Tag Archives: Sarah Jane

Party time, playthings and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008)

stolenearth

If you’re going to throw a party, you might as well invite all your friends. That’s what it feels like watching Russell T Davies’ Series Four finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Multiple doctors, many companions, UNIT, Torchwood, the Daleks and Davros (Julian Bleach). Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (you know who she is). K flippin’ 9.

It’s odd to precede this with Listen, so self contained and inward looking. This is the other end of the Who-ish spectrum. Listen is the work of a writer self-imposing restrictions on himself, in order to keep himself game fit. It’s about trying to find out what makes the Doctor tick. The Stolen Earth etc. is about bold, grandstanding, attention grabbing TV. It’s about making the biggest, showiest version of the show, while Listen the quietest, most enigmatic version.

Oddly enough though, both are about rewarding fans. The Stolen Earth overtly, because it brings back favourite characters, ties up loose ends to various plot points and even has a mid story regeneration. Listen is for fans too, but more subtly. It delves into the Doctor’s past, plays with his psyche and offers a glimpse into his childhood. One is Longleat, the other Lungbarrow.

I don’t really know what it was about Doctor Who in 2014 which required a Listen. But we know why Doctor Who in 2008 needed The Stolen Earth. It’s because after three years of successively bigger and grander series finales, Series Four’s closer had no choice but to top them all. The only option was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. And that’s what we got: garish, sometimes absurd, but never quiet, Doctor Who.

*****

The Stolen Earth has an unusual structure. It starts where most Parts Ones end, with a full on invasion. There’s no time wasted in set up. We’re straight into it. This episode has a lot to get through, so there’s no time to waste.

Its main task is to get all the Doctor’s companions in place. It’s funny to see them all turn up once, like a reunion episode, but one made before any of the regulars have left. Actually, it’s a cross over show, combining the worlds of Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, addressing that core audience of die hards who watch all three shows. The result is an episode with no supporting cast, just regulars. But there are so many of the buggers! The majority of the episode is spent introducing them all and putting them in touch with each other. It’s RTD at his most dextrous, but there’s little time to give any of them any meaningful character development.

They’re all trying to contact the Doctor (David Tennant, working double time), giving the impression that although they can handle Slitheen, Sontarans and gaseous alien nymphomaniacs when the real bad guys come flying in, they need to call in reinforcements. They eventually manage it, through some advanced technobabble, and the Doctor heads to Earth to find them all. Once there, time starts to run out and narrative convenience steps in. Rose (Billie Piper) and Jack (John Barrowman) suddenly manage to teleport directly to the Doctor with consummate ease and no data as to his whereabouts. But there’s no time to waste. We’ve got a regeneration to get to.

And it’s a brilliant one too – the Doctor shot down by a Dalek while racing to reunite with Rose. Then a cliffhanger with a regeneration in progress. Davies writes it precisely. He doesn’t end the episode without showing the Doctor regenerating, the full orange volcano, his handsome face engulfed. This is actually happening. It’s new Doctor time when you least expected it.

Bring in all the Daleks and companions you want. That regeneration’s the standout moment in the show. It’s the bit baby fans will be reminiscing about for years; the popping of a champagne cork at the end of a raucous shindig of an episode.

*****

Of course, if you’re going to get all your toys out of the box, you have to put them away neatly afterward. Davros and the Daleks? You can just blow them up. The Earth can be towed back home by the TARDIS, accompanied by a triumphant anthem. Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Jack can go back to their respective series. Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) tag along with Jack (though apparently they slip away and get unfeasibly married instead). The others prove more difficult propositions.

Donna becomes a super being, bathed in golden light, not so different from what happened to Rose. For a brief amount of time, she becomes a Donna Doctor hybrid, with his brains but retaining her sass. It’s a beguiling combination, a sort of streetwise Romana. A series of this Doctor/Companion combo would have been fun. But instead, she gets her memory wiped and sent back home to Mum. It’s presented as a death, the death of the woman Donna had become. Call me heartless, but it’s never struck me as the kick in the emotional guts it is sometimes presented as. It’s always been the disingenuous pay off of the ‘a companion’s gonna die’ gimmick, hinted at throughout the story. Again, not so different from what happened to Rose.

Rose, though, should by rights get to live happily ever after with the love of her life, brown suit Doctor. Instead, she gets dropped off on that bleak ol’ beach with blue suit Doctor, with the one heart and the regular aging. It’s a bittersweet ending, being left with a Doctor who will love her, but one who’ll always be a photocopy of the original. By any rational measure, she’s better off with this ersatz version, but then as the Doctor himself once said, love was never known for its rationality.

But I’ve got bad news for Miss Tyler. It’s never going to last. Sure this Doctor’s human, but she seems to have forgotten that he’s also half Donna. That’s gonna be a shock when she wakes up one morning and it’s all new flavour pringle, Brangelina and text me, text me. Oi, Earth girl! This party’s left one hell of a hangover.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: When the Daleks attack UNIT’s New York base, someone shouts, “Give me a Sit Rep right now!”. The DVD’s subtitles say, “Give me a cigarette right now!” Which is understandable in the circumstances.

LINK TO Listen: Peter Bennett, production manager on this story, produced that one.

 

NEXT TIME…: I am very, very cross with you! We’re off to meet The Girl Who Died.

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Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

terrorzygons

You’ve got to admire the creative commitment displayed by Broton, Warlord of the Zygons (John Woodnutt). He’s disguised himself as the patrician Duke of Forgill – he’s got the coat, the hat and the cold, aloof exterior of the minor aristocrat down pat. He flaunts his performance at every opportunity, even though it brings unwelcome attention to his real agenda, which is to destroy oil rigs with his fearsome, half-mechanical Skarasan. Skarasan being a Zygonian word meaning ‘sea cow’.

Broton must simply love the theatrics of it. How else to explain why he drives into town (picking up three oddly dressed hitchhikers on the way) specifically to heckle oil man Mr Huckle (Tony Sibbald) about his employees trespassing on his appropriated estate, deliberately mangling the poor bloke’s name to press home his disdain. A few oiks skyving off on the moors for a quick ciggie can’t pose much of a threat to the warlord of an advanced technological race.

But Broton really throws himself into the part anyway. “If my ghillie catches them on my land again, they’ll be shot,” he burrs menacingly. Surprisingly, no one present – not the Doctor (a gruff Tom Baker), the Brigadier (an amiable Nicholas Courtney) nor Mr Huxtable himself – mentions that is a fairly drastic step up from a stern warning and a markdown at their next performance review.

Terror of the Zygons is full of these odd moments. Not ineffective, mind. Just the opposite. They are usually well acted, stylishly directed vignettes. But they’re just strange enough to jolt you out of the story for a moment. Either that, or they’re completely superfluous to the plot.

For example, take hard hitting journalist Sarah Jane Smith (a stylish Elisabeth Sladen) and her interview with bagpipe-playing, sooth-saying Angus McRanald (Angus Lennie). With wide eyes and hushed tones, he tells her the sort of spooky stories that teenage girls use to freak each other out at sleepover parties. Of the man from the Black Isle who went missing on the Moor in 1922. And of the Jamieson boys of 1870: “They went out cutting peat and the mist came down. Donald just disappeared. They found the older brother, Robert, two days later, wandering about, off his head. His eyes, his eyes were terrible to see.” Look, it’s lovely stuff, but unless we find out later in the story that the disappearances were part of the Zygons’ nefarious plans (and we don’t) it’s pleasantly creepy scene setting, but of no plot value.

Then there’s a series of land rover related coincidences, which kick off with Broton driving past the Doctor, Sarah and Harry (a dependable Ian Marter) at exactly the right time to pick them up (why not just have them land in the town itself?). Not long after, Harry is driving a land rover down a random road at exactly the right time to find an injured oil rig worker and get shot himself (Broton wasn’t bluffing, as it turns out). And not long after that, the Doctor is driving a land rover, trying to draw off the aforementioned hungry sea cow, when it mysteriously breaks down. Inconvenient for the Doctor who then has try to outrun the beast, but handy for a cliffhanger.

Back to the Zygons’ penchant for dramatics for a moment. Not all of them are as skilled as Broton. He must have gone to RADA, given his commitment to a role, but the others have clearly graduated from the diploma of performing arts at Wollongong TAFE, so clearly do they signpost their evil intentions. The one masquerading as Sister Lamont (Lillias Walker) is giving a Botcherby worthy performance in sinister, which is surely exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to hide out in a local hospital. (And by the way, why impersonate Sister Lamont? Is to finish off all those poor injured oil rig workers?) The Zygon who copies jolly, avuncular Harry gets his performance spectacularly wrong, making him a study in cold, sneering disdain. Sarah sees through him immediately, which was surely not the intention.

Like an actor in an hot, uncomfortable rubber costume, the Zygons must hate dressing up as humans, which might account for their inconsistent performances. “I loathe this abomination of a body,” the Lamont Zygon says at one stage, managing to keep a straight face. To be fair, those Zygon bodies are a terrific design, the bloated heads giving the impression of big orange embryoes (zygotes, I suppose). The new series Zygons seem to have done away with that association, which is probably wise. When Broton reveals that they feed off the milk of the rubbery Skarasan, the immediate mental image of a half a dozen Zygons suckling at the numerous teats of the puppety thing is another one of those story jolting moments. New Who can do without that.

Inside the Zygons’ spaceship, they’ve clearly gone for design over practicality. On the outside, it just looks like your standard tin box affair, but inside it looks like some something that’s been growing in the back of your fridge has got ideas above its station, and sprouted protuberances everywhere. The Zygons operate it by gently squeezing and fondling the various spongy bits which emerge, and it’s all very suspect in a masseur-who’s-crossed-the-line kind of way.

The Doctor, taken prisoner aboard the springy craft, is unfazed. He can instantly identify a fire sensor, a vacuum mechanism and a self destruct button even though they all look like indistinguishable orange growths. He’s that kind of guy. Anyway, his meddling forces the spaceship to land in a disused quarry (which for once is not code for an alien planet), which proves to be a good place to blow the whole thing up.

Except, in one of those annoying narrative dog legs, the story’s not quite over yet. Broton and the Skarasan are still on the loose. Earlier, Sarah and Harry, realising they had nothing in that episode to do, decided to go and rifle through Forgill castle, looking for clues to Broton’s plans. There Sarah discovered:

SARAH: The Duke is Chieftain of the Antlers Association, Trustee of the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip, whatever that might be, and President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

But then our investigative duo decided this was a waste of time and went back to the main plot. Once we get to the quarry, our heroes start to put all this together. Broton, it transpires, wants to go to an energy conference in London.

BRIGADIER: Yes, but he’d need a pass to get in. The security’s very tight.

SARAH: But he’ll have a pass. The Duke, the real Duke, is President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

DUKE: That’s right. I am!

Nice one Sarah. Except because the Duke is actually present in this scene, he could have told everyone that himself. Meaning that whole little detour of yours to the castle was meaningless padding. Still, I suppose it beats listening to more ghost stories with wee Angus McRanald.

Personally, I wish Broton would have staged his final endgame at the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip. That sounds much more fun than an energy conference which consists of a cellar, a corridor and a balcony, which cries ‘we spent all the design budget on the Zygon pizzamobile’.

It all ends with Broton dying with true Olivier-style gusto and the Skarasan wobbling unconvincingly on a CSO backdrop before heading back to Loch Ness. Weirdly, our heroes all follow suit, catching the train from London. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just put the TARDIS on the back of a land rover and driven it to them? No wait, on second thought, we know how unreliable those things are. You wouldn’t risk it.

LINK TO The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: both feature Americans, or at least characters with American accents.

NEXT TIME: We count how many beans make five with Mawdryn Undead.

Imagination, bubble wrap and The Ark in Space (1974)

arkspace

I don’t eat fish. No seafood at all, actually. I just don’t like the taste of it. Never have. This doesn’t stop people always trying to convince me to eat fish. “It’s good for you,” they say. “It’s delicious. Here try this. You’ll like it. It hardly tastes fishy at all!” (Note to everyone: seafood always tastes fishy.)

Some people don’t like Doctor Who. I mean, not just “I don’t watch it” or “I’m indifferent to it”. I mean those who say “I can’t stand it”. But unlike my fish advocating friends, I never try to convince them to like it. What’s the point? And what would I say? “Watch Black Orchid. It’s hardly like Doctor Who at all!”

I am interested, though, in what they don’t like about it. There are those who say, “it’s so cheap” (that this is still an accusation after a decade on well funded, new series episodes says something about the potency of that tag). There are those who say, “it’s too camp”. And there are those who say, “it’s too weird. I just don’t get it”. These last lot seem to me to be the most entrenched in their views; there’s something too far out about the program which just makes it innately unappealing to them. They’ll never get it. It’s not for them. It’s their fish. Let’s call them the Doubters.

Consider now, the random clutch of stories I’ve been watching, all of which come from Doctor Who’s mid 70s heyday. Last random, Planet of the Spiders. NEXT TIME… Horror of Fang Rock. And this entry, The Ark in Space. All stories which are well regarded by fans, and each which have created memorable imagery, which cause them to linger in the public consciousness. The one with the spiders, the one in the lighthouse and the one with the bubble wrap monster.

Watched from a fan perspective, they are better than average fare. But watched from a Doubter’s perspective, I fear they are irretrievably duff. Those plasticky spiders and the tacky green screen effects. Is that a tennis ball climbing up that model lighthouse? And c’mon – that monster really is made of bubble wrap!

This makes me recall recent statements by showrunner Steven Moffat and Doctor Peter Capaldi, that the show somehow inspires creativity amongst its viewers. I think they are right, and surely the mother of creativity is imagination.

I don’t want to say that the Doubters among us lack imagination. But I’d say that to enjoy a Doctor Who story like The Ark in Space requires the viewer to use their imagination. It takes a certain type of viewing, I think. One that enables the viewer to transcend the tacky elements on screen. Doubters see an actor unconvincingly writhing with his hand encased in a bubble wrap glove, snarling hammy lines like, “the Ark is ours! It must be ours!” Those who buy in see the terrifying concept behind it, a man losing control of his body to an alien infection.

The Ark in Space marks a point in the series’ history where those underlying concepts became more confronting. In Planet of the Spiders, only two stories previous to this, but made by a different production team, the villainous spiders wrapped up their human victims in cotton wool cocoons to store in the pantry for future snacking. In The Ark in Space, the insectoid Wirrn go a good deal further. It lays its eggs in your sleeping body, and when those eggs hatch, the larvae eat you from the inside out. It’s next level gruesome.

We even see it happen, or at least the start of it. Crew Member Lycett (John Gregg) is taken alive by a Wirrn grub. Again, it’s stagey and unconvincing. Lycett has to conveniently slip to allow the grub (Stuart Fell, caterpillaring across the studio floor in bubbly sleeping bag) to pinion him against the wall. But once you start imagining it, and thinking about the implications – eggs hatching, eating you from the inside – suddenly poor old Lycett’s fate seems far more real.

The bubble wrap monsters have become our shorthand symbol of The Ark in Space‘s ability to transcend its low budget production values. But let’s face it: the whole thing’s pretty tacky. Yes, the sets are nice (although why access to the transmat bed in the control room has to be by climbing over an enormous control panel has always left me scratching my head). But the video effects are rudimentary, the Ark itself sits unsteadily on a CSO backdrop and the Wirrn totter precariously, spindly static arms sprouting out of Mr Hanky style bodies.

None of this should work. But it does because of the quality of this story’s ideas. It’s those ideas which inspired Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat; this is a favourite story for both. No doubt because it offers many examples where those big, bubble wrap transcending moments, where the human impact of events becomes piercingly clear.

My favourite is the moment when Noah (Kenton Moore), on his way to full Wirrndom, forgets which human he is. He’s succumbs to confusion while trying to give an order, and Vira (Wendy Williams) asks if it’s something about Dune, the crew member first ‘digested’ by the Wirrn. A look of sudden calm comes over Noah as he says, “But I’m here! I am Dune.” And the assembled group of onlookers are stunned, realizing something awful has happened to this man’s mind.

Ages ago, when talking about The Aztecs, I suggested that Doctor Who fans watch the show in a way which is inherently forgiving. And we might pause here to remember the recently randomed The Ark which I think involves an even greater level of forgiveness, be it for the rubbery Monoids, the dodgy acting or the lazy expediency that results in a security kitchen. Both of the show’s arks in space offer big ideas on a tiny budget. But only the later story offers a plot strong enough to fire the imagination. There’s no “I am Dune” moment in the earlier story. You forgive The Ark, but you buy in to The Ark in Space.

It’s also a story which celebrates the human spirit. In an almost sentimental way, which is very unlike the usually gloomy outlook of writer and script editor Robert Holmes. Early on, the Doctor (an early Tom Baker) offers his awestruck appreciation of humanity’s indomitability. By the time we get to Part Four, it’s not the Doctor, but Noah, now almost all Wirrn, who saves the day by luring his fellow monsters into a rocket (who knows how they got up the entry ladder) and blowing them up. His last line, a simple “Goodbye Vira” to the woman he was to be “pair bonded to for the new world”. Indomitable indeed.

It’s a thing of beauty. And it’s just for us. Don’t bother showing it to a Doubter. It won’t convince them. Which is just fine. The Ark is ours. It must be ours.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Noah.

LINK TO Planet of the Spiders. Sarah Jane against the insect bad guys.

 

Old man, young man and Planet of the Spiders (1974)

planet-spiders

“The old man must die,” says ersatz Buhddist monk Cho-je in Pertwee farewell tale Planet of the Spiders, “and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.” He’s explaining meditation to go-getter journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), though soon enough she’ll actually be witnessing an old man being made new before her eyes. This is a story which draws parallels between the rejuvenation of the soul and regeneration of the body.

In fact, it’s the story that named the process where one Doctor transforms into another as ‘regeneration’ and in many ways, it’s the story that invents our modern understanding of the concept, as to what a Time Lord does on the point of death. The Doctor’s previous change was forced upon him as a punitive measure. And his first, back in The Tenth Planet, was a mysterious, explanation-light event. Although it’s hinted that the Doctor changed to avoid dying, it’s never overtly stated. It could easily be read as a refreshing of his body’s batteries, rather than a ‘get out of death free card’.

But if his first change was a renewal, and the second a punishment, this one is a genuine revivification. This is the first story where we see the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, die and then come back to life. When the seventh Doctor dies on the streets of San Francisco, his regeneration recalls this one. You have to die first to be reborn.

It’s also a form of natural justice.The War Games presented regeneration as a literal punishment for the Doctor and Spiders presents it as a metaphorical one, punishing him for the crime of theft (to whit, one large blue crystal) with a secondary charge of hubris. This idea gets repeated in future stories too; The End of Time suggests the Tenth Doctor’s (second) regeneration is payback for his manipulation of history in The Waters of Mars. And The Caves of Androzani suggests the Fifth Doctor’s death is the result of his recklessness, in delivering his companion Peri into danger.

But for a story which has given us so solid a basis for future regenerations, the actual event itself is treated fairly perfunctorily in Planet of the Spiders. It lasts only a few short seconds, a rudimentary roll-back-and-mix affair. After so much lead up to it, the change is done away with very quickly. That’s because as much as this story is thematically ‘about’ regeneration, it’s more practically about Jon Pertwee.

****

Regular readers of this blog (bless you all) will have noticed how Pertwee heavy it is. This is just one of those quirks of random selection; we’ve now looked at 19 out of 25 Pertwee stories. I’ll happily confess this is not my favourite era of the show, so while the nature of this blog is that I’ll get around to every story, had I been self selecting, I suspect a fair amount of Perts would be left until later.

Lots of Pertwee watching though, has given me a new appreciation of the bouffant one’s virtues. I’m talking Pertwee himself, rather than the Third Doctor, which I still find a significant deviation from my understanding of the character. He’s easier to like in his early stories, when he’s less patrician and condescending than once he’s settled in. But once he’s at home, with his UNIT lab to preside over, his pretty girl to boss around, his Brigadier to insult and the regular opportunities for mild violence, I find him too smug for words.

Jon Pertwee, though, I think is terrific. As a performer, you can see him so easily command attention. He’s present, in that actorly sense of the word, in every scene; whereas Tom Baker would every so often walk through a scene not engaging with what was going on around him, Pertwee’s listening and reacting all the time. Troughton used to almost sneak into a scene, and almost skirt around the camera’s gaze. Not Jon; the camera loves Pertwee and he loves it. A extrovert’s dream. I would have loved to have seen him live, and witnessed that bravado up close.

When former producer Derrick Sherwin cast Pertwee, he expected him to bring more of his entertainment background to the role of the Doctor. There was talk of him singing ballads and playing guitar. And in fact bits of this idea still sneak through; occasionally he pulls out a magic trick, puts on a funny voice or dresses up in drag. These, for me, are when the Third Doctor’s at his best, when he’s allowed to be a bit silly. A bit more showman, a little less action man, thanks.

*****

Writer/Producer/Director Barry Letts saw this as a story about the Doctor atoning for his greed. Script editor Terrance Dicks has since observed that this sounded more like Pertwee than the Doctor. And that’s the key to this story really. Spiders is designed to be a farewell for Pertwee, rather than for his Doctor.

After all, it’s a story which has a whole episode given over to Pertwee driving lots of vehicles, including his own car. The guest cast is cherry picked from previous Pertwee stories. The entire UNIT family return, with a message from Katy Manning, like an absentee guest on This is Your Life. There are numerous ‘moments of charm’. And of course, he looks Pertastic in sombre dark velvet and snowy cumulonimbus hair. This story’s an exercise in making him look good and feel comfortable, as he leaves a series he loves.

Everything else – the 1970s mysticism, the treacherous bad guy, the oppressed villagers, the invasion of the giant spiders from space – feels like window dressing. Impressive window dressing, sure, but not the main game. The main game is that the old man must die, so let’s make him as comfortable as we can in his last days. It’s the least we can do.

****

As ever, my random Who generator likes to spit out stories in awkward order. Last time it was The Ark (LINK: human descendants being oppressed by creepy crawly aliens) and next time it’s The Ark in Space. Our two arks separated! It would have been nice to compare them.

But funnily enough, Spiders to The Ark in Space is but a short hop, so there’s plenty to compare between those two as well. So NEXT TIME… I’ll be talking about all three. Let’s give that helmic regulator quite a twist.

And one further note… that’s our second full season – Season 11 -complete. View the full list of randomed stories here.

Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

school

In New Who‘s first year, references to Old Who were few and far between. The odd Cyberman head, a fleeting glimpse of UNIT and a surreptitious mention of the Isop Galaxy were the few, whispered call outs to the show’s long heritage. New Who was like a teenager who has suddenly become cool, deliberately shunning any links to her previous dorky self. Don’t mention the old show, this reboot seemed to say. It’s not me at all.

School Reunion changed all that, with guest appearances from two figures which, at last, firmly linked the new series to the old. Showrunner Russell T Davies’ choice of returning characters is interesting. He could easily have gone with, say, the Brigadier or Susan Foreman or Ace, or indeed any of the surviving classic Doctors. But he went with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and K9 (voiced by John Leeson).

In doing so, he links his version of the program, not just to all of classic Who, but a particular part of it. Sarah Jane was a crucial part of the early Tom Baker years, and K9 an integral feature of the later Tom Baker seasons. Between them, they span a period of the program fondly remembered by many adult viewers. And for younger viewers, they provide an entry point for the classic series. School Reunion is signalling the new show’s intention to be as fondly remembered as the Tom Baker episodes while fondly remembering them itself.

****

Sarah’s bittersweet meeting with the Doctor (a nascent David Tennant) is the standout element of this episode, contrasting strongly with cartoony main plot of bat creatures, brain slaved children and the quest for an oblique universe altering equation (“The Skasis Paradigm!” says the Doctor, appalled. I hate those moments when we’re supposed to react to some invented sci fi term like it means something.) You can keep the school, I’ll take the reunion, thanks.

Sladen brings an emotional depth to her character, which she was only ever allowed to hint at in the old series, and explore only in the dying minutes of her tenure. Forget all that unedifying and frankly sexist rivalry with new, younger model Rose (Billie Piper). What makes this story is Sarah’s letting long held trauma burst through her cool demeanour.

It doesn’t take long. Only seconds after meeting the Doctor, it’s bubbling to the surface. “I thought you’d died,” she sobs. “I waited for you and you didn’t come back and I thought you must have died.” Later she calms down, but still her dialogue is punctuated with the raw pain of someone abandoned.

SARAH: Did I do something wrong, because you never came back for me. You just dumped me.

DOCTOR: I told you. I was called back home and in those days humans weren’t allowed.

SARAH: I waited for you. I missed you.

DOCTOR: Oh, you didn’t need me. You were getting on with your life.

SARAH: You were my life.

So among all this nostalgia for the old days of Doctor Who, there’s the longing for past days of youth and adventure. “I got old,” Sarah admits at one point, as if shamefully acknowledging a human shortcoming. K9 too is worn down and tarnished. These are companions left damaged and bereft by their time with the Doctor and the message isn’t lost on Rose. “This is really seeing the future,” she says.

****

School Reunion asks us to remember Old Who, but selectively. Remember The Hand of Fear, it says. And what about The Invisible Enemy, that was a corker wasn’t it? But don’t remember The Five Doctors, because that would spoil the story.

We have to ignore The Five Doctors because School Reunion gets its emotional kick from the idea that Sarah hasn’t seen the Doctor since he left her behind on that street in Aberdeen. We should be recalling the image of Sarah left alone on that road, white tassly jacket, suitcase and stuffed owl. We shouldn’t be recalling that she did meet the Doctor again – a whole lot of them actually – for his twentieth birthday party.

We also have to buy into the new idea that Sarah held a strong romantic affection for the Doctor, as strong as Rose’s.

ROSE: What do I do? Do I stay with him?

SARAH: Yes. Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.

As the Doctor says goodbye, she admits she’s never found someone to settle down with. “Well, there was this one guy,” she says wistfully. “I travelled with him for a while, but he was a tough act to follow.”

Mrs Spandrell gets confused by this moment. She says incredulously, “Are they saying she was in love with Pertwee?” And she has a point, not because it’s hard to believe anyone falling for the Pert or for Tom Baker for that matter, but because Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor was always platonic. In her time with Tom, which this story is specifically asking us to recall, their relationship was one of two knockabout mates seeing the universe together. Never once was their the sense of a deeper connection, certainly not of the boyfriend/girlfriend vibe that Tennant and Piper cultivated.

Remember some things, School Reunion says. Forget others. And completely reimagine some more. Which shouldn’t bother us too much really, as that’s what Doctor Who does all the time.

****

Sladen was evergreen, but time is doing School Reunion few favours. Unusually, the art direction lets the side down, with dodgy school crests blu tacked to walls and corridors randomly painted a lurid green. The guest performances are also a tad hammy and some of the CGI effects, such as the climactic explosion, fail to entirely convince. This doesn’t feel like the bold, mature sci-fi drama presented the previous year.

Instead, it all feels a bit juvenile; appropriate enough for an episode set in a high school. But I mean ‘juvenile’, in terms of its intended audience; this feels like children’s TV. Still, something about it worked enough for the potential of Sladen and The Sarah Jane Adventures to shine through. That’s this episode’s real legacy; not that it at last paid respect to the old series, but that it showed how to create something new and exciting out of its greatest hits.

LINK TO The Curse of the Black Spot: both feature prominent roles for young boy characters (Toby and Kenny)

NEXT TIME: Lush, aggressive vegetation. A plant, a xerophyte to be precise! It’s Meglos, last Zolpha Thuran!

Acting, Adapting and The Sontaran Experiment (1975)

sontaran ex

Yesterday, the Doctor Who Fan Police dragged me away to Stangmoor or Stormcage or somewhere when it became clear that I’d never actually finished reading Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment by Ian Marter. I’d made several attempts when I was a kid, but never actually got all the way through it. I have an excuse though; it was never the story I thought it was.

To be fair, the story I thought it was doesn’t exist. Roy Knipe’s cover art led me to think this was a tale of the Doctor landing on a planet and discovering a colossal statue of a Sontaran, towering above the landscape. Then each time I started it, I remembered that this was in fact an adaptation of The Sontaran Experiment, which thanks to ABC’s tendency to frequently repeat Tom Baker’s early seasons, was a story I’d seen many times.

This reminds me of the time a casual viewer of Doctor Who told me his favourite story was the one with the golden Cyberman. I told him there was no such story, and that given the Cybermen’s unfortunate allergy to gold, constructing such a Cyberman would be tricky to say the least. But still, this viewer was insistent; gold Cybermen, it happened and he loved it.

I let it go, though for some time afterwards I did wonder whether he had simply imagined the whole thing, or perhaps if his television had some colour imbalance. But then one day, I idly pick up a copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen, the Skilleter covered one, and the penny dropped. Another case of novelisation cover confusion.

Chris Achilleos’ covers were often to blame. No matter how many times I read Doctor Who and the Three Doctors, Omega never shot rays from his fingers to bore into the heads of the titular three Doctors. Varga, star of Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors never had the ability to generate sparkly energy with a wave of his clamp like hands. And, most disappointing of all, the Yeti of Doctor Who and the Web of Fear never did shoot beams from their eyes which entrapped helpless soldiers in halos of light. This last egregious misleading of young readers was so convincing that when Skilleter painted a new cover for the reprint, he also featured a beam emanating Yeti. These things catch on, obviously.

But back to Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment. Like all Marter’s novelisations, it’s a vivid, sometimes florid, read. Marter’s books were always genuine embellishments on the original stories. He always left the basic plot intact, but often played fast and loose with the dialogue. He would also include additional incidents throughout, which kept the pace moving but didn’t veer the story off course. In a way, it’s that misleading cover problem all over again for those who read the book first and watched the story second. Where Mr Marter, a reader-viewer might have asked, is the part where the Doctor hallucinates about the TARDIS being invaded by rats? Why does the hovering, tentacled robot become a static box on scissor lift legs?

The effect is a confusion about which version of a Doctor Who story is the authentic one. Let’s compare The Sontaran Experiment to the story which followed it, Genesis of the Daleks. The Dalek story was novelised by frequent adaptor Terrance Dicks, and his most common style was a straightforward retelling of the story, following the TV story as closely as possible. If you watched and read to Genesis of the Daleks (or even listened to it on LP), you essentially heard the same story multiple times. The story was reiterated; we know Genesis because it’s been drilled into us. Not so The Sontaran Experiment where we’ve heard two different versions of the story. There’s an air of mystery about it.

For another variation on this, we might look at novelisations which vary significantly from their TV originals, but unlike The Sontaran Experiment were written by the original screenwriters. Take for instance, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, Malcolm Hulke’s retelling of his own Colony in Space. In that instance, we might consider the embellished book version of the story to be the author’s preferred version, as he’s been freed from the strictures of TV production and can re-tell his tale unfettered. That feels different to Marter’s retelling of The Sontaran Experiment where changing the original can be seen as implicit criticism.

Marter was a unique voice in the Target range. If you saw his name come up on the release schedule you knew you were in for something special. He was not just an inventive adaptor of others’ work, he was an alternative to the sparse but efficient prose style of Terrance Dicks. He also developed a reputation for injecting a little more adult content into the range. His adaptation of The Enemy of the World included the word ‘bastard’ and his take on The Invasion is peppered with gory detail.

And in The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment we have the only examples of an actor who inhabited the fictional world writing the book version. In both books, he resists the urge to make them all about his character, solid upright type Harry Sullivan. Marter’s early death in 1987 prevented him from providing further novelisations, and maybe even entries into the New and Missing Adventures lines, which could have been the intermittent treats his Target contributions were.

Digging out my copy of the Target novel made me think about Marter, but it also gave me a chance to play on old game of “make fun of the back cover blurb”, which I’ve reproduced below.  (Look, give me a break, I don’t get out much.)

Landing on Earth, now a barren, desolate planet, Sarah, Harry and the Doctor are unaware of the large, watching robot. The robot is the work of Styre, a Sontaran warrior, who uses all humans landing here for his experimental programmes. (They go out late on Friday nights on BBC4)

What has happened to the other space explorers who have come here?  (Well, as you’ve just said, they’ve been subject to Styre’s experimental programmes.)

Why is the Sontaran scout so interested in Earth and in brutally torturing humans, including Sarah Jane? (Bloody good question. Ostensibly it’s to uncover the human race’s weaknesses so that they might be exploited when the Sontarans invade. But as the planet’s uninhabited, it seems a bit pointless.)

Will the Doctor be able to prevent an invasion and certain disaster, and save both Earth and his companions? (Spoiler alert: yes).

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘Linx!’ Sarah Jane exclaims on her first sight of Styre, mistaking him for the Sontaran she met in The Time Warrior. The subtitles get that first one right. But when she repeats it in Part Two, it turns to ‘Yikes!’ Ah, Commander Yikes, that lesser known Sontaran.

Also on the Part Two subtitles, Erak suddenly announces, “I’ve got cramps!”. That may well be true, but he’s scripted to say “It’s no use, Krans!”

LINK TO A Christmas Carol: the descendants of human colonists are the supporting cast in both.

NEXT TIME… We bung a rock at The Abominable Snowmen.

Rugrats, reactionaries and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974)

dinos2

I have a confession to make. I watch other Whos outside my random list. Well of course I do. You wouldn’t have me not watch new episodes like as they go to air, right? I might have missed the rampant continuity fest that was The Magician’s Apprentice, or as I like to think of it, Return to the Planet of the Genesis of the Daleks. Or The Daleks’ and Master’s PlansOh I mock, but pay me no heed. I squeed like the rest of you.

But it’s more than that. Because I have a little cuckoo in my nest. 3 year old Master Spandrell. Turns out he loves Doctor Who. Where did he get that from, I wonder? Mrs Spandrell says he heard the theme tune in utero and it’s had an inculcating effect. He never stood a chance.

Problem is, how do you choose a Doctor Who story for a toddler? Sure it’s a family show, but it’s not really designed for the Peppa Pig audience. You don’t want to show him something which is going to traumatise him for life. I’m sure I read that in the parenting manual.

So my random Who watching gets interrupted by Master Spandrell’s curated Who watching. He started watching Who videos on YouTube, with a particular taste for endless loops of the various title sequences (on one hand very annoying, on the other… 15 blissful minutes of quiet toddler). Soon, he stepped things up and picked up a copy of The Ark in Space DVD (the original-and-thus-not-that-special edition, for those playing along at home) and demanded it be displayed for his viewing pleasure.

Now you may think that’s a poor choice for someone specifically aiming to not traumatise their child. But here’s the thing; The Ark in Space is just fine for him. The monster moments are rare and too low budget to bother him. And least that’s how it seems to me right now. If he turns into a malignant parasitic creature seeking to usurp the human race, this post will serve as evidence of where it all started to go wrong.

But what else to let him watch? Despite classic Who‘s low rent production values, I still think most of it is too scary for him. But I was thinking too about his other obsession, dinosaurs. And surely there’s no greater intersection between these two things than Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Well, there’s also Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which he likes too. But not like he likes Invasion of the Dinosaurs. He’s loves loves loves it, rubber dinosaurs and all. ‘Raaaa!’, he calls out when that first Tyrannosaurus bursts out of that model building. ‘Sarah!’, he cries when this particular magician’s apprentice gets bumped on the head by a falling four-by-two. ‘Doctor on holiday!, he cries when he throws his Jon Pertwee micro figure over the fence… But I digress.

So we have watched it, I don’t know, about 50 times in recent months. Man, I have been waiting for this one to pop up for freaking ages. ‘Cause I know this fecker intimately.

****

Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a classic story which pulls off a new series trick; the Doctor has been away from Earth for a while and taken his eye off the ball. In the meantime, things have gone to all sorts of shit. Well four things, and some lizards. It’s a good structure because it means you get to skip all the set up stuff and get straight to the main game. Although this is slightly undermined if your main game consists of six talky episodes.

The story’s length is not its strength. The first episode is a masterclass is stalling until we get to a point where a dinosaur can burst out of a building (the Brigadier’s – ever stoic Nicholas Courtney – dialogue gets increasingly convoluted as he tries to find new ways of avoiding saying ‘dinosaurs’). The fifth episode is one long chase scene. It’s a story which can’t be bothered hiding its padding.

And the plot repeats itself. Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen, enjoying the lion’s share of the investigating and deducing here) is twice fooled into trusting one of the story’s many conspirators (nearly everyone we meet is in on the game), and both times she realises it when trapped in a lift disguised as a cupboard. She’s twice imprisoned in the bad guys’ fake spacecraft. The Doctor (the Pert, bouffant in full sail) locates the enemy’s base only to be maneuvered out of it and sent back to UNIT. It all feels a bit sedate.

Which is odd because this is a story with an embarrassment of cracking premises. Dinosaurs amok in modern London. People tricked into manning a fake spaceship. A plot to roll back time. A traitor in the UNIT family. There’s enough here for half a series. Not to mention that the whole thing’s almost a rebuttal of the previous year’s The Green Death where the Doctor sided with a group of environmental activists. Here, they’re part of the problem not the solution.

The DVD documentary about this story is presented by the very brainy Matthew Sweet, who argues that there’s much more to this story than its terrible lizards. He points out that script writer Malcolm Hulke’s shot at the environmental movement is a bit odd, because it’s a cause normally with the left side of politics and Hulke was a confirmed communist. Script editor Terrance Dicks is on hand to point out that extreme leftist villains are creepier than those on the extreme right because they justify their actions by saying “it’s for your own good.”

But this is not, I think, an example of Hulke taking aim at his leftist compadres. If we have learned anything from the two previous random Hulkes (the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters and the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters, neither of which is The Silurians) we can see that the one thing he really hated was authority. Bureaucrats, soldiers and colonial mandarins are stupid, corrupt or both.

The gang of no good do gooders in Invasion are all of this ilk, with a mad professor (of which university?) thrown into the bargain. It’s not that Hulke is saying the left is as bad as the right. He’s saying don’t let the establishment co-opt your leftist ideals. You watch what they’ll do to them! They’ll find a way to screw it up! The ideals of The Green Death live on. Just don’t let anyone wearing a tie anywhere near them.

*****

Master Spandrell of course cares nothing about any of this. He wants you to skip over the scenes of dull people talking. And sadly, he can’t abide Matthew Sweet. But he loves the bit where the Pert drives a jeep under a dinosaur’s legs. And the bit where a brontosaurus and a tyrannosaurus go at each other. What’s that you say? The dinosaurs look terrible? He hasn’t noticed. Just as he hasn’t noticed that Noah’s hand in The Ark in Space is made of bubble wrap. How brilliant to be able to watch classic Who as carefree as that.

LINK to State of Decay. Script Editor/writer Terrance Dicks worked on both.

NEXT TIME… We go up the Orinoco in search of the Black Orchid. Top hole!