Tag Archives: patrick troughton

Heroes, gods and The Three Doctors (1972/3)

Folks, join me in considering the near complete pointlessness of Mr Ollis (Laurie Webb). He exists to be accidentally transported to a distant world and thus to kick start the events of anniversary shindig, The Three Doctors. His face screams out of an X-ray giving the Doctor (dandyish Jon Pertwee) a clue as to what’s happening and a way into the story. Then, his usefulness is at an end.

Nevertheless, he’s hangs around. Ollis turns up on the barren world to carry a rifle, look unfazed by events and follow everyone else around until he’s returned home at the end of the story. By rights, the trip through the heavens to the world within the black hole should have killed him. But as it didn’t, he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the story.

Noticing Ollis and his superfluousness is a dangerous thread to pull at. Suddenly you realise that none of the supporting characters are needed. Certainly not Dr Tyler (Rex Robinson), once his plot function to bring Ollis’s disappearance to the attention of UNIT is achieved. He too is transported to this neverworld, and once there, he also has nothing to do but splutter bewildered statements and make conversation with the Doctor and Jo (ever devoted Katy Manning). But when you think about it, Jo has no significant contribution to make either. Nor do UNIT men the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, at prime pompousness) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene, at prime gormlessness).

That’s all of this story’s supporting cast – save for a nagging wife and a flummoxed corporal – accounted for. And none of them are really necessary. They’re there simply to keep our leading men company – to pass the silicon rods and tell them how brilliantly infuriating they are. Which is understandable, because the main event is the Doctor meeting his former incarnations. A situation we’re used to after years of such match ups, but which at the time of The Three Doctors, must have felt a giddyingly exciting treat.

****

Who is the hero of this story? It’s a contentious point.

Patrick Troughton is on hand to steal the show away from Pertwee. Many tales have been told of the initial tension between them, generated by their contrasting approaches to the part; one serious and methodical, the other playful and instinctive. If Troughton was trepidatious about returning to the role, there’s no sign of it here. Instead he seems re-energized by the role and more than happy to let Pertwee carry the plot and think he’s the star. Troughton is content to be a constantly distracting presence, reminding the audience that the Doctor can be funny and naughty and whimsical. But this time in colour.

Pertwee sends four episodes trying not to notice. He’s behaving as if Troughton’s another supporting artist in his show, in an attempt to counteract Troughton’s pulling focus. But to no avail. Troughton’s presence pulls the show out of shape. Look, for instance, at his effect on the Brigadier. With Troughton around, the Brigadier becomes slightly unhinged, failing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and making post hoc rationalisations about Cromer. This is really the first story that turns him into a figure of fun, with comedy double takes and wry one liners. Because suddenly we have a Doctor cracking jokes again and he needs a straight man.

Then there’s poor William Hartnell. Hardly old at 64, but clearly very ill, so he needs to be confined to a space infirmary. He’s a shadow of his former Doctory self, his voice uncertain and unfamiliarly light. It’s not just difficult to watch, but also difficult to see – the combination of that strange pyramidal frame he’s perched in, plus the replaying of his footage onto the glarey TARDIS monitor screen. In all, there’s no tangible sense of the first Doctor being present, not just because he only appears in pre filmed segments, but because Hartnell has changed so much since he gave up the role. Given the dubious decision to put such a sick man onscreen in the first place, you have to ask if it was really worth it.

****

Then there’s Omega (Stephen Thorne), a kind of lonely god, sitting in a world incompatible with our own. With that booming voice and his platform boots, he clearly thinks he’s the story’s hero and these Doctors mere distractions.

Around this time Doctor Who built stories around a number of these demigod like super beings: your Azal, your Kronos, your Queen Spider and Omega form a little pantheon that stretches back to the Toymaker and forward to Sutekh. In each case, these beings are so powerful the Doctor cannot hope to defeat them with might. He must use some guile or trickery to defeat them. In this sense, the two Doctors’ approaches to fighting Omega are telling. The Third Doctor tries to mentally battle Omega (which means wrestling with Stuart Fell in a dream sequence) to no avail. The Second prefers a psychological approach; he needle away at Omega with trivialities to test his self control. It’s this method that eventually works.

It makes sense because as the story reveals, Omega has no physical presence; he exists only through force of his own will. He’s pure thought, so it’s fitting that he’s defeated by not being able to see through a trick designed to exploit his emotional instability. No mistake then that his Greek theatre style mask is shaped into a permanent wail of despair.

That mask, apart from being a great piece of design, is significant. It gives The Three Doctors its most effective moment, when the Doctors remove Omega’s mask to reveal that nothing but air fringed by a yellow CSO halo lies beneath. Masks are a common feature of Doctor Who, and usually a signal of villainy at the highest level. They hide a character’s true nature, often, disappointingly, the deformed features of a monster. In Omega’s case, though, it hides a man who’s not there, eaten away by the world which has kept him alive. It’s poetic, but it does suffer a bit from Guy Crawford syndrome, characterised by never thinking to look in a mirror.

Still, it turns Omega into that rarest of things in old Who, a villain who is also a figure of sympathy. The Doctor is remorseful at story’s end that he couldn’t save his people’s mythic hero, not even when multiplied by three. Though as later events will prove, it’s pretty hard to kill someone who exists only as a kind of robed stubbornness, so he needn’t have worried.

****

And how does this momentous story end? With multiple Doctors and Time Lord gods or the renewed TARDIS flying triumphantly off into the vortex?

No, of course not. It ends with inconsequential old Mr Ollis! He returns home to his long suffering wife who understandably wants to know where he’s been. And here’s the most amazing thing of all, he can’t be bothered telling her! That’s because he knows he’s actually the hero of this story! And from his point of view… not much really happened.

LINK TO: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.DBoth feature not-quite-as-we-remember-them first Doctors.

NEXT TIME: We meet The Husbands of River Song. I hear they automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

Whitaker, wiles and The Evil of the Daleks (1967)

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Whenever the Doctor arrives in 1966, it’s time to hit the town. In his last incarnation, he hit London’s hottest nightspot. The second Doctor’s tastes are more sedate. He and Jamie (those buddies the Trought and the Fraze) content themselves with a coffee bar. Still, there are miniskirted girls there for Jamie to flirt with and a rocking soundtrack consisting of The Seekers. Wow, what a groovy trip, man!

But enough of such frivolity. Revisiting The Reign of Terror and now The Evil of the Daleks in quick succession has got me thinking about David Whitaker, story editor of the former and writer of the latter. (Spoiler alert: he’s my LINK between these two stories).

I’ve been doing some Googling and I’ve realised how little we actually know about him and his career. There’s only one interview for DWM before his death in 1980 at the shockingly young age of 51. Most of his other TV and film work either pre-dates Doctor Who so is probably long lost, or is not much remarked upon. Frustratingly for me, his TV work undertaken while resident in Australia is documented only by credits on IMDB. The producers of An Adventure in Space and Time omitted him completely.

How can we know so little about the man who crafted so much of our favourite show’s crucial first year? The man who introduced Patrick Troughton’s Doctor? And who wrote, as he and the show’s producers expected it to be, this random story, the one they intended to end all Dalek stories?

I think it’s because he feels more familiar than he is. That’s because of the sheer number of episodes he wrote (33, not counting the written-by-committee The Ambassadors of Death) which are mostly well regarded, and he wrote those two stellar novelisations of The Daleks and The Crusade. We (or at least, I) have taken this man for granted.

All this gets me around to saying that I have to guess at David Whitaker’s take on Doctor Who, because despite being a key creative force at the series’ genesis, I don’t really know what he thought made the show tick. But I would suggest that he was very proud of his connection to the Daleks, perhaps almost to the point where he felt some shared authorship of them. Certainly, he has an indelible link to that first Dalek story, having story edited it (and I suspect writing large chunks of it, if we’re to believe Terry Nation’s reputation for writing sparse scripts), written the novelisation, and contributed to the movie version. Plus he wrote the Dalek stage play, and the Dalek comic strip and when tasked with writing the Daleks out of Doctor Who, he returns the Doctor to their city on Skaro, the place where all this mania began.

What strikes me about The Evil of the Daleks, is how different Whitaker’s take on the Daleks is from Terry Nation’s. In Nation’s serials, the Daleks are plain speaking, declaratory bad guys. They are simple; they wish to enslave and exterminate. There’s no nuance; what you see is what you get. On casters. But the Daleks of Whitaker’s stories, first The Power of the Daleks and then Evil are very different. Because Whitaker’s Daleks are deceitful.

In Power, Whitaker’s Daleks convinced the gullible inhabitants of the Vulcan colony that they were obedient household help. “I am your serv-ANT!,” they chanted on that occasion and it fooled everyone except the Doctor. In Evil, they go one further and this time manage to deceive the Doctor into thinking they are making him work out the distinctive characteristics of being human, when in fact they are working out the distinctive characteristics of being a Dalek. (They needn’t have got to such elaborate means. I can tell them what the Dalek factor is: shouty, cross, bin-like.)

Evil is inherently about mixing up what’s human and what’s Dalek, and it’s this which seems to interest Whitaker most. In this story we see Daleks become like human children, and a human – chief nutbag Maxtible (Marius Goring) – become like a Dalek. But more subtly, it’s the ability of Whitaker’s Daleks to deceive, to cajole and to inveigle which makes them seem more human and therefore more interesting than Nation’s Daleks. They mimic humanity’s traits as never before. The most telling example is when a particularly wily and genuine Dalek pretends to be one of the humanised versions in order to gain the Doctor’s trust. (The Doctor’s not fooled, and in show of intelligence and cunning to match the Dalek, shoves it off a cliff).

Whitaker also introduces an almost seductive element to the Daleks (yes, you read that right), highlighting their ability to convince humans to become their unwitting allies. In Power it was Lesterson, who almost fawned over the creatures in an attempt to further his knowledge. In Evil, it’s Maxtible whose arrogance leads him to believe he’s a ‘colleague’ of the Daleks and not their hapless crony. Both speak in reverent, hushed tones about the Daleks, as technological wonders. This allure is quite different from the cold political convenience that Mavic Chen (Nation’s take on a human ally of the Daleks) saw in them.  Whitaker’s Daleks have an almost magical influence over people. In Evil, we have the first example of a human under Dalek mind control in Arthur Terrall (Gary Watson) and a number of characters speak about people coming under ‘the power of the daleks’.

It’s telling that given the opportunity to write the Daleks out of the series, Whitaker pulls out all the stops. Back in his days as story editor, serials were set in either the past, present or future. Evil is set in all of them.  We revisit the settings of The Daleks by returning to Skaro, and if Whitaker’s initial ideas had got off the ground, the Doctor would have made friends with a caveman, recalling the show’s very first story. This is a rare example of a sixties era story mining the show’s own past. And why not, as Whitaker was an architect of that past.

But he doesn’t rest on his laurels too long. There’s the Emperor Dalek, the biggest, baddest of them all and a civil war with Daleks fighting Daleks. All this plus time travel by mirrors, metal turned into gold, an impossible antique shop and a mute Turkish wrestler. No wonder Evil has maintained fans interest over the years, long after it was junked. There’s so much in it to talk about. But at its heart, I think, is not this juxtaposition of diverse elements, but the desire to make the Daleks as conniving, as darkly alluring and as fascinating as any human villain.

Is this what was going on in Whitaker’s mind? We’ll never know. But it’s been one hell of a trip.

NEXT TIME:  Treeees! Once upon a time, we’ll take a walk In the Forest of the Night.

Missing episodes, wishful thinking and The Enemy of the World (1967/8)

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We live in a world where you can watch The Enemy of the World. All of it. Isn’t that amazing? It’s been three years since those long lost episodes came winging their way back from Nigeria, and I still can’t quite believe it. I feel I can’t be trusted to critically assess this story, I’m just so happy it’s back.

Well, I say “it’s back”. To me, and to many other fans not old enough see this story on broadcast, it was not really returned. We never had it in the first place. It’s essentially new Who. We thought we knew it because we’ve read the book, heard to the soundtrack, seen (most of) the telesnaps. But we didn’t really. On viewing, the story revealed dozens of exquisite details which could never have been gleaned from any of the versions we previously made do with: the Doctor’s outrageous flirting with Astrid, the woman randomly pushing a pram past Kent’s office, the look on Kent’s face when he drops the prop listening device thrown at him by Bruce…

Oh and that final scene. Shot on film, and so clumsily appended to the end of Episode Six, but with Troughton acting against himself, that punch in the gut, Salamander being dragged out along the floor, and nothing – nothing – matching up with The Web of Fear Episode One, not even that little sticking paster on the Doctor’s face… How glorious. A miracle.

The sheer unfeasibility of it is not just that the episodes have been recovered. It’s also that the story is also complete. That’s thrillingly rare. And it’s almost too obvious to say, but it’s a story which benefits hugely from being whole. Each episode, although languidly paced, pushes the plot forward so that every installment ends in a very difference place from where it started. Given this structure, how could we have made much sense of this story from its previously solo Episode Three? Sure we read the book, listened to the soundtrack, but Enemy shows us that you can’t fully understand a story until you can see it all.

*****

I’m quietly obsessed with Doctor Who‘s missing episodes. I’ve been reading about them for years, fantasizing about their return. I’ve thought for a long time that were I to suddenly become ridiculously wealthy, I’d give up work and travel the world looking for missing episodes. But then I read Philip Morris’s accounts of the dangers he faced in Africa retrieving these episodes, and I’ve decided to leave it to him.

But still there’s scope for make believe.

What if, I sometimes feverishly wonder, I started collecting 16mm films. Might I make contact with a collector with a copy of The Sea Beggar, who’d trade it with me for a song? What if I found a stash of old film cans in some disused edit suite, and there, sitting neglected were Episode Five of The Abominable Snowmen, Episode One of The Highlanders or maybe all of The Myth Makers?  Would I know what to do? Who would I take them to? Can I safely open them? What if I smell vinegar? For the love of God, what if I smell vinegar?!

I jest (slightly). I can’t really see myself as Telecine Jones, Missing Episodes Hunter. But then my thoughts turn to what other people might turn up, and how that might change how we view Doctor Who.

What if we had one of the later episodes of The Evil of the Daleks, one of the wackier ones with humanised Daleks and Dalekised humans? Would we like that story a little less? What if we had one of the later episodes of The Space Pirates, perhaps one set on Ta? Would we like that story better? I feel a bit smug about The Enemy of the World because I always thought Episode One would improve its reputation, and it turned out to be a cracker, with so much of it on film and lots of action sequences. Little did I guess we’d get it all back.

Then there’s the game of speculative swapping. Which would you rather have returned: the two missing episodes of The Invasion or the two missing episodes of The Moonbase? Do you want an episode of The Massacre (of which we have nothing) or the final episode of The Tenth Planet (of which we have all but)? Which episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan do you want back? (Dumb question. Always The Destruction of Time.)

But the true agony of the missing episodes is not knowing if any more exist to be found. The tally stands at 97. Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps it’s not, but we’ll never know exactly which eps remain to be found and which are gone forever.

Although that’s not quite true. We have some idea, which is enough to lead us down a whole new avenue of speculation: which episodes are the most likely to turn up? The Web of Fear Episode Three, it seems, is out there somewhere. The Feast of Steven is probably gone forever. How could so many prints be struck of Marco Polo and not one episode survive? What happened to those viewing prints of The Daleks’ Master Plan? Did someone really see The Macra Terror at a high school in New Zealand in the 1980s? Should I be on a flight to Aukland to undertake an extensive audit of all secondary colleges right now?

No wait, calm down. How easy it is to get feverish about this topic.

Because that’s how much we love this strange little show. The thought that there’s 97 episodes of it we’ve never seen gnaws away at us. Worse than that, what, a dark little voice inside us says, we die, and the next week they find The Power of the Daleks? What if we had died without seeing Enemy? Not worth thinking about.

*****

It’ll be ages before watching this story seems normal, in the way that watching The Tomb of the Cybermen now seems like a perfectly ordinary thing to do (I’m old enough to remember when that was an impossible task too). Until then, I’ll just stare at it vacantly, smiling benignly and paraphrase an apt line from the similarly named The End of the World: “Forgive me, The Enemy of the World, but it’s remarkable you even exist”.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Jamie’s war cry of ‘Creag an tuire!’ becomes ‘Brigadoon!’. But I think this happens on some other Troughton DVDs, so perhaps it’s an in joke?

LINK TO The Wedding of River Song. Doctory doppelgängers.

NEXT TIME… Castrovalva, here we come.

Henry, Mervyn and The Abominable Snowmen (1967)

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HAISMAN: Henry, you mad old bugger!

LINCOLN: Why Mervyn, you objectionable old boor!

HAISMAN: Quite ridiculous to see you, old man. Tell me, what are we going to write next?

LINCOLN: Well, funny you should ask. The other day I bumped into Pat Troughton.

HAISMAN: Who?

LINCOLN: Who?! Doctor Who, that’s who!

HAISMAN & LINCOLN: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

LINCOLN: So…. anyway, Pat lives around the corner from me.

HAISMAN: That’s funny, I thought he lived around the corner from me.

LINCOLN: I think he does sometimes. Anyway, he was saying he’d love us to write him a Doctor Who. He says they never do any shows set on planet Earth!

HAISMAN: What about the one set in the battle of Culloden?

LINCOLN: Apart from that one.

HAISMAN: And the one set in Gatwick Airport.

LINCOLN: And that one.

HAISMAN: And the one set in a Victorian manor house.

LINCOLN: Anyway, we should write one. What do you think?

HAISMAN: I don’t know… Science-fiction. Could be tricky.

LINCOLN: No, no. That’s the beauty of it. Apparently the producers have reduced it down to a formula. You get a small number of characters, set it in a military base or a space station or somewhere isolated, think up some monsters to menace them, Pat turns the table on them in the final reel, and you’re done! Apparently it’s all they do these days.

HAISMAN: Well, that doesn’t sound too hard. Let’s start with the monsters. Maybe Doctor Who discovers some strange and mysterious creatures from myth and legend.

LINCOLN: Oh yes? Doctor Who meets the Loch Ness Monster, for instance?

HAISMAN: Good idea. But they wouldn’t have the budget to do the Loch Ness Monster convincingly.

LINCOLN: Doctor Who and the Egyptian Mummies?

HAISMAN: Good lord, you don’t want to petrify the kiddies!

LINCOLN: Hmm, what about the Abominable Snowman?

HAISMAN: Not bad, thought might be a bit hard to sustain six episodes with just one monster.

LINCOLN: Doctor Who meets the Abominable Snowmen.

HAISMAN: I thought there was just one?

LINCOLN: Mervyn, we’re writing a show about a man who flies through space and time in a police box. We can increase the number of Yeti.

HAISMAN: True. But aren’t they supposed to be shy, elusive creatures?

LINCOLN: Well, maybe they’re not real Yeti. Maybe they’re nasty, brutish robots disguised as Yeti.

HAISMAN: Right. So. Robots disguised as Yeti wandering round… The Himalayas, I suppose. How will they do that on a BBC budget?

LINCOLN: Not to worry. We went to Wales last holidays. Very picturesque. Lots of hills.

HAISMAN: OK, so robots disguised as Yeti, in Wales. What are they up to? Taking over the world I suppose?

LINCOLN:  Yes, that’ll do. Hang on, who built these robots?

HAISMAN: And who disguised them as Yeti?

LINCOLN: And are they going to talk, so they can spell out their evil plan?

HAISMAN: Hang on, maybe there’s a controlling influence of some kind. Like a Yeti King or something.

LINCOLN:  Or maybe a controlling intelligence. Formless, invisible and best of all, cheap!

HAISMAN: The Intelligence. Doesn’t sound very menacing.

LINCOLN: Call it the Great Intelligence!

HAISMAN: Much better. So is this all set on the side of a mountain somewhere.

LINCOLN: That sounds cold. No, let’s set it in a Buddhist monastery. The Intelligence can possess one of the lamas there and he can be King of the Yeti.

HAISMAN: Is there something a bit iffy about suggesting that a non-Western house of religion is exactly the sort of place where a formless evil might fester and take over humans for evil?

LINCOLN: No, I don’t think so.

HAISMAN: I mean, could we set it in a Christian monastery instead?

LINCOLN: Out of the question. I’ve got to save that for my book about the Holy Grail.

HAISMAN: OK, so monastery, possessed lamas, Yeti robots. Is it enough for six episodes?

LINCOLN: Sure it is! And if not, we’ll have a Yeti cave on the mountain that people will have to keep traversing between. And various people can get possessed and have to capture Yeti and so on. And Pat can put on a big coat and be mistaken for a Yeti. It’ll be a hoot.

HAISMAN: Perhaps there should be glowing pyramids of power!

LINCOLN: Sure, why not?

HAISMAN: What year should we set it in?

LINCOLN: 1935?

HAISMAN: Any reason?

LINCOLN: Not particularly.

HAISMAN: Well, this is just writing itself!

LINCOLN: OK, let’s flip for the typing. Heads or tails?

HAISMAN: Heads. (Coin flips)

LINCOLN: Tails! Suck it, Haisman!

HAISMAN: (sighs) OK, give me the names of the characters.

LINCOLN: Right, so there’s Thonmi.

HAISMAN: Hang on, is that Thonmi or Thomni?

LINCOLN: Songsten.

HAISMAN: Wait a minute – Songsten or Songtsen?

LINCOLN: Padmasambhava

HAISMAN: Oh sod this, I’ll end up with carpal tunnel syndrome at this rate!

LINCOLN:  Here’s a thought, should we have any female characters?

HAISMAN: Do they allow lassies into monasteries?

LINCOLN: Christian ones, no. But who knows what those heathen Buddhists get up to! Don’t give me that face Mervyn, it was a joke.

HAISMAN: Well, Doctor Who travels with a young girl. Won’t she do?

LINCOLN: Fine by me. She can get into trouble and squeal and stuff.

HAISMAN: Yes, just the ticket. Now, can we copyright the word Yeti?

LINCOLN: I don’t think so. That’s a shame, they could be the next Daleks!

HAISMAN: Yetimania! We could be rich. Must make sure we retain the merchandising rights if we can.

LINCOLN: Agreed. Well, that’s a good day’s work, Mervyn, I think we’re onto a good thing here.

HAISMAN: Yes indeed. Is it too early to start thinking about a sequel?

LINCOLN: Never too early for that! But surely the Yeti only work thematically in the Himalayas?

HAISMAN: Oh yes, I suppose so. Couldn’t have them marching around modern day London, I suppose.

LINCOLN: Oh no. Far too silly. That would never happen.

*****

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING. Victoria gets labeled ‘Polly’ at one point.

LINK to The Sontaran Experiment:  Both sets of monsters like globes!

NEXT TIME… May the Gods look favourably upon you while we Sleep No More.

Legend, fiction and Robot of Sherwood (2013)

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Clara Oswald was born, we’re led to believe, on 23 November 1986 (making her birth story The Ultimate Foe, fact fans). And a story she’s always loved, ever since she was little is Robin Hood (I think you mean since she was young, she’s always been little, I can hear Beverly Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory saying).

But which version of the story, did she love I wonder? We know she’s a bookworm, so she may well have had the Big Book of Robin Hood, or whatever it was. But I think, like most children of the 80s, she would have been watching those merry men on TV or at the cinema.

She’s just that little bit too young to have seen ITV’s hit series Robin of Sherwood, though perhaps she rented it from the video store when she was older. We didn’t get it out in Australia (as far as I know), but from all accounts, it was the goods: thrilling, enchanting and romantic. All this plus Jondar too. It ran for three seasons and has garnered its own devoted following, and is obviously fondly enough remembered to have an episode of Doctor Who named after it. All in all, it’s a pity Clara wouldn’t have seen it.

But perhaps as a precocious young five year old, she was able to enjoy the bumper Robin Hood year which was 1991. Two major Hoody feature films! One – Robin Hood – was the brooding, serious type with Patrick Bergin. That was the one no-one saw.

The one everyone saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It was inescapable, not least of all because it had a saccharine ballad by Bryan Adams on its soundtrack which was played on ultra high rotation on commercial radio. It conquered the box office and, it has been claimed, was influenced by Robin of Sherwood (and Who stuntman Terry Walsh worked on both apparently). But it’s surely the Costner swashbuckler that Clara’s parents took her to the cinema to see. Then, I imagine, she watched it multiple times on VHS until the tape snapped and she wailed until her parents bought her a new copy. And she sang (Everything I do) I do it for you at her school concert. I can see it now.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is exactly the sought of rollicking popcorn flick that Robot of Sherwood is striving to be. Lots of action, lots of romance and with plenty of arch self awareness. I mean when you have a band of merry men consisting of Costner, Christian Slater and Morgan Freemen, it’s clearly not shooting for verisimilitude. Enter Alan Rickman’s sneering, petulant Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns it up to 11. “Cancel Christmas!”, he demands at one point, a gag which has lasted so long it made it into A Christmas Carol. All this plus King Yrcanos and Gilbert M too. It is, to invoke that much used Who-ish term, a romp. Just like Robot of Sherwood.

So the lineage goes Robin of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robot of Sherwood. (I think we can also assume that Clara got to see Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights as well, but the less said about that unfunny mess, the better.)

By the time she’s 19, I imagine Clara’s spending her Saturday nights out socialising, so perhaps she set the tape for Robin Hood, the Tiger Aspect TV series which ran on BBC. It also fits the established template; action, romance and a dash of post-modern humour. Jonas Armstrong was a particularly hipster kind of Robin, it was generally good, clean, occasionally anachronistic fun. All this plus Son of Mine too.

Robin Hood kicked off in 2006, and was, at least in part, a reaction to the successful revamp of Doctor Who. Clearly there was a big enough market for Saturday evening adventures for family viewing to accommodate both. It’s also a reason why new Who has taken so long to get around to a Robin Hood episode (though to be fair, not as long as the original series, which never got there at all). It would have been odd to have two versions of the story on air at once. But it would have been the perfect excuse for a cross over episode. I wonder if it was ever mooted? A Christmas special perhaps?

Why is all this significant? (Well, it’s not really, these are random thoughts after all) But there’s a famous moment in Robot of Sherwood which reminds us that Robin is as much a filmic/televisual hero as a mythic one. It’s that moment where a computer screen is flashing up a variety of representations of Robin from literature and folk law. Among it is a photo from the BBC’s original TV adaptation of the story, Robin Hood, from 1953.

It’s telling that the Robin chosen for that shot is not Jason Connery or Jonas Armstrong or even Kevin Costner. Of course, it’s second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and that cleverly feeds into a key theme of the story, that the Doctor and Robin are similar creatures. That photo of Troughton positions Robin as an echo of the Doctor himself. Later on, there’s some pleasing post-modern chicanery when the Doctor, a fictional character, disputes Robin’s very existence. “I’m as real as you are,” Robin tells the Doctor at the story’s end, which is to acknowledge that both of them are unreal. Both are works of fiction and the stuff of legend.

And from whom did the Doctor (bony rascal Peter Capaldi) learn to sword fight? Richard the Lionheart! (a real person, much mythologised) Cyrano de Bergerac! (a real person, fictionalised for the stage) Errol Flynn! (An actor, famous for playing Robin Hood). So a confusion of historical figures immortalised by legend, historical figures enmeshed in fiction and an actor who pretends to be other people. It’s all very fitting for a sword fight between two fictional characters arguing about who’s real.

But there might have been a more amusing version. Who taught you to fence, Doctor? Terry Walsh! Patrick Troughton! That fox from the Disney film!

LINK to Warriors of the Deep. Soggy Doctors.

NEXT TIME… Enlightenment brings whatever one desires. So that’s good news.

Reputation, blockbusting and The Invasion (1968)

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We watch The Invasion now in a post-Web of Fear world. We’ve long known that this iconic Cyber adventure was spawned because Doctor Who‘s production team had impressed themselves with the one with the Yetis in the underground. But now we’ve got 5/6ths of The Web of Fear to look at, we can see the similarities writ large. In The Invasion‘s later instalments, Cybermen stalk London’s underground sewer system (it’s lucky they don’t have Cyber noses). But watching those scenes now, it feels more like a retread than it did before we got those missing eps back. Monsters, tunnels, Camfield. If it’s working, don’t change it.

It could have felt even more like The Web of Fear with Cybermen, if that story’s supporting characters Professor and Ann Travers had made an appearance as originally planned. Apparently this would have meant more payment to Yeti writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, but relations between them and the production team might have been a bit frosty since their last story had an episode cut off it for being a bit dull. The Professor (that lazy use of that title again) is halfheartedly replaced by another. But Ann, although not directly replaced, has made her presence felt. We can see now from Web that Ann developed a companion-like rapport with the Doctor. It’s not too hard to believe she’s an influence on subsequent brainiac companions; pocket rocket Zoe who features here and more overtly Liz Shaw who’ll take over next season.

But there’s plenty of other stories which The Invasion steals from. It’s not difficult to see the influence of that other recently returned gem, The Enemy of the World. They both seem to be desperately tying to break away from formulaic ‘monsters attack isolated humans’ stories around them. Both have gunfights, helicopters and hop confidently from location to location. And if we think of Enemy as Who‘s attempt at a James Bond film, it’s got nothing on The Invasion which basically has a Bond villain at its core in slimy Tobias Vaughn (a powerhouse performance from Kevin Stoney).

The Invasion is Vaughn’s show. He’s all style in his Nehru jacket, striding up and down his posh London office (which in a nifty cost saving measure is the same is the same set as his posh country office). Stoney plays him with silky politeness, punctuated occasionally with sudden outbursts of fury. He only needs to be stroking a fluffy white cat to complete the picture. ‘No, Doctor Who, I expect you to die!’ he really should have got to say.

He, of course, has an incompetent henchman, the hapless Packer. Or Packaaah! as Vaughn expansively calls him (this has become a common refrain around Chez Spandrell; ‘Packaaah, take out the garbage will you?’). Packaaah, as played by Who stalwart Peter Halliday, is the picture of floppy fringed dimness. He’s not helped by a communications device strapped to his wrist which has to be constantly repositioned from mouth to ear, making an already twitchy character seem as if he’s developed an inconvenient new spasm.

Vaughn’s made his money in electronics. His company, International Electromatics produces ubiquitous consumer gadgets which are in every home and business around the world. Back in 1993 when this story was released on VHS, this all seemed a bit far fetched. But as I write this on my iPad before checking my iPhone, it now seems prescient. Steve Jobs as a ranting, tyrannical magnate, hurling insults at his subordinates and hypnotizing people via their handheld devices until they become passive, obedient cult followers? I can see it.

The Cybermen are mere guest stars in Vaughn’s story. Think of this as their Revelation of the Daleks, where the monsters are kept in the background and the chief villain gets the limelight. They don’t even turn up until the cliffhanger of Episode 4, and when they do, they are kept as a mysterious presence lurking in the background. We get no scene of the Doctor confronting them. No scenes of them discussing their plans. Indeed, they get very few lines at all (Although there is the Cyber Planner, a free standing talking whatsit that attentive viewers might have remembered from The Wheel in Space. This collection of wires and tubes is kept in a cupboard by Vaughn and is wheeled out from time to time to discuss plot details.). This was the Cybermen’s fifth story in just over two years, so a little variation from their standard modus operandi was probably due.

The major variation was the addition of a human villain to complement those Cybermen. This is an approach trialled in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but in that story, the human bad guys were in addition to, not in partnership with the monsters. So it’s really Vaughn and The Invasion that set the template for nearly all Cybermen stories to come. It’s not until Closing Time that the Cybermen go solo again. And you can see why; the Cybermen are tin cans. It’s hard to get some drama going with talking tin cans, so you need a human nasty to chew some scenery.

The other story it harkens back to is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (our very first random one year ago!).  The Daleks invaded London and marched across Westminster Bridge. The Cybermen invade London and walk down the steps St. Paul’s cathedral. Well, you go somewhere, you see the sights, right? They’re clip show moments.

But more than that, these two stories are sixties blockbusters. Lots of action sequences, lots of location filming and the sense that all stops are really being pulled out. You only have to look at this stories around The Invasion to see that this is story that got all the attention. I wonder if we had The Invasion‘s two missing episodes back would this appear even more of an epic, what with Episode 1’s escape from the IE compound, and Episode 4’s rescue of Zoe and Isobel by helicopter.

My point? That The Invasion is often identified as a template for the Doctor Who  stories which came after it. But just as important as its influence on the future, is its drawing on the past. But to be fair, it’s influence on future Who still hasn’t expired. Dark Water/Death in Heaven after all pays homage to it by repeating the St Paul’s steps sequence. It’s a sign that we’ll still be talking about The Invasion for some time yet.

LINK to… See last time.

NEXT TIME… Well, this is gay! Time to get crabby with The Macra Terror.

Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

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Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.