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Best, brightest and The Claws of Axos (1971)

axos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

 

 

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Hawks, doves and The Christmas Invasion (2005)

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The ghost of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart hangs around the final scenes of The Christmas Invasion. Back in 1970’s Spearhead from Space, he mentioned how humans had been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. “We’ve drawn attention to ourselves,” he said ominously, moustache twitching with deep portent.

David Tennant’s skinny, sassy Doctor has just seen off the slave trading Sycorax in the space of about 10 minutes, but still he’s cautious. He all but quotes his old friend. Though he’s got quite the gob, so he uses far more words to say it: “And the human race is drawing attention to itself. Every day you’re sending out probes and messages and signals. This planet’s so noisy. You’re getting noticed more and more.”

His words spook Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). It’s been a bad day at the office. She’s just been through an alien invasion she was powerless to stop, she’s seen two men die in front of her and had the fate of half the world rest on her ability to negotiate her way out of an impossible situation.  She’s been in charge when the Doctor didn’t show up, and it’s terrified her.

So she takes a decision to blow up the alien threat rather than let them escape. In doing so, she’s channeling he Brigadier. He took the same pragmatic choice when he blew up the Silurians, again in 1970, in a desperate attempt to end a story which had already gone on for seven episodes. The difference then was we never got to see the Doctor confront his military friend about his act of murder, masquerading as defence.

Here, the Doctor forces Harriet to justify her choice. This she does, with hawkish pragmatism. “You said yourself, Doctor, they’d go back to the stars and tell others about the Earth. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time… They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” The Doctor is, of course, disgusted. “But that’s murder,” he said in 1970 and so he repeats, “that was murder” in 2005. Apart from that, he doesn’t bother to try to counter her arguments. He just starts tossing around threats.

More of that later. But first, it’s interesting that writer Russell T Davies is specifically referencing those two stories from 1970 (three, if we note that trouble with aliens abducting a British space craft was core to The Ambassadors of Death). He even goes to the extent of quoting them, almost word for word. He’s reminding us of the time when the Doctor had an uncomfortable relationship with his Earthbound allies. And also of a time when a new Doctor made a barnstorming entrance, signalling a major shift in the tone and focus of the series. David Tennant’s Doctor signals as significant a progression for the series as Pertwee, colour and exile to Earth did.

Tennant’s Doctor is different to Pertwee’s though, in that he’s unafraid to meter out punishment if you cross him. When the Sycorax leader goes back on his word to leave Earth, and instead redoubles his attack, the Doctor has no hesitation in triggering the trap door which sends the bad guy plummeting to the ground. “No second chances,” he says grimly. That goes for Harriet too.

As his argument with her escalates, he warns her of the consequences of messing with him. And when she shows no remorse, he decides to bring down her government by whispering six words in the ear of right hand man, Alex (Adam Garcia, formerly a red hot tap dancer back in Australia. Mrs Spandrell was very keen on him.) It’s a handy trick. I wish he would fall to Earth now and perform that same feat in the USA.

Anyway, the point is that this Doctor is not a man to cross.In some ways, that rift with Harriet marks the tenth Doctor out as political; he’s against pre-emptive military action. Or maybe it’s simpler than that – he just against the sneaky tactics of clobbering someone from behind.

Either way, he’s unafraid to lose friends when he thinks they’ve done the wrong thing. Later he watches Harriet on TV, flustered by questions about her health, engulfed in the PR storm he’s just conjured up with a six word magic spell. He stands there in his new glasses and paper Christmas hat and watches his former friend’s world collapse around her, and he’s unmoved.

This will of steel is something he has in common with his predecessor, who watched dispassionately as Cassandra burst apart and who dumped failed companion Adam back to Earth with window in his forehead. But then unlike the ninth Doctor, he does domestic. He has Christmas dinner with Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey (Noel Clarke), something the last him flatly refused to do. Indeed his whole attitude to Jackie and Mickey has softened. He physically embraces them – again something he previously wouldn’t have had a bar of. So although he’s just as uncompromising as Dr 9, he’s a far more accessible and relaxed with his human buddies.

There’s one last moment that underlines Doctor Tennant’s refusal to let his human compadres take the easy way out. At the story’s end, when he goes to grab Rose’s hand to run off together for further adventures, she shies away a little because it means holding the hand he recently grew back. “That hand still gives me the creeps,” she says. But he doesn’t offer her the other one. He insists she takes the one that freaks her out. It’s a tiny little moment, but it just reinforces that this Doctor doesn’t let you off easy.

One last thing to note. This is the story which starts to develop Mickey and Jackie as characters, beyond being handbrakes on Rose’s TARDIS adventuring. Mickey gets his first heroic moment when he outmanoeuvres the robot Santas and Jackie plays both caring matriarch and comic relief (I particularly love her reminding Mickey to note down how much internet he uses, even though only moments ago they were nearly killed by a rampaging Christmas tree). They are, at last, the Doctor’s allies, Earth-bound but ready to help out when needed. Pertwee had his UNIT family. Tennant has the Tyler family. The Brigadier would be pleased.

LINK TO The Power of Kroll: both were originally broadcast on/around Christmas time.

NEXT TIME… The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle. We’ll take care of it and The Caretaker too.

 

Unholy rites, unwarranted slights and The Dæmons (1971)

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

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You’ve got to admire the creative commitment displayed by Broton, Warlord of the Zygons (John Woodnutt). He’s disguised himself as the patrician Duke of Forgill – he’s got the coat, the hat and the cold, aloof exterior of the minor aristocrat down pat. He flaunts his performance at every opportunity, even though it brings unwelcome attention to his real agenda, which is to destroy oil rigs with his fearsome, half-mechanical Skarasan. Skarasan being a Zygonian word meaning ‘sea cow’.

Broton must simply love the theatrics of it. How else to explain why he drives into town (picking up three oddly dressed hitchhikers on the way) specifically to heckle oil man Mr Huckle (Tony Sibbald) about his employees trespassing on his appropriated estate, deliberately mangling the poor bloke’s name to press home his disdain. A few oiks skyving off on the moors for a quick ciggie can’t pose much of a threat to the warlord of an advanced technological race.

But Broton really throws himself into the part anyway. “If my ghillie catches them on my land again, they’ll be shot,” he burrs menacingly. Surprisingly, no one present – not the Doctor (a gruff Tom Baker), the Brigadier (an amiable Nicholas Courtney) nor Mr Huxtable himself – mentions that is a fairly drastic step up from a stern warning and a markdown at their next performance review.

Terror of the Zygons is full of these odd moments. Not ineffective, mind. Just the opposite. They are usually well acted, stylishly directed vignettes. But they’re just strange enough to jolt you out of the story for a moment. Either that, or they’re completely superfluous to the plot.

For example, take hard hitting journalist Sarah Jane Smith (a stylish Elisabeth Sladen) and her interview with bagpipe-playing, sooth-saying Angus McRanald (Angus Lennie). With wide eyes and hushed tones, he tells her the sort of spooky stories that teenage girls use to freak each other out at sleepover parties. Of the man from the Black Isle who went missing on the Moor in 1922. And of the Jamieson boys of 1870: “They went out cutting peat and the mist came down. Donald just disappeared. They found the older brother, Robert, two days later, wandering about, off his head. His eyes, his eyes were terrible to see.” Look, it’s lovely stuff, but unless we find out later in the story that the disappearances were part of the Zygons’ nefarious plans (and we don’t) it’s pleasantly creepy scene setting, but of no plot value.

Then there’s a series of land rover related coincidences, which kick off with Broton driving past the Doctor, Sarah and Harry (a dependable Ian Marter) at exactly the right time to pick them up (why not just have them land in the town itself?). Not long after, Harry is driving a land rover down a random road at exactly the right time to find an injured oil rig worker and get shot himself (Broton wasn’t bluffing, as it turns out). And not long after that, the Doctor is driving a land rover, trying to draw off the aforementioned hungry sea cow, when it mysteriously breaks down. Inconvenient for the Doctor who then has try to outrun the beast, but handy for a cliffhanger.

Back to the Zygons’ penchant for dramatics for a moment. Not all of them are as skilled as Broton. He must have gone to RADA, given his commitment to a role, but the others have clearly graduated from the diploma of performing arts at Wollongong TAFE, so clearly do they signpost their evil intentions. The one masquerading as Sister Lamont (Lillias Walker) is giving a Botcherby worthy performance in sinister, which is surely exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to hide out in a local hospital. (And by the way, why impersonate Sister Lamont? Is to finish off all those poor injured oil rig workers?) The Zygon who copies jolly, avuncular Harry gets his performance spectacularly wrong, making him a study in cold, sneering disdain. Sarah sees through him immediately, which was surely not the intention.

Like an actor in an hot, uncomfortable rubber costume, the Zygons must hate dressing up as humans, which might account for their inconsistent performances. “I loathe this abomination of a body,” the Lamont Zygon says at one stage, managing to keep a straight face. To be fair, those Zygon bodies are a terrific design, the bloated heads giving the impression of big orange embryoes (zygotes, I suppose). The new series Zygons seem to have done away with that association, which is probably wise. When Broton reveals that they feed off the milk of the rubbery Skarasan, the immediate mental image of a half a dozen Zygons suckling at the numerous teats of the puppety thing is another one of those story jolting moments. New Who can do without that.

Inside the Zygons’ spaceship, they’ve clearly gone for design over practicality. On the outside, it just looks like your standard tin box affair, but inside it looks like some something that’s been growing in the back of your fridge has got ideas above its station, and sprouted protuberances everywhere. The Zygons operate it by gently squeezing and fondling the various spongy bits which emerge, and it’s all very suspect in a masseur-who’s-crossed-the-line kind of way.

The Doctor, taken prisoner aboard the springy craft, is unfazed. He can instantly identify a fire sensor, a vacuum mechanism and a self destruct button even though they all look like indistinguishable orange growths. He’s that kind of guy. Anyway, his meddling forces the spaceship to land in a disused quarry (which for once is not code for an alien planet), which proves to be a good place to blow the whole thing up.

Except, in one of those annoying narrative dog legs, the story’s not quite over yet. Broton and the Skarasan are still on the loose. Earlier, Sarah and Harry, realising they had nothing in that episode to do, decided to go and rifle through Forgill castle, looking for clues to Broton’s plans. There Sarah discovered:

SARAH: The Duke is Chieftain of the Antlers Association, Trustee of the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip, whatever that might be, and President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

But then our investigative duo decided this was a waste of time and went back to the main plot. Once we get to the quarry, our heroes start to put all this together. Broton, it transpires, wants to go to an energy conference in London.

BRIGADIER: Yes, but he’d need a pass to get in. The security’s very tight.

SARAH: But he’ll have a pass. The Duke, the real Duke, is President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

DUKE: That’s right. I am!

Nice one Sarah. Except because the Duke is actually present in this scene, he could have told everyone that himself. Meaning that whole little detour of yours to the castle was meaningless padding. Still, I suppose it beats listening to more ghost stories with wee Angus McRanald.

Personally, I wish Broton would have staged his final endgame at the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip. That sounds much more fun than an energy conference which consists of a cellar, a corridor and a balcony, which cries ‘we spent all the design budget on the Zygon pizzamobile’.

It all ends with Broton dying with true Olivier-style gusto and the Skarasan wobbling unconvincingly on a CSO backdrop before heading back to Loch Ness. Weirdly, our heroes all follow suit, catching the train from London. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just put the TARDIS on the back of a land rover and driven it to them? No wait, on second thought, we know how unreliable those things are. You wouldn’t risk it.

LINK TO The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: both feature Americans, or at least characters with American accents.

NEXT TIME: We count how many beans make five with Mawdryn Undead.

Locations, complications and Planet of the Dead (2009)

planetdead2

Two of three regenerations ago, I worked as a location scout for film and TV productions. It was an interesting job, which involved a lot of driving to unusual places, clambering over fences, peering at maps, negotiating with security guards and taking lots and lots of photos.

Sometimes you were looking for windswept clifftops, tropical beaches and rainforest groves, but often it was more mundane fare – a particularly bendy piece of road for a car ad, an empty factory for a fashion shoot or a suburban house with a driveway and a tree in the front yard, but no fence and a view of the… well, you get the idea.

Even if you found the right looking location, there were other practical concerns to keep in mind. How would the production trucks get here? Where would they park? Was it quiet enough to shoot? Were there neighbours who might get annoyed? Does it get dark early here? Where’s the nearest pub (very important)? Many’s the location which is just right, except it’s right next to a highway (noise) or gets busy at 8:30am and 3pm because it’s near a school (crowds) or the person who owns it’s a jerk (permission). And so it goes.

But when you find the right location, with the right combination of factors, and the producer and the director and the DOP all like it… Hooray. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle. If it’s a really good location, you’ll hear a familiar phrase at the first onsite recce for all the heads of department, as they look around the place. “It could be anywhere,” they’ll say, which means the location’s versatile enough to work for all manner of shoots. Which is deeply ironic considering that as a location scout, you started off with a list of highly specific requirements; the very opposite of “anywhere”.

What all this means is I have an eye for locations. (Poor Mrs Spandrell. How many TV viewings interrupted by me wondering out loud, “where’d they shoot that then? oh, that’s at the old Whatsit place at Thingotown. That’s where we shot…”) So I notice the difference they make to a production.

Planet of the Dead has some brilliant locations, most notably the beautiful desert plains of Dubai, UAE. That first crane shot, after the bus arrives on sunny San Helios, that starts down low and then soars upwards so we can see the vast expanse of sand dunes all around – that orange sand and that deep blue sky – is stunning and heroic. The message is clear: we’re not in Cardiff any more.

Not being in Cardiff was important in 2009, and has got increasingly important since. Doctor Who‘s now been in production in Wales for over a decade, over 100 episodes made, lord know how many locations… You just couldn’t find them all within 2 hours’ drive of Cardiff. A beautiful and varied place it no doubt is, but you couldn’t find them all 2 hours’ drive from anywhere.

That’s why we keep seeing the same locations redressed. How many places has the Temple of Peace and Health been? What about those big wide passageways in Millennium Stadium? Caerphilly Castle must feel like a (cold uncomfortable) second home to the Doctor Who crew. And overuse of locations can make a show look a bit tired.

(That’s why I always sigh a little when I come across criticism of the Old Who’s occasional cut price international location shoots. The Two Doctors gets picked on in particular, for heading to Spain although there was no particular reason why the story had to be set there. Sure, so don’t bother going to Spain, and set it in some big old country manor house again, just like so many other Doctor Who stories. Frankly, yawn. The Two Doctors mightn’t have needed new, exciting locations but Doctor Who certainly did.)

And although The Return of Doctor Mysterio did a neat job of making Cardiff look like New York, there are are some locations you’re just not going to find in Wales. New Who’s previous overseas location shoot (Cinecitta Studios in Rome for The Fires of Pompeii) had been a choice of expedience; there was a ready made Roman city waiting to be used on set. At a pinch, you could have made that at home (and indeed, lots of it is shot in our old friend the Temple of Peace and Health). But going to Dubai for the Planet of the Dead is an aesthetic choice; a deliberate attempt to literally broaden the show’s horizons. Which is to say that writers Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts deliberately wrote a story knowing it would need an overseas shoot. Deserts being hard to come by in Wales. Jungles and sunny beaches too, I’ve noticed. Forests, no problem.

Director James Strong and DOP Rory Taylor did a great job in Dubai, showcasing the size of those dunes and giving us some great sweeping perspectives, which match well with the CG elements. Well, with the Swarm anyway. The CGI bus has not aged well (I wonder if drones had been available in 2009, would we have got some more aerial shots across the plains, a Swarm’s eye view as it were?)

But judging by Doctor Who Confidential and the DWM set reports, it must have been a difficult shoot. Hot, remote and sand getting every-sodding-where. Doctor Who has travelled abroad lots since Dubai – Spain, Croatia, US, Lanzarote – and each time with impressive results. But I can’t help but wonder if the Dubai shoot, full of complications including a damaged bus, has meant that subsequent overseas locations have been chosen for their logistical convenience as much as their scenic charms.

Inevitably though, the complications of that exotic shoot sneak into the fictional world. Commuters Carmen (Ellen Thomas) and Lou (Reginald Tsiboe) clearly didn’t get a trip to Dubai, as they refuse to get out of the bus when it stops at San Helios (a whole other planet and they stay on the bus! Even if you were freaked out by psychic call outs from the long dead, you’d at least poke your head outside the door, right?). When the Doctor (a cool David Tennant) and Christina (a hot Michelle Ryan) are taken inside the flyboy Tritovores’ ship, there has to be a line inserted, in the grand tradition of ‘freak weather conditions’, to explain why their breath is steaming from the cold (the effect of photofine steel apparently, not that the actors are back in chilly Wales). And there’s a considerable effort to cut around the bus when it returns to Earth at the end of the story (shutting down a highway tunnel for filming! More location nightmares) to avoid showing that it’s not the mangled version from Dubai.

Still, anything to avoid the infamous quarries that Doctor Who‘s so known for. In fact in the very next story, The Waters of Mars, we’re back to one pretending to be Martian surface. It’s another old favourite, the Cemex quarry. Over the years it’s also been Mount Vesuvius, the Oodsphere, House and Skaro. That Cemex quarry, I bet someone has said during a long forgotten location recce, it could be anywhere.

With thanks to this glorious site: http://www.doctorwholocations.net/

LINK TO Heaven Sent: the Doctor’s without a regular companion.

NEXT TIME: Oh look! There’s the sweat on your brow. It’s the hit of the blitz in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.

Old man, young man and Planet of the Spiders (1974)

planet-spiders

“The old man must die,” says ersatz Buhddist monk Cho-je in Pertwee farewell tale Planet of the Spiders, “and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.” He’s explaining meditation to go-getter journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), though soon enough she’ll actually be witnessing an old man being made new before her eyes. This is a story which draws parallels between the rejuvenation of the soul and regeneration of the body.

In fact, it’s the story that named the process where one Doctor transforms into another as ‘regeneration’ and in many ways, it’s the story that invents our modern understanding of the concept, as to what a Time Lord does on the point of death. The Doctor’s previous change was forced upon him as a punitive measure. And his first, back in The Tenth Planet, was a mysterious, explanation-light event. Although it’s hinted that the Doctor changed to avoid dying, it’s never overtly stated. It could easily be read as a refreshing of his body’s batteries, rather than a ‘get out of death free card’.

But if his first change was a renewal, and the second a punishment, this one is a genuine revivification. This is the first story where we see the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, die and then come back to life. When the seventh Doctor dies on the streets of San Francisco, his regeneration recalls this one. You have to die first to be reborn.

It’s also a form of natural justice.The War Games presented regeneration as a literal punishment for the Doctor and Spiders presents it as a metaphorical one, punishing him for the crime of theft (to whit, one large blue crystal) with a secondary charge of hubris. This idea gets repeated in future stories too; The End of Time suggests the Tenth Doctor’s (second) regeneration is payback for his manipulation of history in The Waters of Mars. And The Caves of Androzani suggests the Fifth Doctor’s death is the result of his recklessness, in delivering his companion Peri into danger.

But for a story which has given us so solid a basis for future regenerations, the actual event itself is treated fairly perfunctorily in Planet of the Spiders. It lasts only a few short seconds, a rudimentary roll-back-and-mix affair. After so much lead up to it, the change is done away with very quickly. That’s because as much as this story is thematically ‘about’ regeneration, it’s more practically about Jon Pertwee.

****

Regular readers of this blog (bless you all) will have noticed how Pertwee heavy it is. This is just one of those quirks of random selection; we’ve now looked at 19 out of 25 Pertwee stories. I’ll happily confess this is not my favourite era of the show, so while the nature of this blog is that I’ll get around to every story, had I been self selecting, I suspect a fair amount of Perts would be left until later.

Lots of Pertwee watching though, has given me a new appreciation of the bouffant one’s virtues. I’m talking Pertwee himself, rather than the Third Doctor, which I still find a significant deviation from my understanding of the character. He’s easier to like in his early stories, when he’s less patrician and condescending than once he’s settled in. But once he’s at home, with his UNIT lab to preside over, his pretty girl to boss around, his Brigadier to insult and the regular opportunities for mild violence, I find him too smug for words.

Jon Pertwee, though, I think is terrific. As a performer, you can see him so easily command attention. He’s present, in that actorly sense of the word, in every scene; whereas Tom Baker would every so often walk through a scene not engaging with what was going on around him, Pertwee’s listening and reacting all the time. Troughton used to almost sneak into a scene, and almost skirt around the camera’s gaze. Not Jon; the camera loves Pertwee and he loves it. A extrovert’s dream. I would have loved to have seen him live, and witnessed that bravado up close.

When former producer Derrick Sherwin cast Pertwee, he expected him to bring more of his entertainment background to the role of the Doctor. There was talk of him singing ballads and playing guitar. And in fact bits of this idea still sneak through; occasionally he pulls out a magic trick, puts on a funny voice or dresses up in drag. These, for me, are when the Third Doctor’s at his best, when he’s allowed to be a bit silly. A bit more showman, a little less action man, thanks.

*****

Writer/Producer/Director Barry Letts saw this as a story about the Doctor atoning for his greed. Script editor Terrance Dicks has since observed that this sounded more like Pertwee than the Doctor. And that’s the key to this story really. Spiders is designed to be a farewell for Pertwee, rather than for his Doctor.

After all, it’s a story which has a whole episode given over to Pertwee driving lots of vehicles, including his own car. The guest cast is cherry picked from previous Pertwee stories. The entire UNIT family return, with a message from Katy Manning, like an absentee guest on This is Your Life. There are numerous ‘moments of charm’. And of course, he looks Pertastic in sombre dark velvet and snowy cumulonimbus hair. This story’s an exercise in making him look good and feel comfortable, as he leaves a series he loves.

Everything else – the 1970s mysticism, the treacherous bad guy, the oppressed villagers, the invasion of the giant spiders from space – feels like window dressing. Impressive window dressing, sure, but not the main game. The main game is that the old man must die, so let’s make him as comfortable as we can in his last days. It’s the least we can do.

****

As ever, my random Who generator likes to spit out stories in awkward order. Last time it was The Ark (LINK: human descendants being oppressed by creepy crawly aliens) and next time it’s The Ark in Space. Our two arks separated! It would have been nice to compare them.

But funnily enough, Spiders to The Ark in Space is but a short hop, so there’s plenty to compare between those two as well. So NEXT TIME… I’ll be talking about all three. Let’s give that helmic regulator quite a twist.

And one further note… that’s our second full season – Season 11 -complete. View the full list of randomed stories here.