Tag Archives: season 8

Unholy rites, unwarranted slights and The Dæmons (1971)

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I’ve got another potential DVD box set for you. It’s called Doctor Who – Unholy Rites. Contained within, The Dæmons, The Masque of Mandragora, Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood and K9 and Company. It’s a collection jam packed with chanting men in robes, pagan temples (above and underground), sinister rituals and would-be human sacrifice. If we squint, we might even find a place for The Awakening, which although being more secular than the others, still includes an malign influence festering underneath a church. And let’s face it,  you can shoehorn that story into any old box set, eh, Earth Story?

Everything I know about occultism I’ve learned from Doctor Who. Apparently, it’s very popular in rural English villages. There’s often a handy group of superstitious yokels ready to help out and indulge in some cosplay. The deity they worship will be an alien of some kind, whose influence can be traced throughout history. They talk a lot about sacrificing a companion, but never quite get around to it. And when people start dying, you don’t want to be one of those robed extras; they’re always the first to go.

Plus the Doctor will be on hand to debunk the whole thing and point out that there’s a good scientific explanation for everything. Just before he waves his magic wand (sonic screwdriver, he prefers), invokes a magic incantations (technobabble, to you and me) and disappears into thin air in his Police Box shaped spaceship. I know, right? Who’d be dumb enough to believe in magic?

*****

Anyway, to the The Dæmons. And to a question it poses which is far more important than whether science trumps magic. It is this: why does sweet, spunky little companion Jo (Katy Manning) put up with this condescending boor of a Doctor (Jon Pertwee)?

Over the course of five episodes, he accuses her of wasting his time, calls her a ‘reasonably intelligent young lady’ but with ‘absurd ideas’, berates her for misreading a map, accuses her of fussing (after she’s just helped him recover from being frozen stiff), smugly points out that she can’t speak Latin, is exasperated when she doesn’t understand e=mc squared, and berates her for calling the Brigadier’s plan idiotic – when he did exactly that just seconds before.

What really takes the biscuit is his reaction after Jo offers to give up her life so that the Doctor might live.

DOCTOR: Well, by a ridiculous and foolhardy act of self-sacrifice, Jo here has managed to save us.

Well, you might call it ridiculous and foolhardy. Others might call it brave and compassionate.

DOCTOR: You see, Azal couldn’t face an act as irrational and as illogical as her being prepared to give up her life for me.

I’m right with him there, mate. She must have been remembering how much she liked you from previous stories, because there’s no indication in this one why she should feel so strongly about you.

DOCTOR: Look, Jo, why don’t you go and get out of that ridiculous garb?

On this planet, we say ‘thank you’. You big velvety jerk.

*****

Jo’s altruistic offer to save the Doctor is a big problem at the end this story. But let’s start at the other beginning.

It’s got a cracking first episode. Beautifully put together. I love the way that the framing structure of the television broadcasts and their countdown to the opening of the barrow delivers the exposition subtly, while also serving to gradually draw the Doctor into the story. Supporting characters like batty Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) and grumpy old Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth) (of Which University) can be introduced with ease. The Master (Roger Delgado) appears at just the right point in the episode to up the ante. And in the second half, the Doctor’s attempts to get to the barrow hit just enough problems so that everything coincides nicely as big rock is pulled aside, all icy hell breaks loose. Cue credits, job done nicely.

It’s got a reasonably entertaining middle. Lots of running around, with much for UNIT lads Yates (Richard Franklin) and Benton (John Levene) to do, including wear some garish civvies. There are plenty of good set pieces, like the helicopter chase, Benton’s run-in with the invisible forces in the cavern and the attack of the morris dancers (a great unmade Doctor Who story, there). Walking statue Bok (Stanley Mason) is a novel although never entirely convincing monster. And the Master gets a great moment when trying to smooth talk the townspeople, by proving he knows all their secrets. “And you, Mr Grenville,” he purrs. “Has your wife come back from her sisters’ yet? Will she ever come back, do you suppose?” “And who are those muscular young men I see cutting your hedge every Thursday morning?”, I keep wanting him to say, but he never does.

Oddly, the Brig is sidelined, kept outside the main action by a heat barrier until a diathermic heat exchanger (that’s science, you know) can be lashed up by Osgood the First (Alec Linstead). He never gets to meet the mighty Azal (Stephen Thorne) or catch more than a glimpse of the Master. The Doctor too, keeps getting his appointment with the climax delayed. Sometimes by various plot misfortunes, but partly because he takes time out in Episode Three to run the world’s worst PowerPoint presentation on horned beasts throughout the ages.

So anyway, the middle’s fine. But it’s got a terrible ending. After much running around, the Doctor and the Master finally meet in the cavern, with UNIT reunited outside to do battle with Bok. The Doctor’s diathermic wotsit blew up and as he was planning to use that against Azal (who has now grown to enormous size, but somehow doesn’t bump his head on the cavern’s roof), he now has to improvise desperately. The scene is set. That’s when after a brief war of words, Jo offers her life in place of the Doctor’s and Azal goes all purple and blows up.

It makes no sense. Azal is, we’ve been told, an immensely powerful being. He crafted humanity’s progress throughout the ages. Now he meets one pretty blonde girl and is so confused he can no longer function? (Well, it’s happened to the best of us, I suppose.)

My point is though, that endings are hard. They’ve got to be obvious in hindsight, but unsuspected until then. They have to make logical sense, but not able to be pre-guessed. They can’t be coincidental and they can’t cheat. They’ve got to be consistent with the story’s themes. They’ve got to be novel. They can’t be signposted too early. And they can’t just be, “oh, I’m so confused, I think I’ll just give in and blow up a church.”

Think back to that opening episode and how right they got that. Imagine if the final episode worked just as well. For whatever reason, things didn’t fall quite so neatly into place. It shows that telling stories is a science, but telling them well requires an unpredictable element, something we might call… magic.

LINK TO The Husbands of River Song: Hmm, Doctors with red jackets and snowy, voluminous hair?

NEXT TIME… This, sir, is protracted murder! No, it’s just The Savages.

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Underground, overground and Colony in Space (1971)

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There’s no small measure of irony in the fact that when the Time Lords finally allow the Doctor (the Pert, in imposing form) a temporary respite from his exile on Earth, they send him to the drabbest planet around. It’s the grey old world Uxareius and although Jo (perky Katy Manning) finds a sole multicoloured flower to spark her interest, all else is bleak. Our heroes soon come across some pioneering colonists from Earth, who are wondering why their crops won’t grow. I can tell them why: their planet’s a clay pit.

The colonists, a dowdy group of would-be farmers with unlikely facial hair (well, the blokes at least) are also being terrorised by giant lizards, because after all, this is a Malcolm Hulke script. (When we catch a glimpse of the creatures, the production team wisely uses some back projection of existing reptile footage. Unfortunately the footage is a of a friendly looking iguana.) The lizards, it transpires, are being faked by some new arrivals, a survey team from intergalactic mining concern  IMC, and the battle for control of this mudball of a planet is on.

The arrival of the men from IMC in Episode Two kicks the story into second gear. Hulke (let’s call him Mac, like we knew him an’ all) is often praised (even by me) for bringing a moral complexity to his Doctor Who scripts, and creating characters whose motivations are a mix of good and bad. Not here, though. Here there are stark boundaries between good and evil. Colonists are good, miners – or more specifically the world of big business they represent  – are bad. They resort to intimidation, infiltration, blackmail, environmental degradation and murder in pursuit of profit. They’re bad ‘uns, through and through.

Their chief is Captain Dent, played with sombre gravitas by Morris Perry. Dent has a steely glare underneath a bizarre combed forward fringe, and even when under pressure, he never raises his voice beyond a quiet ruthlessness. His first meeting with the Doctor is played like aristocratic Generals exchanging pleasantries prior to engaging in battle. And though it soon becomes clear that they’re each other’s enemies, neither loses their cool.

DENT: I can see we’re on opposite sides, Doctor.

DOCTOR: Perhaps. (Toasts with what appears to be a tall glass of Ribena) Your health, sir!

Dent’s the kind of man who flies his spaceship a couple of kilometres to the colonists’ dome because he doesn’t like walking. He engineers a situation where the colonists are forced to blast off from Planet Sludge in a spaceship which is bound to explode, and his only care is that IMC personnel are cleared from the blast site. He facilitates/suffers the various shifts in fortune between miners and colonists which see saw through the story, so it’s a shame that when we reach the climax, he seems to get forgotten. He doesn’t get to go out in a blaze of glory. The last we see of him he’s sitting behind a desk and then events move on without him.

Dent’s the embodiment of cold, calculating villainy, played in contrast to the story’s other bad guy, the Master (stylish Roger Delgado). The Master’s in charge of the story’s subplot, which is far more cartoony and fun than the tit for tat between colonists and miners. He arrives to search for an ancient alien civilisation and steal its galactic doomsday weapon so that he might take over the universe. Pulp sci-fi stuff it might be, but this is the section of Colony in Space which is most engaging. I think Mac himself realised that when he was considering the title for his novelisation of this story, and plumbed for Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, instead of Doctor Who and the Quarrel in the Quarry.

Mac is often credited by script editor Terrance Dicks as the insightful fella who first saw the plot limitations inherent in the show’s early 70s format whereby the Doctor’s stuck on earth and allied with UNIT. Alien invasion or mad scientist was all the series could offer its viewer, he predicted. If only he was as quick to spot the problems with having the Master turn up on a regular basis. “Well Terrance, you have two plots: Master aligns himself with big alien baddies or Master attempts to gain control of some powerful gizmo.” And that generally fits for every Master story until, what, The Five Doctors?

Mac goes for the latter here, and said powerful gizmo is hidden within a underground society with a three strata of aliens: the green, mute Primitives (whose bulbous faces make them look like they’re suffering a nut allergy), the short, mute High Priests (whose even more bulbous faces look like a stone fruit left in a bath) and the Guardian, a… what exactly? A bulbous head on a puppet toddler’s body dressed in a toga. It emerges and retracts into a hatch in the wall with that wavy video effect which usually signifies a bizarre dream sequence, which, to be fair, is what it feels like you’re experiencing this far into Colony in Space. And it speaks like a teenage boy with a ring modulator. All in all, a surprising creature to leave in charge of a device which could destroy the universe.

But then, any surprising incidents are welcome in this sedate six parter. The best parts are when Pertwee and Delgado get to thesp at each other in equal pomposity. While locked in an underground office with some helpful plot-explaining frescos, they stumble across a secret of this long diminished civilisation. Apparently after developing the Doomsday Weapon…

DOCTOR: the super race became priests of a lunatic religion worshipping machines instead of gods.

Oh Mac! Tell us that story! That one sounds interesting!

*****

MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF EXPOSITION IN COLONY IN SPACE AND PERHAPS ALL OF DOCTOR WHO:

MASTER: You know the Crab Nebula?

DOCTOR: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course.

I think this style of dialogue should make a comeback:

MASTER: You know the foot bone?

DOCTOR: The bone which is connected to both the ankle bone and, via that, to the leg bone? Of course.

But here’s the best bit. Recently, Mrs Spandrell and I went to Uluru in central Australia (if you’re thinking of going, do. It’s amazing). There we went on a excursion to view the night sky with an astronomer as a guide. And half way through, I shit you not, this is what he said to our little group of star gazers.

ASTRONOMER: Has anyone heard of the Crab Nebula?

Folks, I felt as if all my Christmases had come at once. I put on my best Pertwee impression and boomed:

ME: The cloud of cosmic matter that was once a sun? Of course!

No, I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t.

But I really wished I had.

I bet Mrs Spandrell would have loved it.

****

LINK TO Nightmare in Silver: er, is it un-PC to say little people?

NEXT TIME I shall not be so lenient! We swash our buckles with The Androids of Tara.

Realism, fantasy and The Mind of Evil (1971)

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“We no longer execute our hardened criminals and killers,” witters Professor Kettering (Simon Lack) in the first episode of The Mind of Evil. “Modern society has progressed far beyond that primitive form of retribution.” Yup, capital punishment’s right out, but performing brain surgery in order to leave them passive dullards is absolutely fine.

The Mind of Evil‘s central premise is a little iffy, with more than a hint of social engineering about it. After the mysterious Keller process is undertaken on hard case Barnham (Neil McCarthy), Professor Kettering (of Which University) promises, “he will take his place as a useful, if lowly, member of society.” His place. Useful. Lowly. It’s all a bit Orwellian. It’s just as well the Doctor (the Pert, with authoritarian front) takes a dislike to it from the start.

But it would be nice if he directly objected to it. He’s worried about the Keller machine, sure, but he’s worried about the threat it might cause to the outside world, seemingly about what happens to the “evil impulses” sucked out of convicts and stored in a natty little tank. He really should at some point say that apart from any external risk it represents,what is in effect lobotomising people is a pretty sucky thing to do.

It’s just one of many things going on in this story. Russell T Davies has talked about Doctor Who‘s ability to gobble up plot like no one’s business and you can see it on display here. The Master (Roger Delgado), this season’s house villain, has no less than three wicked schemes: sabotage a peace conference, steal a nuclear missile and unleash an alien mind parasite (the creature lurking inside the Keller machine) on the world. And even so, there’s still not quite enough going on to sustain six episodes. Like most six parters, it should have been four. Events keep repeating: riots, cliffhangers, locking the Doctor and Jo up.

Part of the problem is the Keller machine itself. Being essentially a brain in a box, it might be dangerous but it’s not very mobile. So for it to pose any threat, our heroes have to keep finding excuses to go into the room it’s locked up in. It’s not until Episode Four that our monster of the week makes up for its lack of legs, by magically learning how to teleport itself to exotic locations, like the next room along. Director Timothy Combe does what he can to make this mini juke box look menacing with some giddying swoops of his camera and some jaunty angles. Composer Dudley Simpson helps with some portentous music, but it’s a tough job to make it look menacing.

It has also changed its modus operandi by the time it starts beaming itself short distances around the set. In the early episodes, it kills folk by amplifying their greatest fear. Kettering for instance, is terrified of water so he drowns in a dry room, and again as if by magic, his lungs fill with water. “We believe what our minds tell us too,” flubs the Doctor, to cover over this implausibility.

The Doctor turns out to be terrified of black and white cut outs of old monsters flying at his head. The Master is scared of staring up a giant Pert’s nostrils. But by the time the Keller machine gets round to killing a few extras, it’s forgotten about dredging up the dreads, and just zaps people in a shower of static. Which leaves us to imagine what the crippling phobias of the expendable prisoners and guards are. I like to think they are of the oddly mundane variety. Buttons.The colour yellow. The lack of a fulfilling acting career.

The prison setting makes The Mind of Evil feel quite different to other Whos. I’m reluctant to use the overused term ‘gritty’ (although it is an adjective often applied to these earliest of Pertwee stories) because I think Doctor Who is always too fantastic for that. But still, we’re in a prison, which is not as cosy a setting as Doctor Who normally inhabits.

But this attempt at realism is countered by an air of unreality. This looks like a very BBC prison to me. The prisoners are all neatly dressed, all the way to their neckties. The walls aren’t brick, but vac formed plastic sheets. We never actually see a prisoner in a cell. (Oh, and yes, that whole alien mind parasite thing’s a definite challenge to realism.)

This strange mix of reality and unreality runs through The Mind of Evil. For instance, real world tensions between the US and China are mirrored here, though the very notion of them attending a ‘peace conference’ is fanciful. Not to mention that the Americans have sent a chief negotiator to this conference who has a profound fear of the Chinese, which results in the Keller machine prescribing death by oriental dragon. How did that sneak through Senator Alcott’s (Tommy Duggan) personality profiling?

Or what about how the Doctor drops the real world name of Mao Zedong (not something he’d rush to do these days I suspect) and enters into a conversation in Hokkien, to give the impression of someone familiar with Chinese culture. But earlier in the story, in I think my favourite bit in the whole story, he deduces that the assistant who accompanied the Master to install the Keller Machine at Stangmoor, and peace conference delegation member Captain Chin Lee (Pik-Sen Lim), must be the same person because they’re both described as “attractive Chinese girls”. I mean, of course! How many of them could there be?!

No actually, that’s not my favourite bit. My favourite bit is when the story acknowledges the very fine line it’s walking between realism and fiction. It comes when the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) and Major Cosworth (Patrick Godfrey) are plotting a break-in to Stangmoor. Problem is Stangmoor’s an old fortress so getting in is going to be quite a task. But then Cosworth seems to speak with the writer’s own voice as he works out a solution to this plotting problem:

COSWORTH: I suppose there couldn’t possibly be a secret underground passage or something?

Of course there could! And what’s more…

BRIGADIER: Yes, you’re right. It hasn’t been blocked off either. It probably leads to the old dungeons.  

I’m sure it does! Problem solved.

COSWORTH: It’s rather like making a film, isn’t it Sir?

Yes, Cosworth, that’s certainly what it feels like watching it.

LINK TO A Good Man Goes to War: prisons in both.

NEXT TIME… The monkey house is nearly full, but there’s room enough for you. Cue the Ghost Light.

Change, expectations and Terror of the Autons (1971)

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Terror of the Autons is a story I’ve grown up with. And it’s grown up with me.

My first exposure to it, and I suspect that of many other fans of my vintage, was its Target novelisation. Second edition, the one with a terrifically moody painting of a gruesome monstrosity, staring balefully out at the reader with its solo eye. Creepy stuff.

Inside the cover, writer Terrance Dicks told the story of UNIT ingénue Jo Grant’s first meeting with the Doctor. Which was odd because another novelisation, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, told that story too. Never mind, it’s a vivid read. I particularly like Dicks’ description of the story’s climactic moment when the Nestene Consciousness descends to Earth via a radio telescope: “It crouched beside the radio telescope tower, dwarfing it, a many-tentacled monster, something between spider, crab and octopus. At the front of its body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and deadly hatred.”

The first time I saw the story would have been its 1984 repeat screening on Australian TV (with thanks to this glorious site for jogging my memory), in grainy black and white. It still strikes me as odd that the ABC in the 1980s were happy to interrupt their otherwise full colour broadcasts with monochrome episodes of Doctor Who, but I was glad they did. That’s me there, sitting inches from the TV screen. 10 years old, a fan but with no concept of fandom. Just an avid watcher.

Anyway, Terror of the Autons was perfectly fine in black and white, although I couldn’t help but notice that the many-tentacled monster on the book’s cover turned out to be a fuzzy white vaguely hand-shaped blob above Mike Yates’ head. Well, the disappointment experienced when finally watching a Doctor Who story after having expectations unreasonably raised by its novelisation is a familiar sensation to Whoheads. I’m sure it didn’t stop me watching the story on its next repeat in 1986. By then, I was a genuine, fanzine reading tragic. I may have even tried to watch the story while simultaneously flicking through the book to see how close the two versions were. The things fans do.

So the book matured into the black and white TV version, at least from my perspective. And even if you happened to have seen the story in the UK on its original transmission, chances are you saw it on a black and white TV anyway. For most fans therefore, Terror of the Autons was a colourless experience until 1993, when a colourised version was released on VHS.

Now, the Pertwee era is a patchwork of picture quality, especially for its first three seasons. Most of the original colour videotapes for these stories were wiped, leaving us with a mix of black & white film prints, some NTSC versions sent to North America and the occasional episode that survives in its original PAL format. (Oh, I love a PAL episode. Despite the immense efforts which have gone into restoring these episodes, you still can’t beat them. Watching the first three episodes of The Dæmons is fine, but when episode four comes on, it’s like you’ve taken off a pair of grimy spectacles).

For the viewer, this makes for a slightly disjointed experience if watching the stories in order, as you’re constantly adjusting to the slightly different look each episode has. We’re lucky to have every Pertwee episode in some watchable format – and now every one in some sort of colour – but nonetheless, Terror of the Autons is one of those Imperfect Pertwees.

The growing up continues with the 1993 VHS release (I’m 19, at university and while rich enough to buy beer, too poor to buy a copy. Luckily the local video store had a one.) where the restoration boffins merged a NTSC colour version with a black and white film print. And colour really suits it. Although as you might expect from working with vintage AV material, the colour hardly leaps off the screen. But even in these muted hues, it’s still a vivid experience, all pinks and yellows and wood panel browns. It’s indicative of a series’ growing confidence in its use of colour. And while a story like The Dæmons (also colourised in 1993) was a unique, and in some ways better, experience in black and white, Terror of the Autons, was bigger and bolder in colour. Its highs (like the skirmish with the policemen Autons in the quarry) were higher, its lows (that fuzzy blob of a Nestene again) lower.

Then it’s a big jump to 2011 and the DVD release. And Terror of the Autons looks and sounds better than it ever has. It even has a bit of PAL footage from episode one in it. And me, being a man of what we might laughingly call means these days, buys it. In fact buys the UK version because the cover art is better and has it air mailed around the world to my door. Extravagance!

All the Imperfect Pertwees – your Silurians, your Ambassadors of Death – have gone through similar evolutions, from scratchy monochrome to digitally remastered clarity. But here’s the thing, they’re still imperfect. Compare them to the all PAL Day of the Daleks, and you’ll see what those DVD wizards are aiming for. Problem? Oh no.

Because it means there will always be some further enhancement to make – and a further variation to sell. We’ve already seen it happening. I’m not 100% sure I can see the picture quality improvement on the special edition DVDs for The Claws of Axos and Inferno, but I bought them anyway. If they hand colourised episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and special edition-ed it, I’d probably buy that too. Imperfect those Pertwees may be, but they offer a repeatable income stream.

And the story itself? It’s a mixed bag. Less an Auton story than a series of increasingly bizarre assassination attempts by the Master. The start of the UNIT family. The beginning of the dumbing down of the Brigadier. A grumpy, snobby Doctor. But you know all this. You’ve heard it all before. Because you, like me, have grown up with Terror of the Autons.

LINK to Dr. Who and the Daleks. In both, the Doctor attempts to make a trip in the TARDIS mid story, only to be foiled by a faulty component.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who is required! We dig the fab gear of The War Machines.