Tag Archives: Sarah Jane

Sisterhood, sexiness and The Hand of Fear (1976)

handof

It’s no original observation to point out the irony that the last few minutes of The Hand of Fear are its best.  In this afterthought to a story of ancient revenge by an exiled stone alien, we say goodbye to longstanding companion Sarah Jane Smith. Played as ever with smarts and spunk by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah is farewelled in touching but unsentimental form when Tom Baker’s Doctor drops her off to go off on a solo adventure. It’s a devastating end to one of the show’s most effective partnerships.

It’s also complete nonsense.

To get why, we need to reflect on the sort of character Sarah is. She was designed to be a part-time companion. She’s the companion who has a life outside the TARDIS. She has a job. She stays on Earth between trips. This mode of travel does two things. It makes her seem more independent of the Doctor. And although it might give the impression that she’s not that interested in travelling with him full-time, instead it does the opposite: it constantly reaffirms how much she loves travelling with him because she makes the choice to be with him over and over again.

After her first, inadvertent TARDIS trip, she finds herself back in London and is ready to go home to check that it hasn’t been stepped on by a brontosaurus when the Doctor coaxes her into another journey – this time to an improbable sounding holiday planet. This becomes a recurring trait; when given the chance to go home, time and again she chooses to jump in that big blue box and run away a bit longer.

It happens in Robot, when she accepts by snatching a jelly baby from the Doctor’s stash. It happens in Terror of the Zygons, when she’s convinced to jump on board while everyone else around her says no. It happens in The Android Invasion, where she barely puts up a protest. And in The Seeds of Doom, she’s not even travelling with the Doctor, but agrees to run off with him twice, once to Antarctica and then to another improbable sounding holiday planet.

So in The Hand of Fear, when the Doctor says he needs to go to Gallifrey by himself, the immediate reaction is… so what? Sarah will go back to her real life for a while. He can just come back and get her at story’s end. He has done that many times before. But for some reason, this time’s the last. No adequate explanation given. It’s a bit like The Husbands of River Song. The Doctor makes the decision to end their time together. Sarah gets no say in it.

It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly performed. (My favourite beat: when the TARDIS lands and Sarah says, “that’s my home.” Sladen manages to wring about 17 different meanings out of just three syllables.) But it goes against everything that Sarah is and does. She’s the Doctor’s best friend. She’s her own woman. Give her her own space and she’ll say yes every time. There’s absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t keep doing so.

And least in the fictional world. Behind the scenes, it was time to raunch things up a bit.

****

The other great irony about The Hand of Fear is that it improves no end when the hand is finally attached to a body. The body in question is the lithe feminine form of Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris. Squeezed into a blue bodysuit carefully adorned with fake stones, she’s a scene stealer. A formidable enemy and, despite being covered in blue paint and plastic tiles, an instantly sexy one.

She’s a complete contrast to Sarah, who, dressed in her red and white striped overalls is a far more platonic figure. And as the Doctor is more and more taken with Eldrad, Sarah is noticeably jealous.

Of the two of our heroes, Sarah is far more suspicious of Eldrad’s motives than the Doctor, who is much more open to helping Eldrad return to her home planet. But Sarah thinks she’s up to no good, and apart from that, she’s the first woman she’s ever had to compete with for the Doctor’s attention (women being few and far between in Hinchliffean Who).

Sarah always had a sisterly relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor, but standing in Eldrad’s stony blue shadow, she looks positively chaste. And in a number of other ways, Sarah’s childlike innocence (emphasized by that outfit and her stuffed toy) is deliberately positioned as “not sexy” next to Eldrad. In a few episodes time, Sarah’s replacement will be revealed (ahem) as Leela, a leggy amazon in a leather swimsuit. After her it’ll be Romana, an evening gown wearing ice maiden. Questionable in terms of gender politics, but undeniable attempts to sex up the show.

Still, Sarah gets her own back. Although the Doctor might get all doe-eyed about sexy blue Eldrad, she eventually turns into the bulkier, shoutier, more magnificently mustached form of Eldrad the Bloke (Stephen Thorne). That soon puts an end to the ol’ Tooth and Curls’ campaign of flirting and offering rides home.

Then it’s revealed that when Eldrad was being resurrected, he based his female form on Sarah’s bodyprint. See, she really is sexy! I bet under those overalls there’s a red and white striped bedazzled bodysuit ready to rock and roll.

*****

If Sarah’s last story spends a lot of time pointing out what she’s not, and then gives her a farewell which ignores who she is, it’s partly Elisabeth Sladen’s fault. It was she who asked the production crew to avoid making her final story about Sarah. “Just make it an ordinary Doctor Who story and have me leave at the end,” she advised. True to her request, they made a very ordinary Doctor Who story and had her leave at the end.

But this typically modest request by Sladen grossly underestimated her own importance to the show and her impact on it. Frankly, they were wrong to agree to her request. A story which focused on and celebrated everything about Sarah was the very least Sladen deserved.

LINK TO Hell Bent: Gender changing.

NEXT TIME… One small step for a thing. We’re off to Kill the Moon.

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Courage, choices and Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

genesis daleks

“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened,” the Doctor once said, back when he looked like Jon Pertwee. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” It’s the expression of a theme which writer Terry Nation often explored: people under pressure, finding the courage to make choices which challenge them to the core, but which they know are the right thing to do.

When asked to revisit the origins of the Daleks, Nation came up with this titan of a story, a mythic struggle where the Doctor (now looking like Tom Baker), fights to prevent his deadliest enemies from ever being born. But amongst all the bombs and bombast, he included a courageous choice at the story’s heart.

After five hard-fought episodes and with victory only the touch of two detonator wires away, our hero suddenly questions the moral basis for his actions. He asks himself, in a now famous speech, whether by destroying the Daleks he becomes no better than them. He has in his hands the power to save countless future victims, but when he finally has the means to destroy these heinous creatures, he asks himself, “do I have the right?

It’s the payoff to a choice made back in Part One, when an enigmatic Time Lord (John Franklyn-Robbins) asked the Doctor to go on this deadly mission in the first place. The Doctor wasn’t forced to say yes; he agreed to go. Sure, the Time Lord correctly anticipates his agreement and transports him to Skaro as a fait accompli, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor makes a choice to attempt genocide. There’s something of the special contempt the Doctor reserves for the Daleks in this decision. It’s difficult to imagine him agreeing to wipe out any of the other species he’s encountered. But whether it was a choice clouded by hatred or made in haste or made without full appreciation of its implications, the “do I have the right?” moment tells us it was wrong.

Genesis of the Daleks repeatedly shows us people making difficult moral choices. Often this is presented as the choice to rebel against the fascist regime in the bunker. Members of the scientific elite like Ronson (James Garbutt), Kavell (Tom Georgeson) and Gharman (Dennis Chinnery) carefully reveal their allegiances in urgent, conspiratorial whispers, in the style of so many WW2 films where people plot against the Nazis from within. They find the courage to resist, even though their lives are in immediate danger.

The choices they make are made on moral grounds – they abhor the lack of conscience in the Daleks – but they also present a direct challenge to the viewer. Would we, under similar circumstances, have the courage to speak up? Their choices are made even more striking by the moment when Nyder (Peter Miles) mimics their concerns in order to trap Gharman. His famous fake out (“Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!”) shows us how dangerous speaking up is, but it’s also an example of Nyder’s unflinching devotion to Davros. In the whole story, Nyder’s the only character whose moral stance, twisted though it is, remains unquestioned.

Outside of the bunker, others make choices which set them at odds with those around them. Sevrin (Stephen Yardley) for instance, chooses to save Sarah, when the rest of his Muto mates want her killed. Thal soldier Bettan (Harriet Philpin) has to make the choice about closing the bunker’s doors and potentially trapping the Doctor inside. And throughout, the Doctor finds himself trying to convince people to change their behaviour on moral grounds: appealing to Mogran (Ivor Roberts) to stop work in the bunker, appealing to the Thals to abandon their rocket launch and, most critically, appealing to Davros (Michael Wisher) to stop the entire Dalek project.

Davros too, is confronted with choices to make on moral grounds, which he mostly rejects. He does so because his worldview is antithetical to the Doctor’s. He sees the Daleks as a force for good, not evil. He sees democracy as a utopian delusion and totalitarianism as the only way of achieving peace.

In another moment for the clip reels, the Doctor proposes a hypothetical moral choice to Davros: would he use a biological weapon to kill everyone? Davros, seduced by the idea, says emphatically, yes. But he’s not above using the same moral challenges to point out the hypocrisy of others. Later, he uses a similar trick on Kaled opponent Kravos (Andrew Johns): “I saved your life once,” he icily points out to the young man. “In your chest is a tiny instrument which I designed. It keeps your heart beating. Will you now turn that heart against me?” He neglects to mention that he would, and later does, kill Kravos without a second thought.

It’s a clear indication that moral choices work only in relation to your own moral framework. And Davros’ moral framework is particularly perverted. It’s oddly underplayed in the story itself, but when confronted with a threat from the Kaled government to investigate his work, Davros retaliates by helping the Thals use their rocket to kill everyone in the Kaled city. Then, he sends the Daleks to kill all the Thals. It’s Doctor Who’s greatest act of ruthlessness: a double genocide. And in Davros’s twisted philosophy, these are moral choices worth making to ensure the survival of his Dalek children. Again, it’s not mentioned specifically, but this act of mass murder must surely be on the Doctor’s mind when he’s hesitating to connect those two explosive wires.

Davros only sees the error of his ways in the story’s final minutes, when he realises his Daleks have started managing their own affairs. With his life in danger, he suddenly switches tack and makes a moral choice to destroy the Daleks… but his wizened hand never lands on that big friendly “total destruct” button. Finally Davros has joined the legion of characters in this story having the courage to do what’s right, although it’s far too late.

My point is that we rightly praise the Doctor’s “do I have the right?” speech in Genesis of the Daleks (even though it’s effectively neutralised about 15 minutes later, when he decides to go back and have another go). But in fact, the whole story is a series of events in which characters have their convictions challenged, find the courage to act despite their fear and make choices based on what they see is right. Perhaps difficult choices are simply the building blocks of all drama. Perhaps all Doctor Who stories contain them to a greater or lesser extent. But Genesis is infused with them.

But to return to “do I have the right?”, it underlines what Nation had the Doctor say back on Spiridon about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. A future with the Daleks frightens the Doctor – initially enough to want to kill them. Instead, he has the courage to do what he has to do anyway, and let them live.

LINK TO Planet of Evil: same Doctor, companion and production team. Links abound!

NEXT TIME… we’re taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight. What could possibly go wrong?

Scribbles, shibboleths and Planet of Evil

Oakleigh Primary. A pretty little school, part of a leafy outer Melbourne suburb. Diverse community, mix of modern and historic classrooms. A warm, welcoming place.

At least, that’s how it looks from the website. I’ve never actually been there. I would never have come across it all, except that it’s the place where my copy of Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil came from. Published 1977, hardback, first edition. A thing of beauty, with a big ugly wolfman on the cover.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read Doctor Who books (the first: Doctor Who and the Zarbi, paperback, umpteenth reprint. Spoilt by my sister writing a bogus dedication from Bill Strutton on the title page. I was livid). Though just as important as reading them, was collecting them. I wanted the full set of tidy little paperbacks with spines all the colours of the rainbow, and white.

The quest had begun. For years I scoured bookshops and department stores and garage sales and my world in general for those vivid little tomes. The ones I couldn’t find, I’d borrow in small piles from my local library. But its collection consisted of exotic hardback editions. It was extensive too – although it lacked a Planet of Evil, it did have a rare Frederick Mueller edition of The Zarbi, which, to my life long regret, I didn’t steal.

Amazing, mysterious things, those hardbacks. Where did the library get them? They were never in the newsagents and quaint little book exchanges I got chased out of. I sullenly settled for buying paperbacks, but in truth, I was addicted to the hard (cover) stuff.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was concentrating on girls and beer but also celebrating my complete collection of Doctor Who paperbacks (I know, right? What a catch). The quest was completed, but I faced a new problem. I had nothing more to collect. I had to make do with new adventures and missing adventures and what have you. But it wasn’t the same. 

I couldn’t kick the habit. I kept combing second hand bookstores searching for spines with little Target logos atop. I bought copies of books I already had, but with different covers. Hell, I bought copies of books I already had with the same covers just because I couldn’t leave them behind. At one stage, I had three identical copies of The Zarbi. Plus my original copy, by that stage in tatters, Fake Bill Strutton’s message angrily ripped out.

Every so often, I’d find a lonely hardback on those shelves and I’d snatch it up, greedily. They were rare treats, often “ex-library”, a term sneered at by serious collectors. These were well worn books, often a bit battered. Often covered in clear plastic, lending slips still glued to the back, stamps and stains throughout. I didn’t care, I loved them all. As my collection grew, I wondered how hard it would be to collect all the hardback editions… and lo, the quest began again!

This time though, the task was much harder. My paperbacks search, back in the day, had been for cheap, mass market products. The hardbacks had much smaller print runs and were often distributed only to libraries. I was now searching for collector’s pieces via eBay and Abebooks and other obscure corners of the web. And the copies I found were old, imperfect and often pricey. Whether to drop $100 on a roughed up old copy of, say, The Power of Kroll, became a familiar dilemma.

It took me years. It cost me stupid money. But over time, I got them all. (Well, all except those Frederick Mueller editions of The Daleks, The Crusaders and my old friend, The Zarbi. Even I couldn’t come at those eye watering prices.) And although I found plenty of handsome, well kept copies of later books (harvested from collections of fans whose love had grown cold), the ex-library ones are my favourites.

Because shabby and dogeared though they are, these books have histories. People have read them, loved them, taken them home, carried them in school bags, spilled tea on them, lost them down the back of the couch. They’ve been held in the hands of fans, pored over again and again. These stories have stories. Who, for instance, at Oakleigh Primary School read, loved and coveted this copy of Planet of Evil. Who crossed off the other books they’d read on that list at the front? Was it even you, reading this post right now?

Or did you once clutch some other book in my collection? Perhaps you are Kevin C Wood from Lincolnshire, who wrote his name so carefully in my copy ofAn Unearthly Child. Hello Kevin! Lovely handwriting. Did you get in trouble for defacing a library book?

Or perhaps you’re Kathleen Robinson, formerly of East York public library. Kathleen, I need to know: did you really borrow Planet of the Daleks8 times? Or were you just practicing your signature on that library slip, in preparation for opening your first bank account, or in case you married that dreamy Robinson boy from down the road?

Or maybe you’re the mysterious frequenter of Leeds library who studiously wrote the numeric ranking of each Doctor on the frontispiece of each book, a shibboleth to other fans. “First,” you printed seriously in biro on The Keys of Marinus. “Fourth,” in Meglos.

If you went to Mapleridge Senior Public School, Ontario, I have your copy ofPyramids of Mars. No, you can’t have it back. If you frequented Transvaal Public Library, you might have thumbed my copy of The Ultimate Foe. My copy of The Romans comes from Hong Kong, The Five Doctorsfrom Manitoba, The Rescuefrom sunny Toowoomba. From all around the world, they’ve flown to me in Sydney, Australia.

I love that so many people have held these books. I love the marks and scribbles they left behind. And every now and then, there’s something special. “To Margaret,” a dedication reads on the front page of The Deadly Assassin. “Happy times. Tom Baker.” Oh, Margaret. How could you ever give something so glorious away?

The quest is over now. I buy the occasional new series book, but they don’t have the same appeal. I read, but don’t collect.

Except for last year, when three smart new additions hit my shelves. Replicas of those first three books, the ultra rare Frederick Mueller ones, completing my collection at last. Wonderful – even if they don’t have library stamps, tears, coffee cup rings, enigmatic written messages and all the rest. I’ll just imagine they come from Yorkshire public library.

And, of course, one of those books is another copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Well, you can never have too many.

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

LINK TO Frontios: both stories set on the edge of the universe

NEXT TIME… It’s Genesis of the Daleks. Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!

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.

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.