Tag Archives: season 21

Immobility, inconvenience and Frontios (1984)

Frontios

Sometimes, we Whoheads like to ignore the inconvenient. If one solitary story reveals a rogue fact about the show which doesn’t chime with the other 50 plus years, we like to quietly forget it ever happened. For instance, we don’t like to recall that Susan made up the name TARDIS. Or that Time Lords can live forever, barring accidents. Or that the Doctor is half human.

In Frontios, we find out for the first and only time that the TARDIS cannot actually travel anywhere in time and space. There are some places it’s not supposed to go. It has time parameters which should not be exceeded, on fear of the Time Lords getting cross and doing something or other.

This is a strange development for a series which has as its main premise the ability to set adventures stories throughout the history of the cosmos. Why try to ring fence that? What is the dramatic potential gained from such a move? The answer seems to be none. All it facilitates is a few worried phrases from Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor about not telling anyone that he’s wandered out of bounds.

The place he’s come to is Frontios (because it’s on the frontier, geddit?) It’s in the far future and it’s where the last representatives of the human race are struggling for survival. It’s a bleak, rocky world which is continually beset by meteorite strikes (there’s some irony that they finally have a story which would have benefited from being filmed in a quarry, and instead, they create a quarry-like planet in the studio). It’s a place where everything seems to fit into a limited colour palette of grey and red and where synthesised pan pipe music can be heard everywhere.

The Doctor doesn’t want to land on Frontios because, “the colony’s too new… its future hangs in the balance.” When forced down to the planet’s surface, he decides to muck in with the Frontiosians and help out, after some initial reluctance. True to form, he finds some space cockroaches who are behind it all and sorts the whole mess out over four episodes, but then he appeals to everyone around him to keep the whole thing quiet. We never really find out why, but perhaps the implication is that he shouldn’t have saved the colonists from their fate and the Time Lords would have been happier if the human race had been finished off once and for all? In which case, wouldn’t that have been an interesting premise which could have lead to some mighty repercussions of some kind?

Doesn’t matter anyway, we’ll just ignore it at move on. Like how the Daleks call their ships DARDISes and how the character’s name is actually Doctor Who.

Anyway, we should talk Tractators. They are the aforementioned space cockroaches and they live beneath the surface of Frontios, tractating meteors to the planet’s surface and sucking the occasional human into the earth. They are enormous woodlice creatures with faces of elderly bespectacled housewives and they are among the least mobile alien creatures ever to waddle across a television screen. They have no visible feet, but they do have two paddle like hands protruding from their bellies. Our heroes and their colonist compadres have to lean into those bellies awkwardly in order to be “captured” by the creatures. Running away from them has to be carefully timed to deny instant success. “Only those who have been isolated for millennia,” growls their articulate leader, the Gravis (John Gillett), “truly appreciate the power of mobility.” I believe old mate Gravis (because he controls gravity, geddit?), because the best he and his swarm buddies can manage is a menacing shuffle and the occasional precarious sway to emphasise salient points.

Nothing about the Tractators seems feasible. We’re told they are highly skilled gravitational engineers, although none of them are able to hold as much as a screwdriver. They are burrowing wave form tunnels underneath the surface of Frontios, which they will then use to propel the planet around the cosmos to look for other worlds to infest. Hopefully they can pilot it at a far greater speed than they can totter, because space is awfully big and planets can be pretty unwieldy.

Otherwise, it’s the slowest invasion plan ever. We’re told that they need human pilots for their gruesome excavating machines (which again, they somehow build with their flappy little hands), but they particularly like to choose humans in leadership positions like Captain Revere (who is revered, geddit?) and Plantagenet (who’s a sort of king, geddit?), and everyone else they drag from the surface they use for… well it’s not really clear.

Feasible or not, the Doctor treats them like an inimical threat to humanity which needs to be neutralised. Only a couple of stories ago he was arguing that humans should make friends with the similarly subterranean Silurians because they were an intelligent, technologically advanced species with whom the Earth could be shared. He offers no such argument about the Tractators, even though they too are intelligent, technologically advanced and presumably, were on Frontios before the humans.

But then, the Doctor only occasionally likes to defend the right of the monsters to live. The rest of the time he blows them up or throws them into the sun or – like he does here – strands them on an uninhabited planet. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a top bloke. It’s just sometimes he forgets about the sanctity of life in the universe and just gets the roach bombs out.

While all this is going on, companion Kamelion (a robot who can change shape, geddit?) is conspicuous by his absence. Sure, he usually is, having been benched from the TARDIS team because he couldn’t remember his lines or stand up unaided. It’s understandable he doesn’t get out much and I don’t think he even minds. I like to think of him lying on one of those bendy sleeping benches which fold out of the TARDIS walls, drinking an engine oil cocktail, sucking in naughty android films through his roundel-connected umbilical cord. Still, it’s an astonishing oversight on behalf of his companions to not give him a second thought when the TARDIS disintegrates around him. This would never have happened to K9.

So where does he get to during all this? My guess is that having found himself pulled underground, he’s promptly disguised himself as a Tractator. They are perfect for him, really. They barely move, don’t speak and are useless without the controlling mind of a greater intelligence. He probably feels right at home. And I like to think he amuses himself by gathering up other bits of discarded TARDIS paraphernalia like the food machine, the astral map and the space time visualiser. Just so he can be surrounded by those other inconveniences we like to forget about.

LINK TO The Crusade: one features a King, the other has a Plantagenet.

NEXT TIME… off to the edge of the known universe to find a Planet of Evil.

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Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Polls, potential and The Twin Dilemma (1984)

twin-dilemma

We fans keep changing our collective mind about which is the best ever Doctor Who story. Is it Androzani? Is it Genesis of the Daleks? Is it The Day of the Doctor? We can’t decide. There are too many contenders.

But when it comes to the worst Doctor Who story, we’re unanimous. Time after time we say, The Twin Dilemma. There’s been nothing as bad as that one, we’ve said, in the last three Doctor Who Magazine all-time surveys. As long as we disregard Dimensions in Time, which I’m more than happy to do.

Ranking his debut story last among all Who makes Colin Baker sad, as we know from his 2015 interview with DWM. So sad that he questions the whole practice of mercilessly listing every story or every Doctor from best to worst. Unfortunately, this is what fans do. We list, we score, we compare. We ignore the good intentions, the extenuating circumstances and the mishaps beyond everyone’s control. We know which is the worst Doctor Who story ever, but we forget that no one on its production team deliberately set out to make the worst ever Doctor Who story. Quite the opposite, in fact, in the case of The Twin Dilemma where they sought to kickstart a new, vibrant era for the program.

This blog is not about casting judgement on Doctor Who stories. I try not to tell you which ones I think are good, better or best. Although I’m sure I fail, maybe on every single post, I’m not here to review or rate. Partly because there are loads of other websites that do that already. And partly because I want to hear fresh ideas about Doctor Who. I don’t want to read another article telling me that City of Death‘s brilliant and Time-Flight’s not. If anything, I want to read the opposite.

Facing The Twin Dilemma is a problem though, when something’s so famously, patently bad. It may or may not be the worst Doctor Who story in either my opinion or yours, but I think it can be overwhelmingly agreed that it’s not good Doctor Who. So I’m going to try to put that aside, in order to think about why we need a worst Doctor Who story in the first place.

Apparently showrunner Russell T Davies described this story as “the beginning of the end” for old Who. Having just watched Survival, I have been wondering if this is true – if a five year wind down of the series started with The Twin Dilemma. If you subscribe to that reading, I think that helps explain our need for a “worst story”. We’re looking for a scapegoat to blame for the old series’ cancellation.

I also think identifying the best and worst of something is an inherent part of fandom. I’ve written before about when I think fandom starts; for me, it’s when you seek out more information about the show than an average viewer would have access to. As part of this quest for knowledge, fans are building up a kind of expertise on the program. They develop opinions about what’s good and bad Doctor Who, as opposed to casual viewers who I suspect see any Who they watch as being roughly the same in quality. Fans are connoisseurs, and the ultimate expression of this is choosing not just good and bad, but best and worst.

Then there’s a tendency to ‘pile on’ a particular story. Once The Twin Dilemma started to get its reputation as the worst story ever, it became harder and harder to watch it without being aware of that tag. It became easy for everyone to agree. A similar thing is happening to Fear Her, which seems to be gaining the unwanted notoriety of the worst new series episode. The more we all buy into this idea, the less likely it is to shift.

So there’s scapegoating, piling on and fandom’s need to assess. The Twin Dilemma falls victim to all of these. Still, no smoke without fire – none of these things would gain any traction unless the story in question was dodgy to begin with. And there’s loads of material to work with here – ugly design work, flat direction, clunky dialogue.

On top of it all, it ends with a direct challenge to the audience, daring its audience to dislike it. “I am the Doctor,” declares Colin Baker, delivering the story’s final line from within that colourful maelstrom of a costume, “whether you like it or not!” An extraordinary way to end a story, which speaks of a vast but misplaced confidence. This story was already playing hard to like, and then it ends with an invitation to its audience to bugger off.

****

If The Twin Dilemma is about anything, it’s about the darker side of people, hidden under the surface. The sixth Doctor, in his post regenerative illness, releases a nasty, violent side which would have been unthinkable emerging from the gentle fifth Doctor. The story’s villain, the sluggy Mestor (Edwin Richfield) may be a laughably immobile, crosseyed panto costume, but the idea behind him, that he inhabits people’s minds, filling them with dark thoughts while lurking in shadows, is quietly sinister. Even the titular twins have the mental ability to destroy the universe, so we’re told. And it’s a theme that lasts throughout the sixth Doctor’s era, and culminates in the creation of the Valeyard, a supervillain created from the Doctor’s dark side.

So the seeds of something interesting are there, along with a bold ambition to try something new – to present regeneration not as a blessing, but a dangerous gamble, and to move the Doctor to being louder, ruder and, in many ways, harder than ever before. Here is a strikingly different Doctor, inherently theatrical in words and action and openly confrontational with friends and foes alike. It’s near impossible to imagine The Twin Dilemma as a fifth Doctor story, but not so impossible to imagine a universe where it worked as an innovative and invigorating launch for the sixth Doctor. The beginning of something brilliant, not the end.

Ultimately, being bad Doctor Who is only the first of this story’s crimes. The second is that it posited a brash new vision for the series that failed to convince the audience to go along with it. And while there have been lots of below par Doctor Who stories before and since, there have been none which managed that.

So that’s why I think fans insist on having a worst story, and why we’ve collectively decided it’s The Twin Dilemma. None of which is any comfort to Colin Baker or to anyone else involved in the story’s production.

What I hope is some comfort is that it wasn’t the beginning of the end. The series lives on loud and live, with a spiky, bad tempered Doctor at the helm. Plus the sixth Doctor hasn’t been shunned or quietly ignored; books, comics and audio dramas have crafted new Sixie eras which have garnered new fans. None of which would have been possible without The Twin Dilemma showing what didn’t work, but also what had the potential to work.

LINK TO Survival: wildlife (birds and cats) anthromorphised into alien species.

NEXT TIME: Life depends on change and renewal. Time to switch on The Power of the Daleks.

 

 

 

Slow walks, cold wars and Warriors of the Deep (1984)

Warriorsdeep2

“You fire,” says Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor to gun wielding double agent Nilson (Ian McCulloch) in Warriors of the Deep, “and every Sea Devil in the area will come running.” It’s an obviously empty threat. Those Sea Devils can’t run. Haven’t you noticed, Doctor? The best they can manage is a kind of slow lumber, legs stretched out wide like they’ve all soiled themselves. It’s a typically strained moment in this uneven adventure, the production values of which constantly undermine its efforts to excite and entertain.

But you know what? Pointing out what’s wrong with Warriors of the Deep is like shooting Sea Devils in a brightly lit barrel. We’ve been doing it since 1984. We can sing it like a New Romantic pop song. In fact, let’s have a go right now. It’s “overuse of old monsters, hexachromite reveal gives away the ending, lighting’s all wrong, oh dear the Myrka, paint’s not dry, blokes from Rentaghost, continuity’s screwed, all those dead bodies, attempt to remake Earthshock, there should have been another way, Michael Grade and Room 101.” Ah yes, there’s nothing like the classics.

But Warriors is also nothing like a classic. So I’m not going to attempt a redemptive reading of this story. That, I think, would be utterly nutty. But is there anything new to say about it?

Mrs Spandrell gave it a go. She gave a cursory glance at the TV screen and said, “that set’s better than normal”. And I think she has a point; the Sea Base sets may be too white and then flooded with light, but they do have a sturdy, industrial look which isn’t half bad (if we ignore that bit at the end of Part One where a wall wobbles alarmingly during the Doctor’s fight with the guards). And look, that stunt fall into the tank is pretty cool.

It provides an exciting end to Part One, which is otherwise weirdly slow for a season opener. It’s basically an episode where we find out some background information about the Sea Base (a cold war is in full swing, a synch op’s needed to fire missiles, there are enemy agents on board), and wait for both the Doctor and the monsters to turn up. The monsters are, in this case, the lizardy Silurians and their fishy cousins the Sea Devils. The scenes with the Silurians are particularly languid, adopting a Hartnellesque pace. Every scene with them in Part One consists of them explaining the plot to each other. Slowly. While walking. Slowly.

(Incidentally, I’ve never understood why we get both Silurians and Sea Devils in this story. It doesn’t need them both; just one would do, and presumably that would be the aquatic Sea Devils seeing as this story is set, y’know, underwater. They could have saved themselves the cost of three costumes and loads of explanatory dialogue.)

But once Part One is done, the pace picks up nicely. The remaining three episodes are quite tightly scripted and move along swiftly. It’s unusual because although the four episode structure favoured by Doctor Who often means there’s an episode which lags, it’s commonly the second or third parts, or both. It’s such an odd thing, that four part format; it’s a wonder the series took so long to move to regularly producing three part stories with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. At least Warriors shows it up in a novel way (now that’s damning with faint praise!)

(And although the last three quarters are better than the first, I have to point out this odd piece of dialogue from Chief Sea Devil, the carefully pronounced Sauvix (Christopher Farries). He’s feeling confident about how the invasion’s going, as the watery beasts break through Airlock 5. “The outcome is certain,” he whispers. In his next scene, Ichtar (Norman Comer) tells him the Myrka will soon take the bridge, and Sauvix replies, “then the outcome is doubly certain.” Have we run out of dialogue for poor Sauvix so soon that we have to recycle lines already? When will the outcome be trebly certain, I wonder? Or quadruplely certain?)

There is an interesting mingle of plot and subplot though, because there are two dastardly plans afoot on the Sea Base. The first is the Silurians’ – they plan to provoke a massive global war. The second is courtesy of infiltrators Nilson (who for Australian viewers has the distracting misfortune to be the spit of former treasurer Peter Costello) and Dr. Solow (Ingrid Pitt, who had the distracting misfortune of being in The Time Monster). Now usually these plans would intersect in some pleasingly neat way. In standard Who Nilson would be in league with the Silurians, arrange them access to the Base and then be betrayed and killed by them, rather than assisting his own evil ends.

But here, the two wicked plans never co-incide. And Nilson’s plan runs a poor second to the Silurians’. When the truth comes out, he struggles to find anyone to care; the Doctor’s the first to dismiss it as trivia compared to the greater underwater menace the Base faces. It all falls apart in Part Three anyway when both conspirators are killed; Solow when she attempts to first dance with, and then roundhouse kick the Myrka and Nilson when the Doctor burns out his eyes with a big lamp. Hashtag ignominious.

And as silly as all this is, Warriors is Doctor Who‘s most committed attempt to addressing the threat of nuclear war, a fear which survives today, but was most potent in the 1980s. In particular, it plays into the fear that war could be triggered by some computerised error. A popular Hollywood film in 1983 was WarGames, in which a young hacker almost triggers war by playing a game which turns out to be the national defense system. Warriors’ version has a worldwide computerised defense system which is permanently on edge, seemingly able to be set off by a stray piece of space debris or an unprepared synch operator. In this way, Warriors is as topical as The Green Death was in the 70s. It’s a shame its production limitations overshadow its promising premise which, just in case we’ve forgotten, is strong enough to be repeated 29 years later in Cold War (complete with scaly green monster).

But the really good news from 2084 is fashions are roughly the same as in 1984. So don’t throw out those puffy jackets and ski pants. Your grandchildren are going to want them. Oh yes. The outcome is certain.

Link to The Sensorites. Both feature humans affected by mind control.

NEXT TIME… Nottingham is not enough! We get merry with Robot of Sherwood.

Showing, telling and The Awakening (1984)

awakening

In my head, this is how The Awakening starts: a fierce pitched battle between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Clashing swords, battle cries, whinnying horses, soldiers falling. It’s chaos, restoration style. The viewer knows straight away; we’re in the seventeenth century.

Suddenly, a car drives through the melee, lights flashing, horn beeping. It’s local stick-in-the-mud Jane Hampden. She jumps out imploring the combatants to stop. Grumpily they do, their fun spoilt. A few apparently dead soldiers get up, helped by their faux opponents. The viewer realises it was all a game, and we’re actually in the 1980s. It’s a great way to start an episode of Doctor Who, confounding expectations in a (oh, must I say it?) timey-wimey way.

Why doesn’t The Awakening start this way? Time and money, of course, Doctor Who‘s greatest enemies. Instead, it starts with Jane being mildly frightened by three men on horses.

Now I’m not here to criticise this charming but often bewildering little two-parter for what it’s not. But it’s clear from the beginning that we’re never actually going to see Little Hodcombe’s famous war games in action. And that critically undermines the story.

’cause here’s the thing: the entire plot hangs around the war games. The idea is that the mock battles between the villagers have awoken an alien being called the Malus. It’s been sleeping in an old church since the olden days, and it’s stirring because it feeds off the “psychic energy” generated by the games. The fake battles have been gradually getting more boisterous and, as the Doctor deduces, the ultimate battle will descend into actual violence where the participants will be killed, and the Malus will fully awake.

“Show, don’t tell” is a pretty good rule for screenwriters, and breaking that rule is what The Awakening does throughout. We never see the war games between the villagers, so we can’t imagine them getting out of hand. As a viewer, we don’t know (or care) what’s at stake. In fact, we only ever meet three war gamers: local loon Sir George Hutchinson, good egg Ben Wolsey and nasty piece of work Joseph Willow. They might be a bit wacky, but it’s hard to imagine them actually hacking into their neighbours with swords.

Luckily Sir George (played with relish by Denis Lill), is a delightfully barking creation. It eventually transpires that he’s possessed by the Malus, which might go some way to explaining his dedication to historical reenactment. As far as I can work out, his story goes something like this: he’s the local magistrate in Little Hodcombe. One day, village historian Andrew Verney tells him that he’s discovered a passage linking the local courthouse to the church, where, he suspects, a creature from local legend, the Malus, is buried. Sir George somehow comes in contact with the Malus and then concocts the plan (is it his own? Or is he being subconsciously influenced by the Malus?) to stage a series of war game reenactments.

So then what? Well, I can only imagine Sir George is an active member of the Little Hodcombe Amateur Dramatic society, and thus knows a good costumier. “Mrs Snodgrass, I need Roundhead and Cavalier outfits for the entire village! They must be perfect in every detail!” “Oh Sir George, I don’t think we have that many of those. What about the Wild West? I’ve got plenty of duds left over from Oklahoma! Last year.” “I want costumes, Mrs Snodgrass, not excuses!”. Anyway somehow he manages it, and finds all the weapons too, and the horses, and closes off the village into the bargain. He never takes off his costume either. It’s that sort of dedication to a cause which surely got him knighted.

It’s also got moments of unusual violence. There can’t be many Doctor Who stories where people are decapitated (off screen, thankfully) – The Reign of Terror, maybe? – but The Awakening is one of them. There’s another moment when Verney and Turlough knock two men unconscious with stone debris from the damaged church. It’s one of those moments of casual, incidental violence, depicted in a tame, knock-the-guards-unconscious-and-let’s-be-on-our-way manner, so common in Doctor Who as to be unremarkable.

But just think about that for a moment: if someone smashed your head from behind with a lump of concrete, you wouldn’t just be momentarily stunned, you’d be seriously hurt. It’s odd that a certain type of violence is “safe” for a Doctor Who audience. The Doctor doesn’t mind; he even congratulates Turlough, as he and his coterie run past the prostrate pair and get on with the story.

Which reminds me that the entire cast of The Awakening save batty old Sir George (who dies when he’s pushed over a small ledge into the Malus’s big polystyrene face – which just goes to show that for every shocking act of violence in Doctor Who there’s usually another, utterly lame one to make up for it) ends up running around with the Doctor until the story expires. The mob steadily grows throughout Part Two, until we’ve got six, then seven, people running between church and TARDIS with him. Some amusement can be gained by seeing them all try to ensure they’re in shot in the church scenes. By the time this clump of people have made it inside the TARDIS, the director gives up and does one long pan to fit them all in. I ended up daydreaming about which ones should have met a sticky end earlier in the episode to save space (Willow, I reckon. Probably Ben too.) (For similar crowded antics see Delta and the Bannermen and Journey’s End).

So the story ends with the Doctor flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console while the crowd looks on. But in my head, it ends in that final battle of the war games, much promised, but never seen. The battle rages, more frenetic and aggressive than before. Turlough is in the middle of it, shanghaied into service on one of the sides. Tegan is tied to the maypole, flames licking at her feet. The giant Malus strides across the battlefield, rejoicing in the carnage, while the Doctor struggles to destroy it, beset by phantom swordsmen. A story with everything shown, rather than told.

LINKS to The Next Doctor. Both feature an invading alien colluding with a human villain and ultimately destroying them. Which, I realise, hardly makes them unique among Doctor Who stories. But as The Awakening was released on DVD in a boxset with, of all stories, The Gunfighters based on the fact that both are set on Earth, I figure this story is probably the patron saint on tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… I can sink anywhere. It’s Death to the Daleks.

Drugs, subversion and The Caves of Androzani (1984)

androzani

Hmmm. I’m meant to be ignoring accepted fan law about Doctor Who. I’m meant to be looking at everything afresh. But it’s hard to ignore when I’m aware of The Caves of Androzani’s reputation as one the greats. In fact, according to DWM’s 2008 Mighty 200 survey, the best ever Doctor Who story, up to that point at least. But it’s important to the first point I want to make about it: for me, this is the least Doctor Who-like story in the entire run. Which is ironic if you think, as many do, that this is also the best story in the entire run.

It’s breathtakingly audacious on the part of writer Robert Holmes. He tells a story that breaks all the series’ rules. There’s no planet to save. There’s no oppressed people to liberate. Hell, there’s not even any sympatheic characters for the Doctor to side with. The plot is the struggle for power of the supply of a youth-prolonging drug by three different forces: Sharaz Jek, Morgus and the Androzani army represented by Chellak. The sub plot is that the Doctor and Peri are poisoned and need to escape this world in order to survive.

That’s worth restating: the Doctor is the sub plot. In fact, he doesn’t intersect with the main plot in any meaningful way (save for one moment in Part Three, where Morgus – a unblinking and steely performance by John Normington – suspects the Doctor of being an agent of his enemies and changes his plan accordingly).  When Eric Saward tries this trick a year later in Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor is at least involved in the main plot’s resolution (when he collaborates with Orcini to blow up Tranquil Repose). And in the new series’ Doctor-lite stories like Love & Monsters and Blink, the Doctor is absent, but always woven into the plot; he’s active without being present. Not here.

On any ordinary day, you could not get away with this. But this is no ordinary day. It’s Peter Davison’s last story and also it’s the return to the series after five years of Robert Holmes, former script editor and…wait, you know who Robert Holmes is, right?

Then you’d appreciate the irony in Holmes, the series’ most celebrated writer, essentially writing an anti-Doctor story. And this is a regeneration story, one of the series’ milestones! Holmes knows how big the writing out of a Doctor is, but still he chooses this critical moment to experiment with the show’s basic format. That takes, I think, an unshaking belief as a writer that you know what you’re doing, and of course, Holmes does.

But he doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that there’s no Doctor Who story for the Doctor to engage with on Androzani Minor.  It’s that there’s a perfectly good one waiting for him on Androzani Major. He just landed on the wrong planet.

On Androzani Major, there is a problem to solve – it’s a planet full of drug addicts, so desperate for their elixir of youth they’ll go to war for it. There’s a corrupt government, intertwined with big business. And there’s a villain to overthrow, the insidious Trau Morgus. It’s textbook Who. It’s just where you’d expect the Doctor to show up and save the day. Holmes pushes it to the sidelines, to tell a different story.

Let’s dwell on Major for a moment. Parts One to Three tell us this planet’s story through a series of finely crafted scenes set in Morgus’ office. Normally, these sort of scenes are workaday stuff. Here, they are fascinating, rivaling the noisy action on Minor. For me, the peak of them are Morgus’ sly dealings with the President (David Neal).

Like everyone on Major, the President is desperate for Spectrox. The first thing we see him do is accept a gift/bribe from Morgus of a soupcon of the stuff. The war is being bankrolled by Morgus, so he wields as much power on this planet as anyone, as the President knows and resents. The President wants to sue for peace, but this doesn’t match with Morgus’ plans.

In Part Two, there’s a terrific scene where Morgus suggests rounding up the unemployed and sending them to ’eastern labour camps’ (such a cold war phrase), an idea the President says he’ll take further. But he also notes that these are the very people Morgus sacked from his own factories, and as the labour camps are Morgus owned too, his former employees will now be his slaves. “I hadn’t thought of that”, Morgus deadpans. And the President’s face says it all; he hates Morgus, and hates himself for consorting with him, but he and his society are too dependent on spectrox to take a stand against him.

And in Part Three, Morgus grows paranoid that the President is plotting against him, so he pushes him down a lift shaft. It’s a brutal act, with its aftermath is peppered with black jokes (“It could have been worse,” says Morgus, “it might have been me”). More importantly thought, it’s a logical conclusion to the power struggle between these two men.

Or so we think, because while Holmes has been sketching out a whole alien society in a few short scenes with two main characters, a third has been lurking in the background. It’s icy PA Krau Timmin (Barbara Kinghorn). Once Morgus, post assassination, has legged it to Minor to sort things out, his not-so-loyal deputy Timmin, usurps him. It’s delicious and she tells him the bad news via video link, feet on his desk.

So ends a series of scenes which started with Morgus at the height of his power, arranging for one of his agents to blow up a mine, and ends with his secretary bringing him down. Edited together, those scenes would make a compelling drama of their own. And the Doctor barely shows his face.

Talking of faces being barely shown, let’s talk masks again (Frontier in Space just keeps on giving). Christopher Gable’s turn as the psychotic Sharaz Jek is often praised. It’s less often pointed out that he creates this multi-faceted character from behind a sort of gimp mask splattered with white-out, making his achievement all the more impressive.  Actually though, I think the mask aids rather than obscures his performance.  If you listen to his dialogue, it’s often soaringly OTT. “I want to feast my eyes on your delicacy”, it floridly goes at one point. Gable gives it all he’s got… And I can’t help but wonder if we could see his face, wouldn’t it be a bit too much? It’s the mask that masks what might otherwise be too melodramatic a performance.

One last thing: it’s a blokey story. It surely can be no mistake that this story’s setting draws its name from the Greek word for man, ’Andro’. As pointed out in Cornell et al’s The Discontinuity Guide, all the men die and the two women survive. But even with Timmin victorious, this is no blow struck for feminism. This is because companion Peri’s (played with anxious fragility by Nicola Briant) role in the story is unforgivably limited; she’s sick and helpless throughout the whole thing, she’s characterised constantly by her physical attractiveness and she is effectively the prize for which Jek and the Doctor compete. It’s an unfortunately old fashioned element, in this otherwise groundbreaking story.

LINKS to The Eleventh Hour: They both feature newly regenerated Doctors (although in Androzani’s case briefly). Um, that’s all I’ve got!

NEXT TIME… Abase youself, you grovelling insect! The next stop on our journey is the Pyramids of Mars.