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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)

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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)

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“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.

Pumping slime, filling time and Inferno (1970)

inferno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

Next, there’s the extraordinarily unhelpful computer.

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

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

COMPUTER: The drilling must be halted immediately!

DOCTOR: Why do you say that, computer?

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

terrance_dicksrobert holmeshulke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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