Tag Archives: season 10

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Hues, Heroes and Planet of the Daleks (1973)

planet daleks

Planet of the Daleks bursts on to your screen in a barrage of green, purple and sandy yellow. This is a story set on a jungle planet, so the green is given. The purple comes from the Doctor (the Pert at the height of his powers) dressed head to toe a kind of grape Austin Powers outfit, and from the native Spiridons, who wear bolts of purple fake fur around their otherwise invisible frames. That sandy yellow is from a squadron of Thals; the colour of their hair and of their bulky Michelin man style spacesuits. It’s a garish combination.

The overall effect is that each episode is a televisual assault on the eyes. Luckily the gun metal grey Daleks provide some chromatic relief, at least until their big badass gold and black Supreme turns up. He’s an escapee from the 1960s Dalek movies. Can you imagine if the production team had taken more of his multicoloured ilk? All the colours of a Skarosian rainbow.

So it’s a colourful story, but also a cramped one. I don’t know if the studios were particularly small or the sets particularly bulky or that the necessity for the Daleks to have thoroughfares of clear floor meant that no one had much room to move. But so much of the action takes place very close to the cameras, with the jungle being a sort of impenetrable border leaving not much space for the actors to work in. It reaches a peak in a scene in Episode Five where Thals Taron (Bernard Horsfall) and Codal (Tim Preece) mug a Spiridon for his fetching purple furs. It’s shot so close that it looks ridiculous. Actors struggling to swing clubs, manoeuver those shag pile furs and ski jacket spacesuits and stay in shot. The things you do for your art.

All this makes Planet of the Daleks a difficult story to look at. But as an adventure story, it lays on action in spades. Writer Terry Nation, returning to the series after eight years, doesn’t let the pace falter; it’s incident after incident. An attack, then a rescue, then a plan, then a stunt, then a dispute… You get the idea. It’s not always particularly interesting incident, but Nation’s skill was always in the broad brush strokes of plotting, not the close detail of dialogue and character. That’s not to damn him with faint praise. Shrewd plotting which gives a story momentum is incredibly hard and Nation makes it look easy.

It’s often said that this is a retread of Nation’s very first Dalek story. But the similarities are actually pretty superficial. There’s a Dalek city for example, and a Thal-led expedition to infiltrate it. And a few set pieces are the same, such as the use of a Dalek casing as a disguise. Otherwise quite distinctly different things happen in them.

And their key messages are different. The initial Dalek story said that there is a point where even peace loving people have to stand up to an aggressor (an allegory, it seems, for Britain’s decision to join WW2). Planet of the Daleks seems simply to say, war is hell. The Doctor’s advice to Taron at the story’s end, to be careful not to glamourise war, may well be cloyingly moralistic, but it shows a significant shift in Nation’s position. Influenced, perhaps, by nightly TV news images of jungle warfare in Vietnam.

If Planet of the Daleks is a reheating of old Nation classics, I think it’s of his favourite elements of the last Who story he wrote, The Daleks’ Master Plan. That also had humanoid heroes on a secret mission to a jungle planet, a planet where the hostile vegetable life acted more like animal life, a Dalek stronghold, invisible aliens and a plan on a grand scale. But unlike that story, in which the Doctor was front and centre, here he shares the focus with the blond wigged Thals, and specifically their tall rugged front man, Taron.

Taron is more than your average guest character, he’s a genuine challenge to the Doctor’s status as leading man. He gets as much screen time as the Doctor, and he holds many scenes exploring plot points which directly impact his character, but not the story, like his reproaching of Rebec for turning up and turning his head, and the ongoing power struggle with second in command Vaber (an twitchy Prentice Hancock). When the action reaches the Plain of Stones, Taron takes charge when mutinous Vaber goes to blow up some Daleks (he helpfully leaves a note stating his intention):

TARON: Codal, will you come with me? Doctor, would you stay here?

DOCTOR: If that’s what you want.

“If that’s what you want”? That’s not the gung-ho Pert we’ve grown to know and (mostly) love. It’s odd to see the program try to balance two action hero leads. But it’s no contest really: Taron’s the military hero, the Doctor’s his scientific adviser and defers to Taron’s authority. The Doctor comes up with all the ingenious schemes, Taron’s the muscle. It is as if Nation is still writing for Hartnell’s Doctor, who was always accompanied by a young male companion to do the athletic stuff.

So it’s a story written like it’s still the sixties but filmed in all the vibrant hues of the seventies. But if that doesn’t float your boat, it also has Jo Grant hanging out with an invisible alien. This is Wester, the friendly Spiridon with a name like an accountant. How does she keep track of him? Well luckily he’s in the habit of carrying around random objects. A bowl. A stick. And so on.

That’s not when he’s wearing his purple yak outfit. Then he just looks like any other Spiridon. But there must be something distinctive about the way that fur clings to his frame, because when the Doctor sees him from across a Dalek filled room in Episode Five, he spots him immediately. “That’s Wester!”, he exclaims. Ha! (Or should I say ‘Hai!’). Recognise an invisible alien just by the way a day-glo rug hangs off him? Like to see you try that, Taron.

LINKS to The Time Monster. Well, they’re both six part Pertwee stories featuring a returning villain. Seeming a bit less random isn’t it? Still, after 12 Pertwee episodes in a row, I’m looking forward to something different.

NEXT TIME… Good grief! It’s Day of the Daleks.

Prison cells, masks and Frontier in Space (1973)

frontier

There’s an embarrassment of riches when choosing topics about Frontier in Space, but let’s start here: prison cells. They’re a common enough feature of Doctor Who and they provide handy settings for narrative functions such as plot exposition and character development. They also mean either exciting escape attempts or bust outs are just around the corner. They can pad out an under running script. And best of all, they’re cheap.

Frontier must win some prize as the story with the most scenes set in prison cells. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee, deep in his tenure in the role, cloak flapping, white hair radiating like a halo) and plucky assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) spend most of the first four episodes going from cell to cell. The Doctor even takes a trip to the moon to visit one. Episode Five is surprisingly incarceration free. But a few minutes into Episode Six, the Master (Roger Delgado) purrs, ‘Show Miss Grant to her room’, which is of course, another cell. Phew! I felt dangerously liberated there for a moment.

Delgado is making his last appearance in the program, and he’s on form here, all charming and inveigling. The scene where he convinces the lunar prison’s governor to hand over the Doctor is a particular delight; in it, the Master starts by seemingly flattering the Governor but slyly moves the conversation to show that he’s deduced that the Governor’s up to no good and is prepared to blackmail him. Delgado pitches this scene just right, silky and debonair, but always in control.

But actually, he’s not always like that. In fact, this is Delgado’s fruitiest performance in the role, a long way from the understated menace we normally attribute to him. It’s 80’s Master Anthony Ainley who’s usually accused of chewing the scenery, but here Delgado gives him a run for his money; there’s hardly a line he doesn’t milk for its full theatrical effect. It seems to me that this is a reaction to the general flamboyance on display around him. Big costumes, big design and of course, the big Doctor.

The Master is always, in no small part, a reaction to the Doctor and Pertwee’s Doctor is overtly attention seeking. He doesn’t so much enter a scene as land in it, big, bold and bouffant, ready for confrontation. How else to play his nemesis, but to match him for bravura? The result is that Delgado’s performance seems subtle in comparison, but is actually painted in the broadest of brushstrokes.

Finally, let’s talk masks. The Draconians’ half masks (designed by John Friedlander) which allow the actors more facial expression than your normal monstery types is rightly famous among Whoheads. But while the design and the freedom it allows is new (unless we count the Menoptera? And hang on, maybe the Ogrons too? They make a return grunty appearance here) the Draconians themselves are equally innovative. They’re aliens who aren’t villians, and it’s surprising that up to this point that’s rare in Doctor Who.

But back to those masks, which are a gift to writer Malcolm Hulke, famous for creative morally ambiguous characters both with and without scales. Because it’s pretty hard to give a nuanced performance when no one can see your face, and Frontier requires its reptilian protagonists to be more than just (to borrow Gary Gillatt’s phrase) squabbling rubber.

Hulke came across this problem in his first solo Who, The Silurians, where the “monsters” of the piece (reptiles again. Someone had a phobia), wore full head masks, completely obscuring the actors’ faces. There was an old, sympathetic Silurian and a young, headstrong one, and any debate between them relied strongly on body language (the yound one had an angry head bobble, if I remember rightly, the old one an elderly stoop) and voice acting to portray any difference between the two.

It’s a problem the Draconians avoid.  In Episode Two there’s a scene, where the Draconians retreat to their embassy after a contretemps with the Earthmen (although one is a woman) and two of them have a highly coded discussion about what next steps to take. It’s startling for Doctor Who; usually when aliens have scenes all to their own, they use them to discuss their nefarious plans and spit threats to camera. But here, something much more subtle is going on: “I must not detain you,” the Draconian Prince (Peter Birrell) hisses towards the end of the scene at an underling. “No doubt you have duties to attend to”. What he’s really saying is “go and rescue the Doctor and Jo” (they’re in a prison cell, natch), but his meaning is clear, helped in no small part because we can see his face.

So those Draconians are game changers and Doctor Who‘s producers realised they were onto a good thing. From here on in designs which merged face and mask became more common and gave us some really memorable grotesques: the Sontarans, the Zygons, Davros. And it’s something the new series is still doing today; look at those 21st Century Silurians, where make up has supplanted the mask because we need to see the actor’s face. No need for an exaggerated head bobble now, so thanks Frontier in Space.

LINKS to The Curse of Fenric: The Russians, seen literally in Fenric, are present as Draconians here, albeit ones dressed in the trappings of Japanese Samurai.

NEXT TIME: Blimey, get a girlfriend Jeff! It’s The Eleventh Hour.