Tag Archives: Third Doctor

Television, disruption and Carnival of Monsters (1973)

carnival

“You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” asked the Doctor, back in 100,000BC. (Not “invented,” but “discovered”. Such an odd choice of verb. Like an exotic island he came across on a map.) He’s trying to explain to his new human companions why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and he equates television with putting “an enormous building into one of your smaller sitting rooms”.

It’s a strange analogy. It seems to indicate that the writer doesn’t quite have a grasp on how television works – as if it still seems like magic to him. Like the TARDIS, a TV is a box in which impossibly large spaces – whole worlds, in fact – are contained. Walking into the TARDIS, the Doctor is saying, is a bit like if you could walk into your television set.

From the same magic box in the space year of 1973, comes Carnival of Monsters, a joyous, colourful splash of fun in the usually po-faced Pertwee era. It’s the story of when a planet “discovers” television and everything goes to hell in a dimensionally transcendental handbasket.

Television arrives on the dry and dusty planet of Inter Minor in the form of a “miniscope”. The miniscope is like TVs used to be – a bulky, awkward piece of furniture, which has to be manhandled into position (in this case by a group of rubber faced “functionaries”). The import of its heft may be lost on anyone who has grown up in the era of flat screen TVs, but in the olden days, TVs were big boxes which fuelled many a child’s belief that little people lived in the TV and performed all the programs live. Imagine if you could have put your hand inside and interacted with those miniature thespians within. Wouldn’t every young Doctor Who fan would have loved to reach into that box and pluck out the TARDIS, as happens at the end of Episode One?

When televisions first arrived in houses, they were disruptive elements. Evening schedules were rescheduled so families could huddle around them. Other recreational activities were dropped. Visitors without TVs popped in to see what all the fuss was about. Social rules got rewritten. Old habits were challenged. So it’s no surprise then that the miniscope causes a sensation on Inter Minor.

It’s a planet inhabited by grey-faced bureaucrats (literally). We meet a triumvirate of these pompous pen pushers: permanent flustered Pletrac (Peter Halliday), permanently bemused Orum (Terence Lodge) and slippery eel Kalik (Michael Wisher). This fussy trio bitch and whine and generally keep us amused with their stuffy language and their love of procedure. But still, they don’t hesitate to shoot down protesters in the street if they dare to dissent. Inter Minor’s still a police state, even if the representatives of that state are played for laughs.

The scope’s operators – Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) – are the ones who bring the device to Inter Minor, tumbling with it out of the back of a cargo ship. Vorg and Shirna are wildly different to the Inter Minorans. He dresses in a Sixth Doctor-esque ensemble, except turned up to 11, and she dresses in Peri Brown lycra, only more of it and with more baubles. That they are different to the drab officials around them is obvious. But because of their stewardship of the miniscope, I think writer Robert Holmes is equating them with people who make TV programs. They are illusionists, storytellers and scammers. Viewed by those around them as glitzy showbiz types. Slightly untrustworthy. TV types as the new carnies.

The Inter Minorans are suspicious of Vorg and Shirna, but it’s more than just old fashioned xenophobia. They don’t understand the purpose of the miniscope. It arrives to disrupt their world, as surely as if it turned up in their living rooms, and they’re worried. What new, dangerous ideas might it introduce into their tightly wound-up society? Vorg has to reassure them: “Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political,” he has to say. That TV is viewed as a dangerous, potentially subversive element would not have been a concept unheard of in the age of Mary Whitehouse.

When Vorg starts to demonstrate the ‘scope, its similarity to television becomes clear. You can switch channels to watch programs about Ogrons, Drashigs or Cybermen. When the reception goes bad, it’s like “watching a blob in a snowstorm,” and Shirna wonders who’s going to pay good credit bars for that (a familiar complaint for UK viewers who pay a licence fee). Yes, the scope is clearly signalled as a sci-fi peepshow, but Holmes is pointing out that TV is the contemporary equivalent.

Holmes is also showing the authorial choices that TV makes employ to create that peepshow. He uses Vorg to do this. One of the shows you can watch on the scope is the mystery of the SS Bernice, a cargo steamer from the 1920s crossing the Indian ocean. Vorg demonstrates how if we wants to increase the tension in the scene, he need only turn up the “aggrometer” and the inhabitants – in this case the Doctor and young buck Andrews (Ian Marter) can be made to fight. Vorg is now Holmes, sitting in front of his typewriter and turning up of the aggrometer, is a writer amping up the tension in a scene. Or to choose a more modern example, it’s the producers of Big Brother or Love Island, deliberately stirring up their casts of fame seekers to manufacture some drama for their next episode. Poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump, as the Doctor explains to Jo (Katy Manning).

Our heroes work out what’s going on by enduring multiple renditions of the same scene on board the SS Bernice, albeit with small variations each time (again, the drafting and re-drafting process of a script writer comes to life). They helpfully point out a few continuity errors like the calendar and the light outside being wrong. Then they clamber around its innards for a while, before the Doctor stumbles out of the box at the end of Episode Three. Another childhood fantasy enacted: that the people within the TV, might break out and escape.

That’s when it all turns back into a normal Doctor Who story. The Drashigs escape and run amok on Inter Minor, chewing up Kalik the would-be usurper in the process. The Doctor builds a gadget to fix everything. The scope blows a cathode ray tube or something and everyone goes home. All in all, a most diverting evening in around the box.

If we could chart classic Doctor Who’s representation of television, Carnival of Monsters is in the middle of a spectrum, which starts with Hartnell stories like 100,000 BC and The Chase which position it as a magical box of wonders, progresses through to Vengeance on Varos which shows it as a tool for suppressing the masses and ends with Remembrance of the Daleks, which revels in nostalgia for it. It’s a kind of emotional journey for the show, from reverence to suspicion and finally to affection. But of these, Carnival of Monsters is the wittiest, presenting TV as something which changes societies and commenting on how stories are constructed. Nothing serious, nothing political but definitely something fascinating.

LINK TO Twice Upon a TimeBoth feature Cyber-cameos.

NEXT TIME… Monky business in The Lie of the Land.

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The Doctor, Doctor Who and The Silurians (1970)

silurians

I don’t know if it says more about me or about this story that I’m going to spend this post talking about its title. Or maybe there just comes a time in every Doctor Who blog for the inevitable post about story titles.

Doctor Who story titles are contentious. Several early stories don’t have official titles, which gives us ample opportunity to argue about what to call them. Me, I like 100,000 BC (as the best of an inaccurate lot), The Daleks(because I just can’t come at two stories called The Mutants) and Inside the Spaceship(which avoids calling that story The Edge of Destruction, which would bug me only because its second episode is the nearly identical The Brink of Disaster. If there was a third episode, presumably it would have been called The Verge of Devastation. And so on, unto lexicological exhaustion).

Then there are stories like this one, which inconveniently buck the series’ norm. It seems that just because of just one dodgy title card, we’re doomed to have to call this story Doctor Who and the Silurians. To me, it’s so obviously a mistake that I prefer to retrofit it into consistency and just call it The Silurians. The level of pedantry which insists on calling it Doctor Who and the Silurians extends to people who want to include punctuation marks in The Invasionand respect the unusual-for-the-time capitalisation of ATTACK OF THE CYBERMEN. Even though most Doctor Who story titles are capitalised.

These days, we’re sticklers when naming multi-part stories rather than giving them overarching titles. Strict accuracy requires that we call that Series 3 finale Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lordseven though it’s deeply irritating to do so. Still, we should think ourselves lucky that it hasn’t been retconned into the classic series, lest we have to invent still more titles for those early nameless tales. The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster might be just about acceptable, although needlessly repetitive, but can you imagine The Daleks’ Master Plan? Pedants would insist on Invasion/Invasion of the Dinosaurs. (And by “pedants,” I mean me.)

I tend to lean towards DWM archivist Andrew Pixley’s point of view, expressed in an article once where he basically said, “Call ‘em what you like. We all know which story you’re talking about.” The more salient point is that The Silurians and its awkward title reminded me that some people like to call our lead character “the Doctor” and some like to call him “Doctor Who”. And both sides often vehemently claim that the other’s wrong.

How did this start? In the 1980s, that very earnest time to be a fan, there seem to emerge a sort of mantra about this. “The character’s name is the Doctor. Doctor Who is the title of the programme.” See? I even remember it off by heart. It was reflective of a kind of strict adherence to accuracy because the TV series never referred to the character as Doctor Who. Except for the time when it did. And when the film did. And all the times the character had been credited as such. Which were many.

So there was a kind of party line which said that, on the weight of evidence, he was called the Doctor, not Doctor Who. And that fannish insistence then came to be seen as a hallmark of obsessiveness. It was the sort of thing an Anorak might say. And it came from a place of isolation, of cutting oneself off from the rest of the world where most laymen, from the press to the TV announcers to any not-we you happened to meet, called the character Doctor Who. Insisting on calling him the Doctor was a kind of stubborn ignoring of public opinion.

Lately though, there’s been a resurgence in people wanting to call our lead character Doctor Who. It’s, in part, a deliberate swipe at the obsessiveness of fans and their insistence on clinging to an imaginary “fact”. It’s also a reaction to fans who say things like, “the character’s name is the Doctor,” which marks themselves out as fans and separates them from the majority of casual viewers. It’s a bit cooler, these days, to refer to Doctor Who. And it also has the added benefit of riling those more earnest fans. It’s a call to not take the show so seriously.

(Doctor Who is probably just more efficient anyway. “Jodie Whittaker is the new Doctor Who,” is a sentence that tells you everything you need to know.Jodie Whittaker will play the Doctor in the next series of Doctor Who” doesn’t have the same punch. “The Doctor” is a term that always has to be put in context. “Doctor Who” explains itself.)

This divide between the Doctor fans and the Doctor Who fans gets commented on in World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (to use its full title, and to note that it’s not called World Enough and Time/Doctor Who Falls). In it, Missy is role playing the Doctor and introduces herself as Doctor Who. When Bill asks her why, she says because it’s his real name, and there’s some cockamamie story to go with it. But the crucial bit comes when the Doctor says, “Bill, she’s just trying to wind you up.”

Writer Steven Moffat has decided to play it all out in front of our eyes, complete with some advice to the Doctor fans to calm the Foamasi down. He loves to quietly reference the funny little things which divide us as fans. It’s amazing he didn’t get round to what the rules are to qualify as a companion and whether those Morbius faces were earlier incarnations the Doctor. Or Doctor Who.

None of this offers anything of note about The Silurians. I apologise Silurian aficionados! Um, CSO, Peter Miles, lots of caves, remarkable efforts to extend the plot…

But it might be some recompense to make this observation: that if you’re the sort of person who’s going to sit through a 7 episode morality play, with fuzzy picture quality, variable colour, music played by kazoo and monsters with muppety voices who do everything by waggling their head and flashing their head light…. And then read a blog post about it… you’re probably the sort of person who thinks about the difference between the Doctor and Doctor Who. Well, that’s what I’m banking on anyway.

LINK TO Fear Her: In both, Doctor Who faces trouble with drawings on walls.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who goes supersonic in Time-Flight.

Best, brightest and The Claws of Axos (1971)

axos

In a swirl of psychedelic colour and with a fanfare of tinny electronica comes The Claws of Axos. So Pertwee it hurts, this marks the point when the third Doctor’s era turns from hard nosed grittiness to something more comfortable and familiar. The bouffant starts here, you might say, as the show becomes more fantastic and more confident in its bold, brassy house style.

Somewhere, there’s a fan for whom The Claws of Axos is his or her favourite story. I mean, every story is probably someone’s favourite, maybe even Time-Flight. But a recent online conversation has got me thinking about the difference between “favourite” and “best”. With all the love in the world for it, I don’t think Axos has featured too much on anyone’s “best of” list.

So let’s award it a few unexpected best ofs, because there are a few lurking in there, waiting to emerge in a flurry of orange tentacles.

Best obnoxious government official. In a highly competitive field, including a strong contingent from the Pertwee era, Axos comes out of top here. Chinn, as played by Peter Bathurst, is surely the grubbiest, most infuriating of the lot. He blusters and bullies his way through four episodes. He’s obnoxious, he’s annoying and he doesn’t even have the good grace to be killed by Stuart Fell in a rolling orange duvet. But here’s the real kicker about Chinn, with his bull at the gate, Britain for the British nonsense. He was right all the time.

First thing he wanted to do when Axos flew its big yellow leechy self into the atmosphere was blow it up. That namby-pamby Doctor (Jon Pertwee, something dancing in front of his eyeline) wanted to make friends with the bad guys just because they were asking for help. If only Chinn’s plan had worked, a nuclear power station would have been saved, a tramp would have lived and, most tellingly, the Master (Roger Delgado) would have been destroyed.

Best performance in a yellow unitard. You can’t look past (literally, no matter how hard you try) Bernard Holley as the cheerily named Axon Man. I imagine it takes some guts to climb into a lycra bodysuit, but ironically once inside, you must spend a lot of time sucking that gut in. Fair play, Holley pulls it off, after pulling that saffrony horror on. And on top of all that, a mumsy golden wig and ping pong balls for eyes. That he manages to come out of the affair with his dignity intact is testament to his acting talent and a rigourous fitness regime.

Best unnecessary American. Step up Bill Filer (Paul Grist, clearly auditioning for an unmade cop drama). To create a character who features so heavily in a story, and yet is so uncalled for, is quite a feat.

Filer, y’see is a US special agent, billeted out to UNIT in order to capture the Master. Why the US is suddenly interested in the Master is as unremarked upon as why they are never interested in him again. At no point does he need to be American for the plot to function. At no point does he do anything which would require him to be American. He gets captured, duplicated, has a fight with himself, gets a bit suspicious of the Doctor. Nothing which couldn’t have been done by say, an expanded role for Captain Yates (Richard Franklin).

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin would go on to create other great unnecessary characters, like Mr Ollis or Tala in Underworld. Characters who add little, but are there anyway. But none so prominent as Bill Filer and none with an unnecessary nationality. It’s a real achievement.

Best unintelligible yokel. Imagine going into a script meeting these days and saying, “here’s an idea. Let’s spend 5 minutes of an episode on a character who interacts with no one else. He’ll be a kind of mad, homeless person and he’ll talk to himself, but we won’t be able to understand anything he says! Then he’ll ride his bike into a pond and get eaten by the monster. It’ll be awesome!” I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of it again, so well done Axos.

Best Mastery Stunt. In Episode Two, the Master jumps off a bridge and onto a moving truck, clambers down the side of it, clings on like a limpet and hypnotises a UNIT driver (Nick Hobbs) via the side mirror. Roger Delgado seems to perform a significant portion of it too, crawling along the top of the truck’s canopy, inches from the top of a tunnel the truck’s travelling through. The Pert used to say Delgado was a committed coward, but this sequence shows what a mistruth that was. And if an impressive stunt starring the Master wasn’t enough, there’s also in this sequence, at least according to some corners of Twitter which have bred the most lascivious things…

Best hunky UNIT soldier. Apparently, the sight of Nick Hobbs jiggling up and down on that car seat, eyes glazed over through hypnosis gets a certain set of the viewing audience’s hearts racing. Pity for them that when he returned to the show, they covered him up in a big furry bear outfit. And while we’re talking about lascivious things…

Best giant cock shaped prop. You know the one I mean. You can’t miss it, it’s hanging from the bubbly ceiling of Axos, staring at everything with its big circumcised eyeball. Put a cloak on it and it could be Alpha Centauri.

Best unnecessary Special Edition DVD. Now with slightly better picture quality! All the better for you to see the big penis dangling from the ceiling!

And finally…

Best throwaway line. Really, this blog is supposed to avoid the same old, same old about Doctor Who. But in compiling a list of Axos’s best ofs, I can’t avoid the old “freak weather conditions.” A piece of impromptu genius from script editor Terrance Dicks to paper over deficiencies in the location footage. It says something about the way fans view the show, that they’ve embraced that line as a knowing insight into the way the show’s made. But still, it says something about this story that it’s most memorable piece of dialogue is a workmanlike covering line which has discovered a second life as a celebrated in-joke.

LINK TO The Vampires of Venice. Axos’s original title was The Vampire from Space. The loved things either from or in space in the early 70s, didn’t they? Spearheads, colonies, frontiers, arks…

NEXT TIME: Okay, kid. This is where it gets complicated. It’s The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.

 

 

Unholy rites, unwarranted slights and The Dæmons (1971)

daemons_1

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.

Heroes, gods and The Three Doctors (1972/3)

Folks, join me in considering the near complete pointlessness of Mr Ollis (Laurie Webb). He exists to be accidentally transported to a distant world and thus to kick start the events of anniversary shindig, The Three Doctors. His face screams out of an X-ray giving the Doctor (dandyish Jon Pertwee) a clue as to what’s happening and a way into the story. Then, his usefulness is at an end.

Nevertheless, he’s hangs around. Ollis turns up on the barren world to carry a rifle, look unfazed by events and follow everyone else around until he’s returned home at the end of the story. By rights, the trip through the heavens to the world within the black hole should have killed him. But as it didn’t, he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the story.

Noticing Ollis and his superfluousness is a dangerous thread to pull at. Suddenly you realise that none of the supporting characters are needed. Certainly not Dr Tyler (Rex Robinson), once his plot function to bring Ollis’s disappearance to the attention of UNIT is achieved. He too is transported to this neverworld, and once there, he also has nothing to do but splutter bewildered statements and make conversation with the Doctor and Jo (ever devoted Katy Manning). But when you think about it, Jo has no significant contribution to make either. Nor do UNIT men the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, at prime pompousness) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene, at prime gormlessness).

That’s all of this story’s supporting cast – save for a nagging wife and a flummoxed corporal – accounted for. And none of them are really necessary. They’re there simply to keep our leading men company – to pass the silicon rods and tell them how brilliantly infuriating they are. Which is understandable, because the main event is the Doctor meeting his former incarnations. A situation we’re used to after years of such match ups, but which at the time of The Three Doctors, must have felt a giddyingly exciting treat.

****

Who is the hero of this story? It’s a contentious point.

Patrick Troughton is on hand to steal the show away from Pertwee. Many tales have been told of the initial tension between them, generated by their contrasting approaches to the part; one serious and methodical, the other playful and instinctive. If Troughton was trepidatious about returning to the role, there’s no sign of it here. Instead he seems re-energized by the role and more than happy to let Pertwee carry the plot and think he’s the star. Troughton is content to be a constantly distracting presence, reminding the audience that the Doctor can be funny and naughty and whimsical. But this time in colour.

Pertwee sends four episodes trying not to notice. He’s behaving as if Troughton’s another supporting artist in his show, in an attempt to counteract Troughton’s pulling focus. But to no avail. Troughton’s presence pulls the show out of shape. Look, for instance, at his effect on the Brigadier. With Troughton around, the Brigadier becomes slightly unhinged, failing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and making post hoc rationalisations about Cromer. This is really the first story that turns him into a figure of fun, with comedy double takes and wry one liners. Because suddenly we have a Doctor cracking jokes again and he needs a straight man.

Then there’s poor William Hartnell. Hardly old at 64, but clearly very ill, so he needs to be confined to a space infirmary. He’s a shadow of his former Doctory self, his voice uncertain and unfamiliarly light. It’s not just difficult to watch, but also difficult to see – the combination of that strange pyramidal frame he’s perched in, plus the replaying of his footage onto the glarey TARDIS monitor screen. In all, there’s no tangible sense of the first Doctor being present, not just because he only appears in pre filmed segments, but because Hartnell has changed so much since he gave up the role. Given the dubious decision to put such a sick man onscreen in the first place, you have to ask if it was really worth it.

****

Then there’s Omega (Stephen Thorne), a kind of lonely god, sitting in a world incompatible with our own. With that booming voice and his platform boots, he clearly thinks he’s the story’s hero and these Doctors mere distractions.

Around this time Doctor Who built stories around a number of these demigod like super beings: your Azal, your Kronos, your Queen Spider and Omega form a little pantheon that stretches back to the Toymaker and forward to Sutekh. In each case, these beings are so powerful the Doctor cannot hope to defeat them with might. He must use some guile or trickery to defeat them. In this sense, the two Doctors’ approaches to fighting Omega are telling. The Third Doctor tries to mentally battle Omega (which means wrestling with Stuart Fell in a dream sequence) to no avail. The Second prefers a psychological approach; he needle away at Omega with trivialities to test his self control. It’s this method that eventually works.

It makes sense because as the story reveals, Omega has no physical presence; he exists only through force of his own will. He’s pure thought, so it’s fitting that he’s defeated by not being able to see through a trick designed to exploit his emotional instability. No mistake then that his Greek theatre style mask is shaped into a permanent wail of despair.

That mask, apart from being a great piece of design, is significant. It gives The Three Doctors its most effective moment, when the Doctors remove Omega’s mask to reveal that nothing but air fringed by a yellow CSO halo lies beneath. Masks are a common feature of Doctor Who, and usually a signal of villainy at the highest level. They hide a character’s true nature, often, disappointingly, the deformed features of a monster. In Omega’s case, though, it hides a man who’s not there, eaten away by the world which has kept him alive. It’s poetic, but it does suffer a bit from Guy Crawford syndrome, characterised by never thinking to look in a mirror.

Still, it turns Omega into that rarest of things in old Who, a villain who is also a figure of sympathy. The Doctor is remorseful at story’s end that he couldn’t save his people’s mythic hero, not even when multiplied by three. Though as later events will prove, it’s pretty hard to kill someone who exists only as a kind of robed stubbornness, so he needn’t have worried.

****

And how does this momentous story end? With multiple Doctors and Time Lord gods or the renewed TARDIS flying triumphantly off into the vortex?

No, of course not. It ends with inconsequential old Mr Ollis! He returns home to his long suffering wife who understandably wants to know where he’s been. And here’s the most amazing thing of all, he can’t be bothered telling her! That’s because he knows he’s actually the hero of this story! And from his point of view… not much really happened.

LINK TO: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.DBoth feature not-quite-as-we-remember-them first Doctors.

NEXT TIME: We meet The Husbands of River Song. I hear they automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

Pumping slime, filling time and Inferno (1970)

infernoThere’s lots I don’t get about Inferno. But let’s start with goo.

At Project Inferno, they’re busy drilling through the Earth’s crust, when a bright green goo starts oozing through the drill head. This goo is remarkable stuff. It causes a physical change of the people unfortunate enough to touch it, transforming them into hairy, murderous beasts. It also heats their bodies, to the point where they can superheat wrenches and scorch walls, although it leaves their clothing unsinged. So far, so standard for a Doctor Who sci-fi gunge.

But this goo causes more than just a physical change. It also imbues the people it infects which a desire to perpetuate, even accelerate, Project Inferno. The first of its victims, Harry Slocum (Walter Randall), turns bestial and then acts with sophisticated intent to spark a surge in the nuclear reactor. In the parallel world to which the Doctor (a uncommonly intense Jon Pertwee) travels, infected technician Bromley (Ian Fairburn) fights his way towards the drillhead, intent on mayhem. And when chief crazy Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) eventually succumbs to the ooze, he does everything he can to keep the drill going, including infecting others for the cause. This seems like more than a natural phenomenon. Surely there’s a intelligence behind this ooze?

If there is, Inferno tells us nothing about it. Why has the goo only appeared now, as the drilling reaches its climax? Is it programmed somehow with instructions which its victims have to play out? Surely this is someone’s malevolent plan?

Apparently not. Apparently it’s a natural reaction to the drilling. If so, it makes Inferno an odd story, one that warns if you mess with nature, it will bite back of its own accord. It’s a bit like In the Forest of the Night, in that it suggests that the Earth has an in-built defence mechanism.

Although that doesn’t make sense either, because why would the Earth unleash a super programmed green goop to transform humans into its own primordial agents, only for those grunts to bring about the planet’s destruction?

“A terrible thing,” the Doctor says at one stage, “a murder without a motive”. Well, a. how would a murder with a motive be any better, but more to the point, b. how about some superpowered green slime without a motive?

****

Next, there’s the extraordinarily unhelpful computer.

Within Project Inferno, there’s a computer, a big shiny featureless box. It’s funny to see it being treated more like a faulty household appliance; it’s accused of being “temperamental”, and there’s talk of it “packing it in” when Stahlman removes a fuse-like microcircuit from it. Still, it’s the device which starts ringing warning bells about the drilling.

It’s a surprisingly prescient machine for something that runs on fuses and looks like an oversize coffee table from Ikea, but it’s not great on communication. We never quite find out what it says. The Doctor tells us that it warns that the drilling be stopped, but it never says why. Other contemporary stories like The Ice Warriors, The Invasion and The Seeds of Death featured computers which could talk. Just as well Inferno’s one is mute, as it might have given the game away:

COMPUTER: The drilling must be halted immediately!

DOCTOR: Why do you say that, computer?

COMPUTER: If drilling continues, green goop will emerge from underground and transform everyone into primitive, yet surprisingly premeditated, beasts! Then when penetration zero occurs, earthquakes and volcanoes will destroy the world!

Still, I’m probably being too hard on it and I certainly shouldn’t compare it unfavorably to today’s technology. It’s just the 1970s equivalent of that unintelligible symbol on your car’s dashboard that lights up when something’s wrong, but doesn’t tell you what it is. It’s that indecipherable error message that pops up on your PC to say ‘run time error no. 17′ but offers no guidance on how to fix it. As I say, unhelpful, but a portent of things to come, in the fictional and the real worlds.

****

The Doctor manages to pad out the whole story by slipping sideways into an alternative universe. There, everything’s a dark fascist nightmare. Liz Shaw’s (Caroline John) a Nazi, the Brigadier’s (Nicholas Courtney) Mussolini and Sergeant Benton’s (John Levene) become a regular. All our supporting characters are there too, in a twisted version of our world. Only our beloved mute computer’s the same, which only goes to show that the barriers of reality itself are no impediment to the market reach of Ikea.

But here’s the thing: where’s this universe’s Doctor? Perhaps he’s dead or was never exiled to Earth or perhaps, as someone somewhere once suggested, he’s regenerated to look like Jack Kine and become the tin pot dictator on this world. It’s a question no-one ever asks, but it’s an opportunity missed. Perhaps the later episodes might have had an interesting left turn, had our Doctor discovered the corpse of his alternate somewhere, or perhaps found him alive and enlisted his help in getting back home.

What’s that you say? An element too much? There’s already so much going on in this story, what with alternative universes, hairy monsters, mad scientists and the end of the flippin’ world. You want to add a duplicate Doctor too?

Frankly, yes. Take a closer look at Inferno and it’s mostly padding. Cutting back and forward from our world to the wicked one takes up some time. As does the stop-start romance of Sutton (Derek Newark) and Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn). And the problem with dual narratives, is events have to happen twice.

It’s only the pacy direction of Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts that keeps the whole thing moving so swiftly. But there’s plenty of room for a bit more plot. I’d certainly take a fascistic Pertwee, but I’d settle for an explanation as to what the hell’s going on.

****

Still, there’s that cliffhanger to Episode 6. Ooh, that’s creepy. As grim as it gets.  Not even dodgy CSO can spoil that one. As the Doctor desperately tries to kick start the TARDIS console, his allies, Elizabeth, Greg and Petra look out of those garage doors and see a wave of lava oozing towards them. Certain death: agonizing, inexorable and inescapable.

I’ll make fun of Inferno until there’s no tomorrow. But truthfully? That shot’s the only one in Doctor Who’s long history that’s ever really scared me. Well played, Inferno. That’s some skillful use of goo.

LINK TO Meglos: both feature cast members from Doctor Who‘s first story (Jacqueline Hill and Derek Newark).

NEXT TIME… We travel with understanding as well as hope (and an elephant) aboard The Ark.

Underground, overground and Colony in Space (1971)

colony

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.