Tag Archives: master

One book, two trips and The King’s Demons (1983)

kingsdemonsLate afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a train, and not a good one either. A red rattler. It’s noisy, there’s no heating and my seat’s lumpy. It’s going to be a long trip home from Sydney. Three hours.

It’s the end of a day’s shopping. My mum, y’see, likes to escape from the country and head for the big smoke. Dad can’t abide cities. So I’m my mother’s travelling companion. It’s 1986 and I’m 12.

I’m happy to trail around behind her on these occasions, as long as I get to go to the Galaxy Bookshop. A specialist sci-fi bolt hole and a haven for nerds of all varieties. Like the TARDIS, it periodically shifts locations, but I’m always able to find it. I’m a Target seeking missile, and it has more Doctor Who books per square metre than any other store.

Galaxy was always worth the trip because they flew books in from the UK, ahead of the Australian release schedule. Doctor Who books you couldn’t get anywhere else! Beyond exciting. On this particular day, I’ve secured book 108, The King’s Demons. Oh yes, I know the numbers.

I’m a King’s Demons fan. Saw it on the telly. It stars my favourite Doctor. It’s set on my birthday! It has a shapeshifting android! It’s a long trip home, but for me, it disappears. I’m engrossed.

****

Back in 2017, we’ve just got four new Target novelisations of new series Doctor Who stories. I wonder what new fans will make of them? I, like all fans of my vintage, love and revere the original range. To new fans, our attachment to these strange little novellas must seem fusty and archaic… no matter how many times we might say, “but before there were videotapes, they were our only record of the TV stories!” I mean, referring back to the age of videotape must, in this digital age, seem like quaint nostalgia indeed. But the stories we read as kids have an uncommon hold on us, and with so many Doctor Who novelisations to collect and devour, is it any wonder that hold is so unshakable? I hope kids reading the new series books get an ongoing chance to find out.

The list of things so commonly said about the Target books – their ability to bring the TV stories back to life, their ability to inspire kids to read – never seems to include something intrinsic to the experience of reading them. They were utterly inconsistent. Their covers kept changing. Their logos kept changing. Their authors kept changing. Their numbering made no sense. Stories they adapted came out in random order. (I know, right? So annoying. I hope that had no lasting effects.)

And the quality… oh, the quality of them jumped around like nobody’s business. Early books were artful embellishments on the originals, courtesy of some of the TV show’s best writers: David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. But they later settled into a regularly pedestrian mode, where Dicks wrote most of them in an economical, almost perfunctory way, only occasionally interrupted by more visceral efforts from Ian Marter, and even more occasional efforts by other TV show alumni.

In 1982, though, the same year The King’s Demons was being made, things began to change. Those occasional books by the un-Dicks were distinguished by being written by the TV stories’ original authors, who seemed to be striving for something more engaging than Dicks’ standard 128 pages of gently expanded script. Steve Gallagher’s Warriors’ Gate was an intelligent deviation from the TV original. David Fisher’s The Leisure Hive a tongue-in-cheek retelling, imitative of Douglas Adams. The Visitation, Full Circleand Logopolis, all written by their original authors, all showed there were smart, idiosyncratic alternatives to Dicks. It was a watershed year.

Consider now 1986, the year The King’s Demons novelisation was published, and extend it at either end by a couple of months. This is the golden age of the Target novels. Donald Cotton’s masterful adaptations of The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters.Robert Holmes’ only novel, a razor sharp expansion on The Two Doctors.  Rehabilitations of The Twin Dilemma, Timelash andGalaxy 4.Marter’s best in The Invasion. A epic sized Fury from the Deep. A range in such rude health, it could afford to experiment with an original novel celebrating, of all characters, Turlough. Even Dicks was regenerating, with stylish adaptations of The Mind of Eviland The Seeds of Death. The King’s Demons is another notable entry in this renaissance.

No wonder young Spandrell collected them devotedly each month. For once, the range was approaching something close to consistency.

***

Late afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a plane, travelling for work. Aged 43, I’m re-reading The King’s Demons and thinking about the story it emerged from.

The TV version, loved by young me, now feels inconsequential – a whimper that ended celebratory season 20. Even its big move, the introduction of a new robot companion, is undermined when the shiny mannequin has to be shuffled quietly off stage because all it can do is lean precariously and say its lines at the wrong times.

No wonder it’s not allowed out unaccompanied. When released on VHS and DVD, it’s been forced to fill out twin packs with other, more substantial stories. Like Kamelion, it seems The King’s Demons can’t stand up on its own.

But the Target books are great equalisers. The King’s Demons might be an underwhelming appendix of a TV story but in book form, it commands the same shelf space as any other story, four, seven or ten parter. More than most, in fact – at 153 pages, it’s luxurious by Target standards.

Inside those pages, Terence Dudley elaborates and embellishes. For him, this is no small deal. He relishes historical detail and obscure vocabulary, and wraps it all in elegant, if occasionally pompous, prose. Freed from the limitations of TV production, Kamelion’s a fully functioning technological wonder, the Master’s disguise is foolproof and the Doctor sounds just like Jon Pertwee. On top of it all, it finds time to mention the Doctor’s bum.

I smile at its sheer audacity. This mouse of a TV story that roars as a book, finally legitimised. My journey home evaporates. I’m engrossed again.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: both feature historical figures (kind of).

NEXT TIME… I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism! Praise the Company, it’s The Sun Makers.

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Metamorphosis, antithesis and World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (2017)

weat

There was a moment, not long before World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls went to air, when a preview clip was released, in which Peter Capaldi delivered an innocent line which was the cause of much derision and consternation. It was:

DOCTOR: Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel.

No, it wasn’t. It was:

DOCTOR: It’s a Cyberman. A Mondasian Cyberman!

The problem was that made-up adjective “Mondasian.” On Twitter, there was widespread mockery. Fans jeered the Doctor’s use of a term which only a fan would understand; it was an unnecessary, anorak-y embellishment. Fans are often sensitive to indications that the show is catering too closely to them at the expense of the general public. That way, so accepted fan wisdom goes, lies the appalling self referential indulgence of the mid 80s and the slow demise of old school Who. By daring to first invent and then actually use an adjectival form of the name of a fictional planet, the show attracted open derision from its most ardent supporters. Well, so far, so fandom.

The irony is that Peter Capaldi, who dared utter that newly created word, is also a fan. Specifically, he’s a fan of Mondasian Cybermen. As an 8 year old boy, he watched them stagger across his 405 line monochrome TV set in The Tenth Planet. He requested their return to the show, and Steven Moffat concocted a way to bring them back. If the show suddenly looked and sounded like fans were running the asylum, well, the point is, they were. In that environment, it’s kind of impossible to not get words like Mondasian.

I can see why they said it though, and it’s not to prove Capaldi’s or Moffat’s fan credentials. It’s actually for casual viewers, who might not recognise these old style Cybermen as the same as the sort they’ve been used to since they returned to the modern series. That line is reassuring those viewers that yes, these odd, stocking faced things with lamps on their heads are Cybermen, just a different type. If it comes off as a piece of fannish indulgence, fine, but the intention behind that line’s more practical than that. Still, it says something about fandom’s great need for being taken seriously, amplified by social media, that this became a Mondasian storm in a Cyber teacup.

More worrying is now presumably we have to get grumpy at all the other made up adjectives we’ve adopted over the decades. Goodbye Gallifreyan. Sayonara Skarovian. Ta ta Taran, Tythonian, Tellurian and all the rest.

***

Capaldi’s also a fan of Kafka. He recently produced an illustration for a new edition of the Czech writer’s classic novella Metamorphosis, and that book is an element of the plot of Capaldi’s short film, Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Metamorphosis is the story of a young man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a grotesque insect creature, and the subsequent torment it causes him and his family.

It’s almost too obvious to say that Doctor Who is inherently about change, but World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is infused with it. In fact, it’s about a particular sort of change, one where characters are changed into a new form inimical to their original selves. The story’s most chilling image is of those Cybermen as works in progress, waiting in a cold hospital ward, crying out in pain, but with their volume knobs turned down. That’s Metamorphosis right there. But then it’s taken a step further, and the characters who are transformed into nightmarish reflections of themselves are confronted by that change, in a way where both versions exist simultaneously.

Take, for instance, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm). Both are the same person, with the familiar badinage we recognise from multiple multi-Doctor stories (only saucier). The difference here is that Missy is changing into something the Master is not; someone with compassion, who wants to do the right thing – even to stand in battle alongside the Doctor. This existential angst is too much for either one to bear, and they end up killing each other, rather than let the alternative version of each other exist.

And of course, there’s Bill (Pearl Mackie), with a hole the size of Mondas shot in her chest, transformed gradually into a Cyberman. It’s a particularly cruel fate for a companion who has been so singularly individual, marked out by her style, humour and warmth, to become a soulless tin man. Like Gregor, the insect-man in Metamorphosis, she’s locked away, isolated from other human beings. Her personality remains intact, inside that Cyber suit and we viewers see her as she still sees herself, so we get to see the two versions of her, not side by side, but shot by shot. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore,” she tells the Doctor, expressing this clear hatred for what she’s become.

The Doctor too is changing. With all these people around him, changing into their abhorred opposites, he can’t help but resist the inevitable. His regeneration starts here, after an electrified Cyber hug, but he does everything he can to delay it. It mustn’t help that he’s surrounded by Cybermen, walking, stomping symbols of enforced physical change. Cybermen became all Cyber when they started replacing their organs with new versions, as a way of prolonging their lives. They’re as twisted a reflection of regeneration as the show’s ever produced.

To me, this explains the Doctor’s sudden need to name check his past Cyber adventures, while picking them off like targets at a fairground stall. “Telos! Voga!” etc (though I notice he leaves out some of the less auspicious examples. Can you imagine? “Space station W3! Windsor! That department store I worked in for 15 minutes!”) because he’s defining himself as the anti-Cyberman. He’s their nemesis; as he said to Missy and the Master, he’s always been the only way to destroy a shedload of the buggers. He’ll be damned if he’s going to follow their lead, and transform himself into his own antithesis.

***

Where, I wonder, is the 8 year old girl, watching these episodes on her iPad, who will one day pull off her own transformation, do a Capaldi and become the Doctor? Who will one day be filming Cybermen stories of her very own, when she says, “remember the Mondasian Cybermen?” I suspect she won’t be embarrassed by the adjective. I suspect it will distinguish this episode as an epic; the one with the Cyberised companion, the two Masters and the dying Doctor.

Ages ago I asked if The Tenth Planet was brilliant or rubbish. When it’s still inspiring Doctor Who this vivid, dark and daring fifty years on, its brilliance is proven. So yeah, let’s call them Mondasian Cybermen. Because by being distinct from all the others (“Glass chins! Visible brains! Those skinny ones from the comic strip!”) and by lingering so long in so many memories, they’ve earned their own adjective.

LINK TO Boom Townboth feature villains facing moral qualms.

NEXT TIME… I know! Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

Brands, association and Time-Flight (1982)

timeflightIt’s an irresistible pun: Time-Flight is unashamedly upwardly mobile. How better to describe this cheap-as-chips story which has Concorde casually hangared in it? Not so much a guest star, more a guest prop and one which is a gleaming white symbol of 1980s materialism.

I suspect there’s a cohort of new Who fans who have never heard of Concorde, or who know about it only vaguely as a historical relic (not unlike a police box). It might be difficult for them to understand what all the fuss was about. But this is not a story about any old aircraft; it would never have got made if there was only a mere 747 available to shoot in.

This is a story which, at a conceptual level, is about the most famous and exclusive aircraft in the world. The sight of it in Doctor Who is so odd, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, as the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison) and gal pals Nyssa (sensitive Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (sassy Janet Fielding) clamber up the boarding steps to take their seats, stow their luggage and observe the no-smoking sign. It’s a strange mix of aspiration and delusion, but it’s also the TV show’s first commercial brand deal.

Time-Flight is sometimes quoted as Doctor Who’s stab at product placement, but that misunderstands the term. Product placement in films and TV productions is about covert advertising of products which the viewing public may be convinced to buy, simply by having them featured within the narrative. Think of the Sugar Puff ads in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

But this is hardly product placement, because no one watching Time-Flight was about to run out the next day and book tickets on Concorde. In 1982, Concorde was an experience for the affluent and the globe-trotting. It was for people who had the money to spend on cutting edge technology, luxury service and status symbols. It’s not that no-one in Doctor Who’s audience was like that, it’s that hardly anyone was like that. Concorde was a prestige product for the super rich and Doctor Who a mass market product for anyone with a TV licence. Ticket sales, I confidently suggest, would not have taken off.

What it is about, is brand association and that’s a different thing altogether. That Doctor Who was suddenly interested in brand in 1982 fits in with an image of a time when the trappings of wealth were gaining visibility, but it also chimes with producer John Nathan-Turner’s ambitions for the show. He always wanted a deal with an airline – Qantas had been on his radar since the introduction of air hostess companion Tegan. His desire for consistent, stylised costumes for the regular cast had one eye on marketing opportunities. He reportedly also thought Tegan’s haircut could start a fashion trend. More than any of the show’s other producers, he was entrepreneurial. Having Concorde in Doctor Who must have delighted him. It speaks of ambition, glamour and prestige.

(All the more reason why it was such a bad idea to leave this story to the end of the season, when the series’ budget was running perilously low. Doctor Who was always a cheap show, but Time-Flight looks bargain basement. Instead of lifting the show up, the world’s most expensive set dressing only throws the story’s tacky interiors and scatological monsters into stark contrast. It’s like parking a Maserati in a K-Mart.)

So why does Concorde, or more specifically its operators British Airways, want a brand association with Doctor Who? The answer’s surprisingly simple. In 1982, Doctor Who was a massive hit.

This gets overlooked a bit, but Season 19 brought loads of viewers back to the show. The previous year, Tom Baker’s last, had averaged 5.8m viewers. Peter Davison’s first series brought in 9.2m. Five of its episodes, including Time-Flight Part One, attracted over 10m viewers. It is, in fact, Classic Who’s last taste of broad, mainstream popularity, and comparable to the ratings peaks of Seasons 2, 17 and the Hinchcliffe years. It rated far better than the 21st century version of the show has done in recent years.

So through Time-Flight, British Airways gets associated with a hugely popular, family oriented brand which attracts millions of viewers. Two grand old British institutions combined for a (ahem) thrilling  aviation based adventure. BA gets its logo and uniforms and livery broadcast on publically funded telly, reaching an audience that advertising on commercial networks can’t. No wonder when Nathan-Turner bluffed them by mentioning he might go with Air France instead, they rushed to secure the deal.

(Can you imagine it though? French versions of flight crew Stapley, Bilton and Scobie… and Angela Clifford to boot! Faffing about with outrageous French accents! Sacre bleu.)

From our fannish perspective, Time-Flight is an infamous disaster of a story. But I suspect no-one at either the BBC or British Airways considered it so at the time (neither did readers of Doctor Who Monthly, who placed it fourth out of seven in the mag’s Season 19 poll). Like so many other Doctor Who stories, this just wasn’t built for multiple viewings, let alone the intense scrutiny thousands of Whoheads subject it to. But as a disposable piece of cross promotion disguised as popular entertainment, I suspect it was mostly viewed as a success.

If anything, it’s amazing there weren’t more examples of it in Classic Who. That would-be story about the Master (Anthony Ainley) involved in a banking fraud? Sponsored by Barclays! (Plus he could disguise himself for no good reason again! He loves that schtick. Maybe a fatcat banker called Mr East) Or if we’re sticking with luxury transport, surely there’s be some hidden alien menace in the back seats of a fleet of Rolls Royces? Or perhaps the silencing suds of doom might return, branded by Imperial Leather?

But hang on, I’ve got a better idea. New Who could make a Time-Flight sequel, but with Virgin Galactic! More hi-jinks with vanity travel for the super rich. With a cameo by Branson! Call it One More TimeFlight. Or maybe Wham Bam Sharaz Sharam, An Orange Kalid Sky? Or if the pooey Plasmatons return, perhaps The Pile High Club?

Oh yes. This trip’s not over yet. Sit down, strap in and hang on.

LINK TO The Silurians. UNIT and the Brigadier get name checked.

NEXT TIME… We have a New York stop over when The Angels Take Manhattan. Which is handy, as the Captain wants us to try that new Indonesian restaurant he’s found.

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.

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 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!