Tag Archives: season 2

Nature, corruption and The Web Planet (1965)

webplanet

There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time which shows Heather Hartnell visiting the Doctor Who set in 1964. As she walks in she bumps into two Menoptra, sneaking out for a quick fag, or something. Just for a beat, she clocks the bizarreness of it all as the two butterfly creatures walk past. It’s a second or two of pure WTF.

That’s fitting because The Web Planet is a six episode exercise in WTF. It comes from a production team wanting to jolt its viewers out of the everyday. They recognised that even after just a year and a half, Doctor Who had fallen into a predictable pattern of tea-time adventure and it was time to try something really bizarre.

This bizarreness doesn’t end with creating a world full of giant ants, giant butterflies, giant millipedes or even a tossed salad of them all (as if that wouldn’t be enough). It stretches to production decisions which deliberately alienate the viewer, such as blurring the camera lens, having a soundtrack of experimental electronica and dialogue peppered with strange alien speech patterns. This is a story that wants you to see and hear Doctor Who in a new way. (Or it’s a story which wants to assault your eardrums while obscuring your view of what’s going on. Potato, potahto).

Its ramshackle production values, its sleepy pacing and its chirruping soundtrack make The Web Planet almost unwatchable to a modern audience. And yet by several measures, it has proven to be a phenomenally successful Doctor Who story. Made in the height of Dalekmania, it outrated the Daleks, averaging 12.5m viewers. Selected to be one of the first Doctor Who novels, its print version has been read by millions of people. It gets name-checked in modern Who and mentioned by Who luminaries like Peter Capaldi as one of their most potent memories of the show. It’s an enduring triumph of ideas over their plywood and poster paint execution.

It transcends all this because of its villain. It’s not a scheming human or a sly Sensorite. This is the Animus and it’s a malevolent force growing like cancer through the planet, poisoning its water, ravaging its landscape. It animates the otherwise docile creatures around it and turns them into killers. It’s strong enough to drag the TARDIS off course. It corrupts everything around it. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.

It gets a bit lost in the story’s ropey design work, but the Animus is a spider which has spread its web across the planet. This makes me think how this story came about. When thinking up a plot preposterous enough for Doctor Who, apparently writer Bill Strutton remembered a painful incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a bull ant, at his home in Moonta, South Australia. Had young Strutton been bitten by one of Australia’s famously venomous spiders – a funnel-web or a redback – he would have died. You don’t mess with those mofos. Google images of a funnel-web’s web, and you’ll find an eerie looking whirlpool shaped web, leading to a dark centre and, well you can see what Strutton may have been thinking off.

Sadly, when we finally get to meet the Animus in this story’s final ep, it doesn’t look particularly spidery. It’s a dome half suspended from the ceiling, covered with tentacles of old vacuum cleaner hoses which spill out over the entire room. The actors do a good job of looking suitably horrified at it, but there’s no hiding that it’s afflicted by the same budgetary pressures which give us Zarbi which run into cameras and Operta with comical Rastafarian haircuts. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) have to lie down and self-entangle themselves it in at one stage, signalling the brute’s limitations.

But wishing for a more technically sophisticated version of The Web Planet gets us nowhere (although if there was ever a candidate for an animated version of an existing story, here it is). And it neglects the elements which transcend its general tackiness. There’s that truly spooky cliffhanger to its fifth episode, with the Doctor and Vicki enveloped in web. But again, it’s the Animus which works, because of its creepy (crawly?) voice (Catherine Fleming). That calm, whispery cadence, like a sinister anaesthetist. (Funny how giant spiders in fiction are often female.)

If The Web Planet is “about” anything (and I’m not sure it is. It could be just so much sci-fi hokum), I think it’s about evil as a force of nature. Up until this point, Doctor Who’s monsters had backstories which explained how they got to be so wicked. Even the Daleks were originally survivors of war, twisted and transformed by xenophobia. The Animus has no backstory, short of just arriving one day to upend everything on Vortis. It just is. It’s just there. And it grows like a malignant tumour. There’s something both chilling and everyday about that.

Strutton was in a POW camp in WW2, so no doubt he saw the best and worst of human nature on display there. Perhaps the Animus is his stand-in for the Nazis, presiding over a microcosm of society, with the Zarbi as guards and the rest of this planet’s population as the oppressed prisoners. Unlike Terry Nation, who used the Daleks to question the basis of Nazism, Strutton’s not interested in how evil emerges. For him, it’s as natural as any other part of the world. But left unchecked, it will take over, like weeds strangling a garden.

Doctor Who never returned to The Web Planet, at least on TV. Despite it being the site of its greatest ratings success until 1974. As the Hartnell era ended, the show turned more and more to Earth-bound settings. Not just bases under siege and adventures with UNIT in the home counties; even alien planets had more humanoids and looked and felt more familiar than smeary, noisy Vortis. Never again would the series try to create such a completely alien world. Camera lenses remained undirtied. No more special “insect movement” choreography for the monsters. Return visits to Vortis were restricted first to TV Comic, and the books, audio dramas and give-a-show slide projectors, where the Zabi didn’t have legs like rugby players and Menoptra didn’t trip over their own wings.

It’s truly a world too broad and deep for the small screen. But that’s why it never gets forgotten. That’s why those Menoptra get a cameo with Heather Hartnell, why Margaret Slitheen’s afraid of venom grubs and why this shaky old runaround gained thousands of new fans when it aired on Twitch. We really can’t get enough WTF.

LINK TO The Underwater Menace: both shot at Riverside Studios. Can I get away with that?

NEXT TIME: Stand and deliver! We’re having quite the Knightmare in The Woman Who Lived.

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Gerry, Geoffrey and The Underwater Menace (1967)

underwater menace

Doctor Who production office, late 1966.

GERRY: (on phone) No, no, it’s the windjammer jacket, the blacked-up face and the Harpo Marx wig. No, he’s going to look great. Don’t let him out of the building. OK, marvellous. Thanks.

Imperious knock on the door.

GEOFFREY: Pray, good fellow! Grant me access to these… impoverished premises!

GERRY: Call you back.

Hangs up and opens door. There stands an imposing man, opera cape, wild hair, crazy eyes.

GEOFFREY: Thank you, good man! Run and fetch the Script Editor, would you?

GERRY: I’m the Script Editor.

GEOFFREY: Good lord, you’re Mr Davies?

GERRY: It’s Davis, actually.

GEOFFREY: Davies, I am the esteemed writer Geoffrey Orme! No doubt you’ve heard of me. I have written many high quality feature films and TV programs, enjoyed by the masses!

GERRY: Oh, yes, right…

GEOFFREY: And the good news is, I have decided to write for your children’s program, Mr Who!

GERRY: Well, it’s Doctor Who, and…

GEOFFREY: Now, Davies, I submitted a perfectly brilliant Mr Who script to you a good fortnight ago and yet I have heard nothing! Nothing! Me, the writer of What would you do, chums?, Ramsbottom Rides Again and no less than four Old Mother Riley films!

GERRY: Oh right, Mr Orme. What was the name of that script again?

GEOFFREY: Mr Who Under the Sea!

GERRY: Oh yes, hang on, I’ve got my notes on it somewhere.

GEOFFREY: Notes? Of sheer gobsmacked admiration, I trust! Haw haw haw!

GERRY: (fishes the script out of the bin) Here it is.

GEOFFREY: Misfiled, eh? You should sack your incompetent wretch of a secretary.

GERRY: Yes… So, Mr Orme, thank you, but we will not be making your script.

GEOFFREY: No! No! You cannot do this to me! You are turning me down? I, who wrote 6 episodes of Ivanhoe? I demand to know why!

GERRY: Well, it doesn’t make any sense.

GEOFFREY: So you’re just a little man after all, Davies, like all the rest. You disappoint me.

GERRY: I mean, it’s set in the ancient city of Atlantis. And these people live under the sea…

GEOFFREY: But of course! The people there survived due to in air pockets in the mountain’s caves! But they long to lift Atlantis from the ocean. Make it dry land again!

GERRY: They could just take the lift.

GEOFFREY: What?

GERRY: There’s a lift leading to the surface. If they wanted to be on the surface, they could do so whenever they want. Rebuild Atlantis there. And really, why would they stay hidden for thousands of years rather than rejoin humanity? Why not go and ask people on the surface for help to raise Atlantis?

GEOFFREY:  But you see, Professor Zaroff has promised them…

GERRY: Yes, that’s another thing. Zaroff wants to blow up the world, under the guise of raising Atlantis from the sea bed, but there’s no good reason why.

GEOFFREY: Why? You, a script editor of a lowly children’s programme ask me why? The achievement, my dear Davies! The scientist’s dream of supreme power!

GERRY: See, the mad scientist thing is a bit clichéd, Mr Orme and most scientists actually want to advance humanity.

GEOFFREY: You are a fool! An idiot!

GERRY: What about how all the Atlanteans live on plankton?

GEOFFREY: What’s wrong with that?

GERRY: They live in the ocean, Mr Orme! They are literally surrounded by seafood, yet they choose to eat plankton. And although they have the world’s greatest scientist living amongst them, and they have the technology to perform transformative surgery on human beings, they haven’t got any refrigerators.

GEOFFREY: But that’s the genius of it, don’t you see? All the food goes bad in a few hours, and that’s what sparks the revolt which spells Zaroff’s downfall. That’s how Mr Who wins!

GERRY: Look, it’s not Mr Who. The lead character’s name is the Doctor. And sometimes Dr Who when I want to mess with people. In any case, I just don’t think you’ve got the structure right.

GEOFFREY: What do you mean, you little man?

GERRY: You see in our show, Mr… I mean Dr Who wins through intelligence and ingenuity. In your script, the villain just tells the Doctor his plan at the start of Part Two. There’s nothing for him to work out if Zaroff gives the game away as soon as they meet. And the Doctor’s big plan to stop Zaroff destroying Altantis is to… destroy Atlantis. He might as well let Zaroff blow it up.

GEOFFREY: Blast! Blast! Blast!

GERRY: Well, exactly. In any case, I think it’s beyond our budget. It’s got a shark tank, an octopus and a whole underwater ballet with loads of floating fish people. We showed the script to one director and he ran away in panic.

GEOFFREY: Just put flippers on some extras and hang them up via wires! I really think you’re making too much fuss about all this, Davies. A silly little children’s program doesn’t need to make any sense or look convincing!

GEOFFREY: Yes… I think that’s your whole problem right there. Now if you please Mr Orme… (Ushers him out the door)

GEOFFREY: (In the corridor, shouting at closed door) The man is a fool. Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis shall rise again from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I? What are you staring at?

CLEANING LADY: Nothing. Nothing at all.

*****

One week later

GERRY: (on the phone) The t-shirts say what? Tell him it’s just a joke. No, don’t let him phone his agent, I’ll come down straight away. (Hangs up). Okay, thanks for coming in Mr Orme. I wanted to tell you that we will be producing your script for Doctor Who after all.

GEOFFREY:  Well, how delightfully wise of you, young Davies! You must have read the script again and realised what pure, unsullied genius it is!

GERRY: Well, no. Another script fell through and as I’m writing the story before it and the one after, I just don’t have time to write this one as well. Frankly, it’s either your story or we put on reruns of… I don’t know, Ivanhoe.

GEOFFREY: I wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe!

GERRY: I know you wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe. Plus, we’ve found a director who didn’t have a conniption at the thought of making the thing, so we’re on.

GEOFFREY: Capitol! Excelsior!

GERRY: Sure. Look, I don’t have time to do much rewriting on it, so just take on all the notes from our last meeting. Plus the octopus has got to become a fish and add a bit where the Doctor dresses up as a gypsy. Dressing up’s his new thing. And you’ll need to write in a new assistant, a Scots boy called Jamie.

GEOFFREY: No problem there, good fellow. I’ll just give him some of Mr Who’s girlfriend’s lines.

GERRY: Um, sure. And change the title.

GEOFFREY: Yes! To Geoffrey Orme presents the extraordinary tale of Mr Who and the Fish People!

GERRY: Keep working on it. Oh, and one other thing… there’s a terribly hackneyed line in it somewhere. I forget what it is just at the moment, but it’s a real howler. Anyway, we’ll fix it later. I’ve got to get to the studio. (exits)

Geoffrey savours the moment.

GEOFFREY: Nothing in the world can stop me now!

CLEANING LADY: Good for you, ducks.

*****

LINK TO Cold War: Setting, the sea.

NEXT TIME:  We get ensnared in The Web Planet. What galaxy is that in, Doctor?

 

 

 

 

Crusades, Crusaders and The Crusade (1965)

crusade

I’m always a little confused about the name of this story. I know not to call it The Crusaders, because that’s the name of the novelisation. But I often want to call it The Crusades, because when I think of that period of history, I  think of Crusades multiple. The events of this story, for instance, take place during the Third Crusade.

I’m not so foolish as to read too much into the titles of 1960s Doctor Who stories, because who knows what the real titles actually are. But I wonder sometimes why it’s called The Crusade, singular. It could be just one of those early Who vagaries that leads us to call Serial C Inside the Spaceship, The Edge of Destruction or sometimes after we’ve had a few wines, Beyond the Sun.  Or it could be that writer David Whitaker was referring to one personal crusade, presumably that of Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover).

His personal crusade may once have been to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, wresting it from the Saracens. But after years of bloody warfare, he’s ready to sue for peace. Richard’s an interesting character – he is by no means a paragon of virtue. He’s petulant and temperamental. He lingers too long in the woods, despite the best advice of his knights, and as a result, his key men are killed (he admits no responsibility for this). It is this event, perhaps, which leads him to want to bargain with Saladin (Bernard Kay, unfortunately in brownface). He concocts a plan to marry off his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin (Roger Avon, also unfortunately in brownface), and thus secure a peaceful settlement.

Joanna’s crusade is to utterly oppose the proposed union. Her outrage leaps off the screen, such is Marsh’s ability to portray Joanna’s horror at the idea. Joanna’s no fool either. She rebuffs Richard’s idea with a stratagem he can’t counteract; she threatens to appeal to the Pope. Her whole presence in the story leads up to this point (indeed, she doesn’t appear afterward) and unlike the men around her, she’s won the day.

Perhaps the title refers to Saladin’s crusade, to prevail over his invaders. The presentation of a religious war between Christians and Muslims would be almost unthinkable in today’s Doctor Who. Despite the unfortunate casting, Whitaker presents a refreshingly measured view of the other side of this holy war. Saladin is no raving, unreasonable madman; he’s cold and calculating (in contrast to Richard’s reckless passion). He’s a subtle, shady character; he conceals himself behind a curtain, listening to events before he intervenes. He treats his prisoners and enemies alike with courtesy. It would have been easy to paint him as the evil mastermind, implacably opposed to Richard. Instead, he’s eminently reasonable – in many ways preferable to Richard. His key moment is when he agrees to Richard’s proposal but insists on preparing his armies for war, in case the whole thing goes pear-shaped. “Hold one hand out in friendship,” he says, in one example of an outstandingly lyrical script,  “but keep the other on your sword.” (Like Joanna, once he’s made his key point, he exits the story, not to be seen again).

It would be easy to say that this is a crusade for Ian (William Russell), whose whole role in this story is to rescue Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, playing her role in a typical Whitaker trope. Think of The Evil of the Daleks where Jamie goes on a similar quest in pursuit of Victoria). But actually, that’s not as interesting as that of another of Barbara’s protectors, Haroun Ed Diin (George Little). Ed Diin is on a crusade to murder the wicked emir El Akir (Walter Randall). His fervour is stoked by El Akir’s killing of Ed Diin’s family and his alliance with Barbara is another way of getting within stabbing distance of his target. His single-mindedness is horrifying, particularly when he entrusts Barbara (who he’s only just met) with killing his daughter, lest she fall into the hands of his enemy. And, by the way, his crusade’s successful, robbing Ian of the opportunity to confront El Akir face to face. He’s a secondary character, but he gets to do away with the bad guy, so his crusade must count for something.

It’s certainly not Barbara’s crusade; she had hers a season ago in The Aztecs, an historical in which she became intrinsically linked with the culture around her, attempting to play an interventionist role. Here, she’s far more a victim of circumstance: captured by El Akir, incarcerated by Saladin, recaptured by El Akir, rescued by Ed Diin, recaptured by El Akir and finally rescued by Ian. Despite constantly being manhandled (quite literally) throughout the story, she remains a strong presence throughout the story, albeit one without agency. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have a story where Ian was captured and abducted, with Barbara staging the rescue campaign?

It’s also not the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) crusade. He plays an early active role in concocting the plan to win Richard’s favour to gain his help in rescuing Barbara. After that he enjoys some hijinks bamboozling tailors and chamberlains and entering into some ethical debate in the royal court, but he’s an observer rather than a catalyst for action. He’s our eyes and ears with which to observe Richard and his dramas with Joanna, but in truth, he’s tangential, not essential to the action. Even when he falls out with Richard (the Lion thinks briefly that the Doctor has snitched on him to Joanna), it’s quickly reversed without consequence. Still, it gives Hartnell a chance to thesp around in some nice costumes and switch rapidly from mirth to outrage.

The final candidate to offer a crusade is the subject of that outrage. It’s the bellicose Earl of Leicester (John Bay), with whom the Doctor has picked a fight about siding with Richard’s scheme for marrying Joanna to Saphadin. He’s appalled by Richard’s plan, and says so, only for the Doctor to accuse him of being a fool and a butcher. He rebukes him with more of this story’s elegant dialogue. “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words,” he snarls, “we the soldiers, have to face it out.” He takes such offence that when the Doctor and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) sneak quietly back to the Ship, he gives chase to execute them. He really must believe they’re bad eggs if he’d rather spend time hunting down an old man and a young girl than fighting the Saracens.

It doesn’t come to that, of course. Our four heroes reconvene at the TARDIS just in time and inveigle themselves insides. Once inside, their ordeals – particularly the ghastly one Barbara’s endured – have been forgotten, and they dissolve into puns and giggles. It’s a spectacularly ill-fitting end to a story which has been a sober and at time brutal examination of men of war exercising their personal crusades. Crusaders. Crusade. Whatever.

LINK TO Under the Lake/Before the Flood: both feature kings.

NEXT TIME… It’s the daily disaster we call Frontios. Luckily it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.

 

 

Morons, zeros and The Space Museum (1965)

space museum

I have this theory that a museum is no place to set an adventure story. They are places of scholarship, conservation and learning, characterised by quiet, respectful contemplation. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones, intrepid collector of museum pieces, has his adventures in jungles, deserts and other far flung locales: museums themselves are inherently dull. Unless the exhibits are going to come to life and exterminate you, there’s not much to set the heart racing.

It’s a theory borne out by The Space Museum, which is set in a space museum, run by a bunch of uninterested guards called the Moroks. They’re an odd lot. Their name is perilously close to “morons”, they dress like power dentists and they have hairdos which appear to have been blown into a permanent state of alarm with industrial strength driers. Plus they have a predilection for declamatory speeches about how hard done by they are. Despite these handicaps, they are, we are told, ruthless conquerors of worlds. Beware! They will land on your planet, kick your arse and… set up a museum.

This is exactly what they do on the planet Xeros. There they establish a museum which looks like a chocolate gateau on the outside, but on the inside features a dazzling array of featureless corridors. The museum’s collection consists of the spoils of war, which it must be said, are scant: a few random spaceships, some unlikely looking props, one Dalek casing and some stools they found on the Sense Sphere. I don’t know who the target audience is for this museum – no-one, if current visitor numbers are any indication – but perhaps it hints at a new battle strategy by these fearsome maurauders. Instead of fighting and killing other races, the Moroks will just wait until their victims come to their space museum and let them bore to death.

The Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) arrive at the museum early – in fact, in spectral form before their real selves actually get there (the TARDIS having tripped over some technobabble). They have a premonition of their future selves as immobile exhibits, like stuffed animals in perspex boxes. Once the timelines are back in sync, it does indeed transpire that the monotonous Moroks do want to embalm our heroes… which is a novel threat, but also strange seeing that the museum isn’t actually full of other unwary travellers who have strayed within its stultifying walls.

(It’s never made clear why the Moroks want to start their collection of frozen alien beings with our heroes. But imagine a museum filled with frozen people, like Narnia’s statue garden of various creatures whom the White Witch turned to stone. And imagine the museum as a dark, gothic mausoleum. Now that might actually be suspenseful.)

Having been confronted with the vision of a future spent frozen in display cases, our four heroes debate what it will take to change the future. They stage an interesting debate about whether any action on their part is going to help or hinder their chances. Well, it’s interesting the first time. The problem is they keep having that same debate over and over throughout the next three episodes. But at least it’s an interesting reversal of their usual mantra about not being able to change history. This time, in order to survive, they need to mess with future events.

They never get to the bottom of it, though. At the end, it seems the future has been changed because Vicki has encouraged the mousy Xerons to stage a revolution. (If Vicki seems like the least likely of the TARDIS crew to stage such a rebellion, it is at least a pleasing development in her character, from being a line feed for the Doctor).

Who are these Xerons? Well, they are the oppressed indigenous species and an equally odd bunch. Their name is perilously close to “zeros”, they all dress like sinister Wiggles and they each have four eyebrows. They’re also all weedy teenage boys, the type you’d think would be super tech savvy, but unfortunately they can’t work out how to hack the computer which is guarding the armoury (because, y’know, museums totally have armouries). This is preventing them from overthrowing the Moroks, so instead they sit around, drink coffee and wish they’d taken more STEM subjects at Xeros Elementary. Luckily Vicki’s on hand to hack the armoury’s computer and generally do all the thinking for them.

As it happens, it must have been Vicki’s rabble rousing which did the trick because none of her companions did anything effectual. Barbara gets locked in a cupboard with a Xeron. The Doctor goes on holiday for a week. And Ian finds a gun and reimagines himself as the series tough guy, getting into fights, menacing some Moroks, but not actually achieving anything. If The Space Museum does nothing else, it at least shows Vicki to be an intelligent, proactive force in the program. It may even be a subtle suggestion that the future can only be changed by the young.

The story falls so quickly from being innovative and spooky to being a generic good guys vs bad guys shoot ‘em up, that you can’t help wonder if it was deliberate; an early meta-commentary on the show itself. But surely that gives The Space Museum too much credit. There’s no subtext here. The battle between the Moroks and the Xerons seems like generic sci-fi tosh because that’s what it is.

That in itself is peculiar, because the Hartnell era is so much about the weird and the wonderful of alien cultures; that a world ruled by insects is as strange and adventurous as the rival courts of Richard I and Saladin. To suddenly veer into pulp sci-fi seems uncharacteristic. It’s like writer Glyn Jones, having set up an intriguing premise in the first episode, has to cobble together another plot to contain it in for three episodes.

The whole thing staggers to an ending when the hammy revolution, full of ray gun shots and extras falling extravagantly to the floor reaches the Moroks’ headquarters. Our heroes congratulate themselves on a job unwittingly done and head for the TARDIS, leaving the teenage boys in charge. Though really, if our heroes had stopped to think about it for as long as they worried about whether or not they were changing the future, they’ve have realised that both parties of antagonists on Xeros are doomed to die out within a generation. Because although they have guns and freezing machines and Sensorite furniture to fight over, what neither the Moroks or the Xerons have amongst them, is any women.

LINK TO The Shakespeare Code: both feature callbacks to The Crusade.

NEXT TIME… nothing’s quite as it seems to be at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

 

 

 

 

Doctorless, Dalekless, Mission to the Unknown (1965) and The Feast of Steven (1965)

Episode One

21st century Who has gotten us used to Doctor-lite adventures. But even now, we’ve only ever had one Doctor-entirely-absent adventure. It’s the one episode curio Mission to the Unknown.

Writer Terry Nation created the Daleks and, buoyed by three popular TV outings and a feature film in the cinemas, thought they could do without the Doctor and his friends. Given a surplus episode to play with, he grabbed the chance to let his metal babies glide out from behind the time traveller’s shadow. Mission to the Unknown is a first attempt to gauge how they’d hold an audience’s attention on their own.

The answer is… adequately. They’re as strangely compelling as ever, but not so the company they keep. Nation created a great monster, but never created great human characters. Here, three astronauts are stranded on a hostile planet, but they are standard, hammy heroes with not much to distinguish them, saying things like “I didn’t want to touch down on this lousy planet in the first place” and “you can bet your life our whole galaxy is in danger!” Yup, Daleks have better dialogue than these b-movie duds.

But to be honest, Daleks without the Doctor have never excited me. There’s something about their mechanical single-mindedness which seems to need the Doctor’s eccentricity and humour to bounce off. Partnering them against a James Bond wannabe as they are here (replacement lead Marc Cory even has a license to kill), or against a whole SSS of them as proposed in Nation’s would-be spin off, doesn’t have the same alchemy that Doctor Who has.

If the Daleks’ solo plan doesn’t quite come off, it’s partly because they’re not up to much. They spend much of the episode holding a big meeting with their allies from other galaxies. There’s a reason why middle-management strategic planning days don’t feature heavily in drama. Perhaps the Daleks and the Planetarians should have held a team building exercise instead? “Now everyone, we’re going to catch Malpha as he falls backwards… What do you mean you have no arms, big black Christmas tree?” When they start listing their invasion targets (Mars! Jupiter! The Moon colonies!), you can imagine the bullet points appearing onto whatever the Dalek equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation is. And you sense a sparse script being padded.

It all feels a bit inconsequential. But there is one event which promises some to have impact on the bigger story to come. It’s Marc Cory’s (Edward de Souza) attempts to get a message to Earth about the Daleks’ presence on the planet Kembel. He does this by recording it on cassette, which is quaint. But he’s killed before he can transmit the message, and Earth remains unwarned. But this is a prequel, right? So viewers back in 1965 could have reasonably expected that to pay off later.

Unfortunately, it proves to be a fizzer. In the fourth episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor and his allies play back the recovered tape and listen to Cory’s message. It tells them all about the Dalek threat… which they’ve already discovered two episodes ago. “I don’t know if it’s revelant”, the Doctor fluffs when he finds the tape.  No, it’s not Doctor. It’s entirely “irrevelant”. It only adds to the general sense that this Mission has been marking time.

But that’s not to suggest that a one episode story, standing alone from the rest of the series, was an experiment doomed to fail. In fact, the Doctor Who team quickly repeated it, with another episode separate from the stories around it.\. Tellingly, when putting this next odd-episode-out together, the production team left out the Daleks, not the Doctor. Surely an acceptance that Daleks are optional, but Doctor Who really can’t do without the Doctor.

Episode Two

It’s absurd to think of the merry Christmas celebration that is The Feast of Steven as anything other than a standalone story. Sure, it was produced as part of the twelve-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, but then Mission to the Unknown was produced as part of Galaxy 4 and we think of them separately. True, it has one scene that makes reference to Master Plan’s ongoing narrative, but that’s it. A few scant sentences in an otherwise entirely separate storyline. And yes, it’s broadcast in between episodes of Master Plan, but who cares? The story’s already been interrupted by four episodes of The Myth Makers.

And if we needed any more convincing, it was omitted from Master Plan for overseas sales. It’s not only seen by its makers as separate but also unnecessary. So meaningless outside its context as a throwaway piece of festive nonsense, to be of no possible interest to audiences outside the UK. Even stone cold Doctorless Mission to the Unknown could be sold overseas, but not this.

So where to start? Well, I suppose the first thing to note is that it’s a comedy (no, really) and more broadly comic than any other Doctor Who story. Even stories like The Romans or City of Death which are comic in tone, have dramatic storylines at their core. The Feast of Steven has no dramatic intent at all. It’s made up of two comic set pieces designed to keep a Christmas Day audience amused.

The first set piece involves some antics at a Liverpool police station. As conceived, this was going to be a crossover episode between with popular police drama Z Cars. Now, I’ve never seen an episode of Z Cars, but quite why a police drama was seen as good fodder for a Doctor Who crossover eludes me (But hey, Dimensions in Time makes anything seem possible). Could the seventh Doctor and Ace have shared a cracker with the cast of The Bill? Could the thirteenth Doctor drop in for Christmas lunch in Broadchurch? (That would be confusing.)

This half of the episode is all very arch and self aware. Steven (Peter Purves) conveniently finds a police uniform and oddly enough it comes with a Liverpudlian accent. As an astronaut from the 25th century it seems unlikely he’d be able to adopt such an accent, but when questioned about it by the Doctor, he says he did so because everyone else was speaking that way. The Doctor himself points out that one of the Policemen is played by an actor who appeared in The Crusade. And although the significance of the man and his troublesome greenhouse escapes me, I’d bet it’s some comment on the regular dramatic fodder on Z Cars.

Never before had the series so knowingly winked at its audience as if to say, you’re watching a piece of television. We both know it, so let’s have some fun. That alone makes it weird enough.

But then the second half changes tack. There’s no self-referential game playing here. Just a load of old slapstick on the film sets of two early Hollywood epics. It’s pure farce, and judging by the cacophonous soundtrack, utterly chaotic too. Unlike the first half which invites its audience to exercise its knowledge of contemporary TV, this is asking them to relive happy hours spent at the cinema, watching quota quickies and screwball comedies (some of which would have starred William Hartnell). Its characters are cliches, its set ups predictable, but that is, I suspect, part of the fun. But blimey – it sounds absolutely barking.

Finally, and infamously, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall when the episode ends with the Doctor wishing the audience a “happy Christmas to all of you at home”. It’s a moment unique in Doctor Who, so bizarre as to be almost impossible to decode. But it is surely the clearest signal that the production team is saying, ignore the last 25 minutes. It was just a bit of fun. We won’t even bother telerecording it, that’s how disposable it is. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of an extended joke between friends. And the second episode in short order which has played fast and loose with the core elements of Doctor Who.

LINK to Tooth and ClawBoth Mission and Tooth and Claw feature monsters that can transform you into said monster, with a scratch.

NEXT TIME… Hey nonny nonny, it’s The Shakespeare Code

Micro, macro and Planet of Giants (1964)

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We’re supposed to be surprised; this is Doctor Who’s first shock twist. It’s all in the title: Planet of Giants. We’re meant to think our heroic time travellers have landed on an alien planet. It’s only half way in to the first episode that we’re let in on the secret: this planet of giants is Earth! And then there’s that beautiful shot pulling back from the TARDIS, seemingly in a ravine, to show it’s actually miniaturized and parked between paving stones in a garden path (up which we’ve just been metaphorically led).

It’s an odd story this one, the ninth they ever made. It’s the realisation of an ambition the production team had had since Doctor Who‘s initial conception, to do a story where the TARDIS crew are miniaturised. But you get the sense that they gradually lost enthusiasm for the idea. They left it until nearly last in the season. Then they abbreviated the story from four episodes to three, when they realised it was getting a bit dull.

(That makes a total of three episodes shot but abandoned in Doctor Who’s first year: An Unearthly Child and The Dead Planet both reshot, and this story’s The Urge to Live scrapped. A shrinkage rate never repeated, showing just how difficult in must have been to get the show right in its earliest days.)

I suspect that as the story developed, the technical difficulties which presented themselves started to impact on the fictional world. Someone pretty early on must have realised that the mini TARDIS crew were not going to be able to interact with the full size characters. So this demands parallel story lines in the macro and micro worlds, which presents a whole raft of new difficulties.

The micro world is recognisable as standard Doctor Who; our heroes are thrown into a bizarre world populated by monstrous creatures and ever present dangers. But the full scale world, from which our heroes are absent, is much less familiar territory. It presents the story of the unscrupulous business man Forester (Alan Tilvern) resorting to fraud, coercion and murder in order to gain government approval for a new insecticide. He’s eventually thwarted by the local telephonist and her police office husband. It’s kitchen sink drama, which doesn’t feel at all like Doctor Who. So cutting between these two worlds has the effect of watching two different programs simultaneously.

Given better technical facilities or a larger budget, the story would save a crew member from miniaturisation (Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, perhaps) in order to be the conduit between the two storylines, and aid our engagement with both. But as it is, there are two plot elements which link these worlds. First there’s the murder of fussy, scrupulous old public servant Farrow (Frank Crawshaw), whose body the time travellers come across in the front yard. The second is the insecticide DN6, the results of which our mini heroes see all around them in the yard; ants, earthworms and flies lay lifeless.

These two factors help the Doctor (a legitimate William Hartnell) and co make the not exactly impossible, but highly improbable leaps of logic to determine that DN6 is a danger to mankind to which they need to draw attention. It’s all very coincidental: Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill)  hide in a briefcase, which gets taken to a laboratory bench upon which there’s a notepad with the DN6 formula scribbled on. It’s from this, a few odd smells and the observation of those corpses, both insect and human, that they just about deduce Forester’s plan. Sherlock Holmes could have some competition.

But they have nothing on telephone exchange maestro Hilda Rowse (Rosemary Johnson). She’s a wily old eavesdropper and amateur sleuth. Her suspicions are raised when she hears Forester impersonating Farrow on a call to his Ministry. To be fair, Forester doesn’t go to elaborate lengths to disguise his voice; he simply puts a handkerchief over the mouthpiece and hopes for the best. Moriaty, he aint.

It’s certainly not enough to fool forensic old Hilda. Then when the phone is off the hook for a while, she gets even more suss and sends husband Bert (Fred Ferris) to investigate. I hope they solve other crimes around their village. There’s a spin off series gone to waste: The Hilda & Bert Mysteries. They solve telephone related crimes! Midsomer Murders before its time.

While all this is going on, our heroes have an additional problem. Barbara has touched some DN6 and it’s slowly killing her. Much time is taken up by Barbara attempting to conceal her illness from her friends, for no apparent reason. “Don’t make a fuss,” she hisses at Ian at one point. This whole plot point is very strange because it’s so out of character for sensible shoe wearing Barbara to behave in this way. But wondering why she doesn’t just tell them is as futile as wondering how that ‘space pressure’ made the TARDIS shrink in the first place.

As soon as they deduce what’s happened to Barbara (more detective work) the Doctor and his friends determine to take her back to the Ship. But Barbara’s more concerned with telling the world about DN6. So they come up with a plan to draw attention to events in the laboratory by resorting to vandalism. The plan? Set fire to the lab. The method? They light a handy bunsen burner, with some handy matches and direct it towards a handy pressurised can. Yes, here’s early Doctor Who‘s educational remit on display. You too kids, can rig up a bomb in your own science lab!

It’s an unusually violent and highly dangerous tactic for our normally peace loving TARDIS crew. And as fortune would have it (and like everything in this story, timing and coincidence play significant roles), Forester walks in at precisely the wrong moment, and the can blows up in his face. Just think about that for a minute: a heated aerosol can exploding in your face; that’s pretty brutal by Who standards. But there’s no time to dwell on the horrible injuries he must have sustained because seconds after, Inspector Bert turns up. And that’s where we leave the macro story, in the hope that he’ll sort it all out. Well, if he can’t he can always call Hilda for back up.

All ends well as our friends return to the TARDIS, and the Doctor hits a reset switch which returns the TARDIS to normal, cures Barbara and shrinks a giant seed for good measure. But no one mentions the elephant in the room: that the Doctor finally managed to get Ian and Barbara back to 20th century England but at a fraction of normal size. Imagine if he’d manage to resize the TARDIS without moving location. Ian and Babs might have decided to jump ship and the Doctor would be looking for two new companions.

There would be two obvious candidates. Step inside the spaceship you remarkable crime fighters Hilda and Bert! Now that would be a twist.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘Quick! Behind this water tank!’ cries Ian. A tank on a laboratory bench? Doesn’t he mean ‘water tap’? But anyway, my favourite is when Hilda picks up a call and says ‘Exchange operator’, the subtitle say ‘Strange operator’. Well, she’s a nosy old bird, but that’s a bit harsh. Still, it was a big hit for Sade, wasn’t it?

LINK TO Enlightenment: Hmm, will you accept that both feature dead animals? Planet of Giants‘ array of dead insects and those dead birds stuck on the Guardians’ heads? Oh, go on!

NEXT TIME… Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark. Please join me in A Christmas Carol.

Deception, duplication and The Rescue (1965)

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Maureen O’Brien, who debuted as little orphan Vicki in The Rescue, tells a great story about when she joined Doctor Who, replacing Carole Ann Ford who had played Susan for the series’ first year. Apparently BBC boss Sydney Newman, a fairly imposing character we’ve been led to believe, suggested to Maureen before her work on the show started that she cut her hair and die it black. To which the 21 year-old actor said, “Why don’t you just get Carole Ann Ford back?”

(I like to think that Newman said, “Because I can never remember which of her three names has the e at the end of it! That drives me up the wall! I’m not going through that again!”)

Carole Ann left the show because her character didn’t develop beyond a screaming teenage girl, as she was promised it would. But given the chance to make changes to the key cast, the Doctor Who production team chose to stick to type, and replace Susan immediately with another teenage girl. And indeed one without parents and one with advanced knowledge of the future. Vicki’s almost as unearthly as Susan. No wonder Newman couldn’t shake the image of Susan from his mind; the production team were wanting Susan mark II. Later on in this season, there’s even a moment one of the Daleks’ killer robots is defeated when it can’t tell that Vicki is a different person to Susan.

But Vicki is different to Susan, mainly thanks to Maureen O’Brien’s attempts to bring depth to her character (not something, I suspect, the series’ writers were much worried about). She’s more biting than Susan and more likely to voice a different opinion to the other three leads. There’s a nice moment in The Romans where she’s following the Doctor round in typical companion style, then she sudden says “See you later”. She’s off to follow a lead of her own. William Hartnell’s authoritarian Doctor looks shocked. It’s like she’s still learning how companions are meant to behave.

She also grows up over the course of her time on board the Ship. In a sense, this is just another copy of what happens to Susan: she stays with the Doctor for a year, grows up and is married off. But I’d suggest the change in Vicki is more distinct. If you look at The Time Meddler, she’s a very different character to the one in The Rescue. It’s partly a side effect of the series going from three companions to two, a change which broke up the faux family unit of Doctor, Ian, Barbara and teenage girl. It gives Vicki a bigger slice of the action and her age and experience is subtly nudged up to assist.

In The Rescue, however, she’s is clearly a child. Her fellow castaway Bennett (Ray Barrett, an actor familiar from loads on appearances in Australian film and TV) says so. They are apparently the two survivors of the crew of a crashed spaceship, killed in a massacre by the inhabitants of this classically named planet, Dido. Since then, Bennett has been confined to quarters by a gammy leg, and both have been menaced by a spiked, tusked and clawed monster called Koquillion.

Now, it’s hardly a spoiler (after all this story’s now 50 years old) to reveal that Koquillion is Bennett in disguise. It’s one of the first things you learn in Who 101, a basic fact which most fans knew long before we read the Target novelization in 1987, let alone watched the story on VHS in 1994. The Rescue comes to us spoiled, so we’ll never know how obvious that twist was. Nor will we know how surprised viewers who dismissed Koquillion as a man dressed up in a monster costume were, when he was revealed to be a man dressed up in a monster costume.

I suspect that writer David Whitaker’s sleight of hand probably worked. Bennett is kept sufficiently in the background and his lameness so well established that the possibility that Koquillion is anything but a separate person would have crossed the minds of only the most forensic of viewers. The Doctor is clearly not fooled; he knows the inhabitants of Dido from a previous visit and so knows the spikes and claws described by his companions – he meets neither Bennett nor Koquillion until the story’s climax – are ceremonial robes. But he keeps this information to himself, even to the point of confronting the murderous villain solo, which seems like an unnecessarily risky strategy, but one which maintains the plot’s central mystery.

It leads to a terrific final scene between the Doctor and Bennett, with Hartnell and Barrett acting their socks off. But ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying climax, because it leaves out our central character Vicki. It is Vicki whose story we’ve followed since scene 1. It is Vicki upon whom Bennett’s most egregious crimes have been visited: the murder of her father, incarceration and terrorisation. By rights, it’s she who should get the chance to confront her tormentor, perhaps to even push him over the cliff over which he tumbles at story’s end. Instead, she’s kept off stage and it’s left to the Doctor to recount to her how Bennett met his match.

And the reason why she’s sidelined is not just because the Doctor’s our story’s hero. It’s also because she’s a child and Doctor Who keeps children out of harm’s way. Not all children’s fiction is like this. Long before Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series featured children facing up to villains and engaging in terrible danger. But not 60s Who. Like Susan, Vicki will be forever kept from the main game. And in a way, the ease with which the Doctor solves the mystery of Koquillion is another indicator of Vicki’s childhood. Bennett’s plan, it seems, would not have stood up to an adult’s scrutiny. In needed the credulity of a child to succeed.

O’Brien, like her predecessor, found the role of junior companion unsatisfying and she was unceremoniously dumped at the beginning of the show’s third year. The series experimented briefly with companions who were Trojan handmaidens and Space Security Agents. But then they reverted to type and introduced another teenage girl, Dodo Chaplet. She even had short dark hair.

Makes you wonder… why didn’t they just get Carole Ann Ford back?

LINK to The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. In each, the villains are defeated by falling to their deaths.

NEXT TIME: It’s a case of the flaming oopizootics when The Talons of Weng-Chiang shred our fleeeeessssh!