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Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

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Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.

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Psychedelia, stimuli and The Mind Robber (1968)

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So here’s the thing: it’s not called The Land of Fiction. Or even The Fact of Fiction. It’s called The Mind Robber. And I suppose that could be an attempt to disguise the nature of the fantasy world that our friends the Trought, the Fraze and Padders find themselves in during this surreal adventure. Not trying to give away the game too soon.

But I think it’s more than simple misdirection. This story is ostensibly about a land of fiction, but is more concerned with attacks on the mind. Perceptions are altered. Characters from fantasy are brought to life. Our heroes experience nightmare situations from twisted memories of childhood. It’s not just a trip into a land of story books; it’s simply a trip. It’s a mind altering experience. It’s Doctor Who‘s only real brush with psychedelia.

The show may have still been seen by many in 1968 as a children’s programme, but the makers of Doctor Who were clearly considering how drug taking was leading to new physical and mental experiences. The show’s first change of Doctor was described in terms of the effects of the ‘LSD drug’. Now two years later, we have a five week break from ordinary Doctor Who, which starts with being taken out of reality, and ends so abruptly that the whole thing might have been a dream. If our TARDIS team had started this adventure by all taking little white pills, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It doesn’t start like that, of course. It starts with an episode of filler, required when the production team decided they couldn’t face a sixth episode of The Dominators. This opener, written by script editor Derrick Sherwin, although he wasn’t proud enough of it to take a credit, is an unusual the-dog-ate-my-homework sort of effort. With the scantest of resources available to him – the TARDIS set, a blank white studio and an empty black soundstage – Sherwin fills the episode with time-killing incident, none of which he feels obliged to explain. What is the ‘nowhere’ in which the TARDIS lands? How does it relate to the Land of Fiction? Why does the TARDIS disintegrate? Why does an unseen force want to lure our friends outside? And what exactly happens when the console spins away through space, Jamie and Zoe hanging on for dear life, arses in the air, leaving the Doctor rotating on the spot?

There are no answers. Sherwin seems to take his cue from the rest of the story, which being set in a fantasy land, gives him carte blanche to do what he likes and keep the explanations few. It’s a kind of narrative free pass – do whatever you like! It’s The Mind Robber, the normal rules don’t apply. It’s the same approach which allows Sherwin and fellow writer Peter Ling to change Jamie’s face when Hines contracts the chicken pox. Both are story saving expediencies born of this story’s dabbling with surrealism.

So in lieu of narrative logic, the writers give us arresting imagery. Don’t worry about what makes sense, worry about what looks cool. The TARDIS exploding and the console spinning through space are two memorable examples, but there’s also Jamie’s rejigged face (Hamish Wilson), Zoe stuck in a glass jar, a forest of letters, a charging unicorn (on another empty black set), the stop motion animation of Medusa’s snaky head, our friends being crushed in a giant book and so on.

This story serves up a continuous stream of surreal images. There’s even a word puzzle in the middle of it, which requires superimposed letters onscreen to make it clear what’s going on. It’s telling that this story has never been released on audio; it’s a story which demands to be seen. Lord knows what we’d have made of it if it hadn’t survived the junkings.

This smorgasbord of surreal imagery helps add to the trippy feel of the thing. It’s not so hard to imagine having a hallucinogenic experience akin to The Mind Robber, where crazy, random images picked out of memories of childhood stories parade past you. But that’s the style of the story, not the story itself. Within the narrative, none of our heroes ever question the reality of what’s going on around them. No one ever asks, “are we dreaming?” None of them question the reality of this world any more than they questioned whether Dulkis or the Space Wheel were real.

So while everything around them suggests this is a bizarre fantasy, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe never treat this as anything other than a standard Doctor Who story. They cling to their real existence… Which itself is confusing because they are also fictional. When the Doctor starts drawing a line between himself, Jamie and Zoe as being real and Gulliver, Medusa et al as being fictional… Well, it’s so meta it makes my head spin. The Mind Robber? More like The Mind F*cker.

In the end, the thing which has actually stolen a mind is another computer with ideas above its station (see also The Keys of Marinus and The War Machines). It has enslaved a writer from Earth in the 1920s, who has filled this world with copyright-free fictional characters. Why the computer wants to create such a world remains unexplained but don’t worry, it looks cool, right?

As we race to the story’s end, we learn that the computer has plans to invade the Earth, and one of the Troughton era’s familiar themes reasserts itself: the importance of self and of retaining identity. When he hears the full plan, the Doctor’s appalled that humanity will become just like a string of featureless sausages, all the same. And in encouraging Jamie and Zoe to resist the mind control they’ve submitted to, he urges them to “think for yourselves!”.

This then, is the threat of opening your mind up to perception enhancing experiences, as The Mind Robber sees it – that you lower your own mental defences and sinister controlling influences might sneak in. It’s not quite a repudiation of psychedelia, because this story is not quite dealing with it in the first place. But it’s comforting that while Doctor Who flirts with psychedelia, it’s also sending a message to the kids; this might look like fun, but no good is going to come of it, right?

It ends in classic style, with Jamie and Zoe ‘overloading’ the computer by pressing all the buttons all at once (that’s usually how it’s done) and the Doctor rescuing the enslaved writer. They all run onto yet another empty black set and wait for the story to end, as if they’re waiting for a bus to arrive. Somehow it all gets magically put to right. They’re transported back to reality. The TARDIS reassembles. How? Who knows. But it looks cool, right?

LINK TO: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Well, maybe I’ve been taking the mind altering drugs, but is it too trippy to suggest that the Land of Fiction might be the kids’ lit section of the Library?

NEXT TIME: Dad Shock. We get a lot of it around our place. It’s time to meet The Doctor’s Daughter.

Catalysts, chemistry and The Krotons (1968)

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I wonder when it was during the production of Season Five, that someone on the production team counted how many ‘base under siege’ stories they done. Blimey, there are a lot of the buggers. It’s no wonder that by Season Six, they wanted to try something different.

It’s a wild old thing Season Six. One minute they’re heaping scorn on a world of pacifists, the next they’re taking an excursion into a story book, the next it’s James Bond with Cybermen. The series really did take a sudden left turn away from isolated scientific outposts, truculent commanders and lashings and lashings of foam.

Certainly, I think writer Robert Holmes noticed, because in his debut story for Doctor Who he inverts the standard Season Five structure, by placing the alien Krotons crystalline base (ladies and gentlemen, a big round of applause for Miss Dinah Trope!) inside the humanoid Gonds’ city, and have people constantly trying to break in to get at them. It’s the Krotons’ base which is under siege. Nice work, Mr Holmes. You’ll go far.

Holmes tells the story of how the Dynatrope sits like a permanent tumour in the heart of the Gonds’ city. The Gonds are educated by teaching machines provided by the Krotons, and every so often, the two smartest swots are given fancy cloaks and sent inside the Dynatrope, never to return.  This is the state of affairs that the Gonds have put up with for thousands of years and the reason why they’ve never rebelled is that the Krotons have edited out all the information which might have helped them put two and two together.

“It’s a kind of self-perpetuating slavery,” muses the Doctor (the Trought, in playful form). He’s right, but it’s also a throw back to one of this era’s other themes, of whole races of people kept subordinate by being deliberately kept in ignorance. Think of the hapless colonists of The Macra Terror, or more recently the subterranean dupes of The Enemy of the World. I’ve written before about how this era of the show is often about threats to personal identity, but this theme is about the ability to enslave through manipulation rather than the threat of physical violence.

But as is so often the case, the arrival of the Doctor is a catalyst. Hotheaded Thara (Gilbert Wynne) leads an attempt to vandalise the teaching machines. In 1968, students rioted against authority on the streets of Paris, so we can see the mirroring of real life events. But it’s not an analogy Holmes keeps up for long. In plot terms, the machines are needed to facilitate the Doctor and Zoe’s (Wendy Padbury) entry into the Dynatrope. They answer a few sums on the machines and are declared ‘high brains’ so are given access.

In fact, our heroes’ brains are so high that they cause the reanimation of the Krotons themselves, creatures who get less impressive the further you get away from their heads (which are solid angular creations on broad metallic shoulders, which unfortunately give way to plastic tubing arms, which unfortunately give way to a smooth shiny skirt). They emerge out of bubbling tanks, like some Hammer horror off a mad scientist’s bench top. Holmes penchant for the gothic gets an early workout here (Holmes will pull off a similar tanky reanimation a few stories later in Spearhead from Space). When they speak, it’s with booming South African accents, which, as The Sontaran Experiment will tell you, is the go-to accent for strange and alien. We never get monsters which speak with French accents, mores the pity. Or Swedish. Or Dutch. The campaign starts here.

But despite these glimmers of interest within The Krotons, the rest of it is a shabby affair. Not just because the sets and props look terribly creaky (perhaps they spent all this story’s budget on The Invasion) but the script is nowhere near as witty and well rounded as we’ll learn to expect from Holmes. The supporting cast are all fairly unimpressive, but it’s not like they’re helped along by any memorable dialogue or consistent characterisation. A howling example comes at the end when head Gond Selris (James Copeland) sacrifices himself to get a bottle of acid to Zoe and the Doctor. His death goes uncommented by everyone, including his own son, that firebrand Thara. You really are a forgettable character if your own son can’t be arsed to mourn your death.

*****

It’s easy to write The Krotons off as tacky, uninspiring addition to Troughton’s era. But in some ways it’s a story which has continually punched above its weight. It really shouldn’t exist at all; it was commissioned as a fall back option in case any other stories had to be shelved. Which is exactly what happened – imagine how awful The Prison in Space must have been if they thought making The Krotons was a better option.

But it’s wasn’t to be so easily forgotten (try as we might). It gained prominence by its inclusion in the Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat season in 1981, by virtue of being the only surviving four part Troughton story at that time. For many fans, this makes The Krotons their first taste of Troughton’s era, and so I think it’s gained a special place in people’s memories, if not affections. (It kind of happened in Australia too, when in 1986, we suddenly got repeat screenings of this story and The Mind Robber). And that’s not so bad, because although the story’s pretty ordinary, Troughton, Zoe and fellow traveller Jamie (Frazer Hines) are on good form trying to liven things up, so at least an impression of their joint chemistry had been formed by The Krotons’ encore viewing.

Even more recently, we haven’t quite been able to give up on this story. Lawrence Miles’ terrific Eighth Doctor novel Alien Bodies, turned the doddery Krotons into Dalek killing predators. And Big Finish Productions, those champions of long forgotten B-listers of Whos past, conjured up a Return of the Krotons for the Sixth Doctor. We can’t quite seem to let these also-rans go.

It’s in part because we’ve grown to admire the work of Holmes so much through his subsequent, more interesting Doctor Who stories. We want to go back to this, his earliest, formative work and re-examine it, to find in it some speck of genius which has been hidden from us for so long. Surely Holmes, that master of Who, hid something up his sleeve which we can find in retrospect. Sadly, though, I don’t think he did.

*****

Mad old Season Six. What did it have in store for us next? Why, The Seeds of Death, with lumbering monsters, an isolated scientific outpost, a truculent commander and lashings and lashings of foam.

Ah well, maybe after the terror of The Krotons, there’s still some comfort to be found in a base under siege.

THING I COULDN’T FIT ANYWHERE ELSE: All the episodes start with a shot of a circle, or some vaguely round shape. What’s that about then?

LINK TO Castrovalva: actually it’s about the same as for The Enemy of the World – a small community kept in ignorance of the true shocking nature of their world.

NEXT TIME: Burn with me! We’ve got 42 minutes till we fall into the sun.

Shoulder pads, curtains and The Dominators (1968)

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By far my favourite parts of The Dominators are the Dominators. They come in a mighty invasion force of two. And they wear mountainous shoulder pads which a. make them look like turtles and b. prevent them from looking at each other, unless they are standing face-to-face. This last point’s a real problem, because they spend most of these five episodes bitching at each other.

The leader is Navigator Rago, played by Ronald Allen. Rago is like that irritating flatmate who’s permanently worried about the electricity bill, so goes around switching all the appliances off without asking. He’s always moaning about how much power the Dominators’ robot servants the Quarks require. When he discovers that their energy has been squandered (which happens over and over again), he lowers those dark eyebrows of his and hisses about power levels being dangerously low. I keep waiting for himself to argue that as he’s only been in the house 3 days in the last 7 he should only pay 3/7ths of the bill.

It’s a fairly unedifying role for Allen, who turns up in Doctor Who the following year as a much suaver character in The Ambassadors of Death. What was that call from his agent like? “Doctor Who again? OK, but no dark make up, no dodgy spaceships and it’s got to be a role which does more than growl about the power bill all story. And at the first sign of shoulder pads, I’m out.”

Rago’s offsider is flagrant power waster Probationer Toba, played with seething resentment by Kenneth Ives. Toba’s solution to every problem is to destroy it, via Quark. Hence the constant depletion of their batteries which sparks Rago’s ire. Toba has a kind of barely suppressed blood lust which drives him to want to kill at the slightest provocation. My favourite moment is when he stands mid quarry and  orders the Quarks to “Destroy! Destroy!”, but his restrictive costume means he can merely punctuate each “Destroy!” with a vigourous sway.

Rago and Toba bicker like an old married couple throughout, but Toba always has to bow to his senior colleague’s will with a sullen “command accepted”. At one stage their simmering tension threatens to boil over into open conflict and as a race of belligerent warriors you might expect a few punches to be thrown. But those costumes don’t offer the freedom of movement to allow it. Still, I’d have enjoyed seeing Rago headbutt Toba bull-style in the gut, and leave Toba lying helplessly on his tortoise shell back, limbs flailing.

Unlike Allen, Ives never returned to the series. “Doctor Who? No way. Last time, I had a I costume meant I couldn’t move my arms for weeks. And I spent the whole time standing in a quarry shouting at kids in boxy robot costumes.”

And so to the Quarks. Writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, here writing under an outraged pseudonym, were reportedly trying to recreate the appeal of the Daleks when they dreamt up these odd little cubes with legs and spiky heads. Many had tried before them; Chumbleys, War Machines even Terry Nation’s own Mechanoids were all attempts to replicate that mysterious appeal. And although the Quarks have a sort of geometric charm, they are no Daleks.

For a start, you can understand what a Dalek says. Quarks have squeaky little voices which are, in the main, unintelligible. The DVD’s subtitles are essential. And although a Quark has two more legs than a Dalek, this doesn’t seem to make it any more mobile. At one stage, companion Jamie (Frazer Hines) immobilises one by tipping it over and gently leaning on it. Any alien you can stop by sitting on is not destined for greatness.

The hapless targets of the Dominators’ aggression and the Quarks’ warbling are the gentle Dulcians. Pacifists one and all, they have abandoned fighting and concentrated on loftier pursuits. Sadly dressmaking is not one of them. They dress in unflatteringly revealing numbers which look distinctly like curtains. This is fine if you’re as pretty as Felicity Gibson who plays Kando and manages to transcend her own drapey number. But the other Dulcians must be eyeing off those power dressing Dominator outfits with envy.

Among those Dulcians is Cully, a hot headed young firebrand, who’s all about doing his own thing and sticking it to the old man back in Dulcian HQ. Unfortunately in a piece of woeful miscasting, this young hero is played by Arthur Cox, who looks like a mild mannered insurance salesman. In a dress. There’s nothing wrong with Cox’s acting, it’s just he’s cast mystifying against type. Cully spends a lot of time blowing up Quarks with new bestie Jamie; if anything he should be out highlandering the highlander. But he’s less wild thing than mild thing.

The other Dulcians, be they gormless students on excursion or procrastinating bureaucrats are difficult to sympathise with. And with the bombastic Dominators on the other side of this conflict, there’s no-one to side with really. Haisman and Lincoln designed this story as a critique of pacifism, and if that sounds politically dodgy to you you should read Philip Sandifer’s demolition of this story here.

Me, I find it difficult to take this story too seriously. If there is a politically iffy message behind it, no-one seems to be honouring it with much effort. It’s left to the fag end of the season, its performances and design work are half hearted and it famously bored its producer and script editor into lopping off an episode. (Certainly the right decision; Episode 5 takes a brisk pace missing in the story’s earlier installments). But if you’re looking for a saving grace, here’s Patrick Troughton (in the studio anyway), refusing to let a dodgy script dampen his inventiveness and charm and basically holding the whole thing together.

Haisman and Lincoln were apparently less than pleased with the serial’s abbreviation. Then they got into a stoush with the BBC about who owned the merchandising rights to the Quarks (the Quarks, Lord help us. If Quarkmania was a thing, I missed it). Apparently they even threatened to stop The Dominators from being broadcast. I can picture them now in some dingy BBC office, sniping across a desk at the suits from legal. Glaring and bickering. I like to think of them wearing jackets with big shoulder pads. The Rago and Toba of their day.

LINK to The Tenth Planet: mechanical baddies. Three in a row!

NEXT TIME… How shall we know if gods walk among us? It’s the beauty and horror of The Aztecs.

Reputation, blockbusting and The Invasion (1968)

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We watch The Invasion now in a post-Web of Fear world. We’ve long known that this iconic Cyber adventure was spawned because Doctor Who‘s production team had impressed themselves with the one with the Yetis in the underground. But now we’ve got 5/6ths of The Web of Fear to look at, we can see the similarities writ large. In The Invasion‘s later instalments, Cybermen stalk London’s underground sewer system (it’s lucky they don’t have Cyber noses). But watching those scenes now, it feels more like a retread than it did before we got those missing eps back. Monsters, tunnels, Camfield. If it’s working, don’t change it.

It could have felt even more like The Web of Fear with Cybermen, if that story’s supporting characters Professor and Ann Travers had made an appearance as originally planned. Apparently this would have meant more payment to Yeti writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, but relations between them and the production team might have been a bit frosty since their last story had an episode cut off it for being a bit dull. The Professor (that lazy use of that title again) is halfheartedly replaced by another. But Ann, although not directly replaced, has made her presence felt. We can see now from Web that Ann developed a companion-like rapport with the Doctor. It’s not too hard to believe she’s an influence on subsequent brainiac companions; pocket rocket Zoe who features here and more overtly Liz Shaw who’ll take over next season.

But there’s plenty of other stories which The Invasion steals from. It’s not difficult to see the influence of that other recently returned gem, The Enemy of the World. They both seem to be desperately tying to break away from formulaic ‘monsters attack isolated humans’ stories around them. Both have gunfights, helicopters and hop confidently from location to location. And if we think of Enemy as Who‘s attempt at a James Bond film, it’s got nothing on The Invasion which basically has a Bond villain at its core in slimy Tobias Vaughn (a powerhouse performance from Kevin Stoney).

The Invasion is Vaughn’s show. He’s all style in his Nehru jacket, striding up and down his posh London office (which in a nifty cost saving measure is the same is the same set as his posh country office). Stoney plays him with silky politeness, punctuated occasionally with sudden outbursts of fury. He only needs to be stroking a fluffy white cat to complete the picture. ‘No, Doctor Who, I expect you to die!’ he really should have got to say.

He, of course, has an incompetent henchman, the hapless Packer. Or Packaaah! as Vaughn expansively calls him (this has become a common refrain around Chez Spandrell; ‘Packaaah, take out the garbage will you?’). Packaaah, as played by Who stalwart Peter Halliday, is the picture of floppy fringed dimness. He’s not helped by a communications device strapped to his wrist which has to be constantly repositioned from mouth to ear, making an already twitchy character seem as if he’s developed an inconvenient new spasm.

Vaughn’s made his money in electronics. His company, International Electromatics produces ubiquitous consumer gadgets which are in every home and business around the world. Back in 1993 when this story was released on VHS, this all seemed a bit far fetched. But as I write this on my iPad before checking my iPhone, it now seems prescient. Steve Jobs as a ranting, tyrannical magnate, hurling insults at his subordinates and hypnotizing people via their handheld devices until they become passive, obedient cult followers? I can see it.

The Cybermen are mere guest stars in Vaughn’s story. Think of this as their Revelation of the Daleks, where the monsters are kept in the background and the chief villain gets the limelight. They don’t even turn up until the cliffhanger of Episode 4, and when they do, they are kept as a mysterious presence lurking in the background. We get no scene of the Doctor confronting them. No scenes of them discussing their plans. Indeed, they get very few lines at all (Although there is the Cyber Planner, a free standing talking whatsit that attentive viewers might have remembered from The Wheel in Space. This collection of wires and tubes is kept in a cupboard by Vaughn and is wheeled out from time to time to discuss plot details.). This was the Cybermen’s fifth story in just over two years, so a little variation from their standard modus operandi was probably due.

The major variation was the addition of a human villain to complement those Cybermen. This is an approach trialled in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but in that story, the human bad guys were in addition to, not in partnership with the monsters. So it’s really Vaughn and The Invasion that set the template for nearly all Cybermen stories to come. It’s not until Closing Time that the Cybermen go solo again. And you can see why; the Cybermen are tin cans. It’s hard to get some drama going with talking tin cans, so you need a human nasty to chew some scenery.

The other story it harkens back to is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (our very first random one year ago!).  The Daleks invaded London and marched across Westminster Bridge. The Cybermen invade London and walk down the steps St. Paul’s cathedral. Well, you go somewhere, you see the sights, right? They’re clip show moments.

But more than that, these two stories are sixties blockbusters. Lots of action sequences, lots of location filming and the sense that all stops are really being pulled out. You only have to look at this stories around The Invasion to see that this is story that got all the attention. I wonder if we had The Invasion‘s two missing episodes back would this appear even more of an epic, what with Episode 1’s escape from the IE compound, and Episode 4’s rescue of Zoe and Isobel by helicopter.

My point? That The Invasion is often identified as a template for the Doctor Who  stories which came after it. But just as important as its influence on the future, is its drawing on the past. But to be fair, it’s influence on future Who still hasn’t expired. Dark Water/Death in Heaven after all pays homage to it by repeating the St Paul’s steps sequence. It’s a sign that we’ll still be talking about The Invasion for some time yet.

LINK to… See last time.

NEXT TIME… Well, this is gay! Time to get crabby with The Macra Terror.

Sanity, sleeptime and The Wheel in Space (1968)

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Hello from the future! Oh look at you back in 2015. Did you enjoy Peter Capaldi’s first season? Wait until he’s rejoined by Amy and Jamie and the TARDIS implodes from the utter Scottishness of it all. And when he gets to the planet Delphon where they communicate with their eyebrows. He does himself a serious injury and is forced to regenerate… Oops, sorry. Spoilers.

But, inhabitants of the past, I have brilliant news. The omnirumour turned out to be true! Every missing episode returned! And you lot thought you were well off when The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear came home from their extended Nigerian holiday. Well here in the future, we have ’em all. Except Time-Flight. We lost that one deliberately.

So what do you want to hear about first? The delights of Marco Polo? The thrills of The Power of the Daleks? Of course not, you’re desperate to hear all about The Wheel in Space aren’t you?

Well, I’m not sure you’re going to be overjoyed with Episode 1, let’s get that out of the way first. For the most part it’s a two hander between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. And while that sounds brilliant on paper, this is also a kind of one episode filler before the main action starts.

So the Doctor and Jamie land on an abandoned rocket. They’re forced out of the TARDIS. So they have a look round. There’s a silent plodding robot. Then Jamie settles down for a nap. Honestly, when one of your two characters decides to sleep in the middle of an episode, you’re on shaky ground.

And this is filler written by former script editor David Whitaker, so this gives him scope for taking up time with some of his pet subjects. The TARDIS trying to communicate with its crew via pictures on the scanner. Lots of faffing around with a food machine. Mercury. All his greatest hits. Hmm, maybe Jamie’s onto something with that snooze.

Late in the episode (just enough to get paid) the crew of the Space Station W3 turn up and prepare to blast the mysterious rocket out of the sky. The Space Wheel is familiar territory to anyone who’s paid at least passing attention to Season 5. There’s a mixed group of personnel in spacy costumes led by an autocratic male commander. But specifically, this is a multinational crew, so what this really feels like is The Moonbase, which in turn really felt like The Tenth Planet. So innovative, this series.

In Episode 1, the Doctor hit his head and so he spends Episode 2 unconscious, while Troughton takes a holiday. Focus shifts to the Wheel and Jamie has to carry the episode, which also introduces us to new brainiac companion Zoe Herriot (perky Wendy Padbury). Now, this will be familiar to you folk back in 2015, because The Web of Fear had its Doctorless episode 2 returned as well. The good news is that Wheel in Space covers his absence better, with all the introductory stuff about the Wheel – stuff you’d ordinarily expect to find in Episode 1 – being played out. Still it’s always a like a bit less of a party when the Doctor doesn’t show up. So this is another episode which might disappoint when you finally get to se it.

Episode 3, of course, you know and love. But watched in isolation, you may not realise that this is the episode when the Cybermen finally turn up. That’s one third of a monster story without its monster. That’s some delayed gratification. It’s also unusual because the Doctor spends the whole episode in bed. Luckily people keep bringing him plot points to discuss, so he doesn’t have to move much.

He doesn’t actually get out of bed until half way through Episode 4, so he’s well and truly rested. He tries to convince this week’s grizzled base commander that the Cybermen are on the Wheel and are a menace. But Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner) is having nothing of it.  ‘He’s a strange man to be in a position like this’, says the Doctor and he’s spot on, and not just because his accent wavers from South African to American and back again.

Jarvis dislikes his 2IC Gemma Corwyn’s (Ann Ridler) habit of playing armchair psychologist (in fact the script takes a few jabs at psychology in general, which a number of characters treat with disdain), but the irony is he’s gradually going crackers, and maybe a psych assessment would help. Plus his lines are all delivered with a kind of halting mania, so that when it’s his turn to take a nap mid episode (Seriously! Stay awake through the whole story please!) it’s a blessed relief for the other characters and the audience.

But the most, um, astonishing performance is Episode 4 is that of Peter Laird, who plays Chang. I don’t know anything of Mr Laird’s background, but I’m willing to bet he isn’t/wasn’t Chinese. This, in the worst yellow face tradition, doesn’t stop him putting on an oriental accent. His delivery of the line ‘I’m on my way’ is particularly cringeworthy. If the performances in The Talons of Weng-Chiang make you feel a little queasy, this one’s even worse.

In Episode 5, something approaching tension builds when the Cybermen attack the Wheel and kill Gemma. You feel genuinely sad when this happens. She’s the only character in the whole thing who seems to have her head screwed on right, and one of the few who’s not putting on an outrageous accent. Although she’s very quick to suggest electric shock therapy for Jarvis. You can’t trust those psychologists. Still, it might just be time to attach those electrodes, as Jarvis finally checks out, once Zoe stuffs a dead Cybermat under his nose. ‘Not true, not true!’ he mumbles, despite the tinny, googly eyed evidence in front of him.

And because the story only has two Cybermen at its disposal, much fuss is made about their ability to control humans and thus these walking zombies become surrogate monsters. There’s some fun to be had when two of the Cyber contolled humans (Laleham and Vallance, who sound like a snobby manchester store) take on gruff Irish crewmember Flanagan (James Mellor). Turns out the Irishman is itching for a stoush. ‘If it’s a fight you’re after, I’m your man!’ he roars. ‘You need a few lessons in the noble and manly arts, me bucko!’ No wonder that when Flanagan himself is zombified and turns into a quietly spoken rather passive fellow, the Doctor immediately spots something’s up.

And by then we’re on to Episode 6, which again you know all about and which finally brings the Doctor face to face with the Cybermen. There’s a scene where the Doctor lures them into a room and electrocutes them (Is this the ECT machine Gemma was keen to break out? Were those Cybermen depressed?) and while Troughton enlivens it where he can, it’s all very contrived and stagey. Which is true of the whole story really, a longer, flabbier retelling of other Cybertales.

I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, history dwellers. But not every returned story can do an Enemy and turn out better than its reputation. But until the whole story is returned to the archives it might comfort you to think that you already have the story’s two best episodes on hand.

LINK to The Ribos Operation. Both introduce clever new companions.

NEXT TIME… I can’t see the point of Paris. So let’s home share with The Lodger for a while.