Tag Archives: vicki

The times, the customs and The Romans (1965)

romans

When Doctor Who started, it was a grim little series. Its first story had cavemen beating each other to death. Its second showed the aftermath of nuclear war. But one year in, and it lightened up considerably and could even playfully mix up genres. By story number 12, the series can tackle one of the bloodiest periods of Earth’s history with Carry On-style verve. The Romans is, famously, Doctor Who’s first comedy.

Of course, it’s only partially played for laughs. Ian (William Russell) has an awful time of it; sold into slavery, almost drowning in a galley and thrown into the circus to fight for his life. There’s not much there to chuckle at. Even the stuff played for laughs has a dark edge: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) gets caught up in an attempt to poison Nero (Derek Francis) which, although unsuccessful, it still results in the death of servant Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets chased around the palace by Nero, Benny Hill-style which might raise a smile until you remember she’s being sexually harassed. And the Doctor (William Hartnell) thinks it’s utterly hilarious that he may have inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground. He chuckles heartily away even though down amongst the inferno, people are dying horribly.

So as comedies go, The Romans is as black as night. It’s in good company among the Hartnell historicals like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which mix up humour with death on an operatic scale. Even writer Dennis Spooner’s own The Time Meddler has a comedy plot punctuated with violence and rape. Makes you wonder exactly who this stuff was aimed at.

More to the point, is The Romans actually funny? I can’t say I’ve ever actually laughed at it. (My first viewing of it, via the VHS release in 1994, put me to sleep). Its jokes are pretty laboured. That unlikely gag Ian and Barbara deliver about the “fridge” is weak, but still it gets two runs. The Doctor’s employment of the emperor’s new clothes tactic to avoid having to play the lyre is very stagey. As is his comedy fight with the assassin Ascaris (Barry Jackson). Francis comes closest to making it work, but even his antics of bashing people over the head with lyres, falling over beds and absent-mindedly waving swords about is pretty tiresome.

But actually, I don’t think it matters that the comedy stylings of The Romans seem irredeemably lame. For a start, it’s impossible to tell what a 1960s audience made of this – they might have thought it was a riot. What’s important about it is that it’s another of Doctor Who’s attempts, even at this early stage of its life, to push the boundaries of what the show was capable of, to ensure that it had sufficient variety to enable longevity. Better Doctor Who comedies will follow because The Romans showed it was possible for the show to bend that far and not break. And hey, they’ll be back to killing people with acid next story.

But gee, can you imagine the reaction to this story if they’d had Twitter in 1965?

@babshair WTF are they doing to #doctorwho? Unfunny comedy antics turning the show into PANTO. BBC intent on killing it. Spooner must go! #notmydoctor

*****

The other thing The Romans does is change the dynamics of the TARDIS crew.

In an era known for decadence and hedonism, Ian and Barbara are cheekily positioned as lovers. They flirt and joke around and treat each other with gentle physical intimacy. We never see them as much as hold hands, let alone kiss. But there’s something undeniably sexy about them lounging around in their togas together.

Their friends with benefits time is interrupted by them being kidnapped and sold into slavery. So begins one of Ian’s semi-regular quests to rescue Barbara, but the absence of the Doctor and Vicki from this adventure means this plot can be viewed in isolation, and it’s purely about two lovers pulled apart by circumstance and eager to reunite. It gives their solo adventure added piquancy, which you can sense when the two finally find each other again and rush into a joyful embrace. From here on in, they’re clearly more than just friends, ready for generations to come to ship them madly.

The Doctor meanwhile is getting to know his new substitute granddaughter, Vicki. I’ve noted before that I think it was an odd decision to replace Susan with someone so similar to her, and yet O’Brien brings a greater air of independence and worldliness to the teenage girl companion than Carole Ann Ford was allowed to. And for his part, the Doctor is less paternal towards her. He sees Vicki as a co-conspirator in his schemes and a student who’ll benefit from his tutelage. Plus she’s more likely than Susan to instigate action within the story; the whole poisoning gag comes about because she’s struck out on her own and made friends with the palace poisoner. Of all people.

Whereas previously we had a TARDIS crew made up of people with protective responsibilities towards Susan – her grandfather and her teachers – now we have a crew of four friends. (Incidentally, The Romans does a great job of giving each of the four regulars a slice of the action, something the most recent series of Doctor Who struggled to do). And in its quiet way, it sets a new template for the show to follow from now on: a TARDIS crew of people who travel together because they want to, not because they have owe any responsibility to each other to do so. A cohort of genuine buddies who’ll go on holiday together, drink, dress up and fondly tease each other.

The Romans may not be very funny, but it’s loads of fun. And because it happens so early in the show’s run, it allows loads of subsequent stories to be fun too. That’s a far more valuable legacy than simply being the first Doctor Who story to crack a few gags.

LINK TO Fury from the Deep: TARDIS crew members washing up on the beach.

NEXT TIME: More trouble with the eight-legs in Arachnids in the UK.

Nature, corruption and The Web Planet (1965)

webplanet

There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time which shows Heather Hartnell visiting the Doctor Who set in 1964. As she walks in she bumps into two Menoptra, sneaking out for a quick fag, or something. Just for a beat, she clocks the bizarreness of it all as the two butterfly creatures walk past. It’s a second or two of pure WTF.

That’s fitting because The Web Planet is a six episode exercise in WTF. It comes from a production team wanting to jolt its viewers out of the everyday. They recognised that even after just a year and a half, Doctor Who had fallen into a predictable pattern of tea-time adventure and it was time to try something really bizarre.

This bizarreness doesn’t end with creating a world full of giant ants, giant butterflies, giant millipedes or even a tossed salad of them all (as if that wouldn’t be enough). It stretches to production decisions which deliberately alienate the viewer, such as blurring the camera lens, having a soundtrack of experimental electronica and dialogue peppered with strange alien speech patterns. This is a story that wants you to see and hear Doctor Who in a new way. (Or it’s a story which wants to assault your eardrums while obscuring your view of what’s going on. Potato, potahto).

Its ramshackle production values, its sleepy pacing and its chirruping soundtrack make The Web Planet almost unwatchable to a modern audience. And yet by several measures, it has proven to be a phenomenally successful Doctor Who story. Made in the height of Dalekmania, it outrated the Daleks, averaging 12.5m viewers. Selected to be one of the first Doctor Who novels, its print version has been read by millions of people. It gets name-checked in modern Who and mentioned by Who luminaries like Peter Capaldi as one of their most potent memories of the show. It’s an enduring triumph of ideas over their plywood and poster paint execution.

It transcends all this because of its villain. It’s not a scheming human or a sly Sensorite. This is the Animus and it’s a malevolent force growing like cancer through the planet, poisoning its water, ravaging its landscape. It animates the otherwise docile creatures around it and turns them into killers. It’s strong enough to drag the TARDIS off course. It corrupts everything around it. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.

It gets a bit lost in the story’s ropey design work, but the Animus is a spider which has spread its web across the planet. This makes me think how this story came about. When thinking up a plot preposterous enough for Doctor Who, apparently writer Bill Strutton remembered a painful incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a bull ant, at his home in Moonta, South Australia. Had young Strutton been bitten by one of Australia’s famously venomous spiders – a funnel-web or a redback – he would have died. You don’t mess with those mofos. Google images of a funnel-web’s web, and you’ll find an eerie looking whirlpool shaped web, leading to a dark centre and, well you can see what Strutton may have been thinking off.

Sadly, when we finally get to meet the Animus in this story’s final ep, it doesn’t look particularly spidery. It’s a dome half suspended from the ceiling, covered with tentacles of old vacuum cleaner hoses which spill out over the entire room. The actors do a good job of looking suitably horrified at it, but there’s no hiding that it’s afflicted by the same budgetary pressures which give us Zarbi which run into cameras and Operta with comical Rastafarian haircuts. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) have to lie down and self-entangle themselves it in at one stage, signalling the brute’s limitations.

But wishing for a more technically sophisticated version of The Web Planet gets us nowhere (although if there was ever a candidate for an animated version of an existing story, here it is). And it neglects the elements which transcend its general tackiness. There’s that truly spooky cliffhanger to its fifth episode, with the Doctor and Vicki enveloped in web. But again, it’s the Animus which works, because of its creepy (crawly?) voice (Catherine Fleming). That calm, whispery cadence, like a sinister anaesthetist. (Funny how giant spiders in fiction are often female.)

If The Web Planet is “about” anything (and I’m not sure it is. It could be just so much sci-fi hokum), I think it’s about evil as a force of nature. Up until this point, Doctor Who’s monsters had backstories which explained how they got to be so wicked. Even the Daleks were originally survivors of war, twisted and transformed by xenophobia. The Animus has no backstory, short of just arriving one day to upend everything on Vortis. It just is. It’s just there. And it grows like a malignant tumour. There’s something both chilling and everyday about that.

Strutton was in a POW camp in WW2, so no doubt he saw the best and worst of human nature on display there. Perhaps the Animus is his stand-in for the Nazis, presiding over a microcosm of society, with the Zarbi as guards and the rest of this planet’s population as the oppressed prisoners. Unlike Terry Nation, who used the Daleks to question the basis of Nazism, Strutton’s not interested in how evil emerges. For him, it’s as natural as any other part of the world. But left unchecked, it will take over, like weeds strangling a garden.

Doctor Who never returned to The Web Planet, at least on TV. Despite it being the site of its greatest ratings success until 1974. As the Hartnell era ended, the show turned more and more to Earth-bound settings. Not just bases under siege and adventures with UNIT in the home counties; even alien planets had more humanoids and looked and felt more familiar than smeary, noisy Vortis. Never again would the series try to create such a completely alien world. Camera lenses remained undirtied. No more special “insect movement” choreography for the monsters. Return visits to Vortis were restricted first to TV Comic, and the books, audio dramas and give-a-show slide projectors, where the Zabi didn’t have legs like rugby players and Menoptra didn’t trip over their own wings.

It’s truly a world too broad and deep for the small screen. But that’s why it never gets forgotten. That’s why those Menoptra get a cameo with Heather Hartnell, why Margaret Slitheen’s afraid of venom grubs and why this shaky old runaround gained thousands of new fans when it aired on Twitch. We really can’t get enough WTF.

LINK TO The Underwater Menace: both shot at Riverside Studios. Can I get away with that?

NEXT TIME: Stand and deliver! We’re having quite the Knightmare in The Woman Who Lived.

Crusades, Crusaders and The Crusade (1965)

crusade

I’m always a little confused about the name of this story. I know not to call it The Crusaders, because that’s the name of the novelisation. But I often want to call it The Crusades, because when I think of that period of history, I  think of Crusades multiple. The events of this story, for instance, take place during the Third Crusade.

I’m not so foolish as to read too much into the titles of 1960s Doctor Who stories, because who knows what the real titles actually are. But I wonder sometimes why it’s called The Crusade, singular. It could be just one of those early Who vagaries that leads us to call Serial C Inside the Spaceship, The Edge of Destruction or sometimes after we’ve had a few wines, Beyond the Sun.  Or it could be that writer David Whitaker was referring to one personal crusade, presumably that of Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover).

His personal crusade may once have been to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, wresting it from the Saracens. But after years of bloody warfare, he’s ready to sue for peace. Richard’s an interesting character – he is by no means a paragon of virtue. He’s petulant and temperamental. He lingers too long in the woods, despite the best advice of his knights, and as a result, his key men are killed (he admits no responsibility for this). It is this event, perhaps, which leads him to want to bargain with Saladin (Bernard Kay, unfortunately in brownface). He concocts a plan to marry off his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin (Roger Avon, also unfortunately in brownface), and thus secure a peaceful settlement.

Joanna’s crusade is to utterly oppose the proposed union. Her outrage leaps off the screen, such is Marsh’s ability to portray Joanna’s horror at the idea. Joanna’s no fool either. She rebuffs Richard’s idea with a stratagem he can’t counteract; she threatens to appeal to the Pope. Her whole presence in the story leads up to this point (indeed, she doesn’t appear afterward) and unlike the men around her, she’s won the day.

Perhaps the title refers to Saladin’s crusade, to prevail over his invaders. The presentation of a religious war between Christians and Muslims would be almost unthinkable in today’s Doctor Who. Despite the unfortunate casting, Whitaker presents a refreshingly measured view of the other side of this holy war. Saladin is no raving, unreasonable madman; he’s cold and calculating (in contrast to Richard’s reckless passion). He’s a subtle, shady character; he conceals himself behind a curtain, listening to events before he intervenes. He treats his prisoners and enemies alike with courtesy. It would have been easy to paint him as the evil mastermind, implacably opposed to Richard. Instead, he’s eminently reasonable – in many ways preferable to Richard. His key moment is when he agrees to Richard’s proposal but insists on preparing his armies for war, in case the whole thing goes pear-shaped. “Hold one hand out in friendship,” he says, in one example of an outstandingly lyrical script,  “but keep the other on your sword.” (Like Joanna, once he’s made his key point, he exits the story, not to be seen again).

It would be easy to say that this is a crusade for Ian (William Russell), whose whole role in this story is to rescue Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, playing her role in a typical Whitaker trope. Think of The Evil of the Daleks where Jamie goes on a similar quest in pursuit of Victoria). But actually, that’s not as interesting as that of another of Barbara’s protectors, Haroun Ed Diin (George Little). Ed Diin is on a crusade to murder the wicked emir El Akir (Walter Randall). His fervour is stoked by El Akir’s killing of Ed Diin’s family and his alliance with Barbara is another way of getting within stabbing distance of his target. His single-mindedness is horrifying, particularly when he entrusts Barbara (who he’s only just met) with killing his daughter, lest she fall into the hands of his enemy. And, by the way, his crusade’s successful, robbing Ian of the opportunity to confront El Akir face to face. He’s a secondary character, but he gets to do away with the bad guy, so his crusade must count for something.

It’s certainly not Barbara’s crusade; she had hers a season ago in The Aztecs, an historical in which she became intrinsically linked with the culture around her, attempting to play an interventionist role. Here, she’s far more a victim of circumstance: captured by El Akir, incarcerated by Saladin, recaptured by El Akir, rescued by Ed Diin, recaptured by El Akir and finally rescued by Ian. Despite constantly being manhandled (quite literally) throughout the story, she remains a strong presence throughout the story, albeit one without agency. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have a story where Ian was captured and abducted, with Barbara staging the rescue campaign?

It’s also not the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) crusade. He plays an early active role in concocting the plan to win Richard’s favour to gain his help in rescuing Barbara. After that he enjoys some hijinks bamboozling tailors and chamberlains and entering into some ethical debate in the royal court, but he’s an observer rather than a catalyst for action. He’s our eyes and ears with which to observe Richard and his dramas with Joanna, but in truth, he’s tangential, not essential to the action. Even when he falls out with Richard (the Lion thinks briefly that the Doctor has snitched on him to Joanna), it’s quickly reversed without consequence. Still, it gives Hartnell a chance to thesp around in some nice costumes and switch rapidly from mirth to outrage.

The final candidate to offer a crusade is the subject of that outrage. It’s the bellicose Earl of Leicester (John Bay), with whom the Doctor has picked a fight about siding with Richard’s scheme for marrying Joanna to Saphadin. He’s appalled by Richard’s plan, and says so, only for the Doctor to accuse him of being a fool and a butcher. He rebukes him with more of this story’s elegant dialogue. “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words,” he snarls, “we the soldiers, have to face it out.” He takes such offence that when the Doctor and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) sneak quietly back to the Ship, he gives chase to execute them. He really must believe they’re bad eggs if he’d rather spend time hunting down an old man and a young girl than fighting the Saracens.

It doesn’t come to that, of course. Our four heroes reconvene at the TARDIS just in time and inveigle themselves insides. Once inside, their ordeals – particularly the ghastly one Barbara’s endured – have been forgotten, and they dissolve into puns and giggles. It’s a spectacularly ill-fitting end to a story which has been a sober and at time brutal examination of men of war exercising their personal crusades. Crusaders. Crusade. Whatever.

LINK TO Under the Lake/Before the Flood: both feature kings.

NEXT TIME… It’s the daily disaster we call Frontios. Luckily it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.

 

 

Morons, zeros and The Space Museum (1965)

space museum

I have this theory that a museum is no place to set an adventure story. They are places of scholarship, conservation and learning, characterised by quiet, respectful contemplation. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones, intrepid collector of museum pieces, has his adventures in jungles, deserts and other far flung locales: museums themselves are inherently dull. Unless the exhibits are going to come to life and exterminate you, there’s not much to set the heart racing.

It’s a theory borne out by The Space Museum, which is set in a space museum, run by a bunch of uninterested guards called the Moroks. They’re an odd lot. Their name is perilously close to “morons”, they dress like power dentists and they have hairdos which appear to have been blown into a permanent state of alarm with industrial strength driers. Plus they have a predilection for declamatory speeches about how hard done by they are. Despite these handicaps, they are, we are told, ruthless conquerors of worlds. Beware! They will land on your planet, kick your arse and… set up a museum.

This is exactly what they do on the planet Xeros. There they establish a museum which looks like a chocolate gateau on the outside, but on the inside features a dazzling array of featureless corridors. The museum’s collection consists of the spoils of war, which it must be said, are scant: a few random spaceships, some unlikely looking props, one Dalek casing and some stools they found on the Sense Sphere. I don’t know who the target audience is for this museum – no-one, if current visitor numbers are any indication – but perhaps it hints at a new battle strategy by these fearsome maurauders. Instead of fighting and killing other races, the Moroks will just wait until their victims come to their space museum and let them bore to death.

The Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) arrive at the museum early – in fact, in spectral form before their real selves actually get there (the TARDIS having tripped over some technobabble). They have a premonition of their future selves as immobile exhibits, like stuffed animals in perspex boxes. Once the timelines are back in sync, it does indeed transpire that the monotonous Moroks do want to embalm our heroes… which is a novel threat, but also strange seeing that the museum isn’t actually full of other unwary travellers who have strayed within its stultifying walls.

(It’s never made clear why the Moroks want to start their collection of frozen alien beings with our heroes. But imagine a museum filled with frozen people, like Narnia’s statue garden of various creatures whom the White Witch turned to stone. And imagine the museum as a dark, gothic mausoleum. Now that might actually be suspenseful.)

Having been confronted with the vision of a future spent frozen in display cases, our four heroes debate what it will take to change the future. They stage an interesting debate about whether any action on their part is going to help or hinder their chances. Well, it’s interesting the first time. The problem is they keep having that same debate over and over throughout the next three episodes. But at least it’s an interesting reversal of their usual mantra about not being able to change history. This time, in order to survive, they need to mess with future events.

They never get to the bottom of it, though. At the end, it seems the future has been changed because Vicki has encouraged the mousy Xerons to stage a revolution. (If Vicki seems like the least likely of the TARDIS crew to stage such a rebellion, it is at least a pleasing development in her character, from being a line feed for the Doctor).

Who are these Xerons? Well, they are the oppressed indigenous species and an equally odd bunch. Their name is perilously close to “zeros”, they all dress like sinister Wiggles and they each have four eyebrows. They’re also all weedy teenage boys, the type you’d think would be super tech savvy, but unfortunately they can’t work out how to hack the computer which is guarding the armoury (because, y’know, museums totally have armouries). This is preventing them from overthrowing the Moroks, so instead they sit around, drink coffee and wish they’d taken more STEM subjects at Xeros Elementary. Luckily Vicki’s on hand to hack the armoury’s computer and generally do all the thinking for them.

As it happens, it must have been Vicki’s rabble rousing which did the trick because none of her companions did anything effectual. Barbara gets locked in a cupboard with a Xeron. The Doctor goes on holiday for a week. And Ian finds a gun and reimagines himself as the series tough guy, getting into fights, menacing some Moroks, but not actually achieving anything. If The Space Museum does nothing else, it at least shows Vicki to be an intelligent, proactive force in the program. It may even be a subtle suggestion that the future can only be changed by the young.

The story falls so quickly from being innovative and spooky to being a generic good guys vs bad guys shoot ‘em up, that you can’t help wonder if it was deliberate; an early meta-commentary on the show itself. But surely that gives The Space Museum too much credit. There’s no subtext here. The battle between the Moroks and the Xerons seems like generic sci-fi tosh because that’s what it is.

That in itself is peculiar, because the Hartnell era is so much about the weird and the wonderful of alien cultures; that a world ruled by insects is as strange and adventurous as the rival courts of Richard I and Saladin. To suddenly veer into pulp sci-fi seems uncharacteristic. It’s like writer Glyn Jones, having set up an intriguing premise in the first episode, has to cobble together another plot to contain it in for three episodes.

The whole thing staggers to an ending when the hammy revolution, full of ray gun shots and extras falling extravagantly to the floor reaches the Moroks’ headquarters. Our heroes congratulate themselves on a job unwittingly done and head for the TARDIS, leaving the teenage boys in charge. Though really, if our heroes had stopped to think about it for as long as they worried about whether or not they were changing the future, they’ve have realised that both parties of antagonists on Xeros are doomed to die out within a generation. Because although they have guns and freezing machines and Sensorite furniture to fight over, what neither the Moroks or the Xerons have amongst them, is any women.

LINK TO The Shakespeare Code: both feature callbacks to The Crusade.

NEXT TIME… nothing’s quite as it seems to be at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

 

 

 

 

Top ten, mental things and The Chase (1965)

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Prose, it’s so last century. Sure, these posts are random and rambling, but who’s got time for that? It’s long past time that this blog embraced the listicle. So here I offer you: The top ten mental things about The Chase. That’s right! I’ve managed to narrow it down to ten.

  1. Domestic Life, part 1.

This action packed adventure starts at home, with the TARDIS crew pottering around not doing much. The Doctor (erratic William Hartnell) is fiddling with his new telly. Ian (William Russell) is reading a sci fi book. Barbara (Jacqueline Hills) is making a dress, while teenager Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) complains about being redundant. So far, so much a reflection of family life. But you have to wonder about these people, who have a wondrous time and space craft, and all the myriad technology within at their disposal, who resort to dressmaking, reading and fixing the TV reception in their spare time. Has any other adventure started so mundanely?

  1. The Time Space Visualiser

The Doctor’s new toy is more than a TV. It’s a TSV: a Time Space Visualiser. It can show you any event in history, which might seem a bit pointless when you have a machine with which you can actually visit those events. But in these early days, the TARDIS is a directionless beast so the chances of successfully piloting the Ship to the Gettysburg address are so slight you might as well just stay at home and watch it on the box. The set itself is enormous (in that typically 1960s way that all technology is) but the screen is tiny. Trying to fit the beast and the series’ four cast members in shot is an exercise in crowding to say the least. Our crew choose some pleasant family viewing: a Shakespeare documentary and Top of the Pops. If only they’d chosen to tune in to Marco Polo. We might have got a clip or two.

  1. Testicles with tentacles

Writer Terry Nation fills his story with exotic aliens, as if trying as many ways possible of replicate the success of the Daleks. In the first two episodes, we get the fairly dodgy Aridians, fishy folk whose crested swimming caps are clearly visible. But they’re more convincing that the scrotumly Mire Beasts, which occasionally lurch into shot to thrash a tentacle unconvincingly at our heroes. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t catch on.

  1. A Dalek which isn’t very Daleky (aka a dislike of the unlike)

You know the one I mean. It stutters. It dodders. It makes mistakes. It’s clear that someone, either Nation, or director Richard Martin, or (my bet) story editor Dennis Spooner thought the Daleks should not be models of uniformity, and that one of a comedy variety would liven things up a bit. Imagine if that idea had caught on. You could have one playing trains and one serving the tea. No, too far, right?

  1. Flight Through Eternity

The third episode is The Feast of Steven come early. A game of two jokey halves, the first set on top of the Empire State building in 1966 (Ian and Barbara resist the urge to leave the Doctor then and there) with a comedy hick (Peter Purves). Although set at height, this is a low point, complete with a boob joke, when a lusty guide leers at a young woman’s chest and says, “as we gaze out across the panorama”. The second half is set on what should be the humourless setting of the doomed Marie Celeste, but Nation squeezes in an, ahem, hilarious section where Ian gets clobbered accidentally by Vicki. All this, plus the first cardboardy attempts to show the TARDIS in flight. Luckily, it doesn’t last an eternity.

  1. Journey Into Terror

The fourth episode is just as weird. What would happen, it supposes, if the Doctor and the Daleks met fictional horrors like Dracula, Frankenstein and a screamy grey woman? How much you enjoy this hammy episode depends on whether you’re charmed or irritated by its premise. The Doctor reasons that they have landed in the recesses of “the human mind”. But as the episode ends, a sign tells us we’re at the defunct 1996 Festival of Ghana, cancelled by Peking. Quite how the Chinese gained control of African amusement parks in the future, and closed them complete with signs written in English is never explained but we’ve certainly missed out on an adventure in a far more intriguing world than your bog standard house of horrors.

  1. The Doctor’s robot, um, double.

He’s so not. Not in long shot, not with the lights down, not while miming to Hartnell’s dialogue. It’s a brave attempt, but no amount of cutting between shots or valiant acting from the regulars can make it work. The Daleks are blind to its faults though: “Success!” one of them crows. “Paramount success! It is impossible to distinguish from the original,” it continues optimistically. That dodderiness is clearly catching.

  1. Magic mushrooms

More from the Nation monster factory. On planet Mechanus, you can be molested by giant mushrooms called Fungoids. Of course you have to wander near one first. Then stand right under it. And let it gently envelop you in its rubbery canopy. But then you just wiggle your way out. So that’s OK then. Again, they didn’t catch on.

  1. What the Mechanoids said

Still more from Nation’s Monsters-R-Us. This time, it’s giant Christmas baubles the Mechanoids (hey – surely they’re due for an appearance in a new series Christmas special?). They’re so big, they barely fit into shot. At one point, our heroes have to catch a lift with one, and they need to squeeze up against a wall to give it room. Unfortunately, their scratchy voices are almost unintelligible, but never fear: I’ve read the subtitles so I can tell you they say all sorts of memorable things like “Eight hundred thirty Mechanoid. English input. Enter.” and “English. Enter. Enter. Zero. Stop.” I hope that’s cleared things up for you.

  1. Domestic life, part 2.

At the end of the story, Ian and Barbara elect to take the Daleks’ ship and pilot it back to 1960s England. There they frolic around on some landmarks and crack jokes on the bus home. It’s hokey, but they were always a pair of old dags, so we’ll forgive them. The Doctor and Vicki watch their homecoming on the TSV. But wouldn’t it have been nice to have this foreshadowed a little; if back in the first episode, instead of tuning into Shakespeare and Lincoln, our teachers had looked longingly at life back at home? Or even if they’d foreseen their return to Earth at the end of the story? Timey flippin wimey!

All this, and we haven’t mentioned Vicki being inadvertently left behind, the killing of a Dalek with a cardigan or Ian’s alarming dancing. Say what you like about The Chase but it really does keep on giving.

LINK to Last Christmas. Both feature the Doctor meeting mythic/fictional characters.

NEXT TIME: Let’s not pretend. You’re very blobby. It’s truth or consequences in The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion.

Deception, duplication and The Rescue (1965)

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Maureen O’Brien, who debuted as little orphan Vicki in The Rescue, tells a great story about when she joined Doctor Who, replacing Carole Ann Ford who had played Susan for the series’ first year. Apparently BBC boss Sydney Newman, a fairly imposing character we’ve been led to believe, suggested to Maureen before her work on the show started that she cut her hair and die it black. To which the 21 year-old actor said, “Why don’t you just get Carole Ann Ford back?”

(I like to think that Newman said, “Because I can never remember which of her three names has the e at the end of it! That drives me up the wall! I’m not going through that again!”)

Carole Ann left the show because her character didn’t develop beyond a screaming teenage girl, as she was promised it would. But given the chance to make changes to the key cast, the Doctor Who production team chose to stick to type, and replace Susan immediately with another teenage girl. And indeed one without parents and one with advanced knowledge of the future. Vicki’s almost as unearthly as Susan. No wonder Newman couldn’t shake the image of Susan from his mind; the production team were wanting Susan mark II. Later on in this season, there’s even a moment one of the Daleks’ killer robots is defeated when it can’t tell that Vicki is a different person to Susan.

But Vicki is different to Susan, mainly thanks to Maureen O’Brien’s attempts to bring depth to her character (not something, I suspect, the series’ writers were much worried about). She’s more biting than Susan and more likely to voice a different opinion to the other three leads. There’s a nice moment in The Romans where she’s following the Doctor round in typical companion style, then she sudden says “See you later”. She’s off to follow a lead of her own. William Hartnell’s authoritarian Doctor looks shocked. It’s like she’s still learning how companions are meant to behave.

She also grows up over the course of her time on board the Ship. In a sense, this is just another copy of what happens to Susan: she stays with the Doctor for a year, grows up and is married off. But I’d suggest the change in Vicki is more distinct. If you look at The Time Meddler, she’s a very different character to the one in The Rescue. It’s partly a side effect of the series going from three companions to two, a change which broke up the faux family unit of Doctor, Ian, Barbara and teenage girl. It gives Vicki a bigger slice of the action and her age and experience is subtly nudged up to assist.

In The Rescue, however, she’s is clearly a child. Her fellow castaway Bennett (Ray Barrett, an actor familiar from loads on appearances in Australian film and TV) says so. They are apparently the two survivors of the crew of a crashed spaceship, killed in a massacre by the inhabitants of this classically named planet, Dido. Since then, Bennett has been confined to quarters by a gammy leg, and both have been menaced by a spiked, tusked and clawed monster called Koquillion.

Now, it’s hardly a spoiler (after all this story’s now 50 years old) to reveal that Koquillion is Bennett in disguise. It’s one of the first things you learn in Who 101, a basic fact which most fans knew long before we read the Target novelization in 1987, let alone watched the story on VHS in 1994. The Rescue comes to us spoiled, so we’ll never know how obvious that twist was. Nor will we know how surprised viewers who dismissed Koquillion as a man dressed up in a monster costume were, when he was revealed to be a man dressed up in a monster costume.

I suspect that writer David Whitaker’s sleight of hand probably worked. Bennett is kept sufficiently in the background and his lameness so well established that the possibility that Koquillion is anything but a separate person would have crossed the minds of only the most forensic of viewers. The Doctor is clearly not fooled; he knows the inhabitants of Dido from a previous visit and so knows the spikes and claws described by his companions – he meets neither Bennett nor Koquillion until the story’s climax – are ceremonial robes. But he keeps this information to himself, even to the point of confronting the murderous villain solo, which seems like an unnecessarily risky strategy, but one which maintains the plot’s central mystery.

It leads to a terrific final scene between the Doctor and Bennett, with Hartnell and Barrett acting their socks off. But ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying climax, because it leaves out our central character Vicki. It is Vicki whose story we’ve followed since scene 1. It is Vicki upon whom Bennett’s most egregious crimes have been visited: the murder of her father, incarceration and terrorisation. By rights, it’s she who should get the chance to confront her tormentor, perhaps to even push him over the cliff over which he tumbles at story’s end. Instead, she’s kept off stage and it’s left to the Doctor to recount to her how Bennett met his match.

And the reason why she’s sidelined is not just because the Doctor’s our story’s hero. It’s also because she’s a child and Doctor Who keeps children out of harm’s way. Not all children’s fiction is like this. Long before Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series featured children facing up to villains and engaging in terrible danger. But not 60s Who. Like Susan, Vicki will be forever kept from the main game. And in a way, the ease with which the Doctor solves the mystery of Koquillion is another indicator of Vicki’s childhood. Bennett’s plan, it seems, would not have stood up to an adult’s scrutiny. In needed the credulity of a child to succeed.

O’Brien, like her predecessor, found the role of junior companion unsatisfying and she was unceremoniously dumped at the beginning of the show’s third year. The series experimented briefly with companions who were Trojan handmaidens and Space Security Agents. But then they reverted to type and introduced another teenage girl, Dodo Chaplet. She even had short dark hair.

Makes you wonder… why didn’t they just get Carole Ann Ford back?

LINK to The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. In each, the villains are defeated by falling to their deaths.

NEXT TIME: It’s a case of the flaming oopizootics when The Talons of Weng-Chiang shred our fleeeeessssh!

Numbers, popularity and Galaxy 4 (1965)

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Fans who like scoring, ranking and evaluating Doctor Who stories in minute detail (or in other words, fans) must love Doctor Who Magazine‘s irregular surveys of every story ever. The last one (Issue 474, July 2014) is of course already out of date but is still a thing of great geeky beauty.

I suspect I am like you and that we both react similarly to these lists. I get outraged when my favourite stories are deemed lowly. I am stunned when stories I hate get elevated. But the rest of the time, I just love the nerdy, numbery permutations it offers; stories rise, stories fall, some stories say resolutely loved or unloved.

As you may know, the DWM survey asks respondents to award a score out of 10 for each story from which an average percentage score is calculated. Let’s consider Hartnell entry Galaxy 4. In 2009, DWM readers scored it as 55.51% on average and ranked it as 172/200 (not as good as Colony in Space, but better than Four to Doomsday). That placed it in the bottom 14% of stories.

5 years later, its score had nudged up to 57.88%, but its ranking was now 210/241(not as good as Terminus, but better than The Creature from the Pit). It’s now in the bottom 12.8% of stories. So we rate it a little higher than we used to, but when we compare it to the whole of Doctor Who (including the 41 stories added between 2009 and 2013), it’s slipped a bit.

Let’s compare it to The Underwater Menace, which like Galaxy 4, has a missing episode turn up in 2011. In the 2009 poll, it scored 47.44% and ranked 194/200 (not as good as Paradise Towers but better than The Space Pirates). It was in the bottom 3% of stories and the 7th least liked story of all. We hated it.

5 years later though, we don’t hate it as much. Its score jumped to 55.53% and its rank to 224/241 (not as good as The Horns of Nimon but better than The Sensorites). It’s now ‘only’ in the bottom 7% of stories. But that’s quite a feat considering there were an extra 41 stories to compete with.

Clearly we still like Galaxy 4 better than The Underwater Menace. But if the recovery of a missing episode between surveys is their common factor, why does one get a boost in popularity and the other one not? It’s particularly odd when you consider that Galaxy 4‘s episode got a DVD release and The Underwater Menace‘s hasn’t yet (drums fingers).

Here’s a few theories why our taste for fish people is increasing while our Chumbley love flounders:

The Underwater Menace Episode 2 is a better episode than Air Lock. It’s terrific to have it back, but Galaxy 4’s third installment is fairly basic stuff. Nice to see the hideous Rills at last, but their spaceship looks like a temporary trade exposition stand. Their Chumbley robot servants are charming enough for Dalek stand-ins, but they move comically slowly and bump into things a bit. Maaga (Stephanie Bidmead) has been rightly praised for her fourth wall breaking monologue, but later she and Steven (Peter Purves) spend a long time in an impasse over the titular airlock. It feels like a waste of both their talents. As for the rest of the Drahvins, it’s pretty hard to believe they’re a crack force of elite killers when they have a habit of falling asleep on the job and can be overcome by an old man and a teenage girl.

Now The Underwater Menace Episode 2 is never going to win a Hugo, but it’s a more madcap joyride of an adventure, enlivened by an energised Patrick Troughton. It’s all together more fun.

Expectations were higher for Air Lock than for The Underwater Menace Episode 2. Because we’d already had an ep of The Underwater Menace, we had the telesnaps, we’d already ranked the thing 7th last and no-one expected an extra ep would suddenly turn it into The Caves of Androzani. But before Air Lock surfaced we only had 6 mins of Galaxy 4. Air Lock could have been evidence of a long forgotten classic, and had us reevaluating the whole story. But it wasn’t really.

The Underwater Menace Episode 2 is better than The Underwater Menace Episode 3, but Air Lock is not that much better than the scraps of Galaxy 4 we already had. Perhaps it’s worse. Even if it’s not, there’s a bigger jump in quality between the two Troughton episodes.

There’s a greater level of familiarity with The Underwater Menace generally. Perhaps. There’s no way to measure it, so it’s impossible to prove. But I suspect that between its long held surviving episode, the telesnaps and its memorably b-movie elements such as Professor Zaroff and the fish people, we just know The Underwater Menace a bit better than Galaxy 4. I suspect it’s just that little bit more accessible too, as its story – mad scientist, public rebellion – fits Doctor Who‘s standard template a little better.

There’s a backlash from fans who had to buy a second copy of The Aztecs to watch Air Lock. Going out on a limb here. But could the lack of a standalone DVD release have alienated fans a little, making them less predisposed to the episode? And if we assume that most fans have now seen The Underwater Menace 2 (and how else can we explain its sudden rise in popularity?), then it’s a safe bet they got it for free. Hmmm. Something you got for free versus something you had to buy bundled with something you’d already bought once. Perhaps even subconsciously, we like one more than the other.

But Galaxy 4 didn’t always inspire such indifference. It averaged 9.9 million viewers on broadcast in the UK in 1965. Air Lock alone garnered an incredible 11.3 million. That’s the entire population of Australia in 1965. It’s very difficult to compare given today’s far more fragmented media landscape, but those are figures Doctor Who only dreams of these days. Maybe they should make a sequel. Galaxy 5 anyone?

Nah, I can’t go another round of leggy blonds, walrus heads and burbling roombas. Best go for An Even Deeper Underwater Menace.

LINK to The Doctor’s Wife: doomed worlds and aliens with disembodied voices. Scant, but there it is.

NEXT TIME: Ooh he’s tough, isn’t he? It’s time to play The Long Game.