Tag Archives: Season 13

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!

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Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

terrorzygons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DUKE: That’s right. I am!

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

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

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

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

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

Camfield, captivation and The Seeds of Doom (1976)

seeds doom1

It’s got dodgy models, polystyrene snow and some epically fake beards. Lots of CSO, wobbly rubber monsters and foliage waved vigourously by off screen crew. And those are just production hassles; what about the preposterous plot, the cheesy villain and a Doctor so violent he makes Colin Baker look like a kitten? But despite everything working against it, The Seeds of Doom remains a perennial favourite. (Perennial, geddit? No? Ah well.)

It’s popular for a simple reason: it’s thrilling. If not ‘edge of your seat’ stuff, then it’s at least ‘keeping me from doing more important stuff’ stuff. It’s got that visceral excitement that comes with the audience’s concern that we can’t see a way out of this for our heroes –  a hallmark of good Who. And if we’re honest, this ability to captivate is rare. But it’s common in stories directed by Douglas Camfield.

Camfield is Old Who‘s most celebrated director, probably all Who when you consider that although New Who has showcased many excellent directors, none have established a canon of Who like Camfield. The Seeds of Doom was his eighth and final story (after which he apparently swore in front of an altar to never direct Doctor Who again) at the helm solo and there’s not a dud among ’em. How did he get them so right? Is there a Camfield style?

In technical terms, not really. He has a few directorial flourishes. In Seeds there’s a sort of stop/start zoom when Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) comes across zoologist Moberly’s (Michael McStay) corpse. There’s the sudden cut away from impending violence, such as when superloon Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) moves to clobber Sarah in Part Six. A few bits and pieces, but not much in the way of showy visuals.

But his close ups are just that little bit closer than the norm; actors’ faces tend to fill the screen. His sets are dark, gloomy places; he must have won some arguments with those BBC lighting designers who reportedly liked to keep the lights up. These factors make Seeds feel that bit more claustrophobic than other stories.

There’s also a determination to eschew the incidental music of Dudley Simpson. I don’t know if the two had a falling out, but there’s a mid-period of Camfield stories where it seems the director would prefer to use stock music, or as in Inferno have no music at all, than use Who‘s house composer. For this story, he uses Geoffrey Burgon, as he did in Terror of the Zygons to great effect. Burgon’s combinations of flute, strings and clavichord give the show a haunting edge, which is just that shade less comforting that Dudley’s standard fare.

But other directors have brought their own flair to the show and others have used composers other than Simpson, but none have the strike rate of Camfield. The answer to Camfield’s success must lie elsewhere, and I think it must be how he works his actors.

Everyone seems to be giving just a little bit more in a Camfield production, just trying that little bit harder. They all take it seriously, natch, but the performances are just that bit more intense. What did Camfield do to elicit this level of effort, missing from so many other Whos? Was there a military style pep talk? Were there extensive rehearsals drilling the actors’ performances? Or was there an unwillingness to settle for anything less than 100% commitment to a scene?

Certainly, he casts brilliantly. Seriously, think back over Camfield’s stories. Is there anyone who doesn’t fit their role like a glove? In Seeds we can look to even some of the minor roles and see some excellent work going on. Consider Seymour Green as long suffering butler Hargreaves. Green plays it with a level of grumpiness that adds colour without pulling focus. Phone calls are answered begrudgingly, doors opened with disdain. When Chase complains about being surrounded by idiots, he sneaks a sympathetic glance toward fellow hired help Scorby, who he clearly thinks is a few rungs down the hierarchy.

Consider Sylvia Coleridge as batty old floral painter Amelia Ducat. She plays the lighter moments just right, but when she goes undercover to infiltrate Chase’s mansion, she’s all business. Cool, smoking a cheroot, she not only collects valuable intelligence, she takes the opportunity to extract a penalty payment out of Chase for one of her paintings. “Consider me available for any future assignments!” she coos as she exits the story. UNIT’s unpaid artistic adviser perhaps? I can see it.

Then there’s Mark Jones as botanist Keeler. He spends the first half of the story being a study in nervousness, permanently alarmed by everything. Then he’s infected by the pod and starts mutating into a Krynoid. This leads to him being tied to a bed, served raw meat and pleading for his life. In a scene which really pushes the boundaries of family viewing, he nearly succeeds in convincing Sarah to set him free, and when she refuses, he erupts in fury. “You want me to die! You want me to die!” he roars ferociously. An impressive turnaround.

John Challis as Scorby is perhaps the most perfect casting of all, one which influences the whole feel of the show. Challis looks and sounds like he’s walked off the set of a cop drama. When he says he’s going to murder five people and bury them in the polystyrene snow, you believe him. He’s a walking threat of violence wherever he goes, and he adds to general tone of realism with which Camfield treats this outlandish story. When in Part Six Scorby mentally breaks down, finally confronted with a problem he can’t fight his way out of, it is another moment which is wonderfully true.

But this story’s crowning glory is Tony Beckley as millionaire plant enthusiast Harrison Chase. As camp as a Kylie concert and with as many costume changes, he spends the first four episodes purring his way through dialogue like “the last things you will ever see will be my beautiful plants.” When we looked at The Invasion (directed by Camfield), I talked about Tobias Vaughn as a potential Bond villain, and Chase is another. He’s got a house full of guards, henchmen to sneer at, an ostentatious killing machine in his composter and his own private radiophonic workshop on which he can play Malcom Clarke’s greatest hits to his plants live. Dye one of those three piece suits green, give him a cartoony title (the Green Thumb!) and he’s a Batman villain.

Except he’s not really. It’s far too nuanced a performance that that. Once he’s overtaken by the Krynoid in Part Five, Beckley adds a permanent grimace to his performance and starts walking like he’s looking for a fight. He’s permanently revolted by anything that’s not a plant. He has nothing but contempt for everything else; when the Doctor (an energized Tom Baker) tries to talk some sense into him via a walkie talkie, there’s no big confrontation between the two – Chase simply hangs up. But his way  with words hasn’t entirely deserted him. After feeding poor old Sergeant Henderson (Ray Barron) to the compost machine, there’s time for the briefest of eulogies. “We’re helping the plant world, the Sergeant and I,” he opines. “In different ways, of course” he remembers to add.

But surely the last word on this story must be shared between Doctor and Villain. “What do you do for an encore?”, wonders Chase after the Doctor has jumped through a skylight, beaten up Scorby and rescued Sarah from a grasping tendril. Brandishing a pistol, the Doctor says through gritted teeth, “I win!” Despite the oddly adult tone and the formidable production challenges, yes, Seeds of Doom, I rather think you do. Thanks Douglas.

LINK to The Ultimate Foe. How about this? Both feature statues of Queen Victoria.

NEXT TIME. It would be so much easier if I was one thing. Saddle up, we’re moseying into A Town Called Mercy.

Barry Letts, unsung talents and The Android Invasion (1975)

android invasion

You’ve got to hand it to those piggy rhinoey aliens the Kraals, they’re planners. Their invasion of Earth which involves using doppelgänger androids – an Android Invasion if you will – is not something they’ve rushed into.

First they capture an British spaceship, hanging about the outer solar system. Because Britain has a space program, you know. Then they brainwash the pilot. Then they built a replica of a small English town and its nearby space defence station, populate it with android replicas and use it as a training ground. Because you train androids, right? Not program them.

Only when they’re absolutely certain that they can pull this performance off convincingly, do they catch a lift back to Earth on the same space ship and start to infiltrate the defence station. And all this to do what? Release a deadly virus (copyright Terry Nation), which presumably could have been released some easier way, by say, firing plague laden missiles at the planet (also copyright Terry Nation).

Anyway. Let’s not make fun of the plot of The Android Invasion. It’s been done many times before and it’s too easy. Instead, let’s talk Letts. Barry Letts, of course. One of Doctor Who‘s longest serving and most highly regarded producers. But we shouldn’t forget, also one of its most reliable and unsung directors.

The Android Invasion is peppered with understated directorial flair. Letts is not one to allow a idiosyncratic style to show through in his direction, unlike say Douglas Camfield or Graeme Harper, but nonetheless his episodes have plenty of interesting moments. There are the lovely scenes in Part One where Sarah is discovered hiding in a pub full of androids; the vision mixer switches from close up to close up of unsettlingly impassive faces.  There’s the famous cliffhanger to Part Two, where Sarah’s android’s face falls off with startling ease; edited with less precision it could have been laughable. And the scenes inside the Kraals’ dungeon like HQ are textbook stuff. We see the torturing of the Doctor on chief rhino Styggron’s operating table through the unflinching downward stare of a raised camera. A tide of nasty swirling lights washes over him while an whining pulsing sound comes at him like a dentist’s drill. Nasty stuff.

But these are moments, not the whole show. Lots of the rest of the story is shot with the workaday style of someone with a producer’s eye on time and money. Letts doesn’t try to spice up a scene of two people talking in a office, or two space rhinos discussing risk management strategies. It seems that he knows when to flex his directorial muscles and when to concentrate on getting the show in the can.

(Still, there are a few wry asides to spot. When Guy Crayford (played with nervous gullibility by Milton Johns) is about to land back on Earth, our ersatz Brigadier Colonel Faraday says ‘He’s been further into space than any other human being.’ Standing behind him our old mates Harry Sullivan and Mr Benton share a knowing glance. Letts, I assume, had issued an instruction.)

Letts seemed a fairly unassuming fellow in his post Who interviews, rarely allowing any self praise. This modesty has hidden that he was arguably the best director the Pertwee years ever had. Two of the stories he directed – Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters are among the very best of that era, and while a third Planet of the Spiders becomes flabby and self indulgent, its opening episode is pleasingly creepy. Add to this that he also directed much of the studio work for Inferno, and it really does seem that Letts was behind most of that era’s high points.

And of course recently and miraculously, we’ve had Letts’ first go at directing Who, The Enemy of the World, returned to us. Again it’s a mix of outstanding direction (mainly on film) and run of the mill  (mainly in the studio), but when it’s good it’s brilliant. Those action sequences in Episode 1, complete with hovercraft and helicopter – hardware Letts would return to in Planet of the Spiders – are the series’ best location work up to that point. Then there’s the Doctor facing off with his evil lookalike in Episode 6 – an experimenting with camera trickery which Letts uses again in The Android Invasion.

Letts was a frequent contributor to the Doctor Who DVD range, in on camera interviews and on commentary tracks. His calm, pleasant, grandfatherly tones became familiar to regular watchers, modestly and accurately pointing out what he thought worked and what didn’t. He was a mainstay of any Pertwee release.

But then on one DVD (I forget which one) Letts was back again but shockingly different. Bald and drawn, he was clearly unwell. Over the next few releases, depending on when the interview had been recorded, he turned up in various stages of health or sickness. We watched as this man, who we’d come to know only through his willingness to talk about Doctor Who for us, get more and more ill. He’s not on the commentary track for The Android Invasion, released three years after his death in 2009.

And the saddest aspect of the otherwise glorious return of The Enemy of the World, is that he isn’t here to see it again. That’s a commentary track it would have been great to hear. It would have been a fitting tribute to the only man who could justifiably claim to be Doctor Who‘s greatest multi-tasker: writer, producer, executive producer, novelist and director, Barry Letts. If only he had indulged himself and taken an acting role in the series (a Hitchcockian cameo in The Android Invasion, poking his head out of a Kraal’s travelling seed pod, would have done nicely), his reputation as Doctor Who’s auteur would have been complete.

LINK to The Beast Below: Each features a UK built spaceship and each features mechanical goons.

NEXT TIME: Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. And there’s a bit of it about in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.