romana.

Of course I was wrong. I always am when it comes to predicting Doctor Who twists. Other films and TV shows I’m quite good at. He’s a ghost. The murderer’s that guy no one suspects. She’s been there the whole time, and so on. But Doctor Who, the series I know better than anything else, stumps me every time.

I love it, of course. It’s part of the fun. But lots of other, more sensible people weren’t fooled. They’d guessed that Missy was a newly feminised Master long before the reveal. Many at the moment she introduced herself as “Missy”. I, on the other hand, had ruled out the possibility. Because, I thought, why would you recast the Master, when John Simm was so good in the role?

Any number of reasons, I suppose. Perhaps he wasn’t available to reprise his role. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was simply time for a new person in the role. But if you miss Simm as I do, it helps that Gomez is so perfect in the role. She gives us a truly different version of the Master, (a character whose previous incarnations have tended to not vary so far from each other as the Doctor’s have) and not just because she’s a woman. We’ve never had a Master quite so batty. Or as she puts it, “Look at me. I’m bananas.”

(And despite myself, I feel I have to comment on the Master’s gender swap so here it is: big deal. if humans can change gender, I’ve always assumed that Time Lords could manage it with much less fuss and bother.)

There’s one Masterly aspect where Gomez’s Missy gets dead right and it’s the character’s habit of sudden, lethal violence. She never lets us forget that behind that Mary Poppins exterior (more filmic references), lies a psychopath to whom killing is an everyday habit. The cruellest moment is when she torments fangirl Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) before icing her – “I’m going to kill you in a minute” is one of Steven Moffat’s most chilling lines – but the most shocking is when she flings Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) out of an aeroplane. With typical nonchalance, she moves quickly on to more killing. “Boys, blow up this plane and, I don’t know, Belgium, yeah?”

It’s that casual violence that makes the Master a compelling villain. For me, it’s a vital part of his/her character. Now this bit is where I commit Who heresy (Whoresy?), but this is why original Master Roger Delgado’s my least favourite. He rarely has those moments of utter ruthlessness that mark him as a truly bad guy. A rare example is when he throws a poor unfortunate scientist off the radio tower in Terror of the Autons, but Delgado is generally a safer, more avuncular Master than the rest. He might chop at a few necks and set a few elaborate traps, but he rarely resorts to immediate murder.

Anthony Ainley’s Master may have been a more theatrical Master than Delgado, but at least he had a few moments which showed off his shocking viciousness. Think of the moment in Survival when he sticks his young sidekick with a sharpened tusk. And there’s a great moment in the much underrated Planet of Fire when he’s threatening to incinerate some locals to force the Doctor to reveal the location of a vital TARDIS component. The Doctor pleads and says he doesn’t have the part. “I believe you,” says the Master, before he continues the burning anyway.

Eric Roberts’ gangster style Master in the TV movie got a similarly gruesome moment when he snapped Chang Lee’s neck without hesitation, not to mention when he strangled his host body’s wife in bed (thankfully off screen). Derek Jacobi was only seconds into his brief tenure when he electrocuted Chantho with one sparking cable. John Simm’s Master gassed a room full of politicians and ate two homeless men. Sudden, unexpected violence is the Master’s true calling card, far more than turning people into action figures.

What Simm brought to the role, and what Gomez has picked up on, is a kind of dangerous wackiness. Their Masters are clearly loopy, and in Simm’s case, driven insane by that infernal drumming. It’s as if modern day Who needs to rationalise the Master’s villainy as a byproduct of mental instability. It’s not enough for him/her to be evil. He/she’s unhinged, and that explains why he’s/she’s evil.

The other thing Gomez continues with is the Master’s close association with sex. One of the first things she does when meeting Peter Capaldi’s fierce and feisty Doctor is to snog him.

In Old Who, the Master has always been sexualised in a way the Doctor was not. And in New Who there’s a real difference apparent in presenting them both as sexual creatures. It can be summarised like this: the Doctor gets romanced, the Master gets laid. John Simm’s Master was clearly a sexual being. He married an Earth woman, and they canoodled like teenagers. In The Last of the Time Lords he emerges presumably from bed, hair disheveled and in a satin night gown, like he’s been interrupted. He even suggests a threesome at one stage, and Lucy Saxon’s battered and dazed appearance casts the dark shadow of violence over their relationship.

But even in Old Who, the Master was about sex and violence, both activities which set him apart from his own race, the passive and passionless Time Lords. Delgado, as we saw in The Time Monster seduced a married woman. Eric Roberts’ Master was born in a marital bed. Even the staid Ainley version chose to assume the body of a man in love with his new bride. It seems that between the Doctor and the Master, it’s the latter who ‘owns’ sex, and as a result, the series positions sex with corruption and crime.

But let’s get to the big question: now that she’s a woman, will the Doctor and the Master get it on? Well, let’s not be heteronormative about this, it was always a possibility (although let’s stick with a Tennant/Simm pairing rather than think about any of the other possible Doctor/Master hook ups. Ooops, too late, you have haven’t you?) But now, they could actually have kids!

My bet’s on a girl first time round. They’ll call her Romana.  (Or maybe Maisie?) That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it! Because having got my Who twists wrong so many times, my luck’s got to change eventually.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Gallifrey is spelt Galyfrey at one stage, which is quite fetching actually. Perhaps if they have a boy.

LINK TO: The Gunfighters. Get this: they both feature Tombstones. That made me smile.

NEXT TIME: We’re off to infiltrate The Moonbase. Clever, clever, clever.

Crisis, chaos and The Ultimate Foe (1986)

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1.

It’s a Monday morning in 1986. Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, aged 38, sits restlessly in his office, smoking not-his-first cigarette of the day. Also in his office, a lawyer who’s been seconded from some dry and dusty corner of the BBC to witness the forthcoming meeting. The lawyer looks around JN-T’s office, filled with Doctor Who paraphernalia and wallpapered with showbizzy photos, and imagines that this is not going to be an ordinary day at the office. An awkward silence ensues as they wait for the meeting’s other attendees to arrive.

JN-T has been producing Doctor Who for six seasons, and he’s used to crises. He’s pulled stories out of oblivion, he’s saved doomed shoots, he’s made the unworkable work. Last year when his series was effectively cancelled, he resorted to leaking torrentially to the newspapers and whipping up a media outrage to force his bosses to back down and reinstate the show. But nothing compares to the mess he finds himself in as the last episodes of Season 23 loom.

His script editor, Eric Saward – the only other ongoing staffer on the program – has resigned in acrimony. JN-T is now doing his job as well as his own. Over the last year, he and Saward have been supervising the making of the longest Doctor Who story in history; fourteen episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. But the two have clashed over the story’s climax and Saward, who was writing the final episode, has withdrawn permission for its use.

JN-T needs a new script which concludes the longest and most complicated narrative the show has ever seen, at a time when its survival has never been more precarious. And he needs it in a week.

As he stubs out one fag and lights another, perhaps he wonders how he got to this predicament. The show’s hiatus was a blow, but at least it offered the production team time, a luxury they rarely had in the past. Plus they had 12 fewer episodes to produce this year. Where had all that time gone? How had it all fallen apart?

(And perhaps the lawyer wonders how soon this will be over so he can get to morning tea.)

In this sort of crisis, a producer usually turns to his script editor. But that’s no longer an option. What JN-T needs is someone who can work fast, who knows the program, who knows the Trial and who’s crazy enough to take the brief. Writers are few and far between. The great Robert Holmes who wrote Parts 1-4, has died. Philip Martin, writer of Parts 5-8, could be around. After that, the ranks are thin. But JN-T has a writer in mind. In fact he has two.

‘John, are you there…?’

A knock at the door!

The meeting’s hitherto absent participants had at last arrived. The producer’s face flushed, matching his Hawaiian shirt.

He rushed to answer the door.

There stood an elderly looking couple.

Pip and Jane Baker!

‘Where the hell have you been?’ John cried. ‘I need a script!’

From Doctor Who: A Script in Time (unpublished), Target books, 1987.

So JN-T explains the situation to the Baker Twins. Part 13 is written and ready to go, but he can’t use Saward’s Part 14. In fact they can’t even discuss it for fear of being accused of plagiarism, hence the presence of the lawyer. Locations are secured, cast are booked. Shooting starts next week. Can they write a new Part 14?

To their merit, Pip and Jane don’t run from the room. Nor do they refuse what sounds like an impossible task. They say yes. And off they scurry to do the work. The lawyer heads off for a coffee and a cake. JN-T allows himself a brief sigh of relief, lights another ciggie and starts script editing Parts 9-12. Written by Pip and Jane Baker.

And as far away as Australia, news of the production debacle is spreading. Young Spandrell reads an issue of fanzine Data Extract with a lyrical headline: Holmes dies, Saward quits, Brigadier returns. Like most fan news of the time, it proves to be partially correct.

2.

Born out of chaos, The Ultimate Foe feels chaotic. How could it not? This 55 minutes of television has a total of four writers between it. Holmes wrote the first half of Part 13, and it’s solid enough, delivering the season’s two big revelations: that the Time Lords destroyed Earth and that the Valeyard’s a future version of the Doctor. Saward wrote the rest of that episode, plunging the Doctor into the nightmare world of the Matrix. And it’s good stuff, producing some of the most memorable images of Colin Baker’s tenure, such as the set piece where he’s sucked into a beach.

P&J attack Part 14 with gusto. Their solution to the problem presented is incident. Part 14 has its characters embroiled in incident after incident before it ends with the Valeyard attempting to let off a big bomb. Inspired it’s not. What’s most obviously missing is a big confrontation between Doctor and Valeyard, with all those future regenerations at stake. Perhaps it ends with a moment of ruthlessness from the Doctor which shows us that his journey towards becoming the Valeyard has begun. But anyway, Pip and Jane delivered an episode which has never ranked among the series’ worst (they saved that for their next story), nor its best. But sadly that’s what the series really needed at this point.

Still completing that episode with all its predetermined strictures in record time, is a considerable achievement, one the Bakers are rarely given credit for. Years ago, someone interviewed them for DWM and in a smarmy little trick to end his piece with, asked the bemused pair was a ‘megabyte modem’ was, throwing a particularly lame piece of dialogue from this episode back at them. The elderly couple of course, had no idea what he was talking about, having no doubt long forgotten the exact wording they misused in a script decades ago. What a cheap, rude way to treat these people. Yes, they indulged in awkwardly pretentious dialogue and preposterous concepts, but on this occasion they saved the show’s bacon and produced, I think, their best work on the show. So credit where it’s due, and come back with your cheap jibes when you can write your way out of a mess like Trial.

Saward wanted a cliffhanger ending to their epic serial, where the Doctor and his dark alter ego the Valeyard fell struggling into a time vent. JN-T, it is said, wanted a happy ending to lessen the chance of his bosses taking the show off air again. This could be true, but on the making of documentary on the DVD of this story, he gives a slightly different reason that makes more sense. He said that after 14 weeks of this story he wanted a definitive conclusion. An end to the story, which the Bakers delivered. JN-T was often accused of not understanding stories, but on this occasion he was spot on. Imagine getting to the end Part 14 of The Trial and thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s still not finished!’

LINK to Robot: Holmes worked on both, script editing one and co-writing the other. That works for our next story too.

NEXT TIME… It will be the end of everything, even your pension! We germinate The Seeds of Doom.