Tag Archives: Third Doctor

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.

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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)

inferno

There’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 on 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 as 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.

Writers rooms, right ‘n’ wrong and The Ambassadors of Death (1970)

terrance_dicksrobert holmeshulke

So, future showrunner Chris Chibnall has apparently been considering the merits of using a writers room for Doctor Who. Around the time of The Ambassadors of Death, I reckon they already had one, when there were effectively only three people writing for the show. Consider this string of stories from 1969 and 1970:

  • The Krotons by Robert Holmes,
  • The Seeds of Death nominally by Brian Hayles, but heavily rewritten by Terrance Dicks,
  • The Space Pirates by Holmes,
  • The War Games by Dicks and Malcolm Hulke,
  • Spearhead from Space by Holmes,
  • The Silurians by Hulke, and
  • The Ambassadors of Death nominally by David Whitaker, but heavily rewritten by Hulke.

That’s a total of (counts on fingers and toes) 44 episodes – basically a year’s worth of episodes – effectively written by three men.

And it’s not just any old set of episodes. Think of the momentous changes going on during this time: cast, production crew, technical. Think how different The Krotons is to The Ambassadors of Death. Change the title sequence of one and you could pass it off as a different show. Not until the show had a dedicated showrunner in 2005 was such authorial control exercised.

The funny thing is that these three writers – arguably the best the classic series produced – are technicians first and foremost. Holmes had the most macabre sensibility and the sharpest sense of humour, but in the beginning of his Who career he was producing workable, dependable scripts until he struck gold with Spearhead. Dicks and Hulke are trouble shooters, and their special skill is keeping long narratives ticking over: these 6, 7 and 10 episode stories are replete with subplots and incident which inch the plots forward, without resorting to padding.

As a result it’s not surprising that between them, these three don’t generate a coherent vision for the show. They’re the guys you get in to hammer things into shape.

Ambassadors has the sense of something which took some hammering, but ended up in an intriguing and not unattractive form. Its basic plot – madman tries to incite war with an alien race – is new territory for the show, but certainly not enough for nearly three hours of screentime. So the rest of the time is taken up savouring some of the show’s more recently acquired tastes.

For instance, there is the interest in the hard mechanics of space travel. True, this had been a theme as far back as The Tenth Planet, and The Space Pirates had recently indulged in a little space ballet modelwork, but Ambassadors is the first attempt to show contemporary style space craft in action. The result is a lot of loving close ups of ships docking and undocking, some ambitious rocket launches and a full scale recovery capsule which is dragged all over the countryside for location filming. This is a show which has discovered a love of hardware. And it covers it in music which is Mozart via Procal Harem via Dudley Simpson. Cut-price Kubrick.

Then there’s its love of action. Doctor Who had done army shootouts with alien monsters before, but they were all getting a bit samey. Spearhead features one in the same location as The Invasion. But Ambassadors takes it up notch. There’s the showpiece fight between UNIT troops and heavies in Episode One, the theft of the capsule in Episode Two complete with motorcycles and helicopter and the pursuit of Liz Shaw (Caroline John and Roy Scammel dressed like Caroline John) across the weir in Episode Four – an amazing piece of stunt work, which still impresses today. The Pertwee years’ reputation for action starts here.

Then there’s the desire to paint everything in shades of grey, ironic for a series which had recently started shooting in colour. Like The Silurians before it, Ambassadors has a moralistic undertone: don’t be too quick to judge, the line between right and wrong can be hard to define. Its spooky aliens are not sinister, but are victims of manipulation. General Carrington (John Abineri) is up to no good, but through the misguided belief that he’s doing the right thing. This is a big turnaround from the Troughton era, where the lines between good (the Doctor and his friends) and bad (anything non-humanoid) were very clearly drawn. As late as The Seeds of Death, the Doctor had been catapulting Ice Warriors into the sun without offering them half a chance. But since his exile to Earth, it seems he’s become chief negotiator between mankind and the monsters.

*****

But in some other ways, this isn’t so different from the Troughton era. Season Six had a lead cast of an eccentric, anti-authoritarian Doctor, his brainy female sidekick and his male chum he kept around to do all the fighting. Nothing much changed there. And it’s a team which works very well. The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) as shown in Season Seven, is much more like a regular companion than he’ll ever be again; he’s a genuine collaborator with the Doctor and not the plug-and-play figure of fun he’ll become next season. And although the Doctor grumbles slightly about his military friend’s killing of the Silurians in the previous story, he’s clearly forgiven him and moved on, which speaks to either the Doctor’s grudging respect for the Brigadier, or a massive inconsistency of character.

Liz Shaw  is present too, although the story asks little of her than to hang around the Doctor for the first few episodes, hang off a weir for a bit and then hang around imprisoned for the rest of the story (when she’s finally liberated in Episode Seven, she gives a weary ‘just get me out of here’ suggesting John was not sorry to see the end of the tacky little bunker lab set she’d spent three episodes in).

Liz was often characterised as the companion who didn’t work because she was too clever. It’s a slight which does a massive disservice to John (who was consistently excellent) and is also a tremendously patronising to the show’s audience. And also, it’s just wrong. Liz works fine. In fact she’s a terrific companion: smart, brave and resourceful. And although her successor, Katy Manning’s Jo Grant was also a good foil for the Doctor, dumbing down the only regular woman in the cast didn’t make the show any better.

As much as we mightn’t like to admit it, that’s the real stand out of the brief Dicks/Hulke/Holmes era. This is the writers room which could make everything work, except one. Write scripts in no time flat? Change the show into an action adventure program? Use it to explore moral dilemmas? None of these things are a problem. But find a way to incorporate a clever, mature female companion? That was too big an ask.

LINK TO The Name of the Doctor: the third Doctor is in each. As he was in The Five Doctors. As he is in…

NEXT TIME:  I’ve been meaning to pay a return visit to Peladon for ages. The miners are revolting in The Monster of Peladon.

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.

Establishment, anti-establishment and The Curse of Peladon (1972)

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Is Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, he of the sweeping capes, velvet jackets and patrician tone, anti-establishment or deeply embedded in it? Some people (late producer Verity Lambert among them) have argued that by aligning himself with UNIT and setting up base on Earth, the Doctor became part of our society’s power structures and quite different to the anarchic force for change he had been previously.

Others (like writer Gareth Roberts) have argued that he’s utterly anti-establishment, that barely a story goes by without him clashing with bureaucrats and soldiers and anyone who represents the powers-that-be. I’m not sure that being anti-authority precludes you from being part of the establishment, but I think the Doctor’s flamboyant presence among the suits and uniforms around him is a potent contrast. If the Doctor has sold out, it doesn’t sit comfortably with him.

You could read it either way. But it surprises me to find on this random trip through Who that the more I see of him, the more it’s clear that the Third Doctor is a tricky character to pigeon hole.

Most recently, I’ve accompanied him and dolly bird assistant Jo Grant (played by dolly bird Katy Manning) to the stormy planet of Peladon. It’s only the second time the Doctor has managed to slip the Time Lord shackles which have grounded him on planet Earth, so it’s a rare trip to another world. But while in the confines of a UNIT laboratory the Doctor may have sneered at enough civil servants to convince us he’s still a maverick at heart, I have to report that once on Peladon, he becomes a resounding advocate for the establishment.

Peladon is a rustic kind of place. Its cavernous citadel is lit by fiery torches and its soldiers dress like Romans and carry swords. It’s governed by a King, who’s advised by long robed lords. Like its mascot, the furry fanged beast Aggedor, Peladon’s an untamed beast. But civilisation beckons, in the form of a Galactic Federation of planets. To assess Peladon’s application to join the Federation, representative delegates have been sent, all of them green: Ice Warriors, Arcturus (an alien head in a mobile jukebox) and Alpha Centauri (a phallic hexapod).

(A quick diversion – Alpha Centauri, WTF? It is the oddest thing: it looks like a cock, sounds like a woman and is labelled a hermaphrodite. It’s every gender you can think of, with six tentacles and wrapped in a cloak. It pulls focus in every scene it’s in: Katy Manning even throws in a cheeky ad lib about it upstaging everyone. But putting aside its sheer mind boggling weirdness, I wonder if there’s an argument for Alpha Centauri being the first queer character in Doctor Who. After all, actor Ysanne Churchman was instructed to give it the voice of ‘a homosexual civil servant’. And is there something uncomfortable in positioning gays as bizarre, unearthly creatures?)

The Earth delegate is missing, but the Doctor is on hand to adopt the role. And he’s clearly a method actor, because he utterly embeds himself in the part. So much so, that he adopts an unquestioning support for Peladon joining the Federation. So fervent is his belief in this cause, he seems to forget that he’s not actually there to ensure it happens.

In Episode Three, this unusually committed impostor talks to chief recalcitrant Hepesh (Geoffrey Toome):

DOCTOR: You slap the Federation in the face by sabotaging the commission. Why?
HEPESH: Because I’m afraid.
DOCTOR: Afraid? Afraid of what? The Federation is your safeguard.
HEPESH: That is not true! I know the Federation’s real intent.
DOCTOR: The Federation’s real intent is to help you.
HEPESH: No! They’ll exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology. The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away, and everything that I know and value will have gone.
DOCTOR: The progress that they offer, that we offer, isn’t like that.

How does he know? Does he know about the Federation from some previous adventure? If not, how can he be so sure it’s the benign force for progress he paints it as? Hepesh’s argument, though paranoid and fear-driven, might have some merit. Unusually for the Doctor, he doesn’t give the other side of the argument any consideration.

Compare this to Curse‘s Season Nine stablemate,The Mutants. In that story, the planet Solos is fighting for its independence from an imperialist regime. In that adventure, the Doctor is firmly on the side of self-determination. Sure we’re dealing with two different allegories here; The Mutants rails against colonialism, whereas Curse reflects tensions about the UK joining the European economic community. Peladon is making a choice of its own, whereas Solos is occupied. But still, it’s odd to see the Doctor urging one society of strength in unity, while pointing out to another the strength of standing alone.

I suppose though it depends what we’re calling ‘the establishment’. The Doctor is certainly against Hepesh’s attempts to keep Peladon shackled to tradition and the old power structures. In this sense, he’s a true advocate for change and firmly questioning the wisdom of sticking with the status quo.

But I can’t help wondering how Peladon’s going to fare in this galactic federation. It’s a feudal society, lacking in technological sophistication but rich in natural resources. Surely there’s a possibility it’s going to extorted and bullied by its more advanced co-signatories. Hmm Doctor? Hmm?

Curse has a sequel, the quite similar, but two episodes longer, The Monster of Peladon. It concerns itself with rebellious miners mostly, so perhaps writer Brian Hayles missed a trick. What if 50 years later, Peladon finds itself wanting out of the Federation? What if Hepesh’s fears were borne out? The Doctor would have to face the consequences of his actions and perhaps strive for the opposite outcome he sought in Curse. There’d have to be Ice Warriors and Aggedor and funny hairstyles, natch.

At the end of the adventure the Doctor tells Jo that he suspects their arrival on Peladon was no coincidence. He reckons it was those wily old birds the Time Lords sending him on another mission. What possible benefit they see in Peladon joining the Federation remains unknown, but they had their man in the field go and sort things out. Once again, the Doctor’s on hand to do the establishment’s bidding. Whether he likes it or not.

LINK to Blink. Both feature deadly statues. And as it happens…

NEXT TIME… You might want to find something to hang on to. It’s back to not blinking for The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

AND ONE LAST THING… The Curse of Peladon means that Season 9 is the first season to be completed on Randomwhoness! You can find links to its stable mates, and indeed all my posts, right here.