Monday, November 30, 2009

5A4 - The Ribos Operation 4

I can't believe I've gone three episodes without mentioning how utterly wonderful Paul Seed is in the part of the Graff Vynda-K (also one of the great characters names in Doctor Who). Seed brings a towering, Shakespearean approach to the part of the dethroned monarch. It is so over the top, but it's a performance so well done and one that just barely matches the operatic nature of the character that it is a tremendous thing to watch.

On the other hand is The Seeker, surely one of the most loud, annoying, questionably acted characters ever seen. To this day, I can barely make it through any of her painful scenes without reaching for either the mute button or the fast forward button. When the Graff finally shoots her down, I couldn't tell if it was relief or enjoyment that I was feeling...

I get the sense that The Ribos Operation doesn't get as much love around the Doctor Who community as I believe it should. I will admit - it is a story that I have had to grow into over the years, mostly because of the measured pace of at which things occur and the dialogue dominated scenes that gradually move things along. However, it is a story that never drags. Like a wizard in Middle Earth, it is never too slow or too rushed. It arrives at it's many peaks precisely when it means to. It must also be celebrated as one of the last great works of art from Robert Holmes, who would write just a handful of stories after this one, but none quite as lovingly crafted as this one.

5A3 - The Ribos Operation 3

I've heard a few notable writers of Doctor Who day that Episode Three of a four-parter is the most difficult segment to write, as it is often the episode that is the calm before the storm that is Episode Four. The main function of Episode Three is to keep the momentum of the first two episodes going, but not to steal any incident from the final instalment. It usually leaves room for villains to outline their plans for world domination, but also for strong character scenes - the latter of which we get in remarkable fashion in The Ribos Operation.

The scene in question, of course, is the conversation Unstoffe has with his new found friend, Binro the Heretic, who has been cast out of society because of his way out ideas that Ribos was a spherical world that revolved around a sun. The scene is a long one - three minutes - in which no added plot strands are created or wrapped up, and yet it still stand as one of the most beautifully written and performed scenes in Doctor Who history. It comes as no surprise that this scene came from the pen of Robert Holmes, as this scene is also a window in the way that most people on Ribos think and behave. Ribos is just another planet that a Doctor Who story takes place on, but, through the sheer genius of throwaway comments in conversations sprinkled throughout the story, we find out about the planet's seasons, it's culture and traditions, and the rampant superstitious nature of it's inhabitants.

Binro's plight mirrors that of Galileo on Earth in the 1600s and how he was shunned and scorned for the same reasons that Binro was ostracized (and we all know who proved to be correct in the long run). When Unstoffe sits patiently and listens to Binro's wild tale, a tale that he has spun to the ears of a thousand scoffing Ribosians, and then says to the poor man, "Binro was right", it's not only validation of Binro, but of science and reason across the universe. When Binro cried, so did I.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

5A2 - The Ribos Operation 2

One of the all time great "Holmesian double acts" appear in this story (with each story Robert Holmes writes, that title becomes more and more contested), as Garron and Unstoffe are two wonderful characters who complement each other superbly, and are very well played by Iain Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt.

The scene in the relic room is an absolute hoot, with Plaskitt's shrieve from Somerset providing most of the laughs. What I love most about the scene, though, is how surreptitiously The Doctor and Romana sneak into the room behind the Graff Vynda-K and watch the proceedings unnoticed. (Look, too, how Tom Baker presses his nose against the glass of the relic case).

One bit of acting that does let the side down, though, is Tom Baker's reaction shots right before the credits roll, after The Doctor's execution has just been ordered by the Graff. The look on Baker's face isn't one of terror and panic, but one of sheer comic disbelief. You never once feel afraid that The Doctor is going to actually be shot in the next episode. And, of course, he won't be shot, but we should at least feel some peril for The Doctor, as he should feel some peril for himself in that situation. Baker's increasingly humourous approach towards the part of The Doctor has resulted in some uproarious moments, but it has also decreased the amount of real drama present in the show, and this moment is an example of that.

5A1 - The Ribos Operation 1

Compare the first scene of The Ribos Operation to that of Genesis of the Daleks. The one thing that both scenes have in common is that there is a strange, godlike being who appears out of nowhere to send The Doctor on a special mission. In Genesis, an unnamed Time Lord, standing with The Doctor in a battlefield wasteland, instructs The Doctor to destroy the Daleks or, at least avert their creation. In the original script, it was intended for this scene to be set in some peaceful, pastoral garden before David Maloney and Philip Hinchcliffe altered the scene to be set in the wasteland, as they felt the garden setting wouldn't have any impact.

Where does Ribos start out? In a peaceful, pastoral garden. It's a sign of how much has changed in the presentation and style of Doctor Who since those heady days in the programme's history when Mary Whitehouse wasn't critiquing every move the BBC made with their flagship family programme. The scene in Ribos works, though, despite how inappropriate it would have been in Genesis, mostly because of the sheer eccentricity of portraying a Guardian of the Universe as a kindly, Southern gent, sipping mint juleps in the Georgia summer sun.

The new companion, Romana, is introduced in this episode, too. The initial friction is superbly written and performed, although it's a shame that a lot of the energy in the recorded scenes had to be so obviously excised from the finished episode for timing reasons. Never before has there been such a comedic tension between the new companion and The Doctor, and it works very well here because it is soon dispensed with before the shtick gets old.

This is an episode that also sees The Doctor and Romana barely involved in the story, a story that is remarkably dialogue-heavy and features many more scenes with guest actors than the regulars, and yet it is a remarkably entertaining view. One can credit Robert Holmes for this. No writer has ever been as skilled at weaving an entertaining story around a fascinating set of characters who occupy the screen for the majority of the run time, and yet have The Doctor and the companion be so separate from the events that are occurring.

Friday, November 27, 2009

4Z6 - The Invasion of Time 6

All the promise built up in Episode Five comes crashing down, unfortunately, in Episode Six, as the house of cards that has miraculously been kept intact up until now is destroyed. Most of this episode features endless, repetitive chases throughout the many corridors and storerooms of the TARDIS (which all, it seems, bear uncanny resemblances to corridors and storerooms of a disused mental hospital). The jarring difference between the scenes on videotape in the console room and those that are shot on film in the abandoned hospital is too much to be believable, despite the omnipresent hum of the TARDIS interior.

And then there's the exit from the series by Leela. Yes, it's quite out of character and terrible, especially given the fact that Leela and Andred had barely looked at each other since Episode One. However, the writers were hamstrung with how to write the character of Leela out. It's been suggested often that it would have seemed more appropriate for Leela to join the outsiders and live in the wilds of Outer Gallifrey. This would have gone completely against the character arc set up for Leela during her time in the series. Throughout Leela's run, and especially during Season 14 and early in Season 15, the Doctor/Leela relationship was very akin to My Fair Lady, with The Doctor teaching Leela to rise above her savage upbringing and embrace science and knowledge. To have Leela regress, so to speak, and retreat from all that The Doctor has taught her would have shown The Doctor's efforts to be worthless.

To kill Leela off would have been equally injurious to the series, and The Doctor specifically, because, at the time, the series just wasn't set up to kill it's main characters. Doctor Who in the Graham Williams was an era of fantasy and adventure, not the death and destruction of the Hinchcliffe era (and even in the darkest moments of the Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era, killing off a companion would be the furthest thing from their minds).

Option 3, that of marrying Leela off, was just as bad, but, as you can see, the writers were out of options. They could have remedied matters slightly if they would have written even just one scene between Leela and Andred, but this never happened, and we're only given a brief hand holding scene at the end to give us the impression that the two had fallen for each other. Leaving K-9 behind also seemed out of place, but it gave the production team the chance to completely rework the K-9 prop, but it also gave Tom Baker another chance to stare straight into the camera at the end and flash his famous grin.

The Invasion of Time, despite it's faults, is still an enjoyable romp, and is the closest thing we get to the destruction of Gallifrey until the events of the Time War.

4Z5 - The Invasion of Time 5

John Arnatt, the second of four actors to play the part of the Chancellor, is the definitive Borusa, and the one most fondly remembered by fans. It's not surprising, however, as the Borusa of this story is much more loyal to The Doctor than the Borusa of The Deadly Assassin, much more effective than the Borusa in the later Arc of Infinity, and much less evil than the Borusa of The Five Doctors.

It's almost touching to see the lengths Borusa goes to to protect The Doctor by secretly lining The Doctor's quarters with titanium, and pulling a gun on The Doctor's friends because he isn't 100% convinced that they are not there to kill The Doctor. He even tries to protect The Doctor from himself by doing his best to keep the Great Key of Rassilon hidden. Arnatt and Tom Baker also have a good rapport onscreen, helping to further my theory that Baker seemed to get along much better with older people (an observation that proved correct offscreen).

The Sontarans, for the most part, are quite impressive in this episode because they are treated with a great deal of respect by the characters, the story, and the production crew. Gerald Blake chooses to shoot against their short stature, often using camera angles from below. The actors playing the Sontarans also give it their all. They also have two advantages over the previous Sontaran appearances in that there are more than one Sontaran, and while Kevin Lindsay is still the definitive Sontaran, his heart condition meant that the Sontarans were nowhere near as active as they are here. And to top it all off, Dudley Simpson comes up with another good theme for them, too! This episode is probably the strongest portrayal of the Sontarans, or any other alien race, seen on the series for some time.

4Z4 - The Invasion of Time 4

Finally, back in Episode Three, once The Doctor's specially requested lead lined room has been completed, is The Doctor, at last, ready to let his guard down and reveal his plan to Borusa. That the story has managed to keep The Doctor's ruse against the Vardans (and the viewers) for over two and a half episodes is quite remarkable.

Despite some dodgy aspects of the production, this story has managed to be entertaining as well as enigmatic. And any of those faults in the production can firmly be attributed to the industrial action that forced the production crew into a disused mental hospital for most of the shooting, be it on OB videotape or film. The only thing more hectic than the production schedule was the actual writing of the story, which was shared by script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams. The fact that any of this serial managed to make it on to the screen is in itself an amazement.

There's also the first strains of Dudley Simpson's specially written theme for The Doctor in this episode. It would be used sporadically over the course of the next two seasons, and is one of the rare occasions in pre-1980s Who that feature a set theme for a character (the obvious exception being for that of The Master, who couldn't go three scenes in the Pertwee era without his specially written theme being heard.

The episode famously ends with the Sontarans appearing on the steps of the Panoptican, ready to invade Gallifrey, in one of the series' best ever cliffhangers. Unlike other six-part stories that have been loosely structured as a four-part story with a two-part prologue or epilogue, The Invasion of Time looked and felt like it was wrapping up for real at the end of Episode Four, thus making the sudden appearance of the clone warriors all that more shocking.

4Z3 - The Invasion of Time 3

Ah, the Vardans. So much has been written about these feared invaders of Gallifrey, who are revealed at the cliffhanger to Episode Two, and with good cause. Even as a young child watching parts of this story, I was quite put off by these have dissolved sheets of tinfoil. They were sort of mysterious to me, but also looked really, really cheap.

The problem, though, is that, unfortunately, both the visual effects and sound effects teams were on the exact same page when it came time to design the disguised Vardans. Visual effects designed it as shimmering tinfoil that was supposed to be more subtly integrated into the picture - fine. But when the sound effects team saw this tinfoil and decided to make them sound like...sheets of tinfoil being rustled about, it only enhanced the image that much more.

However, when you look at the story as a whole, these tinfoil shrouds are a brilliant bit of foreshadowing for what is to come in the final two parts of this story (oh, and by the way, all my reviews are rife with spoilers, if you haven't yet noticed). Those of you who know this story well enough know that the Sontarans feature in the final two episodes, having used the Vardans as their way into an invasion of Gallifrey. The Sontarans' heads have often been compared to potatoes in the past. And what to you bake potatoes in on the barbecue?

Tinfoil. See? It all makes sense now...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

4Z2 - The Invasion of Time 2

It's difficult to tell where the line between The Doctor playing strange due to his bargain with the aliens ends, and the growing onscreen madness of Tom Baker begins. It's an oft-repeated tale that Baker had the idea that his next companion should be a cabbage perched upon his shoulder who he could talk to and dispense the plot to. It seems as if one scene in Borusa's office was Baker's test run with an invisible cabbage.

The entire scene features The Doctor talking to himself (or an unseen Borusa) as he tries to figure a way out of the office. As if talking to himself wasn't enough, after finding that his trusty sonic screwdriver won't open a secret hidden door, Baker full on turns to the camera and says (everybody now), "Even the sonic screwdriver won't get me out of this one". Tom Baker has spoken to three different people in this scene - a cabbage, Borusa, and you, the viewer.

Later on, Baker shares a (somewhat pointlessly long) scene with K-9 inside the TARDIS. It's almost like Baker doesn't want to actually share screen time with fellow actors, content to hog tight two-shots with robotic dogs and invisible vegetables. This story is the most obvious example of the transition of the gloomy, eccentric Fourth Doctor of his first three seasons to the whimsical, dramatically indifferent Doctor of Seasons 16 and 17.

4Z1 - The Invasion of Time 1

The Invasion of Time starts off remarkably bold and assured. In response to the recently released Star Wars, Invasion starts off with Doctor Who's own answer to the first shot of Star Wars, with a poor man's Star Destroyer flying overhead, with an equally poor man's Tantive IV following closely behind. It may not have been as impressive as Star Wars, but for Doctor Who, it looks pretty not bad at all.

Where this episode really plants its foot, though, is how it picks up the story midstream, as The Doctor is signing a contract with mysterious, unseen aliens, about which he tells Leela nothing and acts very erratically afterwards. Only The Doctor knows the reason for his bizarre attitude - not even the audience is let in, other than the fact that, surely, their hero wouldn't turn to the dark side so readily. Would he?

However, the differences between how Gallifrey is portrayed here and how it is seen in The Deadly Assassin are quite obvious. Despite both serials using the same sets and costumes, Gallifrey looks like a cold and empty place nowadays as opposed to the grand splendour that was Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin. In a little over year, it is evident how little money the Doctor Who production had to play with thanks to the crippling inflation that was ravaging Britain at the time. The complex video effects that quadrupled the ranks of the Time Lords in Assassin are sadly missed here, as a paltry number of Time Lords are around to attend The Doctor's induction as president.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

4Y4 - Underworld 4

Not knowing much (or anything) of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts at the time, the parallels between that and Underworld were completely lost on me at the time. However, this is Doctor Who at its educational best. Having already taught us about various notable moments and eras in Earth's history during the William Hartnell era, stories like Underworld teach us about ancient mythology, which is perhaps just as important.

Watching Underworld with a more knowing and understanding eye, it now makes me want to research the various myths and legends (pun not intended, DVD fans) on which stories like this one are based.

The Doctor has another shouting match with a giant, bonkers, and, more or less, unseen computer. Only Tom Baker can get away with doing this as many times as he has done so early in the series, and do it so convincingly.

Something I never noticed before - the child that Tom Baker is carrying late in this episode full has a wardrobe malfunction and full on moons the camera before embarrassingly adjusting her clothing after Baker puts her down!

What an enjoyable story, worthy of far more than the scorn it deserves. Watching it in the course of an afternoon may have done it some favours, perhaps, but it's another one of those little neglected gems of which the rediscovery of makes this whole Chronic Hysteresis worthwhile.

4Y1 - Underworld 1

I'm watching Underworld on Doctor Who Day, November 23, 2009, and so I thought, for a change of pace, I would type this review whilst watching the episodes themselves. Underworld is one of my earliest Doctor Who memories, so it's only fitting that I'm watching this on such a momentous day in Doctor Who history (at least that's what I'm telling myself). Like this blog itself, these reviews will include warts and all....

Interesting to see, in the very first scene, how Leela actually seems to be, if not piloting the TARDIS, then certainly monitoring how the controls are functioning. Not even Sarah Jane Smith was granted access like that. Given that Leela was only trying to learn handwriting a couple of stories back, this is a monumental leap forward for here, to say the least.

There's another mention of how the Time Lords have meddled in the development of other planets and civilizations (the last having only just happened in Image of the Fendahl). It's one of the after effects of The Deadly Assassin, it seems. Now that we've seen the Time Lords, met them, and spent a good time on their home planet, it seems as if we'll be seeing and hearing about them a lot from here on in.

One episode in, and I'm already willing to compare this story to the William Hartnell serial The Ark, as both stories are remarkable visual specimens, especially given the time period in which they were created. The model work is fantastic, the main set of the ship is one of the largest and most detailed seen in the series, and the laser effects of the gun shields are better than most laser gun effects ever seen years after this story was broadcast.

4Y3 - Underworld 3

After having just watched the reprise from Episode Two, I am absolutely blown away by how good the sequence looks. The Doctor is fighting through a steady haze of fumigating gas, trying to find the shutoff valve. The scene features Tom Baker, stumbling through a set consisting entirely of blue screen, as the camera follows him over to the shutoff valve, while another camera (live, with no computer assistance or duplication), and all the while, a fluid, smoky haze is superimposed over top of the whole picture.

Remember - this was broadcast in 1978, and probably made shortly after Star Wars had turned the world of science fiction on its head. And even then, Star Wars featured next to no blue screen work with live actors, as the technique was most often used exclusively through model shots. The effects seen in Underworld are staggeringly good not necessarily because they are actually good, but because they should be much, much worse.

Oh, I like that dreamy little but of music whenever The Doctor, Leela, and Edas float down the core of the planet. Simpson's scores were starting to become a little bit tired as the years went on during his (by now, non-stop) tenure on the show, but it's good to see he can still come up with something memorable. The music during the sacrifice scenes in the P7E are equally good.

Cool - lots of laser gunfights in the latter part of this episode. I can see why my nine-year-old self was becoming hooked on this show.

4Y2 - Underworld 2

People often deride Underworld because of the rampant use of CSO for the scenes set in the planet of the P7E. I find this criticism entirely unfounded. Honestly, the CSO work not only doesn't look bad, it's downright impressive. The scenes are well lit in relation to the model sets, and - oh! - there's even some movement of the background in the scene where The Doctor and Leela are walking down a passageway.

That moving shot is rare, though, by the looks of it, and phenomenally difficult to pull off in the days before CGI, or even SceneSync. As such, there is a static element to many of the scenes, and most of the are shot beginning with the subjects in long shot, then advancing towards the camera during the course of the scene. However, static camera shots are hardly to fault of director Norman Stewart, and Stewart certainly doesn't have a monopoly on them amongst is esteemed peers (I'm looking at you, Peter Moffatt).

It's the tail end of this episode that was probably the first thing I tried to actually sit down and watch when it came to Doctor Who. I was nine years old when I first saw this. I might swimming in nostalgia right now, but I can't help but thoroughly enjoy this story two episodes in.

4W4 - The Sun Makers 4

I won't often compare my own personal opinions with those as voted on by the readers of Doctor Who Magazine (the results of which can be found in DWM 413 in the form of a ranking of every Doctor Who story ever made), but when I saw that The Sun Makers was ranked a paltry 147th out of 200 stories in that DWM poll, I was flabbergasted.

How can so many people have rated this story so low? The wit is biting, the comedy is bristling, and everyone does a superb job of playing the humour of the piece just below the line of going over-the-top.

The Sun Makers is also an "oddball" story before oddball stories ever became part of the Who lexicon in Season 24. And despite its' 147th place finish in the DWM poll, it still finished well ahead of other similarly themed stories like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol. Really, if The Sun Makers had been made ten years later, the production values and attitude towards the show would have made it one of the most lightweight and inconsequential stories ever made, with silly performances all around. Richard Leech as the Gatherer? Try Richard Briers instead.

The one thing that raises The Sun Makers above the trappings of throwaway comedy is the pen of Robert Holmes. How dreadful for Holmes that his tax situation at the time gave him so much grief, but out if it came the inspiration to create and write this story, which is one of his finest moments in Doctor Who.

4W3 - The Sun Makers 3

There's even more brilliance in this episode from Robert Holmes through his ciphers, namely the Gatherer and the Collector. The Collector's commands for Leela ("Maximize her medicare", and later, her execution order is deemed as "pending") are some of the more overt references to the UK tax system that were left in Holmes's script (one can only imagine to jaded barbs that were removed before the serial went into production).

The Collector is played by Henry Woolf in one of the more superlative comedic performances seen in the show's history. Woolf is perfect as the sniveling Collector, who is thoroughly evil not because it's in his nature but because his motives are influenced purely by greed and profits for his company. Woolf is part Boss Hogg, part Dr. Evil (while predating both characters), and is one of the best villains during Tom Baker's reign as The Doctor.

Leela also has a strong story, and it's not surprising that Louise Jameson rates The Sun Makers as her favourite story. Even in this episode, where she spends the entire duration being held captive in a varied assortment of ways, her character is just as feisty, if not more so, than it ever was. In fact, not a single character is underused, with the possible exception of Michael Keating as Goudry, who is so magnetic in his limited screen time that it's no wonder he was tapped to play Vila in a new BBC science fiction series called Blake's 7...

Monday, November 23, 2009

4W2 - The Sun Makers 2

We first meet the Collector in this episode in a scene of pure, comedy gold, as a sycophantic Gatherer Hade informs him of the threat of unrest amongst the Ajacks. The best bits are the various cloying titles that the Gatherer bestows upon his superior - "Your Colossus, Your Pinnacle, Your Elevation". I could quote pretty much every line that made me laugh out loud during this episode, and indeed this story, but I would run out of time and room.

Similarly, the first (and only, as it would turn out) meeting between The Doctor and the Gatherer is equally enjoyable. Neither man is speaking truthfully, and both are concealing more than they are letting on. Tom Baker would ramp up the humourous side of his portrayal of The Doctor during the 1970s, but in this scene, he pitches it at just the right level.

Something must also be said about the sterling location work in this story in one of the rare cases of the production team using interior locations as something other than what it's supposed to be (for instance, the power plant location in The Hand of Fear looked a power plant). The endlessly long corridors that the team found match the equally long hallways needed in the script, as well as the interminable tax corridors that Robert Holmes was spewing hate for in this story in the form of clever, biting wit.

4W1 - The Sun Makers 1

On the outset, The Sun Makers looks like a very basic Doctor Who story. There's a harsh and brutal regime ruling a planet and its people, The Doctor lands on the planet, meets the repressed and huddled masses, then (presumably) saves them, with an acceptable amount of casualties, and then flies off before anyone asks too many questions.

But get a basic story written by such a script-writing pantheon as Robert Holmes, and all bets are off. Holmes decided to turn a rudimentary Doctor Who story into a scathing satire of the British tax system and, in the process, probably churned out one of the best stories of his career, and certainly the most clever. This episode is concerned more with the plight of poor Cordo, our window into the poor, working class of Megropolis 3 on Pluto, and the outsiders who live in the underground and scavenge what they can find from the vast city above them.

However, it's the scenes with Richard Leech's delectable Gatherer that makes this episode zing. Leech is hilarious, and of the reactions his sidekick, Marn, to his various boastings are very amusing to watch, just as that of any personal assistant's eye rolling towards her less intelligent, yet more experienced, boss. 25 minutes of pure Doctor Who delight.

4X4 - Image of the Fendahl 4

There are two images that stand out for me in Episode Four - Wanda Ventham looking absolutely divine in gold paint (and looking somewhat less inspiring with fake eyes painted on her eyelids - why did the makers of the show think they could get away with this?), and the body of Stael lying on the floor after having shot himself.

The suicide of Stael is shocking enough for Doctor Who. There have been characters who have sacrificed themselves to save others, but very rarely has someone taken their own life without having it mean something. What's even more alarming is that The Doctor gives Stael the gun! Not only do we have a suicide in Doctor Who, but an assisted suicide on the part of The Doctor. One assumes that The Doctor could see no way out for Stael (he does say to Stael that it's too late for him once he's looked into the Fendahl's/sexy gold Thea's eyes), but to see The Doctor tiptoe his way across the room, casually grab the revolver from the mantle, and drop it into Stael's waiting hands is somewhat disturbing. Tom Baker plays it well, though, not once looking at Stael while giving him the gun, and Stael's polite "thank you" once he receives the pistol is quite sad. Here is a man who was driven mad for power, then driven equally mad whilst betrayed, but still had the logical foresight to off himself and end his torment.

Overall, Image of the Fendahl is one of the moodiest and gloomiest of Doctor Who stories ever, and the absolute last holdover from the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era of Gothic horror. Things would get considerably lighter and more fantastical from here on in.

4X3 - Image of the Fendahl 3

There's a bit of an odd sequence in this episode that sees The Doctor and Leela fly off to try and find the fifth planet, thus taking themselves out of the action for a good part of this episode. It's an odd wild goose chase that gets them nowhere, and only seems to kill time in a story that is strong on atmosphere but short on incident.

I compared it before to another minimalist story featuring a small cast, Horror of Fang Rock, but while the latter managed to find enough twists and turns to keep the story moving, The Doctor's and Leela's sudden trip in the TARDIS is emblematic of a story that just doesn't have enough steam to keep it going over the four episodes (and barely, at that, as Episode Four only just clears the 20 minute mark).

Plus, why does Stael, after being assured that 13 people are necessary for the ceremony in the cellar, kill Fendleman so readily, and without much forethought? The one thing that his actions do is offer the somewhat shocking image of blood dripping from Fendleman's temple, which won't be the last graphic image seen in this story...

Friday, November 20, 2009

4X2 - Image of the Fendahl 2

There is some simply gorgeous direction in this episode by George Spenton-Foster, which makes for a nice change from the hack job done by Derrick Goodwin in The Invisible Enemy. The still above is taken from a scene where Fendleman and Colby discuss the x-ray results of the skull. Most of the scene is captured in a tight two-shot which perfectly captures the expressions of expression from Fendleman and the increasing wariness of Colby, and the only prominent lighting is from the x-ray screen itself, lending the scene a cool glow that looks staggering.

Colby is probably favourite character in this story because he is so relentlessly posh. I could repeat Colby's line to Thea about the recently deceased security guard 50 times and never get tired of it. "The mahn's dead, Thee-uh!". Despite being posh, Colby is slightly played to be the stooge in this episode, too, which means actor Edward Arthur will be having some great scenes with Tom Baker, the latter of whom always seems to get along well with endearing comic stooges.

Also amusing is the character of Martha Tyler (how many times did Russell T Davies watch this story when trying to think up companion names for the new series?), partly because of the fact that she's quite cantankerous and superstitious, but still manages to be one step ahead of almost everyone in this story, but mostly because, as a Canadian, I think people with West Country accents sound funny.

4X1 - Image of the Fendahl 1

I've always had a hard time getting to grips with Image of the Fendahl. It's probably because of the very ambiguous (ambiguous to me, at any rate) first episode, which raises more questions than it answers. While it's clear that Dr. Fendleman and his team are investigating the skull to determine why it appears to be 12 million years old, it's not immediately apparent what Fendleman and Stael are doing with the equipment in their secret room later in the episode.

Whatever they're doing with the equipment, though, it's sure screwing with the skull, which is messing with the mind of Thea Ransom. Also, a hiker nearby is being pursued by something, apparently, although from the way the scene is shot, it's never made clear that it he's being pursued at all. For years, I always just assumed that the camera is simply moving towards the hiker and, at the episode's end, towards a taciturn Tom Baker in a moody choice of shots from director George Spenton-Foster.

The most dramatic thing about this episode, though (and the most pleasantly surprising) is the complete lack of incidental music. The tension and overall weirdness builds purely through the sounds of the skull and the computer equipment escalating throughout the episode. It's another minimalist stroke in the same vein as the earlier Horror of Fang Rock, and part of a curious opening episode that intrigues the viewer to want to watch more.

4T4 - The Invisible Enemy 4

Things finally limp to a finish in an episode that, while barely clearing 20 minutes in duration, seems much, much longer. The Swarm, in its final manifestation, looks quite ridiculous, and needs to be helped to move around wherever it goes. The final explosion of the Titan base is equally disappointing as the shot cuts from a static shot of the base model to a different shot of a wall of flame, the join covered by a white flash.

The Invisible Enemy was the first story produced by Graham Williams, and it bears all the lesser hallmarks of his era - cheap looking sets, lazy direction, and bad jokes. You can almost hear the canned studio audience laughter over the final scene when Professor Marius wonders aloud if the recently departed K-9 is "TARDIS trained". Groan.

K-9 is possibly the most troubling aspect of this whole production. As much as I do enjoy the dog (and I do, to a point), K-9 has been an easy out in this story - always ready to provide the answers, always there to scan for danger, and armed with a wickedly accurate nose laser. The Doctor is now, in effect, armed for the first time in the series' history. The level of danger that The Doctor finds himself in severely drops whenever K-9 is around, and so, too, does the level of drama. Admittedly, one often expects new companions to receive a greater share of the action in their debut story, but such a start for K-9 does not bode well for the future.

4T3 - The Invisible Enemy 3

The Invisible Enemy reminds me slightly of the previous effort from Bob Baker and Dave Martin, The Hand of Fear, in that both stories see one of our heroes taken over briefly by an alien influence, and both stories involve many changes of setting throughout the four episodes.

Episode One of Enemy is predominantly set on Titan Base, while Episode Two takes place mostly at the Bi-Al Foundation. Episode Three, though, occurs mainly in The Doctor's mind - a tacky, cheap looking place if ever there was one. There are a couple of the CSO shots that are legitimately impressive, but, for the most part, it looks like what it is: the Doctor Who production team trying to do Fantastic Voyage with a fraction of the budget for that bigger budget Hollywood epic.

And, again, there are some poor directorial decisions from Derrick Goodwin. The scene where the clone doubles of The Doctor and Leela are injected into The Doctor's brain is laughably bad as the sequence consists entirely of Tom Baker and Louise Jameson standing and spinning around on a studio floor while their image is superimposed over spinning cone of water. And the less said about the precut wall being shot away by the increasingly useful K-9, the better...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

4T2 - The Invisible Enemy 2

We first meet K-9 in this episode, otherwise known as producer Graham Williams's first and most famous attempt to take Doctor Who away from the grim, horror laden days of the Hinchcliffe era into the land of, to borrow a line from Episode Three, dreams and fantasy.

K-9's debut is by no means subtle. By the sheer nature of the character, he's obligated to give a full and detailed description of himself and his operating parameters to anyone who asks, although his master, Professor Marius, does his best to fill in any gaps in the story. How it wasn't 100% assumed by those making the programme that K-9 would be joining the TARDIS crew at the end of this adventure is beyond me. K-9 doesn't steal every scene he's in. He doesn't have to. Every one of his scenes is handed to him to do with what he pleases. K-9 acts as a know-it-all in this episode, giving everyone all the answers before anyone's even asked for them. Plus, in order to get tight two-shots involving K-9, everyone now has to kneel down to get into the same shot as K-9.

The direction from Derrick Goodwin also leaves something to be desired. Goodwin came from a background of directing sitcoms and light dramas before doing his first Doctor Who, and he was inexperienced in working on science fiction programmes. It shows. There are one or two model shots that were done in the studio, as opposed to film, which are quite poor. There's also a lack of imagination or dramatic tension to some of the scenes. Look at the resolution to the cliffhanger from Episode One. The Doctor is arguing with the Swarm in his head about whether to kill Leela or not. It could have been an intense scene, shot in a way to show the conflict between good and evil taking place in The Doctor's mind. But what to we get? A static medium camera shot of Tom Baker standing still while the voices of The Doctor and the Swarm are dubbed over it.

Boring, boring, boring. Kind of like the episode itself.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

4T1 - The Invisible Enemy 1

Doctor Who jumps into the world of space ships and moon bases full force for the first time since 1973's Frontier in Space. It's a welcome sight in some ways, but the results are mixed. There's a model sequence featuring a shuttle landing and being transported deep inside the base on Titan that looks quite good, but other shots never let you think that the spaceships are anything else than lightweight models on strings.

The new/old TARDIS set makes its first appearance in a while, too. Replacing the wood panel set of Season 14, this version would remain relatively constant for the duration of the classic series. Showcasing it here, though, means that there's a few scenes featuring Leela hand writing and others featuring general silliness that keep The Doctor from entering the story. There's also a lighter feel to things. This is Graham Williams's first story made as producer, and the grim aspects of his predecessor's time on the show are a distant memory already.

Along with some dodgy makeup and some even dodgier dialogue, The Invisible Enemy does not start out as well as one would hope, despite the best efforts of the ever reliable Michael Sheard.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

4V4 - Horror of Fang Rock 4

If I was to select one story to introduce new viewers to classic Doctor Who, I would choose Horror of Fang Rock. It is a story that is not only tense and holds the viewers' attention throughout the four episodes, it is not reliant on the special effects of the day, but is driven by pure dramatic tension.

Horror of Fang Rock is an exercise in perfect minimalism. There are only ten characters that appear throughout the entire story, including The Doctor and Leela, and never are all ten alive in the story at the same time (indeed, all but The Doctor and Leela die by the end of it, a first in Doctor Who history). There are a grand total of six sets - the lamp room, the crew room, a stairwell, Reuben's room, the boiler room, and the rocky area surrounding the lighthouse. That this tiny list of ingredients works as a gripping and claustrophobic story is a testament to the talents of writer Terrance Dicks.

Dicks is one of the series' more underrated writers. Put aside his speed written Target novelizations (and really, these should be praised for what they are, too. You try and write a novel a month based on someone else's scripts and see how well you do, and see if you can inspire a generation of future Doctor Who writers in the process). Dicks proved, with Malcolm Hulke's help, that he could make a fantastic story that spanned ten episodes and contained everything including the kitchen sink with 1969's The War Games. As superb as Patrick Troughton's finale is, Fang Rock is most likely the finest story that Dicks has ever written.

The lack of characters allows us to get to grips with each one of them, and when they each die, one by one, you feel their impact. Someone as noble, innocent, and likable as Vince would usually survive an average Doctor Who story, but is cruelly killed early in Episode Four. Adelaide, the least endearing character of the bunch, still has a horrible death scene that at least garners some sympathy from the viewer. Skinsale, though noble and heroic, is done in by his greed, but his death still leads the viewer too feel pity.

The atmosphere throughout the entire story is unabated in its tension. Dudley Simpson's sombre score accents the action where needed, but the soundtrack for this story is most often the sounds of the lighthouse foghorn and the unrelenting, crushing sound of the boiler. Even something as simple as the door to the boiler room is a portal of dread and doom. Many who leave through it don't come back, and those that come through bring death with them.

Paddy Russell directs her crew with unique precision. It might have helped that this story was recorded at BBC Birmingham, and the crew there were eager to go above and beyond to show their London counterparts that they were as good as, if not better, than any production crew in the UK. The performances from the cast are universally strong, and Tom Baker is at the absolute peak of his powers. He has never been better as The Doctor, before or since.

Horror of Fang Rock is not only a triumph for all involved, it is one of the finest examples of how so much can be made out of so little, it's one of Doctor Who's most criminally underrated stories, and one of the finest adventures in the long history of the series, old and new.

4V3 - Horror of Fang Rock 3

The cliffhangers to Episodes One and Two of Horror of Fang Rock are some of the weakest seen in some time in the series. Episode One ends with a boat striking the rocks along the coast, with no immediate danger to anyone (at least, no one we've met on screen yet). Episode Two ends with Reuben screaming in the distance while the camera focuses on a baffled, more than terrified, Skinsale and Adelaide.

The ending for Episode Three more than makes up for these, though. At the end of this episode, The Doctor discovers the real body of Reuben and realizes that not only is the Reuben seen earlier in his room not actually Reuben, he is the alien in disguise. The Doctor then makes a dramatic confession: "Leela, I've made a dreadful mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead, I've locked the enemy in. With us."

This is a staggering admission for The Doctor to make, but one that needs saying as it is a rare thing, indeed, to see The Doctor make such a fundamental mistake. Yet he can't take too much of the blame, as even at this late stage, the alien has never been properly glimpsed, and his ability to shape shift has certainly never been made apparent. Tom Baker gives a monumental performance during this scene, the weight of his mistake showing all too well on his face. This is really tremendous television.

4V2 - Horror of Fang Rock 2

It's more of the Tom Baker show in Episode Two, and that's a good thing. Baker dominates this story, but not at the expense of it, and he is an utter delight to watch. One simply can't take one's eyes off him.

So many brilliant Baker moments occur in this episode. I love (like, punch the air HARD kind of love) how he bursts into the crew room, interrupting Skinsale, Adelaide, and Palmerdale despite having not even met them yet. He's looking for Harker, but as he hasn't left the boat yet, The Doctor slumps down into a chair, pops his feet up on the table, and quietly proclaims, "I'll wait". Several awkward silences ensue before the conversation that The Doctor interrupted starts up again. Then - boom! Baker shoots out of his chair and exclaims "Just a moment! We haven't been introduced!", then slumps back down in the chair again, seemingly ignoring the subdued introductions of the trio via a slightly stymied Skinsale.

Later in the same scene, Palmerdale is lamenting his inability to get to London to see his broker, when The Doctor bursts out of his chair, hopefully boasting, "Ah! You want to get to London!". Palmerdale leaps forward, excited by The Doctor's impeding solution, but is let down when The Doctor points a finger at him and bites, "You've no chance in this fog." Such humour and such disdain for fools have seldom been amalgamated into one dynamite performance like Tom Baker does in certain scenes in these episodes.

4V1 - Horror of Fang Rock 1

Horror of Fang Rock is an odd beast, in a way, as it is in every way a Philip Hinchcliffe era story made within the parameters of the Graham Williams era. Dark, foggy, and mysterious, when watched immediately after The Talons of Weng-Chiang (and not the six-month gap that actually separated the two during their original broadcasts in 1977), the two almost serve as companion pieces.

Fang Rock sets out to be an exercise in minimalism. A lighthouse (and it's surrounding area) serves as the only setting, and, in Episode One, there are only three other characters apart from The Doctor and Leela, and one of them, Ben, dies within the first ten minutes. This allows so much room for both the characters and the situation to develop.

Leela continues with the same fish-out-of-water approach to Edwardian England that she displayed in the Victorian era in Talons. Her casual approach to disrobing in front of Vince is charmingly innocent, and her lack of knowledge about technicians (calling them "Teshnicians") is just lovely. Given the apparent difficulties that Lousie Jameson and Tom Baker were having with each other on set during the making of this story (strife which worked itself out for the better, as it happened), it's great to see the rapport between the two on screen untempered.

Tom Baker is also at the top of his game. I love how he casually puts on Ben's bowler hat in the crew room and wears it for the better part of this episode. It's just another one of those little touches that Tom Baker adds to his performance as The Doctor that makes him so memorable. Listen to the world weary way he tells Vince that he "always finds trouble" in this episode soon after he discovers Ben's body. When Reuben first meets The Doctor in the crew room, just look at all the little business Baker creates for himself while speaking with the lighthouse keeper. It's a thoroughly measured and thought out performance from an actor who was, as we'll discover over these four episodes, at the absolute top of his game.

4S6 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 6

We at Radio Free Skaro did a commentary on The Talons of Weng-Chiang way back in Episodes 92 and 93, and found it incredibly difficult to find something else to say about it other than how brilliant is is. I'm finding the same difficulty results when trying to write about the story, too.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is, simply put, an almost perfect example of what Doctor Who does best - aliens and whimsy in a beautifully realized historical setting. Every historical and pseudo-historical story made since 1977 desperately wants to be The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And why wouldn't they?

More notably, Talons marks the end of an era for producer Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney and the supposed glory days of Doctor Who. Hinchcliffe was a fantastic producer, but he was also extremely fortunate to have Robert Holmes as his script editor. In the previous production regime, Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts used to keep each other in check. Holmes and Hinchcliffe, however, almost seemed to egg each other on with how far each could push the limits of decency allowed for a family science fiction show. The two were a perfect match for each other, creatively.

It also didn't hurt that Hinchcliffe was producer in the heady pre-inflation days of the mid-1970s. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was as lavish a production as the series has ever seen. Look ahead one year to new producer Graham Williams's first season ending serial, The Invasion of Time, which barely managed to be completed because of rising costs throughout the production year.

The creative relationship between Hinchcliffe and his star, Tom Baker, was also one of the best producer/Doctor relationships the show has ever had. Tom Baker was one of the most talented actors to play the part of The Doctor, but he needed to be kept in check, as well be constantly inspired creatively. Having had Baker in the role for the first three years of his tenure, Hinchcliffe got the best out of his lead actor. We would seldom see such a focused and dominating Tom Baker again after Season 14.

And last, but not least, the boundaries that Hinchcliffe pushed, and often crossed, in terms of decency and good taste would be held firmly in check by the BBC through Hinchcliffe's successor Graham Williams. Never again would Doctor Who be as edgy, vibrant, or, in many people's eyes, as brilliant as the Philip Hinchcliffe era, or as The Talons of Weng-Chiang specifically. As I've got half the history of the show to wade through yet on this Chronic Hysteresis, I'm hoping those people are wrong...

4S5 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 5

Jago and Litefoot have both, in turns, played Watson to The Doctor's Sherlock Holmes during the first four episodes of this story, but the two men finally meet each other in Episode Five. It's easy to see why there were rumblings, even if they were ever so brief, of a spin-off show featuring the two characters, because they are quite possibly the best of all "Holmesian double acts" that the series has been blessed with.

The chemistry between the two characters is, when you think about it, quite remarkable, as Christopher Benjamin, who plays Jago, was a very late addition to the cast. Benjamin and Trevor Baxter, as Litefoot, are simply delightful together, with Litefoot, in the absence of The Doctor, taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes himself, and the bumbling Jago slipping into his by now comfortable role of Watson.

Another double act, of sorts, is provided by the standard Doctor/companion relationship between The Doctor and Leela. This story plays up the Pygmalion angle a great deal, and so Leela spends portions of this episode learning about Victorian manners, morals, and customs, with amusing results.. The story that's being told during The Talons of Weng-Chiang is interesting enough, but it's the repartee between the various characters that raises this epic from fantastic pseudo-historical to essential viewing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

4S4 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 4

Further hammering home how sympathetic a character Li H'sen Chang is, and how much of a jerk Weng-Chiang is, we feel even more pity for the stage magician after Weng-Chiang dismisses him from his god's service. Despite this critical setback in their relationship, Chang still tries to appease his master by delivering The Doctor (dead, preferably) to Weng-Chiang, but Weng-Chiang will have none of it.

But it's Weng-Chiang's next action that really sets his character apart from all the other villains and meglo-maniacs in Doctor Who history. He was already clearing out his underground lair underneath the Palace Theatre to set up shop in the House of the Dragon and resume his search for the Time Cabinet. But he decides to stay behind and humiliate Chang and ruin his reputation - killing both Chang's assistant and stagehand Casey, then having Casey's corpse spoil Chang's live stage show and effectively end his career.

Weng-Chiang had vast powers, and the minimal powers that Chang had were only present because Weng-Chiang has bestowed them upon him, and yet he still felt it necessary to destroy Chang - an insect in his world. Seldom has a Doctor Who villain been so petty and vindictive, and seldom has a villain been so feared as a result.

Like the whole story so far, though, such dark elements are balanced with even more delightful scenes between The Doctor and Litefoot and, especially, the scene where Jago speaks with The Doctor at the theatre. Not once does The Doctor avert his gaze away from the goings on in the theatre, while Jago gradually has his dreams of a vast army of police officers crashing into his theatre dashed as the conversation goes on. At the end, when The Doctor affirms that he and Jago will "face their destiny standing shoulder to shoulder", it begins to put ideas of heroism in the mind of the previously cowardly Jago.

4S3 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 3

Robert Holmes creates such an interesting character in Li H'sen Chang. Until we meet Weng-Chiang (if that is his real name), Chang serves as the main villain of this story, but in reality, he is a pitiable creature. His master, Weng-Chiang, is never happy with him or his actions. Chang does his best to find young women, full of fire, to serve Weng-Chiang's cause, but none of the ladies he finds seem to suit Weng-Chiang's purposes.

Chang is constantly demeaned, ignored, and insulted by his master, and yet his desire to serve keeps him coming back to Weng-Chiang's lair to try and make it up to him. Chiang's motives aren't borne of malice to inflict harm on the young women he finds, or to murder those who he might deem dangerous or incompetent. He is merely following the orders that he has been given, no matter how questionable they are. As this story goes along, you almost hope that Weng-Chiang, a talented showman, will see the errors of his ways and throw off the yoke of his Chinese god, because he really deserves better.

I could talk about the rat, but it really is the flaw in the Persian rug in a story that is just so blissful to watch half way through that it really deserves to be longer than six parts.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

4S2 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 2

When The Doctor leaves Professor Litefoot and Leela in the cab as he goes off to explore the Palace Theatre, it begins a cycle of rotating companions for The Doctor over the next few episodes. After bandying theories back and forth with Professor Litefoot in the morgue, The Doctor meets up with Henry Gordon Jago (whose name is so delectable that Tom Baker, and this reviewer, cannot help but use in full at any given opportunity) and begin poking about the depths of the theatre.

The Doctor and Jago make a great team. Jago is the bumbling idiot of the two, yet The Doctor suffers him quite gladly as he sees that, despite his failings, Jago means well. The gulf between the heroism of The Doctor and the ineffectiveness of Jago is never made more apparent during the splendid chase sequence through the theatre when The Doctor is trying to catch Magnus Greel. While The Doctor is swinging from curtains to try and catch his prey, Henry Gordon Jago is whacked on the back by Greel and left sprawled out on the floor for most of the chase. The Doctor's wonderful demeaning of Jago as he picks up the chase ("Cheer up, Jago! Cheer up!") is blissful.

Meanwhile, Litefoot and Leela of some just lovely scenes in the Professor's dining room as the morals and manners of Leela's savage upbringing clash with Litefoot's upper class leanings. My favourite bit is when Leela picks up a chunk of meat and starts showing down on it, sans any cutlery or plates. Because Litefoot is unfailingly polite, he hesitantly picks up a side of beef and eats as Leela would. Part of having good manners is to not embarrass your guests, after all. However, by the time Leela takes a big gulp from a serving bowl, Litefoot feels comfortable enough to admonish her for not using a napkin.

Another charming delight of an episode.

4S1 - The Talons of Weng-Chiang 1

Never before have the roots of a story been so exposed in Doctor Who, and never before has it felt so right. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is unabashedly Doctor Who doing Sherlock Holmes (as if Tom Baker's one-off Holmesian costume isn't enough of a hint), and in the first few scenes of Episode One, it's equally obvious that this story is going to be something special. The dialogue in this episode is just tremendous, the performances superb.

There is a feeling of comfortable dominance when watching Talons in that everyone who is involved in this production doesn't have to try because they are nigh on perfect at producing this type of television drama. We're treated to two rarities right off the bat - an OB shoot at an actual Victorian era theatre, and some gorgeously filmed material from an exceedingly rare (for Doctor Who at the time) night shoot. Both of these elements lend bucket loads of credibility to setting up the setting and the story, and this is even before The Doctor and Leela arrive on the scene.

And then there's the racism that this story is sometimes famous for. This is a dicey situation to comment on, but I'm going to anyway. The Chinese characters in this story are not shown in a good light - period. Most, if not all of them, belong to underground tongs or are coolies. They're treated disrespectfully by most who come into contact with them, such as the sergeant at the police station and, alarmingly, The Doctor himself when the latter calls them "little men". Looking ahead to Episode Two, Professor Litefoot casually drops the racial slur "inscrutable Chinks" before offering dinner to The Doctor and Leela. To top it all off, the lead Chinese character, Li H'sen Chang, is played by a white actor, John Bennett, wearing make-up to make him look Chinese. To 21st century eyes, this is shocking stuff for any show, let alone Doctor Who.

However, we must remember two things - the time period in which this story was made, and the time period it is representing onscreen. 1977 was a different and highly liberalized time for television. The top US series All in the Family featured a character, Archie Bunker, who possessed a rabid distrust for most other races, with attitudes and comments that, despite their offensive nature, never failed to get laughs from the live studio audience or the millions of viewers at home watching on television. Also, England was not the multi-cultural hub that it is today, and the notion of making up a white actor to play an ethnic role was not frowned upon in those days as it is today.

Also, this flagrant racism is in keeping with the attitudes of Victorian England, if not the fictitious world of Sherlock Holmes, as well. In short, the racism is unpleasant, and yet historically accurate. Look ahead to 2007's Human Nature, which contains a scene where Martha Jones experiences the racism of the typical English schoolboy in 1913. That scene needed to be there because to not have it would be unrealistic and anachronistic.

I am 100% against banning older films, television series, or literature that contain racist overtones - not because I agree with them, but because it feels like it's covering over the past. Burying such films as Song of the South or some of the banned Bugs Bunny cartoons of the 1930s is akin to denying the Holocaust ever happened. The Talons of Weng-Chiang should be appreciated for what it is - a solidly entertaining story made in a time when attitudes towards racism were nowhere near as enlightened as they are today. It's a window into our past, and it is up to us to decide whether or not we as a society have improved upon it.

There, now that's off my chest, on to Episode Two...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

4R4 - The Robots of Death 4

One of the saddest "deaths" in Doctor Who history is when poor D84 sacrifices himself to destroy SV7 and any other robots within his vicinity by activating The Doctor's robot destructor. It's heartbreaking when he says his final words of "Goodbye, my friends", as there is a tinge of sadness in the robot's voice. D84 has probably been my favourite thing about The Robots of Death (apart from Pamela Salem's cleavage...). His response to Leela's spontaneous attack on him ("Please do not throw hands at me.") is just brilliant. As I said before, D84 could have been a unique companion, and it's a shame he wasn't kept on in some way.

However, D84 is one of many victims in a grim story where there are no fantastical deaths by ray gun. Virtually every human character is strangled to death. Death by strangulation seems to be almost a common theme in the lives of the humans in this story, as it also serves as a source of black humour amongst the characters, and the deaths of such characters as Chub and Cass are treated with little shock or emotion. Such is the overall impression that The Robots of Death leaves - death as a way of life. There's little room for remorse at the end of the story, no resolution to what happens to the only three survivors (Uvanov, Toos, and a mentally damaged Poul), and The Doctor and Leela merely shuffle off back to the TARDIS and flee the scene before any further questions are asked.

I like The Robots of Death, but not nearly as much as those who claim it to be one of the top ten stories ever made. It looks superb, it's wonderfully acted and directed, and it contains some of the best dialogue not written by Robert Holmes. But it is, at it's heart, a run of the mill, base under siege story that just happens to be presented with a unique visual and artistic flair.

4R3 - The Robots of Death 3

Let me pause for a brief moment to honour Pamela Salem as Toos, quite possibly the sexiest woman to ever appear in Doctor Who. Her facial makeup and headdress are something to behold (why does everyone on the sandminer gussy up so much when they're "at work"?), but she spends most of this episode partially disrobed and lounging around her quarters, unconvincingly fending off robots with sturdy vases. It all makes the mind wander...

One of the great Doctor-guest character duos happens during this episode, too, when D84 becomes The Doctor's de facto companion while Leela is kept busy by failing utterly to keep a close eye on Chief Mover Poul. Gregory de Polnay brings just the right amount of sympathy to the role of the undercover robot, a tough task given that D84, like the rest of his brethren, is supposed to be emotionless. However, with Chris Boucher giving him such poetic lines like, when describing a Laseron probe,"It can punch a fist-sized hole through six inch armour plate, or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one", I'd much rather have the well spoken D84 any day.

It's almost a shame that D84 wasn't kept on as a companion, in some way, as he is far better an automaton companion than Kamelion ever could be, plus much less annoying. He doesn't even have super human strength, nor is he a computing wizard, so he never would have proved too smart for the script's own good. He's even a little bit clueless - his following a skulking Doctor, who is trying to be quiet, inquiring "I heard a cry!" until he gets a satisfactory is one of the highlights of this episode.

Okay, when SV7 is looking at his master on a viewscreen, a man who is apparently in disguise, is it not immediately apparent who the person behind all the berserk robots is?