Tag Archives: Tom Baker

Sisterhood, sexiness and The Hand of Fear (1976)

handof

It’s no original observation to point out the irony that the last few minutes of The Hand of Fear are its best.  In this afterthought to a story of ancient revenge by an exiled stone alien, we say goodbye to longstanding companion Sarah Jane Smith. Played as ever with smarts and spunk by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah is farewelled in touching but unsentimental form when Tom Baker’s Doctor drops her off to go off on a solo adventure. It’s a devastating end to one of the show’s most effective partnerships.

It’s also complete nonsense.

To get why, we need to reflect on the sort of character Sarah is. She was designed to be a part-time companion. She’s the companion who has a life outside the TARDIS. She has a job. She stays on Earth between trips. This mode of travel does two things. It makes her seem more independent of the Doctor. And although it might give the impression that she’s not that interested in travelling with him full-time, instead it does the opposite: it constantly reaffirms how much she loves travelling with him because she makes the choice to be with him over and over again.

After her first, inadvertent TARDIS trip, she finds herself back in London and is ready to go home to check that it hasn’t been stepped on by a brontosaurus when the Doctor coaxes her into another journey – this time to an improbable sounding holiday planet. This becomes a recurring trait; when given the chance to go home, time and again she chooses to jump in that big blue box and run away a bit longer.

It happens in Robot, when she accepts by snatching a jelly baby from the Doctor’s stash. It happens in Terror of the Zygons, when she’s convinced to jump on board while everyone else around her says no. It happens in The Android Invasion, where she barely puts up a protest. And in The Seeds of Doom, she’s not even travelling with the Doctor, but agrees to run off with him twice, once to Antarctica and then to another improbable sounding holiday planet.

So in The Hand of Fear, when the Doctor says he needs to go to Gallifrey by himself, the immediate reaction is… so what? Sarah will go back to her real life for a while. He can just come back and get her at story’s end. He has done that many times before. But for some reason, this time’s the last. No adequate explanation given. It’s a bit like The Husbands of River Song. The Doctor makes the decision to end their time together. Sarah gets no say in it.

It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly performed. (My favourite beat: when the TARDIS lands and Sarah says, “that’s my home.” Sladen manages to wring about 17 different meanings out of just three syllables.) But it goes against everything that Sarah is and does. She’s the Doctor’s best friend. She’s her own woman. Give her her own space and she’ll say yes every time. There’s absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t keep doing so.

And least in the fictional world. Behind the scenes, it was time to raunch things up a bit.

****

The other great irony about The Hand of Fear is that it improves no end when the hand is finally attached to a body. The body in question is the lithe feminine form of Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris. Squeezed into a blue bodysuit carefully adorned with fake stones, she’s a scene stealer. A formidable enemy and, despite being covered in blue paint and plastic tiles, an instantly sexy one.

She’s a complete contrast to Sarah, who, dressed in her red and white striped overalls is a far more platonic figure. And as the Doctor is more and more taken with Eldrad, Sarah is noticeably jealous.

Of the two of our heroes, Sarah is far more suspicious of Eldrad’s motives than the Doctor, who is much more open to helping Eldrad return to her home planet. But Sarah thinks she’s up to no good, and apart from that, she’s the first woman she’s ever had to compete with for the Doctor’s attention (women being few and far between in Hinchliffean Who).

Sarah always had a sisterly relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor, but standing in Eldrad’s stony blue shadow, she looks positively chaste. And in a number of other ways, Sarah’s childlike innocence (emphasized by that outfit and her stuffed toy) is deliberately positioned as “not sexy” next to Eldrad. In a few episodes time, Sarah’s replacement will be revealed (ahem) as Leela, a leggy amazon in a leather swimsuit. After her it’ll be Romana, an evening gown wearing ice maiden. Questionable in terms of gender politics, but undeniable attempts to sex up the show.

Still, Sarah gets her own back. Although the Doctor might get all doe-eyed about sexy blue Eldrad, she eventually turns into the bulkier, shoutier, more magnificently mustached form of Eldrad the Bloke (Stephen Thorne). That soon puts an end to the ol’ Tooth and Curls’ campaign of flirting and offering rides home.

Then it’s revealed that when Eldrad was being resurrected, he based his female form on Sarah’s bodyprint. See, she really is sexy! I bet under those overalls there’s a red and white striped bedazzled bodysuit ready to rock and roll.

*****

If Sarah’s last story spends a lot of time pointing out what she’s not, and then gives her a farewell which ignores who she is, it’s partly Elisabeth Sladen’s fault. It was she who asked the production crew to avoid making her final story about Sarah. “Just make it an ordinary Doctor Who story and have me leave at the end,” she advised. True to her request, they made a very ordinary Doctor Who story and had her leave at the end.

But this typically modest request by Sladen grossly underestimated her own importance to the show and her impact on it. Frankly, they were wrong to agree to her request. A story which focused on and celebrated everything about Sarah was the very least Sladen deserved.

LINK TO Hell Bent: Gender changing.

NEXT TIME… One small step for a thing. We’re off to Kill the Moon.

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Courage, choices and Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

genesis daleks

“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened,” the Doctor once said, back when he looked like Jon Pertwee. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” It’s the expression of a theme which writer Terry Nation often explored: people under pressure, finding the courage to make choices which challenge them to the core, but which they know are the right thing to do.

When asked to revisit the origins of the Daleks, Nation came up with this titan of a story, a mythic struggle where the Doctor (now looking like Tom Baker), fights to prevent his deadliest enemies from ever being born. But amongst all the bombs and bombast, he included a courageous choice at the story’s heart.

After five hard-fought episodes and with victory only the touch of two detonator wires away, our hero suddenly questions the moral basis for his actions. He asks himself, in a now famous speech, whether by destroying the Daleks he becomes no better than them. He has in his hands the power to save countless future victims, but when he finally has the means to destroy these heinous creatures, he asks himself, “do I have the right?

It’s the payoff to a choice made back in Part One, when an enigmatic Time Lord (John Franklyn-Robbins) asked the Doctor to go on this deadly mission in the first place. The Doctor wasn’t forced to say yes; he agreed to go. Sure, the Time Lord correctly anticipates his agreement and transports him to Skaro as a fait accompli, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor makes a choice to attempt genocide. There’s something of the special contempt the Doctor reserves for the Daleks in this decision. It’s difficult to imagine him agreeing to wipe out any of the other species he’s encountered. But whether it was a choice clouded by hatred or made in haste or made without full appreciation of its implications, the “do I have the right?” moment tells us it was wrong.

Genesis of the Daleks repeatedly shows us people making difficult moral choices. Often this is presented as the choice to rebel against the fascist regime in the bunker. Members of the scientific elite like Ronson (James Garbutt), Kavell (Tom Georgeson) and Gharman (Dennis Chinnery) carefully reveal their allegiances in urgent, conspiratorial whispers, in the style of so many WW2 films where people plot against the Nazis from within. They find the courage to resist, even though their lives are in immediate danger.

The choices they make are made on moral grounds – they abhor the lack of conscience in the Daleks – but they also present a direct challenge to the viewer. Would we, under similar circumstances, have the courage to speak up? Their choices are made even more striking by the moment when Nyder (Peter Miles) mimics their concerns in order to trap Gharman. His famous fake out (“Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!”) shows us how dangerous speaking up is, but it’s also an example of Nyder’s unflinching devotion to Davros. In the whole story, Nyder’s the only character whose moral stance, twisted though it is, remains unquestioned.

Outside of the bunker, others make choices which set them at odds with those around them. Sevrin (Stephen Yardley) for instance, chooses to save Sarah, when the rest of his Muto mates want her killed. Thal soldier Bettan (Harriet Philpin) has to make the choice about closing the bunker’s doors and potentially trapping the Doctor inside. And throughout, the Doctor finds himself trying to convince people to change their behaviour on moral grounds: appealing to Mogran (Ivor Roberts) to stop work in the bunker, appealing to the Thals to abandon their rocket launch and, most critically, appealing to Davros (Michael Wisher) to stop the entire Dalek project.

Davros too, is confronted with choices to make on moral grounds, which he mostly rejects. He does so because his worldview is antithetical to the Doctor’s. He sees the Daleks as a force for good, not evil. He sees democracy as a utopian delusion and totalitarianism as the only way of achieving peace.

In another moment for the clip reels, the Doctor proposes a hypothetical moral choice to Davros: would he use a biological weapon to kill everyone? Davros, seduced by the idea, says emphatically, yes. But he’s not above using the same moral challenges to point out the hypocrisy of others. Later, he uses a similar trick on Kaled opponent Kravos (Andrew Johns): “I saved your life once,” he icily points out to the young man. “In your chest is a tiny instrument which I designed. It keeps your heart beating. Will you now turn that heart against me?” He neglects to mention that he would, and later does, kill Kravos without a second thought.

It’s a clear indication that moral choices work only in relation to your own moral framework. And Davros’ moral framework is particularly perverted. It’s oddly underplayed in the story itself, but when confronted with a threat from the Kaled government to investigate his work, Davros retaliates by helping the Thals use their rocket to kill everyone in the Kaled city. Then, he sends the Daleks to kill all the Thals. It’s Doctor Who’s greatest act of ruthlessness: a double genocide. And in Davros’s twisted philosophy, these are moral choices worth making to ensure the survival of his Dalek children. Again, it’s not mentioned specifically, but this act of mass murder must surely be on the Doctor’s mind when he’s hesitating to connect those two explosive wires.

Davros only sees the error of his ways in the story’s final minutes, when he realises his Daleks have started managing their own affairs. With his life in danger, he suddenly switches tack and makes a moral choice to destroy the Daleks… but his wizened hand never lands on that big friendly “total destruct” button. Finally Davros has joined the legion of characters in this story having the courage to do what’s right, although it’s far too late.

My point is that we rightly praise the Doctor’s “do I have the right?” speech in Genesis of the Daleks (even though it’s effectively neutralised about 15 minutes later, when he decides to go back and have another go). But in fact, the whole story is a series of events in which characters have their convictions challenged, find the courage to act despite their fear and make choices based on what they see is right. Perhaps difficult choices are simply the building blocks of all drama. Perhaps all Doctor Who stories contain them to a greater or lesser extent. But Genesis is infused with them.

But to return to “do I have the right?”, it underlines what Nation had the Doctor say back on Spiridon about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. A future with the Daleks frightens the Doctor – initially enough to want to kill them. Instead, he has the courage to do what he has to do anyway, and let them live.

LINK TO Planet of Evil: same Doctor, companion and production team. Links abound!

NEXT TIME… we’re taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight. What could possibly go wrong?

Scribbles, shibboleths and Planet of Evil

Oakleigh Primary. A pretty little school, part of a leafy outer Melbourne suburb. Diverse community, mix of modern and historic classrooms. A warm, welcoming place.

At least, that’s how it looks from the website. I’ve never actually been there. I would never have come across it all, except that it’s the place where my copy of Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil came from. Published 1977, hardback, first edition. A thing of beauty, with a big ugly wolfman on the cover.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read Doctor Who books (the first: Doctor Who and the Zarbi, paperback, umpteenth reprint. Spoilt by my sister writing a bogus dedication from Bill Strutton on the title page. I was livid). Though just as important as reading them, was collecting them. I wanted the full set of tidy little paperbacks with spines all the colours of the rainbow, and white.

The quest had begun. For years I scoured bookshops and department stores and garage sales and my world in general for those vivid little tomes. The ones I couldn’t find, I’d borrow in small piles from my local library. But its collection consisted of exotic hardback editions. It was extensive too – although it lacked a Planet of Evil, it did have a rare Frederick Mueller edition of The Zarbi, which, to my life long regret, I didn’t steal.

Amazing, mysterious things, those hardbacks. Where did the library get them? They were never in the newsagents and quaint little book exchanges I got chased out of. I sullenly settled for buying paperbacks, but in truth, I was addicted to the hard (cover) stuff.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was concentrating on girls and beer but also celebrating my complete collection of Doctor Who paperbacks (I know, right? What a catch). The quest was completed, but I faced a new problem. I had nothing more to collect. I had to make do with new adventures and missing adventures and what have you. But it wasn’t the same. 

I couldn’t kick the habit. I kept combing second hand bookstores searching for spines with little Target logos atop. I bought copies of books I already had, but with different covers. Hell, I bought copies of books I already had with the same covers just because I couldn’t leave them behind. At one stage, I had three identical copies of The Zarbi. Plus my original copy, by that stage in tatters, Fake Bill Strutton’s message angrily ripped out.

Every so often, I’d find a lonely hardback on those shelves and I’d snatch it up, greedily. They were rare treats, often “ex-library”, a term sneered at by serious collectors. These were well worn books, often a bit battered. Often covered in clear plastic, lending slips still glued to the back, stamps and stains throughout. I didn’t care, I loved them all. As my collection grew, I wondered how hard it would be to collect all the hardback editions… and lo, the quest began again!

This time though, the task was much harder. My paperbacks search, back in the day, had been for cheap, mass market products. The hardbacks had much smaller print runs and were often distributed only to libraries. I was now searching for collector’s pieces via eBay and Abebooks and other obscure corners of the web. And the copies I found were old, imperfect and often pricey. Whether to drop $100 on a roughed up old copy of, say, The Power of Kroll, became a familiar dilemma.

It took me years. It cost me stupid money. But over time, I got them all. (Well, all except those Frederick Mueller editions of The Daleks, The Crusaders and my old friend, The Zarbi. Even I couldn’t come at those eye watering prices.) And although I found plenty of handsome, well kept copies of later books (harvested from collections of fans whose love had grown cold), the ex-library ones are my favourites.

Because shabby and dogeared though they are, these books have histories. People have read them, loved them, taken them home, carried them in school bags, spilled tea on them, lost them down the back of the couch. They’ve been held in the hands of fans, pored over again and again. These stories have stories. Who, for instance, at Oakleigh Primary School read, loved and coveted this copy of Planet of Evil. Who crossed off the other books they’d read on that list at the front? Was it even you, reading this post right now?

Or did you once clutch some other book in my collection? Perhaps you are Kevin C Wood from Lincolnshire, who wrote his name so carefully in my copy ofAn Unearthly Child. Hello Kevin! Lovely handwriting. Did you get in trouble for defacing a library book?

Or perhaps you’re Kathleen Robinson, formerly of East York public library. Kathleen, I need to know: did you really borrow Planet of the Daleks8 times? Or were you just practicing your signature on that library slip, in preparation for opening your first bank account, or in case you married that dreamy Robinson boy from down the road?

Or maybe you’re the mysterious frequenter of Leeds library who studiously wrote the numeric ranking of each Doctor on the frontispiece of each book, a shibboleth to other fans. “First,” you printed seriously in biro on The Keys of Marinus. “Fourth,” in Meglos.

If you went to Mapleridge Senior Public School, Ontario, I have your copy ofPyramids of Mars. No, you can’t have it back. If you frequented Transvaal Public Library, you might have thumbed my copy of The Ultimate Foe. My copy of The Romans comes from Hong Kong, The Five Doctorsfrom Manitoba, The Rescuefrom sunny Toowoomba. From all around the world, they’ve flown to me in Sydney, Australia.

I love that so many people have held these books. I love the marks and scribbles they left behind. And every now and then, there’s something special. “To Margaret,” a dedication reads on the front page of The Deadly Assassin. “Happy times. Tom Baker.” Oh, Margaret. How could you ever give something so glorious away?

The quest is over now. I buy the occasional new series book, but they don’t have the same appeal. I read, but don’t collect.

Except for last year, when three smart new additions hit my shelves. Replicas of those first three books, the ultra rare Frederick Mueller ones, completing my collection at last. Wonderful – even if they don’t have library stamps, tears, coffee cup rings, enigmatic written messages and all the rest. I’ll just imagine they come from Yorkshire public library.

And, of course, one of those books is another copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Well, you can never have too many.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Frontios: both stories set on the edge of the universe

NEXT TIME… It’s Genesis of the Daleks. Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!

The tin dog, its legacy and The Invisible Enemy (1977)

Even by Doctor Who’s variable standards, The Invisible Enemy commits a lot of sins. Its acting is even hammier acting and its effects even dodgier than usual. It’s got a standard runaround, shoot ‘em up plot, when it’s not moonlighting as a disaster movie or ripping off Fantastic Voyage. But for many, the greatest crime a Doctor Who story can have is a rubbish monster and The Invisible Enemy has a particularly egregious one, twice. It’s the Nucleus of the Swarm –  first a bin bag with a hairy eyeball and then a giant prawn which needs assistance to walk around. I mean, any monster which needs two attendants to help it trundle down a corridor is never going to convince as a serious threat. When it first appears, fronds waving in Tom Baker’s face, he’s trying to swat it away like the embarrassing irritation it is.

But this story’s place in Doctor Who is assured because it introduced K9. K9’s a controversial figure in Doctor Who, some loving him like a surrogate pet and others thinking him a childish indulgence. But one thing is undeniable. K9 is, by any measure, hopeless.

He moves at a top speed of “glacier” and even that causes his motors to whine loudly throughout. Good thing he never has to sneak up on anyone. His nose laser is strangely anaemic and its aim is variable. Sometimes it will strike someone in the knee but injury them in the stomach. His movement is erratic; at one stage he drives straight into a wall. And he can’t roll over the lip of the TARDIS doorframe, meaning he has to enter and exit the Ship via means of discrete cutaways.

What makes K9 worth persevering with is his voice, delivered by John Leeson. Think of all the different ways Leeson might have gone with this. Looking at the squared off metal terrier, he might well have adopted an excitable, yappy tone. Or perhaps delivered all his lines as a kind of halting bark. But instead, he went for the tone of a mildly exasperated mid-career accountant. Unexpectedly, this works beautifully and makes you want to hear from K9, hoping he’s going to contribute to a scene. And of course it allows some character relationship to develop between him and the other characters.

K9’s function within the show veers from being exposition machine to mobile (or immobile, depending on the terrain) gun, but frequently he rises above this to demonstrate the wry charm of a sufferer of the Doctor’s silliness. Plus Leeson’s deadpan delivery allows K9 to occasionally deliver nicely self-referential gags. Like in The Pirate Planet (yes, I’m still going on about that one!), when he predicts the Doctor’s imminent arrival because he can sci-fi smell him coming, and when the Doctor finally booms in with a “Are you surprised to see me, K9?”, K9 dryly replies, “Amazed, Master” and steals the scene. Or in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor idly says, “I think one of us is being extremely stupid” and K9 says quietly but knowingly, “Affirmative.”

So technically a nightmare, but narratively useful and, with Leeson behind the microphone, a charismatic addition to the TARDIS crew. The production team had every chance to get rid of K9, and given the challenges presented by the prop, they’d have been sensible to do so, but they brought him back for three seasons in a row, until John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead thought he was altogether too convenient and sent him packing  (and even JN-T brought him back for a special, hoping a spin-off series could be cobbled together around him). The reason why, of course, was that the audience, and particularly kids, loved him.  In 1977, Doctor Who needed to be popular with kids.

K9 was an acknowledgement – the first for a very long time – that children are part of the Doctor Who audience. He’s a potent signal that the show is conscious of its younger audience; incoming producer Graham Williams had been instructed by his bosses to take them into consideration by lightening the tone of the show. If K9 seemed like an unnecessarily childish element to older viewers who had got used to the show’s mix of gruesomeness and black humour, then he did exactly what he was designed to do.

He’s also the first of a different breed of companion, which I like to call the “secondary companion”. In Season 15, Leela (Louise Jameson) is the primary companion and main foil for the Doctor; she’s in every episode and gets plenty of dialogue and action. K9, however, gets plugged in and out of stories as he’s needed. He isn’t in it all the time. If the terrain is too boggy this episode or you don’t want him to compete with the Daleks for attention or you don’t want to take him on holiday, you leave him in the TARDIS. No biggie. No wonder the Doctor refers to him as his second best friend. He utterly is.

It’s a companion configuration that the 21st century version of the show uses all the time. Jack and Rory are secondary companions and Mickey even self-identified as the tin dog.  They’re the Doctor’s second best friends. But the character where K9’s influence is most keenly seen is Nardole.

Like K9, Nardole acts as the Doctor’s confidante and aide-de-camp. Like K9, he does the boring technical stuff the Doctor doesn’t want to do and turns up occasionally to spout exposition. Like K9, he’s a fussy, uppity butler-type and he drops in and out of the series depending on whether he’s needed or not. I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise, but Nardole basically is K9, but better able to cope with hills and able to walk in and out of the TARDIS without assistance. And just as it’s difficult to imagine a spin-off series for Nardole, the various K9 solo vehicles, are, I fear, doomed to ignominy. His value is as an adjutant to the Doctor and as brilliant as he is at that, he’s not lead character material.

Back to The Invisible Enemy, and the story’s end where Professor Marius (Frederick Jaegar, of which university) appeals to the Doctor to let K9 travel aboard the TARDIS. Leela is delighted, but the Doctor says nothing. Tom Baker looks distinctly grumpy about the whole idea. He’s already got one scene stealing companion, in a skimpy outfit which makes it impossible for her to not steal focus from him. Now he’s got a robot dog as well!

For years after he’ll complain about the unreliability of the prop or the need for shots with him crouching down, but I’ve always thought that his antipathy towards K9 is mainly about competition for being adored by children. In that regard, he at last has a companion to give him a run for his money. Just not one that could actually run.

LINK TO The Leisure Hive and The Pirate Planet: Three stories in a row with Tom and K9! But we’re about to random it up again…

NEXT TIME… If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you? It’s back to the very beginning for 100,000 BC.

Recreation, lack of and The Leisure Hive (1980)

The Leisure Hive

I’ve been counting the number of fun holiday activities you can indulge in on Argolis and I’m afraid the list is short. As far as I can see, you can play zero gravity squash and after that, you can look out through the windows at the devastated surface of the planet and contemplate the awful effects of nuclear war. Or you can attend a lecture on tachyonics where they’ll examine wave form equations for an hour and a half. Equations chat for an hour and a half? Slow down, thrillseekers! Just point me towards the swim up bar please and pre-order me an extravagant cocktail. Two stars on Trip Advisor.

If Argolis is such a great place for a holiday, why isn’t it fun? Why is it all so sterile and po-faced? I think the answer lies in the handover between script editor Douglas Adams and his successor Christopher H. Bidmead.

In Adams’ wild and wacky Season Seventeen, I think The Leisure Hive could have been a hoot: jokes accentuated, performances with more brio. The anagrammatic Foamasi would have kept their insect heads but stayed dressed in gangster suits. But, it was not to be. Bidmead and new producer John Nathan-Turner were on a campaign to stamp out any silliness in the show and I suspect it was they who sucked all the fun out of this holiday world. I imagine if you went on holiday with Bidmead, he probably would want to listen to someone yammer on about equations all day.

Still, there’s one light-hearted moment left which seems like the sort of joke which might have appealed to both Adams and Bidmead. In Part Three, when the Doctor (a newly question marked Tom Baker) needs to incapacitate a guard (as so often needs to happen in Parts Three everywhere), he scribbles an enormous sum on the outer plasmic shell of the TARDIS and the poor yellow-clad fellow is so overwhelmed by the implications of what he sees that he faints in astonishment. Y’see, that joke survived because it’s about equations; a nerdy subject both script editors approved of.

Still, someone on the crew is yearning for the old days. Amongst the Doctor’s maths they’ve scrawled a sly warning: “beware of the dog”.

****

They might as well have written “beware of the director”. Not that I’m about to slag off Lovett Bickford for trying to do something different than the standard approach to classic Doctor Who directing which can be summarized as, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can and let’s get back to the bar”. In fact, only last post I was whinging about Pennant Roberts’ pedestrian approach to shooting The Pirate Planet. Imagine if they’d let hot shot Lovett have a go at that one. A wildly imaginative script matched with a wildly innovative director. Think of the resulting four episodes of that! The director general of the BBC might have fainted during the playback, like that poor Argolin extra.

Bickford’s approach is, for the most part, refreshingly distinct. He refuses to let the show’s multi-camera format discourage him from trying to make a Kubrick film in TC1. He mimics a single camera approach, often going for intense close ups, creeping tracking shots, oblique angles and rapidly cut together reaction shots.

When it works, it’s electrifying. Like when shifty earthling Stimson (David Allister) stumbles into the quarters of equally shifty earthling Klout (Ian Talbot) and finds his fake face hanging up in a wardrobe; Bickford shoots it from the wardrobe’s point of view: its door slides open, we see the mask, then Stimson’s shocked face. Or look at the end of Part Two, with the Doctor stuck in the malfunctioning Recreation Generator and there’s a series of rapid cuts between the assembled cast, then we get the Generator’s POV shot of Romana (Lalla Ward) looking shocked and Mena (Adrienne Corri) looking downcast, then the Doctor emerging, greatly aged.

The Leisure Hive is filled with moments like this and the story is mostly enriched by them. But Bickford’s ambition occasionally backfires on him. Sometimes, his drive to be innovative obscures the story writer David Fisher is trying to tell. Take for instance, the moment when Mena arrives on Argolis to assume the role of Chair of the board. She marches down a corridor and Bickford lets her come straight for the camera, then a flip and we’re following her back as she continues down that same corridor. Stylish, but it means that Mena’s dialogue gets lost, and it’s useful explanatory stuff, saying she has brought with her scientist Hardin (Nigel Lambert) who is offering some Hive-saving time travel experiments.

Then there’s the scene in Part Three, when the Doctor, Romana and Hardin are discussing the need to re-enter the generator, and it’s done with all three actors’ backs to the camera. If The Leisure Hive is already an arcane experience for audience members (with all its talk of tachyons, baryon shields and Schrodinger oscillators) it can’t help that the direction is making it harder to understand what’s going on. I could go on… and will.

The hijinks about the faked time experiment don’t land properly because the screen is barely visible, making the tell about the two necklaces impossible to see. The complex series of cuts that opens Part Four as the West Lodge Foamasi are outed and defrocked bewilders rather than excites. And the very final scene has so much squeezed in: the explanation of the climax, the reveal of the red herring about the Foamasi shuttle, the cute bit with the baby and the cheery banter back to the TARDIS… all rushed through… giving the impression of a story suddenly turned off, rather than allowed to close at its own pace.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually love Lovett’s work, but both its pros and cons are on screen for all to see. I wish they’d let him do more Doctor Who stories, where we could have kept his directorial flair but honed his skills at telling the story. And for a story which is trying so hard to be new at everything, he successfully changed the whole look at feel of the series… for four episodes. Next story it was back to, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can before Tom cracks it about having to do a two shot with K9 again.”

****

There’s just time to mention my favourite performance in The Leisure Hive which is David Haig as Pangol. Haig will go on to infamy as one of the hapless grooms in Four Weddings and a Funeral – the one who gets lucky against all odds at the first wedding and has energetic sex with his new bride in the second, while Hugh Grant is trapped inside the closet. Here, he’s young and vital, lacing each of his lines with disdain for anyone who’s not an Argolin.

Plus he never misses an opportunity to add a smirk; he could smirk for England, this guy. When his head lifts off in the tachyonics demonstration – smirk! When he traps the Doctor in the generator – smirk!  When the penny finally drops that he’s the only young Argolin in the Hive, he smoothly asks “How old do you think I am, Mr Brock?”  Giant smirk!

Y’see, Pangol gets it. He knows that in this so called Leisure Hive, you have to make your own fun.

LINK TO The Pirate Planet: Both Tom stories! In fact, we’re on a bit of a Tom-a-thon because…

NEXT TIME… Head for the imurginsee eggsit, we’re facing The Invisible Enemy,

Design, destiny and The Pirate Planet (1978)

pirateplanet

It’s a funny old place, this pirate planet of Zanak. It has a Bridge which is stark and moody, the control centre of a vast, world transporting machine. But outside on the streets, it looks like a Greek coastal village that someone has deliberately dirtied. Luckily though, the people of Zanak (Zanakians? Zanackers?) refuse to live in this grubby state and rebelliously decorate the interiors of their living quarters with garish murals and beaded curtains. They further express their resistance by dressing in vivid reds, oranges and yellows. It’s like they’re living in a 1970s issue of Women’s Weekly.

Outside though, where things are shot on film, it’s different again. Those rolling green hills make this ghoulish, vampiric planet look a lot like Wales. They have fully automated mines on Zanak too, but funnily enough they look like your standard old disused Welsh mine. Or like you’re suddenly watching The Green Death. And the throbbing engines of this destroyer of worlds looks like a bigger than normal, but still disappointingly mundane, power station interior.

When a Doctor Who story has a through line of consistent set design elements, it’s easy for those elements to go unnoticed while they quietly add to the telling of the story by visually reinforcing its themes. It’s only in cases like The Pirate Planet, where the show’s look swerves wildly from the vivid to the dull to the simple that’ll do, won’t it? The bar’s about to close that it becomes a jarring experience. It serves this story which is otherwise full of galactic sized ideas poorly, by drawing attention to the two-star accommodation those ideas are housed in.

This sense of inconsistency extends beyond the sets, to the performances. On that stylish looking Bridge, we meet the Captain (Bruce Purchase), his factotum Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson) and his Nurse (Rosalind Lloyd) and they are endlessly entertaining. The Captain is verbose, roaring blowhard, Fibuli his fidgety aide and the Nurse his shadowy puppeteer. Every line they say is played to excess, every joke relished. When joined by the Doctor (a fiery Tom Baker) or Romana (a cool Mary Tamm), the dialogue sparks and the scenes ignite.

The rest of the supporting cast though, the Zanakis and their pallid psychokinetic subset the Mentiads, can’t summon up the same energy. It might be because they are mostly confined to the dullest of the sets and wearing the daggiest of costumes. Or it might because in this script full of larger than life star turns, they are left with the perfunctory dialogue of exposition while the larger roles get all the jokes. You can hardly blame them for being envious. Douglas Adams’ script is a gem and when the stars get a joke, which happens roughly every second line, the supporting cast member’s main job is to stand there, keep a straight face and keep the plot ticking along.

The general ennui of the supporting cast and the set design, is matched by other key creatives. Composer Dudley Simpson contributes one of his more standard scores. Even director Pennant Roberts offers only the most basic of camerawork, inspired only to deliver lingering close ups of the Captain and his bionic arm. No, it seems like everyone except the leads are treating this like any other old Doctor Who story. Rather than what it is – the debut of a vibrant new voice for the series.

Maybe its just hindsight, because this is Adams’ first major piece of work and we know what was to come. We know that between tapping out scenes where the Doctor’s robot dog scrapped with the Captain’s robot parrot, he was also frantically writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the world was about to become enchanted with him in exactly the same way the crew of The Pirate Planet didn’t. So it’s hard to watch The Pirate Planet without wanting to shake everyone involved who isn’t relishing the opportunity to work on this story, and shout “Moons of madness! Get your act together! You’re on a winner here!”

To be fair, producer Graham Williams works it out and gets him in as his new script editor. Williams had previously worked with two old hands, considerably senior to him in both age and experience: Robert Holmes, whose self-avowed approach was to terrify children watching the show and Anthony Read, who was more interested in retelling classic stories from literature and legend. By all account, each were productive working relationships, but I wonder if in Adams, Williams saw someone younger and more on his wavelength with whom to collaborate.

Because The Pirate Planet is not about scaring kids. And it’s not about retelling a classic story – although, if you squint, there’s a bit of Treasure Island in there (perhaps that’s how Adams got it past Read in the first place). It’s boldly imaginative; in the previous story, Holmes told a story about someone who claimed to sell planets. Adams tells a story of a planet which eats other planets. And he’s not afraid to justify the concept with astrophysics in quickfire explanations – particularly towards the end of the story. You might view that messy rush to the end, with its talk of gravitic anomalies and different planetary masses cancelling each other out as just so much technobabble. Or it could be read as Adams respecting his audience and trusting they’ll keep up.

Even the most astute viewers might have struggled with so many last minute twists crammed in at the end: the Nurse isn’t real! She’s actually the villain! The Captain had a secret plan to kill her! The segment of the key to time is disguised as a planet! And despite all these revelations, the climax turns out to be about people in standing inside sci-fi rooms pressing buttons, with the pasty Mentiads using psychokinesis hitting a control panel with a spanner. You can forgive these difficulties in ending the story because the rest of it has been so invigorating.

But it can’t help ending a little prosaically and that design inconsistency rears its head again. The Doctor decides to blow up the Bridge, to give the story a nice big explosion to go out on. So it’s back out onto the lush Welsh hillside we go. With what does he plan to blow up this planet harvesting machine, which the Captain described as “technology so far advanced you would not be able to distinguish it from magic”? A tatty old prop denotation box, complete with plunger handle. We cut unconvincingly between model shots and the witless extras in the Welsh valleys.

Tom Baker though, still has the energy to steal the last shot with a cheer and a fist pump in the air. Only the most grumpiest of viewers wouldn’t join in. He at least knew when the show was on a winner.

LINK TO Kinda. In both, there are gags about people dropping apples on other people’s heads!

NEXT TIME… I like the sound of Argolis. Time to book a quick break in The Leisure Hive.

Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

So the story goes that writer Robert Holmes got in a huff about paying his tax bill and, seeking revenge, wrote The Sun Makers as a barely disguised rant at the tax system. If true, this was a terrible idea and would surely have only ended up driving Holmes, a well-known hater of bureaucracy, spare. Because it must have lead to a particularly maddening type of recursion where writing a television show about how angry you are about your tax bill, results in you earning more money, on which you’ll need to pay more tax. It’s kind of like trying to get even at your hangover by having another drink.

Some Doctor Who reference book (forgive my vagueness on this, I’ve read so many over the years and have now all but given them up) once said that this story makes the mistake of confusing government taxation with the profit making of a company, which it argued, are completely different things. I think this utterly misses the point of The Sun Makers, in which Holmes imagines a world in which government has taken on the trappings of capitalism so completely, as for the two to become intertwined. Given the state of governments around the world in 2018, this is surely not so unbelievable.

It doesn’t seem much more of a leap to imagine that a company selling the very basics of life – sunlight, oxygen, water – would come to the conclusion that a far more efficient way of selling universal services, is to simply take the cost directly from each worker’s pay packet. As a way of making money, taxation is not a bad business model.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because for Holmes, the Company and its staff of blowhards, incompetents and sadistic creeps isn’t just a stand in for capitalism or government or even the BBC (complete with a revolving globe of Pluto and its six suns). It’s an amalgam of everything he hates; pointless bureaucracy, compassionless authority and unsanctioned environmental meddling. Wrapped up in one of his most fervent concerns: what are we going to do when the Earth can no longer sustain us? His answer, as always, is make all the same mistakes again. But with new scenery.

***

The Sun Makers sits quietly in Season 15, not drawing attention to itself – but it’s a pivotal story. It marks a subtle change in the series where the creepy thrillers of Holmes’ era as script editor, give way to stories which are lighter in tone, but more narratively ambitious. For the first time in years – probably since Holmes’ own Carnival of Monsters – we have a story where naturalism is abandoned, real life is satirized and characters are exaggerated caricatures. It’s a Sylvester McCoy story ten years too early. This doesn’t feel like a story Holmes would have commissioned for one of his own seasons, but one that refreshes him, now he’s finally free from the pressure of having to make a whole series of the damn thing.

What this liberation means in practice is that Holmes gets to write some of his wittiest dialogue and the cast eat it up. Tom Baker is still playing it quite seriously, but he’ll shortly change his approach to being more outlandishly comic. I think The Sun Makers plays a role in that. Douglas Adams is on record as saying that the problem with writing something funny, is that some actors feel they have the license to send up the material and add comic embellishments of their own (I wonder who he could have been speaking about?). It’s surely the change in tone in this story which Tom picks up on, and takes as a signal to start injecting more of his own humour into the show. Whether anyone asks him to or not.

It’s not just that there’s more humour in the show than before, nor that it’s pointed towards uncommon targets. It’s more that The Sun Makers is showing a way to tell Doctor Who stories which had, up to that point been occasional, but which was about to become the norm. You can see its influence in the next two seasons where villains become larger than life, situations become more absurd and jokes start to set the rhythm of each episode. And like those subsequent seasons, there’s always a grim sentiment behind the jovial approach.

In this episode, the flamboyant pooh-bah of the Company, Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) is thrown off a building by the company’s revolting workers (even to the end, he’s in wide-eyed amazement at the insolence of this action). And the mole-like Collector (Henry Woolf), a pasty little sadist who likes listening to people being steamed alive, might come with a bag of one-liners, but is also only just prevented from poisoning the entire population with gas, like someone fumigating a house.

Luckily, the Doctor is on hand to feed in a particularly tricky sum into his computer to trigger a lightning-fast global financial crisis. In panic, the Collector does what all companies do in their death throes and liquidates. That’s Holmes’ whole approach – the approach to this new way of doing Doctor Who – right there in that one villain’s demise. It’s gross, funny, highly stylised and self-referential all at the same time.

***

The irony is that there’s another financial crisis impacting on The Sun Makers; the story’s budget restrictions are shockingly apparent. Corridors are made from shabby old flats. Prop guns are cardboardy. A number of sets, such as the Others’ lair, the Gatherer’s office and the steaming chamber, can’t afford walls, giving the show the air of being performed in a theatrical black box. It’s at this point in the series’ history when inflation is galloping (as it does in the story itself) and the lack of money really starts to show on screen. The next story, Underworld, has to be almost completely greenscreened.  The story after, The Invasion of Time, makes villains out of aluminum foil.

Faced with similar restrictions, other Doctor Who makers have limited the show’s scope to fit. Derrick Sherwin exiled the series to Earth. Andrew Cartmel set more stories in history. But just as the show’s new lighter tone doesn’t really stop it from being gruesome, the Graham Williams era’s budget restrictions don’t limit its ambitions. If anything, the show’s scope broadens – more space faring, more alien planets, the biggest monster ever out on screen. The show never looked cheaper, but it flatly refused to cut its suit to fit its increasingly expensive cloth. But when watching Tom Baker concoct a cliffhanger from within a wobbly shower cubicle, or tinker with a couple of pieces of plumbing junctions glued together in an approximation of a security camera, the theme of the story seems to intrude into its production: everything, it seems, comes back to money.

***

Holmes might have enjoyed getting his own back at internal revenue, but I think the taxman would have had the last laugh. Every royalty cheque from every overseas screening must have brought with it the sharp reminder that some of that £2.39 he got from El Doctor Misterio – los Fabricantes de Sol screening in Nicaragua must go to the tax man. I bet the irony wasn’t lost on Holmes, as he filled out his tax return each year. “Praise the Company,” I like to think he muttered under his breath.

LINK TO The King’s Demons: oddly enough, they both start with someone getting in trouble for not handing money over to the ruling class.

NEXT TIME… It’s insane and it’s about to get even more insanerer. We’re off to meet The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.