Tag Archives: season 10

The highs, the lows and The Lie of the Land (2017)

lie of the land

Sometimes, we get the best and worst of Doctor Who in one single episode. So come on down The Lie of the Land, which for me shows both those things in short order. It’s a tale of two scenes.

Let’s get the first and worst out of the way. It’s the most infamous scene in the story, and perhaps, in time, will become the most infamous in the whole of the new series. It’s the one where the Doctor (waspish Peter Capaldi) goads his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) into shooting him, for no good reason.

The story goes that in a world subjugated by alien Monks, the Doctor has gone over to their side, issuing regular video sermons like it’s 1984. Bill is convinced he’s faking it and concocts a plan with fellow companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) to rescue the Doctor from the prison ship on which he’s being held.

(It’s easy to see why Bill jumps to that conclusion. Faking being bad is a standard Doctory ploy. And it’s not just that scenario which feels familiar. The whole episode, focussing as it does on what happens when the invaders have won and established a totalitarian regime, feels like a retread of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, complete with scenes of people being dragged from their family homes and towering statues of the dictators in question.)

Once Bill and Nardole arrive on the ship, they find their way to the Doctor’s office, but it appears they have made a critical miscalculation. The Doctor hasn’t been faking it. He really has given up and capitulated to the Monks. He berates Bill for causing the situation by asking the Monks for his sight back. He threatens to hand her over to the guards. For Bill, who has spent months fighting against the Monks’ mind control and struggling to hold on to what’s real, this is too much. Distraught, she snatches a gun and shoots the Doctor three times in the chest.

Which is when the Doctor fakes a regeneration, reveals the bullets were blanks and reverses his fake out. He was fooling her all the time. He’s not in league with the Monks. Nardole and everyone else in the room was in on it. He played out this macabre charade, because “I had to just check that you weren’t under the influence and testing me.” The end result is Bill humiliated in a room full of people, after her friend psychologically tortured her to the point where she attempted to murder him. For the sake of a cheap trick.

The Doctor faking that he’s gone bad is everywhere from The Invasion of Time to Mindwarp. And the Doctor breaking down his companions’ faith in him is equally common from The Curse of Fenric to The God Complex. But never before has the Doctor coerced one of his friends into murder. Sure, it’s an exercise in “how far can we take this?”, complete with an ersatz regeneration. But it’s not important to the plot, it’s instantly forgotten and it’s unnecessarily cruel. Bill never gets to redress this emotional abuse and humiliation. It’s the most poorly judged moment since the show’s return; the equivalent of the strangling in The Twin Dilemma. May we never see its like again.

But then – the second of these two remarkable scenes.

The Doctor and Bill realise they need some intel to help them beat the Monks so they decide to open the Vault and consult Missy (Michelle Gomez). There isn’t a Doctor Who story around which wouldn’t be enlivened by a scene with Missy and this one is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, in which serial killer Hannibal Lecter is consulted by young detective Clarice Starling on how to catch another murderer. Like Lecter, Missy issues her advice from within a cell. She taunts and flirts with our heroes. She is, despite being caged, in complete control of the scene. One minute she’s a school mistress, circling her enclosure, correcting the Doctor’s faulty reasoning. The next she’s a vamp, rolling around on the top of a grand piano.

The Doctor and Bill have come asking for Missy’s help and she knows it. She starts with bragging that she could easily escape if she wanted to and then starts the horse trading. She wants a 3D printer and a pony apparently, but that’s a transparent lie. She already has what she wants. That’s the Doctor’s attention.

Better than that, the Doctor is going to be in debt to her and she can use that to her advantage. She’s correctly anticipated the situation and she knows that to defeat the Monks. Bill has to die. “Awk-ward,” Missy sing songs when she breaks this news to Bill, her steely eyes revealing that she knew this was where they were heading all along.

And it ends beautifully, with Missy pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue, and that the answers he seeks aren’t always easy.

MISSY: I’m sorry your plus one doesn’t get a happy ending, but, like it or not, I just saved this world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant and sentimental.

And after watching the scene where the Doctor indulged in mental torture of his best friend, who could argue with the vain and arrogant part?

It’s a delicious, elegant scene. But it seems to me there’s so much untapped dramatic potential here. Imagine a better version of that first scene where Missy taunts Bill into defeating the Monks by shooting the Doctor. Or if the Doctor had indeed teamed up with Monk and Bill and Nardole had to release Missy to defeat him. Where might we ended up under these or any number of other scenarios? Not, I hope with an ending where the all powerful alien conquerors are defeated by a memory of Bill’s mum. Not since Azal was confused to death by Jo has a badass been defeated more bewilderingly.

I realise I’ve been a little more judgemental of this story than I am usually am in these posts. But as you might have guessed from my thoughts on Extremis, I find the Monk trilogy unusually frustrating. Clearly trying to do something new, but so clearly mired in what’s been done before. And in The Lie of the Land’s case, being muddled in tone and plot alike.

But then I remember that showrunner Steven Moffat was distracted at this time of script editing this by the death of his mother. Apparently, he was struggling to complete this episode as she passed away. That’s unspeakably sad and it goes some way to explaining the unevenness of this adventure. If there’s ever been an episode where we need to cut the Moff some slack, it’s surely this one.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that The Lie of the Land is one moment clumsy and morally dubious, the next smart and stylish. I keep coming back to The Twin Dilemma. Like that infamous story, it leaves us with the queasy feeling that the companion is not safe in the Doctor’s presence, because at any moment she might find herself on the wrong end of his changeable morality. And that we as viewers aren’t in safe hands, in an episode which swings between such extremes of quality. With the good and the bad in such quick succession, it makes for an uneasy rollercoaster ride of a story.

LINK TO Carnival of Monsters: both feature Cybermen cameos.

NEXT TIME… Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team? Gang? fam? We end the year with the new Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

 

Advertisements

Television, disruption and Carnival of Monsters (1973)

carnival

“You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” asked the Doctor, back in 100,000BC. (Not “invented,” but “discovered”. Such an odd choice of verb. Like an exotic island he came across on a map.) He’s trying to explain to his new human companions why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and he equates television with putting “an enormous building into one of your smaller sitting rooms”.

It’s a strange analogy. It seems to indicate that the writer doesn’t quite have a grasp on how television works – as if it still seems like magic to him. Like the TARDIS, a TV is a box in which impossibly large spaces – whole worlds, in fact – are contained. Walking into the TARDIS, the Doctor is saying, is a bit like if you could walk into your television set.

From the same magic box in the space year of 1973, comes Carnival of Monsters, a joyous, colourful splash of fun in the usually po-faced Pertwee era. It’s the story of when a planet “discovers” television and everything goes to hell in a dimensionally transcendental handbasket.

Television arrives on the dry and dusty planet of Inter Minor in the form of a “miniscope”. The miniscope is like TVs used to be – a bulky, awkward piece of furniture, which has to be manhandled into position (in this case by a group of rubber faced “functionaries”). The import of its heft may be lost on anyone who has grown up in the era of flat screen TVs, but in the olden days, TVs were big boxes which fuelled many a child’s belief that little people lived in the TV and performed all the programs live. Imagine if you could have put your hand inside and interacted with those miniature thespians within. Wouldn’t every young Doctor Who fan would have loved to reach into that box and pluck out the TARDIS, as happens at the end of Episode One?

When televisions first arrived in houses, they were disruptive elements. Evening schedules were rescheduled so families could huddle around them. Other recreational activities were dropped. Visitors without TVs popped in to see what all the fuss was about. Social rules got rewritten. Old habits were challenged. So it’s no surprise then that the miniscope causes a sensation on Inter Minor.

It’s a planet inhabited by grey-faced bureaucrats (literally). We meet a triumvirate of these pompous pen pushers: permanent flustered Pletrac (Peter Halliday), permanently bemused Orum (Terence Lodge) and slippery eel Kalik (Michael Wisher). This fussy trio bitch and whine and generally keep us amused with their stuffy language and their love of procedure. But still, they don’t hesitate to shoot down protesters in the street if they dare to dissent. Inter Minor’s still a police state, even if the representatives of that state are played for laughs.

The scope’s operators – Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) – are the ones who bring the device to Inter Minor, tumbling with it out of the back of a cargo ship. Vorg and Shirna are wildly different to the Inter Minorans. He dresses in a Sixth Doctor-esque ensemble, except turned up to 11, and she dresses in Peri Brown lycra, only more of it and with more baubles. That they are different to the drab officials around them is obvious. But because of their stewardship of the miniscope, I think writer Robert Holmes is equating them with people who make TV programs. They are illusionists, storytellers and scammers. Viewed by those around them as glitzy showbiz types. Slightly untrustworthy. TV types as the new carnies.

The Inter Minorans are suspicious of Vorg and Shirna, but it’s more than just old fashioned xenophobia. They don’t understand the purpose of the miniscope. It arrives to disrupt their world, as surely as if it turned up in their living rooms, and they’re worried. What new, dangerous ideas might it introduce into their tightly wound-up society? Vorg has to reassure them: “Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political,” he has to say. That TV is viewed as a dangerous, potentially subversive element would not have been a concept unheard of in the age of Mary Whitehouse.

When Vorg starts to demonstrate the ‘scope, its similarity to television becomes clear. You can switch channels to watch programs about Ogrons, Drashigs or Cybermen. When the reception goes bad, it’s like “watching a blob in a snowstorm,” and Shirna wonders who’s going to pay good credit bars for that (a familiar complaint for UK viewers who pay a licence fee). Yes, the scope is clearly signalled as a sci-fi peepshow, but Holmes is pointing out that TV is the contemporary equivalent.

Holmes is also showing the authorial choices that TV makes employ to create that peepshow. He uses Vorg to do this. One of the shows you can watch on the scope is the mystery of the SS Bernice, a cargo steamer from the 1920s crossing the Indian ocean. Vorg demonstrates how if we wants to increase the tension in the scene, he need only turn up the “aggrometer” and the inhabitants – in this case the Doctor and young buck Andrews (Ian Marter) can be made to fight. Vorg is now Holmes, sitting in front of his typewriter and turning up of the aggrometer, is a writer amping up the tension in a scene. Or to choose a more modern example, it’s the producers of Big Brother or Love Island, deliberately stirring up their casts of fame seekers to manufacture some drama for their next episode. Poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump, as the Doctor explains to Jo (Katy Manning).

Our heroes work out what’s going on by enduring multiple renditions of the same scene on board the SS Bernice, albeit with small variations each time (again, the drafting and re-drafting process of a script writer comes to life). They helpfully point out a few continuity errors like the calendar and the light outside being wrong. Then they clamber around its innards for a while, before the Doctor stumbles out of the box at the end of Episode Three. Another childhood fantasy enacted: that the people within the TV, might break out and escape.

That’s when it all turns back into a normal Doctor Who story. The Drashigs escape and run amok on Inter Minor, chewing up Kalik the would-be usurper in the process. The Doctor builds a gadget to fix everything. The scope blows a cathode ray tube or something and everyone goes home. All in all, a most diverting evening in around the box.

If we could chart classic Doctor Who’s representation of television, Carnival of Monsters is in the middle of a spectrum, which starts with Hartnell stories like 100,000 BC and The Chase which position it as a magical box of wonders, progresses through to Vengeance on Varos which shows it as a tool for suppressing the masses and ends with Remembrance of the Daleks, which revels in nostalgia for it. It’s a kind of emotional journey for the show, from reverence to suspicion and finally to affection. But of these, Carnival of Monsters is the wittiest, presenting TV as something which changes societies and commenting on how stories are constructed. Nothing serious, nothing political but definitely something fascinating.

LINK TO Twice Upon a TimeBoth feature Cyber-cameos.

NEXT TIME… Monky business in The Lie of the Land.

Landmarks, last words and Twice Upon a Time (2017)

img_5023-1I read all the Target books as a young fanboy, but some were more exciting than others. Some were landmark stories where big events happened. Like the Daleks showing up. Or old Doctors returning. Or companions leaving to get married, cure diseases or become managers of professional wrestlers.

The most exciting of all were the stories where the Doctor changed. No wonder the powers-that-be chose Twice Upon a Time as one of the quartet of stories to restart this mighty range. Regeneration stories were always the ones to snatch off the library shelf.

So when I finally got my grubby little digits on Twice Upon a Time in book form, nostalgia gripped me and I did what I used to do with Target novelisations of regeneration stories. I started at the end.

Well, of course I did! What kind of mad person wouldn’t start at the end? I wanted to read about the new Doctor. That’s the most exciting bit! If you were watching it on TV, you’d have to wade through all the actual episodes to get to that eerie golden glow. But in book form, you could cut out the guff about Ambushes and Captures and Escapes to Danger and go straight to the main event.

The back cover blurbs only fuelled this impatience. They would subtly hint at the endings with expressions like, “the last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO”. In the case of Planet of the Spiders, it didn’t bother to even mention the actual story and jumped straight to spruiking the regeneration: “Read the last exciting adventure of DR WHO’s 3rd Incarnation!” It was a time before spoilers, I suppose.

Twice Upon a Time features no such sensational headlines. (More’s the pity. “The last thrilling adventure the first DOCTOR WHO… again! And the twelfth DOCTOR WHO, depending on how you count.”)

But, as I eventually found when I went back and read the whole thing, Paul Cornell does a bang on impression of that old Target style. He’s a prolific Doctor Who author – books, comics, audios and, oh that’s right, TV episodes – but he puts aside his own idiosyncrasies and writes in the way he remembers so well from his childhood. He senses the great responsibility of writing a Target book.

Anyway, let’s get straight to the end. I’ll admit, I was disappointed it didn’t end a la The Tenth Planet with, “Allow me to introduce myself then. I am the new Doctor!” Or the more elegiac ending of Logopolis: “Well, that’s the end of that,” said a voice they had not heard before. “But it’s probably the beginning of something completely different.” He could have gone for the wry approach of The War Games, although it would have needed some pronoun changing: “It’s a pity. She would have brightened the place up no end.”

(Of course, what I really wanted was a note on the frontispiece which said, “THE CHANGING SEX OF DOCTOR WHO: The cover illustration of this book portrays the twelfth DOCTOR WHO (We think. It could be the thirteenth or fourteenth) whose genitalia were transformed after he was mortally hugged by a Cyberman.” Can’t have everything, I guess.)

Famous last words. Target books had many of them. Cornell’s great mentor, Terrance Dicks, for instance, would often end his with variations on a theme of, “The Doctor and his companions were on their way to new adventures.” It’s as familiar a Dicksism as a young/old face, a multi-sided console or that wheezing, groaning sound.

Occasionally, though, he’d just leave you hanging for more, with an effortlessly perfect closing sentence. What about An Unearthly Child, with its “Out there on Skaro, the Daleks were waiting for him.” Or The Keeper of Traken, with its “She seemed to hear the distant echo of mocking laughter.” Or Horror of Fang Rock, designed to cheer everyone up with “No one was left alive to hear them.”

Last words are important. They linger in the mind as vivid after images. Malcolm Hulke liked to end his on wistful remarks. My favourite is The Space War, when the defeated Master simply packed up his paperwork. “Oh well,” he said to himself, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Donald Cotton’s The Gunfighters ended with Doc Holliday drinking himself to death, and the story’s narrator observing, “And I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised.” David Fisher underplayed the end of The Leisure Hive with the droll observation that, “it had after all been one of those days.”

David Whitaker’s The Crusaders was the most poetic: “And the Tardis flashed on its way… searching for a new resting-place on a fresh horizon.” As usual, Robert Holmes was the most elegant of all, ending The Two Doctors with the tantalizing. “Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri…”

Cornell knows the importance of the punchy final sentence. He made a trademark of ending his Doctor Who novels with “Long ago, in an English [insert season here]. He closes Twice Upon a Time with “Towards her future,” as our heroine plummets to the ground. Sure, it’s no, “The trouble with the Cybermen is one can never be entirely sure.” but it’s thoughtful and rings true. I like to those words will resonate with young readers who raced to the back of the book first for many years to come.

And just think – surely this is not the end, but the beginning of a new range of Doctor Who novelisations, ready to entrance a new generation. There are loads of new famous last words to come. For a young fanboy who’s grown up, that’s unspeakably thrilling.

The Doctor and her readers are on their way to new adventures.

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

LINK TO Vincent and the DoctorIn Vincent, we see the first Doctor a couple of times (on the library card and in a print out) and of course in Twice Upon a Time, he actually turns up.

NEXT TIME… We poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump in Carnival of Monsters

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 needles 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.

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.