Tag Archives: season 18

Adolescence, adulthood and Full Circle (1980)

full circle

During the five years of the Pertwee era, with its 24 stories and 128 episodes, only four new writers were introduced into Doctor Who: Don Houghton, Robert Sloman and Bob Baker & Dave Martin. During Tom Baker’s first six seasons? 35 stories, 144 episodes and again, only four new writers: Robert Banks Stewart, Chris Boucher, Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

(We might quibble over Lewis Griefer, who initiated but wasn’t credited on Pyramids of Mars, and production team members Barry Letts, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, who were all well acquainted with the show when they turned their hands to writing for it.)

That’s a whole decade of Doctor Who that relied on tried and tested writers, rather than seek and try out newbies. It makes the show’s 18th season even more remarkable. On taking up the job of Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead had barely any scripts ready for production. Pragmatically, he led with what little he had; scripts from old hands Fisher and Terrance Dicks. But then, he started a wave of writerly regeneration which resulted in more new writers coming to the show in the space of two years than had been seen in the last 10. John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch, Steve Gallagher, Johnny Byrne, Terence Dudley, Christopher Bailey, Eric Saward, Peter Grimwade and, most remarkable of all, Andrew Smith, who gave us Full Circle.

I say “most remarkable of all” because Full Circle was Smith’s first professional credit and he was only 17 years old when he wrote it. On one hand, it’s a sign of how desperate the script situation was in 1980, that Bidmead even considered an unsolicited script, sent by a novice writer who was barely out of school.

On the other hand, it demonstrates what a remarkable feat it was, for such a young writer to write such a promising script. Think back to when you were 17; I don’t know about you, but there would be no way I could have written something as mature and erudite as Full Circle when I was that age. Of course, it’s possible for teens to write great stories, but it’s rare for them to write for TV, and, as we’ve seen, unheard of to write for Doctor Who.

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to imagine that the script is really Bidmead’s with some scant input from wunderkind Smith. But both writers have spoken candidly about the show since then and both have described it as a true collaboration. So what we have in Full Circle is a real first; a Doctor Who story written by someone in its target audience. What happens when the show is written by a teenage boy?

Well, the first thing to note is that it has teenagers in it. I’ve written before about what a  rarity it was in 20th century Who to have young people on screen. Only the previous year’s The Horns of Nimon had any juvenile actors in sizeable roles. In Full Circle, there are no less than four young characters, who form a group of Outlers. These are young tearaways who want to leave the stultifying world of the Starliner, a place where boring adult authority holds sway. So far we have a pretty typical view of teenage life; the desire to run away, to rebel and to shun what adults say they should do.

The Outlers are an interesting bunch. Their leader is Varsh (Richard Willis), who must be this planet’s heartthrob because he keeps his tunic as open as possible to show a tantalising amount of torso and at one stage there’s an ogling creeping camera move towards his tightly panted arse. There’s Tylos (Bernard Padden), the nervous, mousy type who’s never going to work his way out of Varsh’s dreamy shadow. And there’s Keara (June Page), a pleasant, smart girl who – thankfully – holds her own in this group, without being the predictable apex of a love triangle. Keara is the only one with a parent around; her father is village elder Login (George Baker), but otherwise, these are a self-governing band of wastrels.

Varsh’s brother Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, the other teenage boy becoming a part of Doctor Who history in this story) wants in on the gang, but he’s not an easy fit. He sees himself as superior to the others, and he has a badge for being a maths genius into the bargain. The maths swot joining the street gang… this has never gone well, has it? As ever with these things, there’s an initiation ceremony to go through, and in this case, it involves stealing watermelons from a riverside camp of locals. Which given as watermelons seem to be the key focus of everyone on Alzarius, is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

Teenage stories are often about the transition to adulthood and the initiation test, which Adric fails, is one element which is part of that theme. But another is Mistfall, the natural change of climate and atmosphere which is befalling Alzarius. It mirrors the physical and emotional change from adolescence to adulthood which Adric and the Outlers going through.

Except Varsh won’t make it that far. He dies trying to defend the Starliner from the monstrous Marshmen. When he does, Keara bequeaths his belt to Adric. “This is our badge,” she had told Adric of it before. “It has to be earned.” It seems Adric has finally passed his test, but more than that, he’s no longer a child.

It turns out that the Marshmen and the Alzarians are all part of an evolutionary loop; they are each other’s kin. The planet, its inhabitants and the Outlets, all are undergoing existential change. And by rights, we know what should happen to Adric now. As an adult and a hero in the Starliner’s society, he should be the one who pilots the ship to its new destination. Perhaps even put on the puffy jacket of a Decider.

That would make thematic sense. But this show, with its newfound interest in teenage boys, has other plans for Adric. Instead of staying on the Starliner and cementing his newfound adulthood, he makes a move which actually reverts him into adolescence again. He joins the TARDIS crew and finds a replacement family, complete with Dad, Mum and the pet dog.  It makes him again that awkward young thing constantly trying to prove himself. It delays his graduation to adulthood until he stands on the burning deck of that doomed space freighter.

Still, that’s the end of his story. This is the beginning, a story of not fitting in and coming of age. And of running away from it all to join the Doctor and travel in the TARDIS. Who better to write that story than a teenage boy?

LINK TO The Caretaker. Teenagers on the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… it’s 1580 and we’re in Venice, for (you guessed it) The Fish Women of Croatia.

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Ideas, imagery and Meglos (1980)

meglos

In an alternative universe (such as the one we’ll be heading to next random), we’d be talking about this as the first Meglos story. Yes, Meglos, that mostly mocked one note joke of a Doctor Who villain, a talking cactus of all things, could have made a comeback.

Writer Gareth Roberts wanted to include him as the bad guy behind shenanigans in the Matt Smith story The Lodger. Whether this idea bit the dust because it was too ridiculous, too self-referential or because bringing back a rubbish monster as a statement of irony wasn’t the best idea to start with, is kind of irrelevant. The point is, Meglos lingers in our Whoish memories.

Why? Well, two reasons, I think.

Reason one: because within the schlocky fiction of the piece, there are some interesting ideas being almost talked about.

Doctor Who has often presented the conflict between science and superstition, and between science and magic. It rarely wades into the dangerous waters of comparing science and religion. So it’s an unexpected reminder to find it popping up in this inauspicious story.

The planet Tigella is populated by two castes: the scientifically minded Savants and the religiously inclined Deons (their plainly descriptive names being typical of this story’s unsophisticated approach. Even the title character’s name – he’s a megalomanic cactus – is clearly signposted.)

The Savants see the planet’s mysterious power source, the Dodecahedron, as an artifact to be analysed and its potential tapped. For some reason, they also see hair as being best hidden under shockingly white wigs, cut into bobs and plastered on their heads, so their judgement is called into question from the start.

The Deons believe the Dodecahedron to be a gift from the great god Ti, and thus the subject of reverence and worship. We only really meet one Deon, the majestic Lexa (Jacqueline Hill) and she wears her white hair in an outrageously long pony tail. Good hairdressers are obviously hard to find on Tigella.

It’s unsurprising that Doctor Who comes down on the side of science over faith. The Dodecahedron does turn out to be an artifact and the Deons are nutters who still practice human sacrifice, so the Savants, despite the hair, are the ones to listen to. To hammer home the point, Lexa dies and as she’s the only one of the Deons who speaks, it will be difficult for them to prosecute their ideas from then on. (Incidentally, Lexa dies saving Romana (Lalla Ward), which is remarkably compassionate considering she’s only met her minutes before and never spoke an onscreen word to her.)

In between Savants and Deons, there’s Zastor (Edward Underdown). He dresses like a Deon but listens patiently when the Savants complain about not being allowed to run a tape measure over the Dodecahedron. Zastor represents the sensible middle ground, and when his two quarreling tribes refuse to play nice, he calls in an independent arbitrator:

ZASTOR: Some fifty years ago, I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break.

DEEDRIX: A savant? Or one of her madmen?

ZASTOR: A little of each and a great deal more of something else.

It’s interesting that Zastor positions the Doctor halfway between science and religion. Religion has never been his bag, but science most definitely has. The Doctor is described as a scientist regularly throughout the 60s and 70s eras, but Season 18 is the last to emphasize this side of his nature. After this season, he becomes an adventurer and a traveller. Has the 21st century version of the show ever described a him as a scientist?

Sadly, we never get to see the Doctor adopt his role as mediator between science and religion. It would have been interesting to hear him say, “well, you Savants want to solve the problem like this, you Deons want to solve it like that, and in fact you’re both wrong, you do it like this.” But due to Meglos’s unorthodox approach to plotting, the Doctor arrives so late in the story, that Meglos has infiltrated the Tigellan city and made off with the Dodecahedron before the Doctor’s has even learnt his opponent’s name. From then on, there’s no time to question the bigger issues of rationalism vs faith. It’s just a case of, “Quick! Follow that cactus!”

*****

Interlude: How to plot a Doctor Who story a la Meglos:

Part One: while your villain hires some henchmen and explains his plan, and you introduce the setting, your supporting characters and their main non-hair related problem, contain the Doctor and his friends to the TARDIS.

Part Two: while the villain travels and arrives at aforementioned setting, continue to delay the Doctor getting there by letting him land halfway through the ep, and then some distance away from the action. Split him up from his companions. Have the companion keep some henchmen company for a while.

Part Three:  Have the companion keep those henchmen company for a while longer. Have the villain complete his plan, but hang around for a bit to talk to some minor characters. Have the Doctor slowly take all episode to work out what’s going on, while the villain escapes.

Part Four: Doctor and co chase the villain back to his base. Doc turns table on villain with some rudimentary bait and switch. End with explosion.

*****

Reason two: Tom Baker in cactus make up.

Meglos has an ace up its sleeve in that it’s got a brilliant lead actor to play the villain: Tom Baker. In some ways, there’s no more qualified person to play a Doctor Who villain. After all, at the time of recording Meglos, Tom had seen at least 36 people play Doctor Who villains up close. He knows how it’s done.

He seems to relish being Meglos, playing him utterly seriously, if just on this side of melodramatics. Everything we’ve heard about how temperamental Tom was getting towards the end of his time on the show tells us that he should have been bored out of his brain playing this ranting bad guy. God only knows what he said when they told him they were going to make him up like a cactus.

Actually I have a theory that when he saw how good that cactus make up was, he realised that this was going to be the scene stealer of the show, so if anyone was going to wear it, it might as well be him. It’s a terrific effect, this green, spiny Doctor, and gives this last Baker year a vividly memorable image to match any of the previous 17. There’ll be many a fan, young at the time this story went out, who remembers the Cactus Doctor, struggling to contain the rebellious Earthling (Christopher Owen) within his spiky body.

It’s a much better look than either of Meglos’s other forms; a dull, plasticky cactus prop, or later when he’s defeated, a giant sized snot rag, scurrying across the floor. At least Romana’s impressed at the transformation from Time Lord to mobile booger. ‘He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light… that would make him virtually indestructible!’ she helpfully explains. See, even then they were thinking about Meglos 2. Or The Meglos in the Room Upstairs. Or perhaps a spin off series: Meglos & Company.

Presumably that’s the line upon which Roberts was going to hang the premise of Meglos’s return. Maybe it’s not too late. Peter Capaldi sporting that spiny cactus make up? You can see it can’t you? That Meglos, you know, he can modulate himself on a particular wavelength of light. He’s virtually indestructible.

LINK TO School Reunion: both feature the return of actresses who had played the Doctor’s companion. And they both have K9 in them.

NEXT TIME: The sound of a planet screaming out its rage! Welcome to the Inferno.

Transitions, technobabble and The Keeper of Traken (1981)

keeper1

The Doctor (moody, burgundy clad Tom Baker) and boy companion Adric (nerdy, mustard clad Matthew Waterhouse) can be forgiven for not being up on current affairs on planet Traken. They have, after all, just emerged from an entirely different universe when this story stirs into life. But luckily the wizened old Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey) materialises directly in the TARDIS console room to play Xbox on the scanner screen. Well, he already has the chair.

No, he’s there to show some home movies and bring our heroes up to speed with the backstory. Traken, he says, is a world of peace and harmony. Well, that’s his first problem right there. In Doctor Who, idyllic, peaceful worlds are always one step away from total mayhem. In Traken’s case, a portentous statue called Melkur has landed in the grove and become calcified by the planet’s wholesomeness. Or it might be that he clashes with everything around him. Traken’s all very art nouveau, while Melkur’s pure futurism.

The ancient Keeper is reaching the end of his reign, as indeed the fourth Doctor is reaching his. “The passing ages have taken their toll on me,” the Keeper says and the Doctor replies, “yes, I know that feeling”. The Keeper senses trouble approaching during the transition. He urges the Doctor to come to assist, which of course the Doctor makes his number one priority. Right after he’s found some old books. Then read some old books. And wittered on to Adric for a while. Jeez, I’d hate to be waiting for him to rescue me.

Meanwhile on Traken, most of the first episode has past. But we’ve met kissing Consuls Tremas (Anthony Ainely) and Kassia (Shelia Ruskin, who from her accent is quite posh but has a name which sounds like she’s from somewhere west of Wagga Wagga) on their wedding night. Tremas is a scholarly type, who wanders around, playing with electronic gadgetry and talking technobabble. Naturally enough, he and the Doctor get on famously.

Kassia, however, has developed a far less scientific obsession with Melkur. She’s a bit like one of those folk who fall in love with inanimate objects, and end up marrying chairs and clocks and the like. To be honest, the husband/wife combination is a little old fashioned: Tremas is the scientific, rational male, Kassia the passionate, corruptible female. And like Eve, she’s seduced by evil in the Grove, a verdant garden in the middle of Traken. Gardens are interesting symbols of change and fertility and it can’t be by accident that one’s at the centre of things here. It’s the growing heart of Traken, while everything around it is as clean and sterile as an antique shop.

In story terms, the Grove’s polar opposite is the sterile but gaudy Source, a device which seems to hold Traken together, although exactly how we’re never told. The Keeper, apparently uses it to ‘organise the whole Traken Union’ and the Doctor says it has ‘limitless organising capacity refined to a single frame’. Who knows what that means? It must be more than just a nifty spreadsheet, but its significance is hard to grasp. Particularly when it looks like an oversize light fitting with fairy floss whizzing around inside it. Because we never get a decent explanation as to what it does, we never get a sense of what the consequences are of it being destroyed. ‘We can destroy Melkur,’ Adric says very seriously to Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, on debut) at one stage. ‘But only by completely destroying the Source.’ Wow, we might even care if we had the faintest idea what it did.

(Young Adric, by the way, is undergoing a change. He’s got a greater share of the plot now, since fellow TARDIS travellers Romana and K9 have left. But this means he suddenly picks up a level of scientific genius left behind by those braniacs. He’s able to deduce that there’s another TARDIS on Traken by looking at some gadget and muttering about Fourier analyses. He follows the Doctor’s brief bafflegab about nixing the Source so well that he can singlehandedly construct the device to do the job. Well, not quite singlehandedly; he has Nyssa to help. So typical of Adric. Left alone with a girl in the TARDIS and all he wants to do is play with his Meccano set.)

All the meaningless faux technical talk really puts the brakes on what’s a better than average Doctor Who story, with far better than average design work. For all the textbook Who imagery like the glowing eyed statue stalking the gloomy court, suffocating necklaces and black gloved villains watching events from the shadows, there’s an equal amount of blathery chat about fold back flow inducers, energy signatures and warp crossovers. It’s an odd mix of science manual and theatre, and I’d take the latter any day.

This collision of ideas is on display in the story’s climax, when Melkur’s grasp on the Keepership is broken, and a Shakespearean tempest is unleashed. Amidst all the sound and fury, the Doctor and Adric struggle to restore the natural order of things… by punching a number into a machine. By any measure, entering your PIN into a Trakenite ATM is no dramatic climax to a story.

Anyway, it all ends up OK, with the Doctor defeating his old enemy the Master (he was the Melkur all along!) and winning through to save the planet, the Keepership and the whole Traken Union from destruction. The successful end of an epic battle with some epic frocks. The future of Traken is assured.

Well, at least for the next three episodes, after which it will be casually destroyed by a big black stain. Well, you win some, you lose some.

*****

This story’s LINK to our last Random, Earthshock, is worth a bit of attention. Both feature the shock reveal of an old enemy. It’s a trick that comes to characterise 1980s Who, but it starts on Traken. The show had brought back old enemies in unexpected ways before – your Frontier in Space, your Deadly Assassin – but here the return of the Master feels like a showcase moment.

The Master, played with delicate menace by the silky voiced Geoffrey Beevers, lurks inside the Melkur, in fact his TARDIS. He’s in his decrepit state we witnessed in The Deadly Assassin, and that in itself says something about the series’ newfound love for continuity, heralded by producer John Nathan-Turner. He could have ignored the backstory, and simply bought the Master back in full bodily form. Yes, it would have disregarded the notion that the Master had run out of regenerations, but the series had performed more brazen u-turns than that in the past.

But the Master’s reappearance went down well with fans, and so Nathan-Turner repeated it the following year with the Cybermen in Earthshock. And found lots of excuses to bring back other old enemies, though never again with the same revelatory impact. New Who‘s not immune to that tactic. Far from it; there’s rarely been a post 2005 series without some familiar monstrous faces from the old days returning.

But as Nathan-Turner found, it’s a well you can only go back to so many times. Right now, I struggle to see which of the big, classic foes are left in the toybox for new Who to pull out. I think this opens the door for a few B graders to make come back. And if the Macra and the Zygons and the Sisterhood of flippin’ Karn can all be pushed back into service, I see no reason why the Melkur can’t one day ride again.

NEXT TIME… Dreams within dreams and sweet Papa Chrimbo. Every Christmas is Last Christmas.

 

Whiskers, writers and State of Decay (1980)

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State of Decay, Season 18’s tale of long lost spaceships and even longer lost vampires, is a collision between two contrasting views of Doctor Who. On the one hand, there’s script editor Christopher H Bidmead and his attempts to bring some scientific rationality to the series and erase the undergraduate frivolity of the previous season. It’s from him we get the pocket universes, the forgotten data banks and a society in technological stagnation. On the other hand, there’s writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks, master of 4 and 6 part structures, who knows exactly where to put the monsters, the jokes and the helpless assistants.

It’s no wonder the two didn’t get on. At this stage Dicks had written or edited about 40 Doctor Who scripts and Bidmead had edited one. Goodness knows how the conversations about the script went down.

BIDMEAD: Terrance, I think there should be a scene here where we investigate the system file structures of the computer’s operating system and discover a theoretical universe inside the negative universe of e-space.

DICKS: Chris, that’s BORING! I think this is where Romana is tied to a post screaming while the vampires menace her! Cue cliffhanger, you see!

BIDMEAD: Terrance, Romana doesn’t scream, she’s a super intelligent Time Lady. But suppose the post she’s tied to is really a TARDIS, with another TARDIS inside…

DICKS: You know, it’s about this point in the story that the Master usually turns up.

BIDMEAD: The Master? As if!

DICKS: That’s it. From now on I talk to Barry and no one else!

Still, something intriguing comes out of the creative marriage between these two men with very different ideas about what makes Doctor Who tick. Originally devised for season 15, we can guess at what State of Decay would have been like if Dicks had had his way; traditional gothic horror, set in England perhaps in an old manor house. Small number of people isolated from the outside world. Music by Dudley Simpson. Horror of Fanged Teeth perhaps.

What we get from Bidmead, I speculate, is the stuff about the latent power of lost technology and a society being held back by ignorance, under the baleful influence of an outside force. These are themes flowing through his one distinctive season of Doctor Who and on his two Davison stories. A Bidmead rewrite of this story was prepared but the director rejected it as not Gothic enough. No doubt it was all consonantal shifts and closed vacuum emboitments but without any, y’know, vampires sucking people’s blood. My bet is he was responsible for the story’s dullest patch where the Doctor temporarily leaves the story to go and do some TARDIS based research with punch cards and ticker tape (what prompts him to go is more interesting, but I’ll get to that)

But I wonder which of them is responsible for the ingenious plot ending. I’m talking about when the castle, which turns out to be a spaceship, has a small scout ship which can serve as the mighty bolt of steel needed to kill the awakening giant vampire (we’ll politely ignore the fact that the ship is conveniently spike shaped, that it lands in exactly the right spot, that its somehow penetrates the ground to reach the underground cavern…). The story’s very setting turns out to hold the solution to the problem, which is neat storytelling I think.

Because it involves technology coming to save the day you may think this was a Bidmead conceit. Except that Dicks pulled the very same trick in Horror of Fang Rock, where the lighthouse itself turned out to be the story problem solver. Something scientifically implausible about a diamond being placed in front of the lighthouse lamp to produce a laser beam. God knows what Bidmead would have thought of that.

********

Meanwhile, Tom and Lalla are in love. You can tell by the way they’re so grumpy with each other. And then so sweet with each other. And then grumpy again. And so on. It must have been a very confusing time. One moment Tom’s vehemently refusing to help his lady love down off a ladder. The next he’s beaming at her with that voracious smile of his as if to say, oh it’s all a bit of a joke, isn’t it? Lalla wisely seems to maintain a cool reserve throughout, not getting too excited as if to guard herself against Tom’s unpredictable changes of mood.

There’s one scene in particular where they both let their guards down and let the affection for each other shine through the TV set. It’s in Part Three, when it’s time, as Uncle Terrance would know, to indulge in a little plot exposition. Our heroes are locked in a dungeon so they have some time to kill. Tom and Lalla have done this scene before, lots of times. They know all its variations. And so rather than play it with the breathless earnestness of “we’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late” etc., they decide to play it like avant garde theatre, both facing away from each other, lost in their own dream worlds.

So the Doctor tells the story of the Time Lords’ battle with the giant vampires and in return, Romana talks about an old job she once had working in an archive (do Time Lords work? Did she get flex time and penalty rates?). She casually mentions that an old book which might help them defeat the vampires was installed on certain time vehicles.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: (feigning disinterest) Oh, I don’t know. I forget.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: Type Forty, I think.

Tom is quietly delighted.

DOCTOR: Psst. The TARDIS is a Type Forty!

ROMANA: (feigning surprise) Is it? Oh.

Then Tom looks at her and says with genuine adoration:

DOCTOR: You are wonderful.

Lalla in turn is utterly delighted.

ROMANA: Me? Wonderful? I suppose I am. I’ve never really thought about it.

And then Tom punches a guard and the story rolls on. But just for a moment, we were let in on a beautiful romance, happening right in front of us.

******

The planet of State of Decay has no name so let’s give it one. I nominate Whiskeron because of the popularity of unconvincing beards. They are everywhere. From village head man Ivo (Clinton Greyn; long, straight and grey) to vampire king Zargo (William Lindsay; teased into fetching curlicues). Silver surfer Kalmar’s (Arthur Hewlett) face is shaved, but he makes up for it with a strange assortment of plaits lying half heartedly across his pate. It’s a perplexing look for an old fella. Well, for anyone.

But most peculiar of all is the strange brushy beard on feisty rebel Tarak (played by the terrifically named Thane Bettany) which seems to radiate in all directions. Perhaps feeling a little foolish under that unconvincing number, Bettany chooses to play every line with wide eyed intensity. I’m not sure which is my favourite. Is it… “The wasting is… the wasting!!” Or is it “I was a guard once…(turn directly to camera, beard faithfully following) I can be so again!“?

But if this is a scenery chewing competition then the clear winner is Emrys James as chief bad guy Aukon (little chin beard, sticking out in front). There’s not one line he doesn’t milk for maximum portent. He gets lots of zingers, but I love the bit when Habris (Iain Rattray) the captain of the guard asks for help from Aukon’s colony of carnivorous bats to see off the rebels. Aukon gives him the harsh truth. “Then die!,” he coos. “That is the purpose of guards!”

Surely that’s Uncle Terrance again, pointing out that it’s now the part of the story when minor characters become cannon fodder.

LINK to Planet of the Ood. Both are stories of an oppressed people revolting. One men over monsters, one monsters over men.

NEXT TIME… KKLAK! We find ourselves in the golden age of Invasion of the Dinosaurs.