Tag Archives: Yates

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.

Realism, fantasy and The Mind of Evil (1971)

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“We no longer execute our hardened criminals and killers,” witters Professor Kettering (Simon Lack) in the first episode of The Mind of Evil. “Modern society has progressed far beyond that primitive form of retribution.” Yup, capital punishment’s right out, but performing brain surgery in order to leave them passive dullards is absolutely fine.

The Mind of Evil‘s central premise is a little iffy, with more than a hint of social engineering about it. After the mysterious Keller process is undertaken on hard case Barnham (Neil McCarthy), Professor Kettering (of Which University) promises, “he will take his place as a useful, if lowly, member of society.” His place. Useful. Lowly. It’s all a bit Orwellian. It’s just as well the Doctor (the Pert, with authoritarian front) takes a dislike to it from the start.

But it would be nice if he directly objected to it. He’s worried about the Keller machine, sure, but he’s worried about the threat it might cause to the outside world, seemingly about what happens to the “evil impulses” sucked out of convicts and stored in a natty little tank. He really should at some point say that apart from any external risk it represents,what is in effect lobotomising people is a pretty sucky thing to do.

It’s just one of many things going on in this story. Russell T Davies has talked about Doctor Who‘s ability to gobble up plot like no one’s business and you can see it on display here. The Master (Roger Delgado), this season’s house villain, has no less than three wicked schemes: sabotage a peace conference, steal a nuclear missile and unleash an alien mind parasite (the creature lurking inside the Keller machine) on the world. And even so, there’s still not quite enough going on to sustain six episodes. Like most six parters, it should have been four. Events keep repeating: riots, cliffhangers, locking the Doctor and Jo up.

Part of the problem is the Keller machine itself. Being essentially a brain in a box, it might be dangerous but it’s not very mobile. So for it to pose any threat, our heroes have to keep finding excuses to go into the room it’s locked up in. It’s not until Episode Four that our monster of the week makes up for its lack of legs, by magically learning how to teleport itself to exotic locations, like the next room along. Director Timothy Combe does what he can to make this mini juke box look menacing with some giddying swoops of his camera and some jaunty angles. Composer Dudley Simpson helps with some portentous music, but it’s a tough job to make it look menacing.

It has also changed its modus operandi by the time it starts beaming itself short distances around the set. In the early episodes, it kills folk by amplifying their greatest fear. Kettering for instance, is terrified of water so he drowns in a dry room, and again as if by magic, his lungs fill with water. “We believe what our minds tell us too,” flubs the Doctor, to cover over this implausibility.

The Doctor turns out to be terrified of black and white cut outs of old monsters flying at his head. The Master is scared of staring up a giant Pert’s nostrils. But by the time the Keller machine gets round to killing a few extras, it’s forgotten about dredging up the dreads, and just zaps people in a shower of static. Which leaves us to imagine what the crippling phobias of the expendable prisoners and guards are. I like to think they are of the oddly mundane variety. Buttons.The colour yellow. The lack of a fulfilling acting career.

The prison setting makes The Mind of Evil feel quite different to other Whos. I’m reluctant to use the overused term ‘gritty’ (although it is an adjective often applied to these earliest of Pertwee stories) because I think Doctor Who is always too fantastic for that. But still, we’re in a prison, which is not as cosy a setting as Doctor Who normally inhabits.

But this attempt at realism is countered by an air of unreality. This looks like a very BBC prison to me. The prisoners are all neatly dressed, all the way to their neckties. The walls aren’t brick, but vac formed plastic sheets. We never actually see a prisoner in a cell. (Oh, and yes, that whole alien mind parasite thing’s a definite challenge to realism.)

This strange mix of reality and unreality runs through The Mind of Evil. For instance, real world tensions between the US and China are mirrored here, though the very notion of them attending a ‘peace conference’ is fanciful. Not to mention that the Americans have sent a chief negotiator to this conference who has a profound fear of the Chinese, which results in the Keller machine prescribing death by oriental dragon. How did that sneak through Senator Alcott’s (Tommy Duggan) personality profiling?

Or what about how the Doctor drops the real world name of Mao Zedong (not something he’d rush to do these days I suspect) and enters into a conversation in Hokkien, to give the impression of someone familiar with Chinese culture. But earlier in the story, in I think my favourite bit in the whole story, he deduces that the assistant who accompanied the Master to install the Keller Machine at Stangmoor, and peace conference delegation member Captain Chin Lee (Pik-Sen Lim), must be the same person because they’re both described as “attractive Chinese girls”. I mean, of course! How many of them could there be?!

No actually, that’s not my favourite bit. My favourite bit is when the story acknowledges the very fine line it’s walking between realism and fiction. It comes when the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) and Major Cosworth (Patrick Godfrey) are plotting a break-in to Stangmoor. Problem is Stangmoor’s an old fortress so getting in is going to be quite a task. But then Cosworth seems to speak with the writer’s own voice as he works out a solution to this plotting problem:

COSWORTH: I suppose there couldn’t possibly be a secret underground passage or something?

Of course there could! And what’s more…

BRIGADIER: Yes, you’re right. It hasn’t been blocked off either. It probably leads to the old dungeons.  

I’m sure it does! Problem solved.

COSWORTH: It’s rather like making a film, isn’t it Sir?

Yes, Cosworth, that’s certainly what it feels like watching it.

LINK TO A Good Man Goes to War: prisons in both.

NEXT TIME… The monkey house is nearly full, but there’s room enough for you. Cue the Ghost Light.

Rugrats, reactionaries and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974)

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I have a confession to make. I watch other Whos outside my random list. Well of course I do. You wouldn’t have me not watch new episodes like as they go to air, right? I might have missed the rampant continuity fest that was The Magician’s Apprentice, or as I like to think of it, Return to the Planet of the Genesis of the Daleks. Or The Daleks’ and Master’s PlansOh I mock, but pay me no heed. I squeed like the rest of you.

But it’s more than that. Because I have a little cuckoo in my nest. 3 year old Master Spandrell. Turns out he loves Doctor Who. Where did he get that from, I wonder? Mrs Spandrell says he heard the theme tune in utero and it’s had an inculcating effect. He never stood a chance.

Problem is, how do you choose a Doctor Who story for a toddler? Sure it’s a family show, but it’s not really designed for the Peppa Pig audience. You don’t want to show him something which is going to traumatise him for life. I’m sure I read that in the parenting manual.

So my random Who watching gets interrupted by Master Spandrell’s curated Who watching. He started watching Who videos on YouTube, with a particular taste for endless loops of the various title sequences (on one hand very annoying, on the other… 15 blissful minutes of quiet toddler). Soon, he stepped things up and picked up a copy of The Ark in Space DVD (the original-and-thus-not-that-special edition, for those playing along at home) and demanded it be displayed for his viewing pleasure.

Now you may think that’s a poor choice for someone specifically aiming to not traumatise their child. But here’s the thing; The Ark in Space is just fine for him. The monster moments are rare and too low budget to bother him. And least that’s how it seems to me right now. If he turns into a malignant parasitic creature seeking to usurp the human race, this post will serve as evidence of where it all started to go wrong.

But what else to let him watch? Despite classic Who‘s low rent production values, I still think most of it is too scary for him. But I was thinking too about his other obsession, dinosaurs. And surely there’s no greater intersection between these two things than Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Well, there’s also Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which he likes too. But not like he likes Invasion of the Dinosaurs. He’s loves loves loves it, rubber dinosaurs and all. ‘Raaaa!’, he calls out when that first Tyrannosaurus bursts out of that model building. ‘Sarah!’, he cries when this particular magician’s apprentice gets bumped on the head by a falling four-by-two. ‘Doctor on holiday!, he cries when he throws his Jon Pertwee micro figure over the fence… But I digress.

So we have watched it, I don’t know, about 50 times in recent months. Man, I have been waiting for this one to pop up for freaking ages. ‘Cause I know this fecker intimately.

****

Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a classic story which pulls off a new series trick; the Doctor has been away from Earth for a while and taken his eye off the ball. In the meantime, things have gone to all sorts of shit. Well four things, and some lizards. It’s a good structure because it means you get to skip all the set up stuff and get straight to the main game. Although this is slightly undermined if your main game consists of six talky episodes.

The story’s length is not its strength. The first episode is a masterclass is stalling until we get to a point where a dinosaur can burst out of a building (the Brigadier’s – ever stoic Nicholas Courtney – dialogue gets increasingly convoluted as he tries to find new ways of avoiding saying ‘dinosaurs’). The fifth episode is one long chase scene. It’s a story which can’t be bothered hiding its padding.

And the plot repeats itself. Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen, enjoying the lion’s share of the investigating and deducing here) is twice fooled into trusting one of the story’s many conspirators (nearly everyone we meet is in on the game), and both times she realises it when trapped in a lift disguised as a cupboard. She’s twice imprisoned in the bad guys’ fake spacecraft. The Doctor (the Pert, bouffant in full sail) locates the enemy’s base only to be maneuvered out of it and sent back to UNIT. It all feels a bit sedate.

Which is odd because this is a story with an embarrassment of cracking premises. Dinosaurs amok in modern London. People tricked into manning a fake spaceship. A plot to roll back time. A traitor in the UNIT family. There’s enough here for half a series. Not to mention that the whole thing’s almost a rebuttal of the previous year’s The Green Death where the Doctor sided with a group of environmental activists. Here, they’re part of the problem not the solution.

The DVD documentary about this story is presented by the very brainy Matthew Sweet, who argues that there’s much more to this story than its terrible lizards. He points out that script writer Malcolm Hulke’s shot at the environmental movement is a bit odd, because it’s a cause normally with the left side of politics and Hulke was a confirmed communist. Script editor Terrance Dicks is on hand to point out that extreme leftist villains are creepier than those on the extreme right because they justify their actions by saying “it’s for your own good.”

But this is not, I think, an example of Hulke taking aim at his leftist compadres. If we have learned anything from the two previous random Hulkes (the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters and the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters, neither of which is The Silurians) we can see that the one thing he really hated was authority. Bureaucrats, soldiers and colonial mandarins are stupid, corrupt or both.

The gang of no good do gooders in Invasion are all of this ilk, with a mad professor (of which university?) thrown into the bargain. It’s not that Hulke is saying the left is as bad as the right. He’s saying don’t let the establishment co-opt your leftist ideals. You watch what they’ll do to them! They’ll find a way to screw it up! The ideals of The Green Death live on. Just don’t let anyone wearing a tie anywhere near them.

*****

Master Spandrell of course cares nothing about any of this. He wants you to skip over the scenes of dull people talking. And sadly, he can’t abide Matthew Sweet. But he loves the bit where the Pert drives a jeep under a dinosaur’s legs. And the bit where a brontosaurus and a tyrannosaurus go at each other. What’s that you say? The dinosaurs look terrible? He hasn’t noticed. Just as he hasn’t noticed that Noah’s hand in The Ark in Space is made of bubble wrap. How brilliant to be able to watch classic Who as carefree as that.

LINK to State of Decay. Script Editor/writer Terrance Dicks worked on both.

NEXT TIME… We go up the Orinoco in search of the Black Orchid. Top hole!