Tag Archives: Peri

Mavericks, manouvering and The Mysterious Planet (1986)

mysterious planet

At the start of Doctor Who’s 23rd season, the show called up its most reliable writer to provide a series opener. As the show had only narrowly avoided cancellation the year before, it needed Robert Holmes to apply a reinvigorating shot in the arm, as he’d done before with Spearhead from Space and The Ark in (also) Space. But the story Holmes provided, The Mysterious Planet, proved to be, in the opinion of most fans, one of his lesser works.

Still, it’s a favourite of mine. Sure, it lacks the high stakes tension of The Caves of Androzani or the laser sharp focus of The Deadly Assassin. But it’s got a bitingly funny script and a world of intrigue to ponder over. In a standard Doctor Who year, this oddly charming tale, minus its trial room trappings, would have been a cheeky mid-season treat, a la Carnival of Monsters or The Sun Makers.

It’s got its problems, of course. Any prosecutor worth their salt would point out that the direction is flat, only occasionally mustering up any energy and never concocting any real suspense. Its design work is uneven, its performances a mixed bunch. But, its defence counsel might counter, it has one of Holmes’ wittiest scripts, with much quotable dialogue and plenty of engaging characters. Plus it reengages Holmes with many of his favourite tropes.

Like The Ark in Space, it wonders how humans will survive a future global apocalypse. Like The Sun Makers, it imagines a subterranean world where humans live, frightened of going onto the surface. Like The Krotons it gives us a present but unseen menace holding a society hostage and kidnapping their smartest youths. And it provides a new version of Holmes’ favourite supporting character, the colourful maverick.

It’s a trope with starts with Milo Clancey, runs through Vorg and Garron and ends here with Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby). All are miscreant versions of the Doctor. They have his charm, his eccentricity and his colourful turn of phrase. But each come from a seedier place than the Doctor, who in case we forget, is a Lord. Clancey is wild frontierman, Vorg is a carnie and Garron’s a galactic con-man. Occupations the Doctor’s altogether too wholesome and scholarly to consider.

Glitz is something quite different from those previous oddballs. He’s been characterised as a dodgy dealer; as Selby puts it on the DVD documentary, an “Arthur Daley in space”. But this slant on Glitz comes more from his two subsequent stories than this introductory tale. Here, he’s articulate and witty. Sardonic even. He’s a mercenary, not the used car salesman he becomes. And although he might become a cuddly geezer slash ally to the Doctor later on, in this story, he’s a ruthless criminal.

His first act on screen is an aborted attempt to murder the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He’d cheerfully shoot his way out of the Tribe of the Free’s camp if he could. Most chillingly, he wants to gas Marb Station in order to kill its inhabitants. Just because he’s given a few funny lines doesn’t change that.

In fact, I’d wager that it’s the casting of Selby which led the character down the Arthur Daley in space path, not the other way around. With lines like, “I should like to stand in paterfamilias for your absent father and give you away, my dear, but I always cry at these moments of deep sentiment.” and “whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex.” it’s not hard to imagine a different take on the character. Think, for instance, of Holmes’ Time Lord messenger in Terror of the Autons as Glitz, all bowler hat and establishment suit. Or an ice-cold businessman like Trau Morgus. Either would be valid takes on Glitz as scripted here. But the wide boy version sticks and by the time he gets to Dragonfire he’s been completely Daley-fied, an altogether less cultured, less witty piece of work.

His unscrupulousness remains constant though, and it’s that which sets him apart from the crusading sixth Doctor. After a season and a bit of being spiky and boorish, we finally get a version of this Doctor we can truly root for; compassionate, heroic and funny. I suspect that Holmes rather liked writing for the sixth Doctor. It’s an incarnation that seems closest to his conception of the Doctor – a slightly superior but affable character, but with an acid tongue. Baker embraces the chance to play the Doctor with this lighter aspect to him, looking for every opportunity to go for the physical gag or the emphasized word. He’s a vibrant, showman of a Doctor but one who cares about this planet, its people and crucially, his companion. His scenes in Part One where he tries to console Peri, distraught about the fate of her world, are the best of his era.

Despite this change towards a more accessible, likeable Doctor though, there’s still a fundamentally problematic approach to his character. He’s basically ineffectual when it comes to solving the story’s big problem. This isn’t uncommon in 1980s Who; look at the climaxes to Earthshock, Terminus, Resurrection of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos for other examples where the Doctor’s efforts in winning the day are minimal. But here his impotence is underlined twice.

It happens first when the Doctor is in an argument with robotic underground despot Drathro (Roger Brierly). The Doctor is trying to convince Drathro that human life is of more value than that of machines. But Drathro is shown to outmanoeuvre the Doctor’s arguments every time. In the end, in very characteristic style for his sixth incarnation, the Doctor resorts to abuse, accusing the robot of hubris. These are actually a great couple of scenes, highlighting the Doctor’s love of life and humanity. But still, he loses that argument and that diminishes his strength as a character.

The second instance comes at the story’s conclusion. The black light system, upon which Drathro depends, is about to explode and the horned metal beast has decided that everyone should perish with him. The Doctor’s powerless to stop it, so it’s left to Glitz, our cold blooded criminal, to comes up with the solution. He tricks Drathro into leaving his castle, with promises of more black light on his ship. “Strange how low cunning succeeds where intelligent reasoning fails,” sighs the Doctor. Not just strange, Doc, but sad. Because it leaves you trying to contain the inevitable end-of-story explosion and doing little else. The colourful maverick saves the day, and our colourful hero is sidelined.

That’s ultimately why this story wasn’t enough to propel the series to new heights. Not because it isn’t clever or funny or interesting; it’s all those things. (We haven’t even got to Holmes’ use of the trial scenes to annotate the show’s narrative structure). But because even though it gives us a more likeable hero, it’s still undermining him throughout.

LINK TO Partners in Crime: Both are set in London, although separated by millions of years.

NEXT TIME: Will there be strawberry jam for tea? More from Holmes in The Power of Kroll. Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!

 

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Polls, potential and The Twin Dilemma (1984)

twin-dilemma

We fans keep changing our collective mind about which is the best ever Doctor Who story. Is it Androzani? Is it Genesis of the Daleks? Is it The Day of the Doctor? We can’t decide. There are too many contenders.

But when it comes to the worst Doctor Who story, we’re unanimous. Time after time we say, The Twin Dilemma. There’s been nothing as bad as that one, we’ve said, in the last three Doctor Who Magazine all-time surveys. As long as we disregard Dimensions in Time, which I’m more than happy to do.

Ranking his debut story last among all Who makes Colin Baker sad, as we know from his 2015 interview with DWM. So sad that he questions the whole practice of mercilessly listing every story or every Doctor from best to worst. Unfortunately, this is what fans do. We list, we score, we compare. We ignore the good intentions, the extenuating circumstances and the mishaps beyond everyone’s control. We know which is the worst Doctor Who story ever, but we forget that no one on its production team deliberately set out to make the worst ever Doctor Who story. Quite the opposite, in fact, in the case of The Twin Dilemma where they sought to kickstart a new, vibrant era for the program.

This blog is not about casting judgement on Doctor Who stories. I try not to tell you which ones I think are good, better or best. Although I’m sure I fail, maybe on every single post, I’m not here to review or rate. Partly because there are loads of other websites that do that already. And partly because I want to hear fresh ideas about Doctor Who. I don’t want to read another article telling me that City of Death‘s brilliant and Time-Flight’s not. If anything, I want to read the opposite.

Facing The Twin Dilemma is a problem though, when something’s so famously, patently bad. It may or may not be the worst Doctor Who story in either my opinion or yours, but I think it can be overwhelmingly agreed that it’s not good Doctor Who. So I’m going to try to put that aside, in order to think about why we need a worst Doctor Who story in the first place.

Apparently showrunner Russell T Davies described this story as “the beginning of the end” for old Who. Having just watched Survival, I have been wondering if this is true – if a five year wind down of the series started with The Twin Dilemma. If you subscribe to that reading, I think that helps explain our need for a “worst story”. We’re looking for a scapegoat to blame for the old series’ cancellation.

I also think identifying the best and worst of something is an inherent part of fandom. I’ve written before about when I think fandom starts; for me, it’s when you seek out more information about the show than an average viewer would have access to. As part of this quest for knowledge, fans are building up a kind of expertise on the program. They develop opinions about what’s good and bad Doctor Who, as opposed to casual viewers who I suspect see any Who they watch as being roughly the same in quality. Fans are connoisseurs, and the ultimate expression of this is choosing not just good and bad, but best and worst.

Then there’s a tendency to ‘pile on’ a particular story. Once The Twin Dilemma started to get its reputation as the worst story ever, it became harder and harder to watch it without being aware of that tag. It became easy for everyone to agree. A similar thing is happening to Fear Her, which seems to be gaining the unwanted notoriety of the worst new series episode. The more we all buy into this idea, the less likely it is to shift.

So there’s scapegoating, piling on and fandom’s need to assess. The Twin Dilemma falls victim to all of these. Still, no smoke without fire – none of these things would gain any traction unless the story in question was dodgy to begin with. And there’s loads of material to work with here – ugly design work, flat direction, clunky dialogue.

On top of it all, it ends with a direct challenge to the audience, daring its audience to dislike it. “I am the Doctor,” declares Colin Baker, delivering the story’s final line from within that colourful maelstrom of a costume, “whether you like it or not!” An extraordinary way to end a story, which speaks of a vast but misplaced confidence. This story was already playing hard to like, and then it ends with an invitation to its audience to bugger off.

****

If The Twin Dilemma is about anything, it’s about the darker side of people, hidden under the surface. The sixth Doctor, in his post regenerative illness, releases a nasty, violent side which would have been unthinkable emerging from the gentle fifth Doctor. The story’s villain, the sluggy Mestor (Edwin Richfield) may be a laughably immobile, crosseyed panto costume, but the idea behind him, that he inhabits people’s minds, filling them with dark thoughts while lurking in shadows, is quietly sinister. Even the titular twins have the mental ability to destroy the universe, so we’re told. And it’s a theme that lasts throughout the sixth Doctor’s era, and culminates in the creation of the Valeyard, a supervillain created from the Doctor’s dark side.

So the seeds of something interesting are there, along with a bold ambition to try something new – to present regeneration not as a blessing, but a dangerous gamble, and to move the Doctor to being louder, ruder and, in many ways, harder than ever before. Here is a strikingly different Doctor, inherently theatrical in words and action and openly confrontational with friends and foes alike. It’s near impossible to imagine The Twin Dilemma as a fifth Doctor story, but not so impossible to imagine a universe where it worked as an innovative and invigorating launch for the sixth Doctor. The beginning of something brilliant, not the end.

Ultimately, being bad Doctor Who is only the first of this story’s crimes. The second is that it posited a brash new vision for the series that failed to convince the audience to go along with it. And while there have been lots of below par Doctor Who stories before and since, there have been none which managed that.

So that’s why I think fans insist on having a worst story, and why we’ve collectively decided it’s The Twin Dilemma. None of which is any comfort to Colin Baker or to anyone else involved in the story’s production.

What I hope is some comfort is that it wasn’t the beginning of the end. The series lives on loud and live, with a spiky, bad tempered Doctor at the helm. Plus the sixth Doctor hasn’t been shunned or quietly ignored; books, comics and audio dramas have crafted new Sixie eras which have garnered new fans. None of which would have been possible without The Twin Dilemma showing what didn’t work, but also what had the potential to work.

LINK TO Survival: wildlife (birds and cats) anthromorphised into alien species.

NEXT TIME: Life depends on change and renewal. Time to switch on The Power of the Daleks.

 

 

 

Small business, big plans and Revelation of the Daleks (1985)

revelation1

The run of Dalek stories from Genesis to Revelation (I know it actually goes to Remembrance but it’s not as cool a phrase, OK?) is the closest Doctor Who gets to an ongoing chain of sequels. Revelation of the Daleks in particular has the sickly sweet aroma of a late, late sequel about it. But the star of this popcorn movie is not the Daleks, but Davros. This is really Davros 4: Weekend at the Great Healer’s. And like many a third sequel, things have taken a bizarre turn for our favourite mutant in a chariot.

Life used to be so simple for him. Standard villainy. First he was raising a new race of monsters from the mutated remains of his own race. Then, he was breaking the deadlock between them and a race of disco robots. Then he was curing a deadly virus while starting a factional war. But in this fourth installment, he’s done something far more challenging. He’s opened a small business.

Wisely, he’s chosen the funeral business, so there’s never any shortage of clients. And because they’re not so much dead as in suspended animation, he can upsell them some addition extras, like music and ongoing commentary from Alexei Sayle. But in an even shrewder move, he’s found two different ways of making use of the bodies on the sly. The smart ones he turns into Daleks. The dummards he sells off as food to a galaxy of hungry mourners.

Unfortunately, he’s plagued by many of the problems that beset small business. Firstly, he’s got problems with his suppliers. Relations have soured so much with factory owner Kara (a Disney villainess brought to life by Eleanor Bron), that she sends a hired killer to bump him off. Somewhat extreme; most people just pay their bills late. Sensibly, Davros acts like any good CEO would do and constructs an elaborate machine bound clone of himself as a decoy for the assassin’s bullet.

Then there’s corporate espionage, with a pair of grave robbers infiltrating the place just by putting on some blue dental gowns. Somewhere within that chariot of Davros’s there should be a post-it note saying ‘beef up security’.

And of course, there’s the common pitfall of being distracted from your goals. So Davros goes to the trouble of constructing a giant statue of the Doctor (Colin Baker, in acerbic form) to lure him to Necros to um, what exactly? Why attract the one man who could, and probably will, thwart your plans? Send that one back to the working group, Davros, it’s not thought through properly.

But as any business owner knows, it’s the staff which are the main problem. Take embalmers cum brutes-for-hire Takis and Lilt (Trevor Cooper and Colin Spaull). Sure, they’ll take time off from the flower arranging to rough up some intruders for you. But then later on they’ll get a bit squeamish and call in your rivals for a hostile takeover. Very disloyal. That’ll come up in their performance reviews.

And then there’s always the problem of your staff getting romantically attached to each other. A boss should never get involved in these situations, but that’s just what Davros does with ageing Lothario Mr Jobel (a quite aggrieved Clive Swift) and hapless attendant Tasambeker (Jenny Tomasin). She adores him, but he couldn’t care less about her. And there the whole thing could rest, except Davros wants to interfere.

He cranky at Jobel, you see, because he offered to turn him into a Dalek and he refused. Why this should bother Davros so much, or why indeed if he really did want Jobel Dalekified he didn’t just take him by force, is never explained. Nevertheless, Davros plots his revenge. Shall he set Takis and Lilt on him? Should he simply send a Dalek to exterminate him?

Too simple! A better idea is to slowly needle at Tasambeker’s psyche, preying on her insecurities until she wants to kill the man she loves. ‘Watch him’, Davros purrs through his clone’s rubbery mouth. ‘Use the security cameras to observe his activities, then tell me if your hate doesn’t grow.’ Slowly he turns her against Jobel. Then one day his insults prove too cutting and she stabs the oleaginous creep with a hypodermic needle.

So Davros took the long way round to murder his chief embalmer by proxy. Overly complex, perhaps but gruesome enough to appeal to the mind of a despot, you might think. But then he immediately rewards Tasambeker by exterminating her. Now that’s not only tough on Tasambeker, but utterly bewildering. What did she do except exactly what Davros wanted her to? Meddling in your staff’s love life is bad enough, but needlessly killing the obedient ones is just poor human resource management. Sure, she’s no Nyder, but at least she could follow an order.

In the end, grey Daleks swoop in making a corporate raid. They of course, have no interest in commerce, but they have a newfound interest in justice, and they vow to put Davros on trial (in the proper legal wigs and gowns, I trust.) And as they whisk him away, no doubt he’s thinking about giving up this business lark; long hours, hard work and limited rewards. That day job he used to have as a super villain must seem ever more appealing. And so it is that when we get around to Davros 5: The Emperor’s New Polycarbide Casing, he’s restricting himself to stealing an alien super weapon. After all, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your strengths.

LINK to Dalek: Apart from the obvious, there’s the underground setting and both feature levitating Daleks. And Davros is referred to in Dalek as well.

Sacrificial BLAM!: Orcini blows himself up with a great big bomb.

Adventures in subtitling: When Davros says “You are a fool, Jobel. I have offered you immortality, but you are content to play with the bodies of the dead, so you will join THEIR NUMBER!”, the DVD subtitles suggests he’s saying “you will join THE DOCTOR!”. Now there’s a thought; Jobel as a companion. Yeesh.  Now I’m the one who’s quite aggrieved.

NEXT TIME: I love a knees up! You’re cordially invited to The Masque of Mandragora.

Narrative, Mystery and Mindwarp (1986)

mindwarp

The trial has a great many twists… There are lots of layers, and it’s very, very complicated, which I rather like. I like things you can’t understand. Colin Baker, DWM 118.

The Trial of a Time Lord is Doctor Who‘s great experiment with presenting a dual narrative. Over 12 of its 14 episodes, it presents three Doctor Who stories as evidence in the Doctor’s trial for breaking the Time Lords’ law on interference. Interlaced with these three stories is the Doctor’s trial itself; we cut from the action regularly to see how the evidence is affecting the trial and specifically, three characters: the Doctor, court prosecutor the Valeyard and magistrate type the Inquisitor. We are effectively watching fictional characters watch Doctor Who.

So while the three stories are being told, there’s a longer narrative – a slower burn – also playing out. Watching just one of Trial’s  segments out of order means that the viewer gets a Doctor Who story in its entirety (the evidence, set here on the garish planet Thoros Beta), plus just one part of a much larger story (the trial). Whatever the merits of this approach (and they have been debated at length), I think it’s fair to say that it’s audacious and innovative move for Doctor Who.

Trial‘s second segment, known informally as Mindwarp (you didn’t really expect me to tap out The Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8 each time, did you?) deals with the dual narrative approach neatly, and does something interesting with its main story too. But first, to the trial.

Someone once said to me about playwriting that each character, no matter how minor, needs to go on a journey throughout the story. They each need to be transformed; in some way changed by the events of the story, so they are a different person at the end, from who they were at the beginning. Thinking about the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor – the characters in the ’trial story’ – I don’t think they can be said to be transformed in either The Mysterious Planet or Terror of the Vervoids. Which is another way of saying not much happens to those characters in those two stories to change them.

But much happens to them in Mindwarp, and the story it tells in the trial room is one of the Doctor gradually losing confidence in himself and his actions.

It starts with the Doctor treating the trial with mocking irreverence. He’s hugely confident in himself and his own actions and that both can withstand any criticism. But when the evidence shows him being subjected to a brain transference machine, the trial room Doctor realises he can no longer remember anything that happened on Thoros Beta after that point. To him, the evidence is no longer simply the replaying of recent events. It has turned into an allegation of his role in events he cannot recall, but which are played out for him on screen. And to him, the evidence looks flawed. His levity vanishes.

VALEYARD: Does any of your sudden and convenient recall agree with anything that the court has already seen?
DOCTOR: No! I mean yes, but, but the emphasis is all wrong.
VALEYARD: And what does that mean?
DOCTOR: The events took place but not quite as we’ve seen them.

This is quite a frightening idea; that you might be confronted with video evidence of yourself behaving wildly out of character or even committing a crime. But if you had no clear memory of the events, how could you refute the evidence of your own eyes, or hope to offer an alternative version of events? In the Doctor’s case, events on Thoros Beta hardly show him in a good light.

Let’s jump to the Thoros Beta story. The Doctor and Peri arrive to find out who’s supplying arms to people called the warlords of Thordon. But this is soon forgotten when they see Sil (Nabil Shaban), the reptilian capitalist villain from Vengeance on Varos. Sil’s boss Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is there too, suffering from a condition where his brain is swelling within his skull. Surgeon Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is attempting to find a suitable body into which to transfer Kiv’s brain.

After being subjected to the brain transfer machine, the Doctor initially appears to lose his marbles for a bit, before deciding to betray Peri and new found ally Yrcanos (BRIAN BLESSED!!!) and side with Sil. It is suggested by the trial room Doctor and by Sil himself that this is a ruse, designed to gain the bad guys’ confidence. And so it appears to be; late in proceedings the Doctor switches sides again and appears to be back to his normal self.

For the period when the Doctor is working with Sil, he’s quite horrible, particularly towards Peri. And we never find out for sure if this behaviour was indeed a ploy, or if the Doctor’s brain was scrambled by the machine, or if the evidence had been tampered with to make the Doctor appear to be a bastard. Hang on to this, I’ll come back to it. Because something nifty is about to happen.

In Part Eight, the Doctor on Thoros Beta seems back to normal. With Yrcanos in tow, he’s off to stop Crozier operating on Peri. We’ve been here before; the story is rushing towards its conclusion. Then, mid corridor run, the TARDIS appears in a shaft of blue light, the Doctor is drawn into it, and the ship disappears, to land a second later on the space station where the Doctor’s trial is taking place. It’s a great moment as we realise this is where we came in back at Part One of Trial. It’s the classic series’ cleverest use of time travel to double back on its own narrative, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in all of Doctor Who. To use a Moffatism, a true timey-wimey moment.

But the really neat bit is that the two storylines – trial and Thoros Beta – now converge. The Doctor can merely watch the conclusion of events play out on screen. The Inquisitor suddenly takes a more active role, describing how the Time Lords decided to intervene, saying events had gone too far. And then the story ends in devastating style; Peri’s brain is wiped, and replaced with Kiv’s. Effectively she’s transformed into a monster. Yrcanos breaks in a shoots the place up. Everyone dies.

In the trial room, our three characters reach the end of their journeys. The Doctor is shattered, but vows to fight on. The Inquisitor has become the Time Lords’ voice, justifying their actions, no longer an impartial observer. The Valeyard is triumphant, and the trial no longer seems like a joke, but in fact a cover for something far more serious.

The trial room story (or this part of it) has ended. But the conclusion to events on Thoros Beta feels unsatisfying, because we never found out the reason why the Doctor was acting the way he did. Later in Trial, it’s confirmed that the Thoros Beta evidence was altered and that Peri survived. Which changes the way we look at Mindwarp. It becomes the only story where the viewer is presented with an unreliable version of events. Let me tell you a story, Mindwarp says, but it might not all be true.

Mindwarp is famously the story where disgruntled script editor Eric Saward walked off the program. His mind clearly was not on the job during this story. Colin Baker has often said that he couldn’t get an answer from script editor nor director on what was causing the Doctor’s erratic behaviour. This uncertainty is often pointed out as a production error. And it probably is just that.

But what that narrative vagueness has left us with is something unique: a Doctor Who story we’ll only ever know part of. Bits of the full story are missing. It’s a story which, because of its very design and construction, we’ll never get to the bottom of.

If I didn’t know about the behind the scenes turmoil engulfing the show at this time, I’d be tempted to say it was deliberate, with writer Philip Martin wildly experimenting with the program, keeping everyone in the dark about the lead character’s motive – even the actors and production crew – to create something which genuinely wrongfoots the viewer. There’s a part of me that would really like that to be the case. Because as noted by Colin Baker himself, it is possible to like something you don’t fully understand.

LINK TO Turn Left: Both feature the faux death of a companion.

NEXT TIME: Love & Monsters. Elton! Fetch a spade!

Drugs, subversion and The Caves of Androzani (1984)

androzani

Hmmm. I’m meant to be ignoring accepted fan law about Doctor Who. I’m meant to be looking at everything afresh. But it’s hard to ignore when I’m aware of The Caves of Androzani’s reputation as one the greats. In fact, according to DWM’s 2008 Mighty 200 survey, the best ever Doctor Who story, up to that point at least. But it’s important to the first point I want to make about it: for me, this is the least Doctor Who-like story in the entire run. Which is ironic if you think, as many do, that this is also the best story in the entire run.

It’s breathtakingly audacious on the part of writer Robert Holmes. He tells a story that breaks all the series’ rules. There’s no planet to save. There’s no oppressed people to liberate. Hell, there’s not even any sympatheic characters for the Doctor to side with. The plot is the struggle for power of the supply of a youth-prolonging drug by three different forces: Sharaz Jek, Morgus and the Androzani army represented by Chellak. The sub plot is that the Doctor and Peri are poisoned and need to escape this world in order to survive.

That’s worth restating: the Doctor is the sub plot. In fact, he doesn’t intersect with the main plot in any meaningful way (save for one moment in Part Three, where Morgus – a unblinking and steely performance by John Normington – suspects the Doctor of being an agent of his enemies and changes his plan accordingly).  When Eric Saward tries this trick a year later in Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor is at least involved in the main plot’s resolution (when he collaborates with Orcini to blow up Tranquil Repose). And in the new series’ Doctor-lite stories like Love & Monsters and Blink, the Doctor is absent, but always woven into the plot; he’s active without being present. Not here.

On any ordinary day, you could not get away with this. But this is no ordinary day. It’s Peter Davison’s last story and also it’s the return to the series after five years of Robert Holmes, former script editor and…wait, you know who Robert Holmes is, right?

Then you’d appreciate the irony in Holmes, the series’ most celebrated writer, essentially writing an anti-Doctor story. And this is a regeneration story, one of the series’ milestones! Holmes knows how big the writing out of a Doctor is, but still he chooses this critical moment to experiment with the show’s basic format. That takes, I think, an unshaking belief as a writer that you know what you’re doing, and of course, Holmes does.

But he doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that there’s no Doctor Who story for the Doctor to engage with on Androzani Minor.  It’s that there’s a perfectly good one waiting for him on Androzani Major. He just landed on the wrong planet.

On Androzani Major, there is a problem to solve – it’s a planet full of drug addicts, so desperate for their elixir of youth they’ll go to war for it. There’s a corrupt government, intertwined with big business. And there’s a villain to overthrow, the insidious Trau Morgus. It’s textbook Who. It’s just where you’d expect the Doctor to show up and save the day. Holmes pushes it to the sidelines, to tell a different story.

Let’s dwell on Major for a moment. Parts One to Three tell us this planet’s story through a series of finely crafted scenes set in Morgus’ office. Normally, these sort of scenes are workaday stuff. Here, they are fascinating, rivaling the noisy action on Minor. For me, the peak of them are Morgus’ sly dealings with the President (David Neal).

Like everyone on Major, the President is desperate for Spectrox. The first thing we see him do is accept a gift/bribe from Morgus of a soupcon of the stuff. The war is being bankrolled by Morgus, so he wields as much power on this planet as anyone, as the President knows and resents. The President wants to sue for peace, but this doesn’t match with Morgus’ plans.

In Part Two, there’s a terrific scene where Morgus suggests rounding up the unemployed and sending them to ’eastern labour camps’ (such a cold war phrase), an idea the President says he’ll take further. But he also notes that these are the very people Morgus sacked from his own factories, and as the labour camps are Morgus owned too, his former employees will now be his slaves. “I hadn’t thought of that”, Morgus deadpans. And the President’s face says it all; he hates Morgus, and hates himself for consorting with him, but he and his society are too dependent on spectrox to take a stand against him.

And in Part Three, Morgus grows paranoid that the President is plotting against him, so he pushes him down a lift shaft. It’s a brutal act, with its aftermath is peppered with black jokes (“It could have been worse,” says Morgus, “it might have been me”). More importantly thought, it’s a logical conclusion to the power struggle between these two men.

Or so we think, because while Holmes has been sketching out a whole alien society in a few short scenes with two main characters, a third has been lurking in the background. It’s icy PA Krau Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn). Once Morgus, post assassination, has legged it to Minor to sort things out, his not-so-loyal deputy Timmin, usurps him. It’s delicious and she tells him the bad news via video link, feet on his desk.

So ends a series of scenes which started with Morgus at the height of his power, arranging for one of his agents to blow up a mine, and ends with his secretary bringing him down. Edited together, those scenes would make a compelling drama of their own. And the Doctor barely shows his face.

Talking of faces being barely shown, let’s talk masks again (Frontier in Space just keeps on giving). Christopher Gable’s turn as the psychotic Sharaz Jek is often praised. It’s less often pointed out that he creates this multi-faceted character from behind a sort of gimp mask splattered with white-out, making his achievement all the more impressive.  Actually though, I think the mask aids rather than obscures his performance.  If you listen to his dialogue, it’s often soaringly OTT. “I want to feast my eyes on your delicacy”, it floridly goes at one point. Gable gives it all he’s got… And I can’t help but wonder if we could see his face, wouldn’t it be a bit too much? It’s the mask that masks what might otherwise be too melodramatic a performance.

One last thing: it’s a blokey story. It surely can be no mistake that this story’s setting draws its name from the Greek word for man, ’Andro’. As pointed out in Cornell et al’s The Discontinuity Guide, all the men die and the two women survive. But even with Timmin victorious, this is no blow struck for feminism. This is because companion Peri’s (played with anxious fragility by Nicola Briant) role in the story is unforgivably limited; she’s sick and helpless throughout the whole thing, she’s characterised constantly by her physical attractiveness and she is effectively the prize for which Jek and the Doctor compete. It’s an unfortunately old fashioned element, in this otherwise groundbreaking story.

LINKS to The Eleventh Hour: They both feature newly regenerated Doctors (although in Androzani’s case briefly). Um, that’s all I’ve got!

NEXT TIME… Abase youself, you grovelling insect! The next stop on our journey is the Pyramids of Mars.